The Distinctive Heritage of 1917: Resuscitating Revolution’s Longue Durée

Bryan D. Palmer, Joan Sangster


It is today more important than ever for revolutionary leftists to confront both the possibilities posed by the Revolution of 1917 and the ways in which its outcomes seem to have soured the meaning of socialism in the mouths of those with an appetite for a politics of emancipatory transformation. On the one hand, our times cry out for the need to transcend capitalist oppression, exploitation, and degradation. Those same needs galvanized the pre-First World War revolutionary left in Russia and elsewhere, and structured the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. On the other hand, Revolution’s current capacities and claims, associated with 1917 being overtaken by a Thermidorian Stalinization, have seldom been held in disregard by so many, including a considerable section of the ostensible left.

In the pages that follow we address the heritage of 1917 and its broadened understanding of revolution, exploring themes such as women’s liberation, sexuality, reproduction, and the family, as well as campaigns for racial equality, class mobilizations, and the complex representation of resistance and struggle in various artistic and literary genres. While not everything we discuss bears the direct and unmediated imprint of 1917, it is difficult to imagine the range of resistance and the richness of varied developments without appreciating the heritage of revolution. We explore such themes in specific historical periods where the impact of 1917 registered in different ways. Whatever the peculiarities of these local manifestations, however, our outline could well be generalized to other national and regional contexts. As co-authors we actually disagree on important aspects of what might fall under the discussion of 1917’s meanings,5 but in such contention lies the real political scene of the current left; our differences are an acknowledgement of the theoretical and practical divisions that plague socialists serious about the project of replacing capitalism with a realizable social order that can deliver the necessary utopian promise of revolution.

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