Victor Sebestyen

A brave new world – at gunpoint

October reminds me of the Marxist histories of my youth, says Victor Sebestyen - except it’s rather better written

A brave new world – at gunpoint
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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

China Miéville

Verso, pp. 366, £

Of the many books published this year to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution, this is perhaps the most curious. China Miéville is best known as an imaginative and entertaining writer of ‘weird’ (his word) science fiction and magic realism. October is a narrative history of the two 1917 revolutions in Russia, written from an ultra-left perspective — with a novelist’s eye for a good story and colourful characters. So it’s an examination of why the communist experiment failed miserably — at the cost of much blood — that is also wonderfully well written: smart, witty and full of fresh insight. But it can also read like an A-level essay, regurgitated from textbooks. Weird indeed.

I was brought up on similar Marxist histories that were sympathetic to the revolution and took its idealism as a given: the revolutionaries’ hearts were in the right place, even if ‘mistakes’ (a murderous purge or a bread queue) occurred. But — with a very few Hobsbawmite or Trotskyite exceptions — nothing like Miéville’s book has appeared from mainstream publishers in English for around 40 years. So it’s nostalgic to read once again an account that starts from the premise that the revolutions in Russia — which irrevocably changed the world — were in essence and intent a good thing. As Miéville puts it:

It was an epic adventure… of hopes, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, war and intrigue and bravery and cowardice and foolishness, farce, derring-do, tragedy; of epochal ambitions and change...

But barring the occasional descent into Marxist-Leninist jargon — ‘revolutionary defencism’ gets several mentions — when Miéville gets to the action he writes a sparkling narrative: fair, accurate and surprisingly nuanced. It is much more lively than most books on the subject produced in the last two generations — especially about the revolutions outside Petrograd and Moscow, which are often ignored. You can take his analysis with a pinch of Siberian salt; but this is an exciting account of the revolutionary moment — particularly of the Bolshevik putsch in October 1917.

Its assessment of the main players — Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Stalin and the Romanovs — can be predictable and trite. But it is superb on some of the lesser figures — long-forgotten militant revolutionaries who once had their 15 minutes of fame, such as Shelma Asnin, from a machine-gun regiment — a ‘dark-bearded former thief who dressed like a gothic cowboy… wide-brimmed hat, guns and all’. Such vividly drawn personalities, Miéville asserts, made the revolution — which seems to contradict the Marxist idea that it is the broad sweep of economic and social forces that create history and not individuals. But let’s not cavil: just enjoy reading about them.

And Miéville isn’t wrong about everything. On the whole, historians have been far too kind to Tsar Nicholas II, mainly because of the grisly manner of his own and his family’s death. But he was a hopeless ruler, who resorted to mass murder, and did as much as anyone — Lenin included — to bring about a bloody socialist revolution in Russia. He deserves his place in history’s dustbin, and this book gets him right.

Though Miéville is on the romantic left, he is shrewd and under no illusions about where and when things went wrong after the revolution — a debate that has occupied socialists for the best part of a century. His last few well-argued and elegiac pages could — weirdly — almost have been written by Robert Conquest. Unlike his hero Trotsky, Miéville doesn’t simply blame Stalin for all the failures of communism. It is painful for him, but he clearly sees the rot setting in immediately after ‘Glorious October’, when the Bolsheviks, with ‘their inability to resist executions’, believed they could build a brave new world at the point of a gun.

Still, Miéville consoles himself that next time it will be different; and, a true believer, he is convinced that there will be a next time. The struggle goes on, and the new dawn will come: ‘Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all and need not always to be followed by night,’ he writes — a classic Marxist formulation.

Naive? Deluded? Probably. But even in democracies, as we are seeing today, the far right and the far left are often a hair’s breadth apart. So what might happen in semi-democracies, when the populists’ simplistic, xenophobic, economically illiterate policies fail? It is ghastly to contemplate who they will blame as enemies of the people.

Lenin, the godfather of post-truth politics, would undoubtedly have regarded 2017 as a revolutionary moment when anything is possible — ripe for exploitation by a ruthless demagogue. A century ago last month — as Miéville repeatedly reminds us — Lenin was written off as a nutcase who could never seize power in one of the largest empires in the world. Anything sound familiar?