1917 Still Shakes the World

1917 Still Shakes the World

A hundred years ago, political earthquakes shook the globe; their tremors rattle us still.

Introducing the special section of our Fall issue.

Cover illustration by Josh MacPhee

A hundred years ago, political earthquakes shook the globe; their tremors rattle us still. In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, an act that would decisively tilt the balance of forces in a conflict in which millions on both sides had already been slaughtered.

That November (October, by the old Russian calendar), the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, promising to transform what had been an empire of cruelty into a proletarian democracy. All around the world, radicals rejoiced; some began making plans to emulate what Lenin, Trotsky, and their followers had wrought.

The same month, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary of another empire, issued a brief declaration of Great Britain’s support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Although Israel was not created until three decades later, the Conservative politician’s statement bestowed a measure of legitimacy on Jewish settlement in that land.

One doesn’t have to indulge in counterfactual narratives to recognize that the world would be quite different today if the Kaiser’s regime had not lost the Great War, a tyrannical order based in Moscow had not redefined the meaning of socialism, and Zionism had remained a vision rather than the founding doctrine of a thriving, if embattled, nation.

In this special section of the magazine, four writers offer ways of understanding these events, in the context of history and in the present. Mitchell Cohen recovers the powerful critique Julius Martov and his fellow Mensheviks made of the ideas and policies of the Bolsheviks, their erstwhile comrades who turned first into rivals and then into oppressors. Cohen reminds us that the first and most incisive attack on the new Communist state came from democratic leftists who knew its leaders all too well.

Next, Keith Gessen describes what contemporary Russians and Ukrainians, both ordinary citizens and their rulers in the “post-Soviet” space, make of the October revolution and the system that resulted from it. Born and educated in Russia, he explains why even those who choose to ignore its legacy cannot really escape it.

Susie Linfield challenges the myth that the Balfour Declaration reveals the Zionist movement to have been an imperialist dagger aimed at the heart of the Muslim world. She argues, with telling details, that the British continually betrayed the Jews who settled in Palestine while often siding with Arab nationalists.

Finally, my essay seeks to restore the world-historical significance of U.S. intervention in the Great War and the large and diverse opposition at home to waging it. For Americans, the war is not quite forgotten, but few know how much it did to launch the security state that governs us a century later.

What occurred in 1917 did much to create the modern left, in the United States and elsewhere, and we still struggle with the consequences. Appreciating how the passionate hopes of many get dashed yet have the potential to rise again in wiser, if more sober, minds and hearts is one way of learning from history.

In 1871, the French Army crushed the Paris Commune and assassinated as many as ten thousand of the activists who had briefly built an egalitarian republic in their city. Five years later, a former Communard named Prosper Lissagaray published a popular history of that proto-socialist experiment. In his preface, translated into English by Eleanor Marx (Karl’s daughter), he asserted:

The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.

Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.