Verso, May 2017, £18.99.
To commemorate 1917, Verso has delivered a brilliant piece of commissioning : a fantasy fiction novelist and Marxist on the history of the October Revolution, a man who has been centrally active in Britain as an internationalist, an anti-imperialist and an anti capitalist thinker and activist, and the production of an edition of the Communist Manifesto twinned with the April Theses. Each are to be warmly welcomed, but each should be read leaning against the readings of the others.
China Mieville has produced an exceptional book recounting the events of the months leading up to the October Revolution. He is such a fine choice as many of his fiction writings contain echoes of such events and forces. In almost all of his novels the power of absolutism dominates the universes in which he locates his stories. And the stories are framed in situations and places which bear little correspondence to anything that we will have experienced except for one thing, which we all know only too well. This world that we inhabit is not a world that we control or determine and class struggle is central to the lives that all of us live – whether we are aware of it or not. From Perdido Street Station to the Scar and Iron Council, China’s novels whirl around the doings of the opponents of absolute power and their need to both hang onto each other but also to forge alliances with others. Alliances which are constantly critically scrutinized, yet never with cynicism. The actions and behavior of the revolutionaries are being measured against their objectives and frame the development of their ideas and consequent actions,
However October is not a novel. It is the story of Russia in 1917 written by a novelist facing the challenge of recounting events which have been previously written about and the significance of which has been debated over the last hundred years. The story is of people faced with the opportunity of making vital choices and some determined to challenge the face of history. It is the story of those who wanted to ensure that the past did not determine their present nor entrap them into a pre-determined future.
This is a history of 1917, which may well be read by a far wider audience, of the many who read and follow China Mieville, but who maybe know little about the Russian Revolution. Those for whom the impact of the Russian revolution does not resonate as it may for others “brought up” on it or who had come already to the traditions of October. And it is a brilliant read for those of us who have lived our lives with the importance of the struggles of that year.
China briefly sketches in the background to February : the relatively late rise of capitalism in Russia, its still huge peasant population recently out of bondage, the bold political formations and their fertilization by the necessary precursor of 1905 and the devastating impact of the war. But it is as he recounts the events of each month from February onwards that the gears change and you are confronting the immense rapidity of the growth in the developments and actions of the political forces and actions. The crisis that seizes Russia is quickly established, with the war and the immense and increasing immiseration and hardship of those, both on the front and those struggling with their lives at home, and in late February the forces of anger and determination are unleashed.
Following a lock out by the bosses of the huge Putilov factory in Petrograd, the day following 23rd February, which was International Women’s Day, “as the meetings ended women began to pour from the factories onto the streets shouting for bread. They marched through the most militant districts … hollering to people gathering on the courtyards of the blocks, filling the wide streets in huge and growing numbers , rushing to the factories and calling on the men to join them.” China’s panoramic sweep of the city moves easily from the mass actions on the streets and the barracks to the meetings in rooms and royal palaces. He introduces and distinguishes the different political formations and handles with ease the alliances and coalitions that, as in so many political actions, rise and disappear. It is by the end of that month that the Tsar is facing his demise with dual power being established, which marks of course the real struggle for the revolution.
With each month following, China extends his range. In March the debates rage with the anguish and anger of different political factions and parties attempting to consolidate the power that is in their hands whether through the Duma or the Soviet and the Soviet Executive committee, Ispolkom. Within days the army decrees are being agreed as the soldiers’ representatives flood into the Soviet meetings demanding to know how to respond to the Duma’s demand that they give up their arms. The Soviet’s resolution, taken to the Duma, informs them of the conditions that support for a provisional government requires: an amnesty for political and religious prisoners, replacement of police force by peoples’ militia, universal equal direct secret male suffrage, abolition of discrimination, self government of the army with election of officers and no disarmament of the revolutionary army units. The soldiers then proceeded to produce Order Number 1, a call for a democratically framed army which Trotsky considered the “charter of freedom for the revolutionary army” and the “single worthy document of the February revolution”.
It is then that Lenin is introduced, he being in Zurich reading of the revolution in Petrograd and following its developments from exile, and in this period drafts the April Theses, the presentation of his brilliant strategic thinking which knows that the revolution needs to be driven forwards. There had to be no alliances with the rightist forces, and at the core of his analysis the rejection of the war. These theses announce his analysis and are firmly planted Luther-like on the doors of Petrograd. On his return in April his central role is evident often in the teeth of opposition from other Bolsheviks.
China has written a book which quite brilliantly recounts the slithering of positions of the political formations, those battling for power of in the Duma and the Provisional government with Mensheviks and SRs and Kadets wanting control and determined to continue the patriotic war. In opposition there are Lenin and the Bolsheviks, (with little unanimity) together with Trotsky and the small grouping around him, the Mezhraionets, and left Mensheviks determined to finish the slaughter. It was after the establishment of the Workers and Soldiers and Peasant government the first decrees passed were to stop the war. The Second Congress of Soviets on 26th October and announced ‘we shall now proceed to build the socialist order” with the abolition of private property in land and a call for immediate negotiation towards democratic peace.
His final chapter is an answer to those who argue the revolution led inexorably to Stalinism. But it complimented by a reading of Tariq’s Lenin where when analysing the failure of the revolution, he points to Lenin’s writings in the early 1920s where Lenin recognized the huge weakness of the revolutionary forces. In 1917 they were young with little consolidated experience, unlike workers movements in Britain or Germany, but it was these revolutionary forces who had the energy and the support of so many ground down by war and poverty. It was this generation who had been decimated by the civil war and foreign interventions. This together with the gradual weakening of the role of the soviets who had acted, and were needed, as the organisations which forced an accountability on the political parties and their demise had become critical. A one party state with no accountability was not inevitable and it certainly denied the hopes and needs of those struggling through the year of revolution..
In his final chapter he writes, “It would be absurd, a ridiculous myopia, to hold up October as a simple lens through which to view the struggles of today. But it has been a long century, a long dusk of spite and cruelty, the excrescence and essence of its time. Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing that we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not always be followed by night”.
China’s book should be widely read and should confirm for us that revolutionary aspirations must be maintained and developed as part of our intellectual arsenal