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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

John Reed: Eyewitness to revolution

A short look at the life of John Reed, famed American leftist writer who chronicled the events of the Russian Revolution in his famed book "Ten Days That Shook the World". Reed was born October 22, 1887 and died October 17, 1920 in Soviet Russia.

From the Soviet magazine Socialism: Theory and Practice, October 1984:

John Reed (1887-1920), an American writer and public figure, managed to pack a great deal into his short life, A poet. playwright and essayist. he was the father of a new literary genre–the documentary epic. with a profound social content. He arrived in Russia at a time when the revolutionary events were unfolding, not as a detached observer. but as an advocate of socialist ideas, passionately propagandizing the revolutionary struggle. His heart belonged to the people. He completely and utterly identified himself with the revolution and dedicated his immortal book. ''Ten Days That Shook the World" to it.

He was born into a wealthy American family and died in Russia at the height of the Civil War, of typhus, which mercilessly claimed the lives of so many of those defending the revolution. An ardent internationalist. John Reed shared in all the dangers and burdens of those difficult times.

The article below tells of some episodes of his heroic life.


Reed's parents were well-off. In Portland, John's home town, his family was almost among the foremost city fathers. It took, indeed, a great strength of character and independence of mind to reject the life of comfort and luxury among the privileged few of Portland and choose the thorny path of the revolutionary, as Reed did. He embarked upon his revolutionary path early in life and kept to it right to the end of his days.

He entered Harvard University in 1906. This is the oldest and largest university in America and is generally regarded as the most illustrious. The select Harvard society gave this boisterous and raw lad from the West a hostile reception. He thought of himself as a writer. Over his four years of studies he had more than 20 verses and 9 stories published, besides a number of articles, notes and humouristic sketches. Some of his plays were put on the University stage.

When listening to the parting speech on graduation day, his dreams carried him far away: he longed to see the world for himself and to write about what he had seen He set off on a year's trip around Europe. However, this was not the trip of a bored loafer. He worked as a farmhand, cut grass and ploughed the land in Britain, France and Spain. He was not content with merely looking on at the life of workers and peasants. He wanted to taste their lot for himself.

Back in the States, Reed began working as editor of the radical journal '’The Masses''. These were his formative years as a revolutionary journalist. He sped to wherever there was strike action. to wherever the discontent of the workers erupted.

Such events had a magnetic attraction for the young journalist. In his report on '"The War in Paterson" he came out openly on the side of those who were fighting to defend their rights and condemned the factory and plant owners, Reed’s trip to Paterson, which had been swept by a wave of strikes, was his first real introduction to the workers' struggle. He also felt the death grip of class "justice'', an instrument used for oppressing the masses. The journalist was thrown into jail along with the strikers who were starved and beaten up. He noticed that none of the prisoners’ faces bore the trace of hesitation or fear.

John Reed drew the following major conclusion from the events in Paterson: the masses who had risen up to fight for their rights would ultimately triumph. In his report he said that they had been defeated in strikes for 1 2 years, that they had had to put up with 12 long years of disappointment and untold suffering. He said that they should not, nor could they, lose once more.


In late 1913, Reed set off for Mexico, where a fierce Civil War was raging, as a ''World" correspondent. He also wrote for "Metropolitan" which by then had socialist tendencies. His first book "Insurgent Mexico” (1914), was based on his reports of the Mexican revolution, which earned him a world-wide reputation.

Reed was consumed by the idea of the coming revolution. Mexico opened up the young writer's eyes to the greatness of the people fighting for its freedom. He believed in the masses. He tried to become one with the insurgent Mexico, with its iltiterate peasants and little-educated leaders, to understand what would bring victory for these ordinary people who were so devoted to their goal. He soon realized that the Mexican revolution was not the attempt of some claimant or other to seize power, but that it was a popular revolution.

The American writer was in the thick of the fighting.

''Write about everything as long as it's the truth,” said Urbina, a peasant general and a leader of the revolution, to him. Reed followed his advice. He did not conceal the weaknesses and hesitation of the peasant masses and admired the selflessness of the revolutionaries.

The picture which gradually unfolds before the reader is composed of many interconnected episodes. The author has his finger unerringly on the pulse of the popular struggle and conveys the spirit of the Mexican revolution in such an absorbing and natural way that the reader is captivated by this spirit.

''That’s what the Mexican revolution's all about!" exclaimed Martinez, a brave soldier who had become friendly with Reed, on hearing that the property of major landowners was to be redistributed among the poor.

"lt's a good thing to help Mexico to become a happy country," said Pancho Villa, People’s General. All of the heroes fondly described by Reed in his ’'Insurgent Mexico" are filled with the dream of a happy future for their country. Reed himself cherished this dream.


His autobiography reflected the history of Reed's moral quest. He wrote that he had witnessed several strikes, most of which were a desperate struggle against deprivation and want. And all of this only reaffirmed his earliest idea of the class struggle and of its inevitability. The American socialist said that he desperately wanted the proletariat to rise up and win its rights, for he did not know how else it could acquire them.

He had- the good fortune to witness the triumphant revolution of the Russian proletariat. He arrived in Russia before the revolution came to a head in October, and witnessed those historic days, which to use his own words, shook the world.

He wrote to one of his friends from Petrograd (now Leningrad) in September 1917 that the city had changed almost beyond recognitionr that those who used to lament were now rejoicing, that those who used to rejoice were now lamenting . He wrote that he found himself in the very centre of events and that it was stupendous. There were so many dramatic things happening around him that he simply did not know where to begin, but that if it were up to him, he would write about everything.

What was happening in Russia was indeed out of the ordinary. Reed did not see, nor could have seen, the likes of it, either in Mexico or the States. At the head of the struggle was the party of the working class, the party which had travelled the difficult path of struggle. The people were taking part in this struggle, they were armed and they were conscious of the aim they were pursuing. All of this made the revolution inevitable. John Reed wrote that, inherent in the revolution, and in the whole Russian way of life, was that sluggish inevitability which sent the sap flowing through the stems of plants in spring, which controlled the ebb and flow of the ocean.

In Russia, Reed met a great many people representing different parties and political trends. However, his personal sympathies lay with Lenin's Party, the Party of Bolsheviks. In the foreword to his book about revolutionary Russia he correctly assessed their role in the victory of people's power. "Instead of being a destructive force, it seems to me that the Bolsheviki were the only party in Russia with a constructive program and the power to impose it on the country... No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism. it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of World-wide importance. Just as historians search the records for the minutest details of the story of the Paris Commune (1), 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

"ln the struggle my sympathies were not neutral. But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see the events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.“

The day of the victory of the October revolution was unforgettable for Reed. It began for the American journalist with the following conversation with young soldiers on duty in front of the State Bank in the main street in Petrograd:

“'What side do you belong to?’ I asked. 'The Government?' ''

'"No more Government’, one answered with a grin, 'Slava Bogu\ Glory to God!’ That was all I could get out of him...'"

That evening, John Reed joined some workers distributing leaflets from a truck. It was the Revolutionary Military committee's Appeal ’'To the Citizens of Russia!’' it read: ''The Provisional Government is deposed... The cause for which the people were fighting... is securely achieved.”

The American journalist was with the Red Guards when they seized the Winter Palace, the last refuge of the Provisional Government. He witnessed the courage of the revolutionary fighters and saw the great care they took not to damage the treasures of the Winter Palace which now belonged to the entire people.

His immediate observations enabled him to write a moving account of these events in his book “Ten Days That Shook the World’". In it he paints a picture of V. I. Lenin, the leader of the proletarian revolution. Reed describes his first impression of him thus: '"A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader–a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies–but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analyzing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity...

“His great mouth, seeming to smile, opened wide as he spoke; his voice was hoarse–not unpleasantly so, but as if it had hardened that way after years and years of speaking– and went on monotonously, with the effect of being able to go on forever... For emphasis he bent forward slightly. No gestures. And before him, a thousand simple faces looking up in intent adoration... There was something quiet and powerful in all this, which stirred the souls of men. It was understandable why people believed when Lenin spoke...'


John Reed’s book is of course not a history of the October revolution. It contains only what Reed the artist saw and felt. However, as an artist, he saw and felt that without which a true idea of such events–the people in action, in struggle and in victory is impossible.

"With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention I read John Reed's book, 'Ten Days That Shook the World'. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. 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 Proletarian Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat". Lenin, as it were, foresaw the unique lot of this book.

Based on the book “The Legendary John Reed" by A. Dangulov and S. Dangulov, Moscow. 1982. (in Russian)

(1) The Paris Commune -- the first proletarian revolution and the first working class government, which was in Paris from March 18-May 28. 1871.



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