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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Critical Left Reflections.

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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Verso. 2017.

Autumn and the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution are drawing closer. The harvest of books on the new Soviet Power is still being gathered. It is, no doubt somebody has written, the duty of socialists to study, and this crop comes, for many, at the top of the left’s reading list. Should we begin with Lenin and the debates that have arisen after the publication of Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to Be Done’ in Context (2008)? The 17th century Jansenist theologian, Saint-Cyran, claimed to have gone through Saint Augustine’s writings, 22 volumes, ten times, and his writings against the Pelagian heretics thirty. (1) There are Leninists whose familiarity with the Collected Works of Lenin  exceeds that modest accomplishment. Far better, if we are to grasp what was a stake in Russia in 1917, to start first with accounts of events: the contending politics and theories, Bolsheviks and their opponents, are embodied in the acts of the revolution.

China Miéville’s contribution is, as he announces, “a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. (Page 2). If it is more than as a “story” that he tells the tale, Miéville, from the radical left, and the accomplished author of the BasLag weird fiction trilogy, brings a freshness and enthusiasm to the narrative, which begins in the 19th century Tsarist Russian opposition, the 1905 Revolution, and above, all the immense tragedy of the Great War which overshadowed the events that unfolded. October leaves little doubt that the immediate alternative to All Power to the Soviets was not a coalition of the left, but the threat of a successful far-right coup that would have accomplished what General Kornilov had failed impose. Miéville has both charmed and irritated those already familiar with the plot, and, one hopes, instilled both interest and caution in those not.

The Saint-Cyrans amongst the left have not been slow to argue about the take on Lenin’s Letters from Afar (March 1917), which called for the Bolsheviks to take state power. For some this remains a “bombshell”, advocating an accelerated move towards a socialist regime, telescoping previous alliances and revolutionary ‘stages’ into an immediate drive towards something close to socialism. But Miéville claims (following Lars Lih) that, “His argument that the revolution must continue remained clear, as did his exhortation to worker, ‘you must perform miracles of proletarian and popular organisation to prepare for your victory in the second stage of the revolution’ – a stage not of socialism, he would soon clarify, but of taking political power, of winning over the Soviet, to ensure the victory of the (necessarily bourgeois, democratic) revolution (Page 98). It was “continuity Bolshevism, and yet contained the seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position”. (Page 99) Readers who wish to make their own judgement can follow debates on the relationship between socialism, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and other aspects of Bolshevik programme and doctrine.

Defending the Revolution.

Of far greater interest are Miéville’s defences of the Revolution. In a concluding chapter there is a series of reflections on its outcome, to put it simply, Stalinism. The state organised Red Terror was, in a manner familiar to anybody acquainted with Miéville’s former organisation the Socialist Workers Party, explained as a result of external circumstances. The Civil War was the cause, ““Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes the Red terror.”(Page 312). Yet, ““there is no doubt that its reach a depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism or the degradation of the moment are thugs and murders unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There is no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.”(Ibid).

October does not examine the view that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” unconstrained by the rule of law is fertile ground for abuse, thugs and murders. One may disagree with Kautsky’s critique of Bolshevism. But if Lih is correct that Lenin accepted the view that the democratic republic was an important stage in the “ripening of the proletariat” it is not the view that this is a “stage” “the essential basis for building up a Socialist system if production” that favours the eventual conquest of political power, that strikes us most today. It is his opinion that “people’s rights” such as “the protection of minorities” are the bedrock of socialism. (2)

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. 

Was Soviet Power, on the basis of interpreting Lenin’s reflections in State and Revolution (1917), made up of “working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time” a vehicle for these rights? Could take the state and politics back into the hands of the – restricted – electorate who controlled them? Lenin’s model was the barely over a couple of months long Paris Commune (8 Mar 1871 – 28 May 1871), a pluralist assembly, a heroic stand,  but which ended in a deep split between the patriotic majority of Blanquists who wished to fight by any means to the end, and an opposition of Proudhonists  and supporters of the First International (Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871,  Published, 1876 and a standard source for Marxists for many years). Its own administrative achievements – contested – aside, this perhaps illustrates the difficulties of revolutionary democracy in war.

As Isaac Deutscher memorably commented, the Bolsheviks refused to allow the “famished and emotionally unhinged country to vote their party out of power and itself into a bloody chaos” are not hard to grasp. (3)

They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class having backed them in the revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naïve as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence that the proletariat, having once adhered to it would not abandon it. (Ibid)

The Russian Dictatorship of the Proletariat had immense ambitions. Soviet power was a lever to the transition towards socialism. But disagreements arose over the methods used to that aim. Those opposed to the militarisation of labour in War Communism, to the One Man Management that emerged, Taylorism, and what is called ‘bureaucracy’ indicated that the content, the social institutions, of ‘socialism’ were not something that was already there in the “programme”. No number of warnings about external threats can retrospectively annul the fact that the dissident voices within the left, the critics of Bolshevism whose views were far from the ‘formalism’ of Kautsky and the social democrats who rejected the revolution en bloc,

In a more open-minded fashion than many who wish to defend Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ state of grace,  Miéville says, 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.”(Page 317) But without human rights, how can we judge such abuses? Without such standards – not trumped by the necessities of the moment – what do we have left? This is more fundamental than the ban on Bolshevik “factions” that took place at the  10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) 1921, that is –initially limited – clamp down on the freedom of inner-party debate. But even if the Party had reached agreements to tolerate loyal extra-party opposition, say with left Mensheviks and ‘non-party’ representatives in the Soviets – that is accepting disagreements in terms that they set, there was no prospect of accepting pluralism as such, that is the right of an opposition to say what they wish. As the twenties wore on this was no longer a matter of the external constraints of civil war, ‘temporary measures’, but became a matter of doctrine.

The Russian Revolution, it is customary to say, contained many potentials. Miéville points to the sense of popular power that it unleashed. Government decrees, on women’s rights, decriminalising homosexuality, and the recognition of national rights as the USSR was formed from different ‘republics’, and – within the limits of the censorship – artistic creatively briefly flourished. But the strategy of a ‘transitional dictatorship’ was the worm in the fruit.


(1) Page 293. Tome l. Port-Royal. Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin. 3rd Edition. 1867.

(2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Karl Kautsky. Ann Arbor. 1964 (1919)

(3) Page 505, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky 1879 – 1921. Isaac Deutscher. Oxford University press. 1979.

International Socialist Network: Seymour and Others Split over Race Play.

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Is this the Shortest Lived Left group ever? 

“I shall eat grass and die in a ditch in the brown water where dead leaves have rotted”.

Not from Richard Seymour, China Miéville, and Magpie Corven and other comrades’ resignation letter from the International Socialist Network (ISN).

 Which is here (with helpful comments “intercalated” as Seymour would put it), 

To the SC and our comrades in the ISN

With great regrets, we are resigning from the ISNetwork. Many of us were involved in the setting up of the network, and we are very sad that it has come to this. We remain in full solidarity with ISN comrades, and look forward to working with them on campaigns.

Despite the repeated characterisation of us as a ‘right bloc’ (Note: heavens what is the world coming to?) , we do not represent any unified political position beyond our concerns about both the political direction and internal culture of the ISNetwork. It has been clear for some time that our critiques put us in a minority: contrary to a common smear, we have always been willing to argue from this position, and welcomed this political debate. However, there has been an increasing breakdown of trust between us and various leading members of the organisation. It is now clear that we are not welcome in the ISN (Note: But very welcome Chez Tendance Coatesy which we hope you will soon join in our “rotten iqudationist bloc”)

One of us is a woman sex-worker and bdsm practitioner. After many years of self imposed isolation from politics, she believed she had finally found a space where even those comrades who disagreed with her positions would discuss controversial topics of sexuality and desire in respect and comradeship. Instead she has been browbeaten, patronised, marginalised and moralised against, and the topics she wishes to discuss with her comrades dismissed as, in the words of one SC member, self-evidently ‘sordid.’ She has been made to feel so unwelcome that she feels forced to leave the SC and ISN.

The SC has put out a statement strongly implying racism and claiming ‘inappropriate’ argumentative techniques against three of our members. We entirely reject these insinuations and urge anyone interested to examine the threads in question here & “comment currently unavailable” (Note: we wonder why…)  and judge for themselves.

That they are over a controversial and charged topic -and one on which the signatories to this letter do not necessarily agree- is not in doubt: however, if there is a single statement made by any comrade that can reasonably be judged ‘inappropriate’, let alone racist, we urge their accusers to state it (Note: be warned, as a reader who enjoys Lacan and Judith Butler and can be seen flipping through a copy of Spinoza on a sunny day – this is hard, hard going).

It is claimed, on the basis of a leaked email thread (Note: Tush!)  of a private conversation, that we have been politically dishonest, and set out to split or even destroy the network.

This is wholly untrue (Note: well said!) . As has been made clear in this week’s bulletin, we had intended to launch a platform within the IS Network in order to argue for our position. However, recent events had given us an increasing sense that we might not be able to remain members, due both to legitimate political differences and to the personalised politics of vituperation at the brunt of which we have felt.

Accordingly – as is explicitly allowed in the ISN constitution – we have been discussing among ourselves to work out how best to argue our position within the network, our chances, and our contingency strategies if we felt unable to continue.

At issue here is not just the conduct or content of recent discussions or even the political direction of the ISN, but the question of making a habitable culture of discussion on the Left. When some of us recently wrote an article criticising a politics of anathema within the ISN, we were derided by opponents who denied any such thing exists (Note: how very true, how very very true).

Unfortunately, it does. One SC member has recently publicly insisted that ‘no one is being targeted personally’. The very same SC member recently seconded a denouncement on Facebook, by another SC member, of several of us as ‘arrogant fucks’ and ‘bad rubbish’ to whom ‘good riddance’ (Note: a disgrace the overweening toe-rag twats!).

One leading member expressed a desire on Facebook to strangle one of us – referring to her as a ‘nauseating tosser’ – and not one of the SC members to whom she said this suggested it was an inappropriate comment to make (Note: and they use such discourse  well I mean, what can you discursively intersectionalise?).

Several SC members openly expressed their agreement with a status referring to us as ‘parasites’ (Note: there is no room for such language in the workers’ movement!).

Another SC member wrote ‘they should count themselves lucky they haven’t been expelled’ – particularly galling to two of the ‘Facebook Four’ involved in our thread. There are further examples, but this culture is one in which we can no longer work: we also would like comrades to consider whether left organisations can hope to attract a new generation of members if they treat each other in this way.

We look forward to working in a left culture that has ended certain practices inherited from the SWP. These include moralistic browbeating; the implicit claim that various controversial topics are inappropriate for discussion; that certain comrades can not be argued with on them; and that dissenters from these nostrums deserve to be attacked in personalised terms.

We know many ISN members look forward to this with similar enthusiasm (Note: indeed we do!).

Jamie A

Magpie C

Kieran C

A. M.

China M

Richard S

Len T

Rosie W

Document here.

“There is some check in the flow of my being; a deep stream presses and some obstacles;  it jokes; it toys; he in the centre resists.”

My attitude is one of defiance. I am fearless. I conquer.”

Not  the words of Richard Seymour.

More comment here .

Defend the Seymourites!

For an International Workers’ Inquiry!


St Matthew’s Street Station. A Basse-Lag Christmas Tale.

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Ipswich 2032

St Matthew’s Street Station. A Basse-Lag Christmas Tale.

The latest Tower Rampart Worker was rubbish, thought Merk. On the front-page was the news that sales of the paper had been “brilliant” at a Unite the Unite Meeting, and that three Cactae/Cacti had joined. He turned to Travailleur Hebdo. In thick print they denounced the ‘Ramp’ Central Committee’s “bureaucratic centralism” and the formation of the 214th ‘Democratic Opposition’ to the CC. Comrade Dream-Weaver Alex’s predictions of permanent revolution in New Ipswich came in for some stick.

Merk had no more time to look through the left press. It was the Yule Eve. He had three days off from his job tending the Sphagnum Moss Garden on top of the Waterfront University. There was an illegal bottle of cold Vodka, but no truffles, in the fridge….

Outcast Oliphant-people grew the tubers just outside the City. They brought them to the market to sell, by stalls offering pungent curry-wurst, kaki fruit, and piles of ruby-olives. He would have to go there as soon as possible.

The route from Merk’s flat passed by the HQ of Mayor Benedict the 2nd.Twenty stories high the lower floors were decked in video-posters of the Municipal Chief and his Deputy, Andrew ‘Coco’. They read, The Community Program Makes Free! In the narrow road a gang of the unemployed was cleaning the pavement with tooth brushes. A small child was watching them, clearly terrified.

On the Corn Hill there were no traders. A rally was taking place. On the steps of the old City Hall the leader of the Progressive English Patriots, a Remade with a twisted mouth cut out of a large pumpkin head, was holding forth. He caught only a few lines. “The Malignant Cult of the Absent Without Leave – AWL …” he ranted, lips covered with spittle. “I scorn their pathetic minions…” “We need a Wall, an anti-Fascist Wall, to stave off …” So this was the New Man!

Merk would have laughed. But on the edges of the tiny audience hovered, menacingly, the Patriots’ Allies, the Green Shorts militia of Lord George ‘Gallows’ Spode.

At 15 o’clock there was still time to get the fungi. It was too expensive to take a sky-taxi and the Montgolfière was too slow. Yet St Matthew’s Street Station was not far away. It would take him to directly to the Oliphants. The Subway at the Roundabout led to the intersection of the Meridional Line to London, and the Septentrional Line to their Tuddenham settlement. The Moss Gardner bought a cheap return Metro ticket and was soon on the way.

The Underground came to the surface at Westerfield. The train paused at the crossing with the Lowestoft railway to let pass a long succession of Goods Wagons, carrying prisoners to the Kessingland Holiday Camp. The Mayor had ordered a pre-Yule vagrant-sweep of the streets. The Official City Paper, the Ipswich Stella, had said that they were to undergo mentoring and training. Rumours in the last two local pubs where drinks stronger than 3% were permitted were already circulating that another batch of undesirables were to be ‘remade’. The groans from the rail carriages did not indicate much enthusiasm at this prospect.

Merk alighted at the village. The Oliphant Greenhouses were stacked along the side of the Finn Valley, gleaming in the winter sun. There was no sign of anybody selling their produce. He would have walked into the market gardens. But warning against this were notices saying, “Private Property. Trespassers will be Eradicated.”

How could he get the truffles? Obviously, one could ask a villager. In front was the Holy Lamb Inn, where caffeine free espresso, soda drinks and warm real ale (not more than 1%!)” were for sale. From the whooping sounds and ‘Praise the Lords’ there must be a prayer meeting going in inside. Merk was registered under the new ‘religious registration law’ as a non-believer. He would not approach the Tavern.

While pondering this somebody came out of the Lamb. He was grey, tallish and wore unusually heavy spectacles, but all that Merk registered was that he had a large snake coiled around him, and he was uttering “I am Healed” It was hard not to recognise Vek, the Holy Roller, who had stood on the Benedict Slate for the last election and had finally won Gippeswick Ward after 20 years of standing. Vek cried out, “The Lord’s a-comin’, it’s the Rapture!”

It was at this moment that the heavens split asunder and the Interplanetary Revolutionary Communist-Marxist Federation sent down its ships to liberate the City of Ipswich….

Document original received in Rendlesham Forest Sunday 19th of December 2012.