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The roots of 1917: Kautsky, the state and revolution in Imperial Russia
By Eric Blanc
October 14, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s blog with permission — This article reexamines the perspectives on the state and revolution advocated by the early Karl Kautsky and revolutionary social democrats across the Tsarist Empire. Contrary to a common misconception, these “orthodox” Marxists rejected the possibility of a peaceful and gradualist utilization of the capitalist state for socialist transformation. I show that Second International “orthodoxy” proved to be a sufficiently radical political foundation for the Bolsheviks and Finnish socialists to lead the Twentieth century’s first anti-capitalist seizures of power.
Ever since the publication of Lenin’s The State and Revolution in 1918, socialist theorist Karl Kautsky’s views on this topic have often been equated with the advocacy of a gradualist utilization of the capitalist state for socialist transformation. Lenin’s influential pamphlet has cast a long shadow backward, leading many scholars and socialists to assume that the fatal flaw of Second International socialism was a fundamentally un-Marxist approach to state power.
The Bolshevik leader’s 1917 call to smash the capitalist state, the argument goes, constituted a pioneering rupture with the prevailing stance of “orthodox” social democracy (i.e., Marxism). According to one recent account, “the practice of these [non-Bolshevik Second International] socialist parties was informed by an important break with Marx’s theory of the state.” Kautsky is blamed for this development as he supposedly “disregard[ed] Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme and Engels’s similar critique of the Erfurt Programme—in which they insisted it was a grave mistake for the German party to claim that the transition to socialism could be won without smashing the old state through a revolution.”
As Ben Lewis’s important pioneering work on Kautsky has clearly demonstrated, such a critique is factually inaccurate and problematically obscures the actual state perspectives of revolutionary social democrats in Germany, Tsarist Russia, and beyond. Leaning on and developing some of Lewis’s findings, I will show that early social democratic “orthodoxy” represented a ruptural anti-capitalist strategy that shared more in common with the orientation of the early Communist International than it did with post-1914 class-collaborationist reformism.
Though Kautsky adopted a distinct stance on state power after 1910, his earlier orientation – i.e., the strategy that trained a generation of revolutionary Marxists, including Lenin – rejected the possibility of a peaceful utilization of the capitalist state and consistently called for the destruction of the standing army. In line with the model of the 1871 Paris Commune, the “orthodox” advocacy of a democratic republic pointed not only to the overthrow of monarchies, but to the establishment of workers’ rule. Unlike Kautsky himself, the most consistent Marxists in the Russian Empire upheld this radical stance during the 1917 revolution.
Reading pre-1918 history through the lens of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, moreover, has problematically turned our attention away from examining the main strategic debates between Marxists in the Russian empire up through the end of 1917. Under Tsarist absolutism, there were no major conflicts over the gradual transformation of the state, because virtually all social democrats saw the need to violently overthrow the absolutist Tsarist regime. After the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917, the defining question of political power became whether or not to build a coalition government with the bourgeoisie or to establish some form of independent workers’ and peasants’ regime. And on this question – the major point of political contention during the 1917 revolution – revolutionary social democracy was unequivocally committed to a sharp class line.
It was the reformists – including Kautsky, post-1909 – who broke in theory and/or practice from the longstanding “orthodox” stance on the capitalist state and workers’ revolution during 1917-23. Though the hegemonic revolutionary Marxist approach to state power evolved after the October Revolution, the political continuities outweigh the divergences with Kautsky’s early stance on the state and revolution. Whatever criticisms one might have of early revolutionary social democracy, it proved to be a sufficiently anti-systemic political foundation for the Bolsheviks and Finnish socialists to lead the Twentieth century’s first anti-capitalist seizures of power.
Kautsky’s influence in Tsarist Russia and Germany
If political practice is the ultimate criteria for revolutionary theory, then Kautsky’s strategy should be judged by the concrete political practices of the parties that sought to implement this perspective. And to see what a party led by “orthodox” Marxists looked like in practice, one must examine the Russian Empire, not Germany.
Nowhere in the world were Kautsky’s writings more popular and influential than in the lands ruled by the Russian Tsar, where his works effectively served as the main foundation for the empire’s most radical Marxist parties among all nationalities. Kautsky was particularly important in the Tsarist empire above all because interest in revolutionary politics was so high. Lenin noted this phenomenon in The State and Revolution:
As Lenin implied, Kautsky’s writings had more of an impact in the Tsarist Empire than in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) itself. It is essential to emphasize this point from the outset, as Kautsky’s theories have frequently been framed as causing and/or reflecting the German party’s abandonment of revolutionary politics, culminating in its support for World War One and its strangling of the 1918–23 German Revolution.
According to Paul Blackledge, for example, Kautsky “subordinate[d] all politics to parliamentarianism such as to effectively excuse the way German social democracy became tied to the German capitalist state in the decades leading up to 1914.” Such an interpretation fundamentally misdiagnoses the content of Kautsky’s early politics and the reasons for the SPD’s degeneration. In reality, the SPD leadership, from at least 1906 onwards, was not comprised of “orthodox” social democrats, but rather an officialdom of full-time party, union, and parliamentary functionaries who were wary of socialist theory generally and Kautsky’s writings in particular.
As Gilbert Badia has explained, “the new leadership of the party (and in the unions even more so) demonstrated an indifference, indeed a growing mistrust towards ‘political theory’ and towards those who brought it to the fore.” By 1909 – well before the SPD’s historic capitulations – Kautsky’s political influence in the party was in sharp decline. 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.”
The SPD bureaucracy’s “non-theoretical” pragmatism, combined with their distinct material interests as a caste of functionaries, facilitated an unconscious absorption of bourgeois liberalism and a practical integration into the capitalist regime. It was above all the emergence of this conservative (and a-theoretical) officialdom which transformed the German party, like so many of its Western European counterparts, into a prop for bourgeois parliamentarism. For this unprincipled SPD leadership, it mattered little that its decision to support World War One in 1914 and head a capitalist republic in alliance with the bourgeoisie after 1918 flagrantly violated the traditional stances promoted by Kautsky and the SPD as a whole. That Kautsky eventually caved to the pressures of the SPD bureaucracy after 1909, reversed many of his earlier positions, and actively opposed the October Revolution, need not lead us to ignore what he actually said and did before this time.
Clarifying the content of Kautsky’s stance on the state and revolution is essential for understanding why the radical orientation of imperial Russia’s Marxists was not due to a misunderstanding about the nature of Second International “orthodoxy.”
Kautsky versus revisionism
It is more than a little ironic that Kautsky is today frequently associated with a gradualist vision of socialist transformation, given that his contemporaries saw him as the foremost advocate of the exact opposite position. In the Second International’s ongoing debate between “orthodoxy” and “revisionism” over the conquest of power, Kautsky was without a doubt the most influential theorist of a ruptural approach.
The stance of the reformists was straightforward. Many denied altogether the need for workers to take power: social equality and justice, it was argued, could be reached through the gradual extension of democratic rights, public services, and working-class organizations (trade unions, co-ops, etc.). Other “revisionists” were in favor of the workers’ conquest of power, but argued that such an objective must only take place peacefully, gradually, and through elections in the existing democratic institutions. In conditions of political freedom and parliamentary democracy there was no need for a revolution. As reformist theoretician Edward Bernstein famously declared, “the final aim of socialism, whatever it may be, means nothing to me; it is the movement itself which is everything.”
Though the Tsarist empire’s Marxists were quick to charge their factional opponents with “revisionism,” readers should keep in mind that this debate on the transformation of the capitalist state was largely irrelevant for the immediate context of Tsarism. In the absence of political freedom or a parliament, all the illegal Marxist parties at this time agreed that the existing state had to be smashed through violent revolution. In 1903, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) noted that, unlike in Western Europe, “the socialist parties of all nationalities in Russia agree that the first step must be to lead a violent revolution to clear away the main obstacle – Tsarism.” As Kautsky explained in 1904, the particular cautious tactical stances he advocated for Germany were not necessarily relevant for the absolutist context of imperial Tsarism, where the workers “find themselves in a state in which they have nothing to lose but their chains.”
Until February 1917, the main controversy on state power in imperial Russia was between the socialist call for a democratic republic through armed struggle and the liberal advocacy of a constitutional monarchy and peaceful pressure tactics. Only after February 1917 and the establishment of the Provisional Government did the question of how to relate to a bourgeois government become a pressing issue in most of the empire.
In the face of Tsarist absolutism, it is unsurprising that it was only in the autonomous grand duchy of Finland – the only region of the Russian empire with a parliament, relative political freedom, and a legal socialist party – where “revisionist” state perspectives were influential and a question of practical politics. Before the 1905 revolution, the Finnish workers’ party was openly reformist; “orthodox” Marxists were a rarity and class-collaborationism was hegemonic. Thus the founding 1899 program of the Finnish Workers’ Party (whose name was changed to the Finnish Social Democratic Party in 1903) eschewed a call for the conquest of power; instead, its leaders declared the need to “strive for participation in the power in the communal and state field.”
Marxist “orthodoxy” was sharply counterposed to such moderate perspectives. The working class, it affirmed, could free itself and all the oppressed only through seizing all political power. Along these lines, the 1892 founding program of the Polish Socialist Party declared that it set “as its primary goal the conquest of political power for the proletariat and by the proletariat.”
According to Kautsky, state power could not be shared by the exploited and exploiters, given the depth of their class antagonism. A gradual conquest of political power by the proletariat was impossible: “The idea of the gradual conquest of the various departments of a ministry by the Socialists is not less absurd than would be an attempt to divide the act of birth into a number of consecutive monthly acts.” The 1900 founding program of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania succinctly summed up the “orthodox” consensus:
Rejecting Bernstein’s advocacy of a gradual transition to socialism, Kautsky and other radicals argued that solely through a revolutionary break could workers seize state power and overthrow capitalism. Such a rupture was required to defeat “through a decisive struggle” the inevitable resistance of the ruling class. Like so many other socialists in the empire, Polish Marxist Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz praised Kautsky’s influential 1902 pamphlet The Social Revolution for initiating a serious socialist discussion on the proletarian conquest of power. Indeed, Kautsky’s long pamphlet was almost immediately translated, republished, and illegally distributed by the most radical of the Tsarist empire’s Marxist parties.
Critique of bourgeois democracy
Kautsky and his co-thinkers’ insistence on the need for revolution was bound up with their critique of the bourgeoisie and capitalist democracy. According to socialist “orthodoxy,” the capitalist class had long ceased to consistently defend (let alone fight for) democracy. Finnish “orthodox” Marxist Edward Valpas characteristically declared that “the bourgeoisie has no democratic attitude.” Given the increasingly anti-democratic politics of the bourgeoisie, the fight for democracy would place the proletariat on a collision course with capitalist rule.
In Kautsky’s opinion, parliamentary democracies under capitalism were corrupted mockeries of real democracy and true parliamentarism. One reason for this was that the social and economic influence of the capitalists fatally undermined the democratic process:
No less contradictory with democracy was the growth of the state bureaucracy – what Kautsky called “bureaucratic parasitism.” The proliferation of “superfluous categories of officials” and the increasing power of the executive branch and non-elected governmental bodies undermined the power of democratically-elected parliaments. Thus Kautsky argued that “one of the most important tasks of the working class in its struggle for the achievement of political power is not to eliminate the representative system, but to break the power of government vis-à-vis the parliament.” Along similar lines, The Erfurt Program – as well as subsequent revolutionary Marxist programs in Tsarist Russia – called for the election of all state officials and the institution of broad local self-government.
Even more threatening to democracy, according to “orthodox” Marxists, was the massive expansion of the armed forces of the state, i.e., “militarism.” Following Kautsky’s analysis, Marien Bielecki of the PPS argued that the “ominous growth of militarism” precluded the peaceful democratic transformation of European states.
Given the anti-democratic nature of modern governments, Kautsky concluded that the main existing state forms and institutions could not be used by the proletariat for its own liberation:
Two key tactical conclusions flowed from this overall analysis. First, Kautsky did not argue that parliaments under capitalism could be utilized to gradually push through socialist transformation. In fact, he repeatedly denounced the reformist belief that the path to socialism could peacefully pass through the election of a socialist majority to the existing state. And though Kautsky’s stress on parliamentarism seemed to carry with it the assumption that socialist overturn required winning the support of the majority of the population, in the years before 1910 he did not generally posit that Marxists had to first win a majority in parliament before socialist transformation could be undertaken.
The bourgeoisie, he explained, would very likely resort to force to prevent or annul the election of a socialist government through parliament, making a moment of political and institutional rupture, of revolution, to be expected. Arguing against German reformist Max Maurenbrecher, Kautsky wrote: Does he expect the exploiters to look on good-naturedly while we take one position after another and make ready for their expropriation? If so, he lives under a mighty illusion. Imagine for a moment that our parliamentary activity were to assume forms which threatened the supremacy of the bourgeoisie. What would happen? The bourgeoisie would try to put an end to parliamentary forms. In particular it would rather do away with the universal, direct and secret ballot than quietly capitulate to the proletariat. So we are not given the choice as to whether we shall limit ourselves to a purely parliamentary struggle.
Whether the resulting revolution would be peaceful or violent, Kautsky argued, depended on circumstances, though his hope and preference was explicitly for the former option. While reformist socialists insisted that it was absolutely impermissible for the proletariat to ever employ armed force, Kautsky consistently affirmed that “orthodox” Marxists desired and advocated a peaceful revolution, but they must be prepared to use violent means if necessary. He noted that capitalists would not renounce violence even if the socialists did: “For those who renounce in advance the use of violence, what remains beyond parliamentary cretinism and statesmanlike cunning?”
By organizing a general strike and winning over the military’s rank-and-file soldiers, Kautsky argued, a peaceful socialist revolution was possible. Whether the revolution would result in violence could not be predicted as this depended on the response of the ruling class. Either way, workers would need arms, because:
Such an orientation was hardly reformist, though it should be noted that, unlike the strategy of the early Communist International, Kautsky often implied that a ruptural battle would only take place after the ruling class moved against democratic institutions or political freedoms. Such a relatively defensive orientation, in turn, was bound up with Kautsky’s strong stress on sticking if possible to legal and peaceful tactics, so as to not give the regime a pretext to clamp down and destroy the accumulated power of the proletariat before it was strong enough to defeat its enemies. A revolutionary crisis would eventually arise and pose distinct political tasks for socialists, but in the interim the party should do everything possible to avoid any premature clashes with the ruling class. Missing from this perspective was a strategic understanding of the centrality of mass action and “spontaneous” upsurges in revolutionary processes – insights most famously articulated by Rosa Luxemburg after 1905 and implemented by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
There were also earlier Marxist precedents for this divergence from Kautsky’s stance. As early as 1904, in an important but forgotten polemic, PPS leaders Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz and Marien Bielecki argued that Kautsky’s approach was overly-defensive and that Marxists in parliamentary democracies (not just Tsarist Russia) had to actively promote and prepare for mass general strikes and armed uprisings against the capitalist state.
A second crucial tactical conclusion advocated by Kautsky and revolutionary social democrats from 1903 onwards was that under no circumstances should socialists seek to participate in a capitalist government. For the anomalous context of Russia, some “orthodox” Marxists such as Kautsky and the Bolsheviks argued in favor of a provisional revolutionary government of workers (or workers and peasants) that, while not overthrowing capitalism as such, would lead the democratic revolution to victory. Others, like the Mensheviks, generally opposed such a perspective, arguing that a workers’ government would necessarily lead to the overturn of capitalism, for which Russian social conditions were not ripe. The crucial point to stress here is that all currents of revolutionary social democracy opposed the establishment of a joint coalition government with the capitalist class and the liberal parties.
The significance of this opposition to “ministerialism” can hardly be overestimated, as it was precisely this issue that proved to be the central governmental question in 1917 and well beyond. Far more than debates over the use of violence, or the best forms for a workers’ state, divergences over whether or not to participate in a coalition regime with the bourgeoisie constituted the fundamental dividing line between reformists and radicals on the question of state power during the 1917 revolutionary wave in the Russian empire.
The roots of this fundamental debate over what would later become known as a “Popular Front” go back to 1899. That year, following the anti-Semitic “Dreyfus Affair,” socialist Alexandre Millerand joined the French government in the name of saving the republic against the threat of the right wing. Reformist socialists like French leader Jean Jaurès argued in favor of Millerand on the grounds that democratic gains could best be defended through an alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie; socialist participation in government, moreover, was a strategic step towards the gradual transformation of the state in the direction of socialism.
A heated struggle immediately erupted between “orthodox” and “revisionist” socialists over this move and its strategic implications. Kautsky, Luxemburg, and other radicals argued against the possibility for piecemeal conquest of power and declared that democracy could only be defended and extended by the working class on a sharp class line, i.e., by maintaining its political independence from the bourgeoisie and its state.
After multiple years of conflict and controversy, the radicals secured the adoption of their position. The 1903 German SPD Dresden congress and the 1904 Amsterdam congress of the Second International adopted the historic resolution – written by Kautsky – banning socialists from seeking entry into any capitalist government:
In an important series of essays on Marxism and the republic written in 1904–05, Kautsky defended and elaborated on the strategy underlying this resolution. Since many of the key points of these articles have already been cited above, here I want to particularly highlight Kautsky’s pioneering – and prophetic – analysis of the indispensable role of reformists for propping up the capitalist state at a moment of crisis.
Kautsky argued that the roots of Millerand’s entry into government lay in the weak French bourgeoisie’s inability to rule without the support of socialists:
As historical evidence demonstrating that the reformists’ bloc with the bourgeoisie would ultimately place them on the wrong side of the barricades in a revolutionary crisis, Kautsky pointed to moderate French socialist Louis Blanc’s role in squashing the 1871 Paris Commune:
The course of events in 1917–23 in Russia and across Europe vindicated this analysis. Ironically and tragically, Kautsky – like Louis Blanc and Alexandre Millerand before him – also eventually ended up on “the side of the proletariat’s opponents.” Kautsky became, to quote Lenin, a renegade; in other words, he reneged on his earlier radicalism. Capitulating to the SPD bureaucracy and dropping his former intransigent stance, the “Pope of Marxism” after 1917 likewise advocated a bloc with the German capitalists and defended the SPD’s participation in their state. The results would prove to be catastrophic for the German, Russian, and international working class.
Whether to follow the path of Millerand’s “ministerialism” would also become the defining political issue in the Russian empire following the February 1917 revolution. Yet in the preceding years, the weight of absolutism precluded even the possibility of a socialist entry into government. Only in Finland could this debate be posed as an immediate issue – and on this question the reformist and “orthodox” wings of Finnish socialism clashed sharply and repeatedly. Yrjö Makelin and other collaborationist activists in the party advocated that socialists look to participate in a national Finnish government, praising and promoting Millerand’s entry into the French government as a positive example to emulate. In response, Finnish “orthodox” leader Edvard Valpas sharply denounced the idea of a coalition government between socialists and the bourgeoisie. The experience of Millerand, he argued, clearly demonstrated that it was “a deception” to believe that participating in a capitalist government would further the workers’ cause – in practice, it could only serve to shield the capitalist state from the proletariat’s independent class struggle.
This became a burning practical issue when a moderate head of the Finnish Social Democracy, J.K. Kari, joined the Finnish government in November 1905. In response, the ascendant “orthodox” wing of the Social Democracy led a successful charge at the next party congress to demand that Kari be expelled from the party, declaring that joining a bourgeois government contradicted the central tenets of Marxism.
As the Kari expulsion illustrates, the Finnish Social Democratic Party, unlike the German SPD, did not slowly evolve in an integrationist, class-collaborationist direction. Finland’s Social Democracy was unique among Europe’s mass socialist parties operating in contexts of political freedom in that it became more committed to revolutionary social democracy after 1905.
Had Finland not been part of the Tsarist Empire, it is likely that the Finnish Social Democracy would have evolved down an accomodationist path similar to that of so many Western socialist currents, in which increasing bureaucratization and parliamentary integration relegated radical leaders to an internal minority by the eve of World War One. Yet, unlike every other legal socialist party in Europe, the Finnish social democracy directly took part in the 1905 revolution. The general strike in the fall radicalized urban and rural proletarians in Finland, sparking an explosive mass upheaval that swept out much of the party’s old guard leadership and brought in a new group of dedicated Marxists, committed to implementing a strict independent class perspective.
So while the spread of revolutionary social democracy came relatively late to Finland, it played a pivotal role in breaking the workers’ movement from a longstanding tradition of alliances with the upper class. From 1905 onwards, the experience of Finnish socialism constitutes a particularly revealing test case for analyzing the political dynamics and possibilities of patient “orthodox” social democracy in a context of political freedom and parliamentary democracy.
The democratic republic and proletarian rule
In the previous section we saw that “orthodox” socialists opposed existing capitalist states for being insufficiently democratic. But what exactly did they propose to replace these with? The short answer is a republic. It is crucial to clarify what Kautsky and his comrades envisioned such a democratic republic to be, as this term has become associated with bourgeois parliamentary democracy and the simple absence of a monarchy. But for revolutionary social democrats, real democratic republicanism, true parliamentarism, was a radical and ultimately anti-capitalist perspective. Unlike in many post-1917 Marxist writings, the concepts of “republic” and “democracy” in this period were not seen as intrinsically linked to the bourgeoisie or capitalism. For Frederick Engels, “one thing that is absolutely certain is that our party and the working class cannot achieve rule except under the form of the democratic republic. This latter is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution already showed.”
Far more than simply eliminating the monarchy, according to Kautsky, a real republic required dissolving the standing army, electing all state officials, devolving administration to local self-government, and subordinating “all members of representative bodies to the control and discipline of the organised people.” Thus Kautsky argued that though the American and French governments claimed to be republics, they were not so in actuality. As a model for “the ideal of the democratic republic,” Kautsky’s important 1904-05 essays on the republic pointed to the 1871 Paris Commune:
Like Lenin in The State and Revolution, Kautsky explicitly cited and praised Marx’s “classical description” of the Commune, with its famous call for the “destruction of the state power”: “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.” Kautsky drew from his analysis of the undemocratic nature of existing state institutions the following conclusion:
Contrary to the impression given by Lenin’s The State and Revolution – which omits any mention of these explicit calls by Kautsky to dissolve the existing state structures – I have found no evidence that Second International Marxists saw a call to smash these capitalist state structures as somehow novel or “unorthodox.” Kautsky’s 1904-05 writings on the republic were re-published as a pamphlet in German in 1905 and immediately translated and published in Russian and Polish.
Thus Mikelis Valters of the Latvijas Sociāldemokrātiskās savienība (Latvian Social Democratic Union) in 1905 likewise explicitly quoted and praised Marx’s declaration that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Social and national liberation, he argued, could only be won through dismantling the capitalist state:
Valters, like Kautsky, did not claim that these arguments were a break from the prevailing stance of revolutionary social democracy. Latvian socialist Jānis Bērziņš-Ziemelis’ article “Long live the democratic republic” similarly echoed Kautsky’s analysis of the nature of real republicanism. His conclusion was that no Western republic “is democratic in the proper sense of the word” and that the socialist ideal was a republic on the model of the Paris Commune.
It is true that explicit praise for the Paris Commune state model was not a major or ongoing theme in Kautsky’s writings, but the same cannot be said about his stance on the military and militarism. And it was on this point that his state perspective was most radical. This topic has received surprisingly little attention by scholars and socialists, even though the question of the state and revolution ultimately comes down to which social class can wield a monopoly of violence in society.
A historiographic focus on Marxist debates over the political form of a workers’ state – parliamentary or soviet, centralized or decentralized, with or without previous state functionaries, etc. – has obscured a more fundamental point: all “orthodox” social democrats called for the destruction of the ruling-class’ military machine. This was hardly a secondary point, because, to quote Kautsky, the army was “the most important” means of rule. As Marx had stressed, and Kautsky positively reiterated, the demand for the standing army’s elimination and its replacement by a popular militia was “the first decree of the [Paris] Commune.”
Readers should recall that Kautsky and other revolutionary socialists saw the growth of militarism as one of the fundamental trends of modern capitalism – and the major threat to democracy. A call for the end of the standing military and the arming of the people was a central plank in the 1892 Erfurt Program; as historian Nicholas Stargardt notes, the early SPD “stationed the militia at the centre of its political, social and fiscal critique.” According to Kautsky, “the arming of the people” was “the only means which could put an end to the regime of the sword for ever.” Luxemburg likewise declared that “the power and domination of both the capitalist state and the bourgeois class are crystallized in militarism … To abandon the struggle against the military system leads in practice to the complete renunciation of any struggle against the current social system.”
Testifying to the weight of revolutionary social democracy in the Tsarist Empire, all “orthodox” socialist parties called for the dissolution of the standing army and its replacement by a militia as one of their immediate (minimum) demands. The Revolutionary Ukrainian Party’s 1903 minimum program typically proclaimed that “we must destroy the present standing army and establish people’s militia.”
German “revisionists,” in contrast, called on the SPD to drop this position, prompting a major 1899 debate on this issue between Kautsky and his opponents in Die Neue Zeit. That same year in Finland, the reformist founding program of the Workers Party significantly omitted this position. Instead it declared only that the “military burden must be greatly reduced and the ideals of peace advanced and realized in practice.” In 1903, the Finnish party’s leftwards turn was reflected in its adoption of the standard social democratic militia-army position. And in 1917, now under a “orthodox” leadership, the fight for this plank would play a central role in thrusting the revolution forwards towards anti-capitalist rupture.
Experience in 1905, 1917, and beyond would show that breaking up the ruling-class’ army constituted a precondition for establishing any form of workers’ government. While Lenin and his comrades’ later views on the form of proletarian and peasant rule – in regard to utilizing old state functionaries, levels of centralization, the role of parliamentary institutions, etc. – often evolved quite dramatically during and after 1917, the political constant underlying all of their stances was that the old state’s repressive apparatus must first be smashed. As the March 22, 1917, resolution of the Bolshevik party declared: “The only guarantee of victory over all the forces of counter-revolution and of the further development and deepening of the revolution is, in the party’s view, the general arming of the population and, in particular, the immediate creation of a workers’ Red Guard throughout the country.”
The “orthodox” position on the army – and republican democracy generally – undermines the frequently made assertion that Second International Marxism fatally separated its minimum and maximum programs. Pierre Broué, for instance, argued that “this separation was to dominate the theory and practice of social democracy for decades.” There is much merit to this criticism in regard to moderate socialists and the bureaucratized party leaderships. But it does not necessarily apply to Kautsky, as he did in fact often articulate what would later become known as a “transitional” approach.
Highlighting the increasingly conservative nature of the bourgeoisie, Kautsky frequently argued that democratic planks of the minimum program, such as the elimination of the standing army, could only be achieved by the proletariat against the ruling class and likely only be won through revolution. Against Rosa Luxemburg’s argument that Polish independence should not be demanded because it could not be won under the current system, Kautsky replied that by the same logic the SPD would have to drop its demands for a democratic republic and the election of state officials – “nobody indulges in the illusion that the election of state officials by the people is achievable under the existing political relations.” To dissolve the standing army in Germany similarly presupposed “a radical transformation of state relations.” Marxists, he argued, should raise the demand for the establishment of an armed militia and national federalism notwithstanding their likely incompatibility with the current order: “When drawing up its programme, social democracy does not ask whether the ruling classes and parties can win it, but rather if it is necessary.”
According to Kautsky, while specific demands raised by socialists might be shared by other parties, and though some of these might on their own be compatible with capitalism, “what distinguishes [the Social Democracy] from the other parties is the totality of its practical demands” and “the aims to which these demands point.” As early as 1893, Kautsky had already concluded that “the bourgeoisie in Europe east of the Rhine has become so weak and cowardly that it seems that the regime of the bureaucrat and the sabre cannot be broken until such a point when the proletariat is able to conquer political power, and that the overthrow of military absolutism will lead directly to the proletariat’s encroachment on political power.” In short, for “orthodox” Marxists the fight for democracy constituted an indispensable revolutionary bridge between today’s struggles and the workers’ conquest of power.
The state and the 1917 revolution
Socialist debates on state power in 1917 did not revolve around the utilization or destruction of the existing state apparatus. The old Tsarist state structure was largely broken up by the February revolution. The new Provisional Government was an extremely weak institution that never possessed firm control over the repressive apparatus, let alone a monopoly of violence over society; its tenuous popular legitimacy largely rested on the support given to it by moderate socialists.
In such a context, the state question became concentrated in the issue of whether working people should bloc with the upper class or set up some sort of independent power. In 1917, this issue tended to over-determine the other major political debates of the revolution. To end the war, implement agrarian reform, grant national self-determination, or meet the pressing economic demands of workers and peasants required a “break from the bourgeoisie.” The fundamental commonality in the state project and strategy of the Bolsheviks, Finnish radicals, and other revolutionary social democrats was a shared commitment to working-class independence and hegemony in the fight for political power, manifest above all in a strategic rejection of alliances with bourgeois parties and a rejection of cross-class coalition governments.
While most Mensheviks, right Socialist Revolutionaries, and other moderate non-Russian socialists dropped their parties’ longstanding “orthodox” opposition to participation in coalition governments in 1917, the Bolsheviks and other radicals upheld this stance. As historian Michael Melancon notes:
The popular demand for “All Power to the Soviets” concentrated the widespread desire for a political rupture from the bourgeoisie. To quote Rex Wade: “Excluding the upper- and middle-class elements from power and the demand for radical change were both neatly summed up in the call for ‘All Power to the Soviets,’ which both the Bolsheviks and growing numbers of the population embraced but which the Revolutionary Defensist leaders stubbornly rejected.” The October Revolution above all represented the concretization of this anti-bourgeois break – and a vindication of the revolutionary content of a core principle in social democratic “orthodoxy.”
Despite the overall continuity between Kautsky’s early state perspectives and those articulated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks after 1917, there were also incontestable divergences. Certainly one of the most significant of these was Kautsky’s view that a parliament based on universal suffrage would be a central component of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In contrast, the soviet (council) model of state power in the Russian empire excluded the bourgeoisie and landlords from the vote, and sought to base itself on a more direct participation and representation of toilers. Like Lenin, many Marxists from 1917 onwards argued that this structure was more democratic than traditional parliamentarism. As PPS-Left leader Maria Kozutzka wrote in 1918:
As an extended discussion of the role of soviets during and after 1917 is beyond the scope of this paper, I will limit myself to a few comments. First, while the soviets represented a more direct form of democracy than envisioned even by the early Kautsky, the extent of the divergences should not be overstated. As we saw earlier, Kautsky similarly rejected bourgeois parliamentarism as a sham and called for a republic in which the separation between working people and the state would be broken down through the election of all state officials, the arming of the people, the extension of local self-government, and merging of executive and legislative powers. Such a proletarian parliamentary republic resembled the soviet model far more than any existing capitalist democracy.
Second, it must be underlined that the central political debate in the Russian empire in 1917 was not over soviets versus parliaments. Apart from Finland, there were no existing national parliaments in the empire against which the soviets could be counterposed – the new Provisional Government was a self-appointed, unelected institution that lost much of its support precisely for constantly delaying the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Early “orthodoxy” had always argued that the distinct context of Tsarist absolutism meant that the revolution in Russia, and the appropriate Marxist tactics and strategy for its conditions, would be quite different than in Western bourgeois democracies. This analysis continued to be relevant during the 1917 upheaval, which took place in a polity that remained profoundly marked by the autocratic legacy.
In the absence of any existing national parliament, the soviets from the outset represented the dominant democratic expression of working people, into which they increasingly invested their participation and aspirations. Throughout 1917, revolutionary Marxists in both the centre and periphery generally saw the existing soviets and a future Constituent Assembly as complementary institutions to establish workers’ and peasants’ power. This stance changed when it became clear that the newly-elected Constituent Assembly – which finally convened in January 1918 – was being counterposed by the moderate socialists and liberals to the new Soviet government.
Seeking to defend and deepen the revolution and its gains, Bolsheviks and Left SRs dispersed the Constituent Assembly after it refused to recognize the political authority of the Soviet regime. As Alexander Rabinowitch and many other historians have noted, the “most important” reason for the victory of soviet power over the Constituent Assembly in 1918 was “the Russian people’s fundamental indifference” toward the latter. This particular political context helps clarify why the dispersal of the Assembly was not, as claimed by so many liberals and reformists, an expression of “Leninist authoritarianism.” But the virtual absence of a strong parliamentary institution or tradition in the Russian Empire should also be kept in mind when weighing the extent to which Bolshevik strategy in 1917 marked a break or continuity with social democratic “orthodoxy,” which had always approached the Russian Revolution as a rather unique historic phenomenon.
Ultimately, the post-1917 international significance of Lenin and the early Comintern’s stance on councils was above all that it posed a new strategic path towards the workers’ conquest of power. In contrast with Kautsky’s stance on parliamentarism and his stress on defensive tactics, positing workers’ councils as the necessary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat went hand in hand with an unprecedented strategic emphasis on extra-parliamentary mass action and the mobilization of the broadest layers of workers beyond the organized ranks of the party and trade unions. Similarly, the new stance legitimized a more offensive, more insurrectionary strategy towards winning state power – no longer was socialist revolution foreseen primarily as a defensive reaction against attempts by the bourgeoisie to eliminate democratic freedoms or to overturn the election of a socialist majority in parliament. For Marxists unwilling to postpone the overthrow of capitalism to the indefinite future, winning a majority of working people organized into councils proved to be a more realistic benchmark for revolutionary–democratic legitimacy than gaining an electoral majority of the entire population under conditions of capitalist rule. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg drew the following strategic conclusion from the Russian Revolution:
Such a stance was certainly distinct from, if not necessarily contradictory with, the Marxist “orthodoxy” promoted by Kautsky in his revolutionary period. That said, it doesn’t follow that the earlier stance was inherently reformist. Here the revolution in Finland serves as an important point of comparison. On the whole, the Finnish Revolution, like the October Revolution itself, confirms the anti-capitalist potentialities of Kautsky’s early stance on the state and revolution.
A strong Finnish parliament and parliamentary tradition posed obstacles and opportunities that socialists did not face in the rest of the empire. Unlike in the other regions of imperial Russia, there was a long tradition of political freedom and a parliament in Finland; as advocated by “orthodox” doctrine for such conditions, the Finnish Social Democracy had a strong focus on parliamentary activity. In fact, the party won an absolute majority in the Finnish parliament in 1916 and sought (ultimately without success) for much of 1917 to use this institution to meet the basic demands of the working class.
Late in the summer of 1917, the Russian Provisional Government in alliance with Finnish conservatives illegally dissolved Finland’s socialist-led parliament and called for new elections. In response to this anti-democratic bourgeois “coup,” the Finnish socialist leadership protested sharply – and then prevaricated for months. Though conditions of crisis and counter-revolution now put insurrection firmly on the agenda, it remained very hesitant to break from the parliamentary arena. At the same time, however, it fought hard against any attempts by the Finnish bourgeoisie to establish a police force and army to prop up its rule (the old repressive apparatus in Finland had also been destroyed in February 1917).
After considerable delay, and under pressure both from its radical rank and file and the revolution in Central Russia, the Finnish Social Democracy did eventually overcome its hesitations, which had been particularly pushed by the party’s moderate parliamentary wing. In January 1918 the Finnish socialists seized power through armed insurrection. Though the initial state objective of the Finnish revolution did not go beyond establishing a more democratic parliamentary government based on universal suffrage, the new Finnish workers’ regime, like its counterpart in Russia, was pushed by circumstances and counter-revolution to move further on the road to socialist transformation than it originally intended. Only after a bloody civil war and a foreign invasion by imperial Germany was the workers’ regime swept away in May 1918.
Finland in many ways confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Kautsky: Through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the right wing to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution. The Finnish party’s “orthodox” preference for a peaceful, defensive, and parliamentary strategy did not ultimately prevent it from violently overthrowing the existing capitalist state and taking steps towards socialism. In contrast, the bureaucratized German Social Democracy actively upheld capitalist rule in 1918–19 and violently smashed efforts by revolutionary workers and socialists to overturn it.
My argument is not that the Finnish experience shows the path that all workers’ revolutions will take in conditions of bourgeois democracy. Nor does it follow that Marxists must always seek to win a parliamentary majority before attempting to overthrow a bourgeois-democratic state or that soviet-like bodies cannot arise in parliamentary polities. The lessons of the 1918-23 German Revolution and other subsequent working-class upheavals undercut any simplistic schemas along those lines. Moreover, Finland showed not only the strengths but also the potential limitations of social democratic “orthodoxy”: a hesitancy to abandon the parliamentary arena; a tendency to be overly-defensive; an overemphasis on peaceful tactics; and an underestimation of mass action.
Marxism necessarily evolves over time through the lived practice of class struggle. The unprecedented revolutionary upheaval across imperial Russia and the globe in 1917-1923 led the early Comintern to build off many of the best traditions of revolutionary social democracy and develop a sharper conception of state power and political strategy.
Without denying these important evolutions, the fact remains that the politics of revolutionary Marxists in and after 1917 reflected far more continuity than rupture with social democratic “orthodoxy.” It is true that Kautsky capitulated to reformism after 1909 and played a reactionary role during the post-war socialist insurgencies. But his early theories trained the Bolsheviks, Finnish Marxists, and other radicals who led the first victorious assaults on capitalist rule. As we approach the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it is well past time to acknowledge that the roots of 1917 lie firmly in the legacy of revolutionary social democracy.
I would like to thank John Riddell, Lars Lih, Charlie Post, Todd Chretien, and David Walters for their comments on this article.
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 Blackledge 2011. For a scholarly account arguing that Kautsky did not seek to smash the capitalist state, see Van Ree 2002, pp. 31–2.
 See, for example, Lewis 2011. I would like to thank Ben Lewis for generously allowing me in this article to excerpt from his upcoming collection of Kautsky’s writings on democracy and republicanism.
 The only significant exceptions were the reformists in the moderate wing of the Finnish Social Democracy and the Russian Menshevik liquidationists after 1905.
 Due to space constraints in the present piece, I will take up in a separate article the debates among imperial Russia’s Marxists concerning “the agrarian question” and whether the forthcoming revolution could directly overthrow capitalism.
 Lenin, V.I. 1964 , p. 481–2.
 Blackledge 2013.
 Badia 1975, p. 140.
 Steinberg 1967, p. 124.
 On the bureaucratization and political evolution of the SPD, see Schorske 1955.
 Cited in Luxemburg 2004 , p. 129.
 A.W. 1903, p. 247.
 Kautsky 2009 , p. 215.
 Cited in Martin 1971, p. 248. My emphasis.
 Polska Partia Socjalistyczna 1975 (1892), p. 252.
 Kautsky 1902, p. 19.
 SDKPiL 1934 , p. 185.
 Kaustky 1996 , p. 5.
 Kelles-Krauz 1904, p. 560.
 L’internationale Ouvrière & Socialiste 1907, p. 158.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 177.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 222.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 155.
 See, for example, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands 1891, p. 5. and ‘Latviešu Sociāldemokrātiskās Strādnieku Partijas Programa’  in Latvijas KP CK Partijas Vēstures Institūts 1958, p. 13.
 Bielecki 1904, p. 157.
 Kautsky 2017 , pp. 191–2.
 Waldenberg 1972, pp. 409–11, 530-1.
 Kautsky 1908, p. 456.
 Kautsky 1902, pp. 98-99.
 Kautsky ‘9 June, 1902’ in Adler 1954, p. 405.
 Kautsky 1902, p. 88.
 Kautsky 2009 , p. 247.
 Kelles-Krauz 1904; Bielecki 1904.
 On these questions, see Larsson 1970.
 Frölich 1940, p. 81.
 Secrétariat Socialiste International 1904, pp. 114–15. The 1903 Dresden and 1904 Amsterdam resolutions marked a harder line than the initial positions of Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Plekhanov. Initially, each of these leaders opposed Millerand’s entry into the French government and rejected the possibility of a peaceful transformation of the capitalist state, but nevertheless did not absolutely preclude the possibility for socialist participation in capitalist governments in “exceptional” circumstances.
 Kautsky, Karl 2017 , pp. 279-80. My emphasis.
 Kautsky, Karl 2017 , p. 210.
 On Kautsky’s ideological turn to the right after 1909, see Volume 2 of Waldenberg 1972.
 Soikkanen 1961, p. 109.
 Valpas 1904, pp. 60–3.
 Soikkanen 1961, p. 261–66.
 Cited in Lenin 1964 , p. 450. Despite Lenin’s citation of this quote, he nevertheless immediately goes on to claim that a democratic republic necessarily only represented “the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which did not “in the least [mean] abolishing the rule of capital.” (Ibid. My emphasis).
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 259.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 225.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 286.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 214.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 192.
 Valters 1905, p. 18.
 Valters 1905, p. 20. My emphasis.
 Cited in Treijs 1981, p. 188.
 Stargardt 1994 provides a useful overview of German socialist debates on militarism, but his brief analysis of Kautsky’s stance is politically confused.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 224.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 213.
 Stargardt 1994, p. 45-46.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 225.
 Luxemburg 1971 , p. 147.
 Гермайзе 1926, p. 171.
 Suomen Työväenpuolueen 1899, p. 30.
 “On the Provisional Government” , p. 205 in Elwood 1974.
 Broué 2005, p. 17.
 Kautsky 1896, p. 514.
 Kautsky 1899 pt 2., p 645.
 Kautsky 1898, p. 724.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 163.
 Kautsky 2017 , p. 169.
 Melancon 2004, p. 156.
 Wade 2004, p. 212.
 Koszutska 1961 , p. 252.
 Throughout 1917 the call for “All Power to the Soviets” was not generally seen by Lenin or the Bolsheviks as counterposed to the calling of a Constituent Assembly. The latter was a prominent demand of the party during the bulk of the year, though there were often major internal political differences between different wings of Bolsheviks concerning the potential political relationship between such an Assembly and the soviets. Most Bolsheviks saw an important role for both bodies in their perspective for post-bourgeois rule. Some Bolshevik leaders, like Lenin, viewed soviets as the highest form of republic from early on in 1917; a Constituent Assembly would at best be a supplement and legitimization to a soviet government. Other Bolshevik leaders did not share Lenin’s advocacy of a council “commune-state” and looked to the establishment of a socialist-majority Constituent Assembly as the crucial foundation for the new workers’ and peasants’ government. On the evolution of the post-October Bolshevik positions on these questions, as well as the broader popular (and non-Bolshevik) views on the Constituent Assembly, see Rabinowitch 2007, pp. 62–127, passim.
 Rabinowitch 2007, p. 127.
 Luxemburg 2004 , p. 289.
 For a detailed account of the politics of the Finnish Social Democracy in 1917–18, see Carrez 2008.
 On the Finnish workers’ government in 1918, see Rinta-Tassi 1986.