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.