Revolution Deferred: What Lessons Can We Learn From October 1917?

Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

One hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution changed the world. Ever since then, it has been contested history. China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution tells the story of not one but two revolutions that took place in 1917 and the extraordinary events surrounding them: a remarkable story of uprisings and repression, heroism and folly, triumph and tragedy. Get your copy by making a donation to Truthout!

“Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin.”

This sentence, appearing less than one hundred pages into China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, sums up the biggest challenge of writing a fresh history of the events of 1917. As Miéville writes, “any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future” — and not just the ghost of Joseph Stalin.

When we first encounter them in this book, Lenin is not yet Lenin in that sense, Trotsky is not yet Trotsky, even if they were already going by those names. October is, in one sense, an origin story for the “heroes and villains” who have been rendered such by a century of revolutions inspired by them, internal socialist and communist argument about their relative merits, and conservative and liberal smears.

That last factor is crucial and forms the biggest argument for educating oneself about the Russian Revolution. Decades of anti-communist propaganda and miseducation about Russia in the United States are still having a malign effect on the political discourse. For an example of this, one has only to look at how often Soviet iconography or language crops up in discussion of Donald Trump’s connections to modern Russia, from tweets to protest signs. Meanwhile, many American socialists still feel the need to specify that their socialism is not the Russian kind.

The Russian Revolution, then, carries a signifying meaning that is far in excess of the extent to which it is actually understood, even in terms of the most agreed-upon series of events. As just one example of a basic historical fact not much discussed: the revolution can be more accurately described as two revolutions, describe by Miéville in his introduction thus:

The first, in February, dispensed breakneck with a half-millennium of autocratic rule. The second, in October, was vastly more far-reaching, contested, ultimately tragic and ultimately inspiring.

Though it begins with a rapid catch-up of the preceding centuries and closes with a haunting overview of what was to follow, October is primarily concerned with the time in between these two revolutions, what its author calls “two confused, liberatory upheavals.” During this period of “dual power,” the Duma’s Provisional Government (who assumed power somewhat reluctantly and included some still pining for the deposed monarchy) wrestled with pressure from below to complete the work of the revolution — pressure that sometimes came through the Petrograd Soviet and other Soviets (grassroots workers councils), but sometimes from without those bodies and pushing the Soviets themselves further left.

A lesser writer may have left one bogged down in the weeds reading October during the middle periods in which factions plot, endless committees and bodies with confusingly similar names tussle, and the balance of power and momentum lurches between revolutionaries, moderates and reactionaries. Bureaucracy can be a drag to read about, even if the point of the narrative is the failure of bureaucracy to hold back the desire of an emboldened people to achieve more freedom and equality than the initial February insurrection granted them. But this is necessary stuff to understand. Miéville’s book reveals the extent to which it was not always even a question of the Bolsheviks pushing the rest of the Soviet, or even of Lenin pushing the Bolsheviks — in fact, Lenin shows a caution at times over the course of 1917 that might surprise some readers.

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There is a tendency among analysts of current political movements to assume that our movements are uniquely beset by divisions and petty personal rivalries, while organizers of the past were less easily divided and diverted. This goes doubly true for any organizers or movements who made things happen or caused change on massive scale — which the Bolsheviks, whatever you think about the end result, undeniably did.

But any close and honest study of any movement or group of organizers will reveal that this assumption is a myth. October is a striking example. Not only were the arguments between groups and individuals within those groups more complex, fractious and malleable than history tends to recall, but individuals themselves were much less fixed in their stance. Lenin, in particular, emerges here as a figure given to startling changes in position almost overnight. While Lenin would claim that these were always necessary responses to rapidly shifting realities on the ground, Miéville is unwilling to let him off the hook when his caution seems misguided, or when Lenin employs his trademark verbal ferocity in castigating a position that was or will soon be his own.

Trying to apply lessons of the Russian Revolution to a subsequent period of history, in another nation under another economic and political system, is a tricky proposition, one which the left has been wrestling with for decades. It is a tendency that is as tempting as it is perilous. For example, to describe Alexander Kerensky, briefly leader of the Provisional Government, as “liberal” or “centrist,” as most of those on the English-speaking left understand those terms today, is no doubt not quite historically accurate. Yet the parallels are hard to resist, given Kerensky’s combination of lofty rhetoric and noncommittal vacillation, and his willingness to partner with the far-right would-be military dictator Lavr Kornilov — only to baulk at the last moment, due in part to a farcical misunderstanding.

There are other things we can learn simply by looking at just how different circumstances were. The role of enlisted members of the Russian military, for example, was crucial in 1917: not just in enabling revolution to occur but often as one of the forces pushing harder left. In countries that have only economic (not formal) conscription, and whose militaries employ much more thorough and subtle mechanisms to ensure its ranks are not accidental breeding grounds for political dissent, it is hard to imagine the military playing such a role now. This is something with which those who want to see revolutionary change take place in, say, the United States will have to honestly grapple.

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Acclaimed author China Miéville tells the story of a pivotal moment in world history.

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There will be some readers on the left who disagree with Miéville’s conclusions, to put it mildly — those who find him too enamored of Trotsky, too forgiving of Menshevik leader Julius Martov, too sweeping in his condemnation of Stalin, too admiring or too critical of Lenin. To this reader, he does in fact meet his stated goal of being fair but not neutral, partisan but not dogmatic or uncritical.

Miéville is unequivocal that the revolution went wrong, but has more questions than answers as to how this happened. He has no time for the “Lenin leads inevitably to Stalin” canard, nor does he absolve Lenin and the Bolsheviks from blame. He bemoans the lost opportunity for a democratic socialist coalition in October 1917 after the collapse of the hopelessly compromised Provisional Government, but places primary responsibility for this failure on the left Mensheviks who walked out when a new, revolutionary coalition was within reach. He is also clear about the role played by the virulently hostile and violent reaction of foreign powers (including the United States, Britain and France) to the birth of a socialist country, in prompting the decay of that socialism.

Trains play an important role in the story of 1917: “The tsar’s wheeled palace … Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage … the trains crisscrossing Russia heavy with desperate deserters” to name but a few. For those who have read Miéville’s novel Iron Council, it is impossible not to see the echoes in the final passage of October — or rather, the historical details which that story echoes. Iron Council ends with a train full of revolutionaries frozen in time as it approaches a city, its fate unknown, the revolution unfinished.

In case the metaphor was not clear, the author returns to it again to close out October. We cannot write an ending for the story of revolution because the story is not over. The train has not arrived at its final destination. Whether it does, and what that destination will look like, are up to us.