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Saturday, July 17, 2010


Intersecting with the onset of the war, and considerably complicating and compromising the socialist response, was the second great event, the Russian Revolution. We are, of course, talking about two revolutions, not one, for what we now think of as the Russian Revolution began as a social democratic displacement of the Czar in March, 1917, and culminated in the Bolshevik seizure of power on November 6, 1918 [or October 24, according to the Old Style Gregorian calendar then used by the Russian Orthodox Church - hence “October Revolution.”] The overlap of the events in Russia and the entry of the United States into the war placed socialists in a double opposition to the mainstream sentiment in America, for if there was any bogeyman more feared and hated than the German, it was the Bolshevik. With the overthrow of the Czarist regime and the installation of an openly Communist government in Petrograd, the American socialists became, in the eyes of their countrymen, double traitors, and it was not long before the Government began indicting them for their public expressions of support for Lenin and Trotsky.
The downfall of the Czarist regime was greeted ecstatically in New York socialist circles. This was, after all, the hated regime that many of them had fled, fearing either pogroms or impressed service in the Czar’s army. In addition, as the revolution developed in Russia and moved steadily leftward, it held out the hope of redeeming Marx’s vision of an international workingmen’s revolt against capital. The workers and peasants were refusing to support Russia’s failing war effort, and it was not hard for loyal socialists to hope that this great refusal would spread to Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, and even America, triggering both an end to the war and an end to capitalism.

Two weeks after the fall of the Czar’s government, a mass meeting was organized in Brownsville to celebrate. Here is the Call story of March 28, 1917 in its entirety.
"Brownsville will celebrate the Russian revolution tonight at a mass meeting in Congress hall, Vermont street and Atlantic avenue. It is the first mass meeting in the district since the news of the revolution, and it is expected that the Russian Jewish exiles living in the district will turn out in full force to celebrate the czar’s downfall and the dawn of democracy in their native land. B. Vladek, William Karlin, William Morris Feigenbaum, Abraham Aleinicoff, and Barnett Wolff will be the speakers. The Socialist Musical society will play Russian songs and recitations. Admission to the hall will be 10 cents. The meeting is arranged by Branch 2, 23rd Assembly district, Socialist Party."

As events developed in Russia, the Call expressed excited support for the revolutionary forces. In April, the Germans sent Lenin and his colleagues back to Russia, in the hope, quite realistic as it turned out, that they would foment sufficient unrest to cause Russia’s withdrawal from the war. [This is the now famous journey in a sealed train carriage, ending at the Finland Station in Petrograd.] With the benefit of hindsight, we are able to tell what is happening and choose up sides, but at the time, the events seemed rather chaotic. The Bolsheviks and the Kerensky government, which we now perceive as irreconcilably opposed to one another, looked to contemporary observers simply as competing wings of the same anti-czarist movement. As late as November 13th, a week after the fall of the Kerensky government, the Call was still temporizing.

Eight days later, the great communist journalist John Reed, who was in Petrograd reporting for The Call, filed a dramatic account of the Bolshevik uprising which the Call printed on page one with a banner headline. Reed unequivocally declared the Bolsheviks to be the wave of the future, and consigned Kerensky to the trash heap of history. He filed a twenty-five page cablegram, which the Call edited very lightly and published virtually verbatim. Here is the text of the original cable. In order to make it comprehensible, I have added full stops from time to time, and I have not reproduced it all in capital letters, as in the original, but otherwise it is exactly as it came into the offices of the Call, with the cable page breaks indicated by "//"

"New York Call, New York//Petrograd October 31 Reed - Petrograd garrison Kronstadt sailors and red guard altogether Bolshevik army last night defeated Kerensky’ army seven thousand Cossacks Junkers and Artillary//attacking capital. Attempted Junker insurrection Sunday by Committee of Salvation comprising Mensheviks cadets put down by heroism//Cronstadt sailors who took armored car and telephone station by assault also Vladimir Junker School. Hundreds delegates arrived Smolny Institute Headquarters government and Soviets to report to Bolshevik Solidarity army front. This the real revolution real class struggle proletariat workmen soldiers peasants against bourgeoisie. //Last February only preliminary at present moment proletariat triumphant rank and file workmen soldiers peasants soviets control. Lenin Trotzky at head. Land given to peasants natural resources industry armistice and democratic peace conference. Extraordinary immense power Bolshejiki lies in fact Kerensky government absolutely ignored desires of masses expressed in Bolschevik program peace land workers control //industry. Entire insurrection magnificent spectacle proletarian mass organization and action bravery generosity. Was at dispersal soviet republic morning with Junkers defending Winter Palace. Afternoon opening all Russian Assembly //Soviets evening at assault Winter Palace. Midnight entered with first Bolschevik troops saw Duma members going unarmed to die with provisional government. Witnessed arrest ministers was at city Duma morning. //26 When Mensheviks Cadets etcetera declared against Bolsheviks formed committee salvation night witnessed stormy meeting city regiments deciding which side to support. Then Soviets meeting Smolny declaration peace land decree aboilition [sic] capital punishment taking over government //by Soviets and appointment new cabinet. Then 27 watched bourgeois counter revolutionary movement growing. City Duma visited Peter Paul fort midnight to see prisoners 28 rumors Kerensky //coming with troops battles went to Tsarskoe Selo saw falling back Bolshevik troops. Smolny midnight war preparation 29 factories rifles shovels soldiers sailors to defend city telephone station and //Hotel Astoria taken by junkers retaken Bilshevik [sic] sailors. 30 Battles against Kerensky troops Ulkowa Krasnoie Selo Colpinno Tharskoe Selo Gatchina all victorious. //I went front with Red Guard. Movement to give all power Soviets growing long time. Attempt by masses to force Soviet take power in July resulted so called Bolshevik insurrection blocked //by center socialists parties led by Lieber Dan Theretelli Gotz etcetera who held power. Then impotence provisional government created discontent disgust led to astounding growth Bolsheviks accelerated by Lieber Dan bunch forcing coalition //with Cadets against evident will democratic assembly September. Meanwhile with Lieber Dan Bunch heading central all Russian Soviets separate soviets one by one went Bolshevik demanded calling new all Russian assembly soviets which was opposed by old crowd all central army. //Fleet peasant and labor unions committees elected early in revolution just as reactionary but masses or another mind insisted on calling all //Russian soviets insisted on power to soviets and downfall provisional government eve of all Russian meeting which sabotaged by Lieber Dan bunch Cadets etcetera. Provisional government made quiet preparations to suppress any //demonstration for all power soviets. tried to send revolutionary Petrograd garrison to front replace with loyal troops. Garrison refused demanded representative in staff was refused. Garrison then refused to take orders from anybody //except Petrograd soviet formed military revolutionary committee. Staff planned to take action but overheard night 24 25 by members Pavlovsk regiment who at once began arrest staff and government. The insurrection was off could not stop. Military revolutionary committee took charge //put into execution perfect comprehensive plan captured whole city and patrolled first three nights while insurrection going on. No disorders no crimes committee Bolsheviek [sic] patrols kept town //absolutely quiet. Many stories being sent out Bolsheviek looting murdering without foundation. In fact after being captured and released on word of honor many Junkers again took part treacherous fighting some murdered by outraged opponents but very few while Bolshevik //losses five times as great. All newspaper except Bolshevik retailed lies to excite population and yet many of the[m] not suppressed. City Duma center of absolute hostility to//Bolsheviks. no workingmen present but center and right socialist parties cadets all sorts of representatives of bourgeoisie breathing threats and mobbing guards caught alone. Not arrested however. Now other socialist parties are //forming new government and debating whether or not to allow Bolsheviks to take part. no one with the Bolsheviks except proletariat but that solid. All bourgeoisie and appanages relentlessly viciously hostile. Employees all //government departments bank telephone etcetera on strike paralyzing business of government. refuse to work with Bolshevik ministers. New Bolshevik plan government to run by series of collegiums instead of ministry headed by chairman//called peoples commissars who meet in soviet of peoples commissars with Lenin chairman. News from front and all over country shows that though some fighting going on in cities masses pretty solid Bolshevik except Don region where general //Kaledine and Cossacks have proclaimed military dictatorship. Good to be alive. Trotsky and Lenin through CALL send to American revolutionary international socialists greeting from first proletarian republic of the world and call to arms for international social revolution. Send me money."

How is it that I have the precise wording of this historic document? Therein lies a lovely story. My great-aunt Fanny, Ella's sister, was working as a secretary in the editorial offices of The Call when Reed's cable came in. After she had finished transcribing it, she asked the editor whether she could keep the original stack of cable pages, and he agreed. The cable, yellowed with age but still intact, was passed from her to my grandfather and grandmother, from them to my father, and from him to me as part of the mass of papers in my parents' attic. For many years, it simply sat on my shelf, but eventually, I decided to donate it to the John Reed Archives in Houghton Library at Harvard [Reed, of course, had been a Harvard graduate], in memory of my grandfather and grandmother. This is the same library in which I had sat, as a graduate student, reading the microfilm of the German translation of James Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, and thereby establishing an essential link in Immanuel Kant's knowledge of the sceptical arguments of David Hume. It seemed appropriate that I repay them in some way for their assistance during the writing of my doctoral dissertation.
There is an amusing coda to the story. When I came to write the book about my grandparents, I asked Houghton Library for a copy of the cable, so that I could quote it in my book. They charged me a fee, even though it was I who had donated it to the library. I wrote a restrainedly ironic letter to Harvard’s President, Neil Rudenstine, and received a very contrite apology. I urged him not to send the money back, as that would, I suggested, not be a classy thing to do, and he had the grace to accede to my suggestion. I gather that in future the donors of documents will be able to get copies of them gratis.

Two years after the revolution, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks ["majority" and "minority", or "greater" and "lesser"] split, triggering fratricidal warfare in socialist parties all over the world. My grandfather sided with Menshevik faction in the American party, led by Norman Thomas. Thus it was, two generations later, that I grew up in a socialist but violently anti-communist home. It was many years before I discovered the roots of my father's hatred for Lenin and Stalin.
Writing a book about my grandparents did indeed give me a usable past. I found in Barnet Wolff a man I could admire and celebrate and perhaps manage in some small measure to emulate. But I also found in my grandparents a young, exuberant, romantic pair of lovers who charmed me as I read their letters to one another. My grandfather especially was a playful, witty correspondent who endlessly teased and wooed my grandmother. Mind you, I have pictures of them from their earliest days, and Elka Nislow was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a looker! But my grandfather saw himself as the luckiest man in New York, as having made a great catch.

Why so many letters between a husband and wife? The reason is that to escape the heat and dirt and very real danger of serious infections during the New York summers, Barney would send Ella and the children to the Catskills and remain in town to work. These were no holiday outings to fancy resort hotels. The family would board with a farmer in Big Indian or Westshokan, and Ella, from the testimony of her letters, would worry endlessly about whether her four little children were getting enough milk. The postal service was much better then than it is now, and Barney and Ella could count on a letter arriving the day after it was mailed. Indeed, the very same anxiety my parents expressed if my sister went aq few days without writing home from college is merely an echo, I came to realize, of the eagerness with which Barney and Ella awaited the post.

Late in series of letters, in August of 1918, when the Flapper Era was about to start in America, Barney got it into his head that it would be a most fashionable thing for him and Ella to get a divorce [or “devorce” as he puts it, mimicking the pronunciation.] We don’t have the beginning of this bit of fancy, nor do we have Ella’s replies, but here is the first of the two letters in which Barney sets out his very modern proposal:

"Aug 12, 1918
Now as to that Devorce; I see no reason why we cant remain the best of friends afterwards. I would be a single man and as such I would be worth going after. You would be a "poor" woman who had suffered from a "bad" husband and as such would be interesting and would of course deserve a great deal of sympathy. I would of course do my best to understand you. A thing which your husband "never did" and altogether it would be very jolly and up to date. So if you think you want it why, I'll do my best to be a gallant Frenchman. For I surly would not want to disapoint a lady. By the way as I am very poor now and may not be able to come out to see you, you can sue on the ground of desertion and non support. But before doing it wont you be at least once more my dearest Elka and let me be as ever lovingly your Barney! "
When it came time to choose a title for my book on my grandparents, I recalled a lovely letter that Ella had sent to Barney after they had been married a while. Even though she wrote "I would have loved you even if you were no socialist," I decided to call it Barney and Ella: A Socialist Romance.


明儒 said...


NotHobbes said...

Donation of the cable was indeed a very noble gesture, I congratulate you on that Professor.
All too often, documents of any historical importance find their way into private ownership and remain there, unseen by any other than the privileged few.

Lisa said...

My dear cousin -

I cannot thank you enough for the family history. I have read your book about my great grandparents, but today I was searching for information about Barney since I was reminded of my roots by the recent events in Wisconsin. I have always been proud of our wonderfully wacky family history, thanks in large part to your excellent prose and research.

Lisa said...

By the way - I am Cora's daughter and a picture of Ella and her children graces our kitchen and fascinates my children.