October: the revisionism of China Miéville

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville, Verso, £18.99

China Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, attempts to portray the revolutionary events of 1917 in the form of a partisan novel, as a skilled fiction writer – and ex-SWP organiser – turns his pen to history. Aimed at new readers, Miéville's month-by-month narrative paints a 'tide of acceleration' of the revolution which is at times gripping, capturing the days that shook the world in vivid colours, encouraging the reader to be inspired by the 1917 revolutionaries. However, despite his dramatic account, for Miéville, the revolution was flawed by what he sees as a failure of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to unite with the social democrats and form a 'unity government' with left-leaning Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). LOUIS BREHONY argues that not only was this impossible, but that Miéville's seemingly revolutionary ideas are consistent with his and with the British left’s support for a Labour Party dedicated to the survival of British capitalism.

Miéville's narrative

Written 'for people who don't know what happened when', an engaging narrative captures the extraordinary energy of the revolution, beginning with a 'prehistory' of the tsarist era, before a chronology of 1917. The liberal reforms, massacres and repression that had followed the 1905 revolt could not mask the loss of authority of the Russian state; poverty had crippled the country and the empire was bankrupt. The results would be war and revolution on an infinitely greater scale. With brewing social and economic crises at home, something had to give. Miéville traces the Menshevik-Bolshevik split in 1903, which had exposed 'divergent approaches to political consciousness, to campaigning, to working-class composition and agency, ultimately to history and to Russian capitalism itself.' These would become clearer in 1917.

The First Imperialist War (1914-18) was decisive for the international left, splitting the Second International, with a majority of socialist parties siding with their own chauvinist ruling classes. Miéville treats this split as a minor issue and, tellingly, makes no mention of the Labour Party, which backed the slaughter and applauded counter-revolution in Ireland in 1916. In Russia former revolutionaries switched sides as Plekhanov joined the Kadets, Kerensky and other leading Mensheviks and SRs in supporting government borrowing for the war. 1.4 million citizens of the Russian empire died and the territories were hit by strikes, inflation and proletarianisation as peasants fled to the cities for work. International Women's Day, February 1917, saw an explosion, with huge mobilisations calling for bread and an end to war and monarchy. The regime collapsed and Soviet power was born. In the aftermath, most Bolshevik leaders were in prison or exile. With Martov, Kamenev, Trotsky and Stalin all wavering on whether to support the Provisional Government, Lenin writes to Alexandra Kollontai, urging 'complete mistrust, no support'.

Key to the revolutionary movement was the power and centrality of communist women. Kollontai, Krupskaya and Ludmila Stahl were vociferously on Lenin's side against the Kerensky regime, demanding the rights to women denied by the Provisional Government. Mieville refers to the rarely-mentioned 300-strong All-Russian Muslim Women's Congress in Kazan on 23 April, which passed 10 principles, including women's right to vote, equality of sexes and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. Through the tumultuous months between the revolutions, Bolshevik influence surged. Hatred for the war was expressed in the steady demise of the Provisional Government, liquidated by Kerensky at the end of August as General Kornilov plotted a coup, defeated by the action of the Russian masses; 170,000 soldiers abandoned the lines according to official statistics.

Revolution betrayed?

By this high point of mass demonstrations, hurtling towards October, Miéville suggests that, 'There seemed to be a new, shared will for a government of the left. A pathway to socialist unity. To power.'  This assertion is expanded upon in the epilogue:

'Nothing is given, but had the internationalists of other groups remained within the Second Congress [of Soviets, 27 October], Lenin and Trotsky's intransigence and scepticism about coalition might have been undercut, given how many other Bolsheviks, at all levels were advocates of cooperation. A less monolithic and embattled government just might have been the outcome.'

Interviewed on the book, Miéville says that the Bolsheviks made an error by not forming a coalition government.

Miéville sees the Menshevik internationalists as potential 'socialist' partners for the Bolsheviks, along with the left SRs and other small parties. Yet history is against him: by September 1917 the Menshevik organisation faced a 'mass exodus', in the words of Sukhanov, himself a left Menshevik. By the time of the huge soviet demonstrations on 18 June, Miéville quotes Maxim Gorky, writing of 'the complete triumph of Bolshevism among the Petersburg Proletariat.' Gorky and Yuri Larin, both comrades of Sukhanov, ended up joining the Bolsheviks, sickened by Tsereteli and other reformist, pro-war leaders and attracted to the mass support and vision for a socialist state offered by the Bolsheviks. The split in the Second International was expressed in Russia by the crisis of the opportunist social democratic parties, whose left wings talked about socialism and workers' control while their leaders spoke of war and austerity. According to historian Isaac Deutscher, the Mensheviks 'exhorted the nation to go on bleeding itself white; and implored the peasants to have patience with the lords of the manors.' The Left Socialist Revolutionaries initially entered into coalition with the Bolsheviks, before resigning over the punitive Brest-Litovsk treaty signed as a compromise to end the war. They ended up on the side of the reactionary pro-imperialist forces during the civil war, attempting to assassinate Lenin on two occasions. 'The great Maria Spiridonova', idolised by Miéville for her courage and beauty (p177), led this armed rebellion after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty.[1]

Neither the defection of the few revolutionary Menshevik figures to the Bolsheviks nor the betrayal of the revolution by the left SRs alter Miéville's conclusions, where he prefers an alliance with social democracy to a communist 'one party state', which he terms 'Stalinism'. Through his novelistic structure, the author skims over the archetypal texts of the revolutionary period, mentioning Lenin's State and Revolution only briefly; Miéville spends more time on personality descriptions as he doesn't want to 'foreground analysis'. This ducks any responsibility to take a Marxist stand on the questions of the revolution, ignoring Marx's crucial analysis of the Paris Commune and Lenin's writing on the leading role of the working class in the socialist revolution:

'The transition from capitalism to communism is certainly bound to yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.' (Lenin, State and Revolution)

The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the abundance of forms for building socialism were deeply important questions for Marx and were expanded on by Lenin, but are anathema to Miéville, the SWP and most other organisations on the British left. No mention is made of the revolutionary upheavals inspired by the Soviet experience – or of the achievements of the Soviet Union itself. What followed October 1917 was in the words of Miéville, a 'catastrophe', 'a reactionary dynamic'. Any serious attempt at dealing with the post-1917 period is rejected in favour of a list of bourgeois clichés: 'With this despotic degradation comes a revival of statism, anti-semitism and nationalism, and bleakly reactionary norms in culture, sexuality and family life. Stalinism: a police state of paranoia, cruelty, murder and kitsch.' True to British left tradition, the label 'Stalinism' and the reduction of a revolution to personalities mean that complex social developments can be dismissed, as can the years of intense debate, political struggle and cultural innovation that followed 1917.

The outcome of Miéville's position on social democracy means that, like the SWP, he acts as a cheerleader for a Labour Party which opposed the Bolshevik revolution and invited Kerensky to its conference after 1917. Launching the book during a Channel 4 interview on 2 May 2017, Miéville claimed that the legacy of October existed in Britain with Corbyn's Labour leadership representing a 'fundamental change' – despite its collaboration with austerity in cities like London, Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle, its commitment to imperialism, Trident nuclear weapons and tighter immigration controls. NATO, the blood-drenched military alliance to which Corbyn is committed, was formed by Labour imperialist leaders to oppose the socialist threat represented by the Soviet Union.

The Labour Party and its Trotskyist supporters cheered the fall of the socialist bloc, unleashing war, racism and poverty for millions of people. It is revealing that Miéville does not suggest that the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution was ever picked up by anyone anywhere else. The attempts at building socialism in Afghanistan, Cuba, China, Czechoslovakia, Korea, Poland, Vietnam or Yugoslavia, to name a few, all looked to the Bolshevik experience. Lenin's image has graced the walls of Palestinian, Burkinabe, Kurdish and countless other struggles as activists grapple with changing the course of history against imperialism, colonialism and war. Today, Venezuelan revolutionaries are learning the hard lessons of Imperialism and State and Revolution, political material that will be invaluable in building a new socialist movement in Britain.


[1]    For Lenin's comments, see Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.