Why October 1917 Matters: a Tale of Two Books – Alison Stewart

This talk was presented at ‘October 1917: Forgotten Possibilities’, a public meeting convened in Brisbane on 29 October 2017 by The Cloudland Collective with the support of the Brisbane Labour History Association. The event was called to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution and discuss its contemporary relevance. The other speakers were Jeff Rickertt and Andrew Bonnell.


Why are we meeting today over a beer to discuss the Russian Revolution of 1917?

Is it because, as many conservative commentators suggest, October 1917 provides a salutatory lesson in failure for anyone who thinks there could be an alternative to capitalism and the free market? Is it that, as one right-wing historian has claimed, the Russian Revolution is one of history’s ‘great dead-ends, like the Inca Empire?’ Is it simply an inspiring event from the 20th century – an incredible one but just one of many? Or does it have specific relevance today for those of us seeking a strategy for system change?

A flurry of histories have been published this year to coincide with the centenary. Have they helped to clarify these questions?

I have only read two of them: Lenin On the Train, by a longstanding historian of Russia Catherine Merridale, and October by self-proclaimed ‘weird fiction’ writer China Mieville.

Neither is a definitive historical study. Instead they rely heavily on eye-witness accounts to paint a picture.

What is inescapable in both of them is the role played by the Russian masses themselves in the incredible events of 1917, and the part played by the battle of ideas. Despite not adding anything remarkably new to the story, both books help argue in their own different ways why what happened 100 years ago in Russia still matters.

Lenin On The Train was an unexpected pleasure. I loved the historical technique. It is not a go-to-whoa account. Instead, Catherine Merridale throws a spotlight on a detail – the journey Bolshevik leader Lenin was forced to make to return to Russia from political exile in April 1917 – and uses it to illuminate the broader historical forces that converged in revolution and the political bombshell caused by Lenin’s return.

The account of that infamous train-ride in a sealed German train carriage is marvellous in itself but behind its eventuation lay great power intrigue. Merridale’s description of these machinations reads like a spy novel. They are almost too implausible.

As World War 1 dragged on despite enormous losses of life, economic carnage and military stagnation, Germany’s leaders became increasingly desperate. The impending entry of the US into the war on the side of the Allies brought even greater pressure to bear.

Germany’s leaders knew that there was growing discontent among the Russian population and among the national minorities on the fringes of the Russian empire. They were aware of Russian socialist opposition to the war and their support for independence struggles. Bringing Lenin back was part of a plan they thought would sow ‘a bit of inconclusive chaos’ that would neutralise Russia.

This German facilitation meant that aspersions were cast regarding Lenin’s relationship with the German government and led to allegations that he was a spy. But as Lenin pointed out, the British and the US refused to organise a safe passage because the last thing they wanted was to disrupt Russia’s war effort.

One amazing instance of this was that on the day before his train was due to leave Zurich on Easter Monday, Lenin tried this avenue one last time by phoning the US Embassy. The official who answered the phone told him he was busy – he had a game of tennis to play – and to phone back on Monday. That official was Allan Dulles who went on to become the head of the CIA.

Accepting the German offer was a last resort and stringent conditions were applied. The most striking of these, writes Merridale, was that the carriage carrying Lenin and the other exiles was to have the status of an ‘extra-territorial entity’. No-one was to enter the exile’s carriage without the German authorities’ permission.

The attacks on Lenin didn’t stop the Allied powers from sponsoring the return of their own more suitable brand of exile. As Merridale relates, they ‘spirited in their own Russians – ones who supported the continuation of the war’. One of the book’s funniest but very illuminating passages describes how Britain organised the return of the patriarch of Russian Marxism Georgy Plekhanov because he was ‘a sound man on the war’. He was joined by a delegation of British Labour MPs and trade unionists and French socialists to convince the Soviet of its true duty – continued support for the war effort.

This failed, of course, because the Allied powers had no idea of what was really happening on the ground and failed to appreciate the incredible desire among workers and peasants for peace. On the other hand, they thought Lenin would be completely ineffectual. The rest as they say is history.

But the German leaders would also experience the blow-back and were mistaken to think that they would benefit. As Lenin later said, ‘The Bolshevik leadership of the revolution is far more dangerous for German imperialist power and capitalism than the [moderate] leadership of Kerensky and Miliukov’. In 1918, urged on by the Bolsheviks, the German people themselves rose up and deposed the Kaiser.

Merridale has generalised from these Great Power shenanigans:

‘There is almost as much instability across the planet now as there was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working to make sure they stay on top. One technique they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground but some of whom must be dropped in… The history of Lenin’s train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part it is a parable about great power intrigue, and one rule that there is that great powers almost always get things wrong.’

She adds:

‘They [the British] never really understood that Lenin was not some imported species of demon, deflecting Russians from their destiny… As I would find, the British sponsored Russian exiles of their own, escorting them to Petrograd to preach to waiting crowds. They failed, while Lenin’s mission ended in success because he promised things that mattered more than British decency and yet more guns.’

And this leads into Merridale’s outline of the political trajectory of Russia in 1917 and the effect of Lenin’s return.

She is without doubt that February was a popular mass uprising and that the consciousness of workers, soldiers and peasants was moving quickly to the left. You will be hard-pressed to find a more scintillating a description of the demonstrations that turned into revolution – how it was women workers who provided the spark by marching for bread on International Women’s Day, the full-scale rebellion among the troops who shot their officers to defy the command to attack, the Cossacks’ refusal to charge, how the demands of the demonstrators and strikers grew to include immediate peace, land to the peasants and an end to the monarchy.

She comments that ‘the rising was neither blind nor anarchic. The workers chose their targets logically, storming the Kresty Prison, the law courts and the main artillery depot’. She describes how the workers and soldiers almost immediately began to elect their delegates to form workers’ councils or ‘soviets’ – the democratic innovation of the revolution’s ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905 retained in collective memory. And how the Soviets then set about organising all the necessary functions of society.

It was a breath of fresh air to have a confirmed non-Marxist confirming through her thorough research and examination of eye-witness accounts that it was ordinary Russian people themselves who provided the imagination, the power and the energy to drive system-change.

In one section she recounts:

‘There was everywhere a passion for speech…a new verb was coined, ‘mitingovat’ – to attend meetings. Everyone wanted to thrash things out; all sensed a new responsibility, a pride in their own sovereign state. Doormen, street sweepers and court staff – who were called lackeys in Russian – demanded new job titles to reflect their status as free human beings.’

With the monarchy overthrown, the bourgeois politicians reluctantly establishing the Provisional government and the Soviet in operation, Merridale describes the reality of dual power, as well as the implications of the stages theory of socialism which was the Marxist orthodoxy of the time.

She neatly exposes how this theory – that revolutions unfolded in fixed stages – became a convenience for moderate socialists who did not want to take things further. It led to the position of ‘revolutionary defencism’ – a socialist cover for continuing the war.

Russia was stuck in a political limbo with no-one really wanting to take power and behind the scenes, the old order was making preparations for counter-revolution.

Then Lenin arrives back and the effect of his arguments about not trusting the Provisional government or the moderate socialists, and the need for the Soviet to take power, was electrifying. Not only that, they increasingly coincided with the thinking of masses of workers – some sections of whom had already arrived at this conclusion.

Merridale is no Leninist but she has a grudging admiration for Lenin and appreciates how it was that his ideas won the day. She writes:

‘The spring and summer [of 1917] saw Lenin at his most creative. Whatever happened when he was in power, the man who came back on the sealed train was popular because he offered clarity and hope. His message spoke to a large section of the Russian people, the ones who wanted more than their old leaders thought they had a right to ask from life.’

I read this book while I walked the 245klms of the Larapinta Trail. I could not wait to get into my tent at night after a huge day’s walking and pick up where I left off, reading in the dark with my headlight.

Then came the disappointing last 20 pages in which Merridale says with complete baldness that October was a coup which inevitably flowed from Lenin’s politics and method.

It felt like a let-down when she had painted such a brilliant picture in the first part of the book and when, if she had drawn on another vast array of eye-witness accounts, I don’t think you could come to that conclusion.

I figure this is where the second book comes in, China Mieville’s October. For Mieville, while the October seizure of power was relatively bloodless, it was no coup but a political manifestation catching up with the material reality – of workers realising that the Soviet had to take power and the need to do so if their demands were to be fulfilled and before reaction reasserted itself, an expression of the development of workers’ confidence and consciousness. The Bolsheviks won a majority in the Soviet because their political position matched workers’ conclusions.

Mieville has said that his intention was to write a literary history of the revolution that would read like a novel. The revolution itself would be the protagonist:

‘The idea was to tell the revolution as a story because it was an extraordinary one, without blurring the politics, or pretending the politics aren’t there, or dumbing them down… There are certain rules I followed. There’s no event, no person, no reported speech that isn’t in the literature somewhere. There’s no invention like that. It’s a book with a relatively new reader in mind, but I want the specialists to realise I’ve taken the subject seriously.’

His emphasis is not on political posturing but on trying to bring the revolution to life with intricate detail, covering an array of events  – as one reviewer lists: ‘the strikes, protests, riots, looting, mass desertions from the army, land occupations by hungry peasants and pitched battles between workers and Cossacks, not just in Petrograd but along the length and breadth of a vast country’. Mieville wants to look at how revolutionary developments found their way into all aspects of life and all corners of the empire. In an inspiring section, he describes the outcome of the all-Russian Muslim Women’s Conference which endorsed the right of women to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. ‘A symptom of tremulous times,’ he writes.

He looks at how the revolution impacted in places like Azerbaijan, Latvia, Ukraine and Turkestan with a desire to document ‘the way the revolution was becoming a living reality to be wrestled with in these places’.

As well, he spends a lot of time describing the political arguments between all those involved: the Kadets, the Kereskyites, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and their outcomes in all the political fora.

He records the debates within the Bolshevik Party – on the Central Committee, on the editorial committee of Pravda, at Party conferences on so on. Who voted for what and when, how they changed their positions.

He describes how the Bolsheviks were politically disciplined by workers when they stuffed things up. The situation within the Bolshevik Party was far from monolithic. Mieville has said in an interview how many of the sources in the research describe how good Lenin’s political antenna was, how he was attuned to listening to the lower layers of the party, relying on reports on the ground. But, unlike hagiographical accounts, Mieville records Lenin’s mistakes and failings.

One important political mistake, for example, was Lenin’s under-estimation of the danger posed by the reactionary Russian general Kornilov. Thankfully, Kornilov’s attempted coup was defeated by workers who knew exactly the threat he posed and took the lead in organising the defence of the revolution.

One character teased Lenin for his tendency to exaggerate and joked that if Lenin met Zinoviev and Kamenev and five horses happened to be present, Lenin would say ‘there were eight of us’.

Everyone played political hard-ball but it was also very often done in a comradely fashion. Kamanev and Zinoviev, the moderate Bolsheviks, were teased as the ‘Heavenly Twins’. Trotsky defended the Menshevik Martov in the Soviet.

Mieville’s conclusion is very different from Merridale’s. He knows that the revolution over time morphed into Stalinism: ‘a police state of paranoia, cruelty, murder and kitsch’. Lenin proclaims in the Soviet on 26 October that ‘we shall now proceed to construct the socialist order’. But as Mieville points out, ‘the months and years that follow will see the revolution embattled, assailed, isolated, ossified and broken. We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation and mass murder’.

However, ‘October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental radical change’. The degradation of the revolution, he writes, was ‘not a given, not written in any stars’. He acknowledges that the Bolsheviks argued that revolution in the advanced countries of Europe would be indispensable for the successful construction of socialism in Russia. Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ and all the horror and self-serving political justifications that followed, flowed from the failure of those revolutions to come to fruition.

But given a different outcome in Europe the revolution’s defeat may not have occurred. Mieville writes, ‘The standard of October declares that things changed once and they may do so again’. In a very eloquent piece in The Guardian (the UK version), ‘Why does the Russian Revolution matter’, Mieville writes:

‘It has become commonplace to admit that history is more tenacious than Francis Fukyama suggested, but this is after all, still meant to be the post-Thatcher era of TINA – there is no alternative – in which but perhaps for a diminishing tinkering space, fundamentals are not to be challenged. To even moot a system predicated on something other than profit, of grassroots control, is supposed to provoke eye-rolling, despite the increasingly sadistic deployment of austerity. So it is precisely as a vision of an alternative, and one that had the temerity, at the start to be successful, to overthrow the un- or not yet-assailable, that October matters… What’s at stake isn’t the interpretation just of history but of the present.’

His conclusion in the book is not as sharply defined as this but does not detract from what he sets out to do.

I would take things further than Mieville. October is not just a symbol of the possibility of radical change. There are also strategic lessons that remain very relevant today. Key among them is that fundamental system change cannot come through parliamentary reform. This remains as true – if not truer after 100 years of experience – than it was in 1917.

The general pattern is that social democratic governments are forced by the power of capital and the conservatism of the bureaucracy to abandon the modest reforms they were elected to implement. We only have to look at the tragic defeat of the left-wing Syriza government in Greece, which was forced by those who ultimately controlled the purse-strings and the power to collaborate in the impoverishment of those who voted for it. The standard social democrats simply accommodate, as we can see from our own Labor government in Queensland supporting the Adani coalmine.

Revolution, therefore, has to be a serious option if we are to deal with growing inequality, wars, the threat of nuclear war, the disaster of climate change. For me, reading these books also confirmed that revolutionary change has to take place through the self-activation of workers and the potential of workers to build a self-managing society through democratic bodies like the Soviets.

But the success of such a movement is not automatic. It requires activists with a clear vision of the future intervening in the workplace, campaigns and so on over days, months and years to put this on the historical agenda again.

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale (Penguin Books, 2017)

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville (Verso, 2017 )