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Russian Revolution a Political Thriller and Epic Tragedy

China Miéville offers dramatic take on a complicated and unprecedented moment in history.

Crawford Kilian 29 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

A century ago, capitalism could sell you anything except itself. It had created a worldwide economic system, a bourgeois middle class to administer it, and a plutocracy to enjoy its profits. It didn’t even bother to conceal its contempt for the workers, serfs and slaves who actually created the wealth.

The workers, serfs and slaves reflected on their predicament, and many saw a solution in the writing of Karl Marx. He not only named capitalism; he praised it for its transformative power and damned it for the destruction it inflicted on families and individuals. By the dawn of the 20th century, thousands of disaffected Europeans and North Americans were struggling for a Marxist socialism that would be the logical next step in political evolution.

When the conditions for such a revolution suddenly appeared in Russia, no one was more surprised than Russian revolutionaries. Socialism was supposed to evolve out of the most advanced capitalist societies like Britain and Germany; Russia was hopelessly backward, still awaiting bourgeois-ruled industrial capitalism.

That backwardness had become disastrous by 1916. The Russian Empire was embroiled in a losing war with Germany. Russians were dying at the front and starving at home. The sheer incompetence of Russia’s rulers, from Tsar Nicholas on down, was fully understood by everyone except the rulers themselves. Early in 1917, a revolution began whose climax was the Bolshevik uprising the following October. We are still living in its aftershocks.

China Miéville would seem to be an unlikely historian of the Russian revolution: he is best known as the author of some of the strangest and most brilliant fiction currently being written in English. But he wrote his PhD thesis on Marxism and international law, and he is a serious activist intellectual of the British left.

His new book, however, does not pretend to offer new scholarship about the revolution. Instead, he has made it a story, a political suspense thriller — and an epic tragedy.

Splinters of splinters

Russian Marxists were only a cluster of splinter groups when the tsarist government fell in February 1917 and Nicholas abdicated. They were in Siberian or European exile (Trotsky was in Canada), or lying low in Russia itself. The Marxists had spent the past few decades quarrelling with one another and with their liberal bourgeois rivals. The Bolsheviks were just one splinter of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party; they branded themselves as the majority of the party as opposed to the minority Mensheviks. But even the splinters were splintered into left and right factions, endlessly arguing with one another.

This is an aspect of the revolution that Miéville captures beautifully: revolutionaries talked, and wrote, and orated, and debated, virtually nonstop. Whether when he was in exile in Switzerland, or in hiding in Finland, Lenin spent his time writing polemics that even his Bolshevik followers found shocking.

When the First World War broke out, for example, Lenin blasted the socialist parties that supported it. They were backing a war of workers killing workers, he insisted, and proudly called himself a “defeatist”: Russia would have to lose the war for revolution to occur. His comrades were scandalized, but listened to him as they did to his adversaries. Eventually, they supported him when he pulled Russia out of the war. By then, his political analysis seemed too accurate to argue with.

Germany, of course, had permitted Lenin to return to Russia from Switzerland in the famous “sealed train” in hopes that would indeed shut down the eastern front. But before that happened, Lenin and the other socialist factions were embroiled in ever more talk, talk, talk.

A double government

The February revolution had replaced Russia’s two-headed eagle with a double government: a provisional government run by a coalition of socialist and liberal parties, and a soviet dominated by workers, peasants and especially soldiers. “Soviet” means “council,” and smaller soviets proliferated all over the empire.

Like the provisional government, the soviets were talk shops, where delegates politicked with one another all night to win votes. As Miéville describes their meetings, they were amazingly like any modern democratic legislature (only smokier). He needs all his storytelling skills to make these often-tedious sessions readable.

Lenin and his Bolsheviks were among the best-organized of the parties, but they were trapped in their own ideology. Russia wasn’t supposed to leap from serfdom to socialism without a long stretch of bourgeois capitalism. As sincere Marxists, the Bolsheviks didn’t think it was their turn yet.

But as the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky staggered from one folly to the next through the spring and summer, and a proto-fascist counter-revolution was launched by Gen. Kornilov, Lenin decided that the workers would have to seize power or be destroyed. Still he delayed, and for a democratic reason: he didn’t think the Bolsheviks had enough support from the workers, peasants and especially the soldiers and sailors stationed in St. Petersburg, the capital.

With their backing, he reasoned, the Bolsheviks could legitimately take power, end the war, and begin to build socialism. Even then, he was certain that Russian socialism would survive only if it inspired similar revolutions in more advanced European countries.

Elegy for the revolution

With the Bolshevik uprising, Miéville concludes his political suspense thriller; his epilogue is elegy. The Bolsheviks ruled St. Petersburg, but had trouble consolidating their revolution across the country. In the spring of 1918 civil war broke out, with the reactionary Whites supported by European, North American and Japanese troops. Socialist revolts did break out in Germany and Hungary, and social unrest plagued other countries (Canada had the Winnipeg General Strike).

But the Bolsheviks’ hopes for international revolution were doomed, and they turned increasingly to violence and state terror to maintain themselves in power. The implacable hatred of the West pushed the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into paranoid tyranny of its own people. Even as early as late 1918, Miéville writes, “without question a political and moral rot is setting in.”

Suffering a series of strokes, the failing Lenin wanted Josef Stalin kicked out of the Communist Party; instead, after Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin took over and proclaimed a new line, “socialism in one country,” repudiating Lenin’s internationalist Marxism.

“The effects of the new position are devastating,” Miéville writes. “As any vestigial culture of debate and democracy withers, the bureaucrats become custodians of a top-down development towards a monstrosity they call ‘socialism.’ And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.”

As North American radicals used to say, “When you have socialism in a backward country, you get backward socialism.”

After a concise but powerful indictment of the revolution’s failure, Miéville then goes on: “It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares things changed once, and they might do so again.”

By his urgent telling of the strange story of October with its very human protagonists, China Miéville makes the revolution real, concrete, the improvisation of men and women who had no model to follow. And he makes a strong case that things might indeed change again, even after the last horrendous century.  [Tyee]

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