An enormous amount of intellectual effort is necessary to unearth what significance, if any, the Russian revolutions of 1917 hold for us today. Before it is possible to do so, the mind must travel backwards from the integrated spectacle of Putin’s Russia to confront, at the very least, the gulag, the international secret police apparatus, the show trials, the mass executions, and the political famine of 1932. In other words, one must engage in a veritable phenomenology of the spirit of communism. There can be no unmediated encounter with October 1917.
While the fantasy writer China Miéville does not fully attempt such a confrontation with the historical heritage of the revolutions in October, his new retelling of the events of 1917, he does not ignore its necessity. The book’s epilogue offers an abbreviated and surprisingly ambivalent reckoning for a writer so openly identified with revolutionary socialism. Miéville’s task, instead, is to convey the action of the year 1917 in red Petrograd, with its features which loom so large in our psychogeograpical imagination—the Field of Mars, the Vyborg District, the bridges over the Neva—which he does capably.
Miéville doesn’t give us history from below. The lives of the wage workers and their families, the soldiers, and the ordinary inhabitants of the imperial city is not totally absent, but neither are they the author’s focus. Instead, the book depicts the political denizens of Petrograd—right, left, and center, particularly left.
Since 1917 was a year of events Miéville gives us action, not theory. Although we are reminded that Lenin wrote his unfinished State and Revolution while in hiding in a forest in Finland, we don’t get even the briefest treatment of the important book’s content or its relationship to the political events of the time. Miéville also appears sympathetic to historian Lars Lih’s attempts to dilute Lenin’s theoretical contributions in favor of a rank-and-file party-oriented interpretation of Bolshevism. Thus we get an account in which Lenin’s April Theses become not an epoch-making qualitative blow to a conservative and largely rudderless accumulation of Bolsheviks, but instead a mere discussion bulletin document politely voted on at yet another routine and smoke-filled party committee meeting.
If we are to understand the significance of 1917 at the level of revolutionary politics, we need to understand the relationship of the revolutionaries’ theory to their practice. Miéville is better at describing the Mensheviks’ stage-theory of the Russian revolution (at least Martov had a sense of humor) than he is the relationship of Lenin’s Imperialism and State and Revolution to his practice in 1917. Left totally unmentioned is Lenin’s study of Hegel, undertaken in 1914 in response to the great continent-wide collapse of organized international socialism. To at least one Marxist interpreter of 1917, Raya Dunayevskaya, it was Lenin’s study of Hegel which made his subsequent theoretical contributions possible. For Miéville, Lenin was not one of Europe’s handful of remaining orthodox Marxists, but rather the party’s first-among-equals, an organizer sternly leading the rank-and-file to power.
Trotsky comes across as more of a theoretician, as Miéville is largely sympathetic to the permanent revolution thesis. Bukharin is totally absent from the narrative. For us, we must say that learning that Zinoviev and Kamenev were referred to in party circles as the “Heavenly Twins” (an astronomical reference), made reading the book worthwhile.
So does the October Revolution have significance today? It is not a question to be asked lightly. One cannot elide the subjective impact of the mountains of corpses and the historic trauma inflicted on human imagination by the party-state of Stalin and his successors. Miéville has his own answer. Here, we offer a heavily qualified yes as ours.
One: Obscured by the focus on the politicians and always at risk to being underrepresented in history because of its spontaneous character is the mass activity of 1917 on the part of peasants, soldiers, sailors and factory workers, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. This activity made the political events possible and is of enduring significance. Two: Revolution cannot be organized. A revolutionary moment emerges only at a time of enormous social, spiritual, and political upheaval. 1917 represented the wholesale and chaotic collapse of a particular social and political system. These events occur with great infrequency. Three: Power is not to be trifled with. Lenin’s almost frightening focus on the taking of power in 1917—while obscuring other aspects of his contributions—prevented counter-revolution. Four: Revolutionaries need theoretic preparation. Practice follows theory and no practical advance can be made without a theoretical basis. Did Lenin’s study of Hegel in 1914 lead to the April Theses? Yes. Five: Despite the greatness of his State and Revolution, Lenin’s organizational theories led to fatal contradictions between the party, the state, and organizations of the masses and lead to the death of the revolution, even before his own death. To be true to history and however painful it may be, it must be admitted that Lenin led to Stalin in the sense that the latter came to power through the instrument of the party, and the party was Lenin’s historic contribution.