Raising the red lantern

September 18, 2017

With the 100th anniversary of the October revolution that inaugurated the first lasting experiment in workers' power, Todd Chretien reviews China Miéville's excellent history.

CHINA MIÉVILLE is too modest when he describes his October as "a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story."

Certainly, it is that. Extraordinary characters--Lenin, Kerensky, Spiridonova, Martov--leap off the page and pull readers right into 1917's catastrophes and triumphs. Miéville's talent as a novelist sparkles as he races to keep ahead of the unfolding drama, packed into just eight months and little more than 300 pages.

Despite the pace, he never loses his narrative footing, pausing now and again to crystallize key lessons and, as Antonio Gramsci once advised, repeating what needs repeating so that rookies are not left behind.

Yet October is not only an "introduction." It joins Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and Isaac Deutscher's later biography of Trotsky in walking the line where Marxist history and inspired literature mingle. At least that's my opinion as an interested amateur when it comes to judging writing as writing.

WHAT I am more sure of is the politics of the book. I found myself, time and again, scribbling in the margins variations of "that's just how to put it" with respect to long-running interpretive controversies.

Workers attend a mass meeting in a Petrograd factory
Workers attend a mass meeting in a Petrograd factory

For instance, Miéville recounts how Lenin's return to Russia in April "unleashed bedlam" among so-called Old Bolsheviks--that is, "old" party leaders in their 30s--by demanding the party veer sharply to the left and prepare for the overthrow of the Provisional Government that came to power after the February Revolution that toppled the rule of the Tsar.

Lenin based his new strategy on a rejection of any compromise with the Provisional Government, a conglomeration of self-appointed liberal and reformist politicians cobbled together as the Tsar abdicated, while advocating all political power be vested in the rapidly growing workers', soldiers' and sailors' soviets--grassroots councils composed of democratically elected delegates.

Lenin's vilification by supporters of the Provisional Government is no surprise, but just how should we understand the turmoil he provoked among his own comrades? Miéville rightly dismisses later Stalinist mythmaking over this episode that claims Lenin's personal genius and high standing alone brought enlightenment to his comrades.

Instead, he explains that Lenin won the party to a genuinely new position so quickly only because the ground had already been prepared by the revolutionary, if outdated, core of Old Bolshevism as it struggled to confront the rapidly changing situation--the Provisional Government speedily proved just how little "in so far as" would get you. As he puts it:

A continuity, then, between "Old Bolshevism" and Lenin's theses could certainly be argued, as it was by many activists, such as Ludmila Stahl. But a permeable membrane exists between tactics and analysis--and emphasis. There was kinship, certainly, but the stress in the uncompromising theses was more than "mere" rhetoric.

Similarly, Miéville synthesizes debates and formulations with respect to Lenin's role during the Kornilov coup that threatened the revolution at the end of August (he was right, but behind the times); the tragic failure of the Menshevik Internationalists led by Martov to support the October insurrection (they might have added their critical forces to the revolutionary state); and the psychological leap necessary to pass from resistance to power on the part of an oppressed class.

An amusing vignette of one activist's "slapstick errors" stands in for this last lesson. Charged with raising a red lantern to signal the final assault on the Provisional Government's headquarters in the Winter Palace--that was to serve as the precondition to the assumption of power by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets on October 25--Miéville pokes fun at a Bolshevik organizer named Blagonrovov, though he does so with a commiserating wink.

As Lenin "sent note after furious note," Blagonrovov realized "no one, it transpired, had such a lantern. Hunting for one throughout the dark grounds of Peter and Paul [fortress], Blagonrovov promptly fell into a mud-pit. When, dirty and sodden, he finally found a suitable light and hared back to raise it, he discovered, nearly out of his mind with frustration, that 'it proved extremely difficult to fix it on the flagpole.'"

The lesson? Power does not fall into your lap, you must take it, and there is no way to learn how to wield it without getting muddy in the process.

MY ONE regret about October is that Miéville decided against including footnotes so as to not burden the text and disrupt his narrative method. It was the right choice, but it comes at a price for those unfamiliar with the complex debates he engages.

For instance, those interested in the multisided controversy over Lenin's April Theses between Lars Lih, Eric Blanc and Paul D'Amato , among others, will have to do some sleuthing on their own. But it's a small price to pay, and there is a carefully chosen bibliography in the back, aimed at guiding, as opposed to overwhelming, those interested in learning more.

Miéville ends with a condensed epilogue summarizing how the Bolsheviks put soviet power into practice, if only "fleetingly": an immediate offer of peace to end the war, workers' control of production, equal rights for men and women at work and in marriage, maternity support, the decriminalization of homosexuality, free and universal education, and "a change in the soul."

The story quickly turns ugly as Stalinism takes root in the wake of imperialist invasion, civil war and international isolation, a tragedy that Miéville looks squarely in the eye: "We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder."

Yet rather than consign the defeat to inevitability, he offers up a soliloquy of trains and the switchmen who direct them onto unauthorized tracks. The capitalists must depend on these machines and these laborers to make their profits and to rule the world, but in creating them, the powers that be "have something to fear, and they police these suspect, illegal branch lines, all the while insisting they do not exist."

Will our generation or the one that comes after find the strength to pass from resistance to power? Miéville makes no promises, but, he says, "the Standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again."

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