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 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 mention the autocracy. What they wanted was the democratization of the Soviet system for the benefit of workers. Theirs was anti-Bolshevism from the Left, in defense of socialism.5
Communists invariably denounced the campaign on behalf of Soviet prisoners. As they had it, political prisoners were not men and women of conscience but “assassins of world capitalism” guilty of “making open war on the first workers’ republic in history in order to turn the victory of the working class into a charnel house of death and destruction for the workers and peasants thru [sic] a restoration of the bloody rule of capitalism.” According to communists, anybody who spoke against the glorious Bolshevik party-state was, by definition, a counterrevolutionary and therefore a criminal who deserved imprisonment. Communists alternately denied and defended dictatorship: now asserting its necessity, now accusing “counter-revolutionaries” of perpetrating lies.6 Over time, the dialectical understanding of proletarian dictatorship (the Soviet state will negate itself) gave way to a celebration of the Soviet state itself. Communists reified authoritarianism well before Josef Stalin rose to power in 1928.
The uniqueness of the Communist Party was this: it was the first party in the history of the American Left to be summoned into existence by and proudly obedient to a foreign country. Some historians have asserted otherwise, but nobody has yet disproved that specific point, which has been firmly established in works by Theodore Draper and James Weinstein.7 (The latter’s book, The Decline of American Socialism, 1912–1925, has often been overlooked in the historiography of American communism.) In January 1919, the Communist International instructed revolutionaries around the world to subject leaders of established socialist parties to “pitiless criticism” and divide “systematically” the membership into left and right wings. Should militants fail to gain control of their respective parties, they were told to form new ones that would carry out a proletarian revolution “at once.” In response to the Comintern’s appeal, a self-described “Left Wing” launched a veritable “civil war” within the American Socialist Party. By July, 70,000 out of 110,000 members, located primarily in the Socialist Party’s foreign-language branches, were expelled or suspended from the party. Others quit on their own volition. Out of the wreckage, two communist parties emerged that would later combine to create the Communist Party, USA, which officially defined itself as the American section of the Communist International and therefore obligated to implement all of its decisions.
The Comintern underscored its own folly in the summer of 1921 when it determined that “world revolution” was no longer an immediate prospect and that its American affiliate should become an aboveboard organization (the Communist Party had gone underground in 1920 amid the Red Scare) and engage in regular political activity. With that decision, the Comintern effectively overrode the Communist Party’s original reason for being a mere two years after its founding.
It could be argued that the destruction of the Socialist Party would have been justified had it led to the creation of a larger, more effective party, but this clearly did not happen. Throughout the 1920s, the Communist Party was wracked by factional struggles and expulsions carried out on orders from Moscow. By its tenth anniversary, its membership, which began at around forty thousand, had sunk to around seventy-five hundred. It might be argued that the Communist Party’s impressive growth during the years of the Popular Front and the Second World War compensated for the damage it caused in the 1920s. But, again, one must acknowledge that the party’s turn toward moderation contradicted its original rationale. If communism reached its apex with a reformist party, an appendage of New Deal liberalism, then its entire history was pointless.
Disillusionment with Soviet Russia produced various responses. A broad reconsideration of the Russian Revolution took place between the late 1930s and the 1950s, a crisis-ridden yet intellectually fertile period. A growing number of Marxists, typically former members of the Communist Party or one of its splinter groups, debated how the greatest event in human history could have transmogrified into a totalitarian regime. They realized that a satisfactory understanding of “the Russian question” was crucial to the future of socialism. Participants in this discussion produced important historical and theoretical works,8 made available little-known texts in English translation,9 and pursued new lines of inquiry into questions of economic planning and bureaucracy that grew out of debates over Soviet Russia.10 The unorthodox Trotskyist magazine, New International (1940–58) and the Marxist- humanist newspaper, News and Letters (1955–), developed resolutely antiauthoritarian approaches to revolutionary Marxism. Most individuals, in fact, abandoned Marxism but sought to articulate humanistic and libertarian approaches to socialism in new journals, such as Enquiry (1942–45), politics (1944–49), Modern Review (1947–50) and Dissent (1954–). Most such publications lived short lives, a reflection of the period’s political and ideological uncertainty. Still, debate over the Russian Revolution and related questions produced one of the most creative periods in American socialist thought.
The Communist Party entered the post–World War II era at a high point in terms of membership yet nearly collapsed a decade later. McCarthyism took a serious toll, but the strongest blow came from Moscow. Nikita Kruschev’s “revelations” about Stalin, in 1956, confirmed what anti-Stalinists had been saying all along and sent remaining members out of the party in droves. Like others before them, the latest refugees from communism were left to reconsider their pasts and ponder how to move forward.
The Bolshevik seizure of power marked the moment when socialism lost its innocence, when the implementation of ideas and programs confronted reality with all its complications. When the reality of Soviet Russia turned ugly—and socialists have never agreed on when and how that happened—they responded with varying levels of anguish, anger, and sadness. One hundred years after the fact, 1917 remains a touchstone: a hopeful example of revolutionary possibility for some, a reminder of the horrific damage wrought by grand programs for others, and, for still others, some combination of the two. The interest it continues to hold is appropriate. The Russian Revolution is the inheritance of all socialists, reformists and revolutionaries alike. We belong to its lineage and are answerable for its legacies. It is part of the collective socialist past and affects us all, whether or not we are cognizant of its presence. To borrow the title of Delmore Schwartz’s short story, “in dreams begin responsibilities.”11