Lessons of October
TWO THINGS JUST HAPPENED TO ME. I spent ten days in St Petersburg, guided by a local comrade across the canals, bridges and contested streets of October 1917. Then, with the city’s stunning topography fresh in mind, I discovered something still more powerful and moving: China Miéville’s book. October has been part of me since I first read Trotsky’s Lessons of October, a key influence as I journeyed toward socialism in my student days. I later read Trotsky’s full history. But Miéville’s book is something else. You might mistake it for a novel, but if so it’s an unusually fast-moving and exciting one. Not necessarily objective but at least striving to be fair, it condenses vast amounts of archival scholarship into a riveting narrative.
Miéville shows no hint of reverential deference to Lenin, Trotsky or any of his heroes, each one of whom is compellingly depicted as flawed on some occasions, toweringly magnificent on others. Discarding solemnity, Miéville peppers the actual insurrection with confusion and slapstick. Having previously agreed that a red lantern up a flagpole will signal the start of the Winter Palace assault, the Bolsheviks prove unable to find the right kind of lamp. Even when a suitable light is eventually found, it proves exasperatingly difficult to fix to the pole.
The best feature of the book is its focus. Instead of concentrating on competing ideologies, charismatic leaders or documents, we are immersed in a seething ocean of often confused, increasingly aroused mothers with mouths to feed, soldiers and soldiers’ wives, sailors, factory workers and mutinous peasants. Any idea that the Bolshevik insurrection was some kind of military coup, as right wingers so often claim, is comprehensively annihilated by the details of this magnificent account.
Perhaps the most instructive chapter is Miéville’s seventh, ‘Hot July’. If there was to be a truly bottom-up rising of the entire city populace, this was an ideal moment for it, while spirits were still high, counterrevolution as yet nowhere to be seen and a clear Soviet majority existed for ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ Huge demonstrations had been swamped overwhelmingly with Bolshevik-inspired demands for an immediate end to the war. The Peter Paul fortress with its garrison and weapons had just fallen into Bolshevik hands.
The orthodox Trotskyist line is that Lenin far-sightedly counselled his supporters against seizing this opportunity for insurrection, fearing that in its level of consciousness, the rest of Russia lagged far behind Petrograd. Miéville convincingly presents a quite different picture, in which Trotsky and Lenin are simply caught off-guard, surprised and wrong-footed by the scale of their own support. The Bolshevik leaders prove embarrassingly unprepared, lagging behind the popular groundswell for revolutionary change and adopting cautious positions which, to many of their most courageous and determined proletarian supporters, appear confused, demoralising and contradictory.
When you miss such a moment of upswing, the subsequent downswing can be terrifying. History suggests that under such conditions, it is harder - not easier - to deploy consciousness-raising propaganda which is likely to prove effective. Across Petrograd, the mood plunges frighteningly into reverse, with even former Bolshevik proletarian districts echoing the rumour that Lenin has just been found to be a German spy. It is precisely when the chances of armed insurrection seem least propitious that a thoroughly alarmed Lenin, now in hiding, urges his supporters to abandon the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ in favour of imminent insurrection by the Bolshevik party acting alone.
Miéville beautifully details the nuances of the Bolshevik leaders’ wobbles, inconsistencies, self-corrections and retrospective rationalisations. There is never any doubt where his sympathies lie, reminding us that real friends are those brave enough to tell us when we are wrong.
In the end, Trotsky tactfully ignored Lenin’s call for an insurrection by the Bolsheviks in their own name alone. He was well aware that it made infinitely more sense to tie the insurrection to the opening of the Second Congress of Soviets, scheduled for October. That would allow for a legal insurrection - legal in the sense that it could be justified as a way of guaranteeing the very existence of the congress, resisting the Kerensky government’s attempts to impose a right wing dictatorship under military rule.
Here is one important lesson. No socialist government can possibly wield power without some kind of insurrection, some kind of direct action to dismantle the old apparatus of state. This is because the existing establishment, with its links to the armed forces, will never willingly allow socialists to make the transition from formal office to real state power.
The difficulty here is that an insurrection is not just illegal: it is the most illegal action you can possibly take. If we are to win, we must quickly establish legitimacy in our own movement’s eyes, a task which means building on whatever legality we enjoy in the preceding period, recognising that, ultimately, we are faced with two conceptions of legality, ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’. The right wing may claim that in the end, royal assent is necessary to confer legality on any parliamentary bill. But were a Labour government to win an election on a full-blooded socialist platform, we should not be prevented by extra-parliamentary forces from implementing our mandate. ‘All Power to the Labour Government!’ might then be the slogan of the hour.