Lessons of 1917: For a Resurgence of Insurgent Dignity

Transcribed from the 20 May 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

A few days before the upheaval of February 1917 – that came from the street, from the working class women of Petrograd – there were lifelong activists telling each other that unfortunately, although people are grumbling, there’s not that much activity; nothing is going to happen. A couple of weeks later, the tsar is gone.

Chuck Mertz: One hundred years ago the Russian revolution and its reverberations were felt through history. And they are felt through history to this day. I know, it’s taboo to discuss the Russian revolution in the US, and it’s even more verboten to actually learn something from it.

Here to tell us why the Russian revolution is still important, how it happened, and why it failed, and to explain that it can happen again, award-winning author China Miéville has a new book out, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution.

Welcome to This is Hell!, China.

China Miéville: Thank you so much for having me.

Mertz: We recently spoke with Jodi Dean about her introduction to a new printing of the Communist Manifesto by Pluto Press. While the reaction to that interview was overwhelmingly positive, we did get far more negative responses than we usually do with any of our on-air conversations. Most of the complaints we got were simply based on the idea that we shouldn’t even discuss the Communist Manifesto, because communism failed.

What do we miss in our understanding of revolution, how to challenge authoritarianism, and the way a hopeful idea can even lead to authoritarianism, when we ignore the Russian revolution and dismiss its history?

Miéville: The idea that a radical desire for emancipation is somehow impolite or dangerous to think about is one of the most horrifying pieces of the sort of thought-crime legislation that we live with in the modern day. Apart from any politics, the Russian revolution is also just an extraordinary story. It reads like a thriller. It is shot through with this incredibly moving and powerful desire for fundamental radical change—not just a bit of tinkering but an attempt to fundamentally reconfigure the nature of society, and to do away with capitalism.

The history that I tried to write focuses on the months of that year itself, 1917, from February to October, when there were two revolutions, one at each end of the year. The catastrophe that happened later casts a shadow backwards, and I do engage with it in the epilogue of the book.

My basic line is that I am very happy to have a serious argument and debate about what happened, including with rightwing historians who are fundamentally opposed to the revolution. One thing I find incredibly irritating is the refusal to have a serious discussion with it, and instead to wave the hand and say something like, “Revolutions always fail,” or, “It’s a noble aspiration, but unfortunately they are always doomed to eat their children.” This evasion of any serious engagement is much, much worse than a serious, thoughtful attack on the revolution, speaking as someone who finds it very inspiring.

Mertz: What is lost—especially in the American worldview, but in any worldview—when we equate socialism with authoritarianism, as is done with Soviet Communism here in the US, thus dismissing it as an area of interest or study?

Miéville: There’s a certain kind of parallel evolution from the 1930s on, through the 1980s and on to today, a convergence between Stalinism and mainstream liberalism and conservatism in the States and in Britain and elsewhere, which is to agree that the 1917 revolution, Leninism, and the program of the revolutionaries, leads inexorably to Stalin and the Stalinist state and system. On the one hand there are the apparatchiks of that system saying, “…and that’s a good thing,” and on the other hand there are the apparatchiks of the equally corrosive and toxic alternative system saying it’s a bad thing. But they are agreeing on that fundamental dynamic.

Simply for the sake of intellectual honesty, irrespective of one’s own politics, one has to unpick that. One has to open that black box and ask what the dynamics are by which this extraordinary, explosive, carnivalesque, emancipatory yearning of 1917 becomes degraded and corroded in the aftermath. We can identify particular dynamics, particular pressures, particular constraints, and of course we can debate about exactly how those work. But the point is to be concrete about the historical story of that year and of what happened after that year.

If we simply wave our hands and say the aspirations for a better world led to totalitarian despotism, we operate as a kind of border police saying that we as human beings, as humanity, will be punished for the aspiration to have a better and dignified life. The universe will punish you for the aspiration of emancipation. That is a truly sadistic political doctrine.

Mertz: Recently, because the New York Times is so limited in printing space, they asked you, “Persuade someone to read your book October in less than fifty words.” Your answer was: “The narrative of the Russian revolution is as urgent and strange as that of any novel, and October is the key political event of the twentieth century. We need its memory in these bleak, sadistic times. This is an attempt to tell the astonishing, inspiring story.”

As you’ve already said, the story is very inspirational to you. What’s the inspiring story within the Russian revolution that could give us a feeling of hope for today’s bleak times?

Miéville: The inspiration for me is simply about seeing what happens when a mass of people, unbidden by any rulers, unbidden by any activists—certainly initially—reach a point where they say, “Enough is enough, we have the right to live as dignified human beings. We have the right not to be treated like dirt by the system,” and oppose it, and rise up and take control of that system, change it fundamentally, and throw away the vestiges of the old regime.

That fact of people grabbing history by the scruff of the neck and attempting to exercise their own political agency is incredibly inspiring, notwithstanding of course all the things that happened later. How can it not be inspiring, given that we live in a culture and a history which constantly informs us and insists that we do not have the right to control over our own lives? For all the Horatio Alger nonsense and all the sanctimonious notions of the American dream (to take the US for an example)—one of the interesting things about that ideology is that fewer and fewer people even believe it. It becomes a kind of lip service. People know that they do not have control over their own lives, and nor do they have the right to control over their own lives. The mass abstentionism from voting, for example: I think it’s a kind of slander to call that apathy. What that is, is a perfectly rational protest. To a great majority of people this is not a practical way of taking any kind of control or improving their own lives.

1917 was a year in which, repeatedly, across an enormous empire, millions of people from all kinds of different ethnicities and backgrounds—workers and peasants and soldiers, men and women, Muslims and Jews, all these different people—suddenly insist that they have the right to have some control over their own lives, and try to dispense with this system that has told them they don’t have that. That sense of agency and insurgent dignity is incredibly inspiring to me.

We have a particularly sadistic form of neoliberalism at the moment which, even if it wanted to (and it be clear, it doesn’t), it does not have the ability to offer  crumbs as it once would have done, so instead there is a rise in a program of state violence and sadism in place of any attempt at placation.

Mertz: Today, how would you rate the state of citizen control over our world?

Miéville: It’s very, very low. One of the things that we’ve seen in a lot of political actions recently (some in a broadly progressive direction, but unfortunately an awful lot in the other way) is a kind of rageful protest against the absolutely true fact that people do not have serious, meaningful control over their own lives, and furthermore that they live in a system which is telling them very impatiently they don’t have the right to that control, and that their job is to shut up and accept the place allotted to them by their betters.

Now, there are of course strong drives to take some control—there are people and groups who are doing heroic work. But the fact is that we live in a system that does everything it can to abrogate the political agency of the great majority of people.

Mertz: You wrote in the Guardian, “Besides anything else, the socialist uprising in Russia in October 1917 is an extraordinary story, the culmination of the transformative months of that year, beginning with February and the abrupt popular overthrow of tsar Nicholas II and his regime. It’s all intrigue and violence and loyalty and treachery and courage.”

We recently spoke with Ralph Nader, and Ralph argues that it doesn’t take much to make change happen, that the powerful are far more precarious than we may think. Last January we spoke with the journalist Stefania Maurizi, who had just interviewed Julian Assange. While describing the success Wikileaks has had in getting the secrets of the powerful to the public—and despite being threatened, Wikileaks has yet to stop—Assange said, “Elephants, it seems, can be brought down with string. Perhaps there are no elephants.”

Prior to February 1917, how certain was tsar Nicholas II’s hold on Russia? Was his hold on power far more precarious than supporters on the opposition even realized?

Miéville: There was very little question that the system would have to change, that the system could not maintain itself in the way it had been going along. People were saying that perfectly explicitly. And I don’t just mean people on the left. There were liberals and even a lot on the right who were saying at the time that something dramatic had to happen. They certainly didn’t have the February—let alone the October—revolution in mind. But what they did know was that the system as it had maintained itself was sclerotic and falling apart.

At that time in particular, in 1917 under Nicholas II (the tsarist regime had been in place in various different forms for five hundred years up until February 1917), it wasn’t just that it was a brutal and violent and repressive regime, it was also, within its own terms, a really stupid and ill-run one. If you were going to be an oppressive, despotic, absolute leader, you wouldn’t want to do it like he was doing it. He was really bad at it. It was both horrible and incompetent.

What that meant was there was very little question in people’s minds that something had to happen, and there were a variety of dreams and ideas about what it could be—a shift to a constitutional monarchy, a shift to a liberal bourgeois democratic state, all sorts of different ideas. One of the particularities of 1917 Russia was that the regime itself was so intransigent in January and early February, so resistant to any change, that in a way it actually accelerated history itself in its own collapse, its own overthrow.

When we’re talking about whether elephants can be brought down with string—in a way, I feel two things at once. It might sound contradictory, but somehow I feel there’s a connection. On the one hand, sometimes on the left we have hurt our case by implying and by hoping that we are stronger than we are, and that actually the situation is better than it is, and it won’t take much to really change things. On the contrary, I think that one of the things that’s important for the left to do now, in these particularly hideous times, is to be quite clear-sighted about how bad things are, and to be frank about the fact that we have a politically very difficult situation.

Conversely, one of the lessons of history—not least of Russia 1917 but elsewhere as well—is that sometimes change can come with an absolutely dizzying abruptness, including in the moment when you least thought it was going to happen. A few days before the upheaval of February 1917 that came from the street, from the working class women of Petrograd, there were lifelong activists telling each other that unfortunately, although people are grumbling, there’s not that much activity; nothing is going to happen. A couple of weeks later, the tsar is gone.

When things move, sometimes against all the odds, they can move abruptly and with incredible speed.

Mertz: When the Arab Spring happened, a lot of the US media focused on the economic problems that each of the nations impacted by the Arab Spring were facing, as if that were the real guiding factor. Sure, this might be about the brutality of the leadership or oppression within those countries, but really the driving force always has to be the economy.

How bad were things to create the Russian revolution? Was it the cruelty and stupidity that brought the tsar down? Or was it the economy? Because here in the US at least, we are told that there are no revolutions unless the economy is doing bad. People are only taking to the streets because of what’s happening to their wallets.

Miéville: It might sound a little glib, but I really don’t think there’s any contradiction between the two. When you ask whether it was the brutality of the regime or the economy, my answer would be yes. The two are mutually constitutive, they bleed into each other. Particularly in the case of 1917, there was the central importance of the first world war, which was going incredibly badly for Russia and was siphoning off an enormous amount of its industry, which had been accelerating but was still pretty backwards compared to a lot of other countries. There were bread lines, there were shortages, and these got worse throughout the year. But even at the beginning of the year, people are queuing for hours to get a few mouthfuls of bread at the beginning of the day.

It’s really important when we’re reading history to stress the extent to which these things can’t be distinguished. On the ground, people are talking on the one hand about how hard they have to work, how low their pay is, about the shortages that are facing them; and on the other hand they’re also repeatedly talking about how they deserve dignity. Dignity comes up again and again, as well as the fury and the contempt with which those at the top, the ruling class, and the apparatchiks of the system treat them.

We could make a case that for some decades in the earlier part of the twentieth century there was an unspoken (or in some cases spoken) deal whereby the economy does well and those in charge of the economy and society will scatter down certain crumbs on the table to ameliorate the desire for control at the bottom. But one of the things that’s been happening since the 1970s, and has been accelerating recently, especially since 2008, is that this implied quid pro quo is completely breaking down. We have a particularly sadistic form of neoliberalism at the moment which, even if it wanted to (and it be clear, it doesn’t), it does not have the ability to offer the crumbs as it once would have done, because the economy is much more constrained, because the situation is much more difficult, so instead there is a rise in a program of state violence and sadism in place of any attempt at placation.

We have to accept that either the system is not working exactly as we understood it to work, or it never did, and we have to update our theories. We have to accept that our nostrums, our sense that we basically understand the mechanics, are not adequate to the task at the moment. The machine is breaking down, changing, and it’s dynamic.

Mertz: You write, “One salutary impact of recent extraordinary political upsets—whether that’s Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, the French presidential election, with more to come—has been the carnage of political givens, the humbling of the know-it-all.”

We’ll be talking about the Harvard Business School on this show, and the impact that they have had on the US economy. How important to a revolution is a humbling of the know-it-all class? Was the know-it-all class humbled in the Russian revolution? Is that an important aspect of the revolution?

Miéville: When I talk about know-it-alls, I certainly don’t only mean the know-it-alls from above, the ruling class know-it-alls. It’s very important for us on the left not to be theoretically dogmatic and closed-minded, and to engage frankly with the fact that a lot of our theories and ideas have been proven to be inadequate by the speed and pace and strangeness of recent events.

In a slightly cruel, sardonic way, it’s quite an interesting thing to go back over the last two or three years and read the reams and reams of opinion pieces and tweets and Facebook posts—and not just from liberals; I’m including very serious and well-read and thoughtful socialists. They’re all saying, basically, “Everyone calm down. There’s no way Donald Trump can be the candidate.” And then, “Everyone calm down. There’s no way at all Donald Trump can be the president. The system won’t allow it. Everyone calm down. Stop being excited, there’s no way Jeremy Corbyn is going to win the candidacy.”

This sense that, whether from the right or from the left, whether we like it or not, we know how the system works, and the system will not work this way…well, those algorithms have been programmed wrong again and again. We have to accept that either the system is not working exactly as we understood it to work, or it never did, and we have to update our theories. We have to accept that our nostrums, our sense that we basically understand the mechanics, are not adequate to the task at the moment. The machine is breaking down, changing, and it’s dynamic. We have to be very frank about the limitations of our own ability to prognosticate. This is a key task for the left to be able to engage seriously with the things that are happening now: stop acting from the principle that We Got This, we understand this, we know what’s going to happen, let me just pull out my little guidebook to history and apply the rules. We have to be more open minded and more nimble.

And that, to bring it back to the historical discussion, is absolutely what distinguished the know-it-all left from the nimble-footed left in Russia 1917.

Mertz: Let’s talk about another contemporary politician today, and another system that might be breaking down as well. You write, “In Russia, Putin’s state knows that the revolution matters, which puts it in an odd position: committed to capitalism (gangster capitalism is still capitalism), it can hardly pitch itself as an inheritor of an uprising against that system; at the same time, official and semi-official nostalgia for the symbolic bric-a-brac of Great Russia, including that of Stalinist vintage, precludes banishing memory. It risks being, as historian Boris Kolonitsky has but it, ‘a very unpredictable past.’”

I found that phrase ‘a very unpredictable past’ fascinating. How nostalgic are Russians for their socialist revolutionary past? And how much is that nostalgia seen as a challenge or even a threat to Putin’s power?

Miéville: I’m not in a position to answer a question about Russians on the ground, because for one thing, obviously, there’s an enormous plurality of opinions. I’m not a Russia specialist. I’ve visited, and I have friends there and so on, but it’s not a place I know intimately. My sense is that the memory of 1917 is contested, but that those people who are insisting, in my opinion rightly, that this memory is important and potentially inspirational, and is a rebuke to the status quos of history—they are in an embattled minority.

Certainly at the state level there is this paradox: the clique around Putin and his particular kind of politics do not want to acknowledge or deal with 1917 at all, whereas they are going to go into schmaltzy nostalgic overdrive next year with the centenary of the Romanov’s deaths. For the Putinites, one cardinal sin of the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin, is that they were not Russian chauvinists. They were implacably opposed to Russian chauvinism, particularly in 1917. This is the cardinal sin. Around Putin’s politics, no one is a fan of Lenin; no one wants to talk about Lenin. His project would seem to be completely denigrated. However, there is a fair amount of nostalgia in some of those quarters for Stalin, who of course proclaimed himself (I think completely bogusly) as Lenin’s heir, because Stalin was a great Russian chauvinist. Stalin was a militarist, an imperialist, committed to the Russian state.

One of the ways the official arbiters of that contested memory are trying to domesticate a truly radical history and potentiality is to try and transform it in a really sickening, ahistorical way into a formula for Russian strength, Russian power. This would make the revolutionaries absolutely spin in their graves. When I was in St. Petersburg, I asked some friends: if the state has to actually engage with the question of 1917, how will it remember it—with celebration or regret? They thought about it, then one of them said, “What they will say is that there was a big argument, a big fight, it was very tragic, but in the end, Russia won.”

Let me be clear: that is not a formulation that those who were fighting for emancipation in those days would recognize.

Mertz: You describe Lenin addressing the second congress of soviets on October 26, 1917. You write, “In a hoarse voice, he speaks his first famous words to the gathering: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order. With respect to the war, congress issues a proclamation to the peoples and governments of all the belligerent nations for immediate negotiation towards democratic peace. Approval is unanimous. The war is ended.’”

You add, “But the war is not yet ended, and the order that will be constructed is anything but socialist.” How much did the socialist revolution in Russia fall short of its socialist promises even from the very start?

Miéville: Enormously. Again, the bulk of the book is a narrative of the year itself. But there is no avoiding the catastrophe of what follows. But the question for political history, from whatever your political perspective, is to try to make serious, engaged sense of that collapse, rather than just waving your hands and saying revolutions always fail.

From the word go, the revolution was born in an incredibly embattled and constrained space. I gesture towards the pressures and constraints that were forcing the revolution into deeply unhappy situations not of its choosing: the pressure of the outside powers; the civil war that was bankrolled by the Allies, the French, the British, and the Americans; the incredibly barbaric proto-fascist insurgencies within the state; the collapse of industry, the collapse of agriculture; and within that—because I don’t want to offer any cheap exoneration—the mistakes and the failures of the revolutionaries themselves.

One of the amazing things about the Russian revolution is the insistence on what is at once a very simple and an awe-inspiringly extraordinary claim: that you can build a system based on needs, not on exploitation and profits.

In particular, a repeated mistake—and a deeply terrifying and ultimately baleful one—was looking at these in most cases unfortunate necessities, these decisions made under terrible constraints, and trying to pretend that they were virtuous. Making virtues of necessities, from 1918 on to 1924 and beyond, was one of the things that for the Bolsheviks in particular is a serious thing to answer. It was a serious mistake and it would have been less damaging for them to simply acknowledge frankly (as they sometimes did), that the situation they were in was deeply not of their choosing and they were being forced into making decisions and doing political actions that they would not otherwise choose.

But the primary constraining context was the fact that the revolution was encircled and embattled and absolutely assaulted—politically, militarily, and ideologically. And it always knew. It always said early on that the only way it would survive would be in the context of an international insurgency, an international drive to freedom: revolutions in Europe. In the early years after 1917 there were still serious—non-stupid, non-crazy—hopes that this would happen. There were upsurges of revolt across Europe. The tragedy for the revolution was that they were ultimately defeated. And from 1922 and ’23 onward, there was a grim realization that they were on their own. It put the revolution in a situation that it never wanted to be in; for years beforehand they had always said, “We will not be able to survive if that is the situation that we are in.”

One of the key mistakes they made was in 1924, when they said, “We can have socialism in one country” after years of having said, “We will not be able to construct socialism in one country.” That kind of panicked optimism actually is worse than hard-headed pessimism under circumstances not of your choosing.

Mertz: But you write at one point how the Russian revolution can be “our revolution.” Do you mean that in a global sense, that what the Russian revolution introduced to us was this idea that we might be able to move forward globally? And how much was that global revolution simply ended by World War I?

Miéville: World War I was interesting because it was also, in a very direct way, one of the key causes of the revolution. The war was both a limiting and a propulsive factor in these politics. It’s very difficult to talk about it in general. We have to talk about the specifics of the individual arenas and countries and moments.

In terms of where it can be “ours,” where we can finish its sentences (to cite Virginia Woolf in a different context), what I don’t want to do is to imply, as sometimes is implied in a far too facile way, that we can reductively apply the “lessons” in order to essentially mimic the revolution. If you are a radical and you want to see fundamental social change, emancipatory change, and what you are trying to do is mimic the Bolsheviks in a very direct way, that’s not serious. One of the things about thinking seriously, politically, is looking at the specifics and the particularities. The specific and particular shape of the Russian revolution and the politics of the revolutionaries resulted from the particularities of Russia in 1917. So we can’t draw a direct analogy. That would be “politics by cosplay,” and I’m not interested in that.

This isn’t to say that we can’t learn a great deal from the revolutionaries. Particularly Lenin (but also others) had an amazing political antenna for how to respond to rapid events. But we can also learn—and this is the key to your question, I think—from the scale of the ambition, the scale of the aspiration and the drive not merely to improve this or that aspect of the lives of the people on the ground (noble enough as that ambition is), but to say the system is responsible for these exploitations and oppressions; the scale of the project was to overturn a system predicated on the extraction and profit and to build a world that is predicated on a system based on human needs.

In any sane society, that would be a given. It would be self-evident that you build society on human needs, not profits. But we live in such an extraordinarily bad timeline that this seems like a bizarre aspiration. One of the amazing things about the Russian revolution is the insistence on what is at once a very simple and an awe-inspiringly extraordinary claim: that you can build a system based on needs, not on exploitation and profits. That, I think, is an intense revelation and vindication of an intuition that we absolutely need to return to.

Mertz: You write, “October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power, fleetingly. There is a shift towards worker control of production and the rights of peasants to the land, equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support, the decriminalization of homosexuality one hundred years ago, moves towards national self-determination, free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. With literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools—a change in the soul as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.”

That sounds great. I wish that it had been otherwise. But do you think revolution—again, and eventually successful—is inevitable?

Miéville: Inevitable? Absolutely not. No. Let me put it this way: revolution is not only not inevitable, but given the pressures bearing down on us from those who want nothing to change, it will be an immense effort to lead to any kind of fundamental radical change that is revolutionary. I don’t think it’s inevitable. What I do think is that it’s possible. Further than that, I think that if we want to have a world fit for humans, I think it’s necessary, and it is something that we have to build for.

Mertz: China, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you so much for being on This is Hell!.

Miéville: Thank you for having me.

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