5 March 2022

International Social Democracy and the Road to Socialism, 1905-1917: The Ballot, the Street and the State

John Marot


German Social-Democracy does not put into its programme the demand for a republic. The situation in Germany is such that this question can in practice hardly be separated from that of socialism.

Lenin, 1905

[T]he sole state form in which socialism can be realised is the republic, the democratic republic.

Kautsky, 1909.


Introduction: Kautsky or Lenin?

The “S” word no longer scares as many people in the United States as it used to. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign made it official: democratic socialism will not bring an end to common decency, good cheer and Christianity. Moreover, the break-out Black Likes Matter movement in the United States has once again shown the world the political bona fides of mass, direct action in the streets – an essential component of any revolution worthy of the name. Finally, the recent centenary of the October Revolution sparked an interest in the history of socialism and socialist political theory among radicalizing youth. Many learned about Lenin and the Bolshevik Party and how they led the working class in Russia to power.

And yet, when all is said and done, the socialist Elysium remains for many distant, elusive.

Over a century later, the October Revolution and Bolshevism are still unduplicated originals. No reasonable facsimile of either has ever been reproduced outside Russia. In Russia itself a murderous Stalinist dictatorship soon supplanted soviet democracy and workers’ rule. ‘Leninist Bolshevism’ leads to Stalinism. For many post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The ultimately disastrous outcome of the October Revolution prompted many socialists in the West to condemn wholesale Lenin and Bolshevism very early on. Leading the charge was Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), the ‘pope’ of Second International Marxism, the most prominent theoretician of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), the party most socialists, especially the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia, looked up to for guidance in the classical epoch of the Second International, 1889-1914.

Beginning on the morrow of the October 1917 Revolution until his death, Kautsky denounced the Bolshevik leader and his ‘anti-democratic’, ‘Blanquist’ and ‘insurrectionary’ conception of socialist revolution.1 With the onset of the Cold War, ‘free-world’ socialists raised high the banner of Kautsky’s crusade, broadcasting their anti-communism far and wide.

For his part, Lenin and other revolutionaries turned against Kautsky for not doing anything in 1914 to stop the inter-imperialist slaughter. Lenin excoriated the ‘renegade’2 and set out to destroy the hold of ‘Kautskyism’ in the workers’ movement by founding the Third International in 1919 as a revolutionary, communist alternative to the social democratic, pro-war, counter-revolutionary reformism (as he now saw it) of the Second. So began the Great Divergence in a period of revolutionary upheaval: Social Democracy vs. Communism, the ballot box vs. the street, reform vs. revolution, workers’ self-determination vs. party dictatorship, slavery vs. freedom. The debate continues.

Despite (because of?) Lenin’s anathema, Kautsky’s pre-1914 writings presently appear to many socialist activists politically relevant whereas Lenin’s do not. This is understandable. But appearances can be deceptive.

Kautsky addressed an array of political issues facing socialists operating in an advanced capitalist society, addressing us. In sharp contrast, Lenin dealt with a ‘backward’ society where the working class was but an island in a sea of small-holding peasants, and an autocrat ruled Russia by the Grace of God. This reality was far removed fromours, from secular, bourgeois-democratic states of Western Europe and the United States, with their very large working classes and (more or less) extensive representative political forms, and other regions of the world where, broadly speaking, the capitalist mode of production reigned (and reigns).3

Today’s watchword is: free Kautsky from Lenin’s damnatio memoriae and give his political writings a second reading. Lars Lih has given a historical justification – and much more.

In Lih’s view, Kautsky’s pre-1914 political writings – Kautskyism – guided Lenin and his partisans in Russia not just before 1914, but right through 1917 as well. Indeed, Kautsky was nothing less than the “architect” of the October Revolution – a singular claim as Lih realises.4 But this is the least of it.

Lih also claims that Lenin’s politics, right through the 1917 Russian Revolution, are relevant to modern day socialists in advanced capitalist societies with bourgeois-democratic states. He contradicts those socialists who think bourgeois-democratic revolutions in countries with non-bourgeois-democratic states, with autocracies such as Tsarist Russia, mandate political strategies and forms of party/political organisation fundamentally different from with those required for socialist revolutions in capitalist democracies.5

Lih’s double conception of overarching continuity in Bolshevik politics, from 1903 on, and fidelity to Second International Marxism – Lenin’s ‘Kautskyism’ – up to and including 1917, has no precedent. It has been hailed in academia as a breakthrough, generally by non-specialists of Russian and Soviet history. In some quarters of the activist left, it has earned Lih Herostratic fame. The latter, ‘orthodox Leninists’ mostly, deny that Lenin continued in Kautsky’s footsteps, retorting that the Bolshevik leader had broken with him not just in 1917, but that Bolshevism itself, from its very inception in 1903, actually represented an organized political trend – a ‘party of a new type’ – distinctly, if only implicitly, at odds with Second International orthodoxy, with Kautskyism. August Nimtz’s work is the latest and fullest iteration of this argument.6

These competing lines of argument clash. In their totality, both cannot be right.

In 1917, Lenin deepened his attack on Kautsky counter-revolutionary politics, initiated in 1914, to embrace Kautsky’s theory of democracy, parliament and the state underlying those politics. Lenin’s State and Revolution, drafted in early 1917, was its centrepiece. Here, there was no continuity with Kautskyism, as Lih thinks. Here, the ‘Leninists’ are right. But this is not to endorse as well the standard ‘Leninist’ view of Bolshevism assui generis long before 1917 (a view also shared by Stalinists, the latter just pushing back Lenin’s hostility to Kautsky almost to a time when Lenin was still in his crib).

These Leninists are skating on dangerously thin ice to single out Bolshevism as the only true-blue revolutionary trend in the Second International, with a few approving nods in Luxemburg’s direction. They understand something the leading thinkers of the Second International did not only because they have the benefit of hindsight. For the orthodox Leninists recognise today that no one then thought the ‘left’, Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP was incompatible with membership in the Second International – just as little as anyone thought the left or ‘Luxemburgist’ wing of the SPD was beyond the pale.

As Lih has shown beyond all reasonable doubt, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg were all adherents of ‘Erfurtianism’ – Lenin especially. As used here – and only here, for the purposes of my argument – Erfurtianism is synonymous with ‘Kautskyism’: a concrete political strategy for a socialist transformation of a developed capitalist society with abourgeois-democratic state – and understood to be such by Second International Marxist theorists, by Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and others.7

The social transformation we strive for, Kautsky wrote in Road to Power (1909), can only be attained through a political revolution, by means of the fighting proletariat conquering political power. And the sole state form in which socialism can be realised is the republic, the democratic republic.8

Broadly speaking, Kautsky argued that the German Social-Democratic Party, legalised in 1890, could use the legislative arm of the bourgeois-democratic state – the Reichstag (or Parliament, Congress, Diet, House of Commons, Chamber of Deputies, Sejm, Knesset, etc.) – to blaze a parliamentary road to socialism. Conquering a majority in parliament by winning seats to it in electoral contests, possible only under a democratic republic with universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage, was the first step. Once won, a socialist transformation of capitalist society could begin promptly, via the institution of parliament.9 Ben Lewis accurately restates Kautsky’s position: The “struggle for more extensive representative political forms in state and society forms the strategic bridge between existing society and the socialist state of the future.”10 In this sense, all Social Democrats in Russia and the West were partisans of “Marxist Republicanism” to use Lewis’s apt, if jarring, expression

But could Marxist republicanism also ‘extend representative political forms’ to Tsarist Russia, as Lih holds, a country where there was no democratic republic, indeed, where there was no republic at all but a feudal autocracy? Where a transition to socialism was off the table because the material pre-requisites for it were absent there but present in the West? The relationship between ‘Kautskyism’ and ‘Leninism’ in the light of these heterogeneous social realities is more complex than Lih, ‘orthodox’ Leninists and many others allow.

After the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, Russian Social Democrats divided over whether Kautsky’s political thinking could be suitably modified to fit Russian conditions simply because they could not agree what conditions in Russia were and how they were developing. Only the Mensheviks believed that Erfurtian conditions were being realised in Russia, that the country was making slow, mottled progress toward bourgeois democracy, as expressed in the formation of the Duma in 1906, the Russian Parliament, rendering Kautsky’s strategy, devised for a bourgeois-democratic state, increasingly relevant. The Bolsheviks thought otherwise.

The Bolsheviks did not think an Erfurtian strategy could be adapted to conditions that were not Erfurtian at all, nor becoming Erfurtian. The Russian state remained in their eyes an unreconstructed feudal or quasi-feudal autocracy.  Here, the state ran parliament. In the West, however,parliament ran the state – or so nearly every social democrat then thought. Lih misses this inverse causal relation. So does Nimtz. Only a fuller analysis of the singularities of the Russian state and its parliament in relation to bourgeois-democratic states and their legislative arms can lay the basis for a better, more politically fruitful grasp of the issues at stake.

In Lenin’s view, post-1905 Russia with its parliament still required a political strategy qualitatively different than Kautsky’s in the West, catering to the specificities of Russia’s class and property relations. The Mensheviks did not. Pace Lih, the Mensheviks were the true Erfurtians in Russian Social Democracy, not the Bolsheviks.Pace Nimtz, the Bolsheviks limited their attack on the relevance of Erfurtian strategy to Russia alone before 1917; only in 1917 did Leninextend it to the Westas well, universalising the Russian experience – but in a very specific sense. Below, I try to substantiate these and other broad claims.

I: Before 1917

The Road to Socialism in the West: Winning the Battle of Democracy

“Winning the battle of democracy” in capitalist society, declared the Communist Manifesto, ultimately spelled the “conquest of political power by the proletariat,” the “overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy,” and the subsequent formation of a new society. The 1891 Erfurt Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party codified these spare remarks into a full-fledged strategy. Kautsky was the most powerful exponent of Erfurtianism, working out in intricate detail the tactics of this strategy in many books and articles.

One aspect of Kautsky’s politics did generate critical scrutiny, though. On Kautsky’s left, Rosa Luxemburg became well known after the 1905 Russian Revolution for promoting the revolutionary tactic of the mass strike to complement and bolster the SPD’s electoral strategy.

In The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906), her masterly study of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Luxemburg envisaged the use of the mass strike even in bourgeois-democratic, Erfurtian conditions, in the West and not just in autocratic Russia. Should bourgeois parties dare contest the SPD’s democratically acquired and legally constituted supremacy in parliament by unlawful, extra-parliamentary, extra-electoral means, potentially creating a revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary crisis, Social Democrats must be prepared to respond with mass strikes and mass action in the streets to crush any would-be usurpers of the democratically expressed will of the people.

Moreover, events in Russia had revealed the labour movement’s discontinuous, episodically revolutionary character, mandating dynamic changes in the SPD’s hitherto more-or-less permanently defensive Ermattungstrategie, or strategy of attrition. Here, Luxemburg took exception to the SPD leadership’s marked tendency to call for the mass strike only defensively, only as a last resort, in spectacular, do-or-die circumstances – a veiled reference to Kautsky who often invoked Engels to justify prudence: “…if we are not insane enough to favour them by letting them drive us into street battles, nothing will in the end be left to them but themselves to break through the legality that is so fatal to them.”11

Luxemburg pressed for mass, direct action offensively as well, even in non-revolutionary situations, whenever the opportunity arose. She insisted that the party promote and deepen working-class activity by providing the workers’ movement with political leadership oriented toward a strategy of confrontation instead of accommodation with the employers and the state, opening the way for victory. In this way, non-institutionalised forms of working-class power in the streets could decisively influence the course of politics off the streets, in parliament. Luxemburg proposed what some today call the ‘inside-outside’ strategy: the ballot box and the street.

Right, Centre and Left in the SPD well understood Kautsky’s strategy for realising socialism under a bourgeois-democratic state. As Lih has copiously shown, no Social Democrat in Russia took fundamental issue with Kautsky’s political thinking – though Lenin and the Bolsheviks almost always upheld Luxemburg’s bolder, more activist tactics, tactics that often went beyond police legality, or threatened to do so.

To Lenin and his partisans, Kautsky was no reformist but a revolutionary whose theory did not exclude revolutionary tactics a priori to achieve a socialist transition. And they staunchly defended Kautsky whenever the ‘revisionist’, Bernsteinian right in the SPD dismissed the mass strike as ‘mass nonsense’, with trade union leaders especially opposed to ‘adventurist’ tactics under any circumstances because they were illegal, provoking state repression of the party and the trade unions, inevitably destroying both.12 Nevertheless, there is an all-important caveat.

Soviets and Revolution: ‘Smashing’ Parliament? ‘Smashing’ the State?

Rarely, if ever, discussed in the relevant literature is that Luxemburg did not think direct action in the streets would ‘smash’ parliament, replacing it with something else. Once the smoke cleared, the dust settled and the barricades came down, parliament would still stand as it remained the institutional fulcrum of the democratic republic around which the transition to socialism could be organised. Neither she, Kautsky, Trotsky, Lenin nor anyone else in the Second International then recognised in the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905 a working-class institutional alternative not only to parliament, to the democratic republic, but to the state qua state, whether capitalist or feudal. Lenin’sState and Revolution was still 12 years away.

In the 1905 Revolution, workers in Russia established soviets to regulate their self-movement. The soviet exhibited features of the 1871 Paris Commune, notably the fusion of legislative and executive functions through the mandat impératif. Moreover, whereas artisans, craftsmen and shop-owners of Paris formed the cadres of this first iteration of direct producers’ rule, 34 years later, these had been replaced in Russia by great assemblages of skilled and unskilled workers in very large units of production, units resembling, outwardly at least, the great industrial enterprises of America and Western Europe. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, however, only acknowledged soviet power as the organised embodiment of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ much later, in 1917. Luxemburg and the revolutionary left world-wide would soon follow suit.

No one in international Social Democracy before 1917 had reflected much about the world-historical significance of the 1905 Soviet because no one thought it had such significance. It was an institution that had appeared and disappeared like a meteor. The Mensheviks speculated the Soviet might evolve into an extremely powerful trade union, looking after the economic interests of the working class. It might even become a kind of ‘big tent’ political party operating under a bourgeois-democratic state, hence the Menshevik project after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in favour of convening a ‘Labour Congress’ to represent all trends in the workers’ movement, not just Social Democracy.13 Lenin had other ideas.

In 1905, Lenin thought the Soviet was an organ of insurrection, possibly the “embryo” of a provisional government, or that it could set one up.14 Certainly, he never thought a Labour Congress – the Soviet under an alias in the Menshevik conception – could be convened in autocratic conditions.

The key point, however, is that it did not come into Lenin’s or anyone else’s mind until many years later to join three critical ideas: the Soviet itself was a government; it was (relatively)permanent, making it a (transitory)state, run by the working class; a state that would “wither away” as the classless, communist Eldorado approached. Lenin came to these conclusions only in January-February 1917, just days before the second coming of the Soviet – the mark of genius (within limits). InState and Revolution Lenin looked to the October Revolution as a practical confirmation of a new, Marxist theory of the state.

Kautsky: ‘Architect’ of the October Revolution?

According to most Leninists, only the outbreak of WWI and the catastrophic collapse of the Second International in 1914 opened Lenin’s eyes to the hitherto unrecognised reality that an unbridgeable chasm separated Bolshevism from the rest of International Social Democracy not just in 1917, or even in 1914, but had separated them long before.

Lih finds the conventional account of Lenin’s tardy coming-to-awareness unconvincing. His scepticism is well-founded. As Lih has emphasised, for many years Lenin never raised any basic theoretical objection or criticism to Kautsky’s analysis of parliament and state or political strategy. “When and where did I ever claim to have created any sort of special trend in international Social-Democracy not identical with the trend of Bebel and Kautsky?” queried Lenin in 1905.15

The standard interpretation, as Lih rightly says, presupposes “Lenin’s inability to understand what he read, or Lenin’s unawareness of his own beliefs.”16 It fails because the documentary record does not support it. The same documentary record, however, does not support Lih’s alternative either.

Lenin’s 1917 April Theses staked out an irreconcilable position vis-a-vis Kautsky’s strategy. Kautsky recognised, at once, that the October Revolution marked a definitive break, in practice and in theory, with Erfurtianism. He launched an unremitting ideological crusade against Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in the Proletarian Revolution (1918), to which Lenin responded withThe Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). Consistency within Lih’s paradigm would require thatKautsky not understand Lenin, or be unaware that Lenin was actually ‘adapting Erfurtianism’ to Russian conditions before, and in, 1917. But the facts show that Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not follow Kautsky’s strategy, as is universally agreed among specialists of the 1917 Russian Revolution, such as Rabinowitch.17 Lih has not persuaded these historians otherwise, as Lih himself ruefully remarks on occasion.

Nonetheless, what gives Lih’s revisionist argument a semblance of plausibility to many, especially to non-readers of Russian and to lay historians of Russian and Soviet history, is his extraordinarily loose handling of Social-Democratic political nomenclature, indeed, his readiness to substitute his own political definitions for those of the disputants, warping the historical record. Why Lih has developed a special, distorting and imprecise vocabulary for commonly translated Russian expressions, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

In support of his thesis of Bolshevik continuity dating from before 1914 through 1917, together with the parallel claim of Lenin’s fidelity to Kautskyism in the same period, Lih highlights that in 1906 Kautsky came out four square in favour of the Bolshevik, not Menshevik, assessment of the current and future roles, and relative strengths, of the liberal-bourgeois and working-class oppositions to Tsarism, respectively. The Bolsheviks felt vindicated by Kautsky.18 So did Trotsky. The 1905 Revolution had laid bare the impotence of the liberal bourgeoisie and the ‘hegemonic’ power of the working class in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, Kautsky concluded. Implicitly, Kautsky had rebuked the Mensheviks. However, this did not constitute ‘tactical advice’ to the Bolsheviks as Lih thinks.

Rather, Kautsky’s was a broad historical perspective, a sociological generalisation shared by Social Democrats with different tactics. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed politically for the better part of the inter-revolutionary period yet always lay into what they saw as the Mensheviks’ misunderstanding of the class forces driving the revolution. 1917 changed all that.

In 1917, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks because Lenin now rejected the idea Kautsky and the Mensheviks had held in 1906, and still held in 1917: that the working-class driven revolution must stop short of a proletarian socialist revolution, respecting its bourgeois-democratic limits. Kautsky could not have advised the Bolsheviks to adopt de facto Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory – “democratic revolutiondo kontsa” (to the end) – in Lih’s parlance. The defrocked pope of Marxism could not be the architect of the October Revolution.

Nor does the relevant political documentation bear out Lih’s assertion of continuity in Bolshevik political strategy with the pre-1917 period. Lih bases his conclusion, in part, on a reading Lenin’s texts but does not examine closely what the Mensheviks had to say. If Bolshevism alone meant Erfurtian political practice, what non-or-anti-Erfurtian political practice did Menshevism represent? If both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were bona fide Erfurtians, what where they arguing about? A comparative study of both trends in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) reveals that the prize of Erfurtianism must be categorically awarded to the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks.

Parliamentary Roads in Russia and the West: How they became commensurable only after 1905

Was Lenin adapting Erfurtianism to Russian conditions as Lih proposes? That is not the right question. The right question is: did Erfurtian conditions prevail in Russia? Before 1905, Russian Social Democrats were of one mind: Erfurtian conditions did not prevail.

In Russia, there was no bourgeois-democratic state, no parliament, and no parliamentary road from a feudal or semi-feudal state to a capitalist one. Even after Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split in 1903 over the internal functioning of their party, both trends understood they lived under an autocratic regime that outlawed free elections, freedom of speech, assembly and press. The Tsars upheld the existing order by any means necessary – and necessity knew no law. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1894, Nicholas II unceremoniously dismissed “senseless dreams” of constitutional limits to his authority deferentially proposed by the miniscule, cowed and hesitant liberal opposition.

Since no parliament in Russia existed, only the Tsarist autocracy, there was no parliamentary road to overthrowing the Tsarist state or even to materially transforming it. Lenin made no reference to that road in What Is to Be Done? (1902). No wonder: Russian Social Democrats neither rejected nor accepted it. Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy was simply irrelevant to the then nascent mass movement in Russia, a non-starter with respect to both institutional means and political ends.

With respect to means, in the absence of any democratic-parliamentary form only an RSDLP-led armed insurrection of the people in a bourgeois-democratic revolution could topple the Tsarist state. With respect to ends, an RSDLP-led Provisional Government would found after the Tsarist state’s destruction the most democratic form of the capitalist state, the democratic republic. Until this Erfurtian goal was reached, the RSDLP could not emulate the lawful functioning of the SPD either politically or organisationally.

Unlike its Western counterparts, the Russian section of the International could not have open debates in publicly-held conferences and Congresses; it could not disseminate its views in the popular press, or hold elections to leadership positions. It had to operate in violation of law, underground.

Once the democratic republic had been established in Russia, however, the RSDLP could emulate – perhaps even copy – the SPD’s internal and external modus operandi. But the RSDLP would then become the means to another end – socialism – and Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy now became applicable because relevant. Russian Social Democrats maintained a clear consensus on this strategic question until 1905.

The 1905 Revolution: A Fork in the Road

The 1905 Revolution forced the Tsar to issue the October Manifesto granting the Russian people an elected parliament – the Duma. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed that Parliament was a central institutional component of Erfurtianism. But was this Russian parliament real or illusory? Were Erfurtian conditions being realised or not? For the next 12 years, until 1917, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks fought it out.

The Menshevik Road19

The Mensheviks insisted the Duma was the authentic keystone of an emerging capitalist state, albeit a most authoritarian one. Elections to the Duma were based on estates or property qualifications, relics of Russia’s feudal past, awarding the landed gentry parliamentary representation far above, and the working class and peasantry far below, their respective numbers in society.

Despite being a minority in the Duma, Russian Social-Democratic deputies had a parliamentary duty to democratise the Tsarist state just as (for example) the SPD could use the Reichstag as a platform from which to call for the abolition of the undemocratic, three-class electoral system that guaranteed Junker domination of the Prussian Landtag, a feudal enclave within the Rechtsstaat.20

As the Mensheviks saw it, the RSDLP in the Duma must work with its (admittedly inconstant) allies, notably the bourgeois Kadet Party, to lift the prohibition on openly functioning political parties. Socialists and liberals must act jointly to remove gross limitations on the right to vote, keeping their eyes on the prize: universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage. Deft parliamentary maneuvering will lift onerous restrictions on freedom of speech, press and assembly. Lesser measures will be realised more easily and quickly, such as making the Tsar’s cabinet ministers accountable to the Duma, or passing legislation to help workers: the eight hour day, a minimum wage, and improved working conditions.

In the streets, the workers’ movement must support the parliamentary activity of its Social-Democratic representatives within limits acceptable to its non-socialist partners. Naturally, to press beyond, to socialism, was politically out of the question. In the first place, and of great theoretical importance for all Russian Social Democrats taking the long view, the material basis for socialism did not yet exist in Russia — a point of political economy on which Social Democrats everywhere, Trotsky included, agreed. Of far greater practical importance, though, the Mensheviks feared scaring away liberals into the arms of reactionaries with irresponsible, Bolshevik talk of an RSDLP-led working class in the vanguard of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks dismissed Menshevik apprehension as a politically demoralising consideration. Placating liberals, ever fearful of mob rule and other unpleasantries meant limiting, narrowing, and undermining independent working-class activity that, along with the support of the land-starved peasantry, was the only way to win the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the first place.

As the 1905 Revolution receded into history, the workers’ movement collapsed, bottoming out in 1909-1911. The RSDLP mirrored the collapse, with membership cratering from 150,000 to fewer than 1,000. Reformism became ever more pronounced among the Mensheviks in this period of downturn.

In light of the destruction of the revolutionary movement, many Menshevik leaders called ever more insistently on all Social Democrats to give priority to electoral work over illegal street action, overtly political demonstrations and wild-cat strikes, even to consider dismantling the underground apparatus of the RSDLP in favour of a law-abiding party, just like the German SPD, foregoing, for good measure, ‘adventurist’ thoughts of insurrection that frightened liberals, even dropping the demand for a republic.

From the common premise that the coming democratic revolution was not socialist but bourgeois, Lenin deduced a wholly different scenario, one incompatible with the Menshevik.

The Bolshevik Road21

In Lenin’s view, the Mensheviks were evading the “difficult and urgent question of how a particular class, in non-European conditions, ought to act for a stubborn struggle to secure a basis” for European conditions in the first place. Only “after a radical change in political conditions – after a definite constitutional system had been firmly established”22 – could all Russian Social Democrats unite and act as one, in a newly-Europeanised party. He thought the Menshevik reading of post-1905 Russian realities was unrealistic.

He agreed there were

bourgeois-democratic regimes like the one in Germany, and also like the one in England; like the one in Austria and also like those in America and Switzerland. He would be a fine Marxist indeed, who in a period of democratic revolution failed to see this difference between the degrees of democratism and the difference between its forms...23

But Tsarist Russia formed a category apart. Lenin did not think the Duma was a genuine parliament. It did not and could never reform the Russian state forward, toward a democratic republic.

Unlike parliaments in the West, the Duma was impotent, Lenin wrote, a trompe-l’oeil ornament mounted atop the wall of the Tsarist autocracy. Social-Democratic parliamentarians must use the Duma as a tribune from which to speak the truth to the oppressed masses, not foster reformist illusions. And, in truth, the Duma could not be used as an instrument of capitalist (let alone socialist) transformation because it was a feudal or quasi-feudal institution, implacably dedicated to maintaining gentry rule, the Bolshevik leader argued. It was less a relic of the past than a living element of the current political order.

Lenin’s stance requires the closest analysis in light of present-day historiographical and political controversies swirling around the relationship between parliament, suffrage and revolution.

Lenin’s assessment of the Russian parliament in the inter-revolutionary period was not an assessment of parliaments in advanced capitalist societiesas well, as Lih and Nimtz both think, for example. Because their respective positions fail to recognise the historical specificity of the Duma and the Russian state that, in Lenin’s estimation, distinguished both from parliaments and states in the West, the Leninists inadvertently make Lenin’s pre-1917 attacks on the Duma appear relevant to current debates about the parliamentary road to socialism in advanced capitalist countries. For Leninists (and this writer) theyare relevant today – but they were not relevantthen.Then Lenin addressed the Mensheviks alone in his polemics against the parliamentary road to a democratic republic in autocratic Russia. Lih makes an inverse mistake.

Lih thinks Lenin’s Menshevik-centred polemics – Lenin’s ‘Kautskyism’ – were relevant to, and supportive of, Kautsky’s parliamentary road to socialism in the bourgeois-democratic states of Western Europe and the United States. This, too, is a mistake. Lenin, at this juncture, did not have such as expansive understanding of Bolshevism, covering both the West and Russia, and running together socialist and bourgeois-democratic revolutions.

With respect to Kautsky’s occasional comments on intra Social-Democratic affairs in Russia, Lenin protested that “even clever and revolutionary Social-Democrats” like Kautsky were liable “to put their foot in it” because they tended to make light of, even dismiss, Bolshevik and Menshevik political competition for leadership of the workers’ movement in Russia, along with their competing notions of political realities, of Tsarism, and of party organisation.24

Readers must always keep in mind that, institutionally, Kautsky’s strategy was minimally premised on an at least partially successful bourgeois-democratic revolution having breached the old order, exemplified by the emergence of parliamentary forms, and then using these forms as a means to complete the democratisation of the state through universal, direct and equal suffrage. Social Democrats could then capture the state by winning a Social-Democratic majority in parliament, and then using that majority to legislate a socialist transition, resorting to revolutionary means, if necessary, to put down extra-parliamentary coups by irredentist bourgeois parties.

In contrast, Lenin’s position was that there had not even been a partial breakthrough toward a bourgeois-democratic state in Russia leading the Mensheviks to a mistaken because irrelevant application of Kautsky’s strategy, even, ultimately, to the “liquidation” of the RSDLP as a revolutionary party. However, Lenin did not advocate abstaining or boycotting the Duma.

Once it became clear that the 1905 Revolution had been defeated, and the Duma was here to stay in the new, counter-revolutionary conditions, he urged Social Democrats to vote for their candidates in elections to Duma, however grossly limited, unequal, open, and indirect suffrage remained in Russia.

Lenin argued that, while no opportunity should be missed to introduce legislation in the Duma benefiting the direct producers in the city and the countryside, all parliamentary activity must be subordinated to developing the independent activity of the working class in the forthcoming bourgeois-democratic revolution. Russian Social Democracy must expose in the Duma the Kadet Party as a false friend of the people. It must lead the working class and its only true ally, the land-hungry peasantry, in an armed, insurrectionary fight for freedom and democracy. Victory will bring down the autocracy together with the Duma. Here was the striking difference between autocratic Russia and the more-or-less bourgeois-democratic states of the West, a difference not sufficiently appreciated by most analysts, if not missed entirely.

In the West, apart from anarchists, no one called for the destruction of parliament. In the West, all Social Democrats wanted to use their (eventual) supremacy in parliament to lay hold of the existing state and move toward socialism if, and only if, parliament was supreme.

Marx thought a possible candidate for a peaceful, electoral transfer of power to the working class was England, where the monarch was but a figurehead and Parliament all-powerful. Eduard Bernstein, Kautsky’s Anglophile colleague, mooted this possibility at length. In 1893 and again in 1911, Kautsky himself noted with keen satisfaction how the English working class

… is already capable of influencing domestic politics in its favour in and through parliament, and, with giant steps, the day is approaching when the almighty English parliament will be a tool of the dictatorship of the proletariat. 25

If parliament was not almighty, as in a Bonapartist-type regime, then the working class could not “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” This was the lesson Marx learned from studying the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune.  Kautsky repeated that lesson time and again. The Commune had arisen entirely outside the Bonapartist, military-bureaucratic state apparatus, like “Venus from the foam”, to use Luxemburg’s lyrical expression. In Russia, however, the “ready-made state machinery” was an autocracy, not a democratic republic. Workers could not seize it (or any of its component parts) and use it for their ends. It had to be destroyed in a bourgeois-democratic revolution.26

Whereas social-democratic advocates and adherents of Marxist republicanism in the West could use the democratic republic as a stepping stone to socialist transition, Social Democrats in Russia had first to set up that democratic republic – and that could only happen only after smashing the absolutist Tsarist state in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, not before. This was Russian Social Democracy’s immediate task.

As late as October 1915, Lenin wrote:

The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. The latter task now stands very close to the former, yet it remains a special and second task, for it is a question of the different classes which are collaborating with the proletariat of Russia. In the former task, it is the petty-bourgeois peasantry of Russia who are collaborating; in the latter, it is the proletariat of other countries.27

In 1917, socialist revolution was no longer a ‘special and second task’ but the order of the day.

Bolshevism, the Provisional Government, and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry

At their June 1905 London Congress, held months before the formation of the St. Petersburg Soviet, emerging from a general strike in October, climax of the 1905 Revolution, the Bolsheviks called for the formation of a Provisional Government after the anticipated RSDLP-organised and led overthrow of the Tsarist state and its toy-parliament. Having won the people’s confidence, the Bolsheviks also forecast leading the Provisional Government. Owing to that leadership, the Provisional Government would be a revolutionary one, the Social Democrats in it working furiously to enlarge “from above” the democratic component of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, by forcefully championing the rights of workers, peasants, women, national and religious minorities, all the oppressed, giving the revolution a “proletarian imprint”28.

Once a revolutionary provisional government was up and running, it would convene a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for the new state. Russian Social Democrats would again play a directing role. Capitalising on the masses’ trust in the RSDLP as valorous leader of the people’s insurrection, a provisional “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” would write the most democratic constitution in the world, creating the most democratic republic in the world, endowed with the most powerful parliament in the world. The Russian Revolution of the 20th century would surpass “almost all the nineteenth-century democratic revolutions” in its world-historical significance, Lenin enthused.

With the foundation of a republic, the Provisional Government, its work done, would dissolve, and the RSDLP, following the example of German Social Democracy, would become a party of revolutionary opposition to capitalism and the capitalist state, inside and outside the newly constituted parliamentary institutions.

Until that revolution had come to pass, however, the “Europeanisation” of Russian Social Democracy was a Menshevik pipe-dream, its Erfurtian premises inapplicable where non-Erfurtian, autocratic conditions prevailed.

The Mensheviks had cause and effect reversed, in Lenin’s view. Acting as if Erfurtian conditions were present, they thought these conditions would materialise: if the Mensheviks looked at the mirage of a parliamentary road hard enough and long enough, one-day, somehow, the mirage would become real. This was a politically pernicious “dream.”29

Once Erfurtian conditions were really present, though, and Erfurtian institutions – elected office generally – firmly anchored, Kautsky’s strategy, especially Luxemburg’s tactically daring variant, became applicable because relevant. The democratic road to socialism was now open. Lenin and the Bolsheviks would think this way until 1917 caused them to reconsider – not the democratic road, as Eric Blanc and others have imprudently argued – but using bourgeois-democratic institutions, the democratic republic, to travel down that road to reach socialism.

1914: Lenin breaks with Kautsky

Lenin could not believe his eyes when he read in Die Neue Zeit that German Social Democrats had almost unanimously voted to fund Germany’s participation in an imperialist world war. He thought the issue was a fake. It was not. Lenin’s surprise was a spontaneous expression of his longstanding and firmly-held belief in the viability of the Erfurtian road to progress and socialism – a belief now unexpectedly shattered.

In doing nothing to oppose the Kaiser’s war-making machine, Kautsky caused great offence to Hegel and dialectical thinking according to some. But Lenin was in no doubt about this: Kautsky had betrayed the cause.

Kautsky had wilfully violated Second International resolutions requiring all Social Democrats to do everything in their power to prevent the outbreak of war or, if it could not be prevented, to do everything in their power to stop it. For the next three years, Lenin condemned Kautsky for his treachery, for what he thought was an objectively pro-war position, camouflaged by Marxist phraseology.

Seconding Lenin was Luxemburg, who pronounced the SPD a “stinking corpse”. She, Trotsky and a few others joined Lenin to propagandise in favour of a fresh start, for the eventual formation of a Third International that was revolutionary.

Lenin’s break with Kautsky in 1914 was at first a crack, narrow but deep, and could not be plastered over. In 1917, the crack became a canyon.

II: 1917

The Russian Revolution of 1917 radically transformed longstanding debates in the West and in Russia around what road to take to reach the ultimate goal of socialism. As in 1905, the Russian working class once more created new realities, raised new issues, and posed new problems that no Second International political text of Kautsky’s, Lenin’s, Luxemburg’s, or Trotsky’s had ever dealt with before, raising the debate to an altogether higher plane.

How the February Revolution spoiled the Menshevik and Bolshevik scenarios in some respects but not in others.

The Mensheviks had always looked to Kadet leadership to reform the Tsarist state in a democratic direction. The February Revolution put paid to this component of the Menshevik scenario, in two respects. A popular, largely spontaneous insurrection in the streets, not studied reform, brought the autocracy down, giving way to a Provisional Government. Further, the liberal Kadets had done nothing to lead the people. While workers and soldiers in the streets of the capital were fighting and dying, Kadets took cover, waiting for the outcome, a few parlaying with high Tsarist dignitaries to save what could be saved.

The February Revolution went according to the Bolshevik scenario of armed insurrection of the people over and against the double-dealing, cowardly Kadets, party of the bourgeoisie in the Social Democratic scheme of things. In another respect, it did not. Though thousands of former and current RSDLP rank and filers risked life and limb to overthrow the Tsar, the insurrection was not organized and led by the RSDLP. Finally, in still another respect it confounded the Bolsheviks utterly: leading the Provisional Government were counter-revolutionary Kadet politicians, not revolutionary Social Democrats!

The incredible, the unimaginable, the perverse had taken place: Kadet Duma liberals were running the Provisional Government, just as the Mensheviks thought they should. After all, this was a bourgeois-democratic not a socialist revolution. Even so, how was it that these pro-war, anti-working class Kadet politicians had reaped the harvest without sowing it? Consternation and alarm seized the local Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd before this stunning turn of events. They were thrown for a gigantic loop.

Confronted with the unanticipated situation of the counter-revolutionary Kadets heading the Provisional Government, the two national Bolshevik authorities Stalin and Kamenev, newly arrived in the capital from exile, introduced a tactical novelty to take into account the equally novel and distressing fact that the Provisional Government was not the one the Bolsheviks had anticipated, prepared, and fought for since 1905, that is, a revolutionary because RSDLP-led Provisional Government.

Because it was a Kadet-led Provisional Government instead, the top Bolshevik leadership decided that the 1905 slogan of democratic dictatorship was now best expressed by “critical support” for the Provisional Government “insofar as” it carried the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the very end, setting up a democratic republic – and opposition to them if they did not. Kamenev and Stalin overruled Petrograd Bolsheviks of the Vyborg district, who demanded a more radical solution.

The middle-level cadres of Vyborg were pressing for a Provisional Government led by representatives of parties elected to the Soviet, by the RSDLP, by the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by others.30 As they saw it, purged of Kadet counter-revolutionaries and replaced by revolutionaries, a new, revolutionary Provisional Government would convene a constituent assembly that would establish a fully democratic capitalist state, in strict accordance with the 1905 Bolshevik platform.

Millerandism and the Provisional Government

Before Lenin’s homecoming then, Stalin, Kamenev and others tried to advance the cause within the longstanding theoretical framework of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, upheld by both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks – but with the Bolsheviks modifying their platform by adopting one, tactical or subordinate feature from the 1905 Menshevik platform:non-participation in bourgeois governments, whether provisional or not, whether long-established or not, whether revolution was in the air or not. To use Lih’s nomenclature, this was ‘anti-agreementism’. To do otherwise and accept government posts was, conversely, ‘agreementism’31 – or Millerandism – to use the customary expression.

Millerand was a French socialist parliamentarian who in 1899 joined a bourgeois government as cabinet minister. Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and all the major Marxist authorities of the Second International condemned him for violating the ban on Social Democrats joining non-socialist administrations.

With the autocracy overthrown, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks now had to define their attitude toward Millerandism: refuse – or accept – cabinet posts in a provisional government run by bourgeois liberals. To be sure, it was not a government operating in reformist, economically stable political environment – the only environment Millerandism had ever dealt with – but a highly unstable one, trying to function in a revolutionary situation and with an economy in free-fall. Only in the latter case, in the midst of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, had the Bolsheviks justified leadership – and only leadership — of a provisional government by the RSDLP. In their minds, this had nothing to do Millerandism, where liberals held hostage a handful of socialists in the cabinets of a stable democratic republic, such as France in 1899, or even in a revolutionary period, as in 1848 France, where Louis Blanc was the only socialist sitting (duck) in Lamartine’s provisional government.

Refusing to join the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks avoided all direct political subordination to the Kadet party which ran it. However, by staying outside (anti-Millerandism) and offering conditional support to them, Lenin’s partisans subordinated themselves indirectly to the liberals in the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks had no alternate plan of action “insofar as” the Kadets did not do what they were supposed to do in the interim – end the war, give land to the peasant, and bread to the worker.

Neither did the Mensheviks. The national leaderships of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks agreed the bourgeois-democratic revolution needed to be completed, crowned with a democratic republic. Soon, visions of a reunited, fully Europeanised RSDLP danced before them, organised according to the best practices of German Social Democracy.

In short, no Bolshevik, whether radical or not, gave serious consideration to campaigning at once to transfer permanently all power to the soviets. This is because pre-1917 Bolshevism, like Menshevism, never entertained the idea that a soviet-led socialist revolution could be on the agenda. Instead, the Bolsheviks had to restrict themselves to pressuring the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries in the soviet to compel the Provisional Government to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, ultimately creating in Russia a democratic republic and Erfurtian conditions of working-class political struggle.

Since Lih gives extraordinary salience to linguistic issues and to certain Russian expressions in his work, I must unequivocally state: nobody “actually proclaimed” soviet power in the first weeks of the revolution. The most comprehensive account of the February Revolution, weighing in at 654 pages, finds no call for the permanent transfer of power to the soviets at this time – and Lih cites no resolution, decision, article, essay, declaration, manifesto, graffito, and so on, proving the contrary.32 Nobody considered the soviets a “viable candidate for sovereign authority in the land that relied on this broad popular constituency,” as Lih asserts.33 This is not surprising. No one then looked to the Soviet to ultimately and permanently replace the democratic republic – the democratic republic that many thought would be set up after the self-dissolution of the Provisional Government.

The Bolshevik call for “All Power to the Soviets” would only come many weeks later, after Lenin’s April Theses had been ratified by the rank-and-file in late April 1917 – collaterally warding off the imminent danger of Bolshevik-Menshevik reunification projected by starry-eyed, stuck-in-the-past ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who still anticipated the RSDLP making its mark on events not by participation in the Provisional Government, as they had originally forecast in 1905, but by ‘critically supporting’ it from the outside, influencing it without ever taking ministerial posts in it – an anti-Millerandist, ‘anti-agreementist’ stance.

Dual Power

The root cause of the Bolshevik leadership’s disorientation in the first days and weeks of the February Revolution was understandable (though Lenin did not excuse it). Something without precedent and never forecast by any Social Democrat anywhere arose – and for which Kautsky could not provide any guidance whatsoever: the simultaneous formation of a never-before-seen Provisional Government, sitting in one wing of the Tauride Palace, and the reappearance of the Petrograd Soviet, sitting in the other.

As in 1905, the soviets were rooted in the working class of the city. They arose outside any previously existing political organisation, outside the Duma, outside the Russian state. As with the Paris Commune, the soviets lay no hold on the previously existing machinery of the state, they lay hold of the urban economy instead.

Inside every factory, at the point of production, workers, many of them armed, elected factory committees. This represented a direct challenge to managerial authority, to put it mildly. They also sent representatives to the soviets. Order No. 1 of the Petrograd Soviet put the Russian armed forces under its ultimate authority, thereby seizing state power de facto. Elected democratically, its proceedings public, the Mensheviks led the soviets. The Socialist Revolutionaries followed the Mensheviks. Only 15% of the delegates present at the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, held in June 1917, were Bolsheviks.

The appearance of the soviets contained not only the potential to take the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the limit, but to go beyond it, toward a workers’ state and socialism – the perspective of Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory.

“We need a state,” Lenin declared on his way to Russia, “but not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites…” This state was not limited to Russia.

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies are a form of state which does not exist and never did exist in any country. This form represents the first steps towards socialism and is inevitable at the beginning of a socialist society. This is a fact of decisive importance. The Russian revolution has created the Soviets. No bourgeois country in the world has or can have such state institutions. No socialist revolution can be operative with any other state power than this.34

The April Theses: The Bolsheviks Change Course

Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in early April. Having examined from afar the balance of class forces and concluded that it favoured a soviet-led socialist revolution, he campaigned for “All Power to the Soviets,” jettisoning the idea of critical support to the Provisional Government, let alone joining it to create a Revolutionary Provisional Government as the Bolsheviks had originally intended.

The Mensheviks, for their part, had initially adopted a position in accordance with their, ‘anti-Millerandist’, ‘anti-agreementist’ platform of 1905. That platform stipulated that the RSDLP “must not set itself the aim of seizing power or sharing power in a provisional government, but must remain the party of extreme revolution opposition,”35 from the outside, to any provisional government. In fact, ‘anti-agreementism’ was, and remained, for the next 12 years, Menshevik, not Bolshevik policy — a fact that flies in the face of Lih’s contrary assertion.

The Mensheviks abandoned their ‘anti-agreementism’ in early May 1917, when they took up ministerial posts in the Provisional Government. By taking this ‘Millerandist’ step, the Mensheviks adopted the 1905 Bolshevik resolution calling for such participation – but onlyformally because Menshevik participation was now devoid of a revolutionary perspective pushing beyond revolutiondo kontsa, beyond the democratic republic and capitalism, toward soviet power and socialism.

The balance of forces in the Bolshevik rank-and-file favoured Lenin. The remorseless, Kadet-eating polemics the cadres had read in the Bolshevik press over the last decade or so had not gone down the memory hole, and many among them had presaged, if in institutionally ambiguous terms, Lenin’s unconditional rejection of the Kadet-dominated Provisional Government.

Beyond reaffirming Bolshevism’s long-standing tradition – continuity – of intransigent, ferocious, and persuasively-argued anti-Kadet, anti-Menshevik, anti-liberal, anti-reformist politics – ‘parliamentary cretinism’ for short – what Lenin was able to show in the April Debates of 1917 was that the issue of state-power, that is, power to the soviets, was the crucial issue for all the others – for ending the war; for giving land to the peasants and bread to the workers; for taking the first steps toward socialism in Russia; and for encouraging socialist revolution abroad. Calling for “All Power to the Soviets,” Lenin broke with the past and forged the future. With the support of the rank and file, he executed a strategic reorientation. ‘New Bolshevism’ now led the way. 

Without the Bolshevik cadres’ sterling education in the ways and means of Menshevik/Kadet, reformist politics – soon to be identified with the apostate Kautsky – Lenin’s victory would not have been so swift, if, indeed, he would even have won in a timely manner. This alone justified the rationale for organising a revolutionary party long before the revolution to lead the revolutionary masses. In any event, Lenin did not have to reinvent the wheel on this score.

For the next seven months Bolshevik workers in and out of uniform did the job of organising and leading at all levels, on the shop-floor, in the barracks, at the front, by fully participating in workers’ struggles, in street demonstrations and strikes.

The street was not the only arena of class struggle, so was the ballot box.

The Bolsheviks no longer operated under an autocracy but in the freest and most democratic country in the world, freer and more democratic than any in the West, where Eugene Debs, Luxemburg and thousands of other anti-war socialists were under lock and key. Here, in Russia, there was a ‘parliamentary’ road to proletarian rule – so long as that ‘parliament’ was asoviet one!

The Bolshevik electoral campaign to the soviets was successful. By late September 1917, the overwhelming majority of the working class had voted Bolshevik, for All Power to the Soviets.36

It was indispensable that an important section of worker leaders become Bolshevised and accept its cardinal conception, All Power to the Soviets. Without the Bolshevik conception, these worker leaders could not have fought for it. That they fought for it, interpreting the world from its standpoint was indispensable.

The October Revolution and After

In The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin charged Kautsky with rehashing truths that had been valid and accepted by all Social Democrats before 1917. But the experience of the working-class movement, and the critical study of that experience, had since shown many of these truths to be false or inadequate. New realities and new truths had to be recognised, not dismissed. In short, Kautsky had renounced living Marxism in favour of dead dogma.

Closely studying the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not merely reaffirm long-standing polemics against the Mensheviks that Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy had never been inappropriate for backward, feudal or semi-feudal Russia and its state. Worse, the strategy was mistaken for all advanced capitalist countries with bourgeois or semi-bourgeois-democratic states as well. A revolution in revolutionary thinking led them to strategise,inter alia, about how to get rid of the statequa state, the feudal no less than the capitalist state, no matter the form of the latter, including the democratic republican form. Such was the essence of Lenin’sState and Revolution.

The October Revolution proved to Lenin’s satisfaction that the working class had created the new institution, the new state – the soviets – it required to exercise its political supremacy. Revolutionary socialists everywhere soon recognised it as the only possible form of working-class rule. Thus, Lenin believed his polemic against Kautsky in State and Revolution, once critically assimilated, was relevant anywhere and anytime workers were presented with the opportunity to seize power, whether in ‘backward’ Russia or ‘advanced’ Europe, whether in 1917 or 2017.

Conclusion: The Political Take-away of this Historical Intervention

No Leninist today can say with absolute certainty that the soviet is the final form of workers’ rule. To do so would be to repeat Kautsky’s fallacy of identifying a suitably transformed democratic republic as the finished institutional expression of a workers’ state. But the soviet is the latest form that state has taken. If a practical alternative to it exists, theory alone will not find it, only the “direct training that the masses and the classes receive in the course of the revolutionary struggle itself”37 will – by creating it. Theory will then study it.

The last word in revolutionary theory will only be understood to be such – the last word – only if revolution succeeds, retrospectively. Until then, all Leninists have to go on is the latest word. But the first Four Congresses of the Third International pronounced the latest word a century ago. In the eyes of the delegates assembled in Moscow, Social Democracy – Kautskyism – had proved in practice to be unsuited to lead a workers’ revolution in Germany, or anywhere else. Worse, in revolutionary times it was a counter-revolutionary force every time, and was destined to remain so.38

Afterword: The Stalinist Apocalypse

The Stalinist counter-revolution was a world-historical disaster for the workers’ movement. It destroyed Leninism and Bolshevism in Russia and abroad within ten years of the foundation of the Third International in 1919.

At its Fifth Congress, held in June 1928, the Third International forsook, inter alia, two great political lessons it had taught a new generation of revolutionaries at its first four Congresses: the united front strategy on the one hand, and the need for a revolutionary break with the state, whatever socio-property regimes of class rule it defended, in favour of soviet power, on the other.

From the late 1920s, communist parties followed Moscow’s new strategic lead and renounced the united-front strategy, careering instead from infantile ultra-leftism to cross-class, popular-front politics – and back again. The other shoe dropped a half-century later, in the 1970s.

In the 1970s ‘Euro-Communism’ renounced de jure the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and revived Kautsky’s parliamentary road to socialism. But the long march through the institutions of the bourgeois state in the last half-century has been a revolving door to nowhere. Socialism is, arguably, further away now than it was over a century ago.



Axelrod, P.B. 1906, Narodnaia duma i rabochii s’ezd, Geneva.

Blanc, Eric 2019, ‘Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)’, available at

Brenner, Robert 1985, ‘The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case’, in The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook, London: Verso.

Engels, Frederick 1895 ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, available at

Kouvelakis, Stathis 2021, ‘On the Paris Commune: Part 3’, available at

Lenin, Vladimir 1962a, ‘What Is to Be Done?’, in Collected Works, Volume 5, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

 – – – 1962b, ‘Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution’, in Collected Works, Volume 9, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

——— 1962c, ‘Report on the Unity Congress’, in Collected Works, Volume 10, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat .

——– 1962d, ‘Two Worlds’, Collected Works vol. 16, pp. 305-313.

——– 1962e, ‘How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators’ 1912 Collected Works vol. 18, pp. 175-183

——— 1962f, ‘Several Theses’ in Collected Works 21, pp.402-403.

 – – – 1964a, ‘The April All Russia Conference’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

 – – – 1964b, ‘Letters from Afar’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

Lewis, Ben 2019, Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Ben Lewis editor and translator, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Lih, Lars T. 2006, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

 – – – 2010, ‘Lenin Disputed’, Historical Materialism, 18, 3: 108–74.

 – – – 2011a, Lenin, London: Reaktion Books

——— ‘Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution’ available at

———, ‘From February to October’ available at

——- ‘For or against ‘AGREEMENTISM’? available at

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1971 [1906], The Mass Strike: The Political Party and the Trade Unions, translated by Patrick Lavin, New York: Harper Torchbooks.

1996, Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-fevral’ 1917 gg. Moscow Rosspen.

Nimtz, August H. 2019, The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rabinowitch, Alexander 1967, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising

——– The Bolsheviks Come To Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd.

Sankara, Bhaskar, 2017 ‘Lessons from the First Red Century: Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara’, available at

Schorske, Carl 1955, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




  • 1. Kautsky, 1918, The Proletarian Revolution.
  • 2. Lenin, 1918, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
  • 3. ’Lessons from the First Red Century: Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara’.
  • 4. Lars Lih, ‘Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution’
  • 5. Eric Blanc, ‘Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)’
  • 6. August H. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2019.
  • 7. Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered, Historical Materialism Volume 18, (2010) 108–174. My conception of Erfurtianism is more historically specific than Lih’s. Lih’s Erfurtianism is much more general or abstract, “a complex but coherent outlook that combined the world-historical narrative set out in the writings of Marx and Engels, an idealized model of the German Social-Democratic Party, and an ideological self-definition set out to greatest effect in the writings of Karl Kautsky.” p. 109
  • 8. Lewis, Kautsky 1909, pp. 49–50
  • 9. Ben Lewis offers a comprehensive and exact survey of Kautsky’s political thought, “Introduction: Karl Kautsky’s Democratic Republicanism,” in Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Ben Lewis editor and translator, Brill 2019.
  • 10. Lewis, p. 18.
  • 11. Engels, ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, 1895,
  • 12. Engels, ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, 1895,
  • 13. P.B. Axelrod, Narodnaia duma i rabochii s’ezd (Geneva, 1906).
  • 14. Lenin 1962c, p. 20
  • 15. CW vol. 9 p. 66.
  • 16. Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered 2006, p. 25
  • 17. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power
  • 18. Lenin, 1962c CW vol. 10, p. 379
  • 19. I have mapped out the Menshevik road on the basis of political resolutions adopted at the Menshevik-led Fourth Unity Congress of the RSDLP in 1906; Menshevik resolutions submitted but voted down at the Fifth London Congress, held in 1907; and resolutions at Menshevik-only conferences held in 1905, 1908 and 1912. Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-1917 gg. Pp. 107-129, 155-163, 304-309, 323-339, 340-346, Moscow: Rosspen, 1996.
  • 20. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (Cambridge, 1955) pp. 177-187. With an absolute social-democratic majority in the Reichstag, feasible only where suffrage was universal, equal and direct, Kautsky “held out the possibility of an early, peaceful revolution by parliamentary means” in Germany writes Schorske. p. 184.
  • 21. Lenin detailed the basic Bolshevik scenario in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, in Collected Works, Volume 9, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat. He amended it in subsequent years to address what he saw as the Mensheviks’ growing reformism, toward a de facto alignment with the right-wing of Social Democracy internationally, which had abjured all thought of revolution.
  • 22. “How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators” 1912 CW vol. 18, pp. 184
  • 23. Lenin 1962b, CW vol. 9 p. 5
  • 24. Lenin 1962b, CW vol. 9 p. 109. In ‘Open Letter to the Leipziger Volkszeitung’, organ of the left-wing in the SPD, Lenin chided Kautsky for his ignorance, for his distorted view of relations within the RSDLP, and for condoning measures to silence the Bolshevik viewpoint in the German Social-Democratic press. CW vol. 8 531-533.
  • 25. Lewis, Kautsky p. 129 ‘Parliamentarism and the Parties in England.’ Pp. 118-129. Originally published in 1893, its republication in 1911 demonstrates an overarching, quasi-doctrinaire continuity in Kautsky’s political thinking, sharply calling into question the notion of a ‘break’ around 1910, as Ben Lewis, Eric Blanc and others have proposed.
  • 26. Stathis Kouvelakis misses the wholesale democratic-republican appropriation – récupération — of the Paris Commune by Second International Marxists and by Kautsky in particular because he accords great weight to the post-1917 Leninist take on the Commune – greater weight than the pre-1917 historical record warrants. On the Paris Commune: Part 3 Luxemburg was referring to the lightning-fast formation of ‘buoyant’ trade unions in 1905 Russia, festive year of the oppressed.
  • 27. CW 21, pp.402-403.
  • 28. CW 9, p.21
  • 29. “How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators” 1912 CW vol. 18, pp. 175-183.
  • 30. Hasegawa, pp. 333-334.
  • 31. Lars Lih, “For or against ‘AGREEMENTISM’?”
  • 32. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, 1981, The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917, Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 582-583. Hasegawa does note Vyborg militants demanding the Soviet take the place of the Provisional Government. But this was a call for soviet power only provisionally, followed eventually by a democratic republic. This was not the “alternative” (p.334) Lenin would present in his April Theses, as Hasegawa thinks. For his part, Lih references an old, 1915 article of Lenin’s (Lenin, 1962f) ostensibly calling for “all power to the soviets”.” Lih 2011a, Lenin, Reaktion Books, 2011, p. 113. But no such call appears in Lenin’s text – not even the cited phrase.
  • 33. Lars Lih, “From February to October” Lih invests ‘agreementism’ with a meaning that serves his revisionist agenda. It is to assert that the allegedly Kautsky-inspired Bolshevik strategy of ‘anti-agreementism’, from 1905 up to and including 1917, automatically meant: do not sit in – ‘agree with’ – any Provisional Government, overthrow them no matter their political physiognomy might be, in any political situation, in favor of …Soviet Power. But Lih attributes to the Bolsheviks a position they had never held, indeed, that no one could have held anywhere in the world before April 1917 given that no one recognised the Soviet as an alternative to a provisional government, let alone to a capitalist Republic, until April 1917.
  • 34. Lenin, ‘The April All Russia Conference’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, p. 241 Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat. Lenin, 1964a.
  • 35. Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-1917 gg. p. 123.
  • 36. The Bolsheviks Come to Power. Rabinowitch’ tracks, with the utmost precision, the Bolshevik electoral campaign. His account does not in the least give credence to Lih’s revisionism, or to Eric Blanc’s revival of Cold War historiographical tropes – tropes Rabinowitch did much to destroy in the first place.
  • 37. ’Revolutionary Days’ CW. Vol. 8 p. 104
  • 38. Why social democracy is and must remain a counter-revolutionary force is beyond the scope of this paper. Robert Brenner examines the structural reasons in The Paradox of Social Democracy.