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The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution

Was the October revolution bound to lead to terror? China Miéville's "October" and Tariq Ali's "The Dilemmas of Lenin" reconsider the history.

Hulton Archive / Getty

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and you’re likely to find a reflection of America’s version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate history sections, but in very specific forms. Books like Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalinsome old, some new, many written for popular audiences—move between the century’s titanic mass-murderers, their motley henchmen, and their masses of victims. Holocaust history often provides a thematic accent and an explicit connection to the present, as with Snyder’s Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Taken together, these books seem to remind us that any account of the twentieth century that does not emphasize authoritarianism will be complicit in creating a new wave of victims.

One hundred years after the world’s first socialist revolution, many accounts of the Russian Revolution fit into this narrative. From its beginnings, powers in Europe and the United States tried to cast the revolution as a minority coup. Sympathizers were criminalized and hunted, while its enemies in Russia were given military and financial support. Across a wide spectrum—from anti-Semitic fascists to liberal intellectuals to even non-communist leftists—the narrative set in that Bolshevism, the ideology of the victors of October 1917, was radically alien to European thought and politics—a pathology born of Russian barbarism, a threat to Western civilization. Its emblematic figures, Lenin in particular, were cast as cynical manipulators, totalitarian fanatics. Such narratives were ratified in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was seen by many as closing the book on the Bolshevik experiment and, with it, any future challenge to capitalism.

Yet there may be more to learn from the radical hopes of 1917, as we weather an era of sclerotic politics, restive masses, and ecological crisis. Both Tariq Ali’s new biography of Lenin and novelist China Miéville’s October reject the idea that the October revolution was bound to lead to terror and authoritarianism. “For a long time during the last century,” Ali writes, “those who honored Lenin largely ignored him.” His book aims to rescue Lenin from both liberal caricature and Soviet hagiography by recovering the realism and dynamism of his political thought. Meanwhile Miéville’s literary retelling—made to feel like a novel, but scrupulously sourced to real events—captures the vertigo of 1917’s encounter between massive historical forces, plunging us back into the heart of a far-reaching social upheaval, in which time flowed backward and forward even as it marched inexorably forward toward a future that was radically unknown. Like the “degradation” that followed it, the nature of the revolution was not “written in any stars.”

Both Ali and Miéville sense that our flattened, calcified versions of the revolutionary past have something to do with the absence of political imagination and emancipatory hope in the present. “Today’s dominant ideology and the power structures it defends are so hostile to the social and liberation struggles of the last century,” Ali writes, “that a recovery of as much historical and political memory as is feasible becomes an act of resistance.”

Ali writes with an eager haste, as if history’s timid awakening from a long, reactionary slumber has rendered him impatient to tell old stories anew. He frequently denounces academics for draining the vitality from revolutionary history, sometimes gratuitously. (Academic historians have asked similar questions: as Dan Edelstein, a historian of the French Revolution, put it in a 2012 article: “Do We Want a Revolution Without Revolution?”) Instead of academic debate, The Dilemmas of Lenin emphasizes the primary sources: letters, memories, political articles, and even poems from the actors in the Russian revolutionary drama themselves. In the process of revisiting these sources, Ali recovers a much-needed moral clarity about the history of European socialism.

Verso, 384 pp., $26.95

That clarity is sharpest in his portrait of a nineteenth century soaked in the blood of the European working class. The rise of the workers’ movement was punctuated by frequent brutalization and defeat at the hands of states that would later hold themselves up as the champions of liberal democracy. In a sweeping section on the rise of working-class internationalism, world socialism, and European imperialism, Ali rediscovers the moral heroism of workers in Lancashire, for instance, who pressured the British Empire out of intervening on the side of the slaveholders in the American Civil War despite the fact that the absence of American cotton meant prolonged unemployment. In 1872, the Parisian working class organized itself to defend their city against Otto von Bismarck as the leaders of France went into hiding. As the European proletariat found itself alone against the most heavily weaponized engines of greed and violence in human history, revolution became a universal dream for a society of equality and peace.

This was the atmosphere into which Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov was born in 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia, the most peculiar of the European empires. Its peasants had been freed from serfdom only a decade before, nearly a century late by the Western European clock. That freedom was largely illusory, as it still kept peasants legally bound to large estates. In place of a restive industrial proletariat, Tsarist Russia had a long tradition of peasant revolt. After abortive attempts to incite the peasantry to revolution, the radical Russian intelligentsia came to place its hopes for a more open society in theatrical acts of terrorism, such as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. A failed attempt on his successor in 1887 led to the execution of Lenin’s older brother, Alexander Ulyanov—an event that deeply marked the young Lenin. It was this failure, Ali argues, that turned Lenin toward the European labor movement as a surer path to overthrow of the Tsarist police state.

By the early twentieth century, life in the vast lower echelons of Russian society had changed. Though still modest compared to Western Europe, Russian industry was quickly expanding its scale. Its rise had been fueled by seasonal workers, who encountered education and urban life while looking for work in the cities, but still spent part of their year on peasant farms. Despite the traditional Marxist view of peasants as conservative-leaning small land-holders, the rebellious streak of the dominated Russian peasantry found its way into the swelling industrial proletariat. As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick notes, “The empirical evidence from the period of 1890 to 1914 suggests that Russia’s working class, despite its close links with the peasantry, was exceptionally militant and revolutionary.”

As this militant class carried out regular strikes, Lenin plunged himself into the European socialist labor movement. The Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) held its first congress in 1898, and soon faced fateful internal debates over organization and strategy. Should socialist parties be large coalitions of dissenting factions, or should they insist on ideological unity and organization? Lenin’s position in this debate—which he articulated in What Is To Be Done?—has long been read as a call for a vanguard of conspiratorial “professional revolutionaries” and as evidence that Lenin had lost faith in the militancy of the working class. This reading sees Bolshevism not as a strand of European socialist internationalism, but as a top-down perversion of Marxism that would lead inexorably to a “coup” and to Stalinist totalitarianism.

Yet, as the historian Lars Lih has shown through a deep re-reading of the social-democratic debates, Lenin was thoroughly committed to the European model of social democracy, which had always held that the job of educated organizers was to “bring the good news about socialism to the working class.” Especially under Tsarist repression, only dedicated organizing would show the workers that their economic demands expressed in the labor movement had to be solved by political revolution. What Is To Be Done? was an exhortation to his party that this could still be done, even under the forbidding police-state conditions in Russia—that the workers were ready to play their historical role if there was someone willing to organize them.

Lenin’s divergence from Marxist orthodoxy came not from his lack of faith in the working class, but his unusually deep faith in them: his conviction that, reading the tea leaves in Russia, it was unlikely that the liberal bourgeoisie—weak and clinging to its dependence on the Tsar—would be able to lead the revolution. His concept of proletarian “class leadership”—that the urban workers would channel peasant radicalism toward socialist revolution—was addressed to this problem. It was his growing commitment to proletarian revolution that precipitated the famous divorce in Russian social democracy between Lenin’s Bolsheviks (“majority”), who insisted on the need to organize the working class for revolution, and the Mensheviks (“minority,” though they were often in fact part of the majority), who thought the best socialists could do would be to force the liberals to become revolutionary. Only after a liberal revolution had deposed the Tsar and transformed Russia into a fully capitalist state, they believed, could the proletariat come onto the stage.

Lenin’s originality as a tactical thinker came less from his revision of Marxism than from his belief that Marxist thought could not be mechanically applied to every situation in the same way. It required a hyper-awareness of the direction the historical winds were blowing. The first and most crucial historical curveball came at the Bolsheviks in 1914, as the European powers came to the brink of World War I. Lenin and the German socialist leader Rosa Luxembourg held uncompromisingly to the long-agreed-upon duty of the working class to unite across national lines and prevent the war. They watched in disbelief as, one by one, the leaders of Europe’s socialist parties capitulated to the wave of nationalist imperialism sweeping the continent. “Lenin immediately realized the scale of the disaster that had taken place,” Ali writes. “The German section of the Second International—its largest—had effectively dynamited internationalism.”

Recounting the deep tragedy of the socialist capitulation to nationalism at the outset of World War I, Ali’s identification with Lenin hits its strongest notes. He maintains that Lenin’s belief in cascading revolutions across Europe was completely plausible, and that the ability of the working class to prevent or sabotage the war was real. The war was patently immoral—Ali assembles a nauseating array of quotes from European leaders on the glories of imperialism—and yet it precipitated the retreat of the European socialist movement from the international revolutionary project. Lenin would have to find a way for Russia to play the leading role, hoping they could inspire a European proletariat betrayed by its leaders.

In October, a new history of 1917 by the novelist China Miéville, Lenin moves to side of the stage. Where Ali’s Lenin occasionally resembles his Western caricature—a string-pulling mastermind, a visionary and iconoclast always “dragging his party behind him,” rebuffing the proletariat for getting ahead of themselves—Miéville’s Lenin is a Bolshevik for the most part like the others: overwhelmed by overwhelming events, struggling to read the direction of history on an hour-by-hour basis, confident in the working class but hesitant about the timing of their demands.

Verso, 384 pp., $26.95

October is, simply put, the story of a popular revolution that emerged from the democratic experience of the first decades of the twentieth century and the escalating socialist demands of Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants. The year 1905 had already given the Tsarist regime a taste of what was coming for it: Following the Russian Empire’s catastrophic invasion of Japan, the working class attempted, unsuccessfully, to rise up, and were killed by the thousands on Bloody Sunday. The 1905 attempt gave rise to new institutions of popular democracy—most fatefully, the Soviet in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914), which developed a quasi-governmental authority to direct popular radicalism.

Three years into World War I, the Russian left was still scattered from the repression of 1905. Many of the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, were in exile in Europe. But working-class political culture had developed in their absence, driven by the hunger and senseless mass death brought by the war. In February 1917, a wave of strikes and demonstrations, catalyzed by the commemoration of Bloody Sunday and International Women’s Day, swelled the starving crowds in the streets into the hundreds of thousands. The war had produced a further historic shift: Soldiers in Petrograd now greeted the striking workers with cheers, and the fierce Cossacks, on horseback, cleverly subverted their orders in order to allow the demonstrations to proceed unharmed.

Nicholas II ignored the frantic pleading of his advisers until the end; when he finally abdicated, he had already been deposed. Three centuries of the Romanov dynasty came to an end without a whimper. Two competing governments, known as “Dual Power,” immediately sprung to life: The Provisional Government, made up of the industrialists and liberals from the figurehead Tsarist parliament, and the Petrograd Soviet, revived from the warm memories of 1905 as the political voice of workers, soldiers, and peasants. Ending the war was at the top of the agenda for large swaths of the Russian army and working class. But the liberals in the Provisional Government wanted to continue the war for patriotic and business reasons, while the parties who dominated the Soviet—the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries—believed that the first order of business was to defend Russia from invasion. They rejected the liberals’ expansionist war aims, but agreed on continuing the fight.

Lenin returned to Petrograd from exile in early April to a Bolshevik party caught up in socialist unity, agreeing to “limited support” for the Provisional Government and backing away from deliberate efforts to have soldiers on the front disrupt the war. Hardly taking the time to greet the comrades who had arranged a massive welcome party for him, Lenin addressed the crowd: International revolution was imminent, and the Bolsheviks should not compromise themselves by supporting the Provisional Government or the war. Instead, they should continue to organize the masses to take power. These shocking claims launched days of debate within the Bolshevik ranks, where as Miéville writes, “Lenin’s isolation [was] almost total.”

But even in his controversial restatement of his position, known as the April Theses, Lenin stressed that he was remaining consistent with Bolshevik positions, and that the working class would respond to sincere efforts at persuasion. “It is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them,” he wrote, of those who embraced the war from a defensive posture, “to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace.” Within two weeks of Lenin’s return, after around-the-clock debates, a conference of Petrograd Bolsheviks voted for his stance by a margin of 33 to six.

As the two pillars of Dual Power quarreled over the future, democratic fever swept the country in the what Miéville calls the “exuberant and pandemoniacal spread of congresses and conferences and peasant assemblies.” Soviets sprang up across the vast Russian empire and became hotbeds of political debate, petitions, and visionary schemes. Workers established “factory committees” that became even more radical than the Soviets, instituting self-management in the factory and often escorting abusive managers by wheelbarrow to nearby rivers. Soldiers, who thought the February Revolution meant the end of the war, mutinied against their brutal officers, defecting and fraternizing with German troops, wandering back to the cities to find work. Peasants took land reform into their own hands, returning private estates to older forms of community control and paying only prices they deemed fair. In new Muslim women’s congresses, socialist feminists spoke out against polygamy and debated the hijab. In the cities, palaces and bourgeois residences were occupied and repurposed as community institutions.

By June, after a disastrous military offensive dreamed up by Alexander Kerensky, the only socialist in the Provisional Government, the masses were ready for the Soviets to take power—all of it. Disenchanted with Kerensky and even with what they saw as the “moderation” of the Soviet Executive Committee, workers and soldiers planned their own demonstrations and uprisings. The Bolsheviks’ membership swelled with the radicalization of the people; they were now a mass party, and achieved their first majority in the Soviet on July 3. Dramatizing their debates and reversals of position, Miéville shows that the Bolsheviks, despite their rhetorical distance from the other socialists, hesitated before the demands of the people, begging them not to overthrow the hapless Provisional Government. They feared a premature uprising would destroy the clear momentum of history, would provide an excuse for far-right retaliation and repression.

In the “July Days” of 1917, the Bolshevik leadership continued to stall even as a mass demonstration of half a million swelled outside their meeting place, demanding Vsya vlast sovyetam!—“all power to the Soviets.” The Bolsheviks retracted their call to workers not to attend the demonstration too late to find a replacement for it in their newspaper; on July 4, Pravda appeared with a “white, textless hole” in the middle of its front page. “How easy it is to forget,” Miéville comments, “that people do not need or await permission to move.”

Without the support of the Bolsheviks, the proletariat’s July demand for power ended in repression and disarray; the Bolsheviks were blamed anyway, and their leaders scattered in the ensuing arrests. The Provisional Government now had no legitimacy in the eyes of the people; its leader, Kerensky (“messianic,” “histrionic”), felt the ground slipping from beneath his feat. The socialist lawyer, the self-regarding former hero of the February Revolution, was now on the right. He placed the authoritarian General Lavr Kornilov to eradicate the disorder from the military, and flirted with the idea of martial law. “Both men looked in the mirror and imagined themselves as the dictator of the new regime,” Ali writes. With the German army advancing on Latvia, peasants violently appropriating the property of the landed classes in the countryside, and the urban food situation growing desperate, Kornilov assembled the support of the upper classes for a military coup.

The workers’ heroic defeat of the coup was perhaps the true climax of 1917. While Lenin, hiding in Finland, maintained that the threat of counter-revolution was being exaggerated to force the Bolsheviks into a coalition that would weaken their support, socialists in the Petrograd Soviet fought through their differences to mobilize against Kornilov. The Bolsheviks hastily set up a communications network and sounded the alarm. A massive, nearly spontaneous self-organization effort appeared; at the Bolsheviks’ demand, workers’ militias were armed, and an army of 40,000 emerged from the factories. They halted army communications, seized right-wing presses, erected barricades in Petrograd, ripped up the railroad tracks leading to the capital, and begged Kornilov’s soldiers to mutiny. The coup was literally halted in its tracks by the grassroots mobilization of the working class, who now fully regained their political momentum.

September and October were a maelstrom of debates, votes, attempted compromises, and hastily-proposed political bodies. Lenin himself even alighted on the possibly of a coalition of the socialist parties in the Soviet taking power. His “On Compromises,” Miéville writes, “provoked consternation among his party comrades” and was rejected by the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochy put’ as “too conciliatory.” Miéville dramatizes these months as a head-spinning convergence of popular revolt and feverish democracy. The upshot was that despite the clear desire of the masses and the complete bankruptcy of the Provisional Government, many even quite radical socialists still felt obligated to support it.

Lenin finally decided in September that if the Bolsheviks did not take power, the passionate radicalism of the masses, building for months, would come to nothing. When he returned to Petrograd in early October, he instigated a furious debate over the question of insurrection, and the Bolshevik leadership voted 10-2 in favor of uprising. The two dissenters published their reactions in a non-Bolshevik newspaper, alerting the entire city to the plan, and unintentionally enhancing the atmosphere of inevitability. The debates continued, day and night, as the Bolshevik military won over the Petrograd garrisons, as Kerensky made last-ditch efforts to maintain control, and as the revolutionary army slowly, bloodlessly took power on the night of October 24.

Between 3 and 5 a.m. on October 26, Soviet delegates from all over the Russian Empire debated the next steps at the Smolny palace in Petrograd. Lenin had submitted a document that announced Soviet power, the beginning of withdrawal from the war, land for the peasants and bread for the workers, and self-determination for the empire’s national groups. It was approved overwhelmingly. Miéville ends his story there: “Exhausted, drunk on history, nerves still taut as wires, the delegates to the Second Congress of the Soviets stumbled out of Smolny. They stepped out of the finishing school into a new movement of history, a new kind of first day, that of a workers’ government, morning in a new city, the capital of a workers’ state.”

It is impossible to know what would have happened to the new Soviet republic if its expropriated elites and the world’s capitalist powers had not immediately waged war against it, and if the United States had not been determined to keep it frozen in global isolation even after its defeat of Hitler in 1945. But the Soviet Union, succumbing to bureaucracy, militarism, and brutality by the 1930s, would shape the twentieth century nonetheless. It would provide the foil to American messianism; its crimes would enable a militaristic capitalist empire, aligned with any dictator that shared its antipathy to socialism, to claim the mantle of freedom and democracy. In the course of a long and murderous century, the story of its revolution—like so many of the century’s courageous battles for democracy and equality—was forgotten, flattened, rendered alien, folded into a narrative that preached an inevitable link between revolution and mass murder.

If Miéville is correct that October 1917 should not be “a simple lens through which to view the struggles of today,” it is surely an excellent time to re-open its memory, to clear away the myths that have so long obscured the central reality that average men and women believed they could overthrow an imperial government—and did. The ideas and strategies that enabled the Bolsheviks to take power in 1917 were not a pathology of Russian history, but a product of the European socialist movement and an achievement of the future it had imagined. Bolshevism was not the antithesis of freedom and democracy, but their radical potential made real in a way more horrifying to Russian liberals, like liberals throughout the century up to the present, than military dictatorship.

The very distance and strangeness of the Russian revolution, its resistance to easy analogy, is what makes it an ideal subject for 2017, when we only vaguely remember that women and men in history once accomplished unimaginable, unlikely political transformation. In a period that the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck calls “Interregnum,” after the structural failure of capitalism but before its collapse, a period with neither solutions nor hope, Miéville’s modest conclusion can feel radical: “Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all.”