November 25, 2021 0 By Yatharth

An Eye Witness to the Great November Revolution

SV Singh

On the 134th birthday of the revolutionary journalist-activist and author (22nd October 1887 – 17th October 1920) of the historic book ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’ presenting a firsthand account of the November Revolution of  1917.

John Silas Reed, popularly known as ‘Jack’ among friends, an esteemed writer of the iconic books ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’, ‘The War in Eastern Europe’ and ‘Six Red Months in Russia’ was born into a rich family in Goose Hollow neighborhood, Portland, Oregon, USA on October 22, 1887. His mother Margret Green came from a rich industrialist family and she was very conscious that his son plays with children from rich families only. His father Charles Jerome Reed, employee with an agricultural machinery manufacturer could not get college education but he wanted that his son goes to Harvard. Reed was easy going, fun loving handsome boy, member of the football team, occasional poet but not very smart in studies. He got admission in Harvard College in his second attempt.

Active in student association, drama, debate; Reed also joined the Socialist Club in his college. His friend Walter Lippmann who later became a famous writer, reporter who coined the word ‘Cold War’, was president of that Socialist Club. First political activity that can be attributed to Joh Reed was that he convinced the Socialist Club to file a petition with the college administration for not paying the worker’s salary on time. Interestingly, he, on behalf of the club, also made a representation to college management that ‘socialism’ should be included in college syllabus. Unsurprisingly, college turned down the petition leaving Reed disappointed and irritated. It was 1910 when Reed graduated and realized that the outside world is not as dull as college atmosphere. He shared his thoughts with Professor Charles Townsend Copeland who later became famous writer with the name ‘Copey’. The Professor encouraged Reed saying, yes, a lot is happening in outside world and that he should go and visit Europe to find out. Professor, whom Reed liked the most also advised him that it will be further thrilling if he, first, works to earn money to finance his tour. Reed worked in a cattle farm as labor and embarked to see the ’outside world’, England, France, Spain, Germany.  

Reed as Journalist

His maiden Europe visit induced Reed to become a journalist. His college time progressive journalist friend, Lincoln Seffenns, helped him get a junior journalist job with ‘The American Magazine’. Reed enjoyed his job and established himself as famous journalist on social issues. He, then, graduated into the socio-political issues and also joined a leftist magazine ‘The Masses’ in 1913. There happened one famous strike in New Jersey Silk Mills that time and Reed was deputed to cover that. Reed was deeply touched by the worker’s plight. He not only wrote a very sensitive article on that strike but also delivered an emotional speech on behalf of the workers. This was Reed’s first attempt to ‘cross’ the line of a journalist and go to the side of a political activist. He had to pay for this ‘misadventure’ and the Paterson New Jersey police arrested him along with striking workers for his ‘unwanted political activities’. Reed, therefore, landed in jail for a brief term but that was enough for him to take his first lesson in the ‘left-politics’ from the trade union activist workers. Reed enjoyed his first lesson in politics thoroughly and after coming out of jail, he went straight to the office of the famous union in America, ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ to fill membership form. He, then, wrote his first really famous article ‘War in Paterson’ on the issue of workers strike. Reed had by now become a famous journalist on workers strikes and this prompted IWW union to send him to Mexico to cover Mexican Revolution. Reed was now one of the most esteemed freelance journalists and war correspondents in America. His stories were read, enthusiastically, all over America.  

Ludlow Mining Workers Massacre Transformed a Journalist into a Communist

Colorado is a coal mineral rich state on the west coast of USA. There are series of coal mines. Coal mining workers were the most brutally exploited segment of workers in America. In September 1913, workers of coal mines decided to form a union affiliated to United Mine Workers Union of America and gave a call for strike. About 1200 coal mining workers’ families were residing in Ludlow Colony over there. Mine owners were alarmed on this ‘daring’ of workers to form union and to teach them a lesson, they jointly formed an army of strike breakers called Colorado National Guards. A brutal attack was launched on mining workers in Ludlow Colony. Hundreds of mining workers, women, children were butchered in cold blood and their houses were set on fire. Furious workers held a meeting, got united and decided to fight back to avenge the massacre and pay those bloody hounds in the same currency. A bloody battle ensued in which scores of strike breaker national guards and mine owners got killed in that ferocious counter attack. There were 199 killings as per official record, actual figures were, however, many times that figure. Ludlow Colony massacre is known as the bloodiest labor dispute in American history/ bloodiest civil insurrection in America since the civil war. John Reed had reached Ludlow Colony on April 13, 1914 to cover that massacre and he was aghast at the severity of brutality on the mine workers and he understood firsthand what the class struggle and class war, are. John Reed reached Ludlow Colony as journalist but returned as a Communist.

War Correspondent

John Reed covered First World War extensively and his report on that bloody war titled ‘The Traders War’ published in The Masses is considered one of the most authentic reports of World War I. He covered war fronts risking his life. He interviewed Karl Liebknecht, a renowned communist leader of Germany who was, that time, organizing a mass movement against the atrocious war credits by which the imperialist bandits were taxing common masses to recover the war expenses. Reed participated in those resistance mass movements. That was the period when Second Communist International was collapsing. Reed supported the stand taken by Lenin that working class should not fall victim to national jingoism and should never support their ‘own’ imperialists in war. In December 1914, Reed returned to America.

Europe was the most happening place during those days and Reed could not keep himself away from there for long. In 1915, he reached Europe again. Tales of inhuman atrocities and devastation were coming from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Reed could not resist going there. He was appalled seeing conditions of Jews and he joined resistance movement against that barbarism for which he was arrested in Chelm city on charges of espionage and would have been shot dead but for the successful intervention of the American Ambassador. The most happening place those days was Petrograd in Russia and Reed wanted to be there. But before he could reach there he was arrested again in Romania. As the war was raging and he was constantly on move. This time, ironically, American Ambassador himself suspected him to be a spy. He could save his life as Robinson, person arrested along with him was a British citizen and British Ambassador pleaded before the authorities that they are not spies, they are only stupid!! He was forced to return to America where he wrote his experiences in a book, The War in Eastern Europe, published in 1916. This time he also visited his native place Portland where he fell in love with Louise Bryant and they got married for rest of their life. Reed and Bryant joined anti- war crusade in America even if Reed lost his job in the process.

Reed-Bryant in Russia – Eye Witness to the Great November Revolution

To seek permission from US government to travel to war devastated Europe on August 17, 2017, Reed and Bryant had to submit an affidavit that they are not going to take part in the Socialist Conference in Stockholm. They were allowed to visit Russia to report from there as journalist as a lot and of a very serious nature was happening over there on the daily basis. The couple reached Petrograd on the day when a really big event, the infamous Kornilov Revolt happened. That was Alexander Kerensky’s last desperate attempt to finish Bolshevism by engineering a bloody military coup known as Kornilov Revolt. “The last month of the Kerensky regime was marked first by the falling off of the bread supply from 2 pounds a day to 1 pound, to half a pound, to a quarter of a pound, and, the final week, no bread at all. Holdups and crime increased to such an extent that you could hardly walk down the streets”, reported John Reed. On the call of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviets dominated by the Bolsheviks, Winter Palace, the seat of power of Kerensky government was fully secured by workers and peasants by 7 pm November 7, 1917.

Reed, delighted as he was at the success of socialist revolution, continued to pursue his desire to strengthen the nascent socialist state. He translated most of the decrees into English and most importantly, he worked with the department of the commissar of foreign affairs and prepared pamphlets to be distributed to German soldiers in their trenches on the war front. Everyone was expecting that just like Bolshevik Revolution, revolution is going to break out in Germany as well. Reed’s dream to meet his beloved leader Lenin came true on January 18, 1918. A few days later, counter revolutionary forces attacked foreign commissar office. Reed got so furious that he took up a rifle along with Bolshevik red guards, throwing away his diary and pen. He attended third Congress of the Soviet Deputies in which he delivered a short speech that he will work to have similar government in America. After that meeting, another American journalist, Edgar Sisson told him that he is being used by the Bolsheviks. He agreed gleefully and commented, ‘yes I know that and I like that I am being used by the Bolsheviks’. Both Bryant and Reed returned to America in 1918. He wrote another excellent book, ‘Six Red Months in Russia’ that was published in 1919.

Reed as founder of Communist Labor Party of America

Reed had left Socialist Russia physically in 1918 but Bolshevism was not prepared to leave his mind for a moment. He could not resist propagating Bolshevism in America for which he was arrested several times and tortured. Doing propaganda was no crime in USA, that is why the government could not get him convicted. He became famous as an American Bolshevik and was appointed editor of a weekly, New York Communist run by the leftist groups in America. National Socialist Convention was held in Chicago in which Reed wanted to participate but the rival faction did not allow his group of socialists and that led to split which ultimately led to the formation of two communist parties in America, Communist Labor Party of America by Reed group and Communist Party of America by the opposing group. Reed wrote manifesto of CLPA and was editor of its party organ, Voice of Labor. Reed denounced western democracy as being bourgeois democracy for only the few and explained through his writings that Dictatorship of the Proletariat is the real democracy. American intelligence agencies were after him as he was a declared Comintern Agent in America and he was about to be arrested. Reed could read state intentions and fled America in early October 1919. He boarded Scandinavian ship as a worker and landed in his dream state, Socialist Russia once again after passing through several states of Europe not deterred by his arrest or even killing.

Unable to Live Away from Socialist Russia, Reed Reached Petrograd Again in 1919

On his initiative, Soviets organized a convention for formation of United Communist Party of America in Feb 1920 in Moscow. For gathering support for the same, Reed tried desperately to reach America in disguise through Finland. He was, however, caught by Finnish custom officials as he was hiding in a coal bunker. Even after brutal torture he did not reveal names of Bolshevik contacts in Finland. He could not reach America and had to reach Petrograd again to recover from his failing health. He requested Bryant to join him in Russia to which she agreed. Reed took active part in the Second Comintern Congress in 1920. During the course of deliberations in that congress, Reed had heated arguments with Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev and Zinoviev held grudge against him since then. A Congress of the People of the East was going to be held in Baku. Reed was sick and did not want to go there but Zinoviev was adamant that he has to go, saying, “the Comintern has made decision, obey”. Reed obeyed as a discipline soldier. Five- day journey to Baku proved fatal to Reed as his health was failing alarmingly. Zinoviev’s behavior disheartened him. He came back to Moscow in September when Bryant had arrived there. His health did not improve and he breathed his last in Moscow on October, 17, 1920. Reed was buried with full state honor in Kremlin. Only two other Americans had the honor to be buried at Kremlin, C. E. Rudenberg, founder of the Communist Party of USA and Bill Haywood, founder member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

“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”, writes Lenin in his ‘Introduction’ to the magnum opus.

Nadezhda Krupskaya writes in her ‘Introduction’ to the Russian edition,

“John Reed was not an indifferent observer, but a passionate revolutionary, a Communist who understood the meaning of the events, the meaning of the great struggle. This understanding gave him that sharp insight, without which such a book could never have been written… John Reed associated his life with the Russian Revolution. Soviet Russia became dear to him. He died in Russia of typhus and was buried in Red Square, beneath the Kremlin wall. The man who described the funeral of the fallen heroes of the revolution as well as John Reed did, deserves this great honor.”

‘The Truth’ pays its respectful tribute and red salute to John Reed, the great journalist, and a passionate Communist on the occasion of the 104th anniversary of the Great November Revolution.