Debating the republic and extreme democracy

Ben Lewis reports on some interesting exchanges at the 'Historical Materialism' weekend

The eighth annual Historical Materialism conference held at the School of Oriental and African Studies last weekend was a genuine success, with four days rammed full of papers, plenaries and discussions. While it is hard to tell just how many attended over the four days, an indication of the total is given by the fact that 750 people came to the final plenary on the Arab revolutions. This session saw particularly good speeches from the American International Socialist Organisation’s Ahmed Shawki, who spoke on the Arab spring and US imperialism, and Adam Hanieh, who spoke on counterrevolution and the Gulf Arab states.

I gave two talks: one as a discussant on a special Revolutionary History panel devoted to the history of the early Comintern, and a paper on ‘Karl Kautsky’s defence of republicanism’, which explored Kautsky’s 1904 work Republic and social democracy in France.[1]

The panel had a total of four speakers and it touched on some thought-provoking questions in relation to the German Revolution and its many paradoxes. Mike Jones of Revolutionary History was in particularly fine form and, while I think he occasionally overstates the case in defence of Paul Levi’s expulsion of the ‘left’ from the early Communist Party of Germany (KPD), he was absolutely right to endorse Levi’s focus on winning the rank and file of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD).

In the time available to me, I also concentrated on the question of the KPD and the USPD, arguing that some of the KPD’s weaknesses resulted from the fact that it was born both too late and too early. Only with the Halle congress of October 1920 - ie, as a result of the struggle to win the USPD rank and file - could the KPD be seen as a mass party. As in my November 10 Weekly Worker article, ‘From Erfurt to Charlottenburg’, I also sought to locate some of the KPD’s shortcomings at the level of programme.

I gave my main paper in a session on Karl Kautsky entitled ‘Seedtime of Comintern’. My co-panellist was the independent scholar and author, Lars T Lih, who explained Kautsky’s (and Lenin’s) concept of world revolution through the prism of Georgi Lukács’s 1924 Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought. It is perhaps testament to the work that Lars and others have put in that a whole panel was given over to the thought of Karl Kautsky and his ideas as the “seed” of communist politics. In the face of so many recently translated documents (for example, in Richard Day’s and Daniel Gaido’s Witnesses to permanent revolution: the documentary record), only the most dogmatic can deny Kautsky’s role as a revolutionary writer and politician.

One little-known work that must force us to rethink the usual narrative on Kautsky is Republic and social democracy in France, which I argued was popular in the Russian movement because of its defence of Marxist republicanism against those in the Second International who held bourgeois republican illusions in the French Third Republic. Kautsky’s contribution was to underline how, for Marxists, republican agitation does not cease with the removal of a monarch, but continues until the working class come to power. As such, the Marxists needed to articulate a different constitutional order to the French Third Republic, which was commonly known as a “monarchy without the monarch”.

Moreover, by making this case, Kautsky was simply following in the footsteps of both Marx and Engels. They viewed the Paris Commune, the democratic republic of 1871, as “the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Engels),[2] the “political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour” (Marx).[3] I then compared this ‘state of the commune type’ with Kautsky’s later understanding and application of the minimum programme during the German Revolution.[4]

SWP v Cliff

Given that such an approach is rather unorthodox on today’s far left, one thing I regretted was that I did not take more time to anticipate some of the criticisms that this would provoke. After all, it is common currency on today’s far left that the need for a minimum programme and the struggle for a republic is a waste of time.

The Socialist Workers Party’s John Rose, for example, wondered why I made such a fuss about Kautsky’s republicanism. “So what?” he wondered, especially when the experience of Germany in the early 1920s shows that republics do not necessarily equate to working class power. George Paizis wondered whether the key difference between the soviet form and the democratic republic - a distinction Kautsky could not have been aware of in 1904 - was that the former smashed the state and replaced it with something else. Another comrade suggested that republicanism was all well and good for places like tsarist Russia, but not for countries without absolutist monarchs.

Ottokar Lubahn, one of the leading historians on Rosa Luxemburg, highlighted the significance of the question of the republic - not just for Engels in 1891, as I had pointed out - but also in relation to Luxemburg’s later struggle to bind the party to republican agitation. In further evidence of the party shifting to the right, and minimum demands being conflated with maximum demands, she was sidelined by the party leadership, Kautsky included. The slogan was deemed too “radical” for the party’s day-to-day work, not least in the party’s joint work with the trade union leaders.

This is exactly the point. The question of republicanism matters because for Kautsky “when he was a Marxist” - as for Lenin, Marx and Engels - the democratic republic (annual elections of officials, recallability, workers’ wages for bureaucrats, the armed people, etc) was the culmination of the demands of the minimum programme: ie, the rule of the working class. This is why the soviets are merely a form of the democratic republic. It is the content that is paramount.

Interestingly Tony Cliff made exactly the same point in State capitalism in Russia. The SWP founder took a rather different view from that of comrade Rose and used the Engels quotation above, along with several others from both Engels and Marx, to contrast “the real content of workers’ states to Stalinist bureaucracy”. According to Cliff, the dictatorship of the proletariat was “Marx’s and Engels’ conception of a workers’ state: a consistent, extreme democracy”.[5]

And indeed, as I pointed out to comrade Paizis in my response, we should not forget that the Paris Commune resulted from the equivalent of an election to a local city council, which then proceeded to dissolve the old means of rule: ie, to “smash the state”. Such a route to power is perfectly conceivable in today’s conditions too, but it presupposes majority support. For example, as the December 1918 programme of the Spartacus League put it, “The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims, and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League.”[6]

The historian, John Riddell, whose interventions always cause me to think, made some excellent points from the floor about how the early Comintern and its affiliates had not been able to fully assimilate “Russian lessons”. As somebody who has spent a lot of time researching and translating Comintern documents, he argued that some of the basic tenets of strategy that the Bolsheviks had drawn from the Second International - not least the fight for the democratic republic - had been either overlooked, forgotten or buried. In this sense, I could only agree with his assertion that the Second and Third Internationals need to be studied together, not as separate phenomena. Indeed, it strikes me that the contemporary left’s particularly crude interpretation of the Third International, combined with its disdain for the revolutionary traditions of the Second International, have in part led us to where we are now - ie, organised in a swathe of competing sect projects with next to no immediate prospects of revolutionary party unity.

Moreover, given the fact that the English record of the Fourth Congress of Comintern has only just been made available in English (thanks to the translation work of comrade Riddell himself), the notion that left unity today must be built on the basis of the “first four congresses” of Comintern appears even more absurd ...

These sessions were thoroughly rewarding, and the organisers should be congratulated for facilitating such important discussions. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to present these ideas and engage in a discussion with leading SWPers like John Rose, along with other leading members from groups like Workers Power, the International Socialist Group, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Such discussions really do not happen anywhere near enough.

While the debate got at times rather heated, the atmosphere was always friendly, which shows what can actually be done if the left breaks with its current modus operandi and actually starts to talk to each other properly. We have a lot of work to do if we are to rise to the many challenges thrown our way. If we can discuss extremely important questions of our history in this manner, then surely we can do the same for the political questions that face us today. This can and must happen not just amongst the ‘intellectuals’ on the left, but at a rank-and-file level too.


  1. The first three parts of that seven-part series can be read in Weekly Worker April 28, May 19 and May 26.
  2. F Engels, introduction to K Marx The civil war in France London 1941, p19.
  3. K Marx The civil war in France: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm
  4. See ‘From Erfurt to Charlottenburg’ Weekly Worker November 10 for a more detailed account.
  5. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia: www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1955/statecap/ch02.htm
  6. R Luxemburg, ‘What does the Spartacus League want?’ (December 1918): www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm