John Reed, “Ten Days That Shook the World” (1919) – I think it’s fair to say that literature has struggled with how to depict the Bolsheviks, especially in their “heroic” period- the Revolution and Civil War. Bolsheviks as monsters or robots, writers can do. But the thing is, no one honest, no matter how anticommunist or critical of the project, could look at the Bolsheviks in 1917-1922 and see the sort of comforting inability we project onto robots or monsters, no matter how scary they may be. Bulgakov was no friend of the Bolsheviks, for example, and his depiction of them in civil war era Kiev is sinister, chilling even- but they’re human, and winners, and deserve the W as much as anyone could, even to him. One irony of this literary issue is that the Bolsheviks succeeded, in large part, by sticking to a program- bread, land, peace, all power to the Soviets, and no substitute. Maybe that’s one of the depiction problems: literature as we know it thrives on dithering, indecision, and the comeuppance of belief and decisive action at the hands of irony and circumstance. You can say the Bolsheviks got their comeuppance, the reward literature assigns for anything like commitment… but not for some time.
John Reed made a crack at it. He worked as a war correspondent for a New York magazine that isn’t around anymore. He was a rich kid from Portland (where I sit and write this review!), entered the Greenwich Village bohemian milieu. It was an odd bunch, 1910s bohemia, that could go a lot of directions politically. A lot of them went plum useless, as artsy types tend to do. Reed went red, red enough they made a movie about him called “Reds” with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning (I’ll see it, some day). He showed up in Petrograd just after the first serious attempt by reactionaries to overthrow the nascent revolution failed.
You’d figure that’d be a unifying moment, right? Some shithead general almost taking over, who’d throw the softest socialists in the same jail (or mass grave) as the Bolsheviks? Not hardly. Alexander Kerensky, the moderate socialist leader at the time, continued to worry more about the Bolsheviks and others on his left than he did about ending the crippling war with Germany or preventing counterrevolution, increasingly seeming to actively favor counterrevolution as a way to get rid of his opponents. On the one hand, it makes sense- the Bolsheviks did indeed cook his goose and probably always wanted to even if he did much of what they wanted, and he must have figured that the Allies would help him out if he stayed in the war. On the other, here’s a good rule- if your plan involves the British being grateful, it’s not a plan, it’s a daydream.
Quite beyond anything else, the Bolshevik plan was the only sustainable one. They needed to end the war. The workers needed food, and the peasants needed land, in order to make a workable socioeconomic system of any kind other than the feudal one they already had and which was in the process of destruction in any event. None of the others had a plan that made any damn sense at all. That’s what Reed (and, in his way, Bulgakov in “White Guard”) conveys about his time in Petrograd. It was a revolutionary situation, which is a way of saying you could take the chaos of everyday life and dial it up times ten, the proverbial spilled ants nest. Reed shows us plenty of confused Bolsheviks but there was always a plan. Land, peace, bread, all power to the Soviets- stick together, encourage dissension in the other left groups, be in some sense “reasonable” but don’t give an inch.
Here’s one way in which this worked out for them, and which Reed depicts clearly- the Petrograd masses clearly preferred the Bolsheviks. Whatever distance they may or may not have had with the real mass of the Russian population, the peasants, the Bolsheviks had the trust and active participants of the working class in Petrograd, and whatever they might have been in terms of the total Russian population, they were strategically poised. Reed goes to a lot of political meetings in the course of reporting this story. The “committee for the salvation of the revolution” or whatever the moderate coalition was called (the book is three thousand miles away from me at the moment) were mostly meetings of political “types” – intellectuals, lawyers, trade union officials, etc. All of those types were well represented in Bolshevik meetings Reed attended, too. But so were actual workers, soldiers, and sailors. This proved crucial. A question, irrelevantly simple in some times and places but crucial and knotty in others (I think our time is the latter) – who is the infantry? The best the moderates could come up with was “Cossacks, the worst troops in the world and only good for throwing people like us in jail.” The Bolsheviks had a much better answer.
And they didn’t get it through pandering, either. So much of our conversation on class politics is debased cultural nonsense. Lenin and Trotsky weren’t, like, working class dudes being guys, cracking open a few cold ones and being casually transphobic or whatever the equivalent would be in terms of pandering to Petrograd workers a century ago. They were serious intellectuals from privileged backgrounds- but they were serious people and anyone could see it, and the people of Petrograd could see they were the only ones with a plan, certainly the ones with a plan that would benefit them.
Anyway! Reed depicts Petrograd ahead of the October Revolution, when Lenin said “yolo” and the Bolsheviks seized power, in all its chaos. It verges on hero-worship but doesn’t quite get there, in my opinion. He does a good crowd scene and a good chaos scene- neither are easy to write. The actions of the Bolsheviks run like a red line of rationality — notice, I do not say morality, though I happen to agree with most of their actions in that particular context (knowing me, I’d be some Left SR quibbling but shrugging- I’m always a degree or so off the main line) — through the chaos. You can see why they were so attractive, to the Petrograd working class, to Reed, to so many others. It’s a compelling story, a compelling reality. Cards on table: jokes about weird-alternate-universe-early-20th c Russian Peter aside, I do not trust vanguard parties to not degenerate into tyranny. But they’re pretty good at making revolution, and it’s not like any other group of people who seize power have such a great track record of —not— degenerating into tyranny. What to make of that? I don’t know. This was a pretty good book. The end… for now. ****’