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The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution


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

BY DAVID SESSIONS
September 20, 2017

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and youre likely to nd a reection of
Americas version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate
history sections, but in very specic forms. Books like Andrew Lownies Stalins Englishman,
Simon Sebag Monteores Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchens Speer: Hitlers
Architect, Robert Jay Liftons The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyders Bloodlands: Europe Between
Hitler and Stalinsome old, some new, many written for popular audiencesmove between the
centurys 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
Snyders 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 worlds rst socialist revolution, many accounts of the Russian
Revolution t 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 nancial support. Across a wide spectrumfrom
anti-Semitic fascists to liberal intellectuals to even non-communist leftiststhe narrative set in
that Bolshevism, the ideology of the victors of October 1917, was radically alien to European
thought and politicsa pathology born of Russian barbarism, a threat to Western civilization. Its
emblematic gures, Lenin in particular, were cast as cynical manipulators, totalitarian fanatics.
Such narratives were ratied 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 Alis new biography of Lenin and novelist
China Mivilles 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
Mivilles literary retellingmade to feel like a novel, but scrupulously sourced to real events
captures the vertigo of 1917s encounter between massive historical forces, plunging us back into
the heart of a far-reaching social upheaval, in which time owed 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 Miville sense that our attened, calcied versions of the revolutionary past have
something to do with the absence of political imagination and emancipatory hope in the present.
Todays 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 historys 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.
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
THE DILEMMAS OF LENIN: TERRORISM,
most heavily weaponized engines of greed and violence
WAR, EMPIRE, LOVE, REVOLUTION by Tariq
in human history, revolution became a universal dream Ali Verso, 384 pp., $26.95
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 Lenins older brother, Alexander
Ulyanovan 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 Russias 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 rst 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? Lenins position in this debatewhich 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 Russiathat the workers were ready to
play their historical role if there was someone willing to organize them.

Lenins 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 bourgeoisieweak and clinging to its dependence on the Tsarwould be
able to lead the revolution. His concept of proletarian class leadershipthat the urban workers
would channel peasant radicalism toward socialist revolutionwas addressed to this problem. It
was his growing commitment to proletarian revolution that precipitated the famous divorce in
Russian social democracy between Lenins 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.
Lenins 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 rst 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 Europes
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 Internationalits largesthad eectively dynamited internationalism.

Recounting the deep tragedy of the socialist capitulation to nationalism at the outset of World
War I, Alis identication with Lenin hits its strongest notes. He maintains that Lenins 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 immoralAli assembles a
nauseating array of quotes from European leaders on the glories of imperialismand yet it
precipitated the retreat of the European socialist movement from the international revolutionary
project. Lenin would have to nd 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 Miville, Lenin


moves to side of the stage. Where Alis Lenin occasionally resembles his Western caricaturea
string-pulling mastermind, a visionary and iconoclast always dragging his party behind him,
rebung the proletariat for getting ahead of themselvesMivilles 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, condent in the working class but hesitant about the timing
of their demands.

October is, simply put, the story of a popular revolution


that emerged from the democratic experience of the
rst 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 Empires 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
democracymost 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
OCTOBER: THE STORY OF THE RUSSIAN
Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, were in exile in
REVOLUTION by China Miville Verso, 384 pp.,
Europe. But working-class political culture had $26.95
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 Womens 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 erce 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 nally 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 gurehead 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 Sovietthe Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionariesbelieved that the rst order of
business was to defend Russia from invasion. They rejected the liberals expansionist war aims,
but agreed on continuing the ght.

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 eorts 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 Miville writes, Lenins isolation [was] almost total.

But even in his controversial restatement


of his position, known as the April Theses, Mivilles Lenin is a Bolshevik
Lenin stressed that he was remaining for the most part like the
consistent with Bolshevik positions, and others: overwhelmed by
that the working class would respond to
overwhelming events,
sincere eorts at persuasion. It is
struggling to read the direction
necessary with particular thoroughness,
persistence and patience to explain their
of history on an hour-by-hour
error to them, he wrote, of those who basis.
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 Lenins 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 Miville 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 ocers, defecting and
fraternizing with German troops, wandering back to the cities to nd 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 womens 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 oensive dreamed up by Alexander Kerensky, the only socialist
in the Provisional Government, the masses were ready for the Soviets to take powerall 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 rst majority in the Soviet on July 3. Dramatizing their debates and
reversals of position, Miville 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 nd 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,
Miville comments, that people do not need or await permission to move.

Without the support of the Bolsheviks, the proletariats 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 irted 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 dierences to mobilize against Kornilov. The Bolsheviks hastily set up a
communications network and sounded the alarm. A massive, nearly spontaneous self-
organization eort 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 Kornilovs 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, Miville writes, provoked
consternation among his party comrades and was rejected by the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochy
put as too conciliatory. Miville 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 nally 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 eorts 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 empires national groups. It was approved
overwhelmingly. Miville 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 nishing school into a new movement of history, a new kind of rst 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 worlds 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 revolutionlike so
many of the centurys courageous battles for democracy and equalitywas forgotten, attened,
rendered alien, folded into a narrative that preached an inevitable link between revolution and
mass murder.

If Miville 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 governmentand 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, Mivilles modest conclusion can feel
radical: Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all.

David Sessions is a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College and a visiting student at the cole Normale
Suprieure in Paris. He is a former editor at The Daily Beast, and his writing has appeared in Jacobin and Newsweek.