1917: A change in the soul as much as in the factory

A People's History of the Russian Revolution


The Story of the Russian Revolution

What sense can we make of the Russian Revolution? This remains a live question a century after it occurred. “We know well the consequences that these great upheavals can bring,” Russian leader Vladimir Putin explained on the eve of 2017. “Unfortunately, our country went through many such upheavals and their consequences in the 20th century.” As historian Nikita Sokolov tartly notes: “The authorities cannot celebrate 1917. Whatever might have happened, the impulse of the revolution was social justice. A country with such inequality can’t celebrate this.”1

Writing from Moscow, a newly-made friend told me that the revolutionary period of Russian history “is always something I want to know more about—it is particularly very complicated and unclear. I believe that analyzing all the events from a distance (I mean it literally) may help us understand them better.” We are fortunate that there appeared early in this anniversary year reliable and very readable introductions, written “from a distance” (Britain), that can help all of us understand what really happened: Neil Faulkner’s A People’s History of the Russian Revolution and China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Faulkner is a professional historian (and an archeologist to boot), working as a research fellow at the University of Bristol, who has written on such diverse topics as the Roman Empire, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals. The approach and style animating his new popularization of the 1917 upheaval is best conveyed by letting Faulkner speak for himself:

Right-wing historians often describe October as a Bolshevik “coup” made possible by the “anarchy” into which Russia had fallen by autumn 1917. The misunderstanding is profound. Their basic error is to view history from above, not below. What looks to them like “anarchy” was, in fact, the leaching away of state authority and the rise of new organs of popular power. What they describe as a “coup” was, in fact, an expression of the democratic will of millions of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants. The Tsarist monarchy had commanded an army of millions. Yet it was overthrown in the February Revolution. The Provisional Government had inherited that army of millions. Yet it was swept away by the October Insurrection. Historical events of this magnitude are not brought about by mere “coups.” The very success of the October Insurrection hides its true character. The revolution is so ripe—the social crisis so deep, the authority of the government so hollowed out, the masses so willing to support decisive action—that, in the event, a few tens of thousands were sufficient to execute the popular will. 

The admirable clarity of this passage is characteristic of the entire volume, with the panorama of Russia’s revolutionary history succinctly and neatly laid out in 250 pages. Four chapters in Part One (entitled “The Spark”) survey developments from 1825 to 1916, describing the tsarist regime, the revolutionary tradition, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and World War I. Part Two (entitled “The Tempest”) has four more chapters on 1917, with the February revolution overthrowing the tsar, followed by “dual power” between the people’s democratic councils (soviets) and the Provisional Government dominated by old-time politicians, then an unsuccessful attempt to squelch the revolution, which contributed mightily to the Bolshevik-led insurrection in October. Part Three (entitled “The Darkness”) tells us what happened from 1918 to 1938, with three chapters describing, in turn, the failure of the world revolution that doomed hopes for the triumph of socialism in backward Russia, the authoritarian and bureaucratic consequences of Soviet Russia’s isolation in a hostile capitalist world, and from this the rise of the horrific Stalinist form that modernization took (which Faulkner terms “state-capitalism”). In a brief epilogue, he aptly concludes: “The Russian Revolution of 1917 is rich in lessons for today’s crisis-ridden world of exploitation, oppression, and violence. The Bolsheviks have much to teach us.” 

Readers familiar with Leon Trotsky’s magisterial History of the Russian Revolution and Tony Cliff’s three-volume study of Lenin will see that Faulkner’s interpretation of events closely follows theirs. He adds his own touches, however. What might appear to be a few casual sentences in a preliminary note beautifully illuminate a central cause of the revolution: “A loaf of bread cost about 40 kopeks in 1914, but more than three times as much in 1917. Wartime inflation averaged about 500 per cent across the full range of consumer necessities. Wages increased barely half this rate. . . . It is safe to assume that living standards, already pitifully low, plummeted during the war.” 

There are other touches, however, about which one might raise questions. For example, based on some of his own negative experiences in recent developments on the British left, Faulkner emphasizes more than once that Lenin’s organization was superior to what he and others experienced: “Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was never a ‘democratic-centralist’ sect,” adding that “ a ‘democratic-centralist’ organization is one where power is concentrated in the hands of a (largely) self-perpetuating leadership, or even in the hands of a single cult-like guru.” Faulkner certainly shows that Lenin’s Bolsheviks functioned democratically, but the sweeping dismissal of the term democratic centralism is not historically sound. The meaning of “democratic centralism” has been distorted and abused by what Tariq Ali once termed “toy Bolshevik parties” over the years (not to mention more substantial Stalinist organizations). Yet in the Russian revolutionary movement and elsewhere, the term had a more honorable and useful connotation. Adhered to by Mensheviks (who first employed the term) as well as Bolsheviks in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, it meant full freedom of discussion, and (once a decision was made) unity in action—suggesting a seriously democratic and coherent revolutionary collective of activists. This, as Faulkner shows us, the Bolsheviks certainly were.

But this leads to another quibble one might have with Faulkner’s account. His account seems to imply that only the Bolsheviks were “the revolutionaries” in the period leading up to the Revolution. Referring to the 1903 split among Russian Social Democrats, he tells us that “a line was drawn at the Second Congress between reformists, henceforward known as ‘Mensheviks’ (meaning ‘supporters of the minority’) and revolutionaries, henceforward known as ‘Bolsheviks’ (meaning ‘supporters of the majority’).” In fact, a majority of the Mensheviks were in agreement with Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Lenin himself in their rejection of the “reformism” in the socialist movement represented by such revisionists as Eduard Bernstein, also favoring (and working for) the revolutionary overthrow of the tsarist order as much as the Bolsheviks did—indeed, in 1917 some actually joined the Bolsheviks. Of course, it can be argued (consistent with the thrust of Faulkner’s account) that the Bolsheviks represented, as things turned out, the most consistent and effective revolutionary force in the Russian socialist movement. This has to do not simply with a more serious attitude toward organization, but with their commitment to a worker-peasant alliance—in contrast to the Menshevik notion of a worker-capitalist alliance (which fatefully inclined Lenin’s opponents toward a disastrous policy of class-collaborationism).

While there are similarities in the narratives that Faulkner and China Miéville present, there are also differences. Miéville is best known as a best-selling author of science fiction novels (he has sometimes referred to them as “weird fiction”), and his account is—perhaps predictably, for those who know his work—“messier.” This hardly means it is less accomplished. It is a beautifully constructed and flowing account of how masses of ordinary and extraordinary people—workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, revolutionary activists, and more—confronted and overturned oppressive power structures in Russia’s October Revolution of 1917. Knowledgeable readers will perceive Miéville’s skillful engagement with all the right sources, presenting an incredibly rich interpretation of what happened. 

An initial chapter sweeps through the pre-history of 1917, from the days of Peter the Great down to the horrors of the Great War that exploded in 1914. Then—month-by-month—one bustling chapter after another brings us from the February overthrow of the tsar to the revolutionary climax of “Red October,” with a succinct yet eloquent epilogue that reflects on what became of it all.

Near the start of the book is this priceless portrait of the tsar:

As a youth, Nicholas II submitted stoically to his father’s bullying. As tsar he is distinguished by courtesy, dedication to duty, and little else. “His face,” one official hesitantly reports, “is expressionless.” Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the “otherworldliness” of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu—including pro-pogromist anti-Semitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, “yids.” Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word “intelligentsia,” he makes the same disgusted face as when he says “syphilis.” 

Throughout we are treated to an imaginative retelling of the story, graced by humor and humanizing characterizations, wonderful touches of color and animation, richly informative, down-to-earth, full of tension and life and drama—a page-turner even for those who know how it all turns out. 

The Bolsheviks are by no means the only revolutionaries here—anarchists, Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, Menshevik-Internationalists, and non-party activists (some newly-minted militants) are part of the story—but there is no doubt that the Bolsheviks have the most effective organization, and some of them are in a position to employ outstanding skills and ideas that make a difference. Lenin is by no means always right—but he often gets it right, and he also gets some terrific lines, such as: “One must always try to be as radical as reality itself.”

There are innumerable deft touches that pepper, for example, the description of the meeting of the Bolshevik core leadership deciding on the October insurrection. As the left-Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov leaves his spacious home in the morning to go the Soviet, his wife, Galina Flakserman, a longtime Bolshevik activist, “eyed the nasty skies and made him promise not to try to return that night, but to stay at his office, as was his custom when the weather was so bad.” As he bedded down in his office that night, the Bolshevik Central Committee—Kollontai, Trotsky, Uritsky, Stalin, Iaokovleva, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and finally Lenin wearing a disguise—gather in his home to debate and make their fateful decision.

Lenin held forth. He was impassioned. As the hours wore on he drove home his now-familiar points. The time had come, he insisted again, for insurrection. The party’s “indifference toward the question of an uprising” was a dereliction.

It was not a monologue. Everyone took their turn to speak.

Late at night, a knock at the door sent hearts lurching, plunging them all into fear. But it was only Flakserman’s brother, Yuri. Another Bolshevik, privy to the meeting, he had come to help with the samovar. He busied himself with the huge communal kettle, making tea.

Kamenev and Zinoviev then return to their arguments on why Lenin is wrong. “They evoked the weight of the petty bourgeoisie who were not—not yet, perhaps—on their side. They suggested Lenin overestimated the Bolsheviks’ power in Petrograd, let alone elsewhere. They were adamant that he was incorrect about the imminence of international revolution.” They argue for patience, and “their comrades called the consistently circumspect pair the ‘Heavenly Twins,’ sometimes affectionately, sometimes in exasperation.” When the debate ended and the decision was finally made—to move forward with the insurrection—“the tension eased. Iurii Flakserman brought cheese, sausage and bread, and the famished revolutionaries fell to. Good-naturedly they teased the Heavenly Twins: hesitating to overthrow the bourgeoisie was so very Kamenev.”

The “messiness” of Miéville’s account reflects the actual messiness of the historical realities, and of life itself. In discussing the taking of the Winter Palace, near the end of the story, Miéville comments that “the revolutionaries made slapstick errors,” and that after one delay following another Lenin was in a rage, according to one Bolshevik activist, “like a lion in a cage. … He was ready to shoot us.” When the battleship Aurora finally fires the signal for the Bolshevik assault, “a cataclysmic boom shook Petrograd” and “scores of the last defenders in the palace lost heart and abandoned their posts, leaving only a hard core too committed, brave, paralyzed, exhausted, stupid, or afraid to flee.” 

While there is sometimes slapstick, there is also grandeur as the masses of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants surge forward to take power into their own hands, through their democratic councils, to create a new and better world. “It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration,” Miéville insists. “The standard of October declares that things once changed, an they might do so again.” His elaboration is worth considering:

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory.

As an outstanding piece of literature, China Miéville’s October belongs on the same shelf as John Reed’s eyewitness classic Ten Days That Shook the World, but even more it belongs in the hands of activists who will be shaking the world in the twenty-first century.

  1. Neil MacFarquhar, “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks A Hundred Years Later,” New York Times, March 10, 2017.

As an outstanding piece of literature, China Miéville’s October belongs on the same shelf as John Reed’s eyewitness classic Ten Days That Shook the World, but even more it belongs in the hands of activists who will be shaking the world in the twenty-first century.


  1. Neil MacFarquhar, “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks A Hundred Years Later,” New York Times, March 10, 2017.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story