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The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution

An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

October 26, 2017
12 min read

‘This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours. If its sentences are still unfinished, it is up to us to finish them.’

The twentieth century opens on a great, sluggard, contradictory power. The Russian empire stretches from the Arctic to the Black Sea, from Poland to the Pacific. A population of 126 million Slavs, Turks, Kirghiz, Tatars, Turcomen, countless others, gathered in wildly various polities under the tsar. Cities full of cutting-edge industries imported from Europe punctuate a vastness where four-fifths of the people are peasants tied to the soil, in near-feudal abjection. In the works of visionary artists like Velimir Khlebnikov, the self-styled King of Time, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Olga Rozanova, a strange modernist beauty illuminates a dominion where the great majority cannot read. Jews, Muslims, animists, Buddhists and freethinkers abound as, in the empire’s heart, the Orthodox Church propagates its lugubrious and ornate moralism – against which chafe dissenting sects, minorities, sexual dissidents in the cities’ queer hinterlands, radicals.

In his books 1905 and Results and Prospects, written shortly after the failed revolution, and throughout his life thereafter, Trotsky develops a particular conception of history as ‘a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’. Capitalism is an international system, and in the interrelations of cultures and polities, history does not clean up after itself.

‘A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquest of the advanced countries,’ Trotsky will come to write. ‘Though compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order.’ It is driven to the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages … [though it] … not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture … From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which … we may call the law of combined development.

This theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ suggests the possibility of a ‘leap’, a skipping of those ‘stages’ – perhaps autocratic order might be sundered without the mediation of bourgeois rule. Reconfiguring a term from Marx and Engels, Trotsky invokes ‘Permanent Revolution’. He is not the only leftist to use the term – he draws on an unorthodox Belarussian Marxist, Alexander Helphand (‘Parvus’) and others are developing similar concepts – but he will become the most celebrated one so to do, and he develops it in particular important ways.

In a ‘backward’ country like Russia, Trotsky says, where the bourgeoisie is weak, it will not execute a bourgeois revolution, which leaves the working class to do the job. But how can that working class self-stall its demands? Its triumph will be driven by its interests, eroding capitalist property and going beyond ‘bourgeois’ gains. By now, he is not the only Marxist to hold that if the working class is at the helm of this ‘permanent’ revolution it must continue beyond capitalism, but far from seeing that as a potential or likely disaster like many others, he is the most enthusiastic about the prospect. Still, for Trotsky as for most of the Russian Marxists, the international dimension is key. ‘Without the direct state support of the European proletariat’, he writes immediately after 1905, ‘the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.’

In these bleak post-1905 days, some Mensheviks have shifted on the possible necessity of the party entering government, ‘against its will’ and without optimism about its prospects, if no appropriate historical agent arises. They continue to hold that the working class should ally with the liberal bourgeoisie they still see as key, and hunt for suitable bourgeois radicals who, even if ‘subjectively’ anti-revolutionary, Martynov says, contribute ‘objectively, without wishing to do so’, to the revolution. To their left, the Bolsheviks advocate instead a ‘democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’. Both sides see that ‘progressive’ bourgeois–democratic revolution as desirable, an aspiration at the limits of the possible and sustainable. To most, Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ is a scandalous eccentricity.

It is May 1912 in Irkutsk, Siberia. The workers in a vast, British-funded goldfield, housed in serf-like conditions in unsanitary barracks, have gone out on strike. They want increased pay, the dismissal of hated supervisors and – again that copula of economic and political demands – the eight-hour day. Troops are deployed. The company gives orders. The troops open fire. The death toll is 270 strikers, in what becomes known as the Lena Massacre.

Huge and angry sympathy strikes shake Moscow and St Petersburg. Industrial action picks up again. In 1914, there is a general strike in the capital, one serious enough to raise concerns about mobilisation for the war that everyone knows is coming, spawned by the predatory tussles of the great powers.

Some in the regime understand that it cannot sustain a conflict, or survive the inevitable fallout. In February 1914, in a prescient memo, the conservative statesman Pyotr Durnovo warns the tsar that if the war goes badly, there will be revolution. He is ignored. Pro- and anti-German factions vie within the elites, but Russia’s easterly interests, its alliance with and economic ties to France, necessarily range it against Germany. With some reluctance, after an exchange of urgent, polite telegrams between ‘Nicky’ and ‘Willy’ – Nicholas II and Germany’s Wilhelm II – wherein they discourage each other’s military momentum, shortly after European hostilities start, on 15 July 1914, Nicholas takes Russia into the war.

What comes then is the usual wave of patriotism and pieties, rallying the credulous, the desperate and the politically bankrupt. ‘Everyone ’, reports the poet Zinaida Gippius, ‘has gone out of their minds.’ Demonstrators attack German shops. In St Petersburg, a crowd clamber onto the roof of the German embassy and throw down its pair of enormous equine sculptures. They land twisted and wrenched, with macabre bronze injuries. Russians cursed with German names rush to alter them. In August 1914, the name of St Petersburg itself is changed to the more Slavonic Petrograd: in semiotic rebellion against this idiocy, the local Bolsheviks continue to style themselves the ‘Petersburg Committee’.

To the north-east of the city centre, in Petrograd’s great domed Tauride Palace, on 26 July 1914, the Duma deputies vote in favour of war credits, the state’s borrowing to fund the carnage. Liberals now pledge themselves again to the sclerotic regime the modernisation of which is their notional raison d’être. ‘We demand nothing’, simpers Milyukov, ‘and impose no conditions.’

It is not only the right who line up for war. The peasant– populist Trudoviks, a moderate left party associated with the SRs, enjoin peasants and workers, in the words of their mouthpiece, a flamboyant lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, to ‘defend our country and then set it free’. The celebrated anarchist Prince Kropotkin himself supports the fighting. The SRs are split: though many activists, including Chernov, oppose the slaughter, a large number of the party’s leading intelligentsia support the country’s war effort – including the near-legendary SR figurehead Babushka, the ‘Grandmother of the Revolution’, Catherine Breskho-Breshkovskaya. Nor is the Marxist left immune. Grotesquely, the venerable Plekhanov tells Angelica Balabanoff of the Italian Socialist Party: ‘If I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet your German comrades would give me great pleasure.’

All across Europe, Marxist parties in the organisation of socialist and labour groupings known as the Second Socialist International break with previous pledges and rally to their governments’ war efforts. The moves shock and devastate the few stalwart internationalists. On hearing of the pro-war vote of the powerful German Social Democratic Party, Lenin clings desperately, for the short while that he can, to the belief that such reports are a forgery. The great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg considers suicide.

Within the Duma, only the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks walk out against the war. For this show of principle, many deputies will find themselves exiled to Siberia. When Plekhanov visits Lausanne to argue for the military defence of Russia, a pale, raging, familiar figure comes to confront him. Lenin will not call him comrade, will not shake his hand. Lenin damns his old collaborator with remorseless cold invective.

Russia mobilises more quickly than the Germans expect, invading East Prussia in August 1914, aiding France’s early battles. But the country’s armed forces, albeit somewhat modernised since 1904, are still in a parlous state. And the Russian high command is totally unprepared for modern war. Its commitment to nineteenth-century methods in an era of rapid-firing war machines leads to appalling carnage. As supply problems, incompetent leadership, corporal punishment and the infernal nature of the fighting take their toll, the war effort is undermined by waves of surrenders, disobedience and desertions.

The German offensive comes in the spring of 1915. Under the barrage Russia loses significant amounts of territory, almost a million soldiers are captured, and more than 1,400,000 killed. The scale of the cataclysm is giddying. Ultimately the war will cost Russia between 2 and 3 million lives – perhaps more.

In September, the tiny Swiss village of Zimmerwald hosts a conference of European anti-war socialists. A pitiful thirty-eight delegates, including Bolsheviks and internationalist Mensheviks and SRs.

Even as they meet, right-wing Mensheviks and SRs in Paris collaborate on the first issue of the pro-war Prizyv. ‘A revolution is brewing in Russia’, the hard-right SR Ilya Fondaminsky writes in its pages, but it ‘will be national rather than international, democratic rather than social, and pro-war rather than pacifist’. Right SR intellectuals gravitate away from a narodnik vision of revolution for agrarian socialism, between liberalism and collectivism, towards a jingoistic version of the bourgeois revolution foreseen by their right-Menshevik collaborators.

United in their opposition to such ‘social patriotism’ of their erstwhile (and in some cases current) comrades, in Zimmerwald the delegates are divided on how sharply to break with them. Eight delegates, including Lenin and his close collaborator and aide-de-camp, the energetic, choleric Grigory Zinoviev, want to leave the corrupted Second International. The Zimmerwald majority, including Mensheviks, will not acquiesce.

Most delegates oppose Lenin’s calls for the revolutionary mobilisation of the proletariat against the war as an attempt to split the International – which it is. Moreover, some present consider that given popular patriotism, Lenin’s call will endanger anyone who makes it. Instead, the meeting reaches a compromise, and produces a statement of general anti-war sentiments. This, for the sake of unity, Lenin and his supporters sign up to, without enthusiasm or satisfaction.

In a short book of 1916, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin describes the epoch as one of monopoly capitalism entangled with the state, of capital’s parasitism on its colonies. Seeing war as systemic, he opposes any concession to anti-war moderation. Lenin is against moralist pacifism, let alone ‘defencism’, according to which while expansionism is opposed, the ‘defence’ of a home state is deemed legitimate. Instead, famously, he argues for ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – a socialist advocacy of the defeat of one’s ‘own’ side in an imperialist war.

Even the radical Trotsky is alienated by the formulation. He cannot, he says, ‘agree with your opinion … that Russia’s defeat would be a “lesser evil”’. He considers this a ‘connivance’ with patriotism, supporting the ‘enemy’.

One reason his call provokes such consternation is that Lenin is often not clear about whether it is for the defeat of one’s state at the hands of another power, or, along with all imperialist powers, at the hands of the workers. Although the second possibility – international insurrection – is clearly his preference, as well as the telos of his argument, at times he seems to insinuate that the first would suffice. There is an element of performance in the ambiguity. By hammering home this ‘defeatism’, his intention is to bolster the growing sense that the Bolsheviks, more than any other current, oppose the war utterly and without remission.

The war mobilisation drains Russia’s land and industry of workers. Ammunition, equipment, food run short. Inflation soars, with a brutal impact on workers and the urban middle class. The public mood begins to turn. As soon as the summer of 1915, strikes and food riots shake Kostroma, Ivanovo-Vosnessensk, Moscow. The liberal opposition organises into a soi­disant ‘Progressive Bloc’, calling for rights for minorities, an amnesty for political prisoners, certain trade union rights, and so forth. The bloc is furious at incompetence from above, and absolutely opposed to power from below.

The strike wave ebbs, flows and continues, and with it extremes of social desperation. Amid the chaos of the flights of internal refugees, of invaded towns and captured and killed soldiers, thousands of besprizorniki – abandoned, lost or orphaned children – make their way to the cities and gang together in makeshift new families, living in the cracks, by theft, begging, prostitution, whatever they can. Their numbers will explode in later years. An underground of profiteering stirs, of despair, decadence, drunkenness, bohemian ‘cocainomania’. Febrile symptoms of collapse. Moscow is in thrall to a new tango craze, and it undergoes dark mutations: mimes of murder, jaunty references to carnage. One professional dance duo are notorious for their ‘Tango of Death’, performed in traditional evening wear, the man’s face and head painted to become a skull. […]

What will end the Russian regime is not the gruesome death of that pantomime figure too outlandish to be invented; nor is it the epochal tetchiness of Russian liberals; nor the outrage of monarchists at an inadequate monarch. What will end it comes up from below.

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