Russian Revolution: vindication of Karl Kautsky’s Bolshevik strategy

Only one path to socialism

Translation of Grigorii Zinoviev’s review of Path to power

Path to power is the title of the most recent book by K Kautsky, a work considered by the German socialist press to be an event in international socialist literature. This new work is a continuation of The social revolution by the same author; it touches on so many ‘delicate’ questions for the ruling classes that even in Germany, with its relative freedom of press, Kautsky had to reckon with “circumstances beyond his control” and occasionally had to find ways of expressing his ideas with the state prosecutor in mind.

Kautsky’s work, along with its great significance for general politics, has also, of course, large implications specifically for social democracy. His book sums up the events of the last five years: revolution in Russia, the awakening of the east, the regrouping of social forces in Germany, the successes of the proletariat in Austria, the sharpening of the class struggle in England, and so forth. It sets out perspectives for the future struggle of the revolutionary proletariat and, in view of all this, serves as a newly formulated and fully rounded exposition of orthodox social democracy on the situation facing us today - the ‘platform’, to use Russian terminology, of the left wing of the party.

This new work of Kautsky’s has already sparked a battle between the orthodox and the revisionists, and this battle is still expanding, providing us with the opportunity once more to judge the respective positions of the two camps, as applied to the vital questions of today. In our exposition we will only examine a few of the questions taken up by Kautsky.

‘Agreements’ with the bourgeoisie

First of all, Kautsky focuses on evaluating the role of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat’s attitude towards it. The fact that Marx and Engels set out the developmental tendencies of the capitalist system completely correctly, that they showed the correct path to be followed by the international proletariat (through political power [vlast] to socialism), that a great many of the ‘prophecies’ of Marx and Engels have come true (contrary to the opinion of opportunists everywhere) - all this is sufficiently confirmed by the course of events during the 60 years since the appearance of the Communist manifesto. It is best illustrated by the fact that every time the worker movement acquires any sort of mass and revolutionary character, it takes its stand (in general terms and in actual fact) on the principles developed by Marx and Engels.

Engels was completely correct - we add ourselves - when, in reply to scornful jokes by the bourgeois economists about the fact that not everything happened according to schedule (for example, his ‘prediction’ about the number of years between the periodic resurgence of economic crises), he curtly answered these gentlemen: you should be surprised not by the fact that one of our predictions did not pan out, but rather that so many of them did.

But none of the orthodox Marxists would deny that Marx and Engels were mistaken in their predictions about the tempo of capitalist society’s development. For example, Marx and Engels announced in the Communist manifesto of1847 that Germany’s imminent bourgeois revolution might actually be the “immediate prelude to the proletarian revolution”. The creators of scientific socialism correctly foresaw the revolution in Germany, but they were clearly mistaken about the “immediate prelude”. Or, to take another example, Engels predicted in 1885, in the preface to Marx’s brochure on the trial of communists in Cologne, that there would be an upheaval on a European scale in the very near future. These revolutionary earthquakes arrive with regularity every 15-18 years, said Engels, pointing to the events of 1815, 1830, 1848-52 and 1870. This prediction of Engels, as we know now, also did not come true.

Kautsky asks, on what basis were these mistaken predictions made? And he answers by referring to an article of his written more than 10 years ago in Neue Zeit: in both cases, the mistaken prediction was due to an overestimation of the oppositional energy of the bourgeoisie:

Marx and Engels for a long time expected that petty bourgeois democracy would support the revolution, at the least in the beginning, as indeed happened in the revolution of 1848 and even in 1871 in Paris. When the political leaders of the democracy and its parties destroyed these expectations, we, the Marxists, all still continued to hope that we would succeed in attracting significant layers of the petty bourgeois and the small peasants directly to our revolutionary aims.

This hope, Kautsky points out, can be seen in one of his own articles from 1893, but it finds an even clearer expression by Engels in his 1895 preface to [Marx’s] Class struggles in France, where Engels writes: “If things go on in the same way as before, by the end of the century we will have conquered a large proportion of the middle layers of society, the small city-dwellers and the small peasantry, and thus we will grow into the decisive power in the country.” This hope of Engels also did not come true. Kautsky says about this: “this instance shows one more time that the hopes and ‘prophecies’ expressed by us Marxists are not justified precisely when we overestimate the revolutionary energy of the petty bourgeoisie.”

The issue of the relation of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie (both liberal and democratic), of possible blocs and agreements [soglasheniia] with it, of the growth or the blunting of contradictions between it and the proletariat, and so forth, has for a long time been the central point of dispute between Marxists and revisionists in all countries. Kautsky too considers it important at present to underline that on this issue the revolutionary Marxists are still insufficiently ‘narrow’, insufficiently decisive, that even Marx, along with Engels and the most loyal of their followers - despite their energetically negative attitude toward any kind of agreement, conciliation or adaptation to the bourgeois democrats - nevertheless looked on such agreements way too optimistically and overvalued them.

Because of his stand on this issue, the revisionists of all countries accuse Kautsky and the orthodox in general of anarchism, syndicalism and other mortal sins. Even the representatives of the right wing of our Russian social democracy - who have been much concerned up to now to give at least a verbal endorsement to [orthodox] ‘dogma’, despite the fact that empirically they advocate a revisionist line, as applied to Russian conditions - even these writers are forced by Kautsky’s statement of the question to publicly label the most outstanding representative of orthodox Marxism, K Kautsky, as a syndicalist.

So, for example, comrade L Martov in his recent article, ‘Reformism in the worker movement’ (in the collection Vershiny], writes:

An oversimplified view of the ‘isolation of the proletariat’ must lead to syndicalist (L Martov’s emphasis) conclusions about the final goal of the worker movement, and not those that Kautsky and others of the ‘orthodox’ have [up to now] adopted. It is easy to find confirmation of this in the writings of syndicalist theorists (p306).

Like Bernstein, Vollmar, Maurenbrecher and other representatives of the right wing of social democracy, comrade L Martov, in his fight against Kautsky, the ‘syndicalist’, finds it necessary to rely on K Marx. And so, in order to expose Kautsky’s syndicalism, comrade Martov calls on the help of the Communist manifesto.

Only when the proletariat makes up the majority of the population can we start to speak of the perspective of a socialist revolution: this is how [the German revisionist] Maurenbrecher recently lectured Kautsky. Maurenbrecher went on to use rather idiosyncratic statistics to ‘prove’ that there will be a very long time until this happens and thus celebrated an easy ‘victory’ over Kautsky as someone who resorts to cheap revolutionary phrases. Only with a complete isolation of the capitalist bourgeoisie can there be any talk of the dictatorship of the proletariat: so comrade L Martov lectures Kautsky, the ‘syndicalist’, and finishes up with the question just where it really starts.

The isolation of the capitalist bourgeoisie is, of course, a necessary premise of the completion of a socialist revolution [perevorot]. But we cannot conclude from this that such a revolution will [therefore] be carried out by the proletariat alongside bourgeois democracy; we must not forget that, where the task of the day is the immediate struggle for socialism, bourgeois democracy - insofar as it still exists as such - can carry out and is carrying out the most fierce war against the proletariat. And the petty bourgeoisie will surely be a significant support for the capitalist bourgeoisie in its struggle with the socialist proletariat, if … if the petty bourgeoisie itself does not become proletarianised to an even great extent.

Here is how the role of the petty bourgeois is characterised by the very same Communist manifesto that is supposed to help comrade L Martov pin the charge of syndicalism on K Kautsky:

The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant - all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.

The above citation was preceded by the following assertion of the Communist manifesto:

Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.

In his attempt to refute Kautsky, comrade L Martov has unexpectedly ‘refuted’ Marx and Engels. Along with this, of course, he does not lose the chance to assert that the person ‘revising’ Marx is none other than … Kautsky. Still, on the issue that has long divided the orthodox and the revisionists in the west, comrade L Martov takes up a clearly revisionist position.

In his new work, K Kautsky illustrates one more time and with exceptionally convincing figures the accelerating proletarianisation of, for example, Germany. [Here follows a section that sets forth figures on population dynamics taken from Kautsky’s Path to power. Zinoviev also cites Kautsky’s statistics on the concentration of capital, leading him to conclude:]

In this sense - in the sense of an objective readiness of industry for its final socialisation - we really do see a ‘growing into’ a socialist system. The revisionists, says our author, contradict themselves when they deny the accelerating concentration of capital foreseen by Marx, while affirming that we are gradually ‘growing into’ a socialist system. If the revisionists were correct in their denial of concentration, we would not have a ‘growing into’, but rather a ‘growing away from’ - that is, we would be moving farther away from a socialist system.

The peasants and the revolution

Present-day society is more and more dividing into two irreconcilably hostile classes: the bourgeoisie (in the specific sense of the word) and the proletariat. Of course, we must not suppose that at the beginning of the revolutionary process leading to socialism the transitional classes - all the urban and peasant petty bourgeoisie - will have disappeared without trace. The vast majority will have joined the ranks of the proletariat, and another section will experience such a degree of exploitation by large capital that by the logic of its social position it will no longer act as an active opponent of the proletariat.

In the struggle for socialism, the proletariat can count only on its own forces and must fight against any adulteration of its ranks and against any attempts to ‘soften’ its interests in order to bring it closer to other classes. Of course, this does not meant that social democracy should not carry out socialist propaganda among the exploited strata in the non-proletarian milieu: for example, among the small peasantry. “If Engels in 1894 and myself in 1895,” writes Kautsky, “argued against the agrarian programme of German social democracy, it was not because we thought it was superfluous to gain the sympathy of the peasantry, but because we considered the method adopted to achieve this to be mistaken.”

Such is the point of view of Marxism on the tasks of the proletariat when it is struggling directly for socialism. Other tasks stand before a proletariat that has not yet conquered any kind of free conditions for the free development of the class struggle - a proletariat that is still fighting for political freedom, for democracy. Kautsky has always made it clear that Russia, for example, where the proletariat still finds itself exactly at this stage of development, constitutes an exception [to the ban on alliances with other classes].

Already in his preface to the seventh edition of the Communist manifesto (1906), Kautsky writes: “At the present time there is no place where we can point to a revolutionary bourgeoisie, with the possible exception of Russia.” And in his new work (Path to power), Kautsky also stresses the exceptional position of Russia as a country where a bourgeois democratic revolution is still proceeding and where other revolutionary forces besides the proletariat are therefore available. But Kautsky does not limit himself to vague phrases about Russia’s revolutionary bourgeoisie, he does not endorse an alliance of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie on a common platform of a “sovereign duma”, he is not an enthusiast of the idea of a “unified national opposition” [tactical positions associated with Menshevism].1

He is thus able to show which part of the bourgeoisie [is a potential class ally]. Already in his Driving forces [published in 1906] and earlier, Kautsky shows without ambiguity that there is only one possible revolutionary-democratic force with whom the Russian proletariat can and must carry out the bourgeois revolution so as to attain its maximum development. This force is the many millions of the impoverished peasantry who have an economic interest in a revolutionary solution to the agrarian question and, by the same token, in a democratic republic. K Kautsky argued for this idea during the entire first stage of the Russian Revolution, and he asserts it in his latest work with complete clarity.

[Of course,] like all Marxists, Kautsky emphasises that in the struggle directly for socialism the peasantry cannot be an ally of the proletariat:

It must not be forgotten that the labourer plays a particular role in the market for goods. All others (that is, non-workers) come to this market, not only as buyer, but also as a seller of products … Only the labourer comes to the world market as a buyer alone and not as a seller of goods … In spite of the fact that he produces all and consumes but a portion of his product, on the world market his standpoint is that of the consumer and not that of the producer. His product does not belong to him, but to his exploiters, the capitalists … The result is the antagonism of the worker to the seller of consumer items, including the peasant, in so far as he is a seller.

In his articles against the revisionist Maurenbrecher (to a large extent these articles provide content for his new work), we find the following passage, which leaves no room for doubt about Kautsky’s stand on the roles played by various classes in the Russian bourgeois revolution:

I have shown - or, if you wish, predicted - that we Germans cannot count on the mass sympathy of the peasants or the urban petty bourgeoisie; on the contrary, we should be ready to meet resistance on their part toward our struggle (for socialism). The same can be said, for example, about France or Austria. But in relation to countries with another economic organisation - Russia, for example - I have in contrast expressed my confidence that the workers cannot take a step forward without close cooperation with the peasants.

And further:

The industrial proletariat of Russia is the bearer of the [democratic] Russian Revolution, and this is precisely why it cannot count on the support of the bourgeoisie for the revolution. Only in the peasantry does the Russian proletariat find a class whose economic interests do not contradict its own and who cannot achieve a satisfactory position in society without revolution … At present the tsarist government itself [because of the Stolypin reforms] 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.

For such thoughts as those just cited, K Kautsky, along with accusations of anarchism and syndicalism, definitely deserves to be accused by our right wing of SR-ism, utopianism and the like - accusations constantly thrown at the majority [ie, the Bolsheviks] by our local opportunists.

Legality vs the underground

Extremely instructive - especially for us Russian social democrats living through this present moment - is what Kautsky says about the means and the forms of revolutionary struggle on “the path to power”.

Kautsky asks the question, legal or non-legal? And he answers with the slogan: neither legality nor non-legality at any cost. “We realise,” writes Kautsky, “that we cannot by our own wish create this or that historical situation, and so it is we who must adapt our tactics to the situation.” There was a time, for example, when standing on exclusively ‘legal grounds’ was highly advantageous to German social democracy, so that it was the ruling classes who tried by any means to drag the party onto the ground of ‘revolution’ (in the police sense of the word: that is, onto the ground of illegality, in opposition to the law).

None other than Engels in 1895, in his well-known preface to Marx’s Class struggles in France, showed how much conditions had changed since 1848, so that occasionally it is precisely the social democrats - those eternal rebels and revolutionaries - who, at certain times, in certain places and under certain circumstances (in this case, Germany after the fall of the Exceptional Law [banning social democracy] - whom the path of legality and observance of ‘the law’ favoured the most.

This assertion by Engels was picked up the opportunists everywhere and distorted into its very opposite. On the basis of this assertion, both the western European and the Russian revisionists tried many times to pit the ‘moderate’ Engels against the immoderate Marx and to recruit the former into the ranks of those demanding legality at any price.

[Zinoviev goes into detail about the way Engels himself protested against these distortions in an 1895 letter to Kautsky. Zinoviev mentions one German revisionist who was so upset by the publication of Engels’ letter that he accused Kautsky of forgery. Zinoviev quotes various comments by Engels to the effect that the choice between legality and illegality is dependent on circumstances.]

Such is Engels’ position, which completely coincides with Kautsky’s. At different stages in the development of the class struggle, social democracy has recourse to different forms of activity. Social democracy remains true to itself when it uses the most legal, most ‘lawful’ methods of struggle, while bringing revolutionary content to this legal activity; when participating in the most petty2 everyday conflicts, social democracy illuminates every detail, every small issue, from the point of view of socialism and revolution, thus turning the most ‘lawful’ methods into the most revolutionary. Marxism’s outlook is thus just as far from petty bourgeois revisionism as it is from petty bourgeois anarchism.

Of course, Russian social democracy is faced at the present time with conditions of struggle that are substantially different from those facing our German comrades after the fall of the Exceptional Law. But, just the same, it would not hurt either the Russian opportunists and liquidators on our right wing or our opportunists-turned-inside-out (the recallists and semi-recallists) to look into the position of Engels and try to understand it.

New era of revolutions

Kautsky concludes his work with a chapter entitled ‘A new era of revolutions’. Kautsky here discusses the topic of the revolutionary movements in the east, which he characterises (in full solidarity with the opinion of our most recent party conference) as a movement “fighting under the banner of the creation of national capitalist states” (see the resolutions of the conference): “The spirit of resistance is spreading everywhere in Asia and Africa, along with uprisings against European exploitation, accompanied by the use of European arms.”

If the ever-growing strength of the international proletariat had not interfered, we would long ago have seen an all-European war. The ruling classes would have set off a war long ago, if they were not faced with the inevitable alternative of sparking off a revolution. But the great powers are steadily proceeding to a point when (in Kautsky’s words) “the guns will start shooting by themselves”.

If in 1891 Engels expressed his worry that a war might bring the proletariat prematurely to power, the position today has drastically changed. In Kautsky’s words, “the proletariat today has increased in strength to such a degree that it can look on the perspective of war with complete assurance”, because “there can be no question today of a premature revolution”. Today, only a fake, illusory conquest of power - that is, power given to the proletariat before the revolution - can be called premature, and not a genuine conquest of political power by means of revolution.

The international situation is becoming extraordinarily tense, the dense ball of capitalist society’s contradictions is becoming ever more entangled, the sharpness of class antagonisms is growing. Social democracy, in Kautsky’s opinion, must conduct a purge of its own ranks, it must free itself from petty bourgeois elements, it must stand out more sharply than ever before against the politics of blocs and agreements with the bourgeoisie - especially now, when the description of the bourgeoisie as “one reactionary mass” is finding real confirmation.

The scientific socialists of today distinguish themselves from utopian socialists because they do not expect socialism to be achieved by ‘growing in’: that is, without political struggle. They know that there is only one real path to the liberation of mankind, to socialism: it is the path to the conquest of political power by the proletariat, it is the dictatorship of the proletariat l

Notes (from Zinoviev)

1. Comrade Parvus has recently addressed our enthusiasts of a “unified national opposition” with the following excellent words: “Of all the movements in Russian society, the bourgeoisie has up to now always been tagging behind [byt’ v khvoste]. You would think this fact would lead to reflection [on the part of the Mensheviks]. But instead of drawing political conclusions from this historical fact and testing their basic assumptions, people blame history for not acting according to plan and order other social strata to move backwards, so that the line of advance will not become unequal. ‘Step to the side, gentlemen, give way to the burzhui! Keep it down, he’s easily frightened. Watch your manners, for he’s been well brought up. Don’t get carried away, because he doesn’t like being irritated - don’t remind him of material sacrifices, because he’s far from altruistic. And don’t try to take the lead - your place is in the back!’ The retreat of the opposition along the whole line - that is what these people mean by a united opposition” (Vershiny, p311).

2. Kautsky’s perfectly clear point of view has not stopped Kolb and other revisionists of accusing him of allegedly calling on the proletariat to refuse to take on small issues from everyday life. In his article, ‘Positive work and the revolution’, Kautsky once more explains his position and puts forth the completely correct thesis that the everyday, ordinary work that achieves the greatest ‘practical’ results and that has the most success in bringing clarity to the class outlook of the proletariat can only be carried out by those social democrats who do not drown in petty details - who look at small-scale ‘positive’ work from the angle of the broad tasks of the struggle for social revolution. Although he regards the present epoch as “the calm before the storm,” Kautsky nevertheless calls on social democratic activists to take the most energetic participation in ‘positive’, everyday work.