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Russian Revolution

Reading October: Final Thoughts


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.




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.


A State of Disrepair

Okay, so it seems that this humble writers’ marginalia [paraphernalia, more like; maybe even ephemera while we’re at it] has turned into a theory blog. Whoops. Maybe someone will offer me that grad funding if I keep on waffling…


What Even Am State-ness?

It occurs to me that I throw a lot of terms around with all the abandon of autumn mulch, and some people may take offense at how liberally I sprinkle them. So here we go with one of the terms which I think requires a little more clarity.


Statism, statist, state-supporter, is a pejorative usually found in anarchic writings. It’s used to indicate the authoritarian power structures that can hide in plain sight, in the architecture of the bureaucracy itself. That is an important point, but we’ll get to that…

Let’s start at the top: A “state” then, is shorthand for nation-state, as described along Westphalian lines (that every nation-state has supreme sovereignty over its territories). The “state” as a structure is the final arbiter of law and order, rights and punishments, health and welfare, defense, economy and so on. A state can be representative, democratic, or anywhere along the sliding scale to despotic and totalitarian.

Care should be taken to note that we are talking about state, not society, or culture – although as we will see – there is a lot of symbiotic overlap, right? In reality all three terms bleed into each other; the state encourages societal categories, society can be a product of culture… But for our analysis we are just considering the bureaucracy of the state apparatus, not the sociological groupings within, or the ideologies/customs/beliefs of the various cultures.


You Statist!

In the last blog post we talked about how the Soviet started to take a more “statist” approach during the Dual Power phase of 1917. Why is this a bad move? The anarch critique of the state comprises of 4 key ‘ismsCentrism, Reductionism, Quietism, & Authoritarianism.

Centrism is the notion that for the state to function, it necessarily seeks to reduce complexity and centralize all local, regional, or any other sort of power to the core law-makers, policy chiefs, monarchs, what have you. This is as much an organic process as it might be a motivated one, as it is easier for the state to gather power to one place, person, or building than it is to listen to the demands of all of its citizens. Why is Centrism a bad thing – sounds like a great way to save on dead-tree paper, right?
Well… one of the problems is that centralization of power leads to the creation of elites. Like moths to a flame, it draws the power-hungry to itself, and, because it is self-maintaining it creates “cultures” of power-brokers. Just think about the Westminster Bubble, and the fact that most of the highest-ranking parliamentarians have overwhelmingly come from an Eton-Oxbridge-Public School system. In the later years of the Soviet Party (TM) we see all opposition to “the Party” as a central authority being disallowed. Centrism also directly leads to the next problem:

Reductionism. I think of this as a kind of coded-in-the-mainframe ignorance; as soon as the state makes a decree, then there will be exceptions to that rule – life is nothing if not complex and changeable, right? But the central authority of the state has to either ignore the detail of lives for it to be effective on a grand scale… Or it has to legislate every possible minutiae. All states try to do a bit of both, to varying degrees of success. This may seem like a philosophical point but it has real ramifications: in the UK we are seeing families penniless and at risk of homelessness over Christmas because of the role-out of Universal Credit – the situations of their lives has to fit that state schema.

Reductionism becomes even worse when we consider the metrics which a state uses to measure itself: functionalist GDP, economic health, crime figures, burden of disease, population growth; statistics, categories, and more statistics, rather than the life-stories of citizens; or the things we might think are important: happiness, kinship, recognition, environmental security, peace.

In short, reductionism is a factor that stifles the “life-otherwise” of a person.

Quietism is perhaps the anarch’s most keenly felt criticism of statism. It is the essential letting-go of personal involvement and responsibility in our own lives (and the wider world) to let the apparatus of the state “sort it out”. People starving in Africa? State aid. Homeless dude in the town centre? State aid. Old people freezing alone in their homes over winter? State aid. Don’t get involved with that challenging situation ~ that is what the state is for, right?

This criticism is important because it differentiates the anarch from say, the capitalism of Ayn Rand [shivers]. The anarch seeks to overcome the despair and hand-washing of the “powerless citizen” and instead advocates a robust ethic of personal responsibility and solidarity with ones fellows. Who is going to look after each other? We are.

Authoritarianism. This is where the state can become ever more forceful – even draconian – in its influence it has over a citizen’s life, relying on the fact that at the end of the day, the state has assumed the absolute moral, legal, and physical authority.


Life Otherwise

In the final analysis, all of the four ‘isms above leads to the disempowerment and disillusion of the individual. Their life-choices might become more limited, and their dreams more stunted than they otherwise could be. This “otherwise” is an important point: what is your real life, the anarch might ask. Is it your profession? The fact that you are a mother, a father, a good friend? How many people do we know who might say something like “I am a painter, but I’m working at the 7/11 while I pay off my debts.”

These ‘isms are why an anarch opposes ‘statist’ moves, and instead encourages more direct change at that grassroots level, encouraging that “otherwise life” of the individual to blossom.

Obviously, there is a lot of room for maneuver in this debate, and real life is always a balancing act of emphasis. There are lots of different versions of- and alternatives to- the way that a state is organized.  But the anarch critique still has value for us today I think: it asks us to examine where power comes from, who is holding it, and what ‘real’ power would look like. Is power devolved and directed downward, or up?





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