Ten Days that Shook the World
Review By Frieda Park
It is impossible to over-estimate the significance of the Russian Revolution of November 1917, when for the first time in history the working-class gained power and held it in the face of all kinds of de-stabilisation and adversity.
Right at the heart of events as they dramatically unfolded John Reed, an American journalist and communist, was eye-witness to the Ten Days that Shook the World. The vivid title is typical of his writing as he brings to life events both historic and everyday so that the reader can feel what it was like to live through the Revolution in Red Petrograd, Moscow and at the front in the fight against the counter-revolutionaries. It is so skilfully written that it reads like an adventure story, but also manages to illuminate the key issues facing the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary working-class. He draws together what he himself witnessed along with excerpts from speeches, proclamations, newspaper articles and decrees. It is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand not only the Russian Revolution, but any socialist revolutionary process.
Reed gives a bit of background at the start of the book to the development of the revolutionary movement from the strikes and mass political activity of 1905. Russia was a backward country, with a relatively small working-class and a huge peasantry under the heel of large landowners. It was governed autocratically by the Tsar, however, the struggles of 1905 began to pressurise Tsarism for democratic change. Reforms, however, were too little too late and did not address the many grievances of workers, peasants and soldiers.
Reed also gives an index of the of different political parties, popular and government organisations of the time. This is helpful as the sheer number of these and their shifting positions in an array of different government and popular meetings can be confusing. Official government bodies were increasingly being challenged by organs of popular power, the Soviets, committees directly representing workers, soldiers and peasants.
The action proper starts in Chapter 3, which covers October 30th to November 6th. During this time Reed gives a picture of the debates and preparations leading up to the revolution. He is present in the Bolshevik headquarters in the Smolny Institute. At the centre of the Revolution the Petrograd Soviet is in continuous session with delegates scarcely sleeping. The struggle rages in the streets, in working-class organisations and among the soldiers. This is a battle involving armed power and force, but is also a battle of ideas and of propaganda where the support of each section of the class and the peasants and each regiment of the army has to be fought for.
“In the barracks and the working-class quarters of the town the Bolsheviki were preaching, ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ and agents of the Dark Forces were urging people to rise and slaughter the Jews, shop-keepers, Socialist leaders…
On one side the Monarchist press, inciting to bloody repression – on the other Lenin’s great voice roaring, ‘Insurrection!...We cannot wait any longer!’”
Each of the next seven chapters covers a single day capturing the exciting ebb and flow of the revolution. At the start the Bolsheviks were not a mass party, nor did they command majority support, however, they worked to win people over to their bold and principled position, that the situation in Russia provided the opportunity for capitalism’s defeat and for the working-class to take power.
Chapter 4 chronicles the decisive turning point on the 7th of November when the Provisional Government falls and the Soviets assume power. Using their American passports, Reed and his colleagues talk their way into the Winter Palace, at that point still the government building. He describes the demoralised chaos all around and it is later that same day that the assault on the Palace takes place, defining the victory of the revolution. Reed is out once more in the streets in the thick of the action:
“As we reached the Nevsky again another armoured car came around the corner, and a man poked his head out of the turret-top.
‘Come on!’ he yelled. ‘Let’s go on through and attack!’
The driver of the other car came over, and shouted so as to be heard above the roaring engine. ‘The Committee says to wait. They have got artillery behind the wood-piles in there…’”
“At the Mikhailovsky a man appeared with an armful of newspapers, and was immediately stormed by frantic people, offering a rouble, five roubles, ten roubles, tearing at each other like animals. It was Rabotchi i Soldat, announcing the victory of the Proletarian Revolution, the liberation of the Bolsheviki still in prison, calling upon the Army front and rear for support…a feverish little sheet of four pages…”
Though a decisive turning point had been reached victory had not yet been secured. Among the working-class, peasantry, soldiers and others, key groups still had to be won for the revolution and the forces of reaction were organising military action and de-stabilisation to try to overthrow the new revolutionary power.
Reed was there on the 8th of November when Lenin appeared at the Congress of Soviets. He draws a pen picture of his appearance and demeanour and the electrifying moment when he announces:
“We will now proceed to construct the Socialist order!”
In the first place that meant turning the slogan of the Revolution, “Peace, Bread and Land”, into practical measures. That day congress debated and agreed as the priority, The Proclamation to the Peoples and Governments of all of the Belligerent Nations, proposing that there be a negotiated end to the slaughter of the first World War ensuring a just and democratic peace.
In the same session the Decree on Land was agreed, abolishing private ownership of land and transferring it from the big estates to the peasants. This was followed by the Decree of the Constitution of Power, which transferred power to a new state structure based on the Soviets.
By the standards of our own ponderous political processes the swiftness and ability of the new Soviet power to agree these positions demonstrates the dynamism of a revolutionary situation and the seemingly limitless possibilities it provides. The debates in the Congress were intense and hard-fought, however, putting its decrees into practice proved even more challenging. Internally and externally there were huge problems in holding power and being able to use it effectively.
Civil servants at all levels refused to collaborate with the Soviet Government, preventing access to, and sometimes destroying, vital records, including financial information. Funds were cut off to the needy, with the government unable to counter such actions. Banks refused to deal with it and the government had no cash. Utilities and telephones were cut off to the Smolny. It was a day to day struggle for power and resources. Reed describes the scene in the telephone exchange, where despite the offer to improve the pay and conditions of the telephonists, most of them fled the building, leaving only a handful of women who then had to train from scratch a motley selection of volunteers. Food which had been horded by speculators was seized and emissaries sent out with goods to barter with the peasants for grain. The use of electricity was limited to save power. The banks were nationalised. Despite the chaos and defying the odds stacked against it, the Revolution found solutions to the problems it encountered, doing whatever had to be done.
Efforts at destabilisation went further. Counter-revolutionaries declared war on the Soviet government and were backed up in this by foreign powers. On November 9th, Kerensky placed himself at the head of the regiments which “remained faithful to the fatherland”. Kerensky had been prime minister in the toppled Provisional Government and was on the right of the reformist forces in Russia.
The capitalist press played its part in spreading untruths and stoking up fear, leading to the banning their newspapers.
On the 10th of November Reed visits the front-line, describing graphically the fight for Petrograd.
“As we came out into the dark and gloomy day all around the grey horizon factory whistles were blowing, a hoarse and nervous sound, full of foreboding. By tens of thousands the working-people poured out, men and women: by the tens of thousands the humming slums belched out their dun and miserable hordes. Red Petrograd was in danger! Cossacks! South and south-west they poured through the shabby streets toward the Moskovsky Gate, men, women and children, with rifles, picks, spades, rolls of wire, cartridge-belts over their working clothes…Such an immense, spontaneous out-pouring of a city was never seen!....the revolutionary proletariat defending with its breast the capital of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic!”
Ultimately this attempt to over-throw Soviet power is defeated by troops loyal to the revolution, the Red Guards and the armed working-class that Reed describes. Kerensky flees and his troops surrender on November 15th.
“I went back to Petrograd riding on the front seat of an auto truck, driven by a workman and filled with Red Guards…..
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!’”
During all this ferment the Congress of the Soviets continued to meet and issue decrees. On November 15th there is the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, signalling the end of imperial domination of the minorities of the Russian empire. Secret treaties between Russia and other imperialist powers are published and Russia sues for peace effectively ending its involvement in the First World War. On the international stage the new Soviet government demonstrates its radical departure from the norms of imperialism, dominating and exploiting other nations. It is an end to Russia’s involvement in carving up the world by agreement between great powers and to the fighting of wars to serve these interests.
The final chapter of the book covers the Peasants’ Congress. By that point, 18th November, 11 days after the storming of the Winter Palace and the fall of the Provisional government the peasants of Russia still had not been fully won for the Revolution. Given the vast numbers of peasants, compared to the working-class this was a necessity. Reed describes the cut and thrust of debate, with the congress eventually declaring unanimously its support for the Revolution and the victory of Socialism.
There are many lessons about the revolutionary process that can be drawn from Reed’s account:
- There was already mass unrest across Russia leading up to the Revolution. This did not initially have a revolutionary or socialist character, nevertheless, Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood the depths of the crisis of Tsarism and capitalism and that the people were prepared to act to address their grievances.
- Disaffection among ordinary soldiers worn out by being cannon-fodder for Tsarism in the First World War meant that the state could not rely on them to put down an insurrection, indeed many were also being won over to revolutionary, socialist ideas. The Bolsheviks correctly identified that this had the potential, not just to achieve change in Russia, but to be a revolutionary moment.
- Though not a mass party, the Bolshevik’s organisation and political analysis won over workers, soldiers and peasants, defeating the other parties which had more cautious, reformist programmes.
- Using a Marxist analysis, the Bolsheviks were clear about the nature of class power and the necessity of defeating the ideological and armed might of the capitalist state, completely replacing it with the institutions and ideas of working-class power.
- They anticipated and resolutely combated counter-revolutionary attempts at destabalising and over-throwing Soviet power.
The success of the Russian revolution was not a foregone conclusion but, seeing that it could be possible to achieve socialism, the Bolsheviks acted decisively to make it happen. They also saw the significance of the revolution as not just national, but as international, ending the imperialist slaughter of the First World War, offering freedom to the oppressed peoples of Russia and leading the way for the working-class elsewhere to follow its example.
 All quotes from Progress Publishers Edition of 10 Days that Shook the World. P60
 These were militias of working people, not part of the regular armed forces of the state.