Ten days that shook the world

On the ninetieth anniversary, American journalist John Reed's pulsating first-hand account of the October Revolution remains a powerful antidote to our historical amnesia about what happened in Russia in 1917.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Books

It is 90 years since the 1917 October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia and changed the world. It is almost impossible in today’s atmosphere of political sleepwalking to imagine what it might have been like to find ourselves in the midst of such revolutionary ferment. In the absence of a time machine, I recommend reading Ten Days that Shook the World.

This most famous first-hand account of those tumultuous times was written by John Reed, a radical American journalist reporting from Russia for the socialist paper The Masses. Reed, as the English historian AJP Taylor later put it, ‘though not engaged physically in the Bolshevik revolution, was engaged morally. This was his revolution, not an obscure event in a foreign country.’ Ten Days… was published in 1919 with a one-paragraph introduction signed ‘Nikolai Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov)’, who wrote: ‘Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.’

Ninety years on, we appear to be suffering a powerful historical amnesia in relation to the Russian Revolution. Reading history backwards, most commentators now discuss it only as the prelude to Stalin’s Soviet gulags or even Hitler’s Holocaust. On the other side, a minority still hold a romanticised view of the revolutionary ideal – see the Hollywood liberals’ take in the 1982 Oscar-winning epic Reds, in which Reed is played by, err, Warren Beatty.

To an old libertarian Marxist like me, however, neither of these ahistorical views will do. The October Revolution can only be understood by placing it in the context of the real unresolved crisis facing Russian society at the time. Those who wish to make sense of these events need to view them in what we used to call their historical specificity, rather than somehow trying to rediscover ourselves in a fantasy version of the past.

Reed’s book hums with historical specificities of the short period when the provisional government, which had come to power after the fall of the Tsarist regime in February 1917, was overthrown and replaced by a revolutionary government led by those whom he calls ‘the Bolsheviki’. A reader unfamiliar with the history might find bewildering the copious references to long-forgotten individuals, newspapers and political parties: the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks – both former wings of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party – the Menshevik Internationalists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, etc etc. But this is no Monty Python’s Life of Brian-style caricature of leftish splits and factions. The delegates and party members packed into all-day-and-night sessions are fiercely debating practical questions about launching an insurrection, dealing with their enemies, and organising a new society.

Reed’s historical narrative is a far cry from the widely-accepted version of the October Revolution as a sort of coup staged by an unrepresentative handful of Bolsheviks. By contrast, the story that unfolds here is of the Russian masses, driven to the edge by the hardships of hunger and the Great War, often finding themselves further along the revolutionary curve than the left (with the notable exception of Lenin). While the Bolsheviks were fighting for the acceptance of their slogan ‘Bread, Peace and Land’, Reed shows that the soldiers, sailors, workers and peasants were already putting it into practice, opposing the war and taking over the factories and the farms. As the revolutionary ferment rose, so did support for the Bolsheviks, who were swept to victory in elections to powerful new bodies such as the second all-Russia congress of Soviets.

Reed portrays the revolution as a product not of any plot but of deep social tensions waiting to explode, describing the capital Petrograd on the eve of revolution as ‘the great throbbing city under grey skies rushing faster and faster towards – what?’ He paints a picture of a city where waiters began to refuse tips because they were not serfs and a red flag fluttered from the statue of Catherine the Great; where hungry militants stockpiled guns while all-night gambling clubs served champagne and high-class prostitutes wore furs.

When the moment came, the events known as the storming of the Winter Palace hardly lived up to that dramatic image. Reed gives a first-hand account of how the Military Revolutionary Committee more or less walked in and took over the reins of government, issuing orders that nobody was to loot the treasures that now belonged to ‘the people’. But that was only the beginning. A bitter and often bloody struggle ensued against the opponents of the Bolshevik revolution, and Reed is not blind to the setbacks and tragedies, such as the ‘wine pogroms’ when Red Guards fired on drunk and rioting soldiers who had raided the vintage cellars of the rich.

Yet Reed’s account returns time and again to the theme that it was the support of the masses, desperate for an end to the war and the famine and for freedom, which pushed the revolution forward through all barriers. He writes with impassioned admiration of how the people of Petrograd answered the new government’s call to defend the city from the threat of attack by counter-revolutionary Cossack forces:

‘As we came out into the dark and gloomy day, all around the grey horizon factory whistles were blowing, a hoarse and nervous sound, full of foreboding. By tens of thousands the working people poured out, men and women; by tens of thousands the humming slums belched out their dun and miserable hordes. Red Petrograd was in danger! Cossacks! South and south-west they poured through the shabby streets towards the Moskovsky Gate, men, women and children, with rifles, picks, spades, rolls of wires, cartridge belts over their working clothes…. Such an immense, spontaneous outpouring of a city was never seen! They rolled along torrent-like, companies of soldiers borne with them, guns, motor-trucks, wagons – the revolutionary proletariat defending with its breast the capital of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic!’

Later, on a trip to Moscow, Reed describes the Red Square funeral of 500 workers and peasants who had died in the fighting there, as thousands came from across the city with ‘a river of red banners’ to bury their dead heroes where tsars lay, against the Kremlin walls, in a huge grave dug overnight by volunteers. The powerful Orthodox church would have nothing to do with such a ceremony, of course – but, observes Reed, the supposedly priest-ridden Russians had created a solemn and meaningful ritual of their own: ‘I suddenly realised that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die…’

Towards the end of Ten Days…, Reed concludes quite soberly that the Bolsheviks had not come to power by compromise with the ancien régime, or by ‘the organised violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed’: ‘The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterwards, in the smoke of falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new.’

After helping to found the Communist Party of the USA, Reed returned to Soviet Russia but died of typhus there in 1920. He was buried in Red Square, in the Heroes’ Grave. So he never lived to see that ‘Bolshevik success’ turn into the defeats and horrors of the Stalinist era. The disjuncture between the revolutionary movement he describes and what it became is made unwittingly clear in Ten Days…, where Reed mentions Stalin only once, briefly, while Trotsky is ever to the fore. This later led to the book being banned by the Soviet regime; it would be hard to think of a higher recommendation for any work than that Stalin did not want you to read it.

There is no space here to go into the many factors, domestic and international, that meant the October Revolution ultimately failed to realise the ‘vast and simple desires’ of the people, never mind build a better world. But should that mean that we must, with the genius of hindsight, judge Reed wrong to have become so caught up in the revolutionary spirit of Russia’s October? I hope not. All experiments and innovations run the risk that things will go wrong, far more so when they take place in society rather than in a laboratory. Does it follow that we must simply give up on the idea of a political struggle for social change? Or should we instead reflect on how better to go about building a new society?

In the movie Reds, I recall one rather cheesy post-revolution scene where ‘Reed’ wants to go back to America to visit his wife. The Bolshevik apparatchik Zinoviev tells him, ‘You can go and see your wife anytime. But you can never come back to this moment in history.’ And neither can we, even if we wanted to. But it still might be worth seeking lessons for our world in the story told in Ten Days….

For example, one lesson for today might be about our attitude to youth culture. We live in an age when there is endless worry and breast-beating over the risks allegedly facing young people, and how they need more help and protection from adult life. Ninety years ago, however, most of those playing the most active part at the forefront of the revolution were teenagers. Reed describes the Red Guards as boys. Yet when it mattered, they proved old enough and tough enough to assume responsibility for taking over and changing their country.

Perhaps we might also reflect on the broader importance of revolutions that ‘shook the world’ and shaped history, for better and for worse. As the English revolution of the 1640s helped inspire political developments into the eighteenth century, and the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century proved the motor for much change in the nineteenth, so did the Russian Revolution of October 1917 influence the reforms and reactions that dominated the twentieth century. What force will shake our world and take it forward in the twenty-first century? There is no sign of any social revolutions as yet, unless one counts the ‘green revolution’ that in some ways seems to want to turn the clock back. We shall have to see.

In the meantime, to paraphrase that earlier and more succinct reviewer of Reed’s book, unreservedly do I recommend it to the readers of the world.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the session The new heresies at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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