If you’d been riding East Bay transportation the last month or so, you might have seen a sporty gentleman of robust age reading a book called Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed.
You might have thought “Now there’s a true radical! There’s a Keeper of the Revolutionary Flame, still carrying on the struggle, dreaming the dream of the Socialist Future. Onward comrade! To the barricades, always onward!”
Or you might have thought: “Lousy stinking dirty Red! The treasonous commie scum who’s been hiding under my bed all this time. Call the FBI!”
BTW that reminds me of a question that’s been noodling about my mind . . . how did “red communists” becomes “blue” and “true-blue Americans” become . . . well, never you damn mind, because both thoughts would have been incorrect.
I was reading John Reed’s classic epic of reportage for that most necessary and mundane of reasons: homework. Researching not so much the facts regarding the 1917 Russian Revolution, but the feelings driving it: the outlook, the attitudes, the rhetoric.
Ten Days tells a helluva story, one worth reading. John Reed legendary American journalist and firebrand, with Louise Bryant, a fellow firebrand, at his side, arrived in Moscow in November 1917. They had come to see Utopia being born. They both found themselves at the climax of a ferocious struggle among the various revolutionary factions and against the forces seeking a more moderate path or to hang on to the status quo.
In mere days, Lenin and his Bolsheviks would sweep from the margins to the center, and fire the first shots in the war of ideologies that led to the bloodiest century human civilization has ever known.
Through Reed’s wide open eyes, events rush by in a blur as he races around Moscow, notebook in hand. Action is plentiful, the writing is exciting and vivid, though he risks losing the numerous threads of his narrative as the factions multiply like dividing cells: With the Czar gone, the Left becomes Right and More Left.
For a brief period the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, nearly lose the battle for power and the people’s hearts and minds, but through unnervingly clever cunning and bravado they roar back to take the podium. And the prize—absolute power, power that would truly shake the world.
Despite all the many moving pieces, fortunately, the edition in hand, from Tantallon Press (2000; now defunct), provides generous background material to help keep the various moving pieces straight.
To be sure, Ten Days is as biased as your tea-partying Uncle Ned bellowing over the Internet. You have to read it with that in mind, take Reed’s ideological blinkers as the price paid for passion. He had the advantage of actually being there. By all accounts he seems to have been a scrupulous reporter, closely observant of everything.
Despite his enthusiasm for All Things Socialist (a fever burning in most everyone he comes in touch with), ominous threads of unease appear from time-to-time; a sense of events spinning out of control; of consequences not thought through, as he watches ancient churches burn. You sense a chill in the blood during his few brief encounters with the Mephistophelean Lenin.
Still, as a true believer overawed by his proximity to events, he never considers that his heroes might be playing him, like, for example, Judith Miller was played by the Bush White House in the run up to the Second Iraq War. Bias was not an issue among journalists or the public in those days. There were no—repeat no--objective standards of fair reporting at all. Reporters could, and did, lie broadly and at will, with no expectation of punishment or even loss of readership. (Sorry Mr. Nihilist—journalists are much better than they used to be.)
Still, my feeling is that John Reed, even with blinkers on, is a reliable eyewitness. He told it as he saw it as best he could. You may be as skeptical of utopian revolutions as I am, but you’ll get a good sense of being at this one, the best that words can give.
Like all eyewitness accounts, it’s history through a keyhole, with no wide perspective and only a smattering of countervailing viewpoints (not that Reed had the time to go further; nor would he as he died two years later before concluding a follow-up volume).
What John Reed would have made of later events—when the new boss turned to be even worse than the old boss--we can’t know. After his death in Moscow in 1920 he was, remarkably, interred in the Kremlin Wall as a hero of the revolution.
Aside from this dubious honor though, John Reed had a reputation for both integrity and individualism, under which lay an anti-authoritarianism. It seems fair to say that, like many other worthies, he never intended to be a cheerleader for the rise the greatest, most violent tyranny ever. But in the end, good intentions don’t count for much on the road to the charnel house.
As I said at the start, Ten Days was research. Next I’ll turn to the other side of the early 20th century ideological coin. Among the books I’m considering is Fascist Voices, an account of Italian life under the first Fascist, Benito Mussolini. If I thought I was risking trouble before, I’m really in for it now. Better I hide that book behind a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. Keep an eye out on BART.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.