Wednesday, May 24, 2017

China Miéville's book October "is very deliberate in what it covers and, more importantly, doesn’t cover."

John Medherst: "As someone with a book on the Russian Revolution out later this year (August 17th) with a different and more critical take on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, I had to buy and read China Mieville’s October.

It is, as you would expect, a great read. Vivid and immersive, it skilfully recreates how kinetic, stressful, confusing and exciting February-October 1917 in Russia must have been.
But it is very deliberate in what it covers and, more importantly, doesn’t cover. Although it has a brief prologue and epilogue, 95% of the book sticks tightly to the nine months of February-October. As such it is, surprisingly for a Marxist writer, a rather old-fashioned narrative history. Considering that nearly all the main issues and controversies of the Bolshevik revolution arise from events post-October, the decision to barely address that period prevents wider analysis and understanding. Surely no accident? I imagine China chose this focus because concentrating on the “heroic” period of the revolution is more emotionally inspiring, and raises fewer awkward questions, than examining what the Bolsheviks did once in power, and the extent to which Leninism and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat were the perfect seedbed for Stalinism.

In that sense the epilogue, even as a summary, is unreliable. It simply doesn’t mention that the Bolsheviks shut nearly all Russia’s newspapers within days of October. And that in the first eight months after October, well before the outbreak of civil war, they had shut down or gerrymanded the large number of Soviets that in the first half of 1918 were returning Menshevik or SR majorities. Its reference to the only national election during the period – that for the Constituent Assembly in November 1918, in which the SRs won easily, with the Bolsheviks securing about ¼ of the vote – is that after after it refused to recognise the supremacy of the Soviets “the radicals” (i.e. the Bolsheviks) “left” it, and it then “wound down ignominiously”.

In fact the Assembly, which opened with delegates singing the Internationale, pledged a massive land redistribution policy and to work with the Soviets, but after an only a few hours of existence in which Bolshevik soldiers continuously threatened delegates it had to shut down. It was then immediately banned. Demonstrations in its support were fired on. All socialist except the Bolsheviks protested. To characterise it as China does is gross historical misrepresentation. His total failure to mention or assess the mass strikes against the Bolshevik government in 1918 and 1919, and the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, are misrepresentation by omission, and very disappointing for a writer of China’s intelligence and discrimination.

Also, the book has no reference notes! While I am sure his research was extensive and the statements, events and quotations in the book are sound, the reader is simply not able to check that. Which considering he acknowledges the help of seven professional historians and other sundry mates to check drafts, correct and feedback, is quite astonishing. Still, he can turn a phrase."

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