Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution
Lenin remained true to the tactical guidelines of Karl Kautsky after the latter had abandoned them.
In recent months, Jacobin has seen an exchange of views on the theme of Kautsky vs. Lenin. Many good points were made, but on the subject of the October Revolution, we are presented with a stark choice: either Kautsky is right and Lenin is wrong, or Lenin is right and Kautsky wrong. But this is a strange and unhelpful debate, because — as Bolsheviks of Lenin’s generation knew very well and current research reaffirms — Kautsky and Lenin were on the same page over a whole range of fundamental issues. Indeed, Kautsky served as mentor to the Bolsheviks precisely on the issues that defined them and divided them from their Menshevik rivals.
Karl Kautsky even deserves to be called the architect of the Bolshevik victory in October. Of course, I am not saying that Kautsky was necessarily the first to come up with these ideas or that the Bolsheviks did not arrive at them independently. But Kautsky gave authoritative endorsement to the key tactical ideas of Bolshevism, giving clarity and confidence to the Russians with an impact that is hard to overestimate. These ideas were set forth in specific writings much lauded by the Bolsheviks and used by them in polemics against the Menshevik “opportunists.” The same ideas led to their party’s victory in October and the ensuing civil war. Lenin and the Bolsheviks never rejected these ideas nor the writings in which Kautsky expressed them.
Getting the Kautsky-Bolshevik relation right is not just an academic exercise, a “fun fact” about the Marxists of yore. As the current debate shows, the Russian and the Bolshevik victory are crucially distorted if we go along with the folklore that the Bolsheviks succeeded because they relied on “insurrection” rather than “electoralism” — folklore perpetuated by friends of October as well as by its foes. Nor did the revolution in 1917 have anything to do with Lenin’s argument that “soviet democracy” was a higher type than “parliamentary democracy,” as incarnated in the Constituent Assembly that was shut down in January 1918 by the Soviet government (at the time, a coalition of Bolsheviks and Left SRs). During 1917, “soviet power” was not understood in these terms either by the Bolsheviks or the mass soviet constituency.
Therefore, if we want to appreciate the centrality of Kautsky’s tactical advice to the October victory, we must first document the concrete links between him and the Bolsheviks. We will then examine what the revolution was not and refute the standard account just mentioned. After looking at the actual political dynamics of 1917, I conclude using Lenin’s own account to present a much better idea of what the “Leninists” learned from their victory.
The Love/Hate Relationship Between Kautsky and Lenin
I first began to appreciate the strength of the Kautsky-Lenin link almost two decades ago when writing a long study of Lenin’s famous 1902 book What Is to Be Done? (Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 2006). The young Ulianov (not yet Lenin) paid Kautsky an extravagant compliment when he remarked that his famous formula — “Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement” — “reproduced the foundational ideas of the Communist Manifesto.”1 This remark is only a symbol for Kautsky’s immense impact on Russian Social Democracy and the Bolsheviks in particular. Indeed, his seminal 1892 book, The Erfurt Program, taught young Russian Social Democrats such as Lenin what it meant to be a social democrat.
The Kautsky theme prominent in Lenin Rediscovered upset many otherwise favorable critics. Sure (they argued), the young Lenin had a lot of complimentary things to say about the prestigious popularizer Kautsky. But doesn’t Lih realize that, in 1914, when Kautsky failed to call for a revolutionary response to the declaration of war, the scales fell from Lenin’s eyes, he rethought Marxism, and denounced “Kautskyism” root and branch?
But did Lenin actually ever reject Kautskyism, if by this term we mean the ideas that he, Lenin, had earlier praised so enthusiastically? What, in fact, did the post-1914 Lenin have to say about the pre-1914 Kautsky? Luckily, Soviet scholars created a research tool that allowed me to answer this question definitively: exhaustive bibliographic references to any literary production mentioned by Lenin in any way. Soviet censors did not allow any really useful commentary on the context of Lenin’s works, so scholars compensated by providing the fifth edition of Lenin’s complete works that came out in the 1960s with these amazing bibliographies.
What I found stunned me. First of all was the sheer volume of references — not just to the post-1914 Kautsky who became a more and more virulent critic of Bolshevism — but rather to long-ago Kautsky publications from before the war. Lenin’s remarks start immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914 and continue right up to the end (Lenin’s last article contains one). Clearly Lenin had a Kautsky fixation, even while Kautsky was becoming yesterday’s man in the West.
The references are also remarkable for the wide range of Kautsky’s pre-1914 writings that Lenin felt called upon to discuss. Indeed, Lenin once answered a party questionnaire by affirming that he had read just about everything by Kautsky. And finally, these references are striking because they are overwhelmingly positive. Taken all in all, they constitute a strong endorsement of Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist (as Lenin expressed it). I have put together a sort of database of these references that I hope to put online soon.2
But if the scales — much to the chagrin of many socialists today — refused to fall from Lenin’s eyes, why did he attack Kautsky so relentlessly after 1914? Precisely because he saw Kautsky as a renegade, that is, as someone who renounced or refused to act on his own correct views. This term is prominently displayed in the title of a once-famous book Lenin wrote in late 1918 when recovering from an assassination attempt: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Legend has it that red-diaper babies in the thirties and forties grew up thinking “Renegade” was Kautsky’s first name — thus showing a better sense of Lenin’s attitude than many Marxist intellectuals today.
The word translated as “Kautskyism” in Soviet-era editions of Lenin’s works is kautskianstvo — that is, not an ism, but a type of political behavior that can be summed up as “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.” As such, Lenin hurls the terms at a wide range of opponents who had nothing to do with Kautsky’s ideas — for example, before 1917, Lev Trotsky. In the case of Kautsky himself, the accusation of kautskianstvo was an affirmation of Kautskyism, that is, the ideas found in Kautsky’s prewar writings that had so thrilled Lenin back in the day.
Lenin’s personal relationship to Kautsky and his ideas is not the half of it. Kautsky was an essential mentor to the Bolsheviks as a whole. Lenin’s longtime lieutenant, Lev Kamenev, when sitting down to the task of preparing the first edition of Lenin’s complete works, lamented the difficulties faced by Lenin before 1917 in getting his ideas to the Russian worker: the short-lived and small-circulation underground newspapers, the censored “Aesopian” language, the need for deceptive pseudonyms, the books pulled off the press by the authorities. In contrast, Bolshevik reading groups had a steady supply of legal and illegal Russian translations of Kautsky’s works (some prepared by Lenin himself). I have looked at enough reading lists of such groups to assert that Kautsky was by far the most important author, more so than any Russian Social Democrat. In State and Revolution, Lenin himself made the point:
Undoubtedly, an immeasurably larger number of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian than into any other language. It is not without justification that German Social Democrats sometimes say jokingly that Kautsky is more read in Russia than in Germany (we may say, in parentheses, that there is deeper historical significance in this joke than those who first made it suspected; for the Russian workers, by making in 1905 an unusually great and unprecedented demand for the best works of the best Social Democratic literature and editions of these works in quantities unheard of in other countries, rapidly transplanted, so to speak, the enormous experience of a neighboring, more advanced country to the young soil of our proletarian movement).3
To convince yourself of Kautsky’s centrality, take down your copy of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s 1918 textbook of Bolshevism, The ABC of Communism, and peruse the reading lists recommended for earnest new recruits to Bolshevism. The prerevolutionary entries from Lenin are mainly about agricultural statistics (What is To be Done? is not included), and they are vastly outnumbered by Kautsky material, with writings covering a wide range of essential topics, from Karl Marx’s economic doctrines to antisemitism (including Road to Power discussed below).
Kautsky’s Tactical Advice for the Upcoming Revolution
I continue to be amazed at the list of crucial topics about which Kautsky served as a Bolshevik mentor. But I’ll concentrate on two items of tactical advice that were undoubtedly crucial to the organization’s victory in October and beyond. I will first look at the specific writings where Kautsky put forth these ideas as well as the immediate Bolshevik reaction to them.
The first crucial piece of Kautsky advice is what I call — in order to distinguish it from so many other meanings of the word — “Bolshevik hegemony.” According to the Bolsheviks themselves, if there was one word that summed up specifically Bolshevik tactics, it was hegemony. In 1906, Lenin summed up “the fundamental principles of Bolshevik tactics” in this way: “A bourgeois revolution, brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry despite the instability of the bourgeoisie.” He then claimed that Kautsky had provided “a brilliant vindication … the essence of this tactic [is] totally affirmed by Kautsky … Kautsky’s analysis satisfies us completely.”
Lenin was referring to an article entitled “Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution.” Kautsky’s title poised the following questions: what class forces in Russian society are capable of pushing the upcoming revolution “to the end,” that is, as far as it can go? What can this revolution maximally hope to accomplish under present social conditions? Kautsky answered both questions by pointing to the Russian peasantry: on the one hand, its unsatisfied needs made it an essential ally for the socialist proletariat, and on the other, this ally set up a barrier to full socialist transformation.
The Bolsheviks were ecstatic about this article. Lenin arranged a translation and wrote detailed commentaries. Down in the Caucasus, the young Bolshevik Iosif Stalin produced his own commentary, using Kautsky’s arguments to expose Menshevik errors. Indeed, Kautsky’s 1906 article can truly be called a charter document of Bolshevism.
If there was anyone who was even more enthusiastic about this article than the Bolsheviks, it was Lev Trotsky. He asserted in this connection that anyone who had read works such as his own Results and Prospects “will see that I have no reason to reject even a single one of the positions formulated in the article I have translated by Kautsky, because the development of our thinking in these two articles is identical.” And, it should be added, Trotsky was if anything more insistent than the Bolsheviks that the Russian peasants were an insuperable barrier to socialist transformation. He argued that immediately after a democratic revolution, conflicts would begin to emerge between socialist workers and the peasant majority, and that these conflicts would likely lead to an armed clash. Barring a successful European revolution, this clash would end in proletarian defeat.
Aha, some will say, Bolshevik hegemony is tied to the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and thus irrelevant to the proletarian-socialist revolution in October. What this objection overlooks is that for all parties to the discussion — Trotsky as well as Lenin and Kautsky — a fully socialist revolution was incompatible with an alliance with a peasantry that itself was not consciously and voluntarily in favor of socialism. And yet, both before and after October, the Bolsheviks were committed to respecting basic peasant interests. During the civil war, the Bolsheviks placed heavy burdens on the peasantry (though hardly more than on workers) in pursuit of common interests as perceived by the peasants, namely, preventing the victory of a landowner/capitalist counterrevolution. Bolshevik leaders stressed many times that victory in 1917, victory in the civil war, and (hopefully) victory via New Economic Policy (NEP) was based on proletarian leadership of the peasants in pursuit of common interests — that is, on Bolshevik hegemony.
In other words, after October the Bolsheviks surprised themselves by deciding that socialist revolution was compatible with proletarian leadership of the peasants. Thus there was continuity in the actual policy of Bolshevik hegemony and there was discontinuity in ideological assumptions about socialist revolution.
In articles written in 1909, Kautsky affirmed the continuing relevance of his analysis — and, as usual, his remarks were energetically circulated by Russian Bolsheviks:
The industrial proletariat of Russia is the bearer of the [democratic] Russian revolution, and this is precisely why it cannot count on the support of the bourgeoisie for the revolution. Only in the peasantry does the Russian proletariat find a class whose economic interests do not contradict its own and who cannot achieve a satisfactory position in society without revolution. … At present the tsarist government itself [because of the Stolypin reforms] is energetically working at broadening the outlook of the Russian peasant beyond the narrow boundaries of his native village … And this in the final analysis will lead to even further intensification of his dissatisfaction.
After the October revolution, both Lenin and Trotsky endorsed the argument of Kautsky’s 1906 article and called Kautsky out for abandoning it himself. As Lenin wrote in Renegade Kautsky:
But now Kautsky does not say a single word about the controversies of that time (for fear of being exposed by his own statements!), and thereby makes it utterly impossible for the German reader to understand the essence of the matter. Mr. Kautsky could not tell the German workers in 1918 that in 1905 he had been in favor of an alliance of the workers with the peasants and not with the liberal bourgeoisie, and on what conditions he had advocated this alliance, and what program he had outlined for it.4
Bolshevik hegemony was not the only piece of tactical advice by Kautsky that proved crucial in 1917. In 1909, Kautsky published a small book entitled Road to Power. The Bolsheviks reacted with by now typical enthusiasm. In a glowing book review, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, brought out the book’s wide range of topics as well as its significance as a weapon of the “orthodox” against the “revisionists” — or, in Russia, the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks:
Kautsky’s work, along with its great significance for general politics, has also, of course, large implications specifically for Social Democracy. His book sums up the events of the last five years: revolution in Russia, the awakening of the East, the regrouping of social forces in Germany, the successes of the proletariat in Austria, the sharpening of the class struggle in England, and so forth … This new work of Kautsky’s has already sparked off a battle between the orthodox and the revisionists, and this battle is still expanding, providing us with the opportunity once more to judge the respective positions of the two camps as applied to the vital questions of today.
Only a few years later, this 1909 publication came to be viewed as the swan song of the good “Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist.” In early 1915, in the first throes of his indignation against Kautsky the sellout, Lenin wrote:
It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to Power (which came out in 1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch … But Kautsky now commits to the flame what he once worshipped and he is changing front in the most incredible, most indecent, most shameless fashion.5
Of particular interest to the Bolsheviks was Kautsky’s condemnation of any kind of political “agreements” (soglasheniia) with liberal or democrat reformers. I give the Russian translation of “agreement,” because in 1917 the rejection of “agreementism” (soglashatelstvo) became central to the Bolshevik message, as we shall see. Zinoviev (undoubtedly speaking for Lenin in this instance) cited Kautsky as an authority on this issue:
The issue of the relation of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie (both liberal and democratic), of possible blocs and agreements [soglasheniia] with it, of the growth or the blunting of contradictions between it and the proletariat, and so forth, has for a long time been the central point of dispute between Marxists and revisionists in all countries … Social Democracy, in Kautsky’s opinion, must conduct a purge of its own ranks, it must free itself from petty-bourgeois elements, it must stand out more sharply than ever before against the politics of blocs and agreements with the bourgeoisie.
Kautsky’s case for anti-agreementism rested on his perception that the world was entering a new era of revolutionary upheaval. He argued that in this new age of revolutions, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) must not compromise, or go soft on imperialism or even join a coalition government — rather, it must remain true to its heritage of irreconcilable opposition. In Kautsky’s words:
The more imperturbable, consistent, and irreconcilable the Social Democratic Party remains, all the more readily will it get the better of its opponents. To demand that the Social Democratic Party participate in a policy of coalition or alliance now … at the very time when those parties have prostituted and utterly compromised themselves; to want the Party to link itself with them in order to further that very prostitution—is to demand that it commit moral suicide.
If the party stands uncompromisingly for a “great idea, a great goal,” it will be able to “unleash all the energy and devotion” that lie below the surface in nonrevolutionary periods:
When times of revolutionary ferment come, the tempo of progress all at once becomes rapid. It is quite incredible how swiftly the masses of the population learn in such times and achieve clarity about their class interests. Not only their courage and their desire to fight, but also their political interest is spurred on in the most powerful way by the consciousness that the moment has arrived for them to rise by their efforts out of the darkest night into the bright glory of the sun. Even the most sluggish become industrious; even the most cowardly, bold; even the most intellectually limited acquire a wider mental grasp. In such times, political education of the masses takes place in years, that otherwise would require generations.
Sounds like 1917!
In particular, the tactic of militant anti-agreementism gave the revolutionary Social Democrats a chance to win over the wavering “petty bourgeoisie” (in Russia, this term referred primarily to the peasant majority). The party, Kautsky argued, should not write off the peasant or the member of the urban lower classes because of his present hostility, since an outbreak of war or some other catastrophe might enrage him. “One day, under intolerable pressure from taxation and shaken by a sudden moral collapse of those in power, he might swing over to us en masse and perhaps thereby sweep away our opponents and decide the struggle in our favor.”
The description “present hostility” refers to the situation in Germany, but, as we have seen, Kautsky urged the Russian Social Democrats to look upon the Russian peasantry as a revolutionary ally. In 1915, looking ahead to the imminent Russian Revolution, Lenin was quick to make the connection between the two prongs of Kautsky’s tactical advice:
To the question of whether it is possible for the proletariat to assume the leadership [rukovodstvo] in the bourgeois Russian revolution, our answer is: yes, it is possible, if the petty bourgeoisie swings to the left at the decisive moment; it is being pushed to the left, not only by our propaganda, but by a number of objective factors, economic, financial (the burden of war), military, political, and others.6
Thus the Bolsheviks came into 1917 with two pieces of Kautsky advice firmly under their belts: enlist the peasantry as a revolutionary ally, and do not deviate from militant anti-agreementism. In order to see how this advice played out in 1917, we need first to dispense with a couple of will-o’-the-wisps about the October Revolution.
What the 1917 Revolution Was Not
In his Jacobin article, Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.” This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy — parliamentary vs. soviet — as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever. Let us consider.
“All power to the Soviets!” — this was the rallying cry of 1917. But “soviet” here expresses merely the institutional form of class power. “Soviet power” meant a vlast (sovereign authority or “power”) based on the workers and peasants. No one particularly cared about how much more democratic the soviets were as opposed to parliamentary democracy — these concerns were pretty much confined to Lenin, and even he downplayed them in 1917 (compare State and Revolution to writings published in 1917 such as Can the Bolsheviks Hold State Power [vlast]?). The Bolshevik message was based rather on anti-agreementism: the workers and peasants cannot get their basic needs met in league with the elite (more below on anti-agreementism in 1917).
In no way can it be said that the Bolshevik message was based on rejection of the Constituent Assembly as “parliamentary democracy.” The opposite is the case: defense of the Constituent Assembly was an integral part of the Bolshevik agitation throughout 1917. This was particularly true in October, when Bolshevik accusations that the Provisional Government would sabotage the elections for the Assembly reached a fever pitch. In fact, fear of such sabotage was a central argument for an immediate takeover of power. After the Constituent Assembly was disbanded, Trotsky affirmed that “when we argued [in October] that the road to the Constituent Assembly lay … through the seizure of power by the Soviets, we were absolutely sincere.” (It is no surprise that this statement by Trotsky is met by a scornful laugh from academic historians. What is truly remarkable, however, is that many self-styled Trotsky admirers will also automatically assume that Trotsky is lying for political reasons and that I am naïve for taking him at his word.)
Nor, further, were the alleged defects of parliamentary democracy prominent among the announced motivations for disbanding the Constituent Assembly in January. Witness: Trotsky, who gives a number of pertinent reasons for disbandment at the time but does not mention any contrast between soviet-style government and “bourgeois parliamentarianism.” Witness: the Left SRs, who cooperated with disbandment for their own reasons.
In October, when the Second Congress of Soviets voted for soviet power, a Bolshevik-dominated committee arrested members of the Provisional Government and took other actions to prevent armed overthrow of the new government. For a number of reasons, both academic and activist historians come together in exaggerating the importance of a violent “insurrection” in the Bolshevik path to power. Essentially, the academics want to delegitimize the Bolsheviks as a whole, while the Trotsky tradition only wants to delegitimize most of the top Bolshevik leadership.
But any contrast, whether in approval or disapproval, between the Bolshevik takeover and “electoralism” is absurd. The Bolsheviks won in 1917 through winning elections — through acquiring a majority in key soviet bodies as a result of arduous campaigning — campaigning that was based on a message (anti-agreementism) that made sense to people. In fact, the Soviet government set up in October was the only government in 1917 that had any real electoral legitimacy.
The Bolsheviks won majority support for full soviet power (in other words, for anti-agreementism) in the key capital soviets in early September. After that, it was only a matter of time, of making things official. Of course, this process was dramatic and no doubt that Bolsheviks could have screwed it up. But essentially what happened was that the Petrograd Soviet officially set up a body to protect the revolution and this body did so by making a few arrests in order to protect the Second Congress. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Second Congress would declare for full soviet power — so that the existing national soviet body, the agreementist TsIK, was already a lame-duck walking corpse.
Throughout 1917, the final say in the composition of the government had always rested with the Soviet, for the simple but profound reason that it commanded the ultimate loyalty of the Petrograd workers and soldiers (that is, “real force”). Thus, the February Revolution and the October Revolution gave rise to a government in essentially the same way: the relevant soviet authority spoke, and that was it. In February, there was indeed a real “insurrection” from below, but in October the so-called uprising was a police action set in motion by duly constituted authorities.
One ill effect of the overintense focus (I might even call it fetishism) on the October “insurrection” is to obscure the real problem with Bolshevik rule, which is neither the rejection of parliamentary forms nor the use of “insurrection.” It is, plain and simple, the rapid and complete destruction of political freedom. The Bolsheviks started by outlawing political parties and newspapers (the Kadets were outlawed in December 1917) and ended up squeezing all independent political and civil life out of society. This was done by the time NEP was established in 1921 and the resulting suffocation of independent civil society was never dented until perestroika.
However, it must be strongly emphasized that at no time prior to October did Lenin or the Bolsheviks speak of “insurrection” as a method opposed to majority rule, nor can we find any hint of a project to destroy political freedom. Quite the opposite. The Bolsheviks had long defined themselves as champions of political freedom for Russia, and indeed Russian Social Democracy was key in giving Russia what political freedom it had in the decade before the revolution. But ultimately the significance of this fact fades before the realities of the system created during the civil war.
Whether for good reasons or bad, Lenin and the Bolsheviks defined themselves after October as the destroyers of political freedom in Russia. People in Western Europe had a sense that Communists wanted to use “bourgeois” political freedom to get into power, and then eliminate it for everybody else. Did the Communists give them any reason to think they were wrong?
What the 1917 Revolution Was
In the aftermath of the February Revolution, the Bolshevik party as a whole emerged from the underground with Kautsky’s tactical advice in their political DNA: enlist the peasantry as a revolutionary ally, and do not deviate from militant anti-agreementism. From the very beginning of the revolution, the Bolsheviks acted on this advice and as a result they were accurately perceived as distinctive by all actors on the political scene. (Many people want to believe that the Bolsheviks were not anti-agreementist until Lenin presented his April Theses upon his return to Russia. I have documented the problems with this view elsewhere, but the issue has no bearing on the present discussion. Date Bolshevik anti-agreementism from early April if you wish!)
A crucial fact, not sufficiently emphasized, is that the Petrograd Soviet was not a “Soviet of Worker Deputies” (as was the case in 1905) but a “Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies.” This fact changed the whole political meaning of the soviet and therefore of “soviet power.” At first, the preponderance of soldiers caused serious problems for the Bolsheviks and partly explains their original isolation within the Petrograd Soviet. But later, they began to see soldier membership in the Soviet as a great opportunity: win over the soldiers to the Bolshevik message (difficult as that may have been) and it’s game over for the Provisional Government. Which is what happened.
For this reason, Eric Blanc’s comment that Leninists wanted “to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils” leads to a serious distortion of the political dynamics of 1917. The Bolsheviks then and later interpreted the soldier presence in the soviets as a link to the peasantry — that is, as a gateway to carrying out the tactic of Bolshevik hegemony. And also from the very beginning, the Bolsheviks had their eye on the wider peasant constituency. A remark by Bolshevik activist Viktor Nogin in late March succinctly foreshadows one of the principal political dynamics of the following months:
This resolution [by the Moscow Bolsheviks] proposes the organized seizure of the lands without waiting for the Constituent Assembly. The SRs could not bring themselves to propose such a slogan, since they prefer to wait for the Constituent Assembly. When they learned of the decision of the Moscow [Bolsheviks], the SRs said, “too bad for us! Now the peasants are going to elect the Bolsheviks.”7
Thus the Bolsheviks quickly became identified with anti-agreementism. At an all-Russian conference of soviets in late March — that is, prior to Lenin’s return and his April Theses — the red line between agreementists and anti-agreementists was sharply drawn, with the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli as the spokesman of agreementism and the Bolshevik Lev Kamenev as the spokesman of anti-agreementism. No one deluded themselves about the reality of this clash. The agreementists wagered their political future on a viable working relationship with the social elites represented in the Provisional Government, while the anti-agreementists wagered their political future on a rapidly growing split between Provisional Government and the soviet constituency.
What was the heart of the message the Bolsheviks addressed to the soviet constituency to convince them of the necessity for all power to the soviets? It wasn’t: the soviets are a higher type of democracy, down with parliamentary democracy! It wasn’t: we need a socialist revolution in Russia! As noted earlier, the Bolsheviks had previously assumed that “socialist revolution” was incompatible with the peasant ally. After 1917, they changed their mind — not about the peasant ally, but about the meaning of “socialist revolution.” The Bolshevik message in 1917 was not even: land, peace, and bread! What political party was against land, peace, and bread?
The question was how to attain goals that everybody accepted as valid. And here the Bolsheviks had a clear if primarily negative answer: we cannot attain these goals through any sort of “agreements,” dual power, coalitions, or political understandings with elites! Socialists who insist on these agreements are leading us to disaster. We need a worker/peasant vlast (state power), as expressed through the soviets, that excludes any political voice for the elite.
Thus the Bolsheviks championed a message based directly on Kautsky’s advice about hegemony and anti-agreementism, advice of long standing that was familiar to the whole party. Of course, there existed anti-agreementist factions within the other socialist parties — but they remained opposition factions until the very eve of October, when the anti-agreementist faction of the SR party bolted and founded the Left SR party, which promptly joined with the Bolsheviks in an anti-agreementist coalition government. Until October, then, the Bolsheviks remained the only party united around anti-agreementism. This fact determined the dynamics of the party system in 1917.
Full soviet power only became feasible when the two streams of Kautsky’s advice came together, that is, when the soldiers and the peasant majority in the country swung over to anti-agreementism. At least, such was the view of Lenin, as expressed in February 1918. (In the following passage, “the opportunists of October” refers to Zinoviev and Kamenev. Too much should not be read into this label, since Lenin is merely adopting the term used by his polemical opponents at the time. What can be legitimately read into Lenin’s comment is a challenge to the Trotskyist/Stalinist consensus that Zinoviev and Kamenev were enemies of the revolution and opposed in principle to soviet power. From Lenin’s standpoint, the dispute arose rather from different readings of empirical forces by leaders striving for an identical goal.) In Lenin’s words:
As matters stood in October, we had made an exact account precisely of mass forces. We not only thought, we knew with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that in September and in early October the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side. We knew, even if only from the voting at the Democratic Conference, that support for the coalition [of moderate socialists and “bourgeois” politicians] had also collapsed among the peasantry—and that meant that our cause had already won.
The following were the objective conditions for the October insurrectionary struggle:
(1) there was no longer any bludgeon over the heads of the soldiers—it was overthrown in February 1917 (Germany has not yet reached “its” February);
(2) the soldiers, like the workers, had already experienced enough of the coalition and had completed a purposive, thought-through, heartfelt withdrawal from it.
This, and this alone, determined the correctness of the slogan “for an insurrection” in October (the slogan would have been incorrect in July, when in fact we did not advance it).
The mistake of the opportunists of October was not that they “worried too much” about objective conditions (and only children could think it was) but that they incorrectly evaluated the facts —they focused on details without seeing the main thing: that the Soviets had come over from agreementism [soglashatelstvo] to us.
Both “Leninists” and anti-Leninists should take careful heed to what the man himself says here: only support from an “overwhelming majority” of the mass worker-soldier-peasant soviet constituency made the armed action in October politically meaningful. This support can be measured by electoral success. Rejection of agreementism is equivalent to support for all power to the soviets. These political facts as set out by Lenin are overwhelmingly more significant than whether the “insurrection” took place the day before or the day after the Second Congress of Soviets.
History’s Lessons, History’s Questions
Alas, history does not always give us usable lessons to apply in the present day. At most, it thrusts upon us some unsettling questions. Here are some that arise from the episode we have just considered.
For Russia in 1917, Kautsky’s advice about anti-agreementism was political gold, enabling the Bolsheviks to win power. In Western Europe, Kautsky’s advice was political lead, with would-be Bolsheviks never successfully attaining power.
In my view, neither Lenin nor Kautsky really understood why Kautsky’s anti-agreementist tactics met such different political fates in Russia and Europe. One key difference, perhaps hard for the Marxist tradition to fully analyze: the complete and sudden collapse of state authority in Russia, which had no equivalent in Western Europe. In any event, this deficient understanding finds expression in both the Bolsheviks’ expectations for socialist revolution in Europe and Kautsky’s often arid polemics against the Bolsheviks.
Our final question is about the Russian Revolution and its fate. It was best put by Kautsky himself, to whom we should give the last word. In March 1917, immediately after the fall of the tsar, before the political lines of force became clear to outsiders, Kautsky recapitulated his longtime argument that “the new revolutionary regime will be well protected against a counterrevolution, [because] the peasants will join it and remain faithful to it.” He then wondered how long the worker-peasant alliance would remain in force, since “the peasantry’s dependence on the revolution does not mean that they will support a further revolutionary advance of the proletariat.” Therefore, “the peasant is the ‘x,’ the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a figure for it. And yet we know that this figure is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.”
Kautsky is right on target: the key question for the revolution and indeed for all of Soviet history, the equation that had to be solved, was always the nature of worker-peasant relations. We know now how tragically that history played out.