December 7, 2020 Subject:
Ten Days That Shook The World: John Reed - BBC Radio 4
Inspirational platform for revolution's nameless voices
Leon Trotsky said John Reed "did not miss one of the dramatic episodes of the revolution" - he was someone who "knew how to see and hear." Reed's 1919 book 'Ten Days That Shook the World' does not disappoint. It is a superb read.
The American journalist gives a fantastic on-the-ground account of revolutionary Russia immediately before and after the Bolshevik-led soviets overthrew capitalism across the land. He went halfway around the world to report on the unfolding revolution.
Reed was caught up in the revolution, and supported it. How could he not?
He remembers "bumping at top speed down the Suvorovsky Prospect, swaying from side to side. One man tore the wrapping from a bundle and began to hurl handfuls of papers into the air. We imitated him, plunging down through the dark street with a tail of white papers floating and eddying out behind."
"I picked up a copy of the paper, and under a fleeting streetlight read: To the citizens of Russia! Long live the revolution of workmen, soldiers and peasants!"
Reed's socialist loyalties put him in danger. On trying to enter Petrograd after siding with the revolution, he is challenged by a pro-capitalist colonel.
"We showed our Bolshevik papers... 'Oh dear no.' He smiled. 'We are holding the city for Kerensky.' Our hearts sank, for our passes stated that we were revolutionary to the core."
Ten Days gives a platform to the myriad nameless voices that had swung behind the revolution.
Even "the waiters and hotel servants were organised, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read, 'No tips taken here' or, 'Just because a man has to make his living waiting on tables is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip!'"
He recalls a crowd of revolutionary sailors' run-in with the rail union, the Vikzhel, led by the right. "A member of the Vikzhel was pleading with them. 'Comrades, we cannot carry you to Moscow. We are neutral. We do not carry troops for either side. We cannot take you to Moscow, where already there is terrible civil war'.
"All the seething square roared at him; the sailors began to surge forward. Suddenly another door was flung wide; in it stood two or three brakeman, a fireman or so. 'This way, comrades!' cried one. 'We will take you to Moscow - or Vladivostok, if you like! Long live the revolution!'"
One soldier remarked that some "look down on us Russians because so long we tolerated a medieval monarchy... But we saw that the tsar was not the only tyrant in the world; capitalism was worse, and in all the countries of the world capitalism was emperor."
Reed is present at the congress of soviets straight after the October insurrection. The elected representatives were "great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants - poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence."
There were hugely important votes to end the war, grant workers' control of industry, give the land to the peasants, and begin to build a socialist society. A right-wing delegate thought he could vote to continue the war, surrounded by soldiers fresh from the front.
"It was exactly 10.35 when Kamenev asked all in favour of the proclamation to hold up their cards. One delegate dared to raise his hand against, but the sudden sharp outburst around him brought it swiftly down."
In the penultimate chapter, Reed makes an important departure from the wonderful journey he's taken you on. The style changes; it is a full-bodied defence of the socialist ideas at the heart of the Russian revolution, the first time ever the exploited took power across a country.
But Reed has you sold long before this. "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."
'Ten Days That Shook the World': £9.99 from leftbooks.co.uk
Radio 4's 'beautiful' Ten Days adaptation is 'required listening'
Beautifully made and acted ten-part radio series. May be confusing at times for those not well-versed in the various factions and ebbs and flows of the revolution. But for atmosphere alone this is required listening.