I'm very surprised that nobody has reviewed this key work of the 20th Century; there are always many books one ought to read- but very few that one needs to read. This falls into the latter category.
John Reed is an important figure within US-socialism, stemming from an era almost erased from US-history- that saw radicalism espoused by many & was eventually crushed by such capitalist's as Henry Ford. When the spectre of "reds" resurfaced in the 50's, McCarthyism would crush these radical notions once and for all. Reed, came from a rich Portland family- like people such as George Orwell and Tony Benn he would reject his background- moving from the playboy he was depicted as in Dos Passos' USA to a bohemian poet/playwright- but always his most dominant skill was journalism. He famously covered the Mexican War of 1916, the First World War and in this classic book, The Russian Revolution.
In many ways, this book is close to fiction- it sits well next to the Dos Passos book mentioned above. As AJP Taylor suggests in his excellent introduction this is not an exact history- "Reed's book is not reliable in every detail. Its achievment is to recapture the spirit of those stirring days. As with most writers, Reed heightened the drama, and this drama sometimes took over from reality". This book does have the dizzying detail of Eisenstein's key cinematic works, or the flow of Dos Passos or even Oliver Stone's Nixon.
Reed captured the complex events of the Russian Revolution in a style that is both readable and informative, turning the myth as it occurred into journalistic prose. I think this is the definitive book on a key event of the 20th century- the chapters each supported by a complex of appendices. I think that Ten Days That Shook the World is the ideal book to read on the Russian Revolution- as it is written from inside/around that event- not from the safety of the academic historian's perspective- such as in A People's Tragedy. It is a record of the early part of the 20th century, when Communism became salvation- prior to its demonisation, which in a manner- gave rise to National Socialism (though things are not quite as simple as this statement would suggest).
John Reed died shortly after finishing this book- which is notable for its affiliation with the Communist Party & an introduction by Lenin (reprinted here). He would enter the realm of myth, being the sole American to be buried within the walls of the Kremlin- and would be immortalised in Warren Beatty's biopic Reds (1981). Germaine Greer picked this out as one of her favourite books of the 20th century on Newsnight/Review circa the millennium. It is easy to see why- The Ten Days That Shook the World is a book that captures its time in perfect detail & remains a definitive work, despite the events that followed the Russian Revolution that saw millions die in its wake. A book that everyone should read...
on 11 August 2004
Every student of the Russian revolution should read John Reed's 10 Days that Shook the World. It brings home forcibly that History is not just an academic subject, but something that actually happens to people. However, they should also make sure that they read A.J.P.Taylor's excellent introduction first and make sure they take note of Taylor's warning that Reed was not a historian, but a journalist. This book was not produced in a library, with the author intent on checking and counter checking his facts, but hammered out in the "fog of revolution". Here no one knew what was going on, not the leaders of the revolution, nor their opponents, nor the people in the streets, and certainly not John Reed himself. As Taylor puts it: "the book is a contribution to history not an analysis composed afterwards".
Furthermore Reed is a biased source. It was no accident that the Communist Party of Great Britain first published this book in the UK, for Reed was a committed revolutionary, who wrote for the USA's foremost radical journal 'The Masses'. His purpose was not to produce a dispassionate account, but to inspire his readers and to further the cause of world revolution. Certainly Lenin believed that 'Ten Days that Shook the World' was a powerful weapon for world communism. As Trotsky commented, "Lenin, in his day, desired the incomparable chronicle of Reed to be distributed in millions of copies in all countries of the world".
Therefore the history student must regard this as a highly emotive, slanted, account. Nevertheless it has its own form of purity. Reed's sources are impressive. He knew, and talked to, a host of characters from all sides of the political spectrum and on all levels, both before and during the October Revolution. The book records interviews with people as widely diversified as Lenin, Trotsky, and Kerensky, through to the Bolshevik guards inside the Winter Palace. Furthermore Reed's professionalism as a journalist shines through, for these interviews provide acute pen portraits of the men themselves, as well as recording what they told him. One would expect Reed to write admiringly about Lenin and Trotsky, but he also writes fairly, and with a certain sympathy, about people in the opposite camp, such as Kerensky, Chernov and Schreider, the elderly Major of Petrograd. For instance, when he interviews Kerensky, a man totally opposed to the Bolsheviks, and one about whom Reed is scathing elsewhere, one is aware that Reed appreciates that, though this man is fighting for a different type of revolution, he is still trying to protect something marvellously different from what had been before.
Despite his bias, Reed is admired by both historians and statesmen. A.J.P. Taylor comments that "Reed's book was not only the best account of the Bolshevik revolution, but that it comes close to becoming the best account of any revolution". While George Kennan, the American historian, diplomat and architect of the US Cold War containment policy, who was certainly no lover of Bolshevism, describes the book as: "an account of the events of that time [which] rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, its command of detail".
Both the strength and weakness of Reed's style can be summed up by Taylor's comment that, while he over-dramatized much of the action and was not reliable in all his detail, he "recaptured the spirit of those stirring days" to such an extent that "Bolshevik participants, when they looked back, often based their recollection more on Reed's book than on their own memories". This is certainly true of Trotsky, for there are seventeen page references to Reed in the appendix to his 'The History of the Russian Revolution' and Trotsky quotes Reed both to back up his own opinions and to provide snapshot description of key events.
Ten Days That Shook the World covers the lead up to the October Revolution, through to the end of the Peasants Congress on November 29th. Strangely, Reed never specifies the actual ten days he is referring to, and it was by chance that I came across a reference to them in his near namesake, Christopher Read's book, 'From the Tsar to the Soviets'. Read, with an "a", identifies the last of John Reeds "Ten Days" as November 17. This puts the of the first day as the day of declaration of the Peasants and Workers Government on November 7, and the last as the day of the debate at Smolny, when four leading Bolsheviks resigned.
As Trotsky remarked, "John Reed did not miss one of the dramatic events of the revolution" , and certainly his descriptions of all the key events are superb. Whether he was really present at all of the occasions he describes is perhaps open to question, but certainly his copy provides the authentic sound, feeling and even smell, of being there. Reed's uniqueness is in his descriptions, but he also provides a wealth of detailed information and the reader is deluged with the names of factions, parties, regiments, militias, committees, sub committees, and both major and minor characters from all sides of the political spectrum. Part of Reed's talent is that he gets all this information across without boring, but I have to admit that I stopped noting down the Russian names after covering three sides of foolscap paper. The book also contains both a useful notes and explanations section and valuable source material in the appendixes, but the Penguin edition lacks an index, which would have been useful in so complex a work.
In the final analysis Ten Days That Shook the World may be flawed as a history textbook, but it is a magnificent story. It is a passionate account, told by a true believer, describing an event that he was convinced would make the world a better place. As such, it has its own form of truth.
on 26 November 2015
This is a thrilling eyewitness account of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. I’ll start with a vivid example of Reed’s writing:
“I went back to Petrograd riding on the front seat of an auto truck, driven by a workman and filled with Red Guards...
Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels heaped on a barren plain.
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!’ ”
It is claimed by anti-Marxist historians that Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power against the wishes of the majority, and that this led directly to the horrors of Stalinism. But anyone who reads this book will see that this is not the case.
The bureaucratic tyranny of the Stalinist regime in Russia from the mid 1920s onwards, and of the later, similar regimes in Eastern Europe, China etc had/has nothing to do with genuine Marxism. These so-called “communist” states were/are actually state capitalist systems controlled by a ruling class of bureaucrats who betrayed the democratic aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Reed writes that the Bolsheviks did NOT take power “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 February Revolution of 1917 had got rid of the Tsar, but it brought to power the Provisional Government which continued to take part in the bloodbath of World War One. Lenin argued for a new revolution, which eventually took place in October.
Lenin did not want to seize power in a coup by a small group. He wanted to win over the majority of the exploited and for THEM to take power. When Marx and Lenin talked about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, they did not mean that Marxists would rule OVER the working class, they meant rule BY the working class. This workers’ state would then gradually be replaced by a classless society in which the state would “wither away”.
Marx’s model for a democratic workers’ state was the short-lived Paris Commune, where all officials were elected, subject to recall at any time, and paid only an average worker’s wage; and where the army and police were replaced by a workers’ militia. Lenin’s idea was that the soviets (workers’ councils) would also follow this highly democratic model. Reed's book shows how democratic the soviets were in their early days.
October would only have been just a "coup" if the Bolsheviks had taken power without majority support. In fact they only took power when they had won a majority on the soviets, with the previous majority of SRs and Mensheviks having been voted out. Even the Menshevik Martov admitted that the workers were solidly behind the Bolsheviks by October.
Lenin’s idea was that the Bolshevik party should compete with other parties on the soviets. The fact that the soviets later ended up as being a one-party system was a sign of the FAILURE of the revolution: it was not what Lenin had intended.
Lenin expected the Russian Revolution to spark off revolutions in other countries. (Indeed there was a failed revolution in Germany.) But the isolation of the Russian Revolution, the horrors of the Civil War initiated by the “Whites” and intervention by foreign powers in support of the White armies combined to destroy the foundations of the new regime.
It is claimed by anti-Marxist historians that Leninism led directly to Stalinism. But Stalin actually had to DESTROY the last vestiges of genuine Leninism in order to consolidate his counter-revolution. Incidentally, given that it was the isolation of the Russian Revolution which ultimately led to its demise under Stalin, it was not the politics of Lenin's Bolsheviks which led to Stalinism, it was the LACK of mass Leninist parties in other countries.
After Lenin’s death Trotsky kept alive the genuine Marxist idea that socialism means workers’ democracy, but unfortunately he clung to the idea that Russia had become a degenerated workers’ state, whereas in fact it had become under Stalin a bureaucratic state capitalist regime.
Marx argued that a revolution was necessary in order to achieve socialism for two reasons: firstly, because the ruling class would not give up power peacefully; and secondly, because it was by going through the experience of class struggle that the working class’s ideas would change on a mass scale and the majority would be won over to socialist ideas and become “fitted to found society anew.”
Reed’s book shows precisely this changing of ideas on a mass scale. No wonder Lenin wrote a Foreword for the book in 1919, stating: “Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.”
on 6 March 2006
To me this book symbolizes the idea of rebirth, in a way that echoes the glories of the revolts made famous in the past. Yet, while Reed's purpose in the text is to act as a journalist acts, he frequently falls out of costume and lets his passions get the best of him. He often winds up with soldiers who are complete starngers to him, they share the russian language and with this the political cause which unites them all. It is true that Reed is very sympathetic of the Bolsheviki, and it is also true that while he keeps the text open to all the parties which came and went; he still is biased. Reed is very careful of the way he portrays the russians, they are preserved in the delicay of they're Petrograd lives. Which Reed refers to often in a poetic overtone, while some of the best passages about Smolny at night could easily pass for prose. But still, it is the combination of all these traits that allows Reed to mesmorize the reader with desperate propaganda, all of which is authentic. In the end, Reed's retelling of the Bolsheviki revolution is the most accurate [although where Reed has been caught speculating, is duly noted in the text.]Also Reed's version is the most readable for a person with little knowledge of the revolution. As Trotsky's recanting is not only in ten years retrospect, but as well in a cold and arrogant manner, but still it is very informed and well written. If you are into Trotsky, check out "The Revolution Betrayed", if not don't bother it's all good.