Steven Welzer
2 min readDec 4, 2023

What was that all about?

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Americans, in their upbringing and in their education, are not given a sense of how popular socialism was for over a hundred years.

Socialist agitation snowballed in Europe during the latter half of the 19th century. Socialists were being elected to legislatures all over Europe by 1914. When World War I broke out socialism gained even more adherents … because an aspect of its ideology predicted that capitalism was bound to lead to war (due to inter-imperialist rivalries). Historical events seemed to bear out that prediction.

After the war I’d guess that socialism had the support of about half of the European populace. But its supporters were far from concordant in their orientation. Some were advocating for full socialization of the economy, while others felt that an incremental approach to transformation (social welfare legislation at first and then piecemeal steps toward a fuller extent of socialization) would work out best.

Voting showed that some of the populace wanted free enterprise capitalism, some wanted near-term social democracy, some wanted immediate implementation of full socialism. The latter viewpoint surely would not have gotten majority support in democratic elections in any country. But in Russia the Bolsheviks said the only viewpoint that mattered was that of the industrial working class. Marxism held that the proletariat was the enlightened historical agency. Its interests and its aspirations represented what’s best for humanity as a whole … and represented the future.

In Russia in 1917 industrialism constituted a tiny segment of the economy. It was concentrated in just two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow. In those cities the industrial workers formed councils. Within the councils the Bolsheviks gained a slight majority of support. On that basis the Bolsheviks felt themselves justified in carrying out a coup and proceeding to try to implement a full socialist transformation. They allowed elections to a constituent assembly to be held in January of 1918, but when the general populace did not give them a majority in what should have become a democratic republican legislature, the Bolsheviks dissolved the assembly and effectively instituted a dictatorship of their party (soon renamed the Communist Party).

That was a terrible mistake, led to one-party rule for 70 years, became a blemish on the socialist movement, and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The same thing was tried in Germany in 1919. There was actually more socio-economic basis for it there. But the governing Social Democratic Party could see that a majority of the populace supported a republic with contention of viewpoints and democratic representation. A majority of the populace did not support a radical transformation. Some Marxists were upset when the Social Democratic government squelched a Bolshevik-type coup. But the Social Democrats did the right thing.



Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).