A bizarre temporality enters into almost all accounts of the October Revolution. Perhaps the most famous chronicle of the event is John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. The idea behind Reed’s title seems straightforward enough, but the scope of his narrative is much wider than the period referred to. Further, Reed’s “ten days” fall neatly within the thirteen-day gap between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, which also explains why the October Revolution actually happened in November.
On the level of theory, the orthodox Marxist explanation of a revolutionary situation emphasizes a mismatch between two timelines: on the one hand, the secular growth of material productive forces, and, on the other, the evolution of property relations. When the former takes a long lead on the latter, a revolutionary period opens up. In the October Revolution, the mismatched timelines were many and quite varied in character but not precisely the one referred to in classic theory (though that contradiction may have had relevance on a global scale).
Instead, what clashed were the aspirations of advanced intellectuals and Petrograd workers versus the grim realities of their now republican and capitalist country; further, the expectations raised by the new provisional government did not coincide with its day-to-day conduct. Then there also were two clocks that, instead of counting forward toward progress, were rapidly counting-down toward disaster. The first such clock was the Great War itself: a ticking doomsday machine that hewed down lives at an unprecedented rate every month. The second count-down was toward an almost inevitable military coup that would restore autocracy (Kornilov had tried such a coup in September, and others were sure to come).
The result was that, in the summer and fall of 1917, there was a revolutionary situation in which “time was out of joint” but with far greater complexity than is usually allowed for, even by those sophisticated stories that take into account “combined and uneven development.” Such a scheme might allow that revolution breaks out in a more backward country (“the weak link in the imperialist chain”) buts still supposes there will be echoes along that chain.
It was in this sense that Lenin, who was attuned to the complexity of the situation, referred to how
history… has taken such a peculiar course that it has given birth in 1918 to two unconnected halves of socialism existing side by side like two future chickens in the single shell of international imperialism.
The two halves of socialism – the two “future chickens” in one shell – were the revolutions in Germany and Russia. The problem was that the German creature never hatched, leaving only a single, freakish bird.
In effect, it has usually been the singular character of the October revolution – its freakishness – that becomes the focus of criticism. Socialist heavyweights Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, who were alive at that time, and a long string of critics ever since, have claimed that the October Revolution was premature. What they imply is that it was a mutant birth or mere outlier. A socialist revolution should not have come into being so early in a country with so small a working class, so weak a democratic tradition, and such underdeveloped productive forces.
Those who defend the October Revolution respond by pointing to the complexity of historical developments, the way history’s laws play out in an aleatory context, and the underlying necessities to which the Revolution responded. That is correct, of course, but we should never deny the essentially freakish and mutant character of the October Revolution. To do so is to suppose that history, on some deep level, represents the teleological unfolding of an underlying perfection.
In the field of natural history, Stephen Jay Gould has shown that “odd arrangements and funny solutions” are an important part of evolution’s drunken walk forward. The same is surely true of human history in which, despite the role of tendential laws and human planning, there are no overreaching final causes either. This means that every revolutionary change, almost by definition, has to involve unforeseen, freakish mutations.
In fact, the October Revolution wears its freakishness on its sleeve. Think of its strange gaggle of leaders and reflect on the catastrophic situation and precarious alliances that allowed it to happen! The problem with the Revolution was not its weird and jury-rigged character but simply that the mutation did not succeed in taking root. Instead, mutant October became normalized before long. It got a suit and a uniform during the course of the twentieth century, but by then had ceased to be revolutionary.
In my view, it was W. B. Yeats who inadvertently captured the essence of October in his poem The Second Coming (1919). For Yeats, there is no linear logic to time, but rather widening “gyres” that get farther and farther from the center. The latter “cannot hold” –Yeats says in a famous phrase – leading to “mere anarchy.” From this strange mix, there emerges a “rough beast,” which is an excellent figure for revolution. The revolution is not a perfect machine, but it does move forward: it “slouches towards” its destination.
Recognizing the mutant and rough character of the October Revolution has important consequences for its reception today. Most people who hope to repeat the October Revolution want to do so without repeating its strangeness and singularity. They want a Lenin who is better dressed, taller, and more courteous. They want to forge class alliances that are more certain and less inventive than the worker-peasant one was at that time. They also want colleagues who are easier to manage than Stalin, Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, together with conditions that are less chaotic and clearer.
They are barking up the wrong tree. A revolution is always a rough beast, and the problem with the October Revolution was not its weirdness, “untimeliness,” or imperfection, but simply that the mutation did not take hold and spread.
Consider how strange capitalism must have seemed at its inception. No one would have imagined that a system based on individual private property owners – without direct violence at their own disposition – could have much future. Further, these property owners are forced under capitalist social relations to enter into cutthroat competition with each other and to confront legally free workers. Even now, it sounds like a formula doomed to disaster. Yet instead it took hold: mutant capitalism spread like wildfire and is now the bane of all of us on the planet.
In trying to learn from the October Revolution in its centennial, we should recognize that one of its key lessons is that the way forward is usually not via slick, perfect and “historically necessary” alternatives but rather through improvised, surprising contrivances that respond to unimagined opportunities. These contrivances may be patched together out of both old and new elements. Whatever their “roughness” and unseemly appearances, the important thing is that they actually go forward toward a more democratic and economically just society.
The October Revolution may have been glorious, but it was also weird and mutant. Surely the next gateway that opens onto the future will be just as weird, just as complex, and just as surprising.