I intend to analyze this 1918 work by Lenin to see what is still relevant for our day and what is for the present historically dated. Many Socialist/Communist parties have at the present time abandoned Marxism as understood by the historical world communist movement and adopted revisionist, rightest, and opportunist positions that are no threat to the imperial powers or the ruling bourgeois parties throughout the world. They have leaders which Lenin would classify as renegades. I will try and determine if that classification is still accurate. There are 11 parts to this work and I will go over them in sequence and highlight the issues that still have contemporary significance.
Lenin wrote this work in response to Kautsky’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1918. Lenin considers this work to be a complete abandonment of Marxism and full of revisionist errors regarding the nature of democracy and of the state. Lenin says he had to write this reply because the “proletarian revolution is now becoming a practical issue in a number of countries.” We may not feel this urgency today because the proletarian revolution is not now on the agenda as it seemed to be in 1918. Nevertheless, capitalism and US imperialism are in advanced stages of decay and the possibility that a revolutionary outbreak may occur cannot be discounted. In any event, the revisionist views Kautsky has on the nature of the state is his “chief theoretical mistake.” These renegade views are still prevalent in many Socialist and Communist Parties.
HOW KAUTSKY TURNED MARX INTO A COMMON LIBERAL
A working class takeover of the state, violently or not, would constitute a victorious outcome of a proletarian revolution. Kautsky’s work is about what Lenin calls the “very essence” of such a revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Kautsky claims there are two ways to conduct the proletarian revolution — “the dictatorial [Bolshevik] and the democratic [non-Bolshevik.]”
This is not a case of dictatorship versus democracy as Kautsky would have us believe. For Marxists it is a question of what kind of democracy will exist after the revolution. “The question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is a question of the relation of the proletarian state to the bourgeois state, of proletarian democracy to bourgeois democracy.”
The revisionist Kautsky confuses this issue. He speaks just like the liberal bourgeoisie referring to “democracy” with no qualifications. He ignores the “class term” that Marxist use to discuss this issue— I.e., “bourgeois democracy” as the kind of democracy before the revolution that prevails under capitalism. In contrast to bourgeois democracy after the revolution we will have “proletarian democracy.” The difference reflects which class controls the State— the bourgeois exploiters or the working people and their allies.
Lenin quotes Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program) to clarify this: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.
This quote from Marx, Lenin says, “sums up the whole of his revolutionary teaching.” Kautsky must have known this, but it is typical of revisionists, renegades, and the bourgeois liberals to try and play down the quote.
Lenin stresses the fact that Marx and Engels never tired of saying that the revolution had to dismantle the bourgeois capitalist state and replace it with a new proletarian state. Kautsky knows but ignores the fact that the term “dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a “historically concrete and scientifically exact formulation of the proletariat’s task of ’smashing’ the bourgeois state machine.”
Revisionists and renegades never tire of disparaging the use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” (DP) as used by Marx, Engels and Lenin (MEL). Here is a contemporary quote by an alleged Marxist that could have come from Kautsky’s pen: “‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’. Probably the worst phrase uttered by a political theorist ever. Who wants to live in a dictatorship?” (Joe Sims, “Ten Worst and Best Ideas of Marxism,” Political Affairs 2008).
But MEL never viewed the DP as a typical bourgeois dictatorship such as run by Franco or Pinochet. Marxism maintains that history is the history of class struggle and in class societies we find a ruling class and an exploited class— masters and slaves, feudal lords and serfs, capitalists and proletarians, etc. All of these societies exist as States. And every State has a ruling class that controls it and uses it to control and exploit the productive and abused underclass whose labor makes its continued existence possible.
Marxists maintain that all bourgeois States are real class dictatorships. The State qua State is the instrument for one class to hold down and oppress another. The socialist revolution overthrows the bourgeois dictatorship and installs the proletarian State which deprives the capitalists of all political power and the ability to exploit working people. The DP is a class dictatorship and the State is now a tool of the working class to eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class— not physically, but by depriving it of its power to rule. This is elementary Marxism 101 and all the windbag fulminations against the DP won’t change that, but it will allow us to spot the revisionists and renegades when they raise their heads. These people claim to be defending “democracy” when they reject the DP but Lenin points out “It is natural for a liberal to speak of ‘democracy’ in general; but Marxists will never forget to ask: “for what class.”
The DP is necessary because “The proletarian revolution is impossible without the forcible destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the substitution for it of a new one which, in the words of Engels, is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.”
Kautsky tries to convince us that the DP can come about through “universal suffrage” without having to curtail the political rights of the bourgeoisie (the franchise) and he cites the Paris Commune as an example. But the Commune only lasted three months and its early use of “universal [male] suffrage” was not its main merit. “Marx and Engels analyzed the Paris Commune in a most detailed manner and showed that “its merit lay in its attempt to smash, to break up the ‘ready-made state machinery’.”
BOURGEOIS AND PROLETARIAN DEMOCRACY
As long as we live in a capitalist State we cannot just speak of ‘’democracy’’ as if it is some great system we have dispensing ‘’liberty and justice for all’’ as the Pledge would have it. We have two types of democracy to consider. “History knows of bourgeois democracy which takes the place of feudalism, and of proletarian democracy which takes the place of bourgeois democracy.”
This distinction is rarely, if ever made, by the revisionists and renegades that defend the Biden administration against the specter of Trumpism (an ultra-right, racist faction of the monopoly capitalists which controls the Republican Party and which the Democrats want to work with under the guise of bipartisanship.)
The problem of defending bourgeois democracy just as ‘’democracy’’ is that it disarms the workers in the class struggle against fascism and the monopoly capitalist class. Proletarian democracy is a higher state of democracy which preserves what is of value in bourgeois democracy — universal suffrage for all working people, the right to form unions, equal rights for all the oppressed, and eliminates what is no longer historically justified — anti-labor laws (‘’right to work laws’’), election restrictions by gerrymandering, laws which de facto discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and it puts forth what is now historically called for— the abolition of private property in the means of production, and the construction of a new people’s economic system, socialism – which puts people before profit. Bourgeois democracy can be defended against Trumpism but not at the expense of not also pointing out its limitations and the need to advance along the road to proletarian democracy. Not to constantly remind our class and allies of our goal, to take their eyes off the prize, is to betray them and to de facto leave them at the mercy of the enemy.
“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison to medievalism always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching, that Kautsky the ‘Marxist’ has failed to understand.’’ Not only Kautsky, but the modern-day revisionists and renegades as well.
Lenin says that even in the most democratic of bourgeois states the masses are still oppressed, slaves dependent on the capitalist economy (’wage slaves’’). “It is this contradiction that the agitators and propagandists of socialism are constantly exposing to the people, in order to prepare them for revolution!’’ Ay, there’s the rub. Lenin wrote this because he thought the “the era of revolution has begun.”
Well, it was 1918 and Soviet Russia was coming into its own with the overthrow of the capitalist government (1917) that had replaced the Tsar. World War I had ended and revolutionary movements were breaking out in many countries, the renegade parties in the Second International were beginning to split with their left-wings becoming Communist Parties around the world. The Third International advocating world communism was soon to be founded (1919). International capitalism appeared doomed.
To make a long story short, capitalism wasn’t doomed; it consolidated itself and by 1923 the revolutionary wave had broken, at least in Europe. Lenin was ill and died at the beginning of 1924 and by the end of the year Stalin and the Third International had embarked on the polices of ‘’Socialism in One Country.’’ Did all this mean Kautsky was right after all and Lenin was wrong?
The answer is no. In the theory of democracy Lenin was 100% correct and also in the practice of the new Soviet Russia where Lenin points out proletarian democracy replaced bourgeois democracy. At the time Lenin wrote, Soviets of the workers and exploited people had taken over the ruling of the country and the old State bureaucracy had been scattered. ‘’Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.” The Soviet working class and exploited masses had their own state, if they could keep it.
CAN THERE BE EQUALITY BETWEEN THE EXPLOITED AND THE EXPLOITER?
Kautsky, not understanding Marxism, can’t see why if we can win an election with democracy we need a dictatorship, I.e., the DP. Lenin lists 4 reasons:
1. To break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie (don’t think the ruling class will go quietly into the night).
2. To inspire the reactionaries with fear (regrettable but necessary unless you want to end up like Allende.)
3. To maintain the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie (Allende should have armed the workers the day after his election — he must have forgotten this part of MEL).
4. That the proletariat may forcibly hold down its adversaries. (Revolution— once you’ve had that there’s no going back).
Kautsky further argues that there must be “equality” for all, and the DP violates this [bourgeois] principle. We have this in the Pledge: ‘’I pledge allegiance … blah, blah … with liberty and justice for all.’’ In other words, bourgeois democracy treats everyone equally under the law. But Lenin maintains “The exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal.”
Kautsky [and his modern epigones] “takes formal equality (which is nothing but a fraud and hypocrisy under capitalism) for actual equality!” Lenin stresses the fact that, “there can be no real, actual equality until all possibility of the exploitation of one class by another has been totally destroyed.”
Not all the exploited are on the right side of the revolution, we should also note “that a section of the exploited from the least advanced middle-peasant, artisan and similar groups of the population may, and indeed does, follow the exploiters has been proved by all revolutions, including the Commune.” Advanced industrial societies don’t have ‘’peasants’’ but this observation applies to elements both of the middle class and the urban lumpenproletariat [traditionally denizens of the demimonde sans class consciousness and prone to utilization by fascist and reactionary forces].
Now, to be very clear, Lenin was well aware that his views were shaped by the experiences of the Russian Revolution. He would understand perfectly today what the Chinese mean by “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The way the DP will treat the bourgeoisie, will it be stripped or not of all political rights, the franchise, etc., “is a nationally specific” question. Other revolutions are not bound by the actions of the Russian Revolution. Stripping the bourgeoisie of the franchise “is not absolutely necessary for the exercise of the dictatorship, it is not an indispensable characteristic of the logical concept ‘’dictatorship,’’ it does not enter as an indispensable condition in the historical and class concept ‘’dictatorship.’’
But, theoretical and practical situations do not always coincide during a revolution. How the exploiters will be dealt with ‘’is a question of the specific national features of this or that capitalism, of this or that revolution.’’ So we can have classes and discuss in theory ‘’is the dictatorship of the proletariat possible without infringing democracy in relation to the exploiting class.” We know pretty much how revisionists, renegades, and those looking to get rid of the worse ideas of Marxism or “reload” it with blanks will answer this question. However, in practice, there is a fact that must be faced. ‘’The proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie.’’ This will require [if history is any guide] the proletariat ‘’forcibly suppressing its adversaries.’’ And, “where there is ‘forcible suppression’, where there is no ‘freedom’, there is, of course, no democracy,’’ that is, no bourgeois democracy.
THE SOVIETS DARE NOT BECOME STATE ORGANIZATIONS
Bad as Kautsky was, he was still to the left of those today who advocate such anti-Marxist counter-revolutionary nonsense as ‘’vote for all Democrats, defeat all Republicans’’ or ‘’vote blue no matter who,’’ which does nothing to increase the class consciousness of workers regarding the need for socialism and creates the false impression that the Democratic Party is pro-working class — a view also propagated by the trade union bureaucracy which supports and benefits from the capitalist system and only demands a bigger share of the spoils as their reward for keeping the class struggle confined to parameters acceptable to the bourgeoisie.
What were the Soviets? Lenin said, ‘’The Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship.’’ What did Kautsky say about the Soviets? They first appeared in the 1905 Revolution [the dress rehearsal for October]. He called them “the most all-embracing form of proletarian organization, for it embraced all the wage-workers.” Not only that, but they are the most advanced revolutionary expression of the working-class consciousness. He says, “it appears that everywhere the old methods of the economic and political struggle of the proletariat are inadequate against the gigantic economic and political forces which finance capital has at its disposal.” He also notes that the “trade union bureaucracy’’ is ‘’useless for the purpose of directing the mighty mass battles that are more and more becoming a sign of the times….”
So what’s the problem? The same situation is facing us today 100 years later — we are not in a revolutionary situation, it is true, but we are at least in the beginning of a pre-revolutionary situation as world capitalism — especially in the form of the ‘’American Century” is beginning to crack up. Capitalism could crash as unexpectedly and as suddenly as most of the world Communist movement did 30 years ago. Maybe that is too much to hope, but it is possible. The Romans never expected the Vandals.
Anyway, the above was Kautsky’s view before the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917 and took up the slogan “All power to the Soviets.” They overthrew the provisional government (Kerensky) which took over in February after the Tsar’s abdication. After the Bolsheviks took over, Kautsky changed his tune. He supported the February Revolution and the attempt to create a bourgeois democratic form of government. He supported the Soviets as a militant force representing the working class and its role to pressure the government progressively from the outside.
Lenin’s “All power to the Soviets” overthrew the government of Kerensky and instituted the DP. The Bolsheviks “destroyed the democracy which the Russian people won in” the February Revolution, Kautsky said. In other words, while the Soviets represented the working people as a whole, (the vast majority by far of the Russian people were workers or peasants [agricultural work]), they had no business becoming the government of Russia. Kautsky had said the Soviets were needed in the “decisive battles” between labour and capital. Well then, Lenin asks, won’t that decisive battle ‘’decide which of the two classes will assume state power?”
It was clear to the revolutionaries of 1917-18 that the Soviets should take state power through the agency of the Bolsheviks. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in 1922 and came to an end in 1991. Just when did the Soviets cease to control state power and power devolved to the party, to a clique, to an individual, to a ‘’new’’ class— was it due to Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev? The debate still rages and many party leaders just want to blame the CIA and move on — criticism and self-criticism can be unsettling.
At any rate, Lenin concluded: ‘’Bourgeois democracy was progressive compared to medievalism. And it had to be utilized. But now it is not sufficient for the working class. Now we must look forward instead of backward— to replacing the bourgeois democracy with proletarian democracy.’’ Are there any forces in the USA today that can do this, or even want to?
THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY AND THE SOVIET REPUBLIC
‘’The All Russian Constituent Assembly was a constituent assembly convened in Russia after the February Revolution of 1917. It met for 13 hours, from 4 p.m. to 5 a.m., 18–19 January [O.S. 5–6 January] 1918, whereupon it was illegally dissolved by the Bolshevik-led All-Russian Central Executive Committee proclaiming the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets the new governing body of Russia.’’— Wikipedia.
This action by the Bolsheviks is, Lenin says, “the crux” of the book by Kautsky he is critiquing.
The Bolsheviks are accused of ‘’destroying’’ democracy. ‘’This question is really an interesting and important one, because the relation between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy here confronted the revolution in a practical form.”
How does Kautsky justify his attack on Lenin and the Bolsheviks? He wants to use Lenin’s own words against him. He will take quotes from Lenin but, as we shall see, they are taken out of context. This is still a practice today used by revisionists and renegades who take quotes from MEL out of context to justify their deviations from sound Marxist principles.
In the year between the February Revolution and the October one, Lenin often praised the idea of a Constituent Assembly but, as the revolution progressed and the balance for forces shifted away from the Mensheviks and radical bourgeois forces, Lenin’s attitude towards the Constituent Assembly (CA) changed. When the elections were held that formed the basis for the CA the bourgeois democrats had the majority votes and the Bolsheviks were in the minority. But then the Soviets exploded in popularity due to the inability of the bourgeois democratic government to take any actions to improve the wellbeing of the masses.
When the CA finally got seated to begin governing the Bolsheviks were in the majority of the population, but this was not represented in the CA. The Soviets dismissed the CA and proclaimed themselves the government of Russia — this was accepted by the workers and peasants and the soldiers and sailors throughout Russia and Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in power —the Soviet government lasted until 1991. How it lost power is still being debated.
But there was no debate about it in 1918 except by Kautsky, the Mensheviks, and the out of power bourgeois forces. Kautsky says Lenin justified the takeover by the following quote: “The Republic of Soviets is not only a higher type of democratic institution (as compared by the usual bourgeois republic crowned by a Constituent Assembly), but is the only form capable of securing the most painless transition to socialism.”
Kautsky implies Lenin is a hypocrite by saying, “It is a pity that this conclusion was arrived at only after the Bolsheviks found themselves in the minority in the Constituent Assembly. Before that no one had demanded it [the CA] more vociferously than Lenin.”
The problem with this is Lenin had been touting the superiority of the proletarian state to a bourgeois state long before the CA had come into existence. “Everyone knows that on the very day of my arrival in Russia, on April 4, 1917, I publicly read my theses in which I proclaimed the superiority of the Paris Commune [Soviet] type of state over the bourgeois parliamentary republic.”
So much for Kautsky’s libels. The important issue is the theoretical one: “Is it true that the bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic is inferior to the republic of the Paris Commune or Soviet type?”
There was no doubt in 1918 that the answer was yes. The new Soviet government ended the war with Germany, redistributed land to the peasants, and ended the economic and social anarchism that was reigning in Russia and which the bourgeois government was unable to control. There were still many problems, but the majority of the people supported and worked with the Soviets to make the new government succeed.
Lenin wanted to be fair to Kautsky and says that before he got cold feet and afraid of revolution, before he became a Marxist renegade, he had been a real Marxist thinker and from this time “such works of his will remain a permanent possession of the proletariat in spite of his subsequent apostasy.’’
Lenin felt the same way about Plekhanov. We can make the same distinctions today between the works of Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao, among others— I mean between correctly formulated Marxist works and deviationist works when they responded to events hastily and without a correct theoretical grasp of the situation.
Even the current running dogs of the Democratic Party occasionally adopt a correct position in spite of their right-opportunistic pseudo-socialist positions. It is absolutely correct to support workers striking for living wages, for example, but to tell them that President Biden has their backs is problematic – as the rail workers found out when it was a different part of their anatomy he had them by when he forced them not to strike and take a bad contract.
The real problem with Kautsky was he didn’t prioritize in reality proletarian rule over the “formal” ideals of bourgeois democracy. He didn’t see that class struggle was more important than abstractly presented “democratic” struggles. The universal right to vote can produce reactionary, even fascist, governments as well as liberal or progressive ones. Bourgeois democracy gave us Trump (at least the US version did).
The issue regarding the overthrow of the CA and the establishment of the Soviet state boiled down to the fact that the class interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are not compatible — they contradict one another. Despite Kautsky’s views on the value of “pure” or “bourgeois” democracy, the masses of the workers and exploited Russian people had “turned away from petty-bourgeois leadership, from the illusion that it was possible to reach a compromise with the bourgeoisie, and had joined the proletarian revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.”
We haven’t reached this point in the US yet, and we never will as long as our so-called Marxist leaders don’t forcibly tell the masses we must sometimes compromise and even vote for the lesser of two evils, but they are still evils and we have to build the class consciousness of the exploited masses and intensify the class struggle, not confuse it with petty bourgeois radical demands which are also worthy of support but as part of the class struggle. Lenin would likely suggest we give up unrealistic slogans such as ‘’left-center unity’’ (which doesn’t exist), and ‘’coalition partners’’ (only a few really qualify) for temporary cooperation with petty bourgeois progressives and unions on issues of common concern.
THE SOVIET CONSTITUTION
The closing of the CA did not, in fact, exclude the petty bourgeois parties from ‘’democracy’’— these parties were also represented in the Soviets and thus participated in proletarian democracy— only now they were minority parties. The new constitution didn’t come about until the middle of 1918, so the Soviets ran the country directly from 1917 onwards. Besides the Bolsheviks the other main parties were the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). The Bolsheviks never set out to ban opposition parties and kick them out of the Soviets, but that is what happened.
Lenin explains what occurred in this section. I am not going over every detail as the historical minutiae are unimportant in the context of this essay (they are readily available in history books.)
What it boils down to is that the bourgeoisie as a class refused to accept the fact that working people controlled the State. Kautsky and his followers attacked the Soviets in the press and at meetings constantly. Fine, Lenin and the Bolsheviks could live with that— reality was on their side politically.
In the time between the Soviet assumption of power in 1917 and the adoption of the constitution in 1918 the bourgeoisie not only formulated military mutinies, but also, with western support, waged a civil war that raged in Russia from 1917 until 1923. The bourgeois parties gave support to the White armies (the anti-Soviet side). The Soviet constitution proclaimed the Russian State to be a proletarian State and outlawed all enemy classes— since the bourgeois parties were engaged in treason, supporting an attempt to overthrow the government, they were outlawed. It was the complete refusal of the bourgeois parties to coexist with the Soviet State that led to a one-party State.
It’s true, however, when you get down to the brass tacks, that Marxists really hate the capitalist system and what it has done to the people of the world. We want to abolish it and all its oppressive institutions. But what about Bill of Rights Socialism? Yes, Lenin would have supported a Bill of Rights under Socialism. What is a rose by any other name? Socialism is itself the living embodiment of any Bill of Rights.
Lenin said this to the bourgeoisie: “You, exploiters and hypocrites, talk about democracy, while at every step you erect thousands of barriers to prevent the oppressed people from taking part in politics. We take you at your word and, in the interests of these people, demand the extension of your bourgeois democracy in order to prepare the people for revolution for the purpose of overthrowing you, the exploiters. And if you exploiters attempt to offer resistance to our proletarian revolution we shall ruthlessly suppress you; we shall deprive you of all rights; more than that, we shall not give you any bread, for in our proletarian revolution the exploiters will have no rights, they will be deprived of Fire and Water, for we are socialists in real earnest, and not in the Scheidemann or Kautsky fashion.” [Phillip Scheidemann 1865-1939 SPD/ Weimar Republic leader; anti-Bolshevik revisionist and de facto fascist enabler.]
There will be a Bill of Rights Socialism for the oppressed and exploited masses who come to power in the revolution (peaceful or not)— it won’t be for the exploiters and oppressors of the people; it will be the essence of Socialism itself.
WHAT IS INTERNATIONALISM?
Marxists are supposed to be internationalists: “Workers of the world unite….” etc. Just what does this mean? After the breakup of the socialist international over WWI, the ensuing peace, and the Russian Revolution, it began to mean different things to different groups of people calling themselves Marxists and socialists. This section will try and elucidate what it means to those who take MEL seriously.
Lenin says he is going to ‘’dwell’’ on Kautsky’s form of “internationalism” because it is the major form taken by the Mensheviks and parties of the Second International. The Mensheviks disbanded as a party in 1921, but their views live on and are mentioned after 1921. Today there are both socialist and Communist Parties practicing, to a greater or lesser degree, Menshevik, revisionist, Euro-communist, and /or purely social-democratic ideas. They comprise a hodgepodge, and if I use one of the four terms to describe a group it is highly probable the other terms could also have been applied.
Kautsky, who was not a Menshevik, was a supporter and agreed with them on the CA and how the war should end. They did not support a separate peace (between Russia and Germany) but wanted to fight on with the Allies until there was a general peace. He said the Bolsheviks wanted a separate peace and were willing to undermine the army to get it. Well, he was right, but that was what the masses in the Soviets wanted, and they overthrew the provisional government (which included the Mensheviks) to get it. Kautsky was totally against the Bolsheviks taking power and dismissing the CA.
What did Lenin think of the idea of prolonging the imperialist war and leaving the bourgeoisie in charge of the government? “Theoretically, this shows a complete inability to disassociate oneself from the social-chauvinists and complete confusion on the question of the defense of the fatherland. Politically, it means substituting petty-bourgeois nationalism for internationalism, deserting to the reformists’ camp and renouncing revolution.”
Here Lenin makes a major distinction between Marxists, Communists, and the revisionist de facto allies of the bourgeoisie. “The proletariat fights for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie; the petty bourgeoisie fights for the ‘’reformist’’ improvement of imperialism, for adaptation to it, while submitting to it.”
But, as Lenin said, this is what we must do when we are in a time of revolutionary ferment. But this is not such a time. To pull off a revolution we have to be able to weaken and disorganize the armed forces of the bourgeoisie, and to be successful we have to “smash the old army and replace it with a new one.” In fact, the five only still existing socialist countries did just that. I don’t think any sane Marxist think we are in a time in which the Armed Forces of the USA are about to be smashed by the US working class.
But, Kautsky and the renegades reply, what to do in the meantime. If a war breaks out and people use violence against our country, we have the duty to defend it. Even today we have such arguments extended to our friends” as well. Look, Russia is using violence against Ukraine, our friend, by helping Ukraine we are imposing violence back against Russia. How’s that different than WWI when the working people fought for their own countries? How should Marxists respond to violence?
Lenin says, “Socialism is opposed to violence against nations.” It’s also against individual people using violence against one another. But Socialists are not pacifists. In a revolutionary situation, Lenin says, Socialists have never opposed the use of revolutionary violence when it was necessary. This also includes a revolutionary war such as the one the US colonials proclaimed against the British beginning in 1775-76.
This does not apply to WWI. “The imperialist war of 1914-18 is a war between two groups of imperialist bourgeoisies for the division of the world, for the division of the booty, and for the plunder and strangulation of small and weak nations.’’ The desire to continue to participate in this war until a general settlement is reached, as Kautsky, the Mensheviks, and other renegades propose, has nothing to do with Socialism and is a position of bourgeois lackies.
The position of Kautsky and company (defense of the fatherland/motherland) is commonplace jingoism having nothing to do with class analysis and proletarian internationalism. This is ‘’My country right or wrong” nonsense. The only thing of importance is which class or group is benefitting from the war— the imperialists, the capitalists or the workers, the masses. It “does not depend on who the attacker was, or in whose country the ‘enemy’ is stationed; it depends on what class is waging the war, and what politics this war is a continuation of.’’ Socialists are duty bound to educate the workers and instill in them the basics of MEL— that wars, imperialism, and plunder of the poor by the rich can only be ended by the establishment of Socialism and they must adopt a revolutionary perspective to be ready for revolutionary situations when they occur.
As an example, let’s ask this question concerning the proxy war between the USA and Russia going on now, July 2023. The class question:1. Russia: with a national bourgeoisie recently emerged from the collapse of the USSR. This class is relatively new, weak, and inexperienced. The GDP of Russia, for all its size and great extent, is smaller than that of South Korea. Russia’s economy is #11 in the world. 2. USA: run by a monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie with international connections and controlling the number 1 world economy. It commands a worldwide imperialist empire with 780 military bases in 80 different countries and a military budget larger than the combined budgets of the next 10 nations combined. Russia has about 20 foreign bases— outside of 2 in Syria and 1 in Vietnam the others are in former parts of the USSR.
The politics behind the war: 1) The USA seeks to enlarge its empire using its NATO military alliance and the threat of force in other areas of the world. It is the most aggressive military imperialism in history which has been waging and fomenting wars and overthrowing governments continuously since the end of WWII. 2. Russia, since the end of the USSR, has used its military defensively in two ways 1. Fighting separatist movements mostly in southern Russia against Islamist militants. 2) Taking defensive action against USA provocative and aggressive actions, overt and covert, using NATO expansion along its borders, including Ukraine (de facto) and in Georgia along its southern border. It wants to weaken US imperialism, end its Unipolar control of globalization, and create a multi-polar world free of USA domination.
These are the facts of the current state of internationalism. There will be other events now and in the future in which Marxists will have to decide what is in the best interests of the world’s workers and exploited masses, as well as their own working class. How should they react to events such as above— support one of the two sides or be neutral, or something else. This is important because we are not now in a revolutionary situation and one of, if not the most important, conclusions, Lenin draws in this section of his work is: “It is the ABC of Marxism that the tactics of the socialist proletariat cannot be the same both when there is a revolutionary situation and when there is no revolutionary situation.’’
In the remainder of this section Lenin excoriates Kautsky for attacking the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary sections of the working class from the point of view of positions taken as if there was not a revolutionary situation in 1918, one that was produced by the violence and destruction of the world war. At this time Lenin was clearly correct and Communist movements were springing up all over Europe and the working class was joining and leading them. The Second International had dissolved by 1916 into three different groups— Central Power pro-war ’socialists,’ Triple Entente pro-war ‘socialists,’ and anti-war socialists. The third group carried on the anti-war tradition that had been the official position of the Second International until the actual war broke out. Lenin and the Bolsheviks and their allies realized a new international was needed to unify the third group.
“Bolshevism has created the ideological and tactical foundations of a Third International, of a really proletarian and Communist International, which will take into consideration both the gains of the tranquil epoch and experience of the epoch of revolutions, which has begun.” The Third International was founded in 1919.
A lot has happened in a century. The revolutionary fervor of the immediate post war years died down as capitalism proved more stable than was anticipated by the revolutionary socialists. Lenin had provided for this possibility and stated, regardless of what the future might hold, the “Soviet government has done so much that even if Soviet government in Russia were to be crushed by world imperialism tomorrow….it would still be found that Bolshevik tactics have brought enormous benefit to socialism and have assisted the growth of the invincible world revolution.’’ It took world imperialism almost seventy years to crush the Soviet government and the last word on the world revolution has yet to be written.
SUBSERVIENCE TO THE BOURGEOISIE IN THE GUISE OF ‘’ECONOMIC ANALYSIS’’
It is difficult to get lessons for advanced capitalist states from the economic arguments between Lenin and Kautsky regarding the Russian Revolution since some of the concepts used are not applicable to countries such as the USA today. We have no peasantry which the proletariat needs to ally with, and petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletarians are terms used differently. There is also a classification used by some today, “the professional-managerial class” or PMC that was not in use in Lenin’s day. In traditional Marxist analysis, such as found in MEL, the PMC doesn’t qualify as a “class” but as a mixture of capitalist or proletarian strata based on relations to the means of production either directly expropriating surplus value or by receiving excessively high incomes from wages or salaries paid by those who do.
Basically, there were two approaches, exemplified by Lenin and Kautsky, about how the workers should relate to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky and Lenin were more or less on the same page regarding the 1905 Revolution that broke out and failed. The Mensheviks held that it was a bourgeois democratic revolution because capitalism was not advanced enough in Russia to sustain a proletarian revolution. The aim should be to reform the state and the workers should follow the lead of the bourgeoisie.
The Bolsheviks held that the revolution was bourgeois because the peasants were, and the workers should ally with them and then win over the “semi-proletariat” (all the workers and oppressed not in the industrial proletariat) and overthrow the middle peasants and big bourgeoisie and begin a Socialist Revolution. The peasants were divided into lower (the vast poor majority) the middle, and the rich or higher (Kulaks). Lenin pointed this out in Two Tactics (1905).
The idea that Lenin is rejecting is ‘’that in a bourgeois revolution one must not go farther than the bourgeoisie!’’ Kautsky had come to this Menshevik view by 1918. In terms of the modern tactic of “Left-center Unity” Mensheviks, ever subservient to the bourgeoisie, would urge us not to outstrip the most advanced demands of the Center. Some even refuse to criticize the Center at all— for the sake of ‘’unity.’’
The next few pages concern Kautsky’s claim that the Soviets are exercising a dictatorship in Russia, but that it’s not a proletarian dictatorship but a peasant dictatorship because the proletariat is small and the vast majority are peasants. Lenin says, this is just Kautsky not understanding how the Revolution has developed.
The Soviets first called for unity with the peasantry as such. The rich peasants didn’t go for this and supported the bourgeoisie. The middle peasants began to waver and oscillated between the bourgeoisie and the workers, The poor peasants did unite with and support the workers. The Revolution, therefore established the Soviets of workers and poor peasants. The Bolsheviks were the leading force in these Soviets, so the Revolution was a proletarian revolution of the workers and poor peasants.
It is important to remember that the peasants are members of the petty bourgeoisie and Lenin points out that “owing to the basic features of its economic position, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of doing anything independently.’’ This is why it broke up with the middle and upper elements supporting bourgeois rule and the lower and poor elements falling in with the proletariat and semi-proletariat.
Lenin says it would have been foolhardy for the Bolsheviks to have proclaimed a socialist revolution right off the bat in 1917. The peasant majority in the rural areas were not prepared for this. The Bolsheviks called for a worker-peasant alliance, when the kulaks balked, they made concessions to the middle peasants, and as the class divisions became clearer, they ended up with a worker- (poor) peasant alliance representing a majority of the population. It is necessary for us ‘’to understand that a general peasant revolution is still a bourgeois revolution, and that without a series of transitions, of transitional stages, it cannot be transformed into a socialist revolution in a backwards country.”
This is a general feature of the petty bourgeoisie as such, wavering, not just the peasant faction. This is why, in our day, Left-center Unity, a revisionist bourgeois Menshevik position, is a failing strategy and leads to the victory of the neoliberals and the defeat of the workers. It’s because the center defects to the right when push comes to shove. Obama, once elected for example, moved to the right and supported neoliberalism and imperialism and gave only a few halfhearted reforms to the workers (Obamacare, for example, rather than Medicare for all, which still leaves over 26 million out in the cold with no coverage). The Center in the USA has its own right, middle, and left wings and what we need now is a Left-Center Left alliance, not a Left-Center alliance because as things fall apart the Center cannot hold.
In alliances it is important to support the demands and slogans that the masses are making, even if they are not as advanced as the vanguard (the party, the Bolsheviks) think they should be. This involves compromises and patience and at the same time keeping the more advanced positions alive and discussing them within the alliance but not trying to force the issue (ultra-leftism). These less advanced positions cannot just be dismissed out of hand.
“And the ideas and demands of the majority of the working people are things that the working people must discard of their own accord: such demands cannot be either ‘abolished’ or ’skipped over.’” Communists must help the masses “to disregard petty bourgeois slogans, to pass from them as quickly and easily as possible to socialist slogans.’’ It is the failure to do this that has led many Communist Parties to fall off the Road to Socialism into revisionism, right opportunism and liberalism, aping organized parties like the Democratic or Republican parties and de facto supporting the bourgeoisie.
All the issues facing the American people, for example, are the same that have been facing them since the end of WWII and even earlier: women’s rights, civil rights, police brutality, constant war, weak unions, homelessness, racism, low wages, lack of proper health care, poverty, etc., etc., whichever party is in control the problems never go away, they go up and down, new ones come, but the old ones never go away. The Left has no program to solve these problems — it just circles around with the same old ideas; build coalitions, fight the ultra-right, target the Republicans, blah, blah, blah, the more they dust off and renew their same old responses to capitalism, the more they stay the same, and now, what some call the “socialist moment,” the socialist “plus” or even their “superpower” based on collectivity (while they purge their ranks of dissidents) the political reality around them has moved beyond the ultra-right towards outright fascism while the same losing tactics remain the same.
In his response to the renegade Kautsky, Lenin outlined what the job of the Left was. The bourgeois democratic revolution in the USA has long ago reached its limit— the two-party system alternating in the White House, a Congress controlled by finance capital whichever party happens to control it, the Supreme Court, as usual, serving the interest of corporations not people.
Marxists have to tell the workers the truth their bourgeois sellout labor leader bureaucrats won’t. The bourgeois democratic revolution which founded the USA has long ago reached its limit as a progressive force.
Any bourgeois revolution that has reached its limit, has stagnated, whether in Russia in 1917 or the USA now in decline, shows that by ‘’reaching its limit, it all the more clearly, rapidly and easily reveals to the people the inadequacy of bourgeois-democratic solutions and the necessity of proceeding beyond their limits, of passing on to socialism.” The only raison d'être for a Communist Party is to lead the working class beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, not play it up as the be all and end all of the struggle.
It is true we are not yet in a revolutionary environment. The delusions of bourgeois democracy still have a grip on the masses not yet won over to fascism. As long as we live in a society based on private ownership of the means of production and commodity production, “socialism” remains an ideal future solution to the contradictions of poverty and wealth, universal suffrage and voter suppression, justice for all (the rich not the poor), the social production of wealth and its private appropriation – but Marxists have to keep directing the eyes of the workers on the prize and not, like Kautsky and today’s revisionist leaders, present to the workers, “as far as theory is concerned, an incredible hodge-podge which is a complete renunciation of Marxism, and, as far as practice is concerned, a policy of servility to the bourgeoisie and their reformism.’’
Lenin didn’t actually finish this last part of his polemic against Kautsky. Because “news was received from Germany [November 9,1918] announcing the beginning of a victorious revolution….”
North Germany was in turmoil and a revolutionary council had taken power in Berlin. As far as this work was concerned, “The conclusion which still remained to be written to my pamphlet on Kautsky and on the proletarian revolution is now superfluous.’’
The German Revolution of 1918-1919 overthrew the Kaiser and ended with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. It failed to become a socialist revolution because the revisionist leaders of the SPD allied with the military and the bourgeoisie against the workers. I leave it to the perspicacity of the reader to determine whether or not a conclusion would have been superfluous.
There are two items at the end of Lenin’s polemic listed as appendices.
Appendix I. Theses on the Constituent Assembly
The Bolshevik closing of the Constituent Assembly was a big deal in 1918 and I have covered all the arguments for it in the main body of this text. Here we find 19 numbered explanations of why this was a justified action. It is unnecessary for our purposes to go over this appendix, but it is worth reading on your own just to reinforce Lenin’s position given in the main body of the text.
Appendix II. Vandevelde’s New Book on the State
Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938) was, along with Kautsky, a top leader of the Second International and his book Socialism versus the State (1918) was another renegade, revisionist anti-Marxist tract dealing with the State in the same manner as Kautsky dealt with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This appendix is a brief review by Lenin along the lines of his criticism of Kautsky. You can read it on your own, but it isn’t necessary here to go over its arguments. The arguments focus on the nature of the State and the transition to socialism and from socialism to the withering away of the State and are the same as or similar to the arguments against Kautsky.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism and Eurocommunism: A Critical Reading of Santiago Carrillo and Eurocommunist Revisionism.