Revolutionary social democracy: Working-class politics across the Russian empire — A review

Revolutionary social democracy: Working-class politics across the Russian empire

Published at The International Marxist-Humanist.

The meaning of historical developments is rarely self-evident, since it depends on the lens by which we study them. Eric Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy provides a crucial lens for re-examining working-class politics in the Russian Empire by focusing on those who developed what he calls borderland Marxism — the Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Georgians, Armenians, and others who comprised most of the populace of the empire as well as the membership of its numerous socialist parties between 1882 and 1917.

Blanc’s comprehensive study, drawn from primary research in eight languages, represents an original contribution that challenges readers to unlearn a series of misinterpretations and stereotypes that have marred both academic and activist discussions of Marxism.


Here are a handful of the many insights provided by his study:

  • Contrary to claims that Georgi Plekhanov and V. I. Lenin’s Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) pioneered the formation of a disciplined underground empire-wide Marxist party, it was actually the General Jewish Labor Bund (formed a year before the RSDLP). The Bund had five times as many members as the RSDLP by 1903 and the latter viewed it as its mentor.
  • Contrary to portrayals of the Polish Socialist Party as “social patriots” because of its support for Polish independence, it was an orthodox Marxist party that affirmed internationalism, alliances with Russian workers, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. While sections of it (under Jozef Pilsudski) moved to the right after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, others moved further to the left—to the point of suspending its demands for Polish independence in order to unite with Rosa Luxemburg’s (much smaller) Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania.
  • Contrary to portraits of Luxemburg as an uncompromising democrat who opposed centralism and hierarchical forms of organization, Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was actually the most centralized party in the empire. It repeatedly expelled members who questioned her stubborn opposition to Polish self-determination and refused to collaborate with any parties that supported it. Its sectarianism prevented it from playing a major role in the Polish uprising of 1918, when radicalized workers clearly supported national independence along with socialist revolution.
  • Contrary to claims that Ukrainian Marxism was a mere adjunct of the RSDLP, its Social Democratic Party had an independent trajectory. Leading figures such as Lev Yurkevich held that Ukraine’s national and social liberation could only be achieved through an alliance with workers of other nations, and that promoting national demands did not detract from the broader class struggle.

The central thesis

These and many other insights — too many to be enumerated here — by no means get to the heart of Blanc’s project. His central thesis is that supporters as well as opponents of Lenin assume that the Bolsheviks created a “party of a new type” and rose to power in October 1917 by breaking from the ingrained reformism of the Second International. This ignores, he argues, the revolutionary social democrats of the Second International — foremost among them Karl Kautsky prior to 1910 — who decisively influenced every Marxist tendency in the empire. If this is overlooked, it is because of lack of attentiveness to the specific social context in which Kautsky’s “orthodox Marxism” took root and spread. Marxists in Western Europe had the advantage of operating in democratic or quasi-democratic societies and could therefore elect party members to parliament, operate above ground, and eschew violent insurrection. Such options were not available to revolutionaries in the autocratic Russian Empire, where severe statist repression compelled them to create tightly knit organizations that combined legal and illegal activity. They had to — and did — adopt Kautsky’s revolutionary social democracy to their particular conditions.

Blanc argues that this basic difference between the tasks facing socialists in autocratic versus democratic regimes was lost sight of by those who turned the October Revolution into a model for all nations to follow, regardless of their specific political or material conditions. Lenin’s notion of “smashing” the state, enunciated on the eve of the 1917 Revolution, was taken to mean rejecting involvement in existing forms of political representation that could have enabled socialists to gain a mass base. He writes,

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.1

He grounds his argument in the claim that all of the illegal Marxist parties of the Russian Empire, as well as revolutionary social democrats such as Kautsky, agreed that state power must be smashed insofar as they understood the necessity of “breaking up the ruling class military machine” instead of simply securing seats in government and parliament. However, Lenin’s State and Revolution did not stop there — otherwise it would not have been, as it remains today, so controversial. Blanc acknowledges this in referring to “the call in Lenin’s The State and Revolution to immediately smash the old (non-military) state bureaucracy.”2  Lenin’s booklet was not limited to the completely uncontroversial claim that a revolution needs to eliminate the bourgeoisie’s monopoly of violence; it also emphasized the need to smash (as against taking over) the non-military aspects of the state. This was extremely controversial, since it implied a far deeper uprooting of the state apparatus than what he — and other revolutionary social democrats — had previously advocated.

Of Lenin, Leninism and social democracy

Does this mean that Lenin’s expansive notion of smashing the state in 1917 marked an original point of departure that defined the course of the October Revolution — as well as those influenced by it in subsequent decades? I would argue no, for two related reasons.

First, Lenin was restating what Karl Marx had formulated forty years earlier in The Civil War in France, which singled out the “non-statist form of the state” of the Paris Commune as the “proper political lever for the economic transformation of society.” Marx now held that the task was not to take over the state (his position in The Communist Manifesto), but rather smash it through decentralized forms of popular participation that annul the separation of legislative and executive power. Though the point is often overlooked in recent discussions, Lenin was simply returning to a notion of Marx that had been neglected or taken for granted in the Second International — including by himself. This did not mean that the Marxists of his time (and least of all Kautsky) paid no attention to Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune. It meant that the perspective of smashing rather than taking over the state did not define their political horizon.

Second, it is one thing to call for smashing the state and another to actualize it. Contrary to Lenin’s restatement of Marx, as well as to later claims by Leninists and anti-Leninists, the October Revolution did not smash the state along the lines of Marx’s Civil War in France or Lenin’s State and Revolution. As Lenin admitted at the end of his life, “we took over [the state apparatus] from tsarism and slightly anointed it with Soviet oil.” As Blanc notes, “the call in Lenin’s The State and Revolution to immediately smash the old (non-military) state bureaucracy had been dropped” by 1919.3

To what extent that was due to the limits of the objective situation or the Bolsheviks’ subjective policies cannot be settled here. The salient point is that neither the success nor the subsequent failure of the Bolshevik Revolution was due to Lenin’s “ultra-left” perspective of smashing the state, since the perspective was never actually implemented.

To be sure, many have equated Lenin’s call to smash the state with eliminating representative democracy, thereby breaking from the notion that a democratic republic under the control of the working class is the proper form for the transition to socialism. But there is no necessary connection between the two. Luxemburg, for instance, also called for “All Power to the Soviets” but opposed Lenin’s suppression of democracy after the October 1917 Revolution.

Of this Blanc is aware. However, he rejects the perspective of State and Revolution on the grounds that it “soon became mandatory reading within the new Communist International, which loudly proclaimed the need in all countries to replace parliamentary rule with workers’ councils by insurrectionary means.”4  Blanc argues that as a result, Western socialists who followed Lenin failed to do the work needed to build mass support for socialism by participating in the forms of political representation integral to bourgeois democracies. In assuming that an anti-parliamentary approach suited for autocratic regimes also applies to democratic ones, post-Lenin Leninists ended up creating marginal sects that had no chance of obtaining a mass base. Their hope that spontaneous revolts would bring the masses to them never materialized.

Blanc is correct that “over the past century, radicals have continued to operate within the strategic cul-de-sac created by this tendency to overgeneralize the international relevance of the Russian Revolution.”5  The question is: Does his return to Kautsky’s “revolutionary social democracy” provide an alternative to the bitter defeats of the past century? Or, by neglecting some of its peculiar social conditions, is Blanc guilty of overgeneralizing its international relevance for today?

The answer to this question lies in Blanc’s most original contribution — his discussion of the Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP). It is a unique example of a party that achieved a revolutionary seizure of power after having secured a parliamentary majority.

Finland achieved autonomous status within the tsarist empire in 1809 and later obtained its own parliament. In 1906, universal suffrage was introduced for men and women (the first nation to do so), and in 1916 the SPD won 47 percent of the vote, giving it a parliamentary majority. No party in Finland has scored so high a percentage since. This was no fluke: Finland had the largest number of socialists per capita of any country on Earth. Moreover, whereas borderland parties in Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, the Jewish Bund, and so on, tended (with some exceptions) to move to the right after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, the Finnish party — which subordinated the workers’ movement to liberals before 1905 — moved to the left. When it tried to push through a series of radical reforms after the February 1917 Revolution, the ruling elites dissolved parliament. Pushed even further to the left by the rush of events, the SPD came to power in January 1918 in a revolutionary uprising. Blanc writes: “This turn to anti-capitalist rupture did not require a break from revolutionary social democratic strategy: Finland’s socialist leaders in 1918 remained ideologically committed to orthodox Marxism’s traditional stance on universal suffrage, parliament, and republicanism.”6  They remained in power until being overthrown by the counter-revolution a few months later.

If the events in Finland exemplified Kautsky’s strategic perspective, why has it not been replicated? Blanc argues that “part of the reason why this example was so rarely repeated was that the post-1917 rise of Leninism and Social Democracy led most socialists to abandon efforts to push towards revolutionary transformation by expanding republican democracy.”7

This does not mean Blanc treats the Finnish SPD between 1916 and 1918 as a model for today. He acknowledges that, “because they organized under decidedly low inclusion parliamentary regimes, it was significantly easier for German and Finnish radicals to build a mass base for strict class intransigence.”8  So, what about those living in high inclusion parliamentary regimes today? He writes: “Where there is more space to use democratic institutions to pass transformative reforms, workers are generally less inclined to adopt revolutionary solutions and socialists have to confront the dilemmas of parliamentary compromise and the challenges of anti-capitalist governance under a capitalist economy. In such conditions, pushing for intransigent revolutionary politics, without in the process becoming a marginal sect, has proven to be a far more daunting task than expected.”9

So, what is to be done? Blanc holds that socialists “have to confront the dilemmas of parliamentary compromise and the challenges of anti-capitalist governance under a capitalist economy” — which makes it likely that leftist parties will accommodate themselves to existing structures at the expense of revolutionary transformation.10  This has been a repeated pattern over the last century. Hence, it is not just pushing for intransigent revolutionary politics that has proven to be more daunting than expected; by his own argument, the same is true of promoting parliamentary means to implement transformative reforms. Both end in a cul-de-sac. His argument does not point toward a resolution of the contradiction but rather confirms it.

One can argue this is an unresolved contradiction in life that Blanc is simply giving voice to. But in that case, we have to question the contemporary relevance of the Finnish example. After all, the Finnish SDP came to power not just because it temporarily gained a parliamentary majority but because two revolutions intervened that made possible its seizure of power — one led by forces that decidedly rejected bourgeois parliamentarism in favor of “All Power to the Soviets.” In this sense, Blanc’s discussion of how the Marxist movement has suffered from neglecting the importance of the Finnish SPD’s road to power may undermine rather than confirm its relevance for contemporary revolutionary politics.

At issue here is the broader question of the extent to which revisiting critical moments in history provide practical political direction for confronting present-day realities. The collapse of Marxist-Leninism in recent decades, which extends to most of its anti-Stalinist and Trotskyist incarnations, has generated renewed interest in the Second International in general and Kautsky’s revolutionary social democracy in particular. But does this represent a break from the methodological error made by those who overgeneralized the Bolshevik experience, or is it simply another variant of trying to “draw our poetry from the past,” as Marx once put it? Blanc is not unaware of the general problem, writing that, “for the as-yet-unsolved question of how to move beyond social democracy to socialism, Second International orthodox Marxism can only be a starting point, not the final word.” I would contend it is more of a dead end — for three reasons.11

The dead ends of Orthodox Marxism

The first has to do with Kautsky’s own trajectory. He held that the revolutionary seizure of power is needed in lands with undeveloped or non-existent democratic institutions. He also held that if the ruling class in the “democratic” West shuts down parliament to prevent socialists from gaining a parliamentary majority (as occurred in Finland), a revolutionary seizure of power is justified. However, “he rejected a strategic orientation towards promoting armed proletarian insurrections in Western European democracies.… Workers in the West would generally seek to use existing democratic channels and freedoms to advance their interests.”12  This hardly indicates that he treated social revolution on par with parliamentarism. The role of the latter supersedes the former. As he wrote in The Road to Power (1909), “The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party.… It is not part of our work to instigate a revolution or prepare the way for it.” But such a stance will never surmount the problem of leftist parties accommodating themselves to existing structures at the expense of revolutionary transformation.

Luxemburg took a somewhat different approach. When the SPD suffered massive electoral losses due to nationalist hysteria over German imperialism’s conquest of Southwest Africa in 1907, she declared:

We have lost nearly half of our mandates. However, whoever believes our political power has been weakened through this, overestimates the influence of parliamentarism. We are a revolutionary mass party. Our political power does not lie in the number of Reichstag mandates, but in the number of our followers among the people.… Only hopeless fantasists can believe that we could gradually obtain a parliamentary majority and achieve our goals with the help of this majority. Of course, we need the majority of the people for the realization of our goals, but that’s not the same as the majority of voters.13

Kautsky was not the object of her critique in 1907. But that changed in 1910, when he suggested that a section of an article by Luxemburg calling for a democratic republic (which he had always supported in principle) be cut due to his fears that it would damage the SPD’s electoral prospects. Luxemburg denounced him for capitulating to opportunism and broke off relations with him. At the time, few came to her defense — Lenin, Julius Martov, and Leon Trotsky all sided with Kautsky. It was only with Kautsky’s open capitulation to imperialism in 1914 that the Russian Marxists finally began to belatedly understand that Luxemburg had been onto something.

I am not arguing that there is a direct line from the pre-1910 Kautsky to his later move to the right. After all, Lenin was his devoted follower until at least 1914 and went in a totally different direction. But Lenin — like Luxemburg and many others who decisively broke with Kautsky — did not tend to prioritize winning a parliamentary majority over social revolution.

History suggests that neither parliamentarism nor revolutionary insurrectionism that falls short of elevating civil society above the state through the formation of institutions that embody the self-activity of the masses provides a way out of the contradictions facing revolutionary transformation. Neither the orthodox Marxists of the Second International nor post-Lenin Leninists resolved the contradiction, they fell victim to it. Our job today is to figure out how not to repeat such an outcome.

The second reason for going beyond the aporias of revolutionary social democracy concerns the party. Blanc is rather uncritical of Lenin’s organizational praxis, before and after 1917. This may be due to his (correct) view that Lenin applied Kautsky’s organizational concepts to Russian conditions. Lenin was clearly not an original when it came to the concept of organization: the notion of a tightly structured vanguard party based on democratic centralism was a staple of the Second International (the term democratic centralism was coined by a Menshevik). But whereas Blanc sees this as a virtue, it was actually a defect — as exemplified by the problem of the soviets.

It is doubtful that the Bolsheviks would have won power in October 1917 without proclaiming “All Power to the Soviets.” How to square that with the leading role of the party? The tensions were already evident in July 1917, when Lenin said the slogan had become outdated — since the Bolsheviks lacked majority support in the soviets. When they later obtained a majority in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he re-embraced the slogan. Lenin was hardly exceptional in this: the left Menshevik Martov pulled his support for “All Power to the Soviets” only after the Bolsheviks obtained their majority. Every wing of Marxism was bedeviled by how to reconcile all power to the soviets with party prerogatives.

The most striking example is what is left unsaid in Lenin’s State and Revolution—the role of the party. It is barely mentioned, but it surely was not forgotten! The question of the party was not rethought in light of its new theoretical points of departure. This proved deadly after the seizure of power, when the party was used as an instrument of repression against many who supported the revolution. In this sense, Martov was correct in writing in 1919 that under Lenin “little by little, the party becomes the principal state institution…thus, the idea of ‘Soviet Power’ — in terms of its actual political content — becomes an alias for the dictatorship of an extreme minority of the proletariat.”14

Perhaps it is too much to expect revolutionaries of that generation to reconsider the role of the party given the rush of events. A century later, we do not have that excuse. Innumerable grassroots movements around the world have in practice reconsidered it, in favoring decentralized, non-hierarchical forms of organization. This does not invalidate the role of parties, but it does render somewhat anachronistic the Kautsky-Lenin conception of the party.  This is because the fundamental question facing revolutionaries of their generation was what kind of party or organization is most conducive to successfully seizing state power. Yet, that is not the fundamental question facing us today, after a century of many revolutionary seizures of power that did not produce a viable alternative to capitalism. The burning question today is what relationship between organizations of committed Marxists and mass struggles can best ensure that a new bureaucracy or ruling class does not arise after a successful seizure of power. The orthodox Marxists of the Second (and Third) Internationals did not have to confront that question, since it came into view only with the rise of Stalinism — but we do.

The third limitation of revolutionary social democracy concerns how socialism itself is understood. Revolutionary tactics and strategy depend upon the goal; if the goal is misplaced or unclear, the means to achieve it will come into question. For orthodox Marxists, the goal was obvious: abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the establishment of a worldwide classless society. This is to be expected, since ending private ownership is a necessary condition for socialism. But as the realities of the past century painfully show, it is not a sufficient one. We have abundant evidence of regimes that abolished private property but did not produce a transition to a classless society. Instead, they produced new forms of statist despotism.

If there is one sentence that defined the conception of socialism upheld by the Marxists of the Second International, it was this: “When the sale of workers’ labor to private exploiters is abolished, the source of all today’s social inequalities will disappear.” It can be found in the Erfurt Program as well as the founding documents of the RSDLP, the Bund, the Polish Socialist Party, and Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party, and others. Surely, no sensible person would claim that today. The past one hundred years makes it abundantly clear that abolishing private property and “free” markets in lieu of uprooting alienated conditions of production and reproduction does not lead to the annulment of the capitalist law of value.

Nor does replacing private with public or state property provide any assurance that racism, sexism, and homophobia will be seriously undermined. A much deeper revolutionary uprooting is needed to achieve those goals. Today’s realities call for a richer and more expansive concept of socialism than available in the Second International. We still have a great deal to learn on a host of issues from those who at one time comprised it, but we cannot live by the truths of a different era. While the extent to which the historical developments detailed by Blanc are applicable to our current predicament remains questionable, there is no doubt that Revolutionary Social Democracy is an exemplary work that offers a wealth of resources for studying a prior era. It should be read, re-read, discussed, and debated as widely as possible. We owe a debt of gratitude to Blanc that he has afforded us the opportunity.

Peter Hudis is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton College in Illinois and author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism and Frantz Fanon, Philosopher of the Barricades. He is general editor of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg and has edited or co-edited six volumes of Luxemburg’s writings. He is a member of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization.
  • 1Haymarket Books, 2021), 7.
  • 2Blanc, 290 (my emphasis)
  • 3Blanc, 290.
  • 4Blanc, 391.
  • 5Blanc, 392.
  • 6Blanc, 313
  • 7Blanc, 315.
  • 8Blanc, 315.
  • 9Blanc, 315.
  • 10Blanc, 315.
  • 11Blanc, 315.
  • 12Blanc, 9.
  • 13Dietz Verlag, 2004), 193, 197.
  • 14AU Press, 2022), 68.