John Reed, Account Of Bolshevi Essay, Research Paper
Essay Question 5:
How useful is the eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution by John Reed for an historical understanding of the Bolshevik revolution?
John Reeds, Ten Days that Shook the World immediately stands out as a crucial primary historical source on the Bolshevik revolution. His eye witness account of the events in Petrograd are important as the revolutionary actions that took place similarly replicated events that took place all over Russia. Reed creates an insight into the events, actions, feelings and emotions of the Bolshevik revolution that has not been replicated. There was no other similar documents to Reed s at the time and thus Ten Days stands out as one of the key primary sources on the time period. Despite scholarly debate as to the accuracy and excess emotion rather than fact in Reed s work, it is widely agreed that his text is crucial for a complete understanding of the Bolshevik revolution. As Bertram D. Wolfe writes, Whether because of or despite the dream which possessed him, as literature Reed s book is the finest piece of eyewitness reporting the revolution produced. 1
Immediately, in the preface to the book Reed makes clear the reasons why he has written the text. Just as historians search the records for the minutest details of the story of the Paris Commune, so they will want to know what happened in Petrograd in November 1917, the spirit which animated the people, and how the leaders looked, talked and acted. It is with this in view that I have written this book. 2 Here we see the sort of understanding he wants his readers to have achieved, an eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution with details on the spirit of the people and incredible insight on the leaders actions and beliefs during the revolutionary period.
Like all historical documents, Reeds is undoubtedly biased. He attempts to be a reporter of facts and events but in the preface admits that in the struggle my sympathies were not neutral. But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth. 3 Thus (self-admittedly) there is an uncontrollable bias, where the author realises that his natural emotion at the events taking place around him will be reflected in his work.
Reed believed that the workers in Petrograd emerged triumphant largely because they depended only on themselves. He describes how the Bolsheviks faced opposition from the bureaucracy, the army, the diplomatic community, the bourgeoisie, and even the peasants as they tried to govern a divided country. Yet Ten Days ends on a jubilant note when a hastily elected Peasants Congress supports the revolution in late November 1917. Now the industrial workers and peasants are united, symbolically joined in mass support for their own revolution. This is the general argument in Ten Days and his emotions as an observer make this argument come to life convincingly. Lawson recognises this as Reed saw the world being changed, and he committed himself, not to an ideal or a dream, but to the classes which were engaged in changing the world, and proving, that the task could be accomplished.4
When analysing the importance of the source historically, many historians have praised Reed s work uncompromisingly. Historian George Kennan writes: Reed s account of the events of that time rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, and its command of detail. It will be remembered when all the others are forgotten. 5 Hicks also writes of the insight Reed is able to achieve in his time in Petrograd. The details Reed goes into give a presence to his writing. Everywhere, the Bolsheviks, at great popular meetings, at little gatherings in factories and barracks, in secret sessions at Smolny, worked and worked and waited for the time to strike.6 John Reed, with his poets eyes, missed none of it, neither the drama on the surface nor the deep-hidden issues.7
Similarly Duke points out how Reed is different to other historians because as a primary reporter on events at that time, he was surrounded by the people whom were undertaking this revolution. Reed s text is not a document written by a man in power such as Lenin or an advisor, but an onlooker, surrounded by the working class people of Russia. Accounts of the Bolshevik revolution document the overwhelming importance of Lenin s will in calling for a seizure of power. But Reed stresses the central role of the people rather than their leaders, insisting that the Bolshevik coup could not have come about without the support of the masses.8 This idea is illustrated in Ten Days. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed. The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people. 9
When analysing the praise that this document receives one must take into account the fact that Ten Days has been labelled a classic. 10 With such a label comes a prejudice from readers that make criticism of the text hard to come by. A.J.P. Taylor is the author of the introduction for a 1977 reprint of the text and upon reading raving reviews of the text, readers can find it hard to create a critical mindset of the novel. Examples of this raving include this excerpt from Taylor s introductions . revolutions are tumultuous affaires, difficult to follow while they are on. They participants are too busy to write down their experiences at the time, and the victors are too busy afterwards. Reed s book is not only the best account of the Bolshevik revolution, it comes near to being the best account of any revolution. 11 These are definitely words of potential influence and continues on with Taylor noting how, it stands unrivalled as a monument to the Bolshevik revolution and to its two leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. 12
Ten Days is seen as a crucial historical document however it does have its errors, which detracts from its legitimacy as a source. One of Reed s more glaring errors is his fabricated account of the 23rd October meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee.13 He also incorrectly reported a story about Lenin. According to Ten Days, Lenin attended an historic meeting at Smolny Institute on the 3rd of November, during which he announced that few days hence would be the best time to overthrow the provisional government. 14 Reed said he learned this as he sat in the corridor while the highly secret meeting took place, and was informed of what happened by one of the departing Bolsheviks.15 But the story cannot be true. Duke notes that Lenin remained hidden in Petrograd until the 6th of November and did not arrive at the Smolny Institute until around midnight that evening. 16
The first edition of Ten Days had carried an enthusiastic preface by Lenin and the first Soviet edition added a foreword by Lenin s wife, Krupskoya. As early as 1924 Stalin had cast doubt on the reliability of Reed as an observer but despite this the book appeared in twelve Soviet editions until 1930 when publication was suspended.17 Approximately 200 personages appear in Ten Days but there is no mention of Stalin except in documents signed by him.18 Clearly this was intolerable at a time when Party historians were constructing the myth of two leaders of revolution Lenin and Stalin.19 Once again Reed s account comes under criticism as a reputable historical document of the Bolshevik revolution.
Another argument that has been debated was whether these errors were intentional or not. Robert Daniels position was that such errors were probably not deliberate. In the midst of revolutionary turmoil, Reed could easily have confused second hand verbal reports of Bolshevik meetings.20 However Daniels sees these errors as a major detriment to Ten Days as an historical source. He criticizes the book to such an extent that he recommends the book for its drama, not its accuracy.21 Taylor also raises the issue of emotions in the text as he states: Reed s book is not reliable in every detail . as with most writers, Reed heightened the drama, and this drama sometimes took over from reality. 22 Daniels and Taylor s views are clear and in calling the work a piece of fiction, this devalues Reed as a historian, and Ten Days that Shook the World as a historical document.
Similarly Bertram D. Wolfe recognises points that detract from Reed s success in his book. Wolfe admits that Reed was an honest reporter, but he accuses him of being na ve, vulnerable to gossip, rumour and conjecture, and describing a dream revolution. 23 Wolfe quotes Vladimir Woytinsky s opinion that the book is the work of an innocent who did not know whether he was attending a wedding or a funeral. 24 Wolfe assures us it was a funeral of Russia s newly won victories, achieved after a century of struggle.
Despite this, the profound impact of Reed s work was widespread and without doubt had great historical importance. Even Lenin was impressed by the work, and this showed the accuracy and insight that Reed was able to obtain. As Nikolai Lenin writes: here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletariat Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. 25
This single-handedly illustrates the importance of Reed s Ten Days that Shook the World as a historical document. The strength and power or Lenin pushing for millions of copies to be published and spread around the world shows how important the text is. The praise of the book continues with Kennan as Reed s account of the events of that time rises above every other contemporary record for it s literary power, its penetration, its command of detail. It will be remembered when all the others are forgotten. 26 Again, a scholar refers to the details that Reed paid such particular attention to, and in capturing these details, Ten Days is a crucial primary document on the Bolshevik revolution.
There are those scholars made reference to, who have observed flaws in the recollection Reed has created. However these cannot be compared to the vast accolades and credits that Ten Days has received. Notably, Ten Days that Shook the World has been penned a classic by many scholars, and rightly so. As a recollection of the events that occurred during the Bolshevik revolution it is the most obvious, and best eyewitness account of the revolution. Without Reed s text as a historical source, the understanding of the ten days in November 1917 would not be as clear, and thus Reeds Ten Days that Shook the World is the crucial historical document of the Bolshevik revolution.
1 Bertram D. Wolfe, Introduction, John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1975, xxxii-xxxiii
2 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: International Publishers Co., 1967, xxxviii
3 Ibid., xxxviii
4 John Howard Lawson, Introduction, John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: International Publishers, 1967, xx
5 George Kennan, Russia Leaves the War, London: Faber and Faber, 1956, 68-69
6 Granville Hicks, One of Us, The Story of John Reed, USA: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1935, 18
7 Ibid., 18
8 David Duke, John Reed, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 117
9 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, USA: International Publishers, 1934, 292
10 *Part of the Twentieth-Century Classics series. John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, England: Penguin Books, 1977.
11 Ibid., vii
12 Ibid., xix
13 David Duke, John Reed, 117
14 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, England: Penguin Books, 1977, 73
15 David Duke, John Reed, 127
16 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, England: Penguin Books, 1977, 73
17 Eric Honberger, John Biggant (ed.) John Reed and the Russian Revolution, New York: St. Martin s Press, 1992, xiv
18 Ibid., xiv
19 Ibid., xiv
20 Robert V. Daniels, Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1977, Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, 74-77
21 Ibid., 75
22 A.J.P. Taylor, Introduction, John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, England: Penguin Books, 1977, ix.
23 Bertram D. Wofe, Introduction, John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1975, xxxii-xxxiii
24 Ibid., xxxv
25 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: International Publishers, 1967, xxxvii
26 George Kennan, Russia Leaves the War, London: Faber and Faber, 1956, 68-69