A perfectly ordinary, highly instructive document

Lars T Lih introduces Zinoviev’s review of Kautsky’s 1909 book, Path to power

In 1909, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, wrote a review of Karl Kautsky’s recently published book, Path to power, for the party journal, Sotsialdemokrat (1909 No6, pp118-26). The review provides welcome documentation of the Bolshevik reaction to Kautsky’s book, since Lenin himself did not comment on it until 1914 (when he both praised it highly and used it to show Kautsky’s renegacy). Otherwise, Zinoviev’s article contains nothing very surprising to anyone familiar with Bolshevism during this period and who has read Kautsky’s book. He summarises some of Kautsky’s key arguments and then applies them to ongoing polemics with “the right wing of our party” (the Mensheviks).

But there are many people who do not fit this description, and for them Zinoviev’s article provides a short and readable documentation of some of the points that I and others have been trying to make about Bolshevism and about Kautsky. Besides, remarkably little pre-war Bolshevik literature has been translated into English beyond the collected writings of Lenin and Stalin. For these reasons, I have translated this article and provided a short commentary.

My thanks to Ben Lewis and Noa Rodman, who brought this text to my attention. My translation is slightly abridged; excisions are noted in the text. I have broken up the paragraphs for readability and provided section headings. In one place where my text was faulty, I have provided in brackets what I believe to be the sense of the missing words. All square brackets indicate my additions for the sake of clarity; all ellipses are from the original text.

1. Kautsky as honorary Bolshevik

Despite much new research on the relationship between Kautsky and the Bolsheviks, certain misconceptions remain. It is often said that Kautsky sided with the Mensheviks (to some extent true for a brief period in 1904). Others maintain that all Russian social democrats revered Kautsky as the most authoritative spokesman of European social democracy - with a strong implication that the Bolsheviks were fooling themselves until they wised up after 1914.

The truth of the matter is that Kautsky was seen by both camps in Russian social democracy as a strong supporter of the Bolshevik political strategy. This is true particularly on the key question of the principal class ally of the Russian proletariat: liberal bourgeoisie or peasantry? Much of the present article consists of Zinoviev using Kautsky as a cudgel in disputes with the Mensheviks, while also documenting that Menshevik writers such as Martov repudiated Kautsky. (In 1909, efforts were underway to abolish the factionalism of the past, and so the words ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Menshevik’ are not used in Zinoviev’s article; they are replaced by “orthodox” and “opportunists”, and other such labels.) There is no doubt that both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks understood Kautsky very well and drew appropriate conclusions.

2. Kautsky as ‘centrist’

Kautsky is often identified with the centre in German social democracy. We need to be careful when using this description, because it can refer to different periods and to different issues. More and more after 1910, Kautsky was indeed one of the spokesmen of the centre in the German party: that is, rejecting the right wing that supported the war effort of the German government, but also rejecting the revolutionary and later pro-soviet left wing. But, as Zinoviev’s article shows, this division was still in the future in 1909. Up to this date, everybody divided German (and international) social democracy into two camps: the ‘orthodox’ Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Alexander Parvus, who insisted on the need for a revolutionary perspective, and the ‘opportunists’, who stressed reform and tried to achieve ‘positive’ results. In this division, there was little doubt that Kautsky was (in Zinoviev’s words) “the most outstanding representative of orthodox Marxism”.

There is another possible meaning of ‘centrism’, however: social democracy itself as the middle between the two extremes of leftwing ‘anarchism’ and opportunism, as summed up here by Zinoviev: “Marxism’s outlook is thus just as far from petty bourgeois revisionism as it is from petty bourgeois anarchism.” But ‘centrism’ of this kind is completely separate from the kind of centrism discussed above. The former seeks a compromise between two warring positions; the latter is a self-definition of social democracy that sets out principled differences with leftist anarchism and rightist opportunism. The logic here is the same as Kautsky’s famous merger formula: “Social democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement.” The anarchists insisted on the socialist goal, but rejected the day-to-day activity of the worker movement; the opportunists insisted on reforms, but forgot the socialist goal. The logic is set out in more detail by Zinoviev in his review. This kind of ‘centrism’ goes back to the Communist manifesto of 1848 (this was recently brought home to me while doing research on this period).

In the first and more common meaning of ‘centrism’, Kautsky was a centrist only after 1910 and as such he was an opponent of Bolshevism. In the other meaning, Kautsky was always a centrist, because he was always a revolutionary social democrat - and the Bolsheviks never rejected this kind of centrism.

3. ‘Agreements’ with the bourgeoisie

As Zinoviev’s review reveals, central to the split with the Mensheviks over tactics was the question of agreements, or soglasheniia, with the bourgeoisie. I stress the Russian word, because in 1917 the fairly neutral word ‘agreement’ was turned into the abusive label, ‘agreementism’ or soglashatelstvo. The critique of agreementism became the heart of the Bolshevik message during the revolutionary year. In Zinoviev’s article, we can see the roots of that message in pre-war ‘old Bolshevism’.

The Bolsheviks rejected any sort of political agreement or alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie because they felt that these leaders would sell out the revolution after it started by making a deal or agreement with tsarism. The Menshevik tactic of trying to find some sort of revolutionary agreement with the liberal bourgeoisie was therefore doomed. There is a straight line between this fundamental tactical disagreement in 1909 and the fundamental issue separating Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1917: namely, whether or not to support a coalition Provisional Government.

In a footnote, Zinoviev quotes an eloquent tirade by Parvus against Mensheviks who called for revolutionary socialists to moderate their stance for the time being for the sake of a larger alliance against reactionary forces. His tirade could have appeared in Pravda in 1917 with very little change.

4. Bolsheviks and the peasants

One reason the Bolsheviks rejected the liberals as allies was because they felt that the proletariat had a strong alternative ally: namely, the Russian peasants. (And, conversely, one reason the Mensheviks felt they had to go with the liberals is that they distrusted the peasants.) In making this choice, they could rely fully on Kautsky’s authority. In 1906, Kautsky published a seminal article entitled ‘Driving forces in the Russian Revolution’. This article immediately became something like a manifesto of the Bolshevik strategy (extensive and enthusiastic commentaries were written by Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky). Kautsky still maintained these views in 1909, as documented by Zinoviev.

The ‘orthodox’ Marxists decided the question of ‘the peasant as ally’ differently depending on context: one solution for western Europe, which (it was assumed) was on the eve of a socialist revolution, and another for Russia, where the proletariat was still fighting for the breathing space provided by political freedoms. In western Europe, the peasants could not be counted on as an ally; in fact, they would most likely be an enemy. The orthodox insisted on this point - as opposed to the reformists, who wanted to enlist them as an ally.

The situation was quite different in Russia, where (Kautsky and the Bolsheviks affirmed) there was an overlap between the economic and political interests of the two main components of the narod (the people in general): namely, proletariat and peasantry. What is very important to grasp - and Zinoviev’s article provides documentation on this point - is that this projected alliance with the Russian peasantry was open-ended. It all depended on how far the peasantry was willing to go, and this in turn depended on the empirical context. In 1906, Kautsky described a transformed peasantry that was more alive, energetic and aware of its interests than previously. In 1909, he pointed to the Stolypin reforms that aimed at a massive transformation of property relations in Russian agriculture as one more cause of the peasant awakening:

At present the tsarist government itself is energetically working at broadening the outlook of the Russian peasant beyond the narrow boundaries of his native village … And this in the final analysis will lead to even further intensification of his dissatisfaction.

In an article written in early 1917, Kautsky added the war to the list of factors increasing peasant awareness; he therefore refused to set any a priori limit to the worker-peasant alliance.

Thus Bolshevism (following Kautsky) asserted both that the peasants would not be an ally in the direct struggle for socialism and that there could be an open-ended alliance with the peasantry. In my view, the second assertion is the heart of Bolshevism as a Russian revolutionary movement. There is thus a direct continuity between the Kautsky/Bolshevik scenario of 1906-09 and the Bolshevik scenario of 1917 - and even the scenario later sketched out in Lenin’s final articles in 1923. I hope to make this argument soon in a follow-up article.

5. Legality vs the underground

In 1909, the Bolshevik fight against ‘liquidators’ - their main enemy in the party until the outbreak of war in 1914 - was just beginning. Zinoviev enlists Kautsky as an ally in this incipient struggle as well, as set out in the section of his review I have entitled ‘Legality vs the underground’. Since Kautsky is sometimes caricatured as someone who believed only in legal, peaceful, reformist and ‘parliamentary’ work, we should note that his opponents at the time accused him of the exact opposite. Zinoviev feels called upon to defend him by saying that Kautsky did believe in ‘positive’ work, if undertaken with the proper revolutionary spirit.

6. New era of revolutions

Zinoviev ends his review by emphasising Kautsky’s view that the situation in 1909 was only “the calm before the storm” and that “a new era of revolutions” was on the horizon. This new era had several dimensions, including national liberation movements on a global scale and direct socialist revolution in western Europe. Zinoviev claims complete solidarity with Kautsky’s analysis.

I have argued elsewhere that this idea of the “new era of revolutions” was fundamental to Lenin’s outlook after 1914. Here I will only note that already in 1909 Zinoviev is convinced that war will lead to revolution. So obvious is this connection in his mind that he thinks that the ruling classes are also aware of it - which is why they haven’t yet unleashed a pan-European war. Reading this article, we can get some idea of the frustration and disillusionment experienced by the Bolsheviks when the war did break out and the social democrats did ... nothing. It is often argued that Lenin underwent a massive rethink after the war broke out, but Zinoviev’s article shows why the Bolsheviks themselves claimed the contrary: in their view, they remained loyal to the standard outlook of ‘orthodox’ Marxists before the war - rethinking and renegacy was left to their opponents.