Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Whiff of Cliff (2017)

Book Review from the November 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'October: The Story of the Russian Revolution'. By China Mieville (Verso, 2017)

This is the latest book by China Mieville, a founding editor of Salvage magazine and an award-winning author.

It is structured with a chapter for each month and covers a lot of ground. However October is the last narrative chapter so it feels like a long time coming. The writing is exciting and events proceed with a lively pace. Insofar as a book of some 300 pages can manage there is much detail on what happened – but little room is left for analysis of why.

For example, ‘Lenin was referring to his supporters as hard, and his opponents as soft, and the distinction will generally remain glossed in such terms . . .  though this is not to deny the substantial range and evolution of opinions on each side.’ Analysis also occasionally tends towards the binary ‘hard’, ‘soft’, ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘legal Marxists’, etc.

He writes of Lenin that ‘to his enemies he is a cold mass-murdering monster, to his worshippers a god-like genius, to his comrades and friends – a shy quick-laughing lover of children and cats.’

Mieville also uses the translation ‘Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP)’, rather than the more common ‘Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)’. Surely it wouldn’t be to do with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that Mieville left in 2013, would it? The SWP were founded by Tony Cliff, who wrote a three volume biography of Lenin. In Mieville’s further reading he mentions this and calls the works by E. H. Carr and I. Deutscher as ‘magisterial’ and Trotsky as ‘towering, vivid, historically vital’. Orlando Figes’ work is credited but described as ‘unconvincing tragedianism for some lost liberal alternative.’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Figes, first published in 1996 is award-winning, nearly a thousand pages and acts as a counter to Mieville’s book.

An interpretation too generous to Lenin is given to the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute over membership criteria and Trotsky is more lauded than not, as ‘hard to love but impossible not to admire. He is at once charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive and divisive and difficult.’ Whereas Stalin is described as ‘the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state.’ Surely Lenin was the key architect of this, with Trotsky as the butcher?

Some interpretations come over as Cliffite; ‘[Bolshevik activists] were more concerned to focus on the masses in the streets.’ and ‘[Moscow crowds in February 1917] were shouting ‘Down with the Tsar!’’ It’s worth pointing out the ‘streets’ and their ‘demonstrations’ were a violent liability for the working-class (often involving getting shot at), ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ often meant mob rule, and the ‘masses’ were neither socialist nor even supportive of the Bolsheviks for the most part. Decisions, such as the coup itself, were taken among small groups of Bolsheviks with support from the military seizing various centres of power to carry it out.

Mieville concludes ‘October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental radical social change. Its degradation was not a given.’ By this he means degradation from the early Bolshevik party. But there was no substantive degradation. The early Bolshevik party before October was already degraded. October didn’t of itself lead to Stalin – Lenin and the underpinning ideology of Bolshevism did.

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