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  • Introduction
  • Eric Arnesen

One hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution launched an unprecedented experiment in radical social transformation that changed the course of Russian history—and that of much of the world. That event, which took many of those on the Left and Right by surprise, captured the imagination of millions. “Bolshevism broke the mold of the socialist tradition,” Geoff Eley wrote a decade and a half ago. Since “revolutions could now be made” by “a creative political act,” the Russian Revolution “enlarged a sense of political possibility. It created a new horizon,” inciting “a general sense of movement and opportunity.”1 The French historian François Furet noted that what was “so spellbinding about the October Revolution was the affirmation of the role of volition in history. … An esoteric theory prior to 1914, Lenin’s form of Marxism soon developed into a vast system of beliefs, mobilizing extraordinary passions among both its adepts and its adversaries.”2

Indeed, the Bolshevik revolution generated tremendous enthusiasm and hope among critics of capitalism and the tsar’s autocratic rule. It simultaneously inspired fear and loathing among supporters of the status quo and, over time, among leftists for whom democracy, political autonomy, and a respect for civil liberties were genuine, not instrumentalist, political values. The brutality of the Stalinist regime and the regimes elsewhere that it inspired, the domination of Eastern Europe, the sectarianism of the parties it spawned, the Khrushchev revelations in 1956, the staggering and horrific body count produced by those regimes claiming allegiance to Marxism-Leninism, and the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse in 1991—individually and collectively, these stand as an indictment of the Soviet model for people across the political spectrum.

The Soviet experiment has few credible defenders today. Yet whatever one’s stance toward the revolution, then and now, one thing is clear: the revolution brought about by the Bolsheviks had a profound impact not merely on what was to become the Soviet Union but on the development of the Left and the fate of workers’ [End Page 9] movements in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well. It is that impact that this “Up for Debate” roundtable examines. In this issue, we invite a diverse group of scholars of different regions and subjects to reflect broadly on the impact of the Russian Revolution and its legacy on the history of labor and the Left.


Eley, Geoff. 2002. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000. New York: Oxford University Press.
Furet, François. 1999. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [End Page 10]


1. Eley, Forging Democracy, 152.

2. Furet, Passing of an Illusion, 63, 72.



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