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Reading October: Final Thoughts

October

Finishing October, and I’m pleased that China Mieville ended the book with a discussion of what happened afterwards. The challenge of the Russian Revolution is to not only understand what happened and how, but also where the wheels fell off. It is deeply sobering reading the ‘Glossary of Personal Names’ at the back (a sort of shorthand bio of many of the important people featured), to find that many end with the lines “Executed under Stalin” – many who were die-hard Bolsheviks and soviet activists.

The closing Epilogue is also one of the challenging and satisfying parts of the book [for a perennial Mieville reader such as myself] because it gives the author freer reign to hash out some of the paradoxes and nuances of Red October. There are so many engaging quotes contained that I could fill this page easily – written with Mr Mieville’s erudite uncannyness. Without further ado, then;

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.

It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do again.

 

Possibility of Hope?

I guess that this above quote is what I am left with after reading this rollercoaster of a book. In another post I mentioned an anarch’s view of life-otherwise, which you could call my own more optimistic, libertarian take on dissensus, or the opportunity to live outside of control apparatus.

That, then – is the real gem of the Russian Revolution; that there was once a coming-together of people to demand that life be different than what they were given. The author highlights this strand of utopianism that was right there in the spark of the Russian Revolution;

The revolutionaries want a new country and a new world, one they cannot see but believe they can build. And they believe that in so doing, the builders will also build themselves anew.

But that utopianism is not without it’s critiques, of course. A lot of crimes were folded into that pursuit of the new. Perceptively, the author further analyses this trajectory in his discussion of ‘necessities.’

It is not absurd to argue that the ground-down of Russia had no real choice but to act, on the chance that in so doing they might alter the very parameters of the situation […] The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from that plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One Country, is a baleful result of recasting necessity as virtue.

 

Utopianism vs. Necessity

‘Recasting necessity as virtue.’ This phrase struck me. It chimes with our earlier discussions on statism; that functionalist, utilitarian schema that declares that there is but one way for society to be organised, for it to make sense, for it to work. In short, the control mechanisms of the state are necessary to it’s goal. In that statism there is no room for the life-otherwise; for the flourishing of differences and diversity – those things are unnecessary, frivolous, ephemera (for example: we measure Higher Education by the rubric of employment rates, rather than the investigation and development of culture, history, knowledge etc).

Here then, perhaps, is the crux of it: that radical change is always caught between hopeful possibility [utopianism] and the demands [necessity] of the moment.

In that balancing act that the radicals of October were trying to pull off, I think that it is fair to say that they lost that otherwise-ness of that utopianism. And I mean it in it’s most literal sense: that there could have been other ways to negotiate, collaborate, organize between the Bolsheviks and the dissenting Menshaviks, the Left-SR’s, and everyday people. But voices were ignored, and factionalism abounded. There could have been other answers than centralizing power to Central Commitees / Soviet Congress / One Party.

To quote Red Rosa:

Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenters…[Freedom is always and exclusively freedom of one who thinks differently].

In conclusion, then: October is a great book. I’ve had a rivetting schooling on the events and the contradictions of the Russian Revolution, the key figures and issues at play. The author handles it all with tact and balance, never veering into fanboying or apologia. And like all great history books – it leaves you with many questions and more rabbit-holes to explore. The final words of the review belong to the author;

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift toward’s worker’s control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. [!] […] Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. […] And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.

 

 

 

Lucy Parsons, The Principles of Anarchy

And what of the glowing beyond that is so bright that those who grind the faces of the poor say it is a dream? It is no dream, it is the real, stripped of brain-distortions materialized into thrones and scaffolds, miters and guns. It is nature acting on her own interior laws as in all her other associations. It is a return to first principles; for were not the land, the water, the light, all free before governments took shape and form? In this free state we will again forget to think of these things as “property.” It is real, for we, as a race, are growing up to it. The idea of less restriction and more liberty, and a confiding trust that nature is equal to her work, is permeating all modern thought. […]

[…] We judge from experience that man is a gregarious animal, and instinctively affiliates with his kind—co-operates, unites in groups, works to better advantage combined with his fellow men than when alone. This would point to the formation of co-operative communities, of which our present trades-unions are embryonic patterns.

Written somewhere between 1905 and 1910 (after the first thwarted uprising in Russia, amidst the many libertarian pushes and reactionary crackdowns), this pamphlet is prescient in some ways, but speaks to its time in others. In some parts we might criticize the suggestion of enlightenment progress – that demon of modernity – that man grows past the institutions that shackle him. We could question that sort of ‘glowing future destination’ that validates all that came before it – but I think that Parson’s herself might be aware of this tension, because she matches that transcendental progressivism with a notion of ‘return to true’. That we seek to strip away the distortions so that;

 

“It is nature acting on her own interior laws as in all her other associations.”

 

From my understanding, and linking this in with Bookchin’s work – this isn’t to suggest that ‘natural systems’ [sic] aren’t complicated and conflicting systems themselves – but perhaps that without the massive skewed distortions of capital and authority we could finally get to really inhabit those systems: to feel and to see what needs to be done, in order to respond creatively rather than through the filter of labor/debt/wealth.

[The Principle’s of Anarchy Full Text]

Reading October: August-September

Well, Kornilov’s Revolt was a wild ride, huh?

Thanks to the Provisional Government of the Duma’s vacillations (read: Kerensky trying to appease/appeal to the right-wing of the country; namely the Kadets and Officer’s groups of the military), a man called General Kornilov was given ever-greater authority – and ever-greater indications – that the way was open for a military dictator. Following a monumental fudge of communication, alongside a fair amount of counter-revolutionary plotting and subterfuge, Kornilov was essentially told “you can have Petrograd if you want” whilst Kerensky was told “it’s okay, you’re going to be in charge, but Kornilov’s going to be your ever-useful, plug-in-and-play-despot”.

Kerensky panics and reaches out to the Soviets, Bolsheviks, and Menshaviks – all the while still claiming that he has got to be the head of a 6-man “Directory” (dictatorship), in order to save the country from collapse.

It’s all boggling. I don’t know whether to laugh or be stunned at the cojones Kerensky has.

Anyway, now the best bit of August. For various reasons; events transpired; stuff happened [I‘m not telling you exactly because of SPOILERS if you’re going to read the book]; but essentially Kornilov’s Revolt was halted without ever a shot being fired. All a big storm in a teacup? Not exactly.

In one staggeringly inspirational scene we see a train carrying regiments of Kornilov’s crack-offensive shock troops, the Cossacks, halted and essentially General Assembly’d into giving up their coup. Delegations of soviets, worker’s unions and everyday citizens trudged over the Russian tundra to philosophize the hell out of the soldiers until they said “hey, I guess you’ve got a point.”

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

 

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