‘More bright than any heaven’
The October revolution showed countless millions that workers have the power to stop exploitation and oppression. It’s no surprise these events inspired marvellous documentary and artistic works. The Socialist revisits some of the classic accounts of 1917 – and comments on some more recent efforts to smear it…
Non-fiction: Ten Days That Shook the World
Inspirational platform for revolution’s nameless voices
Leon Trotsky said John Reed “did not miss one of the dramatic episodes of the revolution” – he was someone who “knew how to see and hear.” Reed’s 1919 book ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ does not disappoint. It is a superb read.
The American journalist gives a fantastic on-the-ground account of revolutionary Russia immediately before and after the Bolshevik-led soviets overthrew capitalism across the land. He went halfway around the world to report on the unfolding revolution.
Reed was caught up in the revolution, and supported it. How could he not?
He remembers “bumping at top speed down the Suvorovsky Prospect, swaying from side to side. One man tore the wrapping from a bundle and began to hurl handfuls of papers into the air. We imitated him, plunging down through the dark street with a tail of white papers floating and eddying out behind.”
“I picked up a copy of the paper, and under a fleeting streetlight read: To the citizens of Russia! Long live the revolution of workmen, soldiers and peasants!”
Reed’s socialist loyalties put him in danger. On trying to enter Petrograd after siding with the revolution, he is challenged by a pro-capitalist colonel.
“We showed our Bolshevik papers… ‘Oh dear no.’ He smiled. ‘We are holding the city for Kerensky.’ Our hearts sank, for our passes stated that we were revolutionary to the core.”
Ten Days gives a platform to the myriad nameless voices that had swung behind the revolution.
Even “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 tables is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip!'”
He recalls a crowd of revolutionary sailors’ run-in with the rail union, the Vikzhel, led by the right. “A member of the Vikzhel was pleading with them. ‘Comrades, we cannot carry you to Moscow. We are neutral. We do not carry troops for either side. We cannot take you to Moscow, where already there is terrible civil war’.
“All the seething square roared at him; the sailors began to surge forward. Suddenly another door was flung wide; in it stood two or three brakeman, a fireman or so. ‘This way, comrades!’ cried one. ‘We will take you to Moscow – or Vladivostok, if you like! Long live the revolution!'”
One soldier remarked that some “look down on us Russians because so long we tolerated a medieval monarchy… But we saw that the tsar was not the only tyrant in the world; capitalism was worse, and in all the countries of the world capitalism was emperor.”
Reed is present at the congress of soviets straight after the October insurrection. The elected representatives were “great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants – poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence.”
There were hugely important votes to end the war, grant workers’ control of industry, give the land to the peasants, and begin to build a socialist society. A right-wing delegate thought he could vote to continue the war, surrounded by soldiers fresh from the front.
“It was exactly 10.35 when Kamenev asked all in favour of the proclamation to hold up their cards. One delegate dared to raise his hand against, but the sudden sharp outburst around him brought it swiftly down.”
In the penultimate chapter, Reed makes an important departure from the wonderful journey he’s taken you on. The style changes; it is a full-bodied defence of the socialist ideas at the heart of the Russian revolution, the first time ever the exploited took power across a country.
But Reed has you sold long before this. “I suddenly realised that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer.”
- ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’: £9.99 from leftbooks.co.uk
Radio 4’s ‘beautiful’ Ten Days adaptation is ‘required listening’
Beautifully made and acted ten-part radio series. May be confusing at times for those not well-versed in the various factions and ebbs and flows of the revolution. But for atmosphere alone this is required listening.
- ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ is airing on BBC Radio 4 and available on iPlayer
Flawed but informative biopic of revolutionary journalist reed
The 1981 film ‘Reds’ about the American socialist journalist John ‘Jack’ Reed is not the movie version of ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’. It dedicates too little of its three-hour 20-minute running time to the events of 1917.
However, it’s still enjoyable, informative and worth watching, both for those new to and familiar with the Russian revolution.
Early on, viewers get a measure of the man. At a dinner at a Liberal Club, following a speech urging men to enlist and fight in World War One, Reed is asked to give his comments on the causes of the war. He stands, pauses, and then simply says “profits” before sitting back down.
Reds charts Reed’s trajectory from radical journalist upsetting liberals, to his activities covering the work of the Industrial Workers of the World union, to his transformation from observer into a revolutionary himself during the Russian revolution.
The film brings out some of the atmosphere of that period. In one scene Reed attends a meeting of Russian workers discussing whether to strike. The workers ask him to speak on the attitude of American workers to the war.
At first he is reluctant. He is a journalist, with no relevant “credentials” as he puts it – but the workers urge him to speak, saying “everyone has credentials.” Reed gets up and tells the workers that if they strike, then American workers will join them.
The next scenes show him distributing leaflets, taking part in marches and attending meetings addressed by Lenin and Trotsky.
After the revolution his transformation is complete. He returns to the US and throws himself into the battle between the revolutionaries and the reformists in the Socialist Party USA. Following a split, he helps found and lead the new Communist Party, and represents it at the world congress of the new Third International back in revolutionary Russia.
Some of the degeneration of the revolution is referenced – the rise of the bureaucracy around Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin – but this is not adequately explained. Another shortcoming is the absence of Lenin, Trotsky and their decisive role.
The use of eyewitnesses, interviews with contemporaries of Reed that intersperse the film, provides an interesting insight. Though they are sometimes aimless contributions, I particularly liked one older American man, transformed into a teenager again when recollecting how happy he was when heard there was a revolution in Russia.
It’s flawed, but Reds is a decent introduction to some of the events of the Russian revolution, when workers and peasants took charge of their own destiny and inspired millions around the world.
Revolutionary pointer to the future of cinema and society
Revolutions overturn the existing order. In both content and style then, Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘October’ (1928) was revolutionary cinema.
It depicts the 1917 revolution – not by following the story of individuals, but by portraying through allusion and re-enactment the clash of the class forces that transformed Russia and the world.
It opens with workers dismantling a statue of the tsar, setting the scene for the February revolution. The lives of the poor and oppressed are contrasted with the decadence of the aristocracy.
As workers decide they can’t take war and grinding poverty anymore, they move onto the streets.
The wavering of the ranks of the army – to defend the old order, or to join the masses in building a new one – is painted across the screen. When the state fights back, the rifles firing at the workers are intercut with scenes of the tsarist press – both aiming to maintain the interests of the elite.
This film is wholeheartedly on the side of the revolution. Many of those playing scenes or in the crowds were there ten years prior, active participants. The possibility, the inspiration, the human material to create such a film were born out of the revolution it portrays.
But so too was the film’s undoing. Commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its subject, the depiction of Trotsky leading events alongside Lenin did not suit the Stalinist cabal then engaged in pushing back many revolutionary gains.
The reminder of Trotsky’s role, just as the regime was purging him and others from the country, did Stalin’s cause no favours. So celluloid Trotsky was purged as well!
Even recut and changed, as with much revolutionary art, it fell out of official favour, replaced with dull, placid ‘socialist realism’.
The recently restored version of October, premiered in Berlin in 2012 and including Trotsky, stands as a testament to the time, and a pointer to the future of cinema and society.
Russian Revolution on Netflix: ’47 minutes I won’t get back’
Well there’s 47 minutes of my life I won’t get back. ‘The Russian Revolution’ on Netflix.
Basically, the Romanovs weren’t bad people; Nicholas II abdicated because he loved Russia; Lenin was a dictator; poor Rasputin was only trying to help the tsar’s son.
Virtually no mention of Trotsky. The only mention of the civil war was when it started and when it ended. And Lenin only became a revolutionary because the capitalists wouldn’t give his mother a lift to see his brother’s execution.
Oh, and apparently tsarist prison and exile was quite luxurious by today’s standards.
- ‘The Russian Revolution’ is available on netflix.com
Countdown to Revolution on BBC 2: ‘right-wing overkill’
BBC 2’s documentary on Russian revolution. Right-wing overkill.
Anyone who has ever written a book attacking revolutionary Russia – Sebag Montefiore, Figes, Sebestyen, Rapaport, plus Martin Amis and the plummiest ever BBC correspondent Bridget Kendall.
Ranged against them? Tariq Ali and China Miéville. Call it balance if you want.
A relentless focus on psychology at the expense of an understanding of mass movements – Trotsky’s arrogance, Lenin’s desire for revenge for his brother’s death! To paraphrase Lenin: when everyone is a psychologist, no one is a psychologist.
These were utterly self-sacrificing men. Lenin did, yes, die of a stroke, but not before he took a bullet. And we know what happened to Trotsky.
An entirely predictable travesty.
I thought the role of Stalin pre-revolution was over-egged. The programme focused on personalities and appearances excessively.
The fundamental differences between Trotsky and Stalin were glossed over. The end summation only had one short positive appraisal by Tariq Ali!
I only lasted ten minutes. Seemed like Lenin was a bit annoyed and decided to have a revolution.