Liberty’s Dim Light: Book Review of China Miéville’s “October: The Story of the Russian Revolution” and “Iron Council”
China Miéville holds a Ph.D. (2001) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, is a member of the socialist democratic party in England, and the founding editor of Salvage, a quarterly of revolutionary arts and letters. He wrote ‘Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law’, but is perhaps best known as an author of fiction, where for his novels he has won among other awards the Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo, and Locus literary honors.
His latest writing is a narrative history, October: The Story of the October Revolution, arriving on the centenary of the pivotal year.
After a useful prehistory detailing the autocratic monarchy engaged in the unpopular First World War, Miéville proceeds month by month through to the October 1917 takeover of the Winter Palace and the beginnings of the world’s first workers’ state. In exploring the revolution, Miéville expertly moves from St Petersburg to Moscow and beyond, just as the drama and strange impacts and influences radiated outward like a disjointed music ensemble’s noise and returned to the crucible in broken wavelengths.
Even though 55 names and descriptions are included in the glossary of names end material, and their presence in the narrative is real, when he can Miéville tends to focus on Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to history as Lenin. (And, to a considerable but lesser extent, Lev Bronstein, or Trotsky.)
After a description of Martov (later the leader of the Mensheviks), Lenin is described.
…a man easily mythologised, idolised, demonised. To his enemies he is a cold, mass-murdering monster; to his worshippers, a godlike genius; to his comrades and friends, a shy, quick-laughing lover of children and cats. Capable of occasional verbal ogees and lumbering metaphors, he is a plain rather than a sparkling wordsmith. Yet he compels, even transfixes, in print and speech, by his sheer intensity and focus. Throughout his life, opponents and friends will excoriate him for the brutality of his takedowns, his flint and ruthlessness. All agree that his is a prodigious force of will. To an extent unusual even among that ilk who live and die for politics, Lenin’s blood and marrow are nothing else.
His description of Trotsky is similarly colorful. Trotsky is “hard to love but impossible not to admire. [He is] charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive and divisive and difficult.”
After introducing the setting (“Serfdom is a living memory. And a few miles beyond the cities, peasants still dwell in medieval squalor”) of this pre-1900 St Petersburg and greater Russia and several more key characters, Miéville preps the reader with a short pre-history of the political culture and Marxist thought in the latter years of the 19th century. Here Miéville is in his element, having previously written ‘Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law’, a Left critique of the discipline digging deep into the theoretical debates of Marxism’s foundations. As Miéville swiftly describes ‘Legal’ and ‘Economist’ Marxists, I had the sense I was in capable hands. These groups come against a problem:
“They have come up against a conundrum of left catechism: how does a movement go about being socialist in an unripe country with a weak and marginal capitalism, a vast and ‘backward’ peasantry, and a monarchy that has not had the decency to undergo its bourgeois revolution?”
How, indeed. Miéville proceeds to find a path through these questions at opportune and not obtrusive moments as actors — individuals and constituents and parties — attempt to influence their realities in the pivotal months of 1917.
Miéville carries us through 1917 expertly while explicitly warning that his work is neither expert or specialist. His narrative style, in contrast to descriptions of Nicholas II, is élan, delivered in the present tense, alive.
Lenin is important to our discussion of totalitarianism because the Bolshevik Revolution he galvanized either led to or was followed by decades of Stalin. This is already simplifying dangerously. When Lenin died, Petrograd was soon renamed Leningrad. Mythology of Lenin during the Soviet Era (and the Party’s simplification of what he stood for and wanted) was later commoditized with the erection of monuments and the labeling of street corners.
The commodity of Lenin
Part of Miéville’s work is to find a way to cut against the mythology and the commodity of Lenin, to read his work and look again. We get the sense that Miéville has read much of Lenin’s work (and many other Marxists’, like for example Trotsky’s 1905 and Results and Prospects). For efficiency’s sake Miéville leaves out the many Leninist writings from his further reading section, instead drawing attention the following categories: General Histories; Theoretical Discussions and Collected Volumes; Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs; Beyond Petrograd; Eyewitnesses, Memories and Primary Voices; and Other (including Anatoly Lunacharsky’s Revolutionary Silhouettes (1923) which lent Miéville his Lenin description in the book’s opening chapter). Exposure to the volume of texts could overwhelm or, in my case, inspire an energy of curiosity.
Miéville comments on each of these further readings. His brief of Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) serves almost as a summary of the emotional feel with which one leaves October. First, Serge’s own comment on ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’ was correct but incomplete: “Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.” Miéville adds: “This wonderful riposte to the canard has deservedly become celebrated — so much so that it is now something of an anti-Stalinist socialist cliché. What too often seems to escape the notice of, especially Trotskyist, admirers is that as well as defending the Bolshevik tradition, the passage allows that it contained authoritarian tendencies — which Serge did not hesitate to criticize.” One can stand back at this juncture and notice one thing if nothing else: thoughtful individuals have been ardently debating the precursors to and the character of totalitarianism for a long time.
To Serge’s ability to seriously investigate the truth, Miéville follows suit in his analysis of Lenin, writing, “Not that Lenin never makes mistakes. He has, however, an acutely developed sense of when and where to push, how, and how hard.”
When Miéville recounts the note left by Lenin to his housekeeper before his triumphant return from hiding, “I have gone where you did not want me to go,” it is hard not to smile — in Miéville’s preceding three hundred pages he has gone where most readers did not want him to go, into the fine print of Duma and Soviet meeting minutes.
For the careful reader, however, there is reward in attending to Miéville’s focus, particularly on votes. Lenin’s abstention from one decisive vote in particular shows both his constant political nature and opportunism.
What particularly distinguishes him is his sense of the political moment, of fracture and traction. To his comrade Lunacharsky, he ‘raise[s] opportunism to the level of genius, by which I mean the kind of opportunism which can seize on the precise moment and which always knows how to exploit it for the unvarying objective of the revolution.
What is to be done?
Miéville has his heroes and villains but allows the reader to be present and a thinking participant in the conversation. Distinctions and detail are provided into the inner workings and interchanges between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs, anarchists, Cadets, Cossacks, and conservatives. There are interstices here, too. Lev Bronstein is case in point. The “hard to love but impossible not to admire” Trotsky lies somewhere in between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in the years between 1905 and 1917, and is the most prominent theorist of ‘permanent revolution’. These are living, thinking people. And pensive, striving souls are apt to change their minds, to negotiate new avenues, to break alliances and switch tracks on the locomotive of history. These are switchmen of the political moment.
Giving the reader space to enter the conversation is a major stylistic and thematic point borne out: Miéville does not want to fall into the trap of opportunist historians who make definitive gestures about Lenin or the impetus of the revolution, its result.
Miéville is drawn to trains, trash, and political transformation, embracing the complexity. If Mieville’s take could be summed up, it might be thus: The Bolshevik’s tried to get there and by taking the risk hoped to change the situation, but they couldn’t do enough.
This sentiment brings to mind William Morris in The Dream of John Ball:
Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.
In Miéville’s epilogue, he compares his own efforts to Chernyshevkey’s two rows of dots concluding the fourth dream’s Section 7 in What Is To Be Done?
Miéville writes that “for those who cleave to it, a paradox of actually existing revolution is that in its potential for utter reconfiguration, it is, precisely, beyond words, a messianic interruption — one that emerges from the quotidian. Unsayable, yet the culmination of everyday exhortations. Beyond language and of it, beyond representation and not. Chernyshevksy’s dots, then, are one iteration of a strange story. This book has been an attempt at another.”
Striving for freedom
Notably, Miéville’s October isn’t his first take on this question of revolutionary potential. Here’s an excerpt from the third book in his fictional Bas Lag universe, Iron Council, where a cast of disparately motivated characters collectively fights for change.
— Mate with the spiders, the old man says. — It’s time to change.
Everything is still. Only the bridge is being built, and now in the evenings when the bridge crews come off their work, some cross the ravine to their sister encampment, because they want to see the trouble. They come — hotchi in spines, apes trained and constrained by Remaking, Remade men given simian bodies. They come to see the strikes. They tour from one to another.
The newspapermen on the perpetual train, who have been despatching their stories when there are messengers, suddenly have something new to cover. One takes a heliotype of the picket of women.
— I don’t know what I’ll say, he says to Judah. — They don’t want me talking about tarts in the The Quarrel.
— Take all the plates you can, says Judah. — This is something you should remember. This is important, he says, and it is his oddity, his beatific innard that speaks. His breath leaves him a moment at the thought that he can hear its words.
— We are all spiders’ children, says the mad old man.
“This is something you should remember” draws attention. The diverse group described in the passage (an alliance of sorts started by women just as was the 1905 movement in Russia) goes on to commandeer the capitalist, exploitative train and lay their own tracks across a wild landscape. If one reads October and Iron Council in close proximity, one will have difficulty not seeing the debates, quarrels, and outright in-fighting of and between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and their interstices.
The group picks up tracks behind them to lay the next. The perpetual train changes shape and form as it steams on. Finally, the collective revolutionaries returns to the city the tracks set off from, but the leader of the movement freezes the train in place before it can take its effect. On the edge of the city, the train stands instead as a lasting monument.
In the epilogue of October, Miéville writes, “The question for history is not only who should be driving the engine, but where.”
In the closing pages of Iron Council it seems he’s already answered his own question:
“Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, is still coming. Woman and men cut a line across the dirtland and dragged history out and back across the world. They are still with shouts setting their mouths and we usher them in. They are coming out of the trenches of rock toward the brick shadows. They are always coming.”
The reason “they are always coming” rings and emotes and emanates is because the revolution is halted by its instigator in a dramatic golemetry, creating a lasting monument (because the time wasn’t ripe). And one can’t help but be reminded of the unripeness of 1917 in Russia (or Europe) for socialism but also of, as Miéville offers in response to a question about the book, the way we look at the world as we sit within its capitalist structures. He finishes with a flurry, “we will be dreaming different dreams” … “in the process of changing it we will change.”
To me, this striving for freedom is admirable. Perhaps there are competing elements in our psyches, souls, hearts, and bodies that want freedom but also control and stability.
Mieville’s is a deeper exploration (and introduction) than any comment Putin’s Russia will likely give on the subject when the bell strikes 100 years on from that revolutionary moment.
While Miéville does criticize Lenin and the Bolshevik movement, Miéville’s story ends before we arrive at some of Lenin’s larger ‘historic’ mistakes.
To detractors, Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution led inevitably to Stalin.
Miéville wants us to remember that it wasn’t inevitable.
Call to Action
If you want to learn how to read artfully AKA slowly (like me) but still read one book a week, check out my reading checklist.