The printing press is strongly associated with Revolution. In the English Civil War of 1642 and the French and American revolutions, dissent was clarified in pamphlets and broadsides, the social media of the day. These ephemeral publications have often made deep imprints in history: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense crystalized support for independence from Britain, which was formally declared in a broadside printed the night of July 4, 1776.
The relationship between press and politics is often reciprocal, however, as political movements also stimulate the growth of media. This was true of England in the 1640s, and is also the case with Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century, where a publishing boom followed the 1905 revolution, expressing and contributing to a growing state of unrest. After the February Revolution of 1917 relaxed censorship allowed a relatively free exchange of ideas for a new system of government to take place, and various parties competed in print for popular support.
Harper’s collection of 1917 pamphlets may reflect his bias against the “radical minority,” but it is also representative of the reality on the ground. The Bolsheviks were gaining strategic political authority through the soviets, or elected councils, but were in a weaker position in terms of popular and financial support. They also lacked the printing capacity that their opponents enjoyed. Boris Kolonitskii has calculated that moderate socialists printed over 27 million copies of over 500 titles that year, while the Bolshevik press Priboi printed about 1.5 million copies of some 50 titles.