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Book Review: October; The Story of The Russian Revolution

R. Burke

What exactly is the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution for socialists today? Over the past century much of the discussion has been dominated by two tendencies. For Marxist–Leninists the Russian Revolution was the guiding light leading humanity onward to socialism. For Anarchists and Social-Democrats Russia in 1917 seemed to offer a model of how not to engage in a socialist revolution. What would a more nuanced and historically based investigation reveal to us? Would the picture be as sharply black and white either side has painted? China Mieville’s October; The Story of the Russian Revolution is important as a contribution to this debate.

Mieville’s October manages to combine a storyteller’s gift for narrative with sound historical facts. He provides an insight into the intellectual and historical sphinx that pre-revolutionary Russia was for socialists of the time. Basing themselves on Marx’s views on history and his observations of Russia’s place in a future revolution, Mieville’s investigation demonstrates the degree to which socialists of the time were in thrall to conceptions about stages of history. For Marx socialism could only come about on the basis of the most developed form of capitalism. Thus most Russian socialists thought of the coming revolution as a bourgeois one, which would overthrow the monarchy and replace it with a liberal democracy, but not socialism. In this view revolution in Russia “could be the catalyst for socialist revolution in more developed Europe.” For these socialists history moved inexorably through a series of stages, each of which had to be completed before the tasks of the next could begin.

Opposing this view were the Bolsheviks, led by V.I. Lenin. In Lenin’s view the Russian bourgeoisie as a result of the nation’s late entry into capitalism was weak, and incapable of performing the historical tasks needed for the advancement of Russia to the next historical stage. This task would instead fall to a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Lenin at this time did not conceive the possibility of a socialist transformation of Russia.

For Mieville the thinker who dared to imagine the coming Russian Revolution as a socialist one was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s theories of ‘combined and uneven development’ and ‘permanent revolution’ provided the theoretical break with rigid conceptions of historical stages. He recognized the possibility of leaping over a stage of development. In a backward country where the bourgeoisie was weak, the proletariat instead would take over its’ historical tasks. Having done so their interests would propel them beyond bourgeois gains towards socialism. This could only be successful if socialist revolutions also triumphed in more advanced Europe. Trotsky, like all other socialists of his time recognized that socialism could only come about in an international context, as a ‘world-system.’

A century later such assumptions about stages of development and international revolutions occurring simultaneously may seem foreign. The early 20th century was much more dominated by a belief in an inexorable and linear progress that today seems somewhat quaint. The virtue of Mieville’s retelling of the story of the Russian Revolution is that it leads us to ask how things might have been different. How might a socialist revolution have unfolded in 1917 Russia if Russian socialists neither adhered to thinking in rigid historical stages nor assumed the immanent triumph of revolutionary socialism internationally? Could there have been a possibility for Russia to take an independent course toward socialism without civil war or foreign invasion?

Complicating the situation was the First World War. Until its’ outbreak it was assumed that socialist parties worldwide would refuse support for imperialist war and would call instead for socialist revolution. What actually happened was that each socialist party in each of the combatant countries supported their nation’s entry into the war. Mieville recounts Lenin’s incredulity at the news of the German Social-Democrats supporting war credits in the Reichstag. He thought it was perhaps German propaganda!

Russia’s entry into the war proved to be a massive blunder on the part of the Tsarist regime, one that would seal its’ fate. The slaughter and privation that ensued would inevitably provoke revolution. One of the virtues of Mieville’s book is that it brings home just how much the continuing war, and the inability of most political parties in the wake of the February revolution to oppose or stop it, prepared the ground for the October revolution. The Bolsheviks were the only party that was firmly opposed to the continuation of the conflict. Weary of war, it was perhaps inevitable that the Russian people would turn to Lenin and his comrades as the only possible way to end it.

The irony is that by taking power and negotiating the treaty of Brest-Litovsk to end Russian involvement in the First World War, the Bolsheviks found themselves threatened by civil war and foreign invasion. The expected revolutions in the advanced countries of Europe either did not occur, or where they did, as in Germany, Italy and Hungary, they failed. It is certainly to the credit of the Bolsheviks that despite these major setbacks they persevered, but it cannot be denied that in the aftermath of war and civil war the opportunities opened up by the revolution had largely been lost.

Mieville’s story ends just after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. He recounts the story of the Second Congress of Soviets, which opened just as the October revolution was already in progress. For a brief moment, it looked as if a democratic socialist coalition might emerge. When Martov of the Menshevik-Internationalists called for a cease-fire, and negotiations for “a cross-party, united, socialist government” Lunacharsky announced that the Bolsheviks had nothing against the proposal. When the delegates voted, support for the measure was unanimous. Shortly after this the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries changed their minds and walked out of the congress.  In this context Lenin’s desire to break with the moderate socialist parties and Trotsky’s speech at the congress where he condemned them to ‘the dustbin of history’ were more than justified.

The strength of Mieville’s book lies in the way he recounts a fluid situation in which historical outcomes were still in play. In the months between February and October much that we now see as historical fact was far from settled. Lenin became famous for demanding “all power to the soviets,” yet a month or so later Mieville informs us that Lenin was calling this an ‘obsolete slogan’ because the soviets did not take up the battle cry!

In a bibliographical appendix Mieville refers to the anarchist Victor Serge’s account Year One of the Russian Revolution. Serge was a supporter of the Bolsheviks who managed to retain a critical eye for their faults. Mieville quotes a comment that he made in 1939: “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse-and which he may have carried in him since birth-is that very sensible?” China Mieville’s October; The Story of the Russian Revolution reminds us of the truth of these words.

October; The Story of the Russian Revolution

By China Mieville

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-277-1

Verso Books, London, 2017

369 pages

$ 26.95