Prospects of the Russian Revolution
Kautsky saw the events of spring 1917 as having a global significance. Even though now a renegade, he was still capable of considerable foresight
Global impact predicted
Naturally, the first question that arose at the outbreak of the revolution in Russia was how it would affect the arrival of peace. We already dealt with this in an earlier article (‘The ice palace’ in No26 of the previous volume)1. But, just as the violence of the current war goes far beyond that of the Russo-Japanese war, the current revolution also promises to revolutionise the Russian empire far more than that of 1905.
If the revolution holds its ground, then its effects will reach far beyond Russia and will see the beginning of a new epoch for the whole of Europe. For, in spite of all the nationalist fervour, the international interdependence of state life for the peoples of Europe has already made too much progress for such a tremendous event as the transformation of the tsarist empire into a democratic republic to occur without repercussions for the other states.
If democracy holds its ground in Russia, then both the Austrian and the Polish problems immediately acquire new facets. The idea of Polish independence and the preservation of Austria amongst the peoples living there drew their strength from the hatred and the fear instilled by the despotism of neighbouring Russia. This idea changes when it takes on the form of the united states of eastern Europe. With this, the Balkan problem becomes quite a different one too.
Domestic politics in the whole of Europe will be subject to even more profound change than the foreign politics of eastern Europe. The necessary consequence of this is a tremendous upswing in the political power of the working classes in the entire capitalist realm.
But, of course, this all presupposes that the revolution holds its ground and does not succumb to a counterrevolution. The fate of the 1905 revolution, as well as that of 1848, elicits anxious doubt in some. Those of us not adhering to this perspective need to be clear about the prospects of the revolution.
Because it broke out in the middle of the war, the prospects of the revolution are first of all dependent on how the war continues and concludes, and not least on the individual warring powers’ stance on the revolution and whether they show themselves inclined to make an agreement with the revolution or to combat it. A military catastrophe for the Russian commonwealth could also become a catastrophe for the revolution. In this respect its prospects depend on the attitude of the warring states’ governments, but also on their social democratic parties - above all on that of the German party.
But is the revolution not already condemned to fail from the outset due to Russia’s economic backwardness?
In an article about the revolution on March 18, Vorwärts3 asked the question, “Has the Russian people’s situation improved through the revolution?” and it gave the following answer: “Time will tell! For the time being it has merely exchanged the rule of absolutism for that of the bourgeoisie!” One could just as well say, ‘What did the French people achieve in their great revolution?’ Back then they merely “exchanged the rule of absolutism for that of the bourgeoisie”.
First of all, it is vulgar to compare the reign of absolutism with that of the bourgeoisie. Absolutism is a form of government. The bourgeoisie is a class which can rule under the most diverse forms of government. If we do not draw a nonsensical comparison between the existence of a form of government and the reign of a class, but if we instead compare different forms of government, then we arrive at this result: the Russian people have exchanged absolutism for democracy. Does such an exchange deserve the predicate “merely”? In the same article, Vorwärts even underlines how “we need democracy!”
Nor is it correct to say that “for the time being” we have the “rule of the bourgeoisie” in Russia. Rather, the bourgeoisie has taken a fairly helpless attitude toward the events by which it is being carried away. But this is, of course, a situation that cannot last for long. The consolidation of the new state formation’s conditions is closely related to answering the following question: the rule of the proletariat or the rule of the bourgeoisie?
There is no bourgeois revolution which would have taken place without the active participation of the proletariat. But in the first bourgeois revolutions from 1642 to 1848, the mass of the proletariat joined the revolutionary struggle without pronounced class-consciousness. Only in the course of revolutionary development - only after years in the first English revolution and the great French revolution, and then only to a limited extent - did the proletariat begin to see its specific interests and gain specific understanding of state and society, as opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
But, in comparison to previous bourgeois revolutions, the proletariat has now developed a sharply pronounced class-consciousness, and this has not been restricted to the most economically developed countries: it has also spread to the economically backward countries, just so long as they have attained a modern capitalism and a modern proletariat. The urban workers in Russia possess a strong class-consciousness, and their socialist leaders are armed with 20th century knowledge.
But this indicates that they join the revolution in strong opposition from the outset to any bourgeois rule; they do not develop this opposition only after the revolution is in progress.
At the same time, the hitherto existing form of government in Russia was such that it did not merely hugely inhibit proletarian development: equally it inhibited bourgeois development and led the state to ruin. Overthrowing absolutism was also urgently necessary for the bourgeoisie, but the violent overthrow of absolutism was not possible without the participation of the proletariat, which under the given circumstances instilled extreme fear in the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie thus offered the absolutist regime only the weakest opposition; tsarism had to first bring Russia to the brink of the abyss before the bourgeoisie would oppose it more energetically - obeying necessity, not their own inner drive. But all the more was the revolution that eventually broke out a proletarian one from the very beginning.
Will it be able to maintain this character in the face of the empire’s economic backwardness? And does a victory of bourgeois forces have to undo everything that the revolution has achieved?
These are the questions forcing themselves on us. Here, of course, we cannot prophesise or say with certainty whether the revolution will hold its ground or not. We can say nothing on this. But from the data available to us we can perhaps draw some conclusions in answering the question of whether the revolution is condemned to fail from the outset.
Above all we must be clear about the tasks that arise for a revolutionary proletarian regime.
There are two things that the proletariat urgently needs: democracy and socialism. Democracy means extensive freedoms and political rights for the mass of the people, and transforming the institutions of state and municipal administration into mere tools of the people. And then socialism, which means transforming private production for the market into social - ie, state, municipal or cooperative - production for the needs of society. Both require the proletariat in equal measure. Social production without democracy could become one of the most onerous shackles. Democracy without socialism does nothing to abate the proletariat’s economic dependency.
Of the two great demands of the proletariat, the demand for democracy is not specific to it alone. Other classes can represent it too. Yet today it is, of course, the only class which - as the lowest of all classes - demands (and has to demand) it with the greatest energy in all circumstances and to the greatest extent.
On the other hand, the demand of socialism is its specific demand. All other classes’ points of view are based on private production. For them, socialised factories are at most isolated implements of private production, not a general way of overcoming it.
The two demands also differ, in that democracy can be attained with a single blow and can be realised where the mass of people has gained political interest - thus, everywhere where the mass of the people is demanding it - whereas socialism can never be attained at once and the extent that it can be realised is dependent on the level of capitalist development.
There can be no doubt that, as of yet, Russian capitalism offers very little in terms of starting points for socialist development. However, considerable steps could be taken in this spirit through the nationalisation of: large firms; railways - to the extent that they are not already (excluding Finland, the Russian empire’s railways total more than 74,000 kilometres, and of that 54,000 kilometres are state-owned); the mines, above all the mining of coal, gold and oil; as well as large individual firms in heavy industry. Further, through state confiscation of the goods of the dethroned dynasty and the monasteries, through state acquisition of large land holdings and finally through giving over property to the cities - both to build cheaper and healthier housing and to produce food for their inhabitants.
For the time being, the main thing will have to be defending workers’ interests within private production: extensive measures to protect the workers. Especially important amongst these is unemployment benefit and the provision of cheap food. Finally, the costs that fall to the state from these and other causes should be covered exclusively by progressive taxation on the property-owning classes.
One might call that a bourgeois programme of reform and not a workers’ programme of revolution. Whether it is one or the other depends on quantity. Here too, when quantity is increased accordingly, it must transform into a new quality.
It is in the nature of things that the proletariat will strive to use its revolutionary power in the direction I have outlined here as soon as it feels solid ground under its feet, and that in so doing it will meet the resistance of the capitalists and the large landowners. How much it achieves will depend on its relative power.
Russia’s economic backwardness will also manifest itself in the extent of proletarian power. Capitalism forms the preconditions of socialism, not only insofar as it creates the material conditions for it, but also in that it creates the people who have an interest in bringing it into being: the proletariat.
Now, numerically speaking, the urban industrial proletariat in Russia is certainly still quite small. This can be elucidated from the negligibility of the urban population. In 1913, almost 150 million of the Russian empire’s 174 million people lived in the country and only something over 24 million in the cities.
That said, precisely because of the state’s backwardness, the lack of communications and the great intellectual isolation of the rural population, the political weight of the latter, as compared with the urban population, is less than suggested by the quantitative relationship. This disparity can be observed in all states, but it is greater in undeveloped ones than it is in advanced ones. Today, Paris does not at all mean what it meant to France a hundred years ago. The political significance of Constantinople to Turkey is much greater than that of Berlin to Germany.
It is, however, in Russia’s cities, especially the large ones, that the proletariat is today already playing a decisive role.
Indeed, the numerical predominance of the rural population is too great. They will decide whether and to what extent the proletariat will maintain the strong position it currently holds. Whether democracy will be upheld at all also depends on them.
For the moment, democracy is still more important than the proletariat’s economic elevation. No doubt it would soon helplessly hover in the air, were it not to quickly find the means to considerably improve the situation of the working masses, but this momentary outcome is not its most important one. Rather, this consists in democracy providing the basis for the possibility of the proletariat’s permanent ascent.
Democracy is significant in this, not merely in that it enables the proletariat to win positions of power. Although offering them no immediately obvious advantages in terms of Realpolitik, it is invaluable to the proletariat.
In order to liberate themselves, the workers not only need certain material preconditions at their disposal and to be numerically strong: they also have to become new people, imbued with the abilities that are required for the reorganisation of state and society. They only attain these abilities through class struggle, which requires democratic rights and freedoms if it is to be carried out by the masses ruling themselves and not conducted by secret committees.
Whatever the new Russian state formation may currently offer the proletariat in material achievements and positions of power, this question takes second place to the significance of holding onto democracy. This is by far the most important aspect of today’s Russian Revolution. The most energetic battles will be fought over this issue. We have to anticipate attempts at a counterrevolution. What are its prospects?
The lessons of revolution
We have to take into consideration that the revolution Russia is going through is the second within just a few years. But revolutions are strict masters. Every people coming into contact with them learns a tremendous amount; not just the ruled and exploited classes, but also the ruling classes.
The extraordinary political cunningness of the classes governing England is well known: their attentive study of the needs and demands of the working people; their ability, whilst stubbornly holding onto privileges and property they have gained through exploitation, to actually recognise when one of these can no longer be sustained, and to then sacrifice these or part of them in order to salvage their rule and exploitation as a whole. Thanks to these cunning politics, England’s political development in the 19th century has been much more constant than on the continent. This cannot be ascribed either to racial characteristics or the higher intelligence of the English, but to the fact that - as a result of the attempt to violently suppress the people - it went through three revolutions earlier than others did in the capitalist epoch. The least thoroughgoing was the second of them: the removal of James II in the ‘glorious revolution’ - which appeared ‘glorious’ to bourgeois thought precisely because it did not emanate from the mass of the people, but from a faction of the ruling classes. The two great popular uprisings - those of 1642-48 which led to the execution of Charles I in 1649 - were of a quite different nature, as were those revolutions in Britain’s colonies in America, which began in 1774 and ended in 1783 with the recognition of their independence.
The English republic of the 17th and the American republic of the 18th century had a profound influence on the whole of the English people. They raised the confidence of England’s subordinate classes as much as they taught the upper classes foresight and caution in opposing them.
For the second time in 12 years, Russia is now being taught the same lessons. These lessons will definitely have an impact on Russia’s upper as well as its lower classes similar to the impact of the English revolution on the English, and in this way these lessons have already raised a strong barrier against a counterrevolution.
Of course, this barrier cannot yet be said to be insurmountable. The French ruling classes repeatedly received these same lessons since 1789, and yet that did not prevent a counterrevolution. This stems from the significance that the army had achieved there.
The strong and early imprints of the English revolutions alone would not have been sufficient to instil enough concern in the English ruling class to dismiss any attempt at a violent suppression of a strong, popular movement if, on top of this, they had not also been lacking a large standing army.
After its revolution England one-sidedly developed its naval power, and the other European peoples put up with this because England was lacking any significant land power which could have been threatening to them on the continent. But a fleet can only be dangerous abroad, not at home.
On the other hand, the other great powers primarily developed their armies, and in so doing they created a means of building up their power not only abroad, but also at home - against their own people. Through this - as long as they were sure that the army would obey their command just as blindly at home as it did abroad - the governments of the continental powers were as good as invincible in the face of the rise of democracy. On the other hand, through this the government’s position in the face of a popular uprising becomes untenable as soon as the military becomes unreliable or even goes over to the side of the masses. From the storming of the Bastille to the Paris Commune, the French people are victorious when the army vacillates. The counterrevolution is victorious when the government is sure of its troops.
The same is true of Russia. Together with the high tide of mass strikes, the dissolution of Russia’s armies following the defeats of Manchuria in 1905 saw the victory of the revolution. The counterrevolution set in as soon as the government had reliable troops in its grip.
Will it go that way this time too? Will the counterrevolutionary cliques once again succeed in winning over the army and defeating the revolution with its support? That is the vital question of this revolution. Fortunately, the situation is quite different to that of 1905. Although back then the revolutionaries managed to force the tsar to climb down on the question of the constitution, they did not overthrow his regime. Thus, command over the army remained in his hands, and he could use it to concentrate the reliable elements of the army on the areas that were threatening his rule.
This time around, the revolutionaries have conquered executive power and preside over the army. Now a counterrevolution would at first not mean the government crushing the people, but the army leaders overthrowing the government in a coupd’état: what Napoleon I carried out in the 18th Brumaire. Were the war to continue and be enthusiastically fought by the army, then the situation could become favourable for a coup. This assumes that Russia’s enemies would threaten to destroy its newly won freedom. Through this the army would, of course, be forged into a strong and united will.
Yet even this need not yet make the army into the tool of a Napoleon. Above all, where is this Napoleon to come from? The epoch of fairy-tale wars of suppression [Niederschlagungskriege] is over, not least that of the great advantages that have hitherto accrued to officers and even the common man from the spoils of victory.
The mentality of soldiers created by today’s warfare is quite different to that of the Napoleonic armies, and for this reason Russia’s armies will not lightly grant a general the overwhelming power necessary for him to carry out a coup.
We cannot forget, by the way, that even the powerful Napoleon never dared to lose sight of the revolutionary character of his army. He could make it subservient to his purposes by being the bearer of the revolution and destroying feudal, monarchical Europe. So using the army for counterrevolutionary purposes in Russia today is not as simple as it may first appear.
But what if one day the revolutionary government (which is predominantly in the grip of the bourgeoisie) were to become wary of proletarian influence and itself seek to get rid of it with the army’s assistance? In June 1848 it was the revolutionary government itself that mobilised the army against the proletariat in Paris. This can certainly happen again.
But two things have to be borne in mind here. Firstly, due to the millions of new recruits it has rushed in, the Russian army in this war is much more of a people’s army and much less of a standing army than that of the French conscription army in 1848 with its long terms of service. And also the classes of the population from which the French army was recruiting were not indifferent to what was happening. This is even truer of today’s Russian army.
Here as elsewhere, however, we find that the class of the population which is decisive in the army is the peasantry. To this day, the peasantry is more strongly represented in the army than it is in the population. The peasant is considered to be the best soldier, the core of the army. While the peasantry makes up the large majority of the population, it completely determines the character of the army.
Indeed, the mood of the common man runs parallel with that of the peasantry in the revolutionary epochs of both France and Russia.
Here we come to the third factor which has hitherto forced the English ruling classes to adopt more intelligent tactics towards the masses - tactics which have been less geared towards violent suppression than on the continent. For centuries in England a great counterweight in the face of the industrial proletariat - the peasants - has been lacking. It was the peasants who sealed the fate of the continental revolutions.
As long as feudal conditions predominate, the peasant has a tendency to identify with the urban democracy of the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In this it is economic reasons that are decisive for him. He wishes to get rid of feudal burden and to take possession of feudal landed property. In order to achieve this he allies himself with the democrats of the cities - and has done so from the time of the great peasants’ war to the great revolution.
On the other hand, modern democracy - which wishes to subordinate the government of the whole state to the people - is not initially so close to his heart. For a long time the illiterate, economically self-sufficient peasants of the individual villages and districts - devoid of constant communication with the big wide world and of an interest in or understanding of politics - placed little emphasis on state democracy. Local democracy was sufficient for parish politics.
In the French revolution the peasants joined with the revolutionaries of the cities in the struggle against the feudal lords and their paladins to reclaim the goods of the church and the émigrés. On the other hand, they left the struggle for state democracy almost completely to the cities. They formed a rampart against the counterrevolution, insofar as it threatened a restoration of feudal conditions. On the other hand, they left republican freedom in the lurch. Napoleon was their man. He protected the economic gains of the revolution and spurned its democratic gains in equal measure.
The peasant proved to be an energetic champion of the economic revolution, and a half-hearted friend of the democratic revolution. At this time, a third factor had already come to light. Where politics exercised the decisive influence on the price of foodstuffs, the peasant immediately showed the beginnings of direct hostility to the cities.
In general, this issue was not a prominent one in the times of the great revolution or for a few decades thereafter. The peasant’s farming was for the large part based on his own consumption. He did not buy much and thus did not need to sell much if his taxes were low. Low taxes were more important to the peasant than the price of food. But, when relations set in where the price of food acquires significance for him, and when at the same time politics become a means of reducing this price, a trenchant political contradiction looms between the cities and the peasants.
This became evident in 1793, when France was harried on all sides by enemy armies and cut off from foreign supplies. Democracy in the cities felt pressed into a policy of fixed prices, which the peasants revolted against, causing a cleavage in the unity of the revolutionary forces.
Back then this was a temporary affair, which disappeared with the superiority of the enemy armies. But, ever since, commodity production has developed quickly. The peasant produced less and less for his own consumption and increasingly for the market. If, simultaneously, industry developed to such an extent that food production in the country no longer sufficed to cover the industrial population’s needs, then the pricing of food on the home market became greatly dependent on the type of trade policy. A great contradiction between the peasantry and democracy in the city emerged in the struggle around this policy - a contradiction that is now constant.
It is an anachronism if under such conditions a social democratic party still seeks to renew an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry inherited from past revolutionary times, and creates an agrarian programme for this purpose. In states where development has blossomed as much as specified here, the strength of the proletariat does not lie in an association with the peasantry, but in its own superior numbers. In the country it draws its strength from the fact that the class separation between the propertied and the propertyless sets in there too, even if in many cases this separation is weaker than in the cities. In countries that are as economically advanced as these, the fate of democracy no longer depends on the peasantry.
This is quite different in a country like Russia. Here, the peasantry is the decisive factor. Nobody can yet say what the final outcome of this factor will be, because in the last decade the Russian peasant has gone through a great process of transformation, the effects of which are not yet known.
The modern Russian peasant
Until the revolution of 1905 the Russian peasant’s situation had much in common with the French peasant of 1789. Although the Russian peasant was rid of serfdom, he entered the realm of freedom in such poverty and ignorance that he was incapable of rational, intensive agriculture. His farm degenerated more and more, whilst his average land share decreased due to the quickly growing population. His most urgent need had become land - more land.
As long as illiteracy and insufficient communication made state power appear to him as something unachievable and intangible, he was less moved by democracy on the state level. The typical thinking was: ‘Heaven is high, the tsar far away’.
Just as with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, when in 1905 the urban proletarians forced tsarism to its knees, this was the signal for revolutionary uprisings by the peasants, who demanded the property of the nobility and the church, and who recognised that they had to support the urban proletariat. But the isolation of the peasants was still too great for them to rise up as one all over the country. Just like in the peasants’ war of 1525 in Germany, the peasant movement got bogged down and dissipated into local, incoherent upheavals, which were partly violently suppressed one after the other by troops who had remained loyal, and partly pacified by cunning promises. Thus the proletarian uprising in the cities was deprived of necessary support. It was defeated.
Yet for the nobility and absolutism the threat posed had been a terrible one. They understood the warning. On the one hand, they sought to provide a safe outlet for the peasant’s hunger for land by promoting emigration to Siberia, and, on the other, they sought to render it meaningless by giving the peasants the opportunity to switch to intensive farming. To this end they employed methods such as the abolition of the remnants of village communism and promoted the immense cleavage of the rural population between the wealthy and the propertyless.
Absolutism hoped to use this in order to create a reactionary guard amongst the wealthy part of the population, or at least to paralyse the revolutionary tendencies of the rural population. The ascendance of this wealthy layer and the intensification of peasant farming were made easier by something absolutism could neither bring about nor foresee: the increase in the price of grain on the world market, which came about precisely after the first Russian Revolution of 1905.
At the moment we cannot foresee how these changes have penetrated and influenced the goals and thinking of the Russian peasantry. But we can be sure that they will not satisfy the peasant’s hunger for land. They could only increase that of the proletarianised peasants. Whilst the wealthy peasant’s hunger for land is not strong enough to drive him to revolution, it is strong enough to make exploiting an already completed revolution for this purpose appear attractive to him.
But if the peasants are granted land by the revolution, then this chains them to it and thus they will oppose any counterrevolution that threatens them with the loss of their newly won soil. Here is another point where the peasants find their closest allies in the socialists. The liberals (who have so many landowners in their ranks) will not very willingly satisfy the peasant’s hunger for land - let alone the conservatives.
The peasants will no doubt support democracy at the state level with less intensity. Yet even here we should not look at things in too bleak a fashion. The spread of popular education and of the means of communication, of journalism and the mail system, is making progress everywhere and awakening the peasantry’s interest in politics. Army conscription draws many into the city, and using the vote further animates its interest in politics.
The peasantry is still not so advanced in any European country as to seize the political initiative, but its interest in and understanding of political questions is expanding everywhere. And this means that the peasantry’s interest in democratic rights and freedoms is growing - not just at the parish level, but at the state level - because they give it the possibility of throwing a weight onto the scale appropriate to its numbers.
All this leads us to expect that the peasants will remain faithful to the revolution in so far as it brings them economic advantages, and that equally they will not abandon democratic achievements, even if they should not be expected to champion these as enthusiastically and unanimously as the proletariat. The young republic’s army will also be recruited from the peasantry and formed into the republic’s protective barrier. In this sense the revolution has better prospects of stability than the French republics of 1792 and 1848.
But if we expect the new revolutionary regime to be well protected against a counterrevolution, the peasants to join it and remain faithful to it, then this by itself says nothing about how they will behave when it comes to a conflict within the regime between the bourgeois and proletarian elements. These are two quite different questions. A defeat of the proletariat does not yet need to mean the downfall of the republican form of government, as the history of post-1871 France shows us. On the other hand, the peasantry’s dependence on the revolution does not mean that they will support a further revolutionary advance of the proletariat. We must reckon on the possibility that they will become a conservative element as soon as their hunger for land is satisfied and their freedom of movement secured: enemies of any counterrevolution, but also of any further revolution.
The jagged contradiction which has developed in western Europe in the course of the last few decades between agriculture and city, and between peasants and proletarians, will not need to come about in Russia, as it is one of the food-exporting countries. Its prices depend on the world market, are not determined by the domestic market and, as such, are for the most part independent of domestic policy. Therefore this stands out as the cause of a contradiction between the peasants and the proletarians. At least in normal times.
Now, during the war, Russia has ceased to be a food-exporting country. The domestic market is the decisive factor in determining prices - in fact it is the only one. All ties to the world market have been cut. All relations with the world market turned off. This made the struggle for food prices a political question, and one which appears in the most direct and acrimonious form as a struggle for and against fixed prices - something which deeply stirs the working masses of town and country and which is capable of splitting them apart. This can result in a vicious conflict between the proletariat and the peasantry. But it can only be a momentary one. In times of peace this contradiction - which has been so influential in Russia - loses its material basis.
If one is able to roughly, if not exactly, place the tendencies and needs of the other classes in Russia in parallel with the same phenomena in western Europe, this way of looking at the situation breaks down with the Russian peasant. His material circumstances and historical traditions are quite unique, and at the same time have been in the process of colossal change for three decades.
The peasant is the ‘x’ - the unknown variable - in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a figure for it. And yet we know that this figure is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.
But, just as in summer’s struggle with winter, storms might thunder over our country without us having to fear that the streams could freeze over again, we may in spite of all possible vicissitudes confidently expect that the Russian people will henceforth know how to permanently fend off absolutism.
Come what may, we hope that the essential rights and freedoms of democracy - and with them the most secure basis for mass proletarian mobilisation and advance to the conquering of political power - are at least as well established in eastern Europe as they are in the west.
1. ‘Der Eispalast’ in Die Neue Zeit, March 1917.
2. Vorwärts (Forward) was the central organ of the German Social Democratic Party published daily in Berlin from 1891 until 1933.