A Century After “Ten Days”

John Reed penned the definitive account of the October Revolution — and paid a heavy price for it.

John Reed in the United States. Croton Historical Society

John Reed arrived in Petrograd at the dawn of history. The globetrotting journalist had traveled to Russia with his feminist wife Louise Bryant as soon as news of impending revolution broke. It was 1917, and “Jack,” as his friends knew him, had a front-row seat to the October Revolution.

Famous for his vivid firsthand accounts of labor conflict and war, Reed was the perfect writer to tell the electrifying story of Lenin and the Bolsheviks seizing power. Ten Days that Shook the World, Reed’s celebratory account of the Russian Revolution, is now hailed as an American classic. George Kennan of all people praised it as “a reflection of blazing honesty and a purity of idealism.” In a recent New York Times retrospective, Condoleezza Rice, no Bolshevik, writes that Ten Days “provided a riveting and vivid — if not impartial — account of the most pivotal phase of the revolution, as viewed from the ground.”

But Reed’s “slice of intensified history,” as he called it, had trouble finding an audience at first. “Here by wide acknowledgement,” a sympathetic Reed biographer wrote, “was a great American journalist, an eyewitness to the greatest story of the time, but not an editor outside the tiny radical press would give him an inch of space.”

Only Max Eastman, who published the left-wing little magazine The Masses, was willing to assign Reed to cover the Russian Revolution. But while Reed was in Russia, the US government shut down The Masses. Reed and other writers had been editorializing against American entry into World War I, which it turns out was a violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. To make matters worse, upon Reed’s homecoming in 1918 customs officials seized his trunk full of notes and materials on the revolution, delaying his book by several months. Eastman founded a new magazine, The Liberator, and published Reed’s essays on the revolution, but only after preempting the censors by toning down Reed’s incendiary rhetoric.

In the face of state suppression, the publishers and editors of the widely circulated papers that had previously published Reed’s essays — American MagazineCollier’sSaturday Evening Post, Metropolitan Magazine — stayed silent. Whereas Ten Days earned Reed burial at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, one of only two Americans to receive that honor — the famous Wobbly Big Bill Haywood is the other — Reed’s adoring take on the Russian Revolution also merited him the scorn of the American publishing world. Reed’s glowing evaluation of the “great Lenin,” “loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been,” was held in high contempt by a liberal intellectual culture that had once embraced the daring reporter.

Nothing in Reed’s early biography suggested he would become a renowned radical. Born into a wealthy Oregon family, he attended a posh East Coast prep school before making his way to Harvard, where he discovered his talents as a writer. After college Reed sought out bohemia among the intellectuals and artists of Greenwich Village. His early New York essays, observations of his extensive wanderings through teeming immigrant neighborhoods, exhibited a cosmopolitan sensibility. But they were also expressed in the rather apolitical idiom of romanticism. Reed’s work took a more political turn when he began writing for The Masses, which mixed aesthetic experimentalism with Marxism.

Reed’s political transformation was further ignited by his experience covering the 1913 silk strike in Patterson, New Jersey. Outraged by the weavers’ meager wages, poor working conditions, long workdays, and the brutal treatment they received at the hands of the police, Reed joined their picket line and was promptly thrown in jail for four days. While behind bars he became engrossed by the life stories told by the striking silk workers, engendering a sympathy for the working class that remained steadfast the rest of his life. Reed proceeded to dramatize the strike in a pageant that he produced at Madison Square Garden, a fascinating story told in Jeremy McCarter’s entertaining book, American Radicals: In the War for American Ideals (which includes profiles of Reed, Eastman, Walter Lippmann, Alice Paul, Randolph Bourne).

In establishing a reputation as a first-rate reporter fearlessly willing to go wherever a good story took him, Metropolitan Magazine sent the twenty-six-year-old Reed on assignment to cover the Mexican Revolution in 1914. He mailed home remarkable stories of his four months eating, drinking, sleeping, traveling, and fighting alongside Pancho Villa’s guerrilla peasants. Even as Reed’s Mexico essays were exquisite in detail, they lacked the sophisticated geopolitical awareness of his later writings about World War I and the Russian Revolution. And yet he had learned something. Upon his return, Reed advised against American intervention in the Mexican Revolution, and castigated his fellow journalists for depicting Villa as a villain. What Reed had seen in Mexico with his own eyes contradicted what reporters were writing from the safety of their Manhattan salons.

Reed noticed a similar gap between what the press wrote and what he witnessed while reporting on the miners’ strike in Ludlow, Colorado, where two dozen mostly women and children were massacred. This rift pushed Reed to conduct research that would allow him to make broader connections between the state repression of impoverished immigrant workers and their families, and the larger political economy of mining. In the words of a biographer, his Ludlow efforts “marked his growth as a class-conscious writer not easily satisfied with recording his impressions but who must dig deeper into the play of forces behind them.”

In the wake of his Mexico and Colorado reporting, Reed had achieved a degree of infamy among polite society. In 1914, Walter Lippmann wrote a sneering New Republic profile of his former Harvard classmate, titled “Legendary John Reed.” In Lippmann’s estimation, the only higher principle Reed stood for was the right to an adventure, and upsetting bourgeois norms was the grandest of all escapades. “Reed is one of the intractables, to whom the organized monotony and virtue of our civilization are unbearable,” Lippmann wrote. “You would have to destroy him to make him fit.”

Reed’s reporting on World War I failed to put his critics at ease. From the outset of the Great War, Reed was skeptical of all sides in what he called a “traders’ war.” Lippmann disgusted him in particular for touting the war in idealist terms. From the ghastly killing fields that Reed beheld with his own eyes, such posturing was a sick joke. His antiwar stance, which became even more pronounced when Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign promise to keep the United States out of the war, damaged his career prospects. So too did his budding communist activism. Such heresies preconditioned the press to deny him a platform to tell the story of the Russian Revolution. And yet, after seeing his remarkable essays in The Liberator, the intrepid publishing house Boni & Liveright published and aggressively marketed Ten Days that Shook the World. Moreover, being cut off from most of the rest of liberal intellectual culture freed Reed to write Ten Days his own way, which allowed for the book’s timeless feel.

I recently re-read Ten Days alongside China Miéville’s sublime new book, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. Despite the fact that Miéville has the benefit of 100 years of historiographical hindsight, and despite the fact that Miéville’s book narrates the period between the February and October Revolutions — as opposed to Ten Days which focuses on the few weeks leading up to the Bolsheviks taking power — Reed’s masterpiece holds up extremely well by comparison. In fact, Miéville uses Ten Days as one of his most telling primary sources.

Ten Days is not an impartial account of the Russian Revolution. Condoleezza Rice is right about that. In the preface, Reed wrote that his book is the story of how “one hundred and sixty million of the world’s most oppressed peoples suddenly achieved liberty.” Nothing neutral there. But Reed’s position on the revolution did not render his account untrue. “In the struggle my sympathies were not neutral,” Reed admitted. “But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.”

Ten Days is splendid precisely because of Reed’s developed sense of class consciousness. Reed wrote, in the midst of describing the extremely tense situation prior to the revolution, that “to Americans it is incredible that the class war should develop to such a fever pitch.” But it was not incredible to him, a fact that allowed Reed to hear things that others might have missed. For instance, Reed heard an industrialist, frustrated that workers, soldiers, and peasants continued to agitate against the bourgeois government that had been formed in the wake of the February Revolution, say, “Winter was always Russia’s best friend. Perhaps now it will rid us of Revolution.”

Reed and his partner Bryant were everywhere in the pitched days of the revolution. With almost unlimited access granted to them by both the crumbling government of Alexander Kerensky and the rising Bolshevik movement led by Lenin and Trotsky, Reed bore witness to seemingly every momentous event. Either that, or his observations, recorded for posterity in Ten Days, have become some of the landmarks by which we remember the revolution.

I give you two examples. First, Reed’s riveting narrative of the Second Congress of the Soviets. This raucous meeting took place on the eve of the revolution and is infamous because the Mensheviks and other moderate left groups abandoned it. The Mensheviks wanted to keep the February coalition together and thus rejected the October revolution that had been brewing in the streets of Petrograd. The Bolsheviks wanted the Congress to support the second, radicalized revolution and, given that they had majority control that is exactly what happened, thus precipitating the Menshevik departure. In retrospect, this split is momentous because it made post-revolutionary peace more difficult to achieve — in fact the Mensheviks fought alongside the counterrevolutionaries in the civil war that followed the October Revolution.

Thus it has often been argued that the Bolshevik-Menshevik split set the stage for the disasters of one-party rule. Reed captured a Trotsky speech following the Menshevik walkout that has long served to indict the Bolsheviks for their antidemocratic tendencies in spite of the fact that the Mensheviks could just as easily have been blamed for not accepting the will of the Soviets (Miéville makes this latter argument). “All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki,” Trotsky spoke, “let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!”

Another striking example: after the Bolsheviks captured the Winter Palace, thus spelling the doom of the Kerensky government, Reed and Bryant began making their way to the palace through the jubilant streets of Petrograd. Along the way they happened to arrive at a Bolshevik checkpoint simultaneously with a group of Mensheviks who were hoping to get into the palace to make one last, largely symbolic stand for the doomed provisional government. When the soldiers forbid them to pass, the Mensheviks threatened to push through and asked, “what will you do to stop us?” One of the soldiers said, “We will spank you!” This interaction, recorded by Reed in Ten Days, has grown into a classic example of the contempt that the newly empowered rank-and-file held for their former leaders. It truly was a new day in Russia.

I dare anyone to read Ten Days that Shook the World (or, for that matter, Miéville’s October) and conclude that the Russian Revolution was perpetrated by a small conspiracy of committed communists, as so many Americans and others have long since believed. Millions of Russians had had enough with the war, the hunger, the endless humiliations that accompanied living in such a deeply unequal society. “It was against this background of a whole nation in ferment and disintegration that the pageant of the Rising of the Russian Masses unrolled.” The rank-and-file — soldiers, workers, peasants — made the revolution. Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Bolshevik leaders merely had the temerity to step into the breach left by the failed provisional government.

But even as the revolution was people-powered — even as it was fueled by hunger and deprivation — it was about ideas! Ten Days makes this clear on multiple occasions. Everywhere Reed went he noticed that people were reading and talking politics, history, philosophy. “For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune.” Revolutionary Russia was alive with big ideas.

Some of these ideas were old, ideas first thought up by Marx and other western philosophers. But some ideas and words were new, too. As a doorman at a building taken over by the Petrograd Soviet told Reed: “I don’t know what is becoming of poor Russia. All these Mensheviki and Bolsheviki … This Ukraine and this Finland and this German imperialists and this English imperialists. I am forty-five years old, and in all my life I have never heard so many words as in this place …”

Ten Days that Shook the World continues to have a lot to teach us about the Russian Revolution that took place one hundred years ago. But the best part of the book — that which will continue to stand the test of time — is the unparalleled prose. A few examples are in order. To conclude the climactic chapter — which detailed the hours when the Bolsheviks came to power — Reed wrote:

So. Lenin and the Petrograd workers had decided on insurrection, the Petrograd Soviet had overthrown the Provisional Government, and thrust the coup d’etat upon the Congress of Soviets. Now there was all great Russia to win — and then the world! Would Russia follow and rise? And the world — what of it? Would the peoples answer and rise, a red world-tide?

Although it was six in the morning, night was yet heavy and chill. There was only a faint unearthly pallor stealing over the silent streets, dimming the watch-fires, the shadow of a terrible dawn grey — rising over Russia …

Reed concluded Ten Days in equally memorable fashion:

I suddenly realized 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 …

That closing line made Reed a prophet of sorts. Not for forecasting the course of the Soviet Union — on that he was enormously and tragically wrong. Rather, Reed seems to have anticipated that he would pay the ultimate price for his devotion to the Russian Revolution. After illegally returning to Russia in 1919 with sedition charges hanging over his head, and then after the US government prevented him from returning home to face those charges, Reed fell ill with typhus. Due to a blockade imposed by the Western nations waging war against the fledgling communist state, he was unable to receive proper medical treatment.

Reed died an untimely death in Moscow on October 17, 1920, five days shy of thirty-three.