Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Reading :: Ten Days that Shook the World

Ten Days That Shook the World
By John Reed

As part of my research on the Soviet milieu in which activity theory developed, I read this famous account of the Revolution penned by a US journalist with socialist sympathies. It's a gripping account, and John Reed's enthusiasm is evident on each page as he recounts what he saw in Petrograd. This recounting includes several speeches by Lenin and Trotsky.

Reed's enthusiasm yields a book that is episodic and sprawling rather than tightly edited. But for my purposes, I will just focus on a few issues.

First, Reed captures at several points the knife's-edge of Soviet hope and paranoia. Early in the account of the revolution, Reed says:

Now there was all great Russia to win—and then the world! Would Russia follow and rise? Would the people answer and rise, a world red-tide?
Recounting speeches, he says,
One spoke of the 'coming World-Revolution, of which we are the advance-guard
 Not everyone was carried away by the prospect of world revolution. Avilov, a Menshevik, warned: "'You cannot count on the effective help of the proletariat of the Allied countries, because in most countries it is very far from the revolutionary struggle.'" Reed treats Avilov as wrong, and describes Trotsky's rebuttal:
"Avilov menaces us with failure of our peace efforts-if we remain 'isolated.' I repeat, I don't see how a coalition with Skobeliev, or even Terestchenko, can help us to get peace! Avilov tries to frighten us by the threat of a peace at our expense. And I answer that in any case, if Europe continues to be ruled by the imperialist bourgeoisie, revolutionary Russia will inevitably be lost.... 
"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!" 
They greeted him with an immense crusading acclaim, kindling to the daring of it, with the thought of championing mankind. And from that moment there was something conscious and decided about the insurrectionary masses, in all their actions, which never left them.
The Soviets truly believed that a global revolution of the proletariat was both inevitable and necessary. As Trotsky argued, the bourgeoise would threaten the Revolution as long as they existed—this claim was also a tenet of Lenin's—and thus the Revolution had to be global. Reed apparently shared that belief and was confident the world revolution would happen.

Until that world revolution happened, the Soviets believed, the proletariat revolution was perpetually in danger of counterrevolution. Thus the opportunities for counterrevolution had to be treated ruthlessly. So Reed approvingly notes the speeches that Trotsky and Lenin made against the freedom of the press. Trotsky claimed that "the closing of the newspapers is a legitimate measure of defense," and Lenin concurred:
  Then Lenin, calm, unemotional, his forehead wrinkled, as he spoke slowly, choosing his words; each sentence falling like a hammer-blow. “The civil war is not yet finished; the enemy is still with us; consequently it is impossible to abolish the measures of repression against the Press. 
 “We Bolsheviki have always said that when we reached a position of power we would close the bourgeois press. To tolerate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist. When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward—or go back. He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the Press’ goes backward, and halts our headlong course toward Socialism.
This book is ebullient in style and heartbreaking in retrospect. If you want a journalistic account of the Revolution, I recommend it.