25 June 2021

Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917) —Book Introduction

Eric Blanc

Editor’s note: We are publishing below the first two sections of the introduction to Eric Blanc’s path-breaking new study Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917).

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Activists for well over a century have debated what, if anything, from Russia’s revolutionary experience should be emulated by socialists abroad. During this same period, historians have plumbed the depths of Moscow’s archives, while sociologists have systematically compared the 1905 and 1917 upheavals with other revolutions. Yet the vast majority of these contributions share a common flaw: they have looked only at central Russia, instead of the empire as a whole.

The Russian Revolution was far less Russian than has often been assumed. Most inhabitants of imperial Russia were from dominated national groups – Ukrainians, Poles, Finns, Latvians, Jews, Muslims, and Georgians, among others. The same was true for most Marxists within the empire. But, since these non-Russian socialist parties have been ignored or marginalised, the hegemonic accounts of revolutionary Russia remain at best one-sided and at worst deeply misleading.

More than a century after 1917, it is well past time to examine the development of working-class politics in Russia from an empire-wide perspective. By expanding our geographic scope to the imperial borderlands – including Finland, with its exceptional political freedom and autonomous parliament – this book challenges long-held assumptions about the Russian Revolution and the dynamics of political struggle in autocratic and parliamentary conditions.

Arriving at a more accurate assessment of this experience is not simply an academic affair: a critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present. With capitalism’s ongoing crisis and a renewed interest in democratic socialism across the globe, it is an opportune moment to return to old questions with fresh eyes. To quote historian Orlando Figes, ‘the ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest’.1

Bringing in the Borderlands

Over four decades ago, Latvian scholar Andrew Ezergailis called for a break from the ‘refusal to recognise that the revolution originated, developed, and matured in the Empire at large rather than in Petrograd or Moscow alone’.2 Yet the study of revolutionary politics in Russia has remained marred by a myopic focus on the imperial centre.

This blind spot has been shared by academics and activists alike, reflecting the longstanding Russocentric tendencies of both. For much of the twentieth century, Russia was analysed as if it were an ethnically uniform nation-state. Numerous influential studies of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and the development of Marxism under Tsarism have almost completely ignored non-Russian socialists and their parties. More frequently, the borderlands were given a brief mention, while the general account remained focused on central Russia.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, increased scholarly attention to race and nationality led to an upsurge in academic research on the Russian Empire’s periphery. Yet since this ‘imperial turn’ in the academy took place simultaneously with a stampede away from research on labour movements and socialist parties, the overwhelming majority of these newer works have continued to ignore the borderland Marxists, preferring instead to study subjects such as the formation of national identities.3

Socialist writings have likewise been limited by a narrow geographic and interpretative lens. Though a considerable literature on non-Russian Marxists was produced by leftist scholars in the Eastern Bloc, Bolshevism in central Russia remained the hegemonic empirical focus and analytical model. Socialist writers outside the Soviet Union and its satellite states paid far less attention to the non-Russian Marxists – if borderland socialists were mentioned at all, it was usually fleetingly in uncritical discussions of V.I. Lenin’s support for national self-determination. In none of these works does the imperial periphery shift the authors’ general account of Second International socialism or the struggles that led to the overthrow of Tsarism and capitalism in 1917.

These dominant interpretative trends have been exacerbated by the fact that most serious studies on non-Russian socialists, as well as the primary sources on which they are based, were written in not-widely-read Eastern European languages. As such, this history generally remains unknown beyond small circles of specialists. On the basis of my original research in Finnish, Latvian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French sources, the following study is the first to comparatively analyse the borderland Marxists and to demonstrate how their story obliges us to rethink socialist politics.

Table 1

Marxist parties in the Tsarist Empire (1882 to 1907)4



Year Founded

Peak Membership




The Proletariat



Polish Socialist Party – PPS



Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania – SDKPiL



Georgian Social Democracy – Mesame Dasi



Lithuanian Social Democratic Party – LSDP



General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia



Social Democratic Party of Finland – SDP



Revolutionary Ukrainian Party/Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party – USDRP



Polish Socialist Party – Proletariat



Latvian Social Democratic Union



Armenian Social Democratic Workers Organisation ‘Specifists’



Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party – RSDRP



Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party – RSDRP



Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party – LSDSP



Muslim Social Democratic Party – Gummet



Ukrainian Social Democratic Union – Spilka



Estonian Social Democracy



The marginalisation of non-Russian radicals in the academic and activist literature does not accurately reflect their actual weight in imperial Russia, or their analytical importance for understanding the evolution of working-class struggle. Reducing the socialist movement under Tsarism to a bilateral Menshevik-Bolshevik conflict has obscured a far more dynamic picture: over a dozen Marxist parties debated, collaborated, split, and united throughout the empire. All, with the significant exception of the legal Finnish socialist party, were engaged in the unprecedented experiment of building a Marxist movement in underground political conditions. Indeed, imperial Russia’s first Marxist organisation arose in Poland in 1882 – over twenty years before the emergence of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

As Table 1 illustrates, borderland socialists were over-represented in Russia’s leftist movements before 1917. In an empire where non-Russians comprised 58 per cent of the population, borderland parties represented over 75 per cent of organised Marxists. Up through 1917, the massive Finnish Social Democracy remained the single largest socialist party per capita in the whole world. And the experiences of the borderlands are vital for understanding the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks themselves, each of which had a considerable base among non-Russians.

Analysing the rise and unexpected fall of working-class politics in Russia’s borderlands also helps explain the defeat of the most serious challenge ever mounted against global capitalism: the post-1917 international revolutionary wave, whose containment paved the way for the consolidation of bourgeois rule in the West and the subsequent emergence of Stalinist authoritarianism in Russia. For Marxists of the era, it was a tragic surprise that the imperial borderlands ended up constituting more of a barrier than a bridge to world revolution.

Revolutionary movements had remained stronger in the borderlands than in the centre for much of Tsarist rule. The first revolution in Russia advanced furthest in non-Russian regions such as Poland, Latvia, and Georgia, where general strikes, workers’ insurrections, soldier mutinies, and rural rebellions culminated in the partial or complete seizure of power by working people in many locales.

Though St. Petersburg became the undisputed vanguard of the empire-wide movement after 1905, the borderlands again played a pivotal role in 1917 and in the subsequent civil war. Tsarism’s overthrow in February unleashed a revolutionary wave that immediately engulfed all the country’s regions and nationalities – within a span of months, most of the radical non-Russian parties allied with or joined the Bolsheviks in the fight for soviet power and international socialist overturn. Revolution was not just a central Russian affair. Even in relatively peaceful, parliamentary Finland, working people and socialists became increasingly convinced that only a workers’ government could offer a way out of social crisis and national oppression.

At a decisive juncture in world history, Bolsheviks and Western capitalist powers alike understood that Russia’s periphery was a key battleground for the expansion or containment of socialist rule. Brian Porter’s recent monograph notes the depth of the post-war anti-capitalist challenge:

The old political, social, and economic norms were discredited and destroyed. Today we call the events of 1917 ‘the Russian Revolution’, but at the time there seemed to be a genuine possibility that it would turn out to be the revolution, the moment of creative destruction that would topple all the old centers of power and introduce a totally new world order.5

Between central Russia and the rest of the world stood the borderlands: if the revolution triumphed in the empire’s periphery, it could proceed to advance across Western Europe and Asia. To quote a Latvian Bolshevik leaflet:

From the Rhine to Vladivostock and from the Black Sea to Archangel on the White Sea the civil war rages. Soon it will break through the walls and ramparts raised by victorious Imperialism. … A swift victory of the Soviet power in the whole of Latvia and its firm establishment there will itself be the surest means of throwing another burning torch into the revolutionary powder magazine of our opponents.6

Part of the reason why this vision did not materialise was that governmental outcomes unexpectedly diverged across the empire in 1917–18. Why were anti-capitalist governments established in certain regions but not others? To help answer this puzzle requires examining the political evolution and competition of socialist parties, especially following 1905. Up through Russia’s first revolution, class struggle radicalism predominated everywhere except in Finland and among Armenian communities. But in the wake of 1905’s demoralizing defeat, moderate socialists eventually became hegemonic in Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, and among Jews. In Finland, however, the opposite pattern prevailed, with radicals displacing moderates after 1905.

As outlined in Table 2, political outcomes in 1917–18 corresponded entirely to whether radicals or moderates predominated in the socialist movement. Where radicals were hegemonic, they set up anti-capitalist governments. Where moderates predominated, they generally established coalition governments with bourgeois parties and often proceeded to invite foreign militaries to intervene in 1918. Ukraine and Poland – the two largest and most geo-politically strategic borderland regions – were particularly decisive defeats for the spread of revolution westward.

Making sense of the divergent political outcomes in 1905 and 1917–18 poses a challenge to the vast comparative scholarship on revolution, which has overlooked Russia’s borderlands and minimised the causal impact of political parties. For instance, by treating Russia as a homogenous nation state, Theda Skocpol’s sociological classic States and Social Revolutions does not acknowledge, let alone explain, the divergent outcomes of socialist politics and revolutionary struggle for the different nationalities of the Russian Empire in 1905 and 1917–18.7 A broader geographic scope would require tempering her ‘state-centric’ structural account of revolution with an appreciation of social movement agency, particularly as concretised through competing party-building projects and the strategic decisions of socialist leaders.8

One of the key dynamics illustrated in the following chapters is the relative autonomy of political parties and their importance for articulating popular interests.9 This insight, properly understood, cuts against the prevailing marginalisation of class analysis among both scholars and activists. While it is true that many different social relations and identities can spur political contention, it does not follow that all forms of collective mobilisation are equally efficacious or that popular struggle is entirely contingent on discourse.10 Economic exploitation makes possible, but does not guarantee, the emergence of a class-conscious and politically independent workers’ movement – the presence and influence of parties seeking to polarise working people against capitalists is the crucial intermediary variable.

Unlike so many activists today, revolutionary social democrats consistently viewed their raison d’être to be the promotion of working-class consciousness, organisation, and struggle. As the experience of the Tsarist Empire helps demonstrate, the crystallisation of workers into a politically coherent and hegemonic class depends to a significant degree on the existence of parties pushing in that direction. Exploring what this strategic project looked like in imperial Russia not only sheds light on the trajectories of workers’ movements across the empire, it retrieves a tradition ofclass politics that has largely been abandoned over recent decades, to the detriment of both labour and the Left.

Imperial Russia, with its diverse regions, organisations, and outcomes, is a historically unique laboratory for a comparative analysis of working-class politics, illustrating how workers’ movements were shaped by parties as well as governmental regimes. The exceptional case of Finland – the only region of Russia where the Tsar allowed political freedom, a democratically elected parliament, and a legal labour movement – provides an especially rich comparison to reveal the distinct dynamics of socialist politics in authoritarian and parliamentary polities. Analysing the entirety of the Russian Empire makes it clear that the presence of an autocratic regime was the single most important factor differentiating the trajectory of Russia’s underground socialists from their counterparts across Europe.

Bringing in the history of the borderlands thus shines light on the failure of post-1917 Leninist attempts to export an insurrectionary strategy and soviet power to political democracies abroad. At the same time, the Finnish Social Democracy’s rise to power in 1918 lends credence to the democratic socialist case that anti-capitalist rupture under parliamentary conditions likely requires the prior election of a workers’ party to the state’s democratic institutions.

In other words, experience across the Russian Empire confirms the case of sociological work positing that successful insurrectionary movements generally only arise under conditions of authoritarianism. Conversely, workers and socialists in parliamentary contexts will tend to focus more on what Walter Korpi labels ‘the democratic class struggle’: building class power and transforming society through electoral politics as well as union organising.11

Table 2 Political outcomes in Imperial Russia



Socialist Orientation13

Governmental outcome14




1905 Revolution



Latvia, Poland, Georgia, central Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Jews, Estonia, and Azerbaijan


Local seizures of power by workers and peasants (1905), suppressed by Tsarist military (1905–06)



Cross-class armed defence squads



Cross-class government, conquest of universal suffrage (1905–06)




191718 Revolution





Anti-capitalist government (1917), overthrown by German intervention (1918)

Central Russia


Anti-capitalist government (1917), descends into civil war



Anti-capitalist government (1917), overthrown by German intervention (1918)



Anti-capitalist government (1918), overthrown by German intervention and civil war



Anti-capitalist government (1918), resigns after losing soviet majority



Anti-capitalist government (1918), overthrown by Polish army (1919)






Cross-class government (1917), invites German- Austrian intervention (1918)



Cross-class government (1918)



Cross-class government (1918), invites German then British intervention



Cross-class government (1918)



Cross-class government (support for) (1917)

Strategic Continuities and Ruptures

Broadening our lens to include all of the major socialist parties under Tsarism obliges us to rethink long-held views on the nature and development of Marxism in the early Second International. Indeed, the problem of Russocentrism is inseparable from a second deficiency in the existing literature: Bolshevik exceptionalism. According to liberal and leftist accounts, the Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin’s guidance set themselves apart from all other socialist parties of the era by breaking with the moderate socialist gradualism embodied in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its leading theoretician Karl Kautsky. While the former historiographic school has framed this rupture as the genesis of Soviet totalitarianism, the latter has insisted that this strategic break was a precondition for the victorious October Revolution – as well as the programmatic foundation for rescuing Marxism from its supposed Second International defanging. A central thesis of this book is that neither interpretation can withstand scrutiny once non-Russian socialists are taken into account.

In most academic interpretations, the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s tutelage substituted the elitist and violent conspiratorialism of the Russian revolutionary tradition for the theory and practice of Western social democracy. Orlando Figes claims that ‘Bolshevism was a very Russian thing. Its belief in militant action, its insistence, contrary to the tenets of Hegel and Marx, that a revolution could “jump over” the contingencies of history, placed it firmly in the Russian messianic tradition’.15

In this view, first pioneered by Lenin’s factional opponents in 1904, the Bolshevik-Menshevik split was essentially a conflict between traditional Russian revolutionism and Western socialism.16 Agreeing with this assessment, historian Abraham Ascher more recently has affirmed that the Bolsheviks lacked the ‘Western orientation’ adhered to by the Mensheviks.17

Marxist historiography has painted a similar portrait of Bolshevik distinctiveness, though it inverts the negative and positive signs in its assessment. According to this interpretation, only by breaking with the political model of the German Social Democracy and Kautsky’s Marxism was Lenin able to build a party capable of leading the world’s first successful socialist revolution. The starting point of this narrative, as in its academic counterpart, is the fundamentally non-revolutionary nature of ‘Second International Marxism’.

Of the Bolsheviks’ supposed innovations, the most commonly cited are their break with Kautsky’s fatalism; their advocacy of an opportunist-free ‘party of a new type’; or their novel conception of the state and revolution from 1917 onwards. For Tony Cliff, Lenin was ‘totally wrong’ to have looked to Kautsky as the leading exponent of revolutionary socialism in the pre-war years – this was simply a reflection of Lenin’s ‘long-standing illusions’.18 According to Donny Gluckstein, ‘although the [German Social Democratic] party was formally committed to revolution, under the intellectual guidance of Karl Kautsky it had abandoned this in practice’.19 The proof of the non-revolutionary nature of Kautsky’s Marxism, it is argued, was that Europe’s major socialist parties supported World War One and opposed anti-capitalist overhaul in its wake.

Like in the prevailing academic literature, the existence of borderland Marxist parties is generally ignored in these works written by, and largely for, activists. The resulting effect is to give the impression that the Bolsheviks were alone in pursuing a path different from their counterparts in Western Europe. But even a cursory examination of the underground socialist parties in the Russian Empire illustrates the flaws in Bolshevik exceptionalism. Positions and practices long assumed to have been particularities of Lenin’s faction were actually very common. The fact that there was no major Bolshevik stance that was not also shared by various non-Russian parties helps illustrate that no position on its own could lead directly to October 1917 – or, as anti-Communist scholars would have it, to Stalinism. There was no socialist silver bullet or original sin.

A few examples, explained in detail later, should suffice here to demonstrate the trend. Rosa Luxemburg’s famous 1904 critiques of Lenin’s conception of centralism are almost always cited without any acknowledgement that her own party in Tsarist Poland was far more top-down and anti-democratic. Ignoring the radical anti-militarism of other leading borderland Marxist parties, it is often erroneously claimed that the Bolsheviks were the only major socialist party to oppose World War One, when in fact it was also opposed by the PPS-Left and the SDKPiL in Poland as well as the LSDSP in Latvia. And, finally, the fact that the Bolsheviks were not the sole party in the former Tsarist Empire to lead workers to power in 1917–18 has remained remarkably unacknowledged.

In the following chapters, I will show that dominant academic and activist accounts have unjustifiably equated the Marxism of the Second International with moderate socialism. Both have overlooked the impact of the autocratic Tsarist context in pushing all illegally organised socialists down a very different path than their counterparts in Western Europe.

To today’s readers, the category ‘revolutionary social democracy’ might appear to be a contradiction in terms. Yet up through 1917, this was the main self-identification used by ‘orthodox’ Marxists in the Second International to differentiate their orientation from the accommodationist political tendency that now is usually referred to as social democracy. Clarifying the content of revolutionary social democracy, of which Kautsky was the leading exponent, is thus essential for understanding the political orientation that enabled Russia’s radicals to lead successful revolutions in and after 1917.

There were, of course, important evolutions in the politics of Marxism between 1882 and 1917. In particular, the 1905 revolution was a major turning point. But, on the whole, the approaches of imperial Russia’s radicals reflected an implementation and development of orthodox Second International Marxism far more than a break from it. The roots of 1917 lie firmly in revolutionary social democracy.

Though Kautsky for the past century has been pegged as an advocate of fatalistic reformism, looking at his actual writings – rather than their prevailing caricatures – confirms why the ‘Pope of Marxism’ in this era was seen as the foremost defender of revolutionary socialism. Among all nationalities, Kautsky’s pre-1910 works effectively served as the foundation for the Tsarist Empire’s Marxist parties that stood on the furthest left of the political spectrum. Indeed, his influence over socialist politics was much higher in Tsarist Russia than in any other country, including Germany. This is a crucial point to stress from the outset, as Kautsky’s theories have often been mistakenly blamed for the German Social Democratic Party’s break from class struggle. Such interpretations fundamentally misdiagnose both the content of Kautsky’s early orientation and the reasons for the SPD’s degeneration.

In sharp contrast with the Russian Empire’s illegal Marxist parties, the German Social Democracy came increasingly under the control of a caste of bureaucrats. As Kautsky lamented in 1909, the German party and union leaders ‘have been so absorbed by the administrative needs of the huge apparatus that they have lost every broad view, every interest for anything outside the affairs of their own offices’.20 For this unprincipled SPD leadership, it mattered little that its decision to support World War One in 1914 and head a capitalist government in alliance with the bourgeoisie after 1917 flagrantly violated the traditional stances promoted by Kautsky and the SPD as a whole. In the words of historian Hans-Josef Steinberg, the story of the German Social Democracy from 1890 to 1914 is ‘the history of the emancipation from theory in general’.21

If political practice is the ultimate criteria for socialist theory, then revolutionary social democratic strategy should be judged by the practices of the parties that actually sought to implement it. To see what a party led by orthodox social democrats looked like in practice, one must examine the Tsarist Empire, not Germany. This holds for the underground parties in imperial Russia as well as the legal Finnish Social Democracy. For strong evidence of the anti-capitalist thrust of revolutionary social democracy, there is the incontrovertible fact that Kautsky’s theories trained the Bolsheviks, Finland’s Marxists, and the other socialists in the former Russian Empire who led the world’s first victorious assaults on bourgeois rule.

Finland is an especially significant test case for analysing the ruptural potentialities of Second International ‘orthodoxy’ since the legal, parliamentary-oriented Finnish Social Democracy was the party under Tsarism that operated in the political context most similar to Western European democracies and Germany in particular. Finland’s socialist movement closely resembled its German counterpart, but unlike the latter, the Finnish Social Democracy did not discard revolutionary social democratic politics. In early 1918, rather than propping up capitalist rule like the German SPD, Finland’s socialists led workers to seize state power. Learning about Finland’s forgotten socialist movement may be of considerable use in enabling Marxists to overcome a problematic tendency to overgeneralise Left strategy from the particular experience of the revolutionary movement in autocratic Russia, whose exceptional dynamics were largely determined by the absence of political freedom or parliamentary institutions.

An empire-wide lens shows that the differences between the Bolsheviks and Europe’s social democratic parties were not the product of theoretical ruptures from Second International orthodoxy. Conditions of Russian absolutism obliged Marxists of all nationalities to adopt a different approach from their counterparts in Western Europe. In the following chapters we will see that Marxist parties operating illegally under Tsarism adhered to many of the strategic perspectives and organisational practices that have usually been portrayed as distinct to Bolshevism by both its detractors and defenders. Up through the 1905 revolution, each of these currents (including the Mensheviks) engaged in violent armed revolutionary struggle; each broke from the organisational model of Western socialist parties; and each rejected blocs with liberals and argued that only an independent working-class movement could lead the democratic revolution to victory.

For the autocratic context of Russia, such stances were explicitly sanctioned by orthodox social democracy, which made a sharp distinction between strategy for countries with or without political freedom. Conditions under Tsarism clearly precluded any attempt to adopt the specific organisational structure or the political focus of the German social democratic model. In other words, not only was orthodox Marxism much more revolutionary than is usually assumed in regard to capitalist democracies, but its stance for the absolutist Russian context was particularly intransigent.

Both in the centre and the periphery of Russia, the absence of political freedom and parliamentary democracy mitigated against working-class moderation or the emergence of conservative labour bureaucracies. Tsarist absolutism, in other words, facilitated the ability of the Russian Empire’s socialist parties to uphold their political radicalism. The growing gap between the militant programmes and the accommodationist practices of Western social democratic parties could not be replicated in the same way under the Russian autocracy.22

As Moira Donald noted in her pioneering critique of the scholarly consensus, ‘Bolshevism pre-1914 was not only not out of line with the orthodox left wing of international Social Democracy, but in no major area did Lenin add anything of any weight that could be regarded as an original contribution to the development of Marxist theory’.23 Historian Lars Lih’s watershed 2006 monograph Lenin Rediscovered decisively developed the case for the political continuity between early Bolshevism and orthodox Second International Marxism.24 Though Lih’s arguments remain in a minority within both academic and activist circles, it is largely because of his iconoclastic research that there has begun a serious re-examination of revolutionary social democracy.

Acknowledging the radical nature of so-called ‘Kautskyism’ – as well as the congruence between the Bolsheviks and the empire’s other radicals – does not require us to ignore real evolutions in Marxist politics from 1882 to 1917. Nor should we minimise the specificities and unique trajectories of each party in Russia. An underlying goal of this monograph is to reach a more accurate assessment of both the continuities and evolutions in socialist strategy up through the October Revolution. The latter were significant, though I will show that these strategic changes were quite different, and less politically foundational, than those referenced in most socialist and scholarly accounts.

Given the disparate regional contexts of the empire and the inherent challenges of concretising theory into practice, parties committed to the same overarching political principles could and often did diverge on the ground. Revolutionary social democracy was sufficiently flexible, and sufficiently open-ended, to be implemented and developed in different ways. Both Kautsky and his peers under Tsarism insisted that Marxism was a method, not a dogma; tactics and strategy, therefore, always had to be based on a hardnosed appraisal of a concrete situation. And their respect for Kautsky notwithstanding, imperial Russia’s socialist leaders did not refrain from adopting a distinct approach from him when they felt it was warranted by the particular conditions they faced.

At any given moment, there were considerable tensions within and between Marxist parties over how best to advance the working-class struggle. Translating strategy into tactics was always a challenge. An orthodox conception of the driving forces of the revolution did not provide easy answers to the questions posed day-by-day – or even hour-by-hour – in the whirlwind of political struggle. With the course of events so difficult to predict, the fine line between opportunism and a necessary compromise was not always clear.

The 1905 revolution in particular was a trial by fire. For the first time in world history, Marxist parties were faced with the challenging opportunity of participating in an actual workers’ revolution. To quote Jewish socialist poet Dovid Einhorn: ‘I do not know how others number the years. But I count them from 1905’.25 In the aftermath of 1905, Kautsky and revolutionary social democrats across Russia reoriented their approaches on a variety of questions. Indeed, the conclusions drawn by different parties during the rise and eventual suppression of the 1905 upsurge set the stage for their subsequent approaches in 1917. As Teodor Shanin has observed, ‘in the aftermath of the revolution’s defeat in 1905–07 in Russia, the primary issue was the capacity or failure to learn, unlearn, and relearn by its survivors’.26

Demoralised by the loss, leaders of a wide range of socialist currents – including the Mensheviks, Georgia’s social democrats, the Jewish Bund, and Ukrainian social democrats – broke from the hitherto radical consensus and for the first time began to search for a bloc with the bourgeoisie. These post-1905 ruptures to the right were a major strategic turning point. As moderate socialists dropped their previous advocacy of working-class hegemony, they increasingly built ties with liberals and nationalists, setting the stage for the cross-class coalition governments that arose in 1917–18.

The empire’s other Marxist organisations largely upheld their stances on the big questions of revolutionary strategy; on this shared basis, they organisationally and politically converged in 1917. Finland, as usual, was an exceptional case: participation in the 1905 revolution veered the then-moderate social democratic party to the left. Among the world’s mass socialist organisations, the Finnish Social Democracy was unique in becoming more committed to orthodoxy after 1905, while most Western social democratic parties increasingly accommodated themselves to their respective regimes.

Some of the radicals’ strategic modifications – for example, on how to build working-class unity – have been ignored in the literature. Other stances have incorrectly been assumed to constitute ruptures with Second International orthodoxy. This, as we will see, is the case regarding Marxist approaches to the imminence and strategic centrality of international revolution.

Numerous important issues have been misjudged. For example, it is often posited that the October Revolution was made possible by Lenin’s novel 1917 re-conceptualisation of the state and revolution. In actuality, the key question in that year was whether Marxists would uphold the longstanding orthodox call for working-class hegemony or participate in coalition governments with liberal parties. Indeed, the question of alliances with liberals tended to overdetermine all the other major political debates in 1917. The ability of socialists to fight for agrarian reform, oppose the war, or champion workers’ pressing economic demands was more often than not conditioned by their willingness to break from the political representatives of bourgeois interests. The real political innovators here were not the Bolsheviks and their non-Russian allies who fought for soviet power, but rather the Mensheviks and moderate borderland socialists who insisted upon the possibility and necessity of building a progressive bloc with capitalists in Russia and abroad.

In short, the interrelated limitations of Russocentrism and Bolshevik exceptionalism have distorted our understanding of the development of socialist politics in Russia and abroad. To effectively examine the evolution of working-class struggle – and to lay the basis for extracting lessons relevant for capitalist democracies today – requires that we combine an empire-wide analytical framework with an accurate assessment of revolutionary social democracy.



  • 1. Figes, Orlando 1997, A People’s Tragedy: The History of the Russian Revolution, New York: Viking, p. 824.
  • 2. Ezergailis, Andrew 1974, The 1917 Revolution in Latvia, Boulder: East European Quarterly, p. 77.
  • 3. For overviews of the academic historiography, see Riga, Liliana 2000, Identity and Empire: The Making of the Bolshevik Elite, 1880–1917, PhD Dissertation, McGill University, pp. 6–46, Suny, Ronald G. and Terry Martin (eds.) 2010, A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–7, and Weeks, Theodore R. 2012, ‘Nationality, Empire, and Politics in the Russian Empire and USSR: An Overview of Recent Publications’, H-Soz-Kult, 29 October,‑1134.
  • 4. This list includes the major organisations in Russia that explicitly called themselves Marxist, though a few began as neo-populist and/or revolutionary nationalist parties. Parties are listed by their most well-known title. Peak membership under Tsarism was reached by all parties between 1905 and 1907. Readers should note that membership numbers of underground parties in Tsarist Russia are notoriously unreliable, given the lack of clear member lists and the tendency for all groups to exaggerate their size. The relative strength of the organisations, however, is roughly accurate. The cited membership for the Mensheviks includes the Georgian Social Democrats and the Ukrainian Spilka, which, though largely autonomous, were formally affiliated with the Menshevik faction. The RSDRP was formally founded in 1898. The Bund was affiliated from start to finish, with the exception of the 1903–05 period, the Georgian Mensheviks affiliated in 1903, and the SDKPiL and LSDSP in 1906. This chart has been compiled on the basis of the following sources, in order by party: Blit, Lucjan 1971, The Origins of Polish Socialism: The History and Ideas of the First Polish Socialist Party 1878–1886, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 83; Żarnowska, Anna 1965, Geneza Rozłamu w Polskiej Partii Socjalistycznej, 1904–1906, Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, p. 457; Samuś, Paweł 1984, Dzieje SDKPiL w Łodzi, 1893–1918, Łodź: Wydawn Łodzkie, p. 69; Jones, Stephen Francis 1984, Georgian Social Democracy: in Opposition and Power 1892–1921, PhD Dissertation, University of London, p. 209; Sabaliūnas, Leonas 1990, Lithuanian Social Democracy in Perspective, 1893–1914, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 114; Рафес, Моисей Григорьевич 1923, Очерки по истории Бунда, Москва: Московский рабочий, p. 161; Soikkanen, Hannu 1961, Sosialismin Tulo Suomeen: Ensimmäisiin Yksikamarisen Eduskunnan Vaaleihin Asti, Porvoo-Helsinki: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö, p. 338; Головченко, Володимир 1996, Від Самостійної України до Союзу визволення України: Нариси з історії української соціал-демократії початку хх ст., Харків: Майдан, p. 65; Targalski, Jerzy 1973, ‘Geneza Polskiej Partii Socjalistycznej Proletariat’, Z pola walki, 2–3, p. 39; Švābe, Arveds Latvijas Vēsture, 1800-1914, Daugava, 1962, p. 611; Багирова, И.С. 1997, Политические партии и организации Азербайджана в начале xx века (1900–1917), Баку: елм., p. 232; Уткин, А.И. 1987, ‘К вопросу о численности и составе рсдрп в 1905–1907 гг.’, in Политические партии России в период революции 1905–1907 гг. Коли-чественный анализ, edited by А.П. Корелин, Москва: Академия наук ссср. 1987, p. 19; ibid.; Šalda, Vitālijs 2006, ‘Latvijas sociāldemokrātijas organizatoriskās attīstības dažas tendencies 1905. gada revolūcijā’, in 1905. gads Latvijā: 100. Pētījumi un starptautiskas konferences materiāli, 2005. gada 11.–12. janvāris, Rīga, edited by Jānis Bērziņš, Rīga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds, p. 209; my rough estimate, based on Агакишиев, Исмаил Аловсат оглы 1991, Возникновение и деятельность социал-демократической организации “Гуммет” в 1904–1911 годах, PhD Dissertation, Московский государственный университет; Риш, А. 1926, Очерки по истории Украинской социал-демократической ‘Спілки’, Харьков: Пролетарий, p. 25; Arens, Olavi 1976, Revolutionary Developments in Estonia in 1917–18 and their Ideological and Political Background, PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, p. 58.
  • 5. Porter-Szücs, Brian 2014, Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 66.
  • 6. Cited in Popoff, George 1932, The City of the Red Plague: Soviet Rule in a Baltic Town, translated by Robin John, London: G. Allen & Unwin, p. 51.
  • 7. Skocpol, Theda 1979, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In one of the few comparative analyses of borderland revolutions in Russia (Alapuro, Risto 1988, State and Revolution in Finland, Berkeley: University of California Press), the author’s account of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia similarly downplays party agency.
  • 8. On the agency of socialist leaders, and the outcomes of their decisions, see Vössing, Konstantin, 2017, How Leaders Mobilize Workers: Social Democracy, Revolution, and Moderate Syndicalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 9. For recent sociological scholarship on political party ‘articulation’, see Desai, Manali 2002, ‘The Relative Autonomy of Party Practices: a Counterfactual Analysis of Left Party Ascendancy in Kerala, India, 1934–1940’, American Journal of Sociology, 108, no. 3: 616–57, Desai, Manali and Cihan Tuğal 2009, ‘Political Articulation: Parties and the Constitution of Cleavages in the United States, India, and Turkey’, Sociological Theory, 27, no. 3: 193–219, de Leon, Cedric, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal (eds.) 2015, Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press, and Eidlin, Barry 2016, ‘Why is There No Labor Party in the United States? Political Articulation and the Canadian Comparison, 1932 to 1948’, American Sociological Review, 81, no. 3: 488–516.
  • 10. Aminzade, Ronald 1993, ‘Class Analysis, Politics, and French Labor History’ in Rethinking Labor History, edited by Lenard R. Berlanstein, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • 11. McDaniel, Tim 1988, Autocracy, Capitalism, and Revolution in Russia, Berkeley: University of California Press; Goodwin, Jeff 2006, No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Korpi Korpi, Walter. 1983. The Democratic Class Struggle. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Esping-Andersen, Gøsta 1985, Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press, and Vössing 2017.
  • 12. This table covers the 11 national groups and regions in the Tsarist Empire that had at least one Marxist party of their own.
  • 13. This refers to the dominant socialist approach on the eve of the revolution (e.g. late 1916) and at its climax (e.g. late 1917), with the exception of Ukraine, where radicals generally predominated before, but not during, 1917. Note: radicals in regions like central Russia briefly lost hegemony early in 1917, but regained it quickly. ‘Radical’ refers to socialists committed to class struggle and a revolutionary break with capitalism. ‘Moderate’ socialists were those strategically or practically oriented to a bloc between working people and the upper class, an orientation that usually meant opposing the establishment of an anti-capitalist government.
  • 14. Cross-class here refers to administrations that included bourgeois parties or that subordinated themselves to foreign capitalist powers. Listed outcomes are for the governments established in the main urban centres (e.g. Baku in Azerbaijan). For 1917–18, the governmental outcomes are from February 1917 up through the end of 1918. Note that cross-class regimes generally preceded anti-capitalist conquests of power in 1917 and that there were numerous localised power seizures by parties across the political spectrum. Post-1918 outcomes are not listed, since these were far more determined by the contingencies of military dynamics. As will be discussed further in the book’s Epilogue, radicals received a second chance at wielding power following the retreat of German troops in November 1918; yet the new Soviet regimes in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania-Belarus, and Ukraine – established with the help of the Red Army in late 1918 and early 1919 – quickly collapsed under the combined weight of their ultra-left politics, popular discontent, and military counter-offensives. From late 1919 through 1921, Red Army intervention helped to re-establish Soviet regimes in Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan and to establish Soviet regimes in Armenia and Georgia.
  • 15. Figes 1997, p. 812.
  • 16. Woytinsky, Wladimir S. 1921, La Démocratie géorgienne, Paris: Alcan Levy, pp. 48–9.
  • 17. Ascher, Abraham 1988, The Revolution of 1905, Volume 1: Russia in Disarray, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 187.
  • 18. Cliff, Tony 1985, Lenin 1914–1917: All Power to the Soviets, London: Bookmarks, pp. 15, 20.
  • 19. Gluckstein, Donny 2014, ‘Classical Marxism and the Question of Reformism’. Accessed at:‑marxism‑and‑the‑question‑of‑reformism/
  • 20. Day, Richard B. and Daniel Gaido (eds.) 2009, Witness to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record, Leiden: Brill, p. 52.
  • 21. Steinberg, Hans-Josef 1967, Sozialismus und Deutsche Sozialdemokratie: Zur Ideologieder Partei vor dem 1. Weltkrieg, Hannover: Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, p. 124.
  • 22. Post, Charles 2013, ‘What is Left of Leninism? New European Left Parties In Historical Perspective’, in Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy, edited by Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, Pontypool: Merlin, p. 6.
  • 23. Donald, Moira 1993, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900–1924, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. ix.
  • 24. Lih, Lars T. 2006, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context, Leiden: Brill.
  • 25. Frankel, Jonathan 1981, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 134.
  • 26. Shanin, Teodor 1986, Russia as a Developing Society: The Roots of Otherness – Russia’s Turn of Century, Volume 2: Russia, 1905–07: Revolution as a Moment of Truth, Basingstoke: Macmillan, p. 184.