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How the Russian Revolution Reshaped the U.S. Socialist Movement

November 8, 2017

By Todd Chretien. Todd Chretien is a long-time member of the International Socialist Organization, a frequent contributor to and the editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2017).

Russia has been in the news lately, more than anyone might have expected a year ago, raising concerns over foreign interference in U.S. politics to its highest pitch since the end of the Cold War more than a quarter century ago. Yet for all the fascination with a potential Trump-Putin connection among Democratic Party elite and the mainstream media, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution has hardly figured in their discussion. In fact, if there is one thing upon which Trump, Putin, and their liberal detractors all agree it is that the political legacy of 1917 constitutes a threat to each and of them.

This essay challenges the notion that Bolshevik influence in the United States constituted “foreign interference,” as liberals and conservatives at the time and after contended. This basic charge helped justify and fuel an on-again/off-again Red Scare for much of the twentieth century. The truth is that by 1917 economic and political conditions had produced a diverse and vibrant mass socialist movement in the United States, one that stood squarely in the context of the Second International.

If the Bolsheviks made both friends and enemies in the U.S. then it was because various political forces and movements here either came to see the Russian Revolution as a threat to the existing order or a confirmation that capitalism must be, and could be, overturned. Beyond this essential feature, Bolshevik political theory and practice shook up the balance of power within the U.S. socialist movement, began to transform radical notions of the relationships between class, race, and immigration status, and offered a glimpse of how a socialist society might transform everything from art to education to gender. Before getting into all this, let’s look at the socialist movement in the U.S. before hardly anyone had heard of Lenin or Trotsky or Bolshevism.

Socialism and resistance in the U.S. before 1917

In 1912, Eugene V. Debs, the most popular revolutionary socialist in American history, won over 900,000 votes, or 6 percent, for president. Strikes were on the rise in response to brutal industrial conditions such as those that killed 146 workers, most of them young women, burned or jumping to their deaths in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City.

Immigrant workers and radical organizers like Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, the Rebel Girl as she was known, teamed up to create a powerful combination, forcing working-class struggle to center stage during the 1912 the Lawrence textile strike.

The Socialist Party grew to over 100,000 members and Big Bill Haywood, the bare-fisted leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, won election to the SP’s National Executive Committee. The revolutionary left appeared to be going from strength to strength, but hard times lay just around the corner.

First, moderate and centrist SP leaders like Victor Berger, John Spargo, and Morris Hillquit led a witch hunt against the party’s left in 1913, leading some 40,000 members to quit in protest or drop out of active party membership. Next, bosses and state authorities intensified a crackdown on union organizing and strikes, most brutally in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914 where two dozen striking miners and their families were murdered by company militia. And worst of all, African American migration to the North provoked a vast racist backlash egged on by Democratic president Woodrow Wilson’s purge of Black workers from civil service posts. Lynchings escalated alongside the attack on unions and the radical left.

Meanwhile, disorientation plagued the left. Radical journalist John Reed, a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, voted for Wilson in 1916 on the chance that he would keep the U.S. out of the war, while W.E.B. DuBois supported Wilson when he took the U.S. into the war in the hope that African American men serving in the army might be rewarded with domestic civil rights. And when Debs stood aside in 1916’s presidential elections in favor of right-wing Socialist Allen Benson, the SP’s vote fell by nearly 50%, down to only 585,000.[1] The socialist movement, after fifteen years of growth and development, stagnated.

However, these years also witnessed large-scale anti-racist resistance, historic struggles for women’s suffrage and birth control, and a rising tide of strikes. In other words, the left faced challenges, but conditions were ripe for the construction of some sort of genuinely revolutionary organization of substantial size, either growing inside the SP as a determined and organized faction (instead of the loose constellation of co-thinkers and allies that constituted the SP left through 1912), or outside it. The choice did not have to be retreat to sectarian irrelevancy or the abandonment of principles. Yet the riddle of how to cohere such an organization had not yet been solved by the American left.

This conceptual muddle on the left notwithstanding, war-time conditions exacerbated the confrontations that had exploded in 1911-1912. Workers launched 21,000 strikes between 1916 and 1921, culminating in the Seattle General Strike and national steel and coal strikes in 1919. The American Federation of Labor tripled in size, rising to 2.4 million members in 1917.[2] Employers and the state reacted to this upsurge with a combination of cooptation and crackdown. President Wilson appointed AFL chief Samuel Gompers to the Council of National Defense and acquiesced in the partial unionization of war industries in exchange for mainstream labor leaders’ support for the government’s prosecution of radicals. A reign of terror all but broke the IWW’s back. Organizer and famed song writer Joe Hill was executed in 1915 in Utah, Frank Little was lynched in Montana in 1917, and the federal government put one hundred IWW members and leaders on trial in 1918 under the Espionage Act for their opposition to the war.[3] In the spring of 1919, Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer cast an anti-communist dragnet over the land, arresting thousands of socialists, anarchists, and revolutionaries and deporting hundreds of radical immigrant organizers, including anarchist author and agitator Emma Goldman.

In the summer of 1917, racist mobs attacked and burnt Black neighborhoods in East St. Louis, killing as many as one hundred and fifty, and leaving an estimated 6,000 people homeless. Marcus Garvey, the founder and leader of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), responded that “This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.”[4] W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP organized a mass march of 10,000 that started in Harlem and then proceeded into the heart of bourgeois Manhattan down Fifth Avenue.[5] Racist brutality was nothing new in America, but powerful resistance organized by African Americans gave rise to what became known as the New Negro Movement. Organizations like the NAACP, UNIA (led by Marcus Garvey), the Liberty League (Hubert Harrison), and the African Blood Brotherhood (Cyril Briggs) sprang up in cities and towns across the country.[6]

Racists spilled so much blood in 1919 that it came to be called the Red Summer. Whites in Washington, D.C. and Chicago launched murderous attacks on African American neighborhoods. However, as in East St. Louis, African Americans, many of whom had received military training in the war, defended their homes and community. Twenty-three Blacks died in the August 1919 Chicago riots, but so did fifteen whites as Black self-defense proved at least partially effective.[7] Claude McKay, co-editor of The Liberator, a revolutionary magazine founded by Max and Crystal Eastman, captured the mood of resistance in his poem, If we must die.

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious sport…
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the birth of Communism in the U.S.

In February 1917, Russian workers and soldiers overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. Just two months later, president Wilson and Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917. For radicals inspired by the Russian Revolution, Wilson’s intentions were clear: deploy America’s economic and military might to prop up European capitalism which, after three bloody years of imperialist war, finally seemed vulnerable to socialist revolution. Meanwhile, America’s bankers and manufacturers looked to make a pretty penny off the catastrophe of poison gas, trench warfare, and mass civilian casualties. The sons of the working class, naturally enough, did all the fighting and dying. Upon returning from a tour as a war correspondent, and now recoiling from the vote he cast for Wilson, John Reed was asked to explain the underlying causes of the Great War, he answered in a single word, “profit.”

Despite its humiliation after 1912, the revolutionary socialist left came roaring back based on two complimentary sources of strength. First, Eastern European immigrant socialist federations grew rapidly in the U.S., inspired by their comrades in the Russian Empire. Second, leftists asserted a powerful critique of imperialism and argued that the SP should champion and organize what they called working-class “mass action.” This up-and-coming generation of activists included Louis Fraina, Rose Pastor Stokes, James Cannon, Charles Ruthenburg, John Reed, and Louis Boudin. Meanwhile, centrist SP leader Morris Hillquit faced a veritable youth rebellion in his New York City stronghold from twenty-somethings such as Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram Wolfe, and Jay Lovestone. One indication of left’s political affinities was on display at a meeting arranged in January of 1917 by left winger Ludwig Lore between Louis Fraina and Louis Boudin (for the SP left) and some of the most important Russian revolutionary socialists living in exile, including Leon Trotsky, Alexandra Kollontai, and Nikolai Bukharin, as well as Japanese revolutionary Sen Katayama.

Between 1917 and 1919, the SP reversed its decline, growing from 80,000 to 105,000, while a vibrant left-wing press proliferated, despite official government censorship. Publications like the International Socialist Review, The Masses (renamed The Liberator after it was suppressed by U.S. postal authorities), The New Review, The Internationalist, The Class Struggle, and the Revolutionary Age all challenged Hillquit’s middle-of-the-road politics. Thus, the human and political material existed to effect a merger between socialist organization and working-class action. All it needed was the power of a good example to break the impasse.

The February 1917 Revolution in Russia inspired socialists in the U.S. to hope that spontaneous anti-war uprisings might be possible. The October Revolution that year focused their attention on just how the Bolsheviks had overthrown the capitalist state. How had Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai, Bukharin and the rest gone from exile and prison to power in a few short months? This question fired the imaginations of leftists in the U.S. Everything for which they had worked and sacrificed was being accomplished in Russia. Debs’s words had become flesh. He offered his solidarity with the Revolution in the face of a hysterical red scare, writing:

In Russia and Germany our valiant comrades are leading the proletarian revolution, which knows no race, no color, no sex, and no boundary lines. They are setting the heroic example for world-wide emulation. Let us, like them, scorn and repudiate the cowardly compromisers within our own ranks, challenge and defy the robber class power, and fight it out on that line to victory or death!

From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.[8]

While U.S. and European authorities blockaded Soviet Russia and did what they could to prevent the news of the world’s first successful socialist revolution leaking out, they could not completely stop the signal. Lenin himself managed to get “A Letter to American Workers” across enemy lines. Written in August 1918, it took until December before it was finally published in the U.S. The letter helped orient U.S. revolutionaries and played an important role in the growing fight for control of the Socialist Party. His stinging indictment of U.S. imperialism, conducted by “hired thugs… for the benefit of wealthy scoundrels,” marked a sharp contrast to the views held by many on the right of the Socialist Party. Lenin denounced Wilson as a “vulture” for sending troops to intervene in Soviet Russia on the side of counterrevolution and pointed to the importance of the example set by Debs’ opposition to the war, not just for American workers, but for the international movement:

I also recall the words of one of the most beloved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene Debs, who wrote in the Appeal to Reason, I believe towards the end of 1915, in the article “What Shall I Fight For” (I quoted this article at the beginning of 1916 at a public meeting of workers in Berne, Switzerland) that he, Debs, would rather be shot than vote credits for the present criminal and reactionary war; that he, Debs, knows of only one holy and, from the proletarian standpoint, legitimate war, namely: the war against the capitalists, the war to liberate mankind from wage-slavery.

I am not surprised that Wilson, the head of the American multimillionaires and servant of the capitalist sharks, has thrown Debs into prison. Let the bourgeoisie be brutal to the true internationalists, to the true representatives of the revolutionary proletariat! The more fierce and brutal they are, the nearer the day of the victorious proletarian revolution.[9]

If Lenin’s letter made an impression on a relatively small circle of readers, American Socialists had the great fortune of having two of their own on hand to record exactly what had taken place in October 1917. John Reed and Louise Bryant set sail for Russia in August 1917 and, as luck would have it, their arrival in St. Petersburg coincided with the victory of the October Revolution. “Max, don’t tell anybody where I am,” urged Reed in a note to Max Eastman, his close friend and editor of The Masses magazine:

I’m writing the Russian revolution in a book. I’ve got all the placards and papers up there in a little room and a Russian dictionary, and I’m working all day and all night. I haven’t shut my eyes for thirty-six hours. I’ll finish the whole thing in two weeks. And I’ve got a name for it too—Ten Days that Shook the World. Good-bye, I’ve got to go get some coffee. Don’t for God’s sake tell anybody where I am![10]

While it took until early 1919 to get Ten Days into print, Reed wrote and spoke widely throughout 1918, helping illustrate how Bolshevik politics and organization differed radically from the ramshackle structure and broad-tent politics of the American Socialist Party. Louise Bryant’s book, Six Months in Revolutionary Russia, was rushed to publication in 1918 and help set the stage for Reed’s more widely-read account.[11]

And, try as they might to limit all direct contact, the authorities failed to strictly quarantine Russia. For example, Seattle was a hotbed of labor organizing, especially among shipbuilders, sailors, and longshore workers during and after World War I. When the Russian ship Shilka entered the Puget Sound in December 1917 just weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, radicals greeted the crew as representatives of the new workers’ government. Daniel Terininoff, one of the ship’s officers, attended a solidarity meeting onshore. He was arrested afterwards as rumors swirled through the capitalist newspapers that the Russians were carrying up to $100,000 to fund a workers’ revolution in the United States. Despite the hysteria, the Seattle Central Labor Council sent a message of support to Russian workers. It read in part:

Having no direct means of communication with you, income held to rely upon  other sources for our information, including perverted news through a capitalist control press, and consequently misled as to Russian internal conditions, we make no effort nor have we any desire to address ourselves exclusively to any one faction, but we extend to all factions of workers alike our hearty goodwill, firm in the believe that in the end (which we trust is not far off) the rule of the workers it will be absolute, and the affairs of your great country, the first of any in modern history, placed to remain in the hands of the only necessary and responsible class in society—the working class.[12]

All of this was in the air as, just one year later in February of 1919, 65,000 workers in Seattle launched a city-wide general strike and radicals distributed a leaflet making the point that the “Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it?”[13]

World War I finally ended in November of 1918 after the German Navy mutinied and soldiers and workers overthrew the Kaiser (the German monarch), declaring a democratic republic and opening a five-year period of pre-revolutionary struggle throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the end of the war did not bring peace to Russia. Instead, the U.S., Britain, France, and a dozen other capitalist powers sent troops into Russia, financing and arming a so-called White Army of counter revolutionaries.

Throughout 1918, debate raged throughout the SP as factions fought, branch by branch, and state by state, for control of the national party. In the spring of 1919, the left forced through a party referendum to elect a new National Executive Council, winning twelve out of fifteen seats, including Reed, Cleveland revolutionary socialist Charles Ruthenburg, and firebrand Kate Richards O’Hare (all of whom had been prosecuted or imprisoned for anti-war activity). Louis Fraina, who had published the first English-language edition of writings by Lenin and Trotsky and who was widely-recognized as a proponent of Bolshevism, won more votes than any other figure in the NEC election.[14]

Flush with victory, the path seemed open for the SP to follow the Bolshevik example. Yet, rather than admit defeat and abide by the democratic will of the majority, Hillquit and the outgoing NEC issued orders on May 24, 1919 to purge two-thirds of the membership: some 60,000 or 70,000 members, including the entirety of the Russian, Lettish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Southern Slavic, and Polish federations, and dozens of English-speaking locals in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, California and Missouri.

The sheer audacity of the coup stunned the left, throwing it into confusion. Hillquit was no fool. He understood that the left remained internally fractured and was only just beginning to operate as a coherent movement. Many of its new leaders hardly knew one another, their multi-lingual movement faced obstacles of mutual comprehension and trust, and the novelty of the Bolshevik Revolution was only just beginning to be understood. Hillquit bet that the left, as it had done in 1912, would fracture and that many of those whom (he imagined) were simply temporarily carried away with enthusiasm would have no choice but to come crawling back to his consolidated SP.

This time , the left proved Hillquit wrong. At the end of an August 1919 meeting in Chicago, just one month after the brutal Chicago Race Riot, and on the same weekend when the national steel strike began, American Bolshevism was born. Of course, nothing is ever quite so simple (in fact, two rival communist parties met separately). The complicated story of how several mutually antagonistic currents eventually united to form a single Workers Party in 1922 deserves close study. It represents the most concentrated interaction between the leaders of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary movement in the United States. But that story has been told conclusively elsewhere. (See readings listed below.)[15] Here I will merely focus on several instances that demonstrate how the Revolution made its presence felt outside these critical, yet relatively small, organized circles.

Widespread interest and enthusiasm for Bolshevism

First, the Revolution was met with genuine enthusiasm on the part of significant swaths of the population. After all, there were many recently-arrived Eastern European immigrants who had either fled Tsarist persecution or had come seeking brighter economic prospects (for instance, my great grand-parents arrived after 1905 from Lithuania). The SP’s Foreign-language Federation membership grew to include tens of thousands. The New York Call’s report on a Madison Square Garden in June of 1918, attended by “men and women, Americans, Russians, Fins, Lithuanians, Letts, Ukrainians, Poles, and Esthonians,” helps bring these numbers to life:

“Block Intervention!”

“Recognize the Soviet Government of Russia!”

These were the two demands cheered and urged by 15,000 Russian and American Bolshevist sympathizers in Madison Square Garden. The demands were voiced in diverse languages, but all languages are alike when it comes to the word “proletariat” and “revolution.” […]

Promptly at 8 o’clock Alexander Trachtenberg, who was exiled from Russia by the Tsar for his part in the Revolution of 1905-06, opened the meeting, and after a short address introduced Norman Thomas, who was warmly received. The first big moment in the meeting was reached when Thomas, after reviewing the Russian situation, declared: “There is the one thing that this government can do—Recognize the Soviets.”

The audience rose as one man, cheering and waving flags, hats and handkerchiefs… “Recognize the Soviets! Recognize the Soviets!” they cried…

So popular was the Bolshevik Revolution, in fact, among this section of the movement that even a moderate SP leader like Thomas felt obliged to offer full-throated support in the early days. Trachtenberg for his part helped found the Communist movement in the years to come.

Second, artists and writers drew inspiration from the democratization of arts and culture in Soviet Russia. Perhaps the nation’s preeminent modernist magazine, The Masses, took up the Bolsheviks’ cause and campaigned forthrightly against U.S. participation in the war. For their troubles, the magazine was banned from distribution through the U.S. Postal Service. Its staff was twice dragged into court in 1918, charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act. In defiance of the authorities, the staff renamed the magazine The Liberator in honor of William Lloyd Garrison’s pre-Civil War abolitionist publication. Throughout the whole period, The Masses/Liberator combined revolutionary politics, poetry, and criticism, opening a two-way exchange between the Russian Revolution and the radical arts and political scene in the United States.

Editor, playwright, and novelist Floyd Dell explained in a June 1919 Liberator essay that “in Russia the lawyers do not legislate for the artists; the artists legislate for themselves, upon the understanding that they are not legislating for themselves alone, but for the Russian people, in whose education art is an important thing.” And rather than mystify or exalt the rarified or specialized role of the artist, the point was to bridge the gap between workers and artists. Dell wrote:

We in America, in the midst of our own “dead artistic reality,” are so much under the spell of the “art for art’s sake” philosophy that it may be hard for us to understand this. It may be difficult for American artists, disgusted as they are with the results of academic jury methods, to have any confidence in “a jury of the people themselves.” But it is necessary to understand that in the fiery crucible of revolution the hopes of art have become one with the hopes of mankind. This is the finest thing about the program of the Russian artists under the Bolshevik state: they do not despair of the people, they do not despise nor turn from the people. A new beginning has been made, and the people, while acquiring all the knowledge of art history and technique that enlightened educational methods can give them, and gathering strength and confidence for participation themselves in the joyous labors of art, are meantime to be the judges of whether art is doing what art must do to be alive-expressing their will, their love, their pity, their hopes and fears, their enthusiasms and their dreams.[16]

And if Dell stressed the linkages between revolution and art, Eastman was at pains in the courtroom to demonstrate how artists could advocate for revolution. After debunking the prosecution’s libels against the Bolsheviks, and arguing why his magazine deserved the right to free speech, Eastman entered his views on socialism into the record,

We know just as well as you know that it would not be practical to expect the rich people, the capitalists, those who benefit by the present system of politics and industry, to be the ones who are going to want to change it. We know perfectly well that the people who are going to want to change it are the poorer people—the working people—the small farmers—the small business men, who are not very sure of their jobs, and who [are] immediately under the domination of somebody, and do not feel very free. It is the people who will benefit by the change, who can be depended upon to change the world.[17]

Third, the Bolsheviks’ forthright condemnation of colonialism and Lenin’s championing of the right of nations to self-determination caught the attention of Black radicals, earning the Revolution an important layer of sympathizers. For example, African American activists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen published The Messenger, one of the premier voices for Black liberation, anti-lynching, and socialism. The pair’s radicalism led supporters to dub them the Lenin and Trotsky of Harlem, although political differences would drive them apart by the early 1920s. Not without reason, the Department of Justice called The Messenger “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications” for analysis like this:

The Soviet is, doubtless, the most hated, the most loved, and the most misunderstood political institution in the world today. The Russian people love it; the capitalists of all countries hate it. Most people don’t understand because the channels through which they get their information are controlled by its enemies, the capitalists…. As for the Negro, neither property, life, liberty, nor the pursuit of happiness, which, by the way, is only possible by a possession of the former, is secure in the southern section of these United States. The Messenger denies the right to every capitalist hypocrite in Christendom to speak to the motion of order on the soviet of Russia. Long live the soviet![18]

As noted previously, Black migration to the North, the war itself, and resistance to racist violence laid the basis for the New Negro Movement. And if there was little in common between Garvey’s nationalist politics and Bolshevism, the Revolution added a new dimension to the debate over how to fight racism in the United States, especially providing wind in the sails for young Black radicals who chafed against more conservative leaders’ views. These debates reverberate to this very day and have been analyzed at length in this journal and elsewhere. Yet it is useful to note just how quickly these debates became part of the common-place discussion among Black organizers.

For his part, Cyril Briggs of the African Blood Brotherhood contended that “Bolshevik inspiration” was a key factor in what he described as a global “rising tide of color.” European capitalism had created an international colonial system in order to charge its own growth, a fact that was now provoking revolts all along its weakest links and demonstrating the common interests between workers and oppressed peoples of all countries.  “Long live the Russian Soviet, with its noble ideals on self-determination and the rights of weaker peoples,” Briggs concluded.[19]

In a similar vein, in a letter to the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, Claude McKay claimed that DuBois demonstrated a tendency to “sneer” at the Russian Revolution.[20] McKay applauded the work of the NAACP in fighting for civil rights, but lamented that “it must yet be admitted that from its platform and personnel the Association cannot function as a revolutionary working-class organization” because the NAACP aims to secure African Americans the rights they are due under the Constitution. Yet, McKay predicted, “the ruling classes will not grant Negroes those rights which, on a lesser scale and more plausibly, are withheld from the white proletariat.” After all, “the concession of these rights would immediately cause a Revolution in the economic life of this country.”

DuBois, while reserving his final judgment on the Bolshevik Revolution, points with “sympathy” to the Bolshevik’s opposition to colonialism and racism, quoting the following passage from the Bolshevik-inspired Communist International in full in the pages of The Crisis,

The Communist Internationale [sic] once [and] forever breaks with the traditions of the Second International, which in reality only recognized the white race. The Communist Internationale makes it its task to emancipate the workers of the entire world. The ranks of the Communist Internationale fraternally unite men of all colors: white, yellow and black—the toilers of the entire world.

DuBois agreed with McKay that capitalist methods of “controlling and distributing wealth is desperately wrong; that there must come and is coming a social control of wealth.” But for the time being, he maintained that he did “not know just what form that control is going to take, and he is not prepared to dogmatize with Marx or Lenin;” instead insisting that “the immediate work for the American Negro lies in America and not in Russia.” DuBois’ skepticism notwithstanding, it is remarkable enough that the pages of the country’s most important civil rights publication lay wide open to serious-minded debate with respect to Bolshevism and Black liberation.

After this promising start, the forces of reaction rolled back these indications of interest in, and support for, the 1917 Revolution among a wide variety of activists, union members, and artists. The Workers Party grew to a membership of between 15,000 and 20,000 during the 1920s (with a much wider layer sympathizers), but a conservative backlash washed over the land and the Ku Klux Klan ballooned to several million members during these same years. Compounding matters, Stalin’s counterrevolution in Russia smothered much of what initially attracted widespread admiration in the United States while the long, complex history of disentangling the inspiration of Bolshevism from the horror of bureaucratic Communism buried this early history deep within often obscure debates among the left.

But none of this should conceal the profound impact 1917 had on the imagination, principles, and practice of radicals in its first years. As agitator and founding member of the Communist Party of America, Rose Pastor Stokes, wrote in 1919, “Stand by Russia, Workers of America. Stand by your own cause. The issue is joined; the fight is on. Unite; use your power. For Russia—for ourselves—For Bread and Roses!”[21] By invoking the famous slogan of the 1911-12 textile strikes and linking it to a call for solidarity with the Russian Revolution, Pastor Stokes not only rejected the slander that Bolshevism constituted a “foreign” influence on class struggle in the U.S., she argued the two ought to be understood as part of a greater whole.

Far too many activists today have been denied access to our own history and to the insights provided by the likes of Pastor Stokes, McKay, Eastman, Briggs, and more. However, we share the sorts of protracted economic crises, escalating racism and repression, and permanent war that gave rise to Bolshevism in the first place. Thankfully, we are also witnesses the revival of a radical, socialist left for the first time in decades, a movement that just might reclaim some of what has been lost. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but because lessons learned long ago are sure to come in handy today.

November 4, 2017

Further Reading

  • James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, (New York: Pathfinder, 1973).
  • Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957).
  • Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007)
  • Jacob Zumoff, The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

…and on this website


[1] Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004), 420.

[2] Robert Zieger and Gilbert J. Gall, American Workers, American Unions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 5.

[3] Melvin Dubofsky, We Shall Be All (Urbana Champaign and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1969), 407.

[4] Marcus Garvey, “Speech on East St. Louis Riots,” PBS, July 8, 1917,

[5] Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia (New York: Verso, 1998), 96.

[6] Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, November, 2008).

[7] William Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (Champaign Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

[8] Eugene V. Debs, “The Day of the People has Arrived,” The Class Struggle, February 1919, Vol.III, No.1.

[9] V.I. Lenin, “Letter to American Workmen,” first published in The Class Struggle, December 1918, pp. 521-533.

[10] Max Eastman, Heroes I Have Known: Twelve Who Lived Great Lives (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942), 223–4.

[11] Louise Bryant, Six Months in Red Russia (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918),

[12] Quoted in Philip S. Foner, (The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals, and Labor (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 64-65.

[13] Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Oakland: PM Press, 2014), 111.

[14] Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957), 107.

[15] See for instance James Cannon, First Ten Years of American Communism, New York, Pathfinder Press; Draper Roots; Jacob Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014); and Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[16] Floyd Dell, “From Documentary Decrees and Plans of the Soviet State,” The Liberator, June 1919, pp. 11-18.

[17] Max Eastman, Max Eastman’s Address to the Jury in the Second Masses Trial, pamphlet, The Liberator, New York, 191.

[18] A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, “The Soviet,” The Messenger, May-June 1918. Quoted in Attorney A. Mitchell Palmer on Charges Made Against Department of Justice by Louis F. Post and Others: Hearings Before the Committee On Rules, House of Representatives, Sixty-Sixth Congress, Second Session, Part I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 648-649.

[19] Cyril Briggs, “The Rising Tide of Color,” The Crusader, Vol. 2, July 1920, pp. 11-12. Quoted in The Crusader, Volume II, September 1919 – August 1920, Robert A. Hill, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987), 766-767.

[20] Claude McKay and W.E.B. DuBois, “The Negro and Radical Thought, The Crisis, July 1921, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 102-104.

[21] Rose Pastor Stokes, The Communist, November 8, 1919,


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