Owen Walsh of the Leeds Marxists reviews the latest book by science fiction writer and socialist China Miéville: an exciting and inspiring account of revolutionary Russia in 1917 – a wholly worthy effort that deserves to be on any comrade’s reading list in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution.
In his new book, science fiction writer and socialist China Miéville provides an excellent, accessible, exciting and inspiring account of revolutionary Russia in 1917.
The literature on this subject is, of course, already cluttered but Miéville appears very aware of the specific skills he can bring to the subject – that of a storyteller – and focuses sharply on making the revolution into a riveting story.
A weighty, detailed and theoretically charged opus on 1917 has already been written by Leon Trotsky (The History of the Russian Revolution, published by Wellred Books in three volumes). Meanwhile, the chance to write vivid journalistic accounts, such as that of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, has long past, and Miéville is not best situated – and likely not very interested in – wading into the specialised academic literature on 1917.
Instead of trying to compete with any of these interventions on the subject, Miéville’s October is a unique and very necessary outward-looking, accessible and sympathetic narrative of the events which saw Russia transformed from tsarist prison state to workers’ soviet state.
The book’s subtitle instructs us to expect not a new “history of the Russian Revolution” but a rendering of the revolutionary process as a compelling and instructive “story”. On these terms, Miéville is profoundly successful.
The scope of the story, which is immense, is expertly handled. Geographically, Miéville explains that his focus on the revolutionary metropolis of Petrograd is justified by the real decisiveness of that city in the development of events. But he regularly ventures beyond Petrograd’s prospects to secondary locations where peasant struggles raged, nationalities clamoured for freedom, and soldiers confronted the filthy, fatal, and banal realities of war.
In his cast of characters, Miéville displays a wholly appropriate special interest in Lenin, the greatest character of the time and probably the best mind of the twentieth century. To neglect Lenin in such a book would be completely criminal. But he also offers lively portraits of Trotsky, Kerensky, Spiridinova and other persons of interest. In any historical tale, it is the human beings moving events forward which also enliven the narrative, and Mieville’s narrative has plenty of life.
One of Miéville’s traits, which emerges forcefully in the book, is his admirable willingness to confront the complexity, messiness, unevenness, and dynamism of the revolutionary process. In a discussion of the book in Leeds, Miéville responded to a query about the fascination with trains – which is evident in his fiction as well as in this book – by observing that, while trains are usually deployed as images of uni-directional movement and relentlessly linear progress, the real revolutionary character of trains as a mode of transport is in the multiple directions they can be made to take: the possibility of diversionary side-tracks they can hurtle along.
This image – of relentless movement which is nevertheless not uni-directional or wholly predictable – recurs in the book, serving to undermine the tendency toward teleology and condescension that can often prejudice readers looking at events with the benefit of hindsight.
Emphasising contingency in this way is, of course, doubly appropriate in a narrative of 1917, a year when perhaps the decisive struggles were those of Lenin against some of his own party comrades, who failed to recognise the urgent need to revise their perspectives on the basis of new events.
In this respect and many others, Miéville’s book is a wholly worthy effort that deserves to be on any comrade’s reading list in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville is published in hardback by Verso Books at £18.99rrp.