How The Russian Revolution of 1917 Energized and Divided U.S. Socialists

By David Keil

The Bolshevik-led insurrection of October 1917 inspired the Socialist Party of America, but also led to a fatal division of socialists that has lasted to this day. Decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, socialists are divided among numerous organizations that cannot agree to work together on what kind of society they propose, or what kind of party to build. They also disagree on what went right and wrong in Russia. The centennial of the Russian revolution gives us a chance to look at why it has so divided socialists. The Socialist Party of America (SPA) welcomed the overturning of capitalism in Russia after 1917 and the creation of a state based on workers’ councils, called soviets. This was the first enduring revolutionary movement in history that declared an end to class society and seized the means of production for the use of the working people.

But by 1920, American communist supporters of the Bolshevik leadership in Russia had left the SPA, splitting into three opposing groups seeking the official approval of the new Communist International, headquartered in Moscow. Ten years later, communists were calling socialists “fascists” and attacking their public meetings.

How did this happen? How can socialists in the U.S. work together today to build an effective political alternative to the capitalist two- party system?

The Fatal Split in the SPA

Two deadly flaws in the U.S. socialist movement 100 years ago were:

1. A tendency of socialist leaders to seek gradual reform as an alternative to working to replace the capitalist system in the U.S. and end its drive for global dominance.

2. A tendency of the pro-Bolshevik wing to follow misguided directives from the Communist International in Moscow to abandon the existing, mostly healthy, SPA and prepare for civil war and revolution in the U.S.

The Woodrow Wilson administration ordered an invasion of Russia to crush the socialist revolution. Wilson also ordered Attorney General Palmer to organize raids on socialist meetings, and to arrest and deport activists. In Seattle, workers seized the city with a general strike in 1919. But unlike Russia, the U.S. did not enter into a revolution or a civil war.

The Communist (Third) International, launched in 1919 by the leaders of the Russian Revolution, offered itself as an alternative to the Second (Socialist) International (SI). The SI shattered in World War I, when the socialist parties in Germany, France, and Britain supported their own capitalist rulers in waging wars against each other for the right to exploit colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It was a shocking betrayal. Even the SPA leadership was divided over World War I, with some supporting the U.S. when it entered the war in 1917, and some taking a passive attitude toward antiwar activity. The U.S. socialist leader Eugene V. Debs became imprisoned for years because he spoke out against the war.

Antiwar socialists were bitter over the betrayal of socialist leaders who surrendered to the imperialist war hysteria of 1914 and after and who drove out the Socialist Party left wing, expelling up to two-thirds of SP members. This was likely the original political trauma experience that has divided socialists for a hundred years and counting. The beloved German/Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg declared the SI “a stinking corpse.” Yet, it has survived; Democratic Socialists of America belongs to the SI, as do parties that have governed in France, Spain, and Germany.

By 1912, the SPA had become a mass party, with numerous daily newspapers, elected officials, and state organizations with thousands of members each. It benefited from hard-won democratic rights that prevailed in the U.S. and celebrated the Russian Revolution of 1917 for many years.

Bolshevism and the Communist International

In contrast to the SPA, the Bolshevik Party grew under a brutal capitalist dictatorship headed by the royal family of Czar Nicholas, with its feared secret police and its anti- Jewish riots (pogroms) organized by the state. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and others developed an organization structure known as “democratic centralism,” which offered the strict discipline required to survive.

The Bolshevik Party emerged from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP); bolshevik means “majority” in Russian. Lenin’s group won a majority at the 1903 congress of the RSDLP, based on the practice of a new, stricter definition of membership. The minority “Menshevik” group coexisted with the Bolsheviks in the RSDLP for about ten years. After the overthrow of the Czar in February 1917, Mensheviks participated in coalition governments and supported continuation of the Russian war alliance with France.

A significant development that made possible the October Revolution was the insight that the character of the Russian revolution was socialist. Russian socialists for decades held that the current revolution was democratic, but not socialist. Similar theories have persisted even into the 21st century. The Russian Revolution thus initiated a historical era of socialist revolution.

Once in power, the Bolsheviks projected their Russian experience, of centralized party building under dictatorship, internationally. They launched the Communist International as a single, disciplined, international party. Each national unit (“section”) was required to apply strict democratic centralism. The International expelled all who embraced “reformist” theories, a requirement that the “21 Conditions” for membership in the CI sought to impose on parties that applied to join.

Whereas the SPA (until its purge of the left wing) was a multi-tendency party, politically and organizationally, the CI imposed a single theory and a single discipline. A multi- tendency party tolerates diverse views within a common program and principles, including the right of members to form internal subgroups to work for their common views. In practice, what has been called democratic centralism tends to discourage or crush independent opinion.

When some supporters of the Communist International left the SPA, they took a chance on the new kind of party modeled on the Russian experience. Their experiment failed immediately in the very different political environment of the U.S. — different factions vied for the “franchise” of the CI and the right to apply their strict discipline on U.S. Communists. Two of these groups claimed the name “Communist Party” and published papers called The Communist. Eventually a single Communist Party was established.

While the SPA had weaknesses of its own, the CI’s experiment with democratic centralism in the U.S. was a disaster. By imposing a single theory on all members of the party, the CI created an autocratic regime that suppressed the smallest dissent. The CP by the late 1920s was an implement of Josef Stalin’s dictatorship in Moscow, branding the SPA and other SPs as “social fascist” and helping divide the labor movement in Germany as the Nazis rose toward power.

Imposing a single theory and discipline in a society like the U.S. inevitably and endlessly divides socialist organizations. The fracturing of communism in the U.S. proceeds to this day, with each decade experiencing new splits within a growing number of tiny sects. When political parties suppress ideological differences in a changing world, splits are inevitable.

The Decline of the Russian Revolution

Once in power, bolshevism, created in the hot oven of Czarist dictatorship, reflected its origins. From a plan for workers’ democracy via soviets, Bolshevik (Communist) Party leadership transformed itself into one-party rule. This occurred in part because of the exhaustion or death of great numbers of the most class-conscious and energetic worker defenders of the revolution, due to the civil war and the invasion of Russia by imperialist countries, including the U.S.

But it also occurred by decisions of Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, to expand the powers of the Cheka, the secret police of the soviet state. By 1921, the Communist Party was effectively the only party permitted under the state. Rosa Luxemburg and U.S. socialist leaders protested some of the unjust repressive measures of the Russian leadership.

In 1921, the Red Army, under Leon Trotsky, crushed a rebellion by workers and sailors at the Kronstadt military base, giving a measure of the distance between the new state and many ordinary Russians. By 1929, Stalin had consolidated power enough to put Trotsky in exile. By 1936-37, Stalin had murdered the majority of the Russian Bolshevik leaders who had led the revolution.

Thus, as happened in the French Revolution, an idealistic leadership led the overturn of an autocratic political regime and exploitive social system; then turned inward to persecute dissenting revolutionists. Subsequently, rising elements of the once- revolutionary regime murdered that leadership. The revolution in Russia became a counter-revolution.

The tragedy of Lenin, who died in 1924, is particularly painful. Lenin had contributed significantly to socialist thought with his writings on the capitalist state (which he said must be replaced, not reformed) and on the monopoly stage of capitalism, which he called imperialism. Lenin sought to limit the rise of bureaucratic authoritarianism, but he also enabled some of its expressions via the Communist International and the Russian state.

Stalin falsely claimed Lenin as his teacher. Stalin’s dictatorship and one-party Communist Party rule, which lasted from about 1928 to 1991, exacerbated the trauma of the betrayal of socialist antiwar principles in 1914. Millions began associating socialism with murderous dictatorial rule. Together these betrayals sealed the split of the socialist movement, which occurred after the Russian Revolution.

Decline of the SPA and Emergence of the Socialist Party USA

After the departure of the pro-Bolshevik groups, and with the emergence of leaders like Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party of America as part of the Socialist International drifted toward Democratic President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and eventually toward the Democratic Party and Cold-War anti-communism. During the Vietnam War, some socialist leaders even backed the U.S. orgy of mass murder in Vietnam. Their antiwar socialist energy was exhausted.

In 1972, the SPA split into three groups. The Social Democrats USA supported Nixon and the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Democratic Socialists of America oriented permanently to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Socialists of America oriented permanently to the Democratic Party. Today, it has grown very rapidly since the Trump election. Finally, the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), an anti- imperialist organization, advocates independent political action. The SPUSA has grown over time and has locals or organizers in thirty states.

The SPUSA rejects the democratic centralist method of organizing. Instead, it works as a multi-tendency party. The SPUSA accepts members based on agreement with the published principles and program of the party. It does not impose strict discipline or official theories mandatory for all members. It welcomes diverse views.

Some critics claim that an open, multi- tendency socialist organization must be a “swamp,” without a clear grounding or foundation. However in fact, SPUSA offers a radical, innovative, and lucidly socialist political outlook. Members experience a lively and energetic political experience; hardly a morass. We apply our program via local meetings and bring proposals to our conventions using a grassroots-based process. We elect members of our National Committee without winner-take-all faction fights, and we find ways to work together while having different opinions about current and historical events.

The SPUSA doesn’t have an official theory of the Russian Revolution. Some SPUSA members look back to the Bolsheviks, while others find inspiration in Mensheviks, anarchist leaders like Makhno, or non-Bolshevik Communist tendencies in post-1917 Russia. We have more urgent agenda points than deciding official party philosophies, theories, or interpretations of history.

The SPUSA held its 2017 convention in New York City October 20-22. Delegates expressed diverse views on matters at hand and cast a number of divided votes on resolutions. They elected a politically diverse, mostly female National Committee. Goals expressed since the convention include more inclusion of non- white members in leadership bodies.

A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the U.S. working class faces serious threats: war, mass deportations, union busting, takeaways of hard-won women’s and LGBTQ rights, the threat of autocratic rule, increasing fascist violence.

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Russia and the U.S.

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has inspired condemnation in the U.S. media as the birth of totalitarian dictatorship. Dictatorship is as old as absolute monarchy. What frightens liberal writers is social revolution.

The French social revolution abolished feudalism, which semi-enslaved farmers. The U.S. civil war of 1861-1865 was a social revolution that formally abolished slavery. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia abolished capitalist exploitation.

In each case, a counter-revolutionary reaction followed or accompanied the revolutionary overturn. The U.S. counter- revolution, sometimes called Jim Crow, persists today in racist police violence and KKK or alt-right groups, and is symbolized in statues, flags, and the current occupant of the White House.

Sometimes counter-revolution follows revolution, as in France and Russia, sometimes it pre-empts, as in fascist coups – Spain, 1936, Chile, 1973. Hitler and Mussolini led counter- revolutions that succeeded because the working class was divided in the decades after 1917.

Going forward

Today U.S. politics is polarizing between the “political revolution” of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and the racist reaction of Trump and Bannon. Three generals have been chosen – ominously – to screen or baby-sit the hate-tweeting president. The two capitalist parties successfully invite rejection. The way is open for a socialist political alternative with massive support.

Our multi-tendency organizing, and our political principles, reflect what we have learned from the October Revolution and many other events: that a socialist transformation requires the initiative of the working class itself, rather than only of a self-appointed elite or “vanguard.” It requires that activists share initiatives, responsibilities, and decision making with each other, with all members invited to contribute their ideas and talents. It requires a multi-tendency party that helps unify the action of the oppressed and that fosters a multi-party political system and a democratically run, cooperative economy.


Conditions of Admission into the Communist International. In H. Gruber, ed., International Communism in the Era of Lenin. Fawcett, 1967.

Theodore Draper. The Roots of American Communism. Viking, 1963.

Samuel Farber. Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. Verso, 1990.

Duncan Hallas. The Comintern. Haymarket Books, 2008.

David Shannon. The Socialist Party of America: A History. Quadrangle, 1967.

James Weinstein. The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925.


David Keil

is a member of the Editorial Board of "The Socialist" and of the Boston Area local of the Socialist Party.

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