In 2018, I read a bunch of books and I wrote down what I thought about them. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to do it again this year. Let’s see if we can make this an annual thing!
I wrote a lot more words than I intended so I’ll break this up into multiple posts in order to increase the chance that someone reads it! Honestly, the things I do for you people.
October, China Mieville
Before this book was released, anyone who wanted to learn about what happened in Russia during the Revolution of 1917 you only had one choice: listening to a wheezy hardcore leftist whose Twitter bio included so many “-ist” suffixes that you needed to stop for a tea break before he had even finished introducing himself. Thanks to China Mieville, millions of people have been freed from this terrible fate and can now simply read a book instead.
I picked this one up for two reasons: 1) China Mieville rules, and 2) anyone with the kind of left-wing politics I have is inevitably subjected to a highly intellectual interrogation along the lines of “don’t think capitalism is any good eh? What about Russia!”. When this happens, it’s nice to be able to respond with something other than my usual retort of “shut the fuck up” (although “shut the fuck up” is always applicable).
Anyway despite the lack of Mieville’s traditional aliens or tentacles or sci-fi of any kind (unbelievable!) the book is very good, and makes for a gripping retelling of the titular month. Using the on-the-ground perspective of the major players and quoting from an unbelievably comprehensive number of primary sources, Mieville walks us through the situation in the lead-up to the revolution, the events of that pivotal night in Petrograd on 25 October (in 1917, no less) and eventually the grim, fucked-up aftermath of a nascent socialist state that was quickly destroyed from without and within.
One of the biggest and frankly most baffling takeaways from this book was the idea that, in the streets and factories and shops of Russia in 1917, people were discussing politics. Like, seriously discussing politics – reading newspapers with long manifestos in them, holding stop-work meetings on the factory floor to talk about what direction they wanted society to go in, having debates in the pub about what the correct approach to a socialist transition was. Then that evening they would head off to a meeting of a political party and do it all again.
As somebody who has spent the last few years doing union organising, the concept of getting people to discuss politics on an invested, meaningful level – let alone to do so at the workplace while on the clock – is so unrealistic as to border on hilarious. I literally can not imagine a world in which a person I meet on the street might be convinced to discuss with me the existence of different economic systems, let alone their various merits.
I have no idea – again, I can not imagine – what it would be like for everyone in a lunch room at a processing plant to stop what they are doing, gather around and say “let’s talk about whether or not capitalism is good”. But this is what they were doing, in Russia, over and over again the months and years leading up to the Revolution. They were actually doing this. Such an idea is impossible now of course thanks to the phenomenon known as capitalist realism (from Mark Fisher’s excellent book of the same name, read this free PDF version). Such an idea is laughable, stupid even. I got bills to pay, I don’t got time for that. Don’t bother me with your stupid shit about politics, I need to go back to my low-paid factory job for my billion-dollar employer who doesn’t pay taxes.
The other big takeaway from October was how much of the revolution was accomplished by posting. Even under threat of capture, torture and death, Lenin simply would not – possibly could not – stop posting. Hiding out on the deserted shores of Lake Razliv in a crude fishing hut, disguised as Finnish peasants, even with “one tree stump for his table and another for his chair,” Lenin refused to log off (“log”, haha) and wrote a frankly reprehensible amount of letters to the editor.
Lenin and his contemporaries were a driving force in the development of a whole new kind of posters disease, which leftists around the world have inherited 100 years later as the belief that opponents, and even allies (who are simply opponents that have not yet revealed their true colours) can be obliterated through deploying 10,000 impassioned and unnecessarily complicated words in their general direction with the same care that the United States Air Force deployed “precision munitions” into crowded Iraqi civilian areas.
Relentless, inadvisable, often inarticulate, it is this kind of praxis which would have the most lasting impact on left-wing politics today.