By SAM PAGANO
Most people know China Mieville as a writer of innovative genre fiction. He’s made a name for himself over the years as a pre-eminent figure within the science fiction and fantasy scenes in large part because of his radical jumps between different genres, styles, and ideas.
Within the 10 novels and two short story collections that Mieville has written, there’s everything from the subversive but grounded detective story of “The City & The City” to the baroque magical capitalist dystopia of the “Bas” series. Even within a body of work marked by radical departures, though, his 2017 book, “October: The Story of the Russian Revolution,” still marked an exceptional shift.
When it was first being proposed, Mieville apparently had the idea of writing it as a straight historical fiction piece, telling the story of the Revolution as a novel. However, over the course of writing, it evolved into a much broader general history of the Russian Revolution from February to October, meant as a general introductory work on the topic.
The way that the publisher, Verso, has advertised “October” emphasizes its origins as a historical fiction piece and attempts to sell it as “The Story of the Russian Revolution” in a fairly direct way. But that description undersells the quality and depth of the book.
“October” is one of the better in-depth and effective introductions to the politics that shaped the Russian Revolution that has been written in the past few decades. It fills an important niche within socialist literature to bridge the gap between journalistic accounts—like John Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook The World”—and Leon Trotsky’s “History of The Russian Revolution,” which covers many of the same topics in far more detail and is the definitive work on the subject.
Mieville tells the story of the Revolution in a compelling way that manages to get across many of the more complicated political phenomena in Russia in the lead-up to October.
The chief virtue of “October” as compared to most bourgeois histories of the Russian Revolution is that China Mieville understands Marxist theory and the concept and role of a vanguard party. In contrast to those bourgeois historians who would focus on the persons within the Bolshevik leadership and their role in engineering the situation, October’s chief protagonist and subject is the Russian working class itself.
Mieville shows that the shifts in class consciousness of the working class, and the movement they built, is ultimately what made the first successful workers’ revolution in history possible. The workers were not controlled or manipulated by a body outside themselves, but were active agents in their own right who fully understood what they hoped to achieve by the Revolution.
The Bolsheviks are still central historical actors, but it is in the role of the people at the forefront of this emerging movement that they were central. This isn’t to say that the workers were a purely spontaneous element; the revolutionary movement shaped their actions and consciousness.
The relationship of the Bolshevik Party to the masses was dialectical and reciprocal, and wouldn’t have been possible if the workers weren’t receptive to their calls, or if the situation didn’t push them to listen. The Bolsheviks’ agitation pushed forward mass consciousness, which in turn led the masses to take action, in which the Bolsheviks played a leading role in many cases due to their audience trusting and respecting them.
Where “October” most thoroughly criticizes the Bolsheviks is in situations in which they failed to act as a vanguard. One moment was immediately after the February revolution, when various Bolshevik leaders took steps towards burying the hatchet with the Mensheviks and adopting support for the Provisional Government. And then in the July Days, when they failed to give a decisive response to the workers’ actions and were effectively blindsided by events out of their control.
“October” makes clear that the Bolsheviks were fallible, that they made mistakes throughout the Revolution—although this did not doesn’t automatically discredit them as leaders.
Of course, any attempt to try to explain a very complex topic in simple ways will tend to be inexact in some places. Where this is most evident in “October” is in a certain contradiction between the desire for a speedier and less dense read, and presenting complex issues in their full complexity.
This issue is at its worst when Mieville turns his attention to the debates within the Bolshevik Party in April 1917—when Lenin returned to revolutionary Russia from exile and wrote his “April Thesis.” His goal appears to be to present them in light of recent debates around historian Lars Lih’s analysis of whether or not the Bolsheviks were “fully armed” in their perspectives toward the Provisional Government and whether Lenin’s militant thesis constituted a rupture or continuity with the old politics of the Bolshevik Party.
Unfortunately, to someone uninitiated in the works of Lars Lih (“Lenin Rediscovered” and other books), Mieville’s presentation it is almost entirely opaque. He fails to get across the core issues involved, or why the debate about the nature of Lenin’s “April Theses” as rupture or continuity is significant. Moreover, Mieville fails to state any definite conclusions or ideas.
Along similar lines, there’s a sort of Petrograd-centrism to the book, which is acknowledged by the author in the introduction, but doesn’t really justify the lack of focus on events outside of the city. This is most problematic where the oppressed nationalities of the Russian Empire are concerned. They occasionally come to the forefront, but never in great detail. For example, the relationship and position of the Bolsheviks on the emerging national liberation struggles is only referred to once in the entire book, in a specific reference to a statement on the part of the Baku Bolsheviks.
This is probably the greatest failure of the book to demonstrate the full scope of the Russian Revolution because the nationalities question was an incredibly important aspect of the revolutionary process, and worthy of more attention than many writings on the Revolution give it.
Nevertheless, “October: The Story of the Russian Revolution” is highly worthwhile reading for anyone with an interest in the topic, and especially for today’s political activists. Even people who know a lot about the Revolution will still be able to engage with it as a very entertaining book that presents Russia in 1917 in a novel way.
A version of this review first appeared in Socialist Action newspaper in 2017.