Ceridwen, WikiCommons

As portfolio careers go, China Miéville’s list of occupations and achievements is remarkable in its variety and distinction. As a science-fiction writer, he has penned twelve books and won two Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards apiece - the most prestigious literary prizes in their fields. As a socialist and left-wing activist, he has run for Parliament for the Socialist Alliance and supported the founding of Left Unity in 2013. More recently, Miéville returned to non-fiction writing and wrote October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, released to mark the centenary of 1917. Varsity called him to discuss his latest venture in advance of a Cambridge speaking event.

An author on the radical left writing a history of the Russian Revolution? Initially dubious, I put the question of bias to Miéville, which he acknowledges. “It’s true that I’m on the left, but no writer can be truly ‘objective.’ That said, in choosing to write a narrative, rather than an analysis, I hope people of various political perspectives can get a value from that telling.”

The book’s aim, he explains, is to provide a general narrative introduction to the period from February to October 1917, for an uninitiated but interested reader. As he points out, “it is surprisingly difficult to find a non-specialist, but not overly simplified introduction, in narrative form.” Rather, there is an enormous array of complex secondary literature. “Even with something like the Figes, [referring to Orlando Figes’ famed but fat tome, A People’s Tragedy] the book is so enormous and all-encompassing, it proves overwhelming.”

“My book is intended to feel like an eyewitness account, albeit the account of many different eyewitnesses. I wanted something with a sense of urgency, to run against the dryness. I hope the book excites and sweeps up the reader, so that the sheer strangeness and excitement of the story comes through.”

“The idea that Lenin was a terrifying, Svengali-type figure, pulling strings behind the scenes is totally untenable.”

In any tale, however, there are main roles and side parts. I ask Miéville for his opinion on Lenin’s role in the Revolution; was he a superb opportunist, or the executor of a pre-designed plan? He sees where the question is leading. “I don’t believe in a ‘grand conspiracy’ view,” he answers bluntly. “Lenin certainly had aspirations; namely, to overthrow capitalism. But the idea that he was a terrifying, Svengali-type figure, pulling strings behind the scenes is totally untenable. There are countless times when we see Lenin running to catch up and wrong-footed by events.”

“That said, Lenin’s political antenna were astonishing; as one historian wrote, ‘he raised opportunism to the level of genius’. I can’t think of a single person who had a greater influence over the revolution.”

That brings us to the matter of the Revolution’s centenary. Although the world is not undergoing the same convulsions as 1917, it is being convulsed. Can Mieville see any similarities between 2017 and its revolutionary predecessor?

“They say, ‘if we are inspired by October, then we should mimic the Bolsheviks and do things again’. That is politics by cosplay.”

There is a long pause. “A reading which suggests that ‘this point in history is like this other point’ is always going to be a narrow, more or less elusive metaphor,” he begins, “Sometimes, it can be instructive to say ‘these causations and events are reminiscent of others.’ But, at its worse, there’s a temptation to read history simply as a moral narrative, which can be arbitrarily copied and pasted on to other periods.”

“As a liberal, you might read October as a thorough-going tragedy and as proof that utopian leftism will always drown in a sea of blood. To me, that is a preposterous, analytically bankrupt over-reading of a historical moment. Conversely, on the far left, we find people broadly saying, ‘We are inspired by October’ - even though most people would agree that things went to s*** pretty quickly afterwards. But they say, ‘if we are inspired by October, then we should mimic the Bolsheviks and do things again.’ That is politics by cosplay and is very, very silly.”

Nevertheless, the sincerity of Mieville’s beliefs becomes clear as he speaks with increasing passion about the Revolution and its modern day resonance. “There is a broader sense in which I find an intensely inspiring vision in October: the simple, unremitting yearning for alterity, for otherness, for a break in a system which subordinated human need and, increasingly, human dignity, to power and profit. And I think it is a sign of a degraded political culture that such an aspiration raised, and continues to raise, sniggers and jeers. In terms of the increasing impossibility of living a dignified human life within a particular system, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to say that our current situation is growing similar to 1917. And the scale of intended change – the vision of upheaval and renovation – is just as profound now as it was then.”

Mieville’s ability to engage a listener, even over the impersonal medium of a telephone call, is remarkable. Genuinely intrigued, I ask how he has interpreted the past two years.

“I’m quite politically pessimistic,” he answers. His tone suggests that he means it. “But it’s important to distinguish that from surrender, or quiescence. When I talk about pessimism, I don’t mean I am anything less than politically galvanised and furious. But the scale of the challenge facing anyone who wants a ‘progressive’ change, to put it at its most nebulous, is enormous.”

“As our government enters ever-increasing crises, they become more sclerotic, more - to use an old-fashioned, but increasingly useful, word - more decadent, and more sadistic. I am on-goingly horrified by the sheer sadism of our political culture; a sadism which is cynically deployed, by targeting the economically weak and ethnically different, and blaming those parts of society for problems which actually have their roots in the very top parts… I sound like I’m sloganeering, but there’s never been a better time to be a fascist since the 1930s. And that is truly frightening.”

“However, the right, although they are ascendant, do not have any sustainable answers to a structural crisis of economy and politics. We are in a structural crisis: the collapse of centrist parties, the shake up of the Union, Brexit and Trump are all representative of this. At present, this has benefited the Right. But they cannot actually solve these problems; they can only blame particular groups of people.”

Drawing the interview to a close, I ask Miéville whether this historical moment is an opportunity for the Left? Cheekily, I add: “Is this your February moment?”

Mieville laughs, appreciating the irony. “The Left has an unconvincing history of labelling any situation, particularly a crisis, as an ‘opportunity’,” he responds. “Yes, there are opportunities here. But this is also an opportunity for the Right and the far right. The question is who is best placed to take advantage, and how. I feel a great sense of urgency, because other forces have thus far done better and made more of the opportunity. That has to change. And it has to change now.”

Sponsored links