Max Leak considers John Reed’s classic book on the Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World.
The centennial of the October Revolution later this year will be a windfall for booksellers. Possibly no other event in history has been written on so extensively, or from such a vast variety of ideological perspectives: there’ll be a promoted book on the subject for every shopper, from Trot to Tory. John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, however, is something radically distinct from most historical works. It is a journalistic account, rather than a historian’s reconstruction, of the Bolshevik-led upheaval in late 1917 which replaced the ailing Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky with that of the soviet councils. As such, it gives a rare insight into the real spirit and atmosphere of events on the ground.
Reed made no secret of his own inclinations when writing Ten Days. A committed socialist, he had already been arrested and censored on multiple occasions all over Europe whilst trying to cover the bloodbaths of the First World War. His sympathies in 1917 were emphatically with the Bolsheviks, and here and there he undoubtedly took a dash of poetic license when narrating his version of events. But the odd moment of romantic colour does not detract from the authenticity of Reed’s work as a record of the real spirit and atmosphere of a revolution. We are inducted into the giddy momentum of a movement that was attempting to dispel centuries’ worth of spiritual oppression in a matter of a few days. Indeed, it is a testament to the explosive nature of the ideas of that October that this remains compulsively readable throughout, even where the book consists of lengthy passages documenting the debates of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets and the Petrograd Soviet, which, Reed writes, “was meeting continuously at Smolny, a centre of storm, delegates falling down asleep on the floor and rising again to take part in the debate, Trotsky, Kamenev, Volodarsky speaking six, eight, twelve hours a day….”
The elation one feels reading Ten Days stems from a reassurance that socialist revolution can be a solid, attainable reality – complete with bloody but insurmountable hurdles, fierce but not invincible opposition from the ruling classes. Among other fascinating episodes, Reed records the civil service strike, in which the middle managers of the Russian state (backed by the big bourgeoisie with a lavish strike fund) refused to come into work under the new soviet regime (leaving Petrograd’s cripples and orphans without their pensions). We read of how the telephone exchange staffers and banking clerks abandoned their posts in outrage at the toppling of the bourgeois regime, only for the Bolsheviks to bring in volunteer groups of factory workers to learn from scratch how to replace them. Passages like these are a vivid reminder of the class character of the very material of the state – a character which only becomes fully and completely exposed when that bourgeois state is struggling to escape its own abolition.
Reed is at his most poetic in describing this condition, in which “Old Russia was no more; human society flowed molten in primal heat, and from the tossing sea of flame was emerging the class struggle, stark and pitiless – and the fragile, slowly cooling crust of new planets…” And it is against this backdrop of naked and desperate class struggle that we can contextualise the democratic idealism which was the very core of the October movement. The world has become accustomed to portrayals of October 1917 as a small-scale coup d’état in which the Bolsheviks simply snatched control of the state’s commanding heights. Ten Days reminds us that this depiction is grossly inaccurate: the seizure of the Winter Palace would have meant very little if it had not come as the signal for a vast and (in large part) non-choreographed supportive mobilisation of the working class, across the length and breadth of the enormous Russian Empire. However careful and meticulous the Bolsheviks’ planning, the party’s actions were a massive wager upon the political instincts and determination of the working class.
Of course, it is impossible ever to read such a joyful account of 1917 without feeling a biting sadness at the revolution’s eventual destiny. Reed died in 1920, and it is oddly comforting to think that he never lived to see the death of revolutionary democracy under the pressure of civil war, or the puppeteering of its corpse by Stalinism. (Stalin is mentioned only a couple of times in the whole text, always as one name among many.) The most elating passages in Ten Days become unbearably poignant to a reader who knows what happened next. Take this, from Reed’s drive back into Petrograd in a truck full of Red Guards after a decisive showdown with Kerensky’s forces:
“The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture.
“‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’”
Within six years, Petrograd would lose 75% of its population, as starving workers fled the countryside looking for bread during the horrific food shortages of the Civil War. Moscow lost 53% of its own inhabitants. By the end of 1923, a combination of reactionary insurrections, a string of foreign invasions, and the famine and disruption which followed these, had added from 7 to 12 million fresh corpses to the 3 million already yielded up by Russia and its territories to the First World War. This was the unimaginable penalty inflicted upon the Soviet working class for its bid for freedom.
Of course, a large part of our task in this centennial year is to understand the many ways in which the world of today differs from that of 1917. For instance, it is hard to see the relatively small and professional military forces of modern states as being an opportune sector for revolutionary agitation, as was the case with the massive conscript army of Russia a hundred years ago. But there are still numerous concrete lessons that we can draw from Ten Days. One of these, I believe, concerns the relationship of a revolutionary organisation with the working class and oppressed sectors of society. The successful Bolshevik approach was neither to act for the class, nor to leave it to its own devices, but rather to pose to it, through actions, the question of revolution – always relying wholly on the broader class to answer this question in the affirmative.
Other lessons concern revolutionary epochs as political environments. Of course, the events of October followed on the heels of an earlier upheaval, namely the overthrow in February of Tsarist autocracy, and so the whole of the 8-month period leading up to the events of October might be described as a revolutionary one. Reed’s writing demonstrates how the immense pace and pressure of these circumstances had brought about stupendous shifts in the political movements of the time (leaving less clear-headed left-wing groups confused to the point that a party named the Socialist Revolutionaries could, with a straight face, condemn the Bolshevik action on the (bogus) pretext that Red Guards had looted the Tsar’s former treasures from the Winter Palace!).
That the Bolsheviks were able to maintain a clear and coherent working-class programme amid these hectic fluctuations was the fruit of their long-term aversion to opportunism. Lenin and his colleagues remained clear on the distinction between building power in working-class environments (such as the soviet councils) and accepting coalition with bourgeois forces (the path taken by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). The former approach was consistent with the Bolsheviks’ organisational practice before 1917, and charted a middle course between the equally unhelpful stances of, on the one hand, a misguided opportunism that sought to wring reforms from a revanchist ruling class, and on the other, a fatalist mentality which would have one wait on the side-lines of history for a “revolutionary moment”. As members of a revolutionary group we can emulate this example today, working energetically to expand the acceptance of our principled programme among the working class and oppressed sections of society. We must accept that our unconditional loyalty to this oppressed majority will always be at least partially unrequited, and approach that majority’s members as independent political thinkers who can be engaged with and won over by our own intervention.
It is our task, not to think on behalf of the broader population, but rather to converse with it, vociferously and confidently – “conversing” with actions as well as words – and in this way to bring into existence the movement we want to see. Even when revolution seems virtually impossible, we must find ways to remain revolutionaries in everything that we do, including our work within reformist environments and causes. These are imposing tasks that we all very frequently fall short of; the prospect of dethroning the ruling class and instituting genuine human freedom often seems crushingly remote. Ten Days is a classic because it doesn’t only document that this has been done before – it also helps its readers feel as if we can do it again.