A “Defend the Soviet Union” rally in New York, 1920s. | People’s World Archives / Daily Worker
New People’s World Series – The Centenary of the Russian Revolution
November 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. To commemorate the occasion, People’s World is launching a new series of articles that present broad assessments of the legacy of the revolution, of the Soviet Union and the global communist movement that grew out of it, and of the relevance of the revolution. for today’s radical politics. Proposals for contributions are welcome and should be emailed to [email protected]. Other articles in the series can be read here.
This month of November (or October according to the old Russian calendar) marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, perhaps “one of the great events in human history”, as the indomitable John Reed would say in 1917. .
It is fifty years (1967) after the birth of the first socialist republic in the world that Philip S. Foner, who happens to be one of the greatest historians of the 20th century, in collaboration with International Publishers, publishes for the first time The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labora one-of-a-kind story documenting the wide range of support the Revolution had among the American working class.
And now, during the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, International Publishers has released a new edition of Foner’s groundbreaking study, a centenary edition with a new introduction by prolific historian Gerald Horne.
For the generalist reader as well as those more familiar with the history of the American working class, Foner’s collection of newspaper articles, speeches, resolutions – documents that constitute a history of support for the revolution – is everything simply impressive.
The fact that Foner also provides a fifty-page introduction, placing the revolution and the various responses to it in a historical-political context, is also worth noting, as most general readers today (as well as in 1967) are unlikely to be familiar with the lengths to which the United States government – and the then reactionary American Federation of Labor – went to suppress the new republic internationally, while simultaneously drowning out the voices that supported it internationally. nationally, both among workers and the population in general.
In fact, the support the revolution received nationally among average people, mostly working people, might well have been forgotten had it not been for Foner’s documentary collection, as the prevailing winds of “Red Scare” and the Cold War served to put most historians—perhaps those with less foresight, firmness, and courage—on notice, especially if they wished to be tenured at the university level. Foner had been dismissed from his teaching position in 1941, due to anti-communism; it would be a quarter of a century before he again secured a full-time teaching position. This time was at Lincoln University, ironically also in 1967.
In The Bolshevik Revolutionyou will learn that the American Labor Alliance for Trade Relations with Russia, founded in the fall of 1920 and representing 800,000 union members in New York, decided that “the Department of State would take immediate action to remove all obstacles to trade with Russia…”, a sentiment at odds with American foreign policy, which then aimed to strangle the nascent socialist republic in its cradle.
Additionally, the Labor Alliance and its goals have been “endorsed by 12 international and national unions, more than 20 state labor federations, and central unions in 72 cities in 29 states…”, all affiliated with the AFL and “representing a workforce of 2,500,000 workers”, more than half of the Federation’s workforce at the time. We even learn that the union of Samuel Gompers (the reactionary president of the AFL), the cigar manufacturers , endorsed the normalization of relations with the Soviets, despite Gompers’ contempt for socialism.
Interestingly, the secretary of the Labor Alliance was none other than Alexander Trachtenberg, who would found International Publishers four years later, in 1924.
In The Bolshevik Revolution we learn of early clergy support for the revolution, as Dr. John Haynes Holmes, pastor of the Church of the Messiah in New York, for example, would proclaim, “Thank God for the Russian Revolution.” We also hear directly from “a Wall Street millionaire, banker, captain of industry, ‘mining king,’ Colonel William Boyce Thompson,” who spent six months in Soviet Russia and told the newspapers upon his return: “I sincerely believe that Russia is leading the way to general peace, just as it is leading the way to great, sweeping world changes…”, not the least of which was the rising tide of workers’ revolts, strikes, the growth of the trade unionism in general and socialism revolutions to come.
We also learn of legendary socialist Eugene V. Debs’ early support for the revolution. He would write: “The world is amazed, amazed, impressed…” by the Bolsheviks, adding: “…whatever the fate of the revolution, its flamboyant soul is immortal. It’s a feeling still shared by many a hundred years after his birth.
Debs would also declare, “I am a Bolshevik and proud of it.
Just as important as the documentary history comprising Foner’s book is Gerald Horne’s introduction to the centenary edition, an introduction that places the revolution – though ultimately defeated – in world historical context.
Horne shows the connection and inspiration of another great revolution, that of Haiti. It highlights the role of Soviet communists as well as Haitian revolutionaries; the latter marked “a general crisis of the whole system of slavery…”, while the former marked “a general crisis of the whole system of capitalism”, and both “shook the world”, to paraphrase John Reed.
Further, Horne points to the “widespread support” of African Americans—notably WEB DuBois and Paul Robeson—for the revolution, and notes that, given the history of first slavery and then wage exploitation, it should come as no surprise that the Bolsheviks received so much support in the United States, especially among black workers.
Foner’s The Bolshevik Revolution is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in what average workers actually thought and wrote during the first three years of the Revolution. International Publishers and Gerald Horne have done a great service in publishing this new centenary edition.
The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labor
By Philip S. Foner
International publishers, 2017, 304 pages