Our history: John Reed’s `Ten days that shook the world’

Ten Days That Shook The World
By John Reed
Penguin Books 351 pages

Review by Alex Miller

John Reed’s classic account of the Russian Revolution of November 1917 isn’t an attempt at large-scale dispassionate historical analysis, but an eyewitness account of the Bolsheviks’ rise to power penned on the spot or shortly afterwards by a sympathetic US socialist. It is a mark of the respect in which Reed was held by the Bolsheviks that Ten Days That Shook The World was published with a short but very appreciative introduction by no less than Lenin, in which the Russian socialist leader says that he would like to see Reed’s book ``published in millions of copies and translated into all languages’’.

Reed was a founder member of the Communist Party of the USA and when he died in Soviet Russia shortly after the publication of the book in 1919 he was buried in the Heroes’ Grave in Red Square in Moscow.

The book certainly captures the spirit of the days leading up to and following the revolution of November 7: it is based largely on notes that Reed personally took at the time, on hundreds of Russian newspapers that he collected, and is interspersed with quotes from proclamations, decrees and announcements recovered from the walls of Petrograd.

Sometimes the story has a dreamlike quality, with figures such as Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev fleeting past Reed in the middle of the night in the corridors of the Smolny Institute, the chaotic headquarters of the revolution. Reed’s accounts of the many meetings and debates featuring the various political groupings prominent at the time have an immediacy and vividness that is hard to describe. Despite the fact that Reed was firmly on the side of the Bolsheviks, though, this is no hagiography or fake history such as those later put out by Stalin and his followers: Reed never stifles the voices of the opponents of the Bolsheviks, and there are plenty of quotes from publications and speeches from the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. Although Reed doesn’t hide his sympathies, readers are left to make up their own minds about the rights and wrongs of the case.

A number of things are notable in Reed’s account of the early days of the revolution. First, Stalin’s name appears only twice in the course of the book, once in a list of People’s Commissars and once on a proclamation, and the man himself never appears in person.

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Second, the vast tasks faced by the new government. A passage from Reed’s notes on November 8 gives a flavour: ``Smolny was tenser than ever, if that were possible. The same running men in the dark corridors, squads of workers with rifles, leaders with bulging portfolios arguing, explaining, giving orders as they hurried anxiously along, surrounded by friends and lieutenants. Men literally out of themselves, living prodigies of sleeplessness and work—men unshaven, filthy, with burning eyes, who drove upon their fixed purpose full speed on engines of exaltation. So much they had to do, so much! Take over the Government, organise the City, keep the garrison loyal, fight the Duma and the Committee for Salvation, keep out the Germans, prepare to do battle with Kerensky, inform the provinces what had happened, propagandise from Archangel to Vladivostok … Government and Municipal employees refusing to obey their Commissars, post and telegraph refusing them communication, railroads stonily ignoring their appeals for trains, Kerensky coming, the garrison not altogether to be trusted, the Cossacks waiting to come out … Against them not only the organised bourgeoisie, but all the other Socialist parties except the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, a few Mensheviki Internationalists and the Social Democrat Internationalists, and even they undecided whether to stand by or not. With them, it is true, the workers and the soldier-masses—the peasants an unknown quantity …”

Third, that Lenin and Trotsky – both the undisputed leaders of the revolution in Reed’s narrative – had no dreams of constructing a totalitarian state or ``socialism in one country’’, but were fully aware of the fact that the revolution was a gamble whose success depended on the proletariat of Germany, France and Britain. As Trotsky puts it in a speech captured by Reed: ``There are only two alternatives; either the Russian Revolution will create a revolutionary movement in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian Revolution!”. This no doubt accounts for the fact that the book was banned in the Soviet Union following the death of Lenin, the expulsion of Trotsky and the gradual destruction of the generation of Bolsheviks involved in the revolution.

Despite recognising the immeasurable odds against the success of the Revolution, Reed’s book ends on an optimistic note on November 29, 1917, with the union of the Congress of Peasants and the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. As socialists worldwide prepare to mark the 91st anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and as revolution stirs in South America in the early years of the 21st Century, Reed’s book is worth reading and re-reading by all those who share his optimism and vision.

[Reed’s book is available free and in full at: www.marxists.org]

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 04:27


I can understand that both Lenin and Trotsky and possibly even Stalin expected fully a revolution developing in Western Europe, particularly Germany. Perhaps, Lenin did not have the oppurtunity to live long enough to anticipate failure of the Western european working classes to deliver a revolution. However, both Trotsky and Stalin experienced the defeat of the revolution in Europe. In that event, Socialism in one country was not just a preferred approach to revolution or change but the only option left for the Soviet Union to proceed.

I think this religious approach to socialism in one country of the trotskyist tradition amounts to denying any possibility for change. Together with this the trotskyist approach that only the advanced working class in advanced industrial countries can bring about a revolution is akin to denying any possibility for change as I do not see any revolution brewing in the West as the working classes in these countries do not feel much need for change. Whereas the oppressed peoples in the East are fighting on a daily basis to bring about a change from Afghanistan to Somalia and even Latin America. Thanks