Charlie Burton reviews China Miéville’s retelling of the story of the tumultuous months 100 years ago leading up to the October revolution. October is published by Verso and available now.
In July 1914, deputies of the largely ineffective parliamentary body, the Russian Duma, voted in favour of war credits and confirmed Russia’s entry into the arena of World War I. Figures from every political persuasion rallied in support of the Tsarist regime, aroused by the chauvinism that looms in the prelude of national conflict. A letter received by the autocratic Tsar Nicholas II six months earlier gave ample warning as to the potential consequences of Russia’s defeat. If the war is lost, insisted the politician Pyotr Dynovo, then “social revolution… is inevitable”.
Dynovo’s prediction proved partly correct. The war devastated the ill-equipped and under-prepared Russian army. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were brutally killed in the industrial onslaught. Amid widespread disillusionment, soaring inflation and domestic food shortages, public anger broke out, and the autocratic Tsarist monarchy was overthrown in February 1917.
China Miéville’s new book October accounts for the period between the upheavals of February, which replaced Tsarism with a liberal Provisional Government, to the more contested, but utterly transformative revolution of October. The differences, Miéville tells us, were epochal: while the February revolution dispatched with half a millennium of Tsarist autocracy, October introduced the foundations for a new type of society. Led by the Bolsheviks, state power was transferred to the workers councils (soviets) and the incompetent Provisional Government was swept aside.
October provides a compelling narrative of these events. Miéville delivers a month-by-month account of the revolutionary period, each chapter filled with intrigue and plots, strikes and protest. He fuses together perspectives of all the major figures involved in the revolution – from Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to leading liberal Alexander Kerensky – and the citizens who initiated it. Unlike many historical depictions that portray Lenin and the Bolsheviks as anti-democratic coup plotters, Miéville expertly illustrates their role in the context of the wider social tumult that enveloped Russia, involving the activity of millions of workers, peasants and soldiers.
For those newly acquainted with the events of 1917, the book supplies an accessible though nonetheless methodical picture. Miéville fitly harmonises the action of workers and soldiers with the theoretical debates that occupied the Bolsheviks and other parties involved in the revolutionary process.
Lenin’s theoretical interventions serve a luminous role in the evolution of events. There are numerous passages that highlight the perceived absurdity of his political arguments, only to be proven right in the forthcoming months by the workers to whom he devoted himself. Rather satirically, upon presenting his famous April Theses – a document that called for the rejection of the Provisional Government and all power to the soviets – Lenin is met with near total condemnation. As Miéville writes:
His speech unleashed bedlam. The impact of the Theses was electric, and Lenin’s isolation almost total. Speaker after outraged speaker denounced him. Tsereteli, the prominent Menshevik Lenin anathematised, accused him of breaking with Marx and Engels. Goldenberg, a Menshevik who had once been a leading Bolshevik, said Lenin was now an anarchist, “on Bakunin’s throne.” Lenin’s words, yelled the furious Menshevik Bogdanov, were “the ravings of a madman.”
Likewise, when the Bolsheviks attained majorities in the leading soviets and Lenin called for them to assume state power, his comrades showed:
not a scintilla of support for his demands. He was utterly isolated. And, further, it was imperative to his comrades that his voice be muted, his message not get to Petrograd workers, or Petrograd or Moscow Bolshevik committees. Not because they would think Lenin wrong: because they might think him right.
Such accounts dispense with the myth that Lenin held dictatorial power over the party. Quite the opposite – he openly debated his ideas with the intent to win comrades and the wider populace over to his position democratically. Thus, Miéville’s portrayal of the relationship between Lenin and the Bolsheviks is not rigid, but one that proceeds in a dialectical evolution.
Naturally, the story is set predominantly in the Russian capital of Petrograd, “the crucible of the revolutions.” Being the centre of worker militancy, Petrograd is the city where both insurrections transpire, its streets routinely ablaze with revolutionary fervour. Miéville’s tremendous capacity for forging magical worlds compliments his depiction of Petrograd and its neighbouring districts, to the extent that one can really discern the intensity and severity of the moment.
Although the capital takes centre stage, Miéville doesn’t neglect to demonstrate the wider effects the revolution had across the Russian Empire. For example, encouraged by insurgencies in the capital and elsewhere, members of the progressive Muslim Jadidist movement set up Islamic Councils, with the aim to “dismantle old government structures… and enhance the role of the indigenous Muslim population.” Delegates from the first Pan-Turkestan Muslim Congress subsequently voted in favour of regional autonomy, a reflection of the democratic aspirations stimulated by the February Revolution.
Here, we can see how the influence of revolution impressed upon many who had previously been discriminated against under Tsarism, including Muslim women. In light of the February events, in Tatarstan, the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress met to discuss multiple political and religious concerns, as follows:
There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab… The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.
The scale of political awakening amongst the inhabitants of Russia’s vast territory, unleashed during the months following February, is unveiled throughout the book. However, Miéville makes clear which revolution was profoundly more transformational. As state authority dwindled with the Provisional Government’s failure to take Russia out of the war, including an escalating social crisis and the glaring presence of where real power laid, the October insurrection articulated the popular will of the masses – upending Kerensky and co, and securing the first socialist workers’ state.
Yet, although the revolution provided a brief glimpse at a better world, it quickly disintegrated with the subsequent civil war and the failure of revolution to spread to the industrial countries, resulting in isolation and bureaucratic degeneracy. Miéville rightly acknowledges that those who sympathise with the revolution must also engage with its mistakes and crimes: “To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.” Nonetheless, October remains a focal point for those who aspire to a more egalitarian society, one that “can be ours, and that it need not always be followed by night.”