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Somehow we have all conspired to remember one of the most profound events in human history by gravitating to the very opposite extreme, with a week of what seems like unprecedented trivia. In the latest Westminster sex scandal, a minister has resigned following complaints that he had placed his hand on a female journalist’s knee fifteen years ago. The same minister had told another woman with cold hands that, “I know where you can put them to warm them up.” But all of this was immediately dwarfed by the news that in 2008 pornography had been found on a work laptop connected to the office of the now deputy prime minister. And barely had we recovered our breath from this scandal when there broke a surprise accountancy outrage which revealed that several important celebrities had taken measures to reduce their tax payments.

These are, in 2017, what count as days that shook the world.

In 1917, peasants’ committees and workers’ soviets had seized control of the means of production; ordinary Russians had fallen over each other to grab power and property for themselves. In 2017, politics is reduced to a faraway, largely incomprehensible bickering about nonentities’ personal wrongdoings. Headlines about ministerial sex nuisances are not so much a sign of decadence as a confirmation of our own political passivity. Politics can be all about them – about their careers and tax arrangements – because it is no longer about us. In 1917, however, millions of ordinary people had rudely barged right into the middle of their politics. The world was shaken as it had never been before and hasn’t been since.

The Bolshevik revolution had originally occurred in October but with Russia’s subsequent switch to the Gregorian calendar it migrated to November. John Reed was a journalist for the US socialist magazine The Masses and he had travelled to Petrograd (now St Petersburg again) to witness its revolutionary politics first-hand. Whereas Reed had been an outsider in Petrograd, his immersion in its alien revolutionary culture might well render him even more of an outsider to modern readers. Ten Days That Shook The World was published in 1919 and it quickly took prime place amongst the elite of revolutionary memoirs. The historian AJP Taylor describes it in his introduction as, “not only the best account of the Bolshevik revolution, it comes near to being the best account of any revolution.” Vladimir Lenin, who Reed portrays flatteringly, wrote a preface for the book’s 1922 edition and Joseph Stalin, who Reed scarcely mentions, had the book banned.

For anybody who is still authentically on the Left, and who believes in people power and the people being in charge, Reed’s Petrograd remains wholly unique as a political ideal. It sounds like a city from a fairytale – an enchanted city where the masses are, to the horror and amazement of the educated classes, suddenly taking full control of public life. The most inspiring passages in Ten Days That Shook The World, the times when Reed’s story runs pure, are those that show off a mass aspiration and empowerment that have been since, somewhere along the road, lost to us:

All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know… In every city, in most towns, along the front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression…

The people did not only read – after all, we read too! They also talked about what they had read:

In all the barracks meetings every night, and all day long interminable hot arguments. On the streets the crowds thickened towards gloomy evening, pouring in slow voluble tides up and down the Nevsky, fighting for newspapers…

When compared to the intricately hierarchical calm of London or Paris in 1917, this is a new manifestation of the city, almost a science-fiction metropolis where humanity has moved on to the next level:

For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere…

This is exotic today, when we live by the wisdom that politicians are all as bad as each other and that politics is best contracted out to distant entities such as the European Union to deal with. Despite living through a time of mass politicisation, a Red officer lamented to Reed that:

“It is not easy for us Russians, politics. You Americans are born politicians; you have had politics all your lives. But for us…”

Reed nonetheless chides that:

Foreigners, and Americans especially, frequently emphasize the ‘ignorance’ of the Russian workers. It is true they lacked the political experience of the peoples of the West, but they were very well trained in voluntary organisation. In 1917 there were more than twelve millions members of the Russian Consumers’ Cooperative Societies…

This working-class organisation is what we should mean when we refer to “the Russian revolution,” and not necessarily the cinematic imagery of sailors surging into a palace and trampling the carpets of power beneath their boots. Indeed, Reed is uninterested in dramatising the raid on the Winter Palace. In his account the plodding reality of the takeover only emphasises the pitifulness of the departing government. The Winter Palace already had the air of a rubbish-heap for failed politics, imagery that Trotsky would draw upon when telling counterrevolutionaries to, “go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”

There is far more human drama in Ten Days That Shook The World when Reed meets a colonel who is now required to serve his troops, as a lowly tactical consultant; or when Reed’s driver, an “old workman,” gestures at the city in the road ahead and crows, “‘Mine!… All mine now! My Petrograd!’” One is struck by the radical difference in weighting between Reed’s pictures of Petrograd and those contained within one of the most imposing modern histories of the Russian revolution, Orlando FigesA People’s Tragedy (1996). Rather cutely, Reed maintains of the Winter Palace that, “the most highly prized loot was clothing, which the working people needed.” He is thoroughly sure of “the miraculous good nature of the Russian crowd,” whereas Figes asserts that the “revolutionary crowd” possessed a deep-seated genius for brutal and gruesome violence:

In fact many more people were killed by the crowd in February than in the Bolsheviks’ October coup. The February Revolution in Helsingfors and Kronstadt was especially violent, with hundreds of naval officers killed gruesomely by the sailors. According to the official figures of the Provisional Government, 1,443 people were killed or wounded in Petrograd alone…

The October revolution would apparently do little to elevate the Russian character:

It was as if all the violence of the previous few years had stripped away the thin veneer of civilization covering human relations and exposed the primitive zoological instincts of man. People began to like the smell of blood. They developed a taste for sadistic forms of killing…

I am setting up Reed and Figes as magnetic opposites when both writers actually submit nuanced and considered evaluations of the revolutionary violence. It might be a difference of perspective rather than of emphasis: Reed, for all of his questing, naturally spent more time at political meetings rubbing shoulders with the vanguard of the revolutionary crowd; Figes takes a broader overview of the city and the entire country. Figes also rather innovatively argues that the Soviet state did not so much corrupt proletarian virtue as build its own power upon essentially legalising the everyday violence on the streets. He implicitly agrees with Marx that revolutionary violence derives from the lumpenproletariat, and hence that it speaks to a failure rather than an excess of popular organisation and education. The glass in A People’s Tragedy can be thus interpreted as being half empty, if such a metaphor is permissible given the wine-looting that ran rife in revolutionary Petrograd.

Is Ten Days That Shook the World invalidated by telling only half a story, or by passing off the best half as the whole? Does Reed fail to see the cruelty that had sprung from replacing law and order with street violence? Reed is unapologetic about writing up his book as a kind of boyish Victorian adventure. “Adventure it was,” he declares, “and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon.”

When in the field, Reed remains as detached as a child within a world of busy adults, watching and accompanying them as they storm about their business: “Half a dozen Red Guards, some sailors, and a soldier or two, under command of a huge workman, clambered in [to their truck] and shouted to me to come along.” As in the conventional boys’ adventure, there are light-hearted moments of bonding, as when the Red Guards move in to confront the enemy only to instead surround some comrades who have been shooting rabbits. Reed elsewhere roams the revolutionary landscape like a dream-walker; every door opens to him and, whilst he is sometimes mistaken for a spy, he manages to always magically walk away from the most perilous misunderstandings. Twice he is nearly shot by Red Guards who are unable to read his papers – twice he makes the same mistake and you have to wonder whether he is brave or not quite on the planet.

This innocence comes to fall into harmony with the assumptions behind Lenin’s takeover of power. Despite the Bolsheviks’ leather jackets and machismo, their government was basically an anti-war movement and it was soon evincing a hippie soft-headedness. When Lenin ventured to “hope that revolution will soon break out in all the belligerent countries,” he was not waving but drowning. This was not the scientific analysis that the Marxists had sternly favoured but simply a wish. Boris Avilov, a writer who had broken with the Bolsheviks early, confronted them with some merciless common sense:

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… No one party can conquer these enormous difficulties. The majority of the people, supporting a government of Socialist coalition, can alone accomplish the Revolution…

Trotsky replied that, “there are only two alternatives; either the Russian Revolution will create a revolutionary moment in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian Revolution!” This was at least realistic as well, but with the bar set so high the revolution would be more or less over after ten days. I infinitely prefer the vast mutiny across the Eastern front to the gormlessness and political passivity of our own troops, who had continued to obey their deranged orders and march towards the machine-gun posts. Mutinies at Ypres and Amiens – a revolution or two in Western capitals – might have put the idealism of the Russian revolution on a firmer footing. So we are implicated – we let the revolution down with our own passivity – and the road wended on to Versailles and reparations and the Second World War. But once this is understood, then Socialism In One Country is classified as a counsel of despair. A renewed passivity and a general lowering of aspirations would reconcile Russia with Stalin’s authoritarianism.

Still, Leninism was never as innocent as Stalinism made it appear. Often Reed’s adventure story glows with a virtue that today resembles a feeble artificial light. He insists that, “it was the masses of the people, workers, soldiers and peasants which forced every change in the course of the Revolution.” Trotsky smugly declared that, “The characteristic of bourgeois governments… is to deceive the people. We… are going to try an experiment unique in history; we are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers, and peasants.” One of the first ways that the Bolsheviks strove to achieve this was by censoring the newspapers that were available for ordinary people to read.

Lenin raged that, “He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the press’ goes backwards, and halts our headlong course towards Socialism.” He wanted to suppress newspapers that showed “disobedience” to his government. You cannot enlighten the people and simultaneously distrust them to the extent that they are no longer allowed to read “disobedient” newspapers. Gradually the measures against public misinformation that are necessary during a civil war would lapse into an institutionalised distrust of ordinary people. This was only Stalinism in name and really a theory of permanent Leninism. And when Reed describes Lenin orating with “a thousand simple faces looking up in intent adoration,” the seeds of a personality cult are already twitching. This credulity was hardly in keeping with the proper revolutionary spirit of popular education and Enlightenment.

At the end of his book, Reed quotes a peasant’s cry of, “I’d like to see them take away our land again, now!” Reed enthuses after the Congress of Soviets that there is, “Such a deluge of high and hot thoughts that surely Russia would never again be dumb!” Unfortunately, most of humanity would be struck dumb again by the defeat of the revolution, with the endless compromises of liberal democracy remaining as the only scant freedoms left to the masses. Reed got out at the right time, dying of typhus in 1920.

I cannot say if I would have been a Bolshevik in 1917. There were characters around such as Avilov who opposed both the further engorgement of the First World War and Lenin’s authoritarianism. The problem was that there were never enough of them to make a revolution and that their stance therefore seems frivolous. All murderers were once children and the Russian revolution was so adorable in its infancy. The death of the revolution should never efface the stupendous idealism and energy of its inception.

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