Book review

China Miéville’s ‘October’ shows us why revolutions must be studied, not just celebrated or reviled

A speculative fiction writer’s view of the Russian Revolution, which is 100 years old this year, provides unique tools to delve into history.

With the luxury of giving only a cursory look – which in turn masquerades as the benefit of hindsight – and lulled by the techno-consumerist order we glide through, the common bourgeois assessment of socialism in the previous century (insofar as it has value today as a curiosity or as a kitschy item), is to equate it with the repression and terror of Stalinism.

The equivalence is, however, deemed false by left thinkers who feel compelled to go back to the beginnings – either to the nuances in Marx’s words, or to the grand original event, the Russian revolution of 1917. The emancipatory potential of the latter and its short-lived actualisation ground a critical argument in the defence of socialism – that multiple paths were possible after the victory in 1917, and the fact that history hurtled along the path that led to Stalin is, despite being a catastrophic reality, not a conclusive negation of all the other possibilities.

It is in this spirit that China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is written. Miéville, a prominent novelist, is not writing a dour history but an engaging story, one which is set, primarily, in a single city, a city whose geography itself lends pathways to the course of events. The story also includes a complex cast of characters who, in responding to the fast-changing scenarios around them, do alter their identifications and their respective courses of action. And, finally, it gives berth to the faceless mass of workers and peasants and sailors and soldiers who, through their remonstrations, repeatedly provide tipping points to the main characters, opportunities to be seized or lost.

The city, of course, is Petrograd, capital of the Tsarist empire and the provisional government that follows it after the February revolution. Although Miéville tries to give us a picture of the happenings elsewhere – in Moscow, say, or in Riga, Kazan, Odessa, etc. – the book rightly stays in Petrograd. As regards the cast of characters, Lenin and Trotsky are given the importance that is their due, though there is no tendency for hagiography. We have the others – the Tsar, the Tsarina, Rasputin, Lvov, Kornilov, Kerensky, Martov, Tsereteli, Kollontai, Spiridonova, Lunacharsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, et al. And there is Stalin, of course, though he is only a “grey blur” in this story set in 1917, his potential for savagery either non-existent or dormant at this stage.

It wasn’t all as we thought, or was it?

The book begins with an essential chapter titled “The Prehistory of 1917”, which explains, broadly, why the Tsar’s position had become untenable over the years. We also have an epilogue, “After October”, which outlines the events after the revolution, taking us swiftly through Russia’s international isolation and the New Economic Policy (NEP) and Lenin’s death, up to the spectre of Stalin. But the nine chapters in between, named after months – from “February: Joyful Tears” to “Red October” – are what this book is about.

From the details we get to know many interesting things.

For example: from early April, when he returned from exile, till sometime in late September, Lenin didn’t exhort the Bolshevik party, or even the larger Soviet (a council of socialists of many parties), to seize power immediately. Fixated on the idea of a synchronous international socialist revolution, his fantasy was to strike at that opportune moment. That he alone would be able to identify that moment was implicit.

Or: It was Trotsky’s October successes with the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) that laid the grounds for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Petrograd and also overthrow the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky.

Or: The MRC itself was a creation of an anxiety in the combined left as an army putsch by General Kornilov came close to succeeding.

And so on…

The paths not taken

But what we sense from the book (and providing this sense is also its function), is that 1917 is a perfect model for studying revolution. The autocracy is overthrown and replaced by a seemingly liberal government. Soon, considering the will of the people, a coalition is made to include the mild left in the government. The people, though, want the left to take complete power. The left dithers (“Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you,” the SR leader Chernov is told by a factory worker). There is mayhem on the street. A world war is going on. The army feels compelled to take power. The radical left organises people to dispel the army. The radical left desires complete power. The government is eventually overthrown. And then…

And then everything goes wrong and stays wrong for more than 70 years.

In sum, Miéville’s October is as good an invitation as we are going to get to understand a tumultuous year in the life of a city and a country, to regard how fungible the alternatives of that year really were, and, in general, to appreciate how capricious the course of history can be. If every rise of totalitarianism is the result of a failure of revolution, then, as people who feel increasingly minuscule in a world order that cannot respond to its gravest crises, perhaps it is the failures of revolutions that we must study with the deepest focus.

October, China Miéville, Verso.

Tanuj Solanki is the author of the novel Neon Noon.

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