John Reed, a young socialist from Portland, Oregon, went to Russia in 1917 as a journalist to report on the unfolding revolution. Russia was in great turmoil, with widespread opposition to the war, a struggling economy, and shortages of basic necessities. The government was barely in control of the situation, and political influence was fractured among many political parties ranging from the far-right to the communist left. Reed was a revolutionist, and so supported the position of the bolsheviks: aggressively push for an alternative government composed of people’s committees, and strip the existing government of all power.
So this book is the story, seen from within the power struggles in Petrograd, of the collapse of the Russian government and the rise to power of the bolsheviks. This was not a coup, as right-wing historians would have us believe, but a mass uprising, with widespread support from Russian soldiers and sailors (and fierce opposition from their officers), labor unions, and (with many exceptions) peasants. The political aims were withdrawal from the war, redistribution of land, and worker control of the factories. Though the bolsheviks probably never achieved majority support for their party, it seems clear enough that their political aims were by far the majority position.
The book only covers the early days, up to the assumption of power by the soviets, but already it was clear that this would not be a peaceful transition of power. The opposition by foreign capitalists and by Russian landholders would see to that. For the next five years the new Soviet Union would fight a civil war in which the anti-socialist forces were aided by foreign governments, leading to the further erosion of the economy, and, of course, great loss of life. It is hard to see how a democratic socialist state could have arisen out of those conditions: the old oligarchy still had plenty of economic and political clout and would never relinquish control without a fight. In the end, of course, the government that came out of those struggles was socialist in name only. It is tempting to blame that course of events on Stalin, but I think the seeds were sown by the existential struggle of the civil war.