Progressive Support for Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution

Progressive Support for Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution


Progressives generally greeted the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia with great enthusiasm, embracing it as a worthy effort to create a socialist utopia. In the 1920s and 1930s, a host of credulous progressive journalists traveled to Russia to chronicle the the revolution’s afterglow, so as to inform Americans about the historic significance of what was transpiring there. According to author Jonah Goldberg: “Most liberals saw the Bolsheviks as a popular and progressive movement…. Nearly the entire liberal elite, including much of FDR’s Brain Trust, made the pilgrimage to Moscow to take admiring notes on the Soviet experiment.”

One key contributor to this pro-Bolshevik genre was the communist journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World. Reed dismissed concerns about the Red Terror and the mass murder of non-Bolshevists by praising the killers of “this treacherous gang.” Said Reed: “To the wall with them! I say I have learned one mighty expressive word: ‘raztrellyat’ [sic] (execute by shooting).”

Similarly, the intellectual E.A. Ross excused the Bolsheviks’ violent campaign of terror on the theory that they did not kill all that many people. (Estimates of the number of deaths by execution range from 50,000 to 200,000.)

Some journalists, like Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty of The New York Times, engaged in deliberate lies to conceal the harsh realities of post-revolution Soviet life. In 1933, for instance, at the height of the Ukrainian famine (engineered by Stalin) during which millions starved to death, Duranty wrote that “village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter…. A child can see this is not famine but abundance.”

A British journalist writing in the progressive periodical New Republic declared that the Bolsheviks “stand for rationalism, for an intelligent system of cultivation, for education, for an active ideal of cooperation and social service.”

Most leaders in the American labor movement – including Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis – expressed deep admiration for “Soviet pragmatism,” Stalin’s “experiment,” and the “heroism” of the Bolsheviks.

Upon returning from Russia in 1921, the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens announced: “I’ve seen the future, and it works.”

The education reformer and socialist John Dewey was likewise impressed with Soviet society. In 1924 the pacifist and progressive activist Lillian Wald visited Russia’s “experimental schools” and happily reported that Dewey’s ideas (promoting collectivism as a philosophy and as a way of life) were being implemented “not less than 150 per cent.”

Jane Addams, an early advocate of the welfare state, called the Bolshevik regime “the greatest social experiment in history.”

NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois marveled: “I stand in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia that has come to me…. [I]f what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.”

In 1927, Rexford Guy Tugwell and Paul Douglas, who would become two of America’s leading New Deal economists, expressed their awe at the Soviet “experiment.” Said Tugwell, “There is a new life beginning there.”

After visiting Russia in 1927, the economist Stuart Chase, who would coin the term “New Deal” for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gushed over “the burning zeal to create a new heaven and a new earth which flames in the breast of every good Communist” in the Soviet Union. Chase estimated that it would take about half a decade to accurately assess whether or not the “courageous and unprecedented experiment” in the USSR was “destined to be a landmark for economic guidance” for the world at large. Five years later, he concluded that Soviet social and economic policies should serve as a model for all other nations to emulate. In his 1932 book, A New Deal, Chase asked why “should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?”

Progressives were sympathetic to socialist movements in Western Europe as well. The famed progressive writer William Allen White said: “We [European socialists and American progressives] were parts, one of another, in the United States and Europe. Something was welding us into one social and economic whole with local political variations … fighting a common cause.”

– Sources: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg; A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel Flynn.

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