John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World is the best known eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, but he was accompanied on his visit in 1918. Jan Nielsen tells the story of Louise Bryant, American bohemian, talented journalist and commentator on life in revolutionary Russia.
Louise Bryant was an American radical journalist who travelled to revolutionary Russia with John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World. Bryant wrote her own account of the events she witnessed and people she met, titled Six Red Months in Russia.
Despite the fact that she carved out a vivid and extraordinary life for herself, her name has been almost forgotten and little is known of her life. Bryant was born in 1885, the daughter of a radical journalist. As a student and young worker she got involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. By 1909 she had established herself as a journalist on the Portland Spectator. She moved in bohemian circles, and in 1912 began contributing to Blast, an anarchist periodical.
By the time she met John Reed in 1915 she had become dissatisfied with her comfortable middle class life. She was already familiar with Reed’s work and writings. He had helped stage the Paterson Silk Workers’ Pageant in Madison Square Garden, following a strike by thousands of women workers in 1913. He had conducted extended discussions with revolutionary leader Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution in 1914 for a series of articles in the Metropolitan, which became the book Insurgent Mexico.
After Reed first met Bryant he wrote to a friend, “I think I’ve found her at last. She’s wild, brave and straight and graceful and lovely to look at. In this spiritual vacuum, this unfertilised soil, she has grown (how, I can’t imagine) into an artist. She is coming to New York to get a job with me, I hope. I think she’s the first person I ever loved without reservation.” Bryant said of him, “I always wanted somebody who wouldn’t care when you went to bed or what hour you got up, and who lived in the way [John Reed] did.”
In the summer of 1917 Reed and Bryant went to Russia to cover the revolution. The trip was a turning point in their lives, both in terms of their political consciousness and their careers as journalists. They were present for the most stirring events of the time: they interviewed Kerensky, leader of the provisional government; they heard of Lenin’s disguised re-entry into the country in April. And they saw and reported the events leading up to the October Revolution: the Bolsheviks’ walkout from the pre-parliament preparing for the Constituent Assembly, and Lenin’s insistence that the Bolshevik Central Committee place armed insurrection on the agenda.
Profound changes were taking place. After October private property was abolished and the land was given to the landless peasants. The Bolsheviks announced that they would see peace with Germany without annexations or indemnities. Banks were nationalised, courts abolished in favour of revolutionary tribunals and workers’ militias formed. Equality between the sexes was decreed. Jews and other previously subject peoples were granted equality, and ownership of the means of production was vested in the workers.
Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World and Bryant’s Six Red Months in Russia are the products of these experiences. But they are two very different books — though both writers shared an enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause and both were steeped in the nuances of events and personalities involved.
Bryant had been charged by her news services to give “the woman’s point of view”, while Reed had no specific brief. Bryant believed that total equality between the sexes must be a key goal of any reform, radical, or revolutionary politics. So she saw her task to write “from a woman’s point of view” as excluding absolutely nothing. Her book includes insightful portraits of the work of leading Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and the revolutionary Maria Spirodnova. She paints a vivid picture of a society in which equality of the sexes was becoming a reality.
Some would insist that Bryant or her writings have no proper place in history. As anarchist Emma Goldman infamously said, “Louise was never a Communist; she only slept with a Communist.” But this assessment is way off the mark. Bryant’s own words make her support for revolution uncompromisingly clear. She writes, “On the grey horizon of human existence looms a great giant called Working Class Consciousness. He treads with thunderous step through all the countries of the world. There is no escape, we must go out and meet him.”
In the conclusion she argues, “The Great War could not leave an unchanged world in its wake — certain movements of society were bound to be pushed forward, and others retarded. I speak particularly of Socialism... Socialism is here, whether we like it or not — just as woman suffrage is here — and it spreads with the years. In Russia the socialist state is an accomplished fact. We can never again call it an idle dream of long-haired philosophers. And if that growth has resembled the sudden upshooting of a mushroom, if it must fall because it is premature, it is nevertheless real and must have tremendous effect on all that follows. Everything considered, there is just as much reason to believe that the Soviet Republic of Russia will stand as that it will fall. The most significant fact is that it will not fall from inside pressure. Only outside, foreign, hostile intervention can destroy it.”
She argued that a classic revolution had succeeded and that “backward” Russia had outstripped the United States as a progressive country. Echoing George Orwell’s experience in Spain during the civil war, she thought that the change in daily life was marvellous because it had seemed so unimaginable. The working class had awakened to its class role, just as Marx had predicted. Workers refused tips and people helped each other in the streets. Everyone was addressed as “comrade” or “citizen”, a revolutionary change in a country noted for its rigid class hierarchies. And like Reed she believed that revolutionaries at home in the US needed to learn lessons from the Russian Revolution.
Her writings give us a vivid account of the impact of the Russian Revolution. Her sweep was large: she described her journey into Russia, conditions in Petrograd, the tense atmosphere at the Winter Palace before its overthrow, the formation of the constituent assembly, the state of the military camps, free speech in the new regime, the decline of the church, and even her journey out of Russia by way of Sweden. Her description of the revolutionary tribunals is an instructive lesson in what revolutionary justice looks like.
In 1919 she defended the revolution in testimony before the Senate subcommittee established to investigate Bolshevik influence in the US. Later that year she undertook a nationwide speaking tour to encourage public support for the Bolsheviks and to discourage armed US intervention in Russia.
She was inspired by the events she witnessed in Russia — as well as by experiencing them hand in hand with her comrade and lover John Reed. She came into her own in those four months (not six) that she spent in Russia and forever afterwards she tried to live what she believed. It is fitting that on the centenary of the Russian Revolution we celebrate her contribution.
by Louise Bryant
No institution could be a more definite expression of revolutionary thought or a more faithful indicator of the character of a people than a revolutionary tribunal.
A trial held in the Wiborg quarter of Petrograd illustrates the treatment of petty cases. The case concerned a poor man who had stolen money from a woman news vendor. The court questioned the man, and he rose up to defend himself.
“I was feeling very sad,” he said. “I was tired of walking around the dark, cold streets. I thought if I could only go into a warm place where there were lights and people laughing I would be happy. I thought of Norodny Dom and I thought I would like to go there and hear Tchaliapin.”
“Why did you decide to steal from this particular woman?” asked the court.
“I thought a long time,” explained the man. “I was standing on the corner of a street watching her sell her papers. She sold to many rich people and I decided that in a way she herself was a monarchist and a capitalist. Did she not handle their papers as well as ours? So I took her money.”
The court meditated for some minutes and finally one of the judges asked very solemnly, “Did you feel better after you had been to the theatre?”
Russians are truly marvellous. Not one person in the court laughed at that question. The thief replied that he did feel better. He said that it was impossible not to be lifted up by such fine singing.
The news vendor made a plea for herself. She maintained that she was not by any means a capitalist, but a person of real service to the community. She was a revolutionist, she believed in free speech and therefore she thought it only just that she give out all the news from all sides.
The court adjourned. When they came back they announced that they believed the argument of the woman to be fair and just. Therefore the man should reimburse the woman. They told the audience that it could decide what the man should give after explaining that he had no money.
Everybody consulted in excited little groups and after an hour reached this decision: The man should give his galoshes to the woman. They were worth approximately the same amount as the money he had taken. The woman was entirely satisfied, as she said she was without galoshes and it was necessary for her to stand on the wet streets all day. The man was entirely satisfied because he said that it relieved his conscience. He shook hands with the woman and they were friends. Everyone went home smiling.
Extract from Six Red Months in Russia