Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

{ 34 comments }

1

William Timberman 09.28.17 at 2:03 pm

Just read your Jacobin piece yesterday, but haven’t yet read October. From reading Miéville’s other books, though, I would say that you’ve nailed his essential attractiveness. He does the audacity of hope with a sophistication that we haven’t seen in a while, a very long while in fact. His poetical politics comes at a moment when poets are in critically short supply in the salons of the well-intentioned. Ground-hugging, standard-issue meliorist social democrats take heed: you worry overmuch about the nasty doggerelists of the right. Unleash a few Miévilles on them, and they wouldn’t stand a chance. (Later on, of course when the rubble clears, we can execute them all for being infantile leftists and get back to our shopkeeping. Just please take my word for it, brothers and sisters, now is NOT the time.)

2

Ralph Hitchens 09.29.17 at 2:41 pm

“A moment of possibility?” Hardly seems possible. It was a political coup overthrowing an admittedly messy and generally ineffective democratic government that was clearly a work in progress. The Bolsheviks wanted absolute power, and followed up their Petrograd success with the “Red Terror” to stamp out resistance to their new regime. Killing a lot of Russians, everyone who stood in their way (or might have) was their methodology. Didn’t Sverdlov, one of Lenin’s most ruthless and capable disciples, say something to the effect that it wasn’t a question of how many people could be saved, but how few were really needed to get the new society up & running?
Yeah, I’m an “infantile leftist.”

3

Stephen 09.29.17 at 9:41 pm

Two uncertainties.

When Miéville writes “Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes”, what is the precise sense of “engage with”? Does it mean the same actions as would be necessary for those who count themselves against the revolution to respond to the undeniable evidence of their cause’s failures and crimes? Or are those who are on the side of the revolution in some way privileged? If so, why?

Also: why were the October events the “first socialist revolution in history”, and why do they show “that things changed once, and they might do so again”. Was not the 1871 Commune a socialist revolution; short-lived, and far less catastrophic in its consequences than Petrograd 1917? And is 1917 really the only occasion in which things changed? It would be tedious to list other obvious changes, for better or worse. Or does Miéville mean things changed in a way he approves of?

4

kidneystones 09.30.17 at 5:22 am

@3 I read Henry’s review a day, or so, ago, but haven’t read the book. Your questions range from the excellent to the curiously pedantic. Like you, I tend to buck whenever I read the ‘first’ anything, but in this case I think I have to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Socialists did not really describe themselves a socialists (to the best of my knowledge) prior to the 1800s. Patriots was certainly the preferred term in France 1789-94. A convincing argument can be made that all/most of the ‘patriots’ wished to abolish the monarchy, but not so they could transfer their own wealth to the masses, but rather to enshrine their own right to carve out a larger piece of the capitalist pie for themselves, which is why the private property was treated as sacrosanct even during the most turbulent times.

Comparisons with the English revolutions circa 1650 and 1776 were rife both in England and France at the end of the 18th century. The proscribed term in England in 1792, as you may well know, was ‘leveller’ and Tom Paine was the regarded as one of the carriers of this particular plague. You’re right to suggest that there were ‘socialist’ dimensions to the 1871 commune, but it was also strongly patriotic, nationalist, and even totalitarian – in so far as the opinions of those outside Paris mattered as little to Paris-based revolutionaries in 1871 as they did ninety years before. So, in terms of a trans-national program explicitly dedicated to dismantling the capitalist state, Miéville seems to be correct. I’d be happy and curious to be corrected if there are earlier examples.

The forces at work in Britain in 1650, English colonies in the 1760s, and France today, are just as alive in Catalan and Spain. For those curious to see how even a democratic nation-state under attack responds in the early stages we need look no further than: https://www.thelocal.es/20170929/millions-of-ballots-seized-by-police-ahead-of-catalan-vote

Reading about revolutions is always a sound idea. I enjoy historical narratives and I’ll definitely keep the Miéville in mind.

5

Jeff R. 09.30.17 at 6:10 am

The main point I took from the book is how much damage Karl Marx did to history, and particularly Russia; how much potential was wasted by his actions foreclosing the possibility of a liberal, democratic revolution in Russia that did not have a nation full of thought leaders who openly believed that it existed only as a placeholder, to have everything it built torn down, probably in blood and fire, at some unspecified time in the future that might be months, years, or at most a decade or so.

The extent and balefulness of his personal and entirely non-inevitable influence on history is one of the greatest ironies I know of; despite his rejection of the concept there is no other Great Man who nearly approaches his enormity.

6

Stephen 09.30.17 at 5:42 pm

Kidneystones

If I may continue to be curiously pedantic: nothing I wrote above, or have ever written elsewhere, states or implies that the English, American or French revolutions were in any way socialist. I don’t know why you think they are relevant.

It has been argued that Gracchus Babeuf’s Conjuration des Egaux, 1796, might be described as communist; certainly, it was being so described by the 1820s. Its demands included insurrection, equal distribution of all property, and the massacre of the existing ruling classes. Quite communist, no? But since it was crushed before it began, I don’t think it can be described as a revolution.

But as for the 1871 Paris Commune, well. I wish it were possible for you to argue with the ghost of Karl Marx, who wrote “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society”. I do think that many of the leaders were genuinely devoted to demolishing the capitalist state. That the successor state they hoped for was also nationalist and totalitarian does not, surely, disqualify it from being also socialist: there are a distressing number of states that have been all three.

7

F. Foundling 10.01.17 at 12:14 am

@2, 5:
The much-mourned Russian bourgeois ‘democrats’ (and even some of the self-described ‘socialists’) exhibited – unfortunately, and not unlike their modern counterparts – a most remarkable and intriguing tendency not to do what their ‘demos’ wanted, and, instead, to continue to do what the old elite wanted, including, notably, sending huge masses of people to die in trenches for reasons that didn’t appear convincing to said people. That was a major contributing factor to their defeat. After all, if they had truly been such devoted ‘democrats’, *they* could have taken heed of the people’s wishes, renounced the war and divided up the land, but they left those slogans to the Bolsheviks and managed to make themselves unpopular enough to make October possible. As always, bourgeois democracy and capitalism don’t need Marx to discredit them, they are perfectly capable of discrediting themselves on their own – and of engendering thinkers like Marx in the process. Note that the most popular force in 1917-1918, electorally speaking, was actually the Socialist Revolutionary Party, who were not Marxists and yet decidedly no capitalist democrats either.

As for the Bolsheviks, yes, Soviet democracy shouldn’t have become an empty phrase, and yes, the failure of Communism to become what it had promised to be had deep roots in the way of thinking of its adherents (first and foremost, I would mention [a lack of immunity against] authoritarianism). One can nevertheless argue, as I have done before here, that a lot of good has resulted from 1917 (both in terms of very real and significant improvements of the living standards inside the countries in question and in terms of capitalism outside of them being stimulated to make concessions to the popular masses in order to avert revolution). As for the evils that occurred in connection with it, I really see no reason to assume that evils similar in kind and/or greater in magnitude wouldn’t have occurred in a hypothetical 20th century that knew no Communist states or Communist movement (just as, of course, one can speculate whether any of its positive consequences wouldn’t have occurred anyway, too). Neither repression, nor war (interstate or civil), nor famine were invented by Communism, and furthermore, the ability of simple abject poverty and inequality (which Communism was a reaction against) to kill in their own slow, quiet and undramatic way has always been enormous. In general, the development, growth and transformation of human society is messy and painful and has, unfortunately, tended to include periodic bloodbaths during most of recorded history.

8

F. Foundling 10.01.17 at 12:38 am

@6
>deep roots in the way of thinking of its adherents

I suppose I should have written ‘many of its adherents’. Democratic and libertarian tendencies coexisted with the authoritarian ones within the movement during all of its history (somewhat clandestinely during the worst periods), but the fact remains that there was enough room for the authoritarian ones, so that they were able to cease control of it and determine its development to a very great extent.

9

Sancho 10.01.17 at 6:56 am

Apparently Jeff lives in a timeline where Karl Marx personally stormed the imperial palace in 1917.

10

Gabriel 10.01.17 at 9:48 am

Jeff:

We must have read different books. What’s clear in Mieville’s account is both the fervent desire of many of the ‘socialist literari’ for a ‘liberal’ (bourgeois) revolution and the reality that it simply was never close to materializing. By the time Marx arrives, the actual revolution has already occurred – more than once! – and what Marx does, for both good and ill, is to elbow his way to the head of the line, and then – more than once! – deciding he doesn’t like the look of things before retreating back into the crowd.

I like the Mieville book a lot. I think it deserved some readers not as familiar with the source material, as beautiful though the writing is, the pacing and organization is sometimes muddy, and it can descend into a (very enjoyable, very readable) grey haze of earnest people having earnest meetings in living rooms. But then, suddenly, a gothic Anarchist Jewish guerilla festooned with pistols bursts onto the scene and all’s well. Fuck me, but I’d read a book about that guy.

11

kidneystones 10.01.17 at 11:28 am

@6 Stephen, thank you.
I mention the English and other revolutions because Babouf’s idea of equality requires some context. The revolutionary governments defended the right to hold property and certainly did their best to disenfranchise both women and the poorest.

Nothing I’ve read in English or French from that suggests any serious support for the abolition of private property by anyone. I don’t know enough about Babouf to offer my own opinion, but reading modern critics it seems that there is a real question about whether the abolition of private property is even implicit in his writings.

I’m struck your “It has been argued that Gracchus Babeuf’s Conjuration des Egaux, 1796, might be described as communist; certainly, it was being so described by the 1820s.” Modern critics certainly seem invested in such a reading of Babeuf, but those in the 1820’s? I wonder in which language and by whom? I can find no such description in English, or French from the 1820s. You may well be right, of course.

I think you are onto something, however, I do believe that in both America and France a substantial subset of the revolutionary thinkers did envisage a community of enforced equality, except of course for slaves and possibly women. Certainly the idea of communal living and a rejection of private property is present in any number of religious communities; and I expect that’s the 18th and early 19th century context.

As for the Commune, I confess to being a hostile critic. I choose to be offended by the destruction of the Tuileries. https://www.napoleon.org/magazine/livres/le-brasier-le-louvre-incendie-par-la-commune/ This and the efforts to destroy the Louvre strike me as the unforgivable violence of anarchists, rather than any ordered effort to impose a communist, or even socialist, state. Socialists absolutely existed, but those like Louis Blanc did not support the Commune, even if they did argue for clemency for the perpetrators.

I stand by my argument that 1917 really is the first socialist revolution which saw itself as a socialist revolution. And I’m no fan of communism whatsoever.

No offense intended, or taken.

12

F. Foundling 10.01.17 at 11:40 am

@8
>cease control of it
seize. Shouldn’t comment when I’m sleepy.

13

Thomas Beale 10.01.17 at 1:24 pm

@7

As for the evils that occurred in connection with it, I really see no reason to assume that evils similar in kind and/or greater in magnitude wouldn’t have occurred in a hypothetical 20th century that knew no Communist states or Communist movement

Well… any ideological Utopian political program is destined to be implemented as a totalitarian state in which the ideological abstractions always come first, and for which any number of lives may be sacrificed until reality has been adjusted to the fantasy (which of course never actually comes to pass, so it’s always an endless revolution not an temporary adjustment).

So yes, murderous regimes other than communism can and did occur, but communism clearly wins by a country mile in the body count stakes. There’s a reason for that I would say – communism has one of the better Utopian fantasies to offer in its ideology: that the ‘people’ will own the power.

You might argue that even worse forms of capitalism will kill as many people, but the difference is that this is not intentional, but rather as a side-effect of externalisations on workers and the environment (capitalism truly doesn’t care), and it does leave some space for consumers to exercise group power should they care to.

14

Donald Johnson 10.01.17 at 4:37 pm

“You might argue that even worse forms of capitalism will kill as many people, “

I think it has. This isn’t a defense of communism, which IMO was a disastrous detour for the left. It’s possible to agree with points made by everyone in the thread so far. So yes, as Foundling said, if the Russian Democrats had been a bit more democratic, they could have taken the antiwar message away from the Bolsheviks, but they didn’t. They discredited themselves. The Bolsheviks then took power and with remarkable speed became a new dictatorship.

There seem to be a couple of people in this thread who typed Marx when I assume they meant Lenin.

15

Donald Johnson 10.01.17 at 4:39 pm

Russian Democrats was supposed to read Russian democrats. My iPad is chauvinistic and thought I meant the American political party.

16

Jeff R. 10.01.17 at 4:54 pm

@10 As I read the book, they wanted a liberal revolution only for the purpose of filling in the checkmarks required per Marx to achieve the system they actually wanted, and next to none of them, which is to say nobody who had the kind of popular support to actually succeed in governing, wanted to be the ones running it or even be involved.

@7 It is, let us say, considerably more difficult to end a war when the enemy is hundreds if not thousands of miles deep in your territory than it might have been otherwise. (Mvll s bng dlbrtl dshnst whn h fls t mntn sngl tm xctl whr th frnt s drng ths vnts, whn h fls t mntn wht pssbl trms th nm ws wllng t ffr, f n t ll, nd nstd ttmpts t mpl tht th ldrshp s cntnng th wr t f shr bld-mnddnss.
Disemvowel

17

F. Foundling 10.01.17 at 8:33 pm

@13
>any ideological Utopian political program is destined to be implemented as a totalitarian state …

That’s an audacious generalisation that I see no reason to agree with. ‘Utopian’ is simply a derogatory term, since everyone knows that complete perfection cannot exist, and ‘this is impossible’ or ‘this is too good to ever happen’ are subjective assessments that are difficult to prove. If ‘utopian’ means ‘expecting to produce enormous improvements in the future’ (as in ‘socialising the means of production will produce enormous improvements in the future’), then most long-term political programmes can be described as ultimately utopian: liberal capitalism (to which some add human rights, democracy, the rule of law, etc., etc.) coupled with technological progress is supposed to lead to enormous improvements, too. Furthermore, most great social changes are associated with great positive expectations that could be labelled ‘utopian’; the bourgeois democratic revolutions with their talk of freedom and equality and the restoration of capitalism in former communist states with its promise of affluence and justice for all have been no exception. A political programme includes not only an end (which is typically an enormous improvement in the long term, of course), but also means, and it is the means that determine what can arise from it, including whether a totalitarian state can.

>There’s a reason for that I would say – communism has one of the better Utopian fantasies to offer in its ideology: that the ‘people’ will own the power.

That the ‘people’ will own the power is a democratic ‘fantasy’ – the oh-so-sinister ‘fantasy’ behind the bourgeois revolutions that eventually produced today’s liberal democracy. You don’t motivate people to fight on barricades with slogans like ‘checks and balances’, you do it by promising them that they will be ‘free’ and will ‘have the power’. If, instead, disempowerment (including its ultimate form, killing) ensues, it is not because the objective was empowerment (and as much of it as possible), it is because of the specific means that were supposed to produce the empowerment were such as to produce its opposite. Ultimately, the evils of communism boil down to tyranny; and inasmuch as tyrannies have ever been brought down, it has been precisely with the slogan that the people should have the power.

>You might argue that even worse forms of capitalism will kill as many people, the difference is that this is not intentional, but rather as a side-effect…

There is no difference of principle w.r.t. intentions: in both cases, people behave, both in terms of actions and in terms of inactions, in a way that will predictably harm others; and in both cases, some people gain power (in capitalism, partly via profit) by engaging in actions that are harmful to others, and others let them do it. In both cases, it’s ‘a side-effect’, and it’s all for the greater good, of course: since free-market capitalism / socialism is the best and most beneficial of all possible systems, we have to let it do what it must. In connection with my point about body counts (which are in themselves often quite debatable), Chomsky cites Sen for an interestring comparison between China and India: http://spectrezine.org/global/chomsky.htm.

>it does leave some space for consumers to exercise group power should they care to

What makes a society tyrannical is precisely that for *some* people not to be harmed, it crucially requires some *other* people to ‘care’. By the same logic, you can expect the representatives of communist regimes to ‘care’, too. And typically, various mechanisms in the society in question ensure that people have very weak incentives to ‘care’ and very strong incentives not to.

I probably won’t have time to participate in this discussion in the following days, so I’ll have to stop here.

18

F. Foundling 10.01.17 at 9:39 pm

@Jeff R. 10.01.17 at 4:54 pm

> It is, let us say, considerably more difficult to end a war when the enemy is hundreds if not thousands of miles deep in your territory than it might have been otherwise.

I will just note that ‘your territory’ in this case meant the territory of various nationalities that ‘you’ had conquered and whose desire for national independence and national identity ‘you’ had been suppressing brutally for quite some time. The same applies even to the much larger chunk that the Bolsheviks eventually ceded in Brest-Litovsk. I imagine that might be part of the explanation for the damnable lack of patriotic fervour in the troops defending their homeland. Or it might be the bacillus of Marxism that had infected their souls, of course.

>… they wanted a liberal revolution only for the purpose of filling in the checkmarks required per Marx to achieve the system they actually wanted, and next to none of them, which is to say nobody who had the kind of popular support to actually succeed in governing, wanted to be the ones running it or even be involved.

There were bourgeois democrats (the Kadets) who wanted to rule. That they didn’t have much popular support isn’t Marx’s fault. There were also (the right wing of the) SRs and (the right wing of the) Mensheviks, who did agree to be involved in the Russian Provisional Government; why, Kerensky himself was from a moderate faction of the SR. Again, that they lost popular support isn’t Marx’s fault. Blame the stupid people, it kept demanding land, peace and what not. Alas! If only everybody who had come up with such demands had been immediately … silenced in one way or another before the thought disease had spread, all would have been well.

Now I’m really gone.

19

Gabriel 10.02.17 at 12:28 am

@14

Yes, thanks, my brain read ‘Lenin’ instead of ‘Marx’. Risks of late-night posting on a board without an edit button.

20

Matt 10.02.17 at 8:05 am

I tend to disagree w/ Tyler Cowen much more than I agree with him (and I possibly even disagree on the answers to some of these questions), but I think these are all good questions about this (and similar) cases:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/10/democracy-call-catalonia.html

My own thought is that anyone who thinks there are “easy” answers to situations like this one isn’t thinking hard enough, though I’d be shocked if the use of force here turned out to serve the government of Spain well.

21

Thomas Beale 10.02.17 at 8:06 am

@17

any ideological Utopian political program is destined to be implemented as a totalitarian state …

That’s an audacious generalisation that I see no reason to agree with. ‘Utopian’ is simply a derogatory term …

Briefly… the important term is ‘ideological Utopian’. Strongly ideological political programs are about making reality conform to the ideology, that’s why all hard left people love the idea of revolutions, tabla rasa etc – it’s a top-down concept, and one that simply doesn’t care about the human cost of reformatting the hard drive of social reality. And although there have been other murderous non-communist regimes, they don’t come close to having the kind of ideological mindset that justifies literally endless killing (Pol Pot, Shining Path for example, but also Stalin, Mao, …).

Any possibly meaningful concept of ‘utopia’ as a reasonable democratic state that provides for everyone has to be achieved bottom up, with the participation of society along the way.

22

steven t johnson 10.02.17 at 2:14 pm

Probably not of interest, but still…my marginal notes and afterthoughts, on my US Verso edition.

Page 1 In the second paragraph Mieville attributes the overthrow of the Tsar to the ‘first’ revolution. “no, it promised to fulfill 1905″ He ends the paragraph calling the Bolshevik revolution ‘ultimately tragic and ultimately inspiring.’ ” I noted “German revolution was tragic.”

Page 2 ‘The story must honor those specificities without losing sight of the general: the world-historic causes and ramifications of the upheaval.’ “left-handed reference to the Great War”

Page 8 Mieville lists eight Russian paradises. “speaks the professional fantasist”

He lists Herzen, Bakunin and Chernyshevsky as dissident writers “Tolstoy and Turgenev?”

Page 10 He lists Aznef, Breshko-Breshkovskaya and Chernov as SF partisans of ‘order.’ “Savinkov?”

Page 11 After talking about early twentieth century economic development, Mieville cites the founding of first Marxist group in 1882. “back track chronologically”

Page 14 Mieville dismisses the ‘ecstatic rant’ of the Communist Manifesto. “Really? Who seriously believes that?”

Mieville praises ‘Legal and Economist heretics’ for addressing a ‘conundrum of left catechism’ about socialist revolution with a backward peasantry. [He puts Legal and Economist and backward in scare quotes.] “Again—seriously?”

Page 15 ‘Uttering the word intelligentsia, [the Tsar] makes the same disgusted face as when he says syphilis.’ “he really knows this?”

Page 16 Mieville snarks at the 1903 conference as a meeting of the ‘great and good of Russian Marxism.’ “Seriously?”

Page 17 Mieville writes ‘The bulk of Party members consider themselves simply Social Democrats, right up to 1917. Even Lenin will take some time to convince himself that there is no going back.’ “dubious, very dubious, judging from Lenin’s actual practice of factionalism” *

Page 18 Father Gapon and his ‘theology—devout, ethical, quietist and reformist all at once—is confused but sincere.’ “he looked into his soul”

Page 23 Mieville emphasizes the difference between Lenin and Trotsky in 1905, calling Trotsky views ‘a very distinct take.’ “Is it?”

Page 24 Mieville writes the Kadets ‘ambiguous republicanism will have mutated into support for a constitutional monarchy.’ I cross out mutated and write above it “stayed the same”

He call Pavel Milykov ‘a pre-eminent historian.’ I cross out a pre- and write above it “the”

Page 26 Mieville writes of “worker-intellectuals, autodidacts’ and activists. “the difference?”

Page 30 Mieville says of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks ‘Both sides see that progressive bourgeois-democratic revolution as desirable, an aspiration at the limits of the possible and sustainable.’ “sorry, no, sharing power with the peasants may be vague but counterposing that to sharing power with bourgeoisie is politically divisive + not the same” not the same is underscored

Page 31 Mievelle tells how Russia’s ‘alliance’ and ‘economic ties’ with France ‘necessarily’ range it with France. “breakable” (alliance) and (economic ties)”=French loans”

He writes ’15 July 1914, Nicholas takes Russia into the war.’ “Guns of August?”

He writes ‘peasant-populist Trudoviks, a moderate left party associated with the SRs…’ “misleading, on right of SRs”

Page 32 Mieville lists ‘corporal punishment’ as a cause of Russian defeat in the war. “proposition!” (Shock and sarcasm, if it needs saying.)

‘Ultimately the war will cost Russia between 2 and 3 millions lives—perhaps more.’ “but it’s the Bolshevik revolution that is ultimately tragic”

Page 33 Mieville refers to the ‘hard-right SF Ilya Fondaminsky..’ “Black Hundred?”

Page 36 Mieville writes of Nicholas II’s ‘tsarry eyes…’ “how bold!”

Page 37 Mieville shares Yuspov’s tale of Rasputin’s assassination “colorful story—assuming it is true is not acute”

Most of Mieville’s political work is done in the introduction and ‘prehistory’ so marginalia diminishes markedly in the more purely narrative chapters.

Page 51 Mieville tells of Duma members privately meeting after being dismissed. “memory of French Revolution”

Page 52 Mieville attributes the separate initiation of the Provisional Government to Mensheviks Gvozdev and Bogdanov. “Sukhanov’s version? I can’t recall”

Page 59 Mieville describes the Duma Committee as ‘torqued by history.” Underlined but word failed me for a marginal note.

Page 144 Denying Bolsheviks were only left groups, Mieville writes ‘To their own left were groups of anarchists…’ “no they weren’t (I do not accept that anarchism is left-wing.)

Page 152 As part of an attack on Lenin, Mieville writes ‘While it may not be alone in this, the socialist left has always tended to exaggerate its successes…’ then proceeds to an extended attack. “no may be about it!”

Page 202 Mieville retails a close encounter between Lenin in hiding and a Cossack. “Cossack dude knew and was warning him? (Lenin)”

Page 210 Mieville speaks of a ‘wave of mysterious explosions.’ “safety ignored, quality control ignored, overworked, disgruntled and demoralized”

Page 214 Mieville calls someone a ‘Pooter.’ “what is that?”

Page 247 Mieville writes of Lenin’s change in policy ‘It was not mere caprice, however, but the results of minute attention to shifts in politics, and exaggerated responses to these.’ “what would have been the modulated responses?”

Page 304 Mieville is blank on events in Moscow. “revolution in Moscow?”

Page 313 Mieville writes ‘The bureaucratic apparatus is suspended now above the broken remnants of the class for which it claimed to speak.’ “is it a bureaucracy if it’s not suspended above?”

Page 314 Mieville goes from defeat of Left Opposition to Stalin initiating the Five Year.
“skips over question of whether Bukharinism was failing”**

Page 315 Mieville quotes Sukhanov on how Left Mensheviks walking out soviet was a break with the revolution. “yes it was”

Page 316 ‘The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from that plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One country, is a baleful result of recasting necessity as virtue.’
“Cf. rise of capitalism no regrets there!”

Mieville cites Serge to calling the assessment of the Kronstadt insurrection as a White attack ‘slander.’ “not a slander, I think”

“look, if you want to take Menshevik stageism seriously, then you take development of productive forces seriously—and you don’t dismiss Stalinist development” ***

Page 317 Mieville quotes a 1924 noble dream of Trotsky in contrast to the ‘regime of bones to come..’ “Already a regime of bones by his standards, unlike the Peter ‘the Great’ he selectively disappears” (Yes, I was thinking of St. Petersburg here.)

*Mieville of course adheres to the conventional wisdom that What Is To Be Done? is something strange. But I still think that if you really want to address Lenin’s revolutionism, you should read One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. I think Mieville is projecting his conciliationism.

**Attributing it all to Stalin gives him too much credit I think. At any rate, bo matter what Mieville wants to think it was precisely the more ethereal pure democracy, preserve the revolution from betrayal, that led to the universal allaiance against Trotsky. Because it was Trotsky, the taker of hostages, the patron of the Tsarist officers, the proponent of bosses in the factories, the military leader who looked like a Cromwell or Bonaparte. It was notoriously Trotsky who was the first Communist boss who executed of his own, another Communist, as I recall. But not Mieville.

We may think that Trotsky’s plans would have worked better than Stalin’s desperate improvisations. Such counterfactuals are hard to assert with dogmatic certainty. What we can say is that the real choice was Bukharin or Stalin. And if you don’t assess Bukharin, you aren’t engaging the issues at all. I can’t be dogmatic either, but the counterfactual world in which Bukharin’s NEP saved socialism in the USSR and by the way defeated Hitler doesn’t look plausible at all, to me.

***I do think Mieville’s perspective does implicitly embrace a Menshevik style stageism that sees the Bolshevik revolution as misconceived from the beginning. The fact that he finds the tragedy wonderfully gripping and takes inspiration from the nobility of the lost cause hits me very differently. To me, vaporing over lost causes have an entirely different feel, one reminiscent of watching Gone With the Wind.

China Mieville does not favor Jeff R.’s ideal, but Jeff R. did I think correctly read him as rejecting the fundamentals of the Bolshevik Revolution. Mieville is rather discreet on what he would support, so if Jeff R. wants to put his ideal forward, why not?

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Lenin Fan 10.02.17 at 4:05 pm

I would suggest people read Alexander Rabinowitch’s “The Bolsheviks Come to Power” before repeating stereotypes of the Bolshevik Revolution as being top-down, conspiratorial, imposed on an unwilling people by cunning intellectuals, etc. Rabinowitch shows pretty convincingly that the party had transformed from the sect of emigre days into a mass party which was able to accurately reflect the needs and moods of the masses in St. Petersburg. In addition, the party had a flexible structure and relatively wide room for dissent and disagreement – it was not rigidly top-down and monolithic. The Bolsheviks were able to take power in 1917 because their program actually addressed the pressing needs and concerns of workers and peasants in Russia at the time (peace land bread! all power to the soviets!, etc,), and because their organizational structure allowed the rank-and-file, to a large extent, to control the party. And frankly, I can’t imagine anything more top-down or utopian than the idea that some functioning liberal capitalist democracy which almost no one but a small layer of intellectuals in Russia actually wanted could somehow have been produced out of post-World War I Russia. Why weren’t any of the liberal or moderate socialist parties willing to pull out of the war, one of the most universal demands across Russia? Why don’t they get any credit for being elitist, rigid, and willing to perpetuate mass violence against their own people?

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Lenin Fan 10.02.17 at 4:16 pm

As for body counts, the major death tolls associated with Stalin and Mao are primarily a result of the forced collectivization programs and famines thereof. These campaigns were part of desperate attempts to industrialize and catch up with the leading Western capitalist powers. These policies were definitely brutal and violent, but more than matched by similar experiences during the development of capitalism, from
multiple major famines in both British and postcolonial India, (as referenced by F. Foundling above), expropriation and genocide of indigenous Americans, the Irish famine, millions dying today due to lack of access to food or medical care, etc.

And although there have been other murderous non-communist regimes, they don’t come close to having the kind of ideological mindset that justifies literally endless killing

Uh, Hitler? Belgian Congo? The US in Vietnam?

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Harry 10.02.17 at 8:35 pm

If I had the energy I’d dispute many of steven r johnston’s notes but:

Page 214 Mieville calls someone a ‘Pooter.’ “what is that?”

is fair enough — its a reference to a character in an 1892 (brilliantly funny) novel, Diary of a Nobody, instantly recognizable to any educated English person over the age of 75, but I suspect only to a few of Mieville’s readers. I dunno, maybe it still has wide currency (the term) — I’d bet that among CT posters, Chris, Maria, Henry, Kieran, Daniel and I all get it, and no-one else (same with Molesworth, probably; maybe even Sellar and Yeatman, or maybe I am selling the other posters short).

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Thomas Beale 10.02.17 at 9:51 pm

@24

And although there have been other murderous non-communist regimes, they don’t come close to having the kind of ideological mindset that justifies literally endless killing

Uh, Hitler? Belgian Congo? The US in Vietnam?

As I said, they don’t even come close. Arguably endless killing, but without the deep ideology of the true radical Leftist; those regimes killed for essentially pragmatic reasons (not defensible ones obviously), and they killed specific types of people. The revolutionary mindset does anything it takes to to mould current reality into an intended target state, no cost is too great, no person or societal position ever safe. It’s religious.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time is revealing on lived experiences in the USSR. The thing about true ideology is that some people fervantly believe in it, to the point where they’ll sacrifice anything for it, usually themselves. Only in such regimes would young women willingly go to Siberia to build railway lines with their bare hands in winter. Only later did they realise they’d been sold a complete fantasy.

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steven t johnson 10.02.17 at 11:04 pm

steven r johnston thanks Harry@25 for the kind explanation of what a Pooter is.

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bob mcmanus 10.02.17 at 11:24 pm

Why weren’t any of the liberal or moderate socialist parties willing to pull out of the war

Well, I recently read a history of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. We all remember after the Bolshevik Revolution Wilson sent American troops to Vladivostok and Archangel (sp?). Those US troops apparently did little to no fighting, to the chagrin of many of the participants in the Civil War. They were there to guard and protect acres and acres of already shipped materials from boots to trucks to ammunition to railroad engines that had been sold to the Czarist regime but not yet paid for.

Wilson et al took those debts seriously, as did Morgan and Lamont. Read Tooze for the US plan for economic hegemony. Kerensky knew that pulling out of the war would have dire economic consequences. As the Bolsheviks found out.

There are like a dozen recent books on October 1917, including Losurdo and Zizek. More on Lenin. Haven’t gotten around to the Deutscher trilogy yet. I need more to convince me to read the Mieville. Reed and Trotsky, already read, were like there.

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Lenin Fan 10.02.17 at 11:54 pm

As I said, they don’t even come close. Arguably endless killing, but without the deep ideology of the true radical Leftist; those regimes killed for essentially pragmatic reasons (not defensible ones obviously), and they killed specific types of people. The revolutionary mindset does anything it takes to to mould current reality into an intended target state, no cost is too great, no person or societal position ever safe. It’s religious.

As I stated before, the mass killings and famines that happened under Stalin or Mao were not just random spasms of some eternal utopian longing for violence. They were associated with the processes of forced collectivization and industrialization, which had fundamentally pragmatic motivations (i.e. to industrialize and modernize), and had specific beginning and end points. They were also not unique in human history, but quite similar to the violent expropriations necessary to build capitalism. The idea that the USSR and the PRC under Mao were just a couple of non-stop murderfests is totally historically ignorant.

I was also unaware that, say, Agent Orange only killed specific groups of people.

And no “deep ideology”? The obsessive anti-communism underlying both Nazi fascism and the US destruction of Vietnam doesn’t count as ideology? The idea of Manifest Destiny that justified the American genocide of indigenous Americans wasn’t an ideology?

Not to mention the idea that ideologically-motivated killings are necessarily worse. The Congo Free State and the British East India Company (and U.S. corporations today) didn’t particularly care if anyone lived or died. But their death tolls are just as great.

Only in such regimes would young women willingly go to Siberia to build railway lines with their bare hands in winter.

Migrants agreeing to do dangerous work in faraway places and finding out they were lied to about the conditions is not at all an experience unique to the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

lived experiences in the USSR

I could as easily quote those who experienced the USSR as a time of free education, health care, and social mobility and mourn its loss, but that would require understanding the USSR as a vast and contradictory phenomenon and

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Lenin Fan 10.02.17 at 11:55 pm

My apologies for my highly ineffective use of the HTML tags, by the way.

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S_Ou_B 10.03.17 at 12:19 am

A short, somewhat tangential comment:

Letting fields lie fallow and leaving grain in the silos to rot while others starve is perfectly legitimate economic behavior. After all, if the prices for crops crash, how then will the farmers eat?

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kidneystones 10.03.17 at 3:08 am

I wonder how many pro-communist commenters have lived, or even visited, any of the workers’ paradises. I have and have close friends who fled eastern Europe. The violence and state repression are just part of the joy. Blogs such as CT are either banned, or the subject of strict censorship. One can’t found, or publish, a magazine or journal without state approval, and certainly not for profit. Then there are the committees dedicated, in part, to organizing surveillance of members and their families. What happens when bad things happen? The facts are buried. One of my former students ran a successful business in Shanghai. I asked why she bothered to live in Tokyo – she replied that in Tokyo she could be reasonably sure that farm produce was not grown in soil polluted with buried batteries, or industrial pollutants. Daily life in Shanghai involved soaking vegetables in water for two hours each day to leach out as many of potential toxins as possible.

Then there’s the non-existent freedom to worship any set of gods one likes – including materialism. Alcohol and tobacco are abundant, however, and one can always find an extra reason to thank our lucky stars for guidance of Lenin, or Pol Pot, in a cup of Victory Gin over a good game of chess at the Victory Cafe. I mean, really.

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Donald Johnson 10.03.17 at 11:21 am

You think Hitler killed for pragmatic reasons? His regime was just getting started when it came to mass killing.

As for the Belgian Congo, if you compare the numbers in Timothy Snyder’s review here

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/27/hitler-vs-stalin-who-was-worse/

to the estimate of ten million for Leopold’s Congo Free State in ” King Leopold’s Ghost”, Stalin and Leopold are in the same range if mere arithmetic matters, as compared to some nebulous metric involving the ideology of the true radical leftist.

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Donald Johnson 10.03.17 at 11:38 am

I should add that King Leopold was killing for a practical reason– profit.

The tobacco industry doesn’t destroy societies, but if you added up the deaths it helped cause after it became clear tobacco was deadly it’s going to be in Black Book of Communism levels. Yes, a different sort of thing, involving the active complicity of the victims, but that is still a massive amount of human misery justified on the basis that the suckers made a free decision. It’s an ideology which justifies making money off of addiction.

If the more pessimistic predictions of global warming are correct, all these megadeaths are a rounding error. Both communism and capitalism are at fault there.

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