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  • The Russian Revolution and the American Left:A Long View from the Twenty-First Century
  • Tony Michels (bio)

Viewing it over the long term, one can justly conclude the Russian Revolution was a tragedy for the American Left. On the one hand, it inspired visions of equality and justice in the minds of nearly all those who called themselves socialists (generally speaking) at some point between 1917 and 1956. On the other, the revolution proved painfully disappointing to all but a small minority of true believers. Over the course of four decades, the revolution served as a source of inspiration but also as a cause of disillusionment, division, and reassessment at any given time.

Anarchists were among the first and most vociferous critics. They initially welcomed the revolution but never equated it with a single party. Anarchists understood the events of 1917 as a vast uprising of workers and peasants for the goal of democracy in all political, social, and economic spheres. After the Kronstadt rebellion, in 1921, anarchists came to oppose the Soviet state entirely. Emma Goldman, for instance, denounced the Bolsheviks as counterrevolutionaries guilty of imposing ever-harsher industrial discipline and restrictions on political freedoms and individual liberties. The vaunted dictatorship of the proletariat was, in reality, a dictatorship over the proletariat.1

Members of the Socialist Party experienced a somewhat more delayed, but no less complete, process of disillusionment. Most Socialists applauded the Bolshevik seizure of power, and even otherwise sober individuals waxed rhapsodic. The New York City alderman and managing editor of the mass-circulation daily Forverts, Baruch Charney Vladeck, dismissed critics who faulted the Bolsheviks for seizing power prematurely. To quibble over preconceived timetables was ridiculous during a moment of historic breakthrough. “Like a pious Jew hopes for the Messiah, so we hoped for [the social revolution]. Now it is here,” Vladeck proclaimed in his introduction to the Yiddish edition of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. “Whether it has unfolded as we wanted or expected, is another question. But it came, the true [End Page 17] social revolution, which we studied in all our holy texts by all our rebbes.”2 Benjamin Schlessinger, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, shared Vladeck’s excitement. After his visit to Moscow in 1920, Schlessinger enthused, “One thing is certain, the greatest experiment ever attempted in this world is being made in Russia today. It is three years already since a country, owned by workers, is in this world. Understand me, a country where there is no exploitation, where capitalism has been wiped out, where the workmen are the leaders of the land. No matter what the outcome of this experiment is, the fact in itself is of immense historical importance.” If socialism could be built in a country devastated by war and lacking in democratic traditions, then “why should this not be possible all over the world!” Schlesinger, like other supporters, acknowledged the absence of political democracy in Soviet Russia but stressed the need for stability in the face of counterrevolution and foreign intervention.3 According to Morris Hillquit, there was nothing abnormal or objectionable in proletarian dictatorship. The Soviet government was no more restrictive than any given parliamentary democracy—all political regimes rested on a class foundation, he reminded readers—and would, in any case, prove temporary. Eventually, proletarian dictatorship would abolish itself and give birth to a “classless commonwealth of equals.”4

The socialist romance with the October Revolution did not survive the 1920s, however. Restrictions on civil and political liberties, originally justified as a necessity, seemed increasingly dubious as the threat of counterrevolution receded. All foreign powers had withdrawn their troops from Russian soil in 1922 and several European countries, Great Britain among them, established diplomatic and commercial relations. Nonetheless, repression continued and even worsened. In response, socialists and anarchists, mostly Russian-born Jews, organized a movement on behalf of Soviet political prisoners. They issued calls for amnesty, raised thousands of dollars for aid, and disseminated information obtained from contacts located in the most remote labor camps. Anarchists and socialists did not wish to see the Soviet state isolated or attacked. They opposed the restoration of capitalism, not to...


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