John Reed’s classic work – Ten Days that Shook the World – of course gives an inspiring description of the events during the October Revolution of 1917. But equally, it poses a question to our very understanding of history and society.
We live at a time when anniversaries and their celebrations have become commonplace. A couple of mentions on social media, status messages, sharing of similar messages by others and a few likes often sums up our marking of such anniversaries. We then move on to the next anniversary. History however, is never that simple and Reed’s eye-witness account is a wonderful example of the nuts and bolts of a revolution. Of how such an upsurge, in its truest form, is not just the act of a committee or even a revolutionary vanguard but is embraced and given direction as much by the larger mass of people.
The revolution began on November 7 (October 25 in the Julian calendar then used in Russia) with the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St. Petersburg). However, on November 7 and the following days what stands out in Reed’s account is not the warfare or the violence. What Reed’s account highlights is the sheer extent to which the common people of the country – the toiling masses – took ownership of the revolution and fought and argued and laboured for it tirelessly.
The most significant instance is perhaps that of the military. Armies have almost always been establishments defending the status quo. With their ranks and hierarchies and iron discipline and intolerance of dissent, it is no wonder that from the dawn of history to as recently as in Egypt, military culture has been seen as the opposite of democracy. However, in a rare instance, during the months before and after the revolution, the entire military structure transformed into a democracy. Officers became mere executives, who carried out the will of the soldiers and it was the common soldiers who took the most vital decision of all – what would the regiment’s stand towards the revolution be?
And, it is here that we remember the brunnoviki –the armoured car troops stationed in Leningrad. On November 9, after hours of discussion, described by Reed in poetic detail (read extract), the brunnoviki, most of whose officers wanted to stay neutral, voted to fight in support of the revolution. Thus, it was that on occasion after occasion, the peasants, workers and soldiers of Russia took the revolution into their own hands, dealing blow after blow to the oppression of centuries.
As Reed writes of the brunnoviki’s debate:
Imagine this struggle being repeated in every barracks of the city, the district, the whole front, all Russia. .. And then imagine the same in all the locals of every labour union, in the factories, the villages, on the battle−ships of the far−flung Russian fleets; think of the hundreds of thousands of Russian men staring up at speakers all over the vast country, workmen, peasants, soldiers, sailors, trying so hard to understand and to choose, thinking so intensely−and deciding so unanimously at the end. So was the Russian Revolution….
Of course, one must remember that the soldiers did not make their decision in a vaccum. While the other ‘revolutionary’ parties hesitated and sought compromises, Lenin and the Bolsheviks alone stood firm on the slogan ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. For the soldiers, who for three years had seen millions of their comrades massacred – pawns in an imperialist war – the determination of the Bolsheviks to wage peace was perhaps the decisive factor. Similarly, many of the soldiers who came from peasant families saw hope when the Bolsheviks unlike so many others, acted on their promise of immediate land reforms. To this day, the Bolshevik strategy during 1917 is a lesson in the benefits of uncompromising radicalism; the ability Reed celebrates as:
they took the crude, simple desires of the workers, soldiers and peasants, and from them built their immediate programme
But it was not merely the soldiers. To quote Reed again:
The izvoshtchiki (cab−drivers) had a Union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organised, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read, “No tips taken here-” or “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip!”
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.
Reading the Russian revolution through John Reed is a celebration of such instances. The famous figures come and go. Gloriously stubborn Lenin, refusing to compromise one bit and driving his sometimes unwilling comrades to concretely analyse conditions and act; Trotsky, brutal in his retorts, tearing down the arguments of those who stood against him; the doubting Kamenev and Lunacharsky. But equally prominent are the unnamed workers of Russia, who again and again turn the motor of the revolution through the glorious institution of the soviet.
Amidst the chaos of the first World War and attempts by conservatives and vested interests to hijack the February revolution, the Bolsheviks’ success lay in their ability to foster and tap into the revolutionary sentiment among the working class. As we near the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, our task remains fundamentally the same. The October revolution began on November 7 but was won in the weeks and months ahead, soviet by soviet, province by province through the blood, sweat, toil and tears of millions. Clearly, revolutions are not made or meant to be remembered in merely one day.