October: The Story of the Russian RevolutionChina Mieville, Verso, 384 pages.
Lenin’s Dilemmas: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, Tariq Ali, Back, 384 pages.
On October 25, 1917, on the other side of the city of Petrograd, the Bolshevik party was preparing to take power from the provisional government which had overthrown the autocratic tsarist regime the previous February. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the far-left Bolshevik movement, felt the February coup was premature and was led by what he saw as hypocritical liberals who simply sought a moderate regime based on the values of social -democracy.
Sensing a historic moment, Lenin sat down to draft a proclamation for what he believed to be the coming of a world socialist revolution. He wrote: “To the citizens of Russia: the cause for which the people fought, namely… the abolition of landed property, workers’ control over production and the establishment of Soviet power, has been secured. Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!
Lenin derived his principles mainly from Marx Capital and The Communist Manifesto. Written in the middle of the 19e century, both books predicted that the global capitalist system would collapse when the working classes perceived the power they could achieve through unity. Then they would revolt to free themselves from their capitalist chains.
In October 1917, Lenin believed that these masses had finally expressed themselves through the many soviets (councils) that had sprung up across Russia. A centralized party, however, would now take charge of these soviets. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were preparing to abandon the old adage “All power to the soviets”. Their vision now, much more authoritarian, was “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Lenin had spent many years in exile in various cities in Western Europe. Unsurprisingly, his hatred of the Tsarist regime ran deep. The Tsar had him imprisoned, sent to Siberia and hanged his brother Alexander in 1887 for his revolutionary activities. Lenin had waited all his life for the revolution; in fact, the revolution has been his life.
He returned to Russia in April 1917 in dramatic fashion – via Switzerland – in what historians today call the infamous sealed train supplied by Germany, which hoped that he and other revolutions would overthrow the Tsar’s government and pull Russia out of the war. The plan worked. Russia effectively exited World War I when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918.
For the Bolsheviks, the October Revolution would inaugurate a paradise: the land would be transferred to the peasants; the towns would be supplied with bread; the nations of the old empire would be offered self-determination. The Marxist revolution, it was believed, would thus spread throughout Europe and eventually throughout the world. It was a glorious sight.
But then a cold dose of reality set in.
As China Miéville points out in the epilogue of October: The History of the Russian Revolution, problems soon arose. A deadly threat to Lenin’s revolution was the Russian Civil War of 1917-22. This was fought between the Bolsheviks’ Red Army and the so-called White Army, a mixture of various Russian factions and a number of foreign powers. The conflict resulted in barbarism, starvation, mass death, pogroms, torture, cannibalism, and the collapse of industry and culture.
During the war, Lenin implemented an extremist economic policy known as War Communism, which sought to abolish money and outlaw private commerce. The consequences, as Miéville points out, have been disastrous: malnutrition, disease, falling production levels. In 1921, Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy, which reintroduced state-regulated capitalism, and the economy recovered slightly. But generally the picture in Russia was bleak. This inevitably generated disunity in the party.
With Lenin’s death in 1924, Josef Stalin seized power through a series of brilliant maneuvers. He quickly moved the country towards a more inward-looking philosophy called “socialism in one country”, which sought to strengthen the industrial base and military might of the Soviet Union. Only then, according to Stalin, could the revolution be exported abroad. This engendered opposition from Leon Trotsky, always a cosmopolitan internationalist.
Stalin introduced show trials, violent collectivization of farms, purges, gulags, paranoia and mass murder by millions, most notably through the Ukrainian-induced famine (more commonly known as the Holodomor) of 1932-33 where nearly four million people starved to death. The egalitarian values of which Lenin spoke in October 1917 were no more than distant dreams. Freedom of thought and expression has become a de facto crime. The author of the 1951 book The origins of totalitarianismHannah Arendt would later capture the mood when she wrote: “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking about yourself is a dangerous activity.”
And yet, Miéville writes that the 1917 revolution is still “ground zero for arguments about fundamental change”. He is correct to point out that the Bolshevik program for social change initially included equality between men and women, mass literacy and the decriminalization of homosexuality. Miéville also admits that the legacy of the revolution is dark. But he also believes that without scrutinizing the revolution with rigorous analysis, one falls into the trap of what he calls “the bad faith opportunist attacks of October”. Yet his book largely eschews deep-rooted historical analysis. Instead, it features small snapshots of the 1917 revolution from January to October, with a chapter documenting the events of each respective month. For a reader with no knowledge of Russian history, this could serve as an inviting entry point. But I found the book’s frenetic pace, comic book style, and lack of commentary to be uninspiring, flat, and rather boring.
It should be noted, moreover, that Miéville is a Marxist partisan, and Marxist historians tend to be dogmatic and self-righteous. Which brings us to Tariq Ali, who takes a similar approach in his book, Lenin’s Dilemmas: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. Given that Ali has been a leading figure on the international left in Britain since the 1960s, it is not surprising that he idolizes Lenin. If Lenin had lived five more years, argues the historian, Russia and the Bolsheviks would have gone in a very different direction.
Over the past century, Ali argues, those who honored Lenin largely ignored his ideas, while those who sanctified his work rarely read him. Ali’s goal is to place Lenin in a historical context. And part of its history is interesting. His interpretation of the failed German Spartacist uprising in January 1919 – led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were both murdered – is based on an intriguing counterfactual. He suggests that the death of the German socialist revolution essentially killed the hopes of a world revolution of the proletariat.
But generally the book is a scattered affair. Ali wanders in his writing and injects banal Marxist slogans into his work when he runs out of ideas. “It is the revolutionaries who make history,” he wrote. “Liberals of all kinds, with rare exceptions, are on the other side.” Marxism, he adds with self-congratulatory assurance, “is a method of objective analysis [which] can impart physical force to thought itself.
As a committed Leninist, Ali sees the world through a one-dimensional black and white lens. There is good and bad and the real truth. The real truth is Marxism. There aren’t many nuances here, and Ali seems to view ideological opponents as traitors, hypocrites, and philistines.
To seek to understand the revolution in its complexities, nuances and enormous contradictions, it would be best to turn to scholars such as Robert Service, Orlando Figes and Sheila Fitzpatrick. It is true that Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades – at least in October 1917 – wanted to create a more egalitarian society. But it is also true that from the start they were prepared to eliminate any person or group that did not conform to their particular vision of equality for the masses under the vanguard of a centralized, all-knowing party.
Revolutions, by their nature, are violent and chaotic, and usually imbued with fervent human emotion. Often they are not particularly rational, but rather full of contradictions and paradoxes. October 1917 is no exception. But a century later, with historical hindsight, we can clearly see the terror and the crimes that the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, inflicted on the Russian people. At the same time, we must not belittle the powerful personalities who seized history into their hands. Even Winston Churchill, that great bull of British imperialism and one of the 20e the most virulent opponents of Bolshevism of the century sometimes praised Lenin’s historical strength. In an essay written five years after his death, quoted by Ali, Churchill said that the mind of the Russian revolutionary “was a remarkable instrument. He was capable of universal understanding to a degree rarely attained among men. He was surely right.
JP O’ Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. He has written for a number of newspapers and publications around the world, including the irish timethe Sunday Independentthe Washington Post, the Weekly normthe Chicago Grandstandand many others.