Remember when, instead of identity politics squabbling, the shaming of thought criminals, and a slavish keeping up with American campus mores, the left had grand ambitions like world revolution?
As if to rub our noses in leftism’s current rudderlessness, this October will mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The highest goal of Bolshevik communism was no mere economic levelling, but for a liberated humankind to transcend its limits. Leon Trotsky, one of the revolution’s chief architects, dreamed of a world inhabited by Marxian übermenschen, where “the forms of life will become radically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise”.
We all know what came next: the Revolution’s nightmare offspring – Stalinist terror and the 20 million dead. No one contests the catastrophe, but there are those, like novelist and Marxist China Miéville, who look back to the events of 1917 and are haunted by the thought that “it might have been otherwise. It might have been different”.
A refreshing figure in contemporary British fiction, Miéville has forced a renewed respectability for sci-fi, dark fantasy and "the New Weird" through his prodigious imagination. (He looks cool too – how many English authors can you say that about?) He makes no secret of his political beliefs. His non-fiction writings for such publications as Salvage, the far left journal he co-edits, are fiercely partisan.
A sojourn from his day job as prolific fictioneer, October is Miéville's account of the two revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917. There is a chapter for each month from February to Red October, bracketed by sections on the Bolshevik Revolution's prehistory and consequences.
I had hoped that Miéville's talents as a novelist would make for an easily digestible narrative of the upheaval for the interested and lazy layman. Banish any such hopes: October is workmanlike and densely factual, relieved only faintly by human interest, with few breathers from the grand sweep of history in favour of more intimate descriptions. I knew while reading it I would forget most of the information immediately after. There is little to hold on to amid the stampede of names, dates and schisms among the confusing array of factions involved. Even now I can hardly tell my Kerensky from my Kornilov.
Very well: Miéville has written a history book, not a disguised historical novel to help the medicine go down in a more delightful way. On those terms, October does not fail. It opens with a contemporary observer's stark warning: "One need not be a prophet to foretell that the present order of things will have to disappear". Tsar Nicholas II responded to the crisis by plunging his head in the sand, insisting that all was well as his wife escaped into mystical fantasy and the sinister charms of the holy charlatan, Rasputin.
Nicholas and family had “doomed” written all over them. The February revolution did away with Tsardom and the entire order it stood for. Hearing of the upheaval in Petrograd (the old name for St Petersburg) from his exile abroad, Lenin pricked up his ears: the long-awaited spark of world communist revolution had just been lit.
Lenin spends much of the book in exile, or disguised and in hiding, furiously writing political tracts and observing events with the cold, calculating eye of a strategic genius. Not infrequently he blows his top at less far-seeing comrades. During the book’s longueurs, mildly comic relief may be had in awaiting the next Angry Lenin sentence. “Lenin unleashed biblical wrath.” “Lenin’s fury grew awesome.” “Lenin, meanwhile, could contain himself no longer.” He lives up to his iconic reputation, all iron will and unwavering intent. “All who meet him are mesmerised,” writes Miéville.
As for Trotsky, he is “hard to love but impossible not to admire… at once charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive and divisive and difficult”. One wonders what kind of book Miéville would have turned out had he opted to tell the story from the perspective of either of these men, rather than via the eagle’s-eye swoop.
Stalin, the third of October's triumvirate of historic megastars, haunts the pages like the Revolution's guilty conscience, a "grey blur" ominously indistinct to those who encounter him without benefit of hindsight. He is a mediocre "ghost from the future", giving little suggestion of the dread-ism which would come to bear his name, "at best an adequate intellectual, at worst an embarrassing one".
When they finally arrive, the events of October 1917 are reliably dramatic. Holed up in Petrograd's Winter Palace, the Provisional Government elected in the wake of the February revolution is besieged by Bolshevik gunships. When the noise of shelling fades, a new revolutionary government is proclaimed, and the rest is history. Reflections follow on "inevitablism" – the idea that Leninism necessarily begot Stalinism, of which Miéville is sceptical. October may not offer the immersive thrills of the author's fiction, but there is interest in reading the story of "that violent and incomparable year" told by one who hopes against hope that it could happen again.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book, This Is the Ritual, is published by Bloomsbury and Lilliput Press