Saturday, February 13, 2010

You Shook Me

John Reed

More Americans have gotten their impressions of the Russian Revolution from Ten Days That Shook the World than from any other source. John Reed's short book is filled with the reporter's first-hand and generally enthusiastic impressions of the revolutionary events of October 1917. The prose is energetic; and one is tempted to think that Reid's omnipresence in the events he describes must have influenced countless American journalists and nonfiction writers, particularly Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson.

Reed's insights influenced countless liberal and leftist Americans to look sympathetically upon the world's first successful proletarian coup d'etat. His sympathies for Lenin, Trotsky, and Bolshevism in general are overt. Even so, Reed's book does not wholly elide or erase the moral complexity of Red October. Reed's book assumes two things: first, that tsarist Russia was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most if not all right-thinking Russians; second, that by 1917, if not before, the Allied cause in the the First World War had no moral claims on the Russian people.

Beyond this, Reed clearly endorses the Bolshevik position of providing Russia with clear and moral leadership, but gives readers a very clear idea of why many socialists and radicals clung to the Provisional Government rather than jump on to the Bolshevik bandwagon. The Bolsheviks gained support among key constituencies--namely the army, the navy, the proletariat, and the peasantry--by calling for an immediate end to the war, ending capital punishment in the armed forced, putting industry into the hands of workers, granting land without compensation to peasant Land Committees, and making a series of promises to the ethnic minorities.

Even so, Reed shows that most Menshiviks and Social Revolutionaries thought that the Bolshevik coup would ultimately undermine the socialist cause. Their critique, which Reed does nothing to obscure, was predicated in the idea that the Bolshevik party had too little support in the country at large to be successful. While Reid clearly admires Bolshevik audacity, he understands that the Bolsheviks represented a minority opinion even within those Leftist communities which clearly opposed not only the tsar but the bourgeois parties such as the Cadets.

As a small minority, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries could object to Bolshevik authority by relying on Marx's theory of a bourgeois interlude between feudal and socialist politics. But socialist critics of Lenin and Trotsky also made practical arguments to support the Provisional Government. They said that the proletarian insurrection would rally the forces of counter-revolution and lead to a reactionary restoration of some sort. Bourgeois liberals would united with Cossacks, royalists, tsarist officers, anti-semitic Black Hundred supporters, and many others to overthrow all previous socialist gains.

Menshevik and Social Revolutionary criticisms were varied, and included principled Marxist critique as well as seemingly partisan resentment at being ignored despite strong democratic support. The non-Bolshevik Marxist parties (and some key trade unions) also doubted that the Bolsheviks even had enough leadership talent to run a government, and many in all parties predicted that the Bolshevik experiment would collapse of its own accord in a matter of days. The popularity of Ten Days That Shook The World is justified. It's a clear and persuasive explication of Lenin's claim to be the most effective exponent of the socialist traditions of peace, land reform, and worker empowerment. And it's a brilliant work of reportage that provides a rare window onto the written and oral discourse that overtook Russia in these days of historical possibility.

Baku Congress

But most importantly, the book is a lasting testament to the moral complexity of the revolutionary moment, when everyone (general, officer, politician, peasant, trainman) is a potential hero and a potential villain. In Reed's book, even old-guard liberal politicians demonstrate personal valor and high-mindedness. They just happen to be on the wrong side of history.

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