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Eric Blanc, Karl Kautsky, and the democratic road to socialism

A review of Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917)

Revolutionary Social Democracy
Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917)

by Eric Blanc

Haymarket, 2022

Eric Blanc holds that the Marxism of the Second International in its classical years (1889–1914) remains the latest and highest stage of Marxist political theory, exemplified by the work of Karl Kautsky (1854–1938). In contrast, the Marxism of the Third International in its classical years (1919–24) was, by and large, an alien, purely “Russian” import, its Bolshevism rooted in and responding adequately to political struggles only in archaic, feudal, or quasi-feudal societies with “autocratic” regimes. Blanc concludes, logically, that Leninist strategy in advanced capitalist societies with bourgeois-democratic states was—and remains—irrelevant because it is inapplicable. Any attempt to universalize the Russian experience, or to use it as a model, can only bring disaster. This is Blanc’s central thesis. It was also Kautsky’s. In the last twenty years of his life, Kautsky shed his (ostensibly) “fatalist” and “deterministic” politics in favor of a relentless, activist crusade against the so-called Red Menace.

As a consequence, Blanc, like Kautsky, is unable or unwilling fully to address the limitations of Second International political strategy laid bare by the experience of the (initially) successful Russian Revolution in 1917, on the one hand, and the tragic, gut-wrenching failure of socialist revolution in the West in 1918–1923, on the other. For the fact is “revolutionary social democracy”—Blanc’s synonym for Kautskyism—maintained its counter-revolutionary hegemony over the working class movement everywhere in the advanced capitalist West—the very area where Kautsky’s political strategy was supposed to bring victory. The reasons for that hegemony were not self-evident and required analysis. The very best representatives of the Communist, pre-Stalinist alternative to classical social democracy—Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky—offered such an analysis. But Blanc will hear none of it.

Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917) is mistitled. For Blanc shows, in chapter 10, empirically, that the only social democracy in the Russian empire worthy of being called revolutionary—not just in words but in deeds, not just in times of revolution but in non-revolutionary times as well—was that of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The party was founded de facto in 1902. Its revolutionary, Bolshevik wing, led by Lenin, emerged only in 1903.

Only Lenin’s partisans and those willing to follow their lead proved to be truly revolutionary, dedicated to achieving victory, at all times and everywhere. Those who did not, the social democratic parties that remained faithful to pre-1914 Kautskyist orthodoxy, turned out to be counter-revolutionary. Blanc shows this to be the case everywhere in the land of the tsars. It is the signal merit of his contribution. His book deserves the widest audience for that reason alone.

At the same time, Blanc unwittingly destroys the very foundations of his argument: he proves that post-1914 “revolutionary social democracy” was, in practice, counter-revolutionary. It is a contradiction that lies at the heart of his account that no dialectical legerdemain can resolve into a superior synthesis. Fortunately, the contradiction exists only in Blanc’s head, subjectively, owing to an incoherent analysis. However, the kernel of truth lying at the center of Blanc’s account can only be extracted by historical materialist analysis. But Blanc largely refrains from using contemporary Marxist categories of analysis because many of those categories were developed and refined—sometimes created ab ovo—only after 1914 and especially after 1917. These forms of understanding came out of the need to study the “miraculous” creativity of the international working class movement in 1917–22, to quote Lenin—not in the fideist sense, but in the sense that the “natural” potentialities of working creativity were far greater, richer, and multifaceted than Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and other Marxists had earlier thought possible. For them, if not for Blanc, there was something new under the sun.

What is the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution? What is the socialist revolution?

The category “bourgeois-democratic revolution” only makes cameo appearances in Blanc’s work. It appears most often under other names, usually the “democratic revolution.” This term abstracts from the difference between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions, together with forms of party-political organization and strategies specific to each—distinctive forms and strategies that only a critical study of the 1917 Russian Revolution revealed. Whenever Blanc, like his mentor Lars Lih, abstracts out of his analysis these specificities by using the category “democratic revolution,” it is impossible to tell what kind of revolution he is talking about.

Blanc, again following Lih, holds that Kautsky’s political strategy could simply be modified or adjusted to Russian conditions so that “revolutionary social democratic” politics could be deployed to destroy the feudal or quasi-feudal tsarist state and replace it with a capitalist state. “On the whole, the approaches of imperial Russia’s radicals reflected an implementation and development of orthodox Second International Marxism far more than a break from it. The roots of 1917 lie firmly in revolutionary social democracy.” (p.11.)

But how can this be? Does Kautsky’s strategy cater only to Western conditions of political struggle, as Blanc insists, or does it encompass non-Western conditions, as well, so that Kautsky becomes the “architect” of the October Revolution, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks using Kautsky’s political writings as guide? It must be one or the other but not both. For no social democrat conceived of Kautsky’s strategy so expansively and so abstractly as to cover both feudal or semi-feudal Russia and the capitalist West. Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and just about every pre-1917 social democrat thought far more concretely, recognizing qualitative differences between the two, whereas Blanc’s account, like Lih’s, gets lost in abstraction.

Photograph from 1918 and the Finnish Civil War showing a White Guards firing squad in Länkipohja.
Blanc’s argument regarding a democratic road to socialism is largely based on the short-lived experience of the Finnish Revolution and civil war of 1918. Photo, by Herald Netvig,  shows a White Guards firing squad in Länkipohja.

For pre-1917 revolutionary social democrats—Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky— the specificities of Russian society and its autocratic state could not be deduced from an analysis of capitalist society and the capitalist state. It required fresh study. Kautsky was certainly the most read foreign Marxist theoretician among Russian social democrats but he had little to say about Russia beyond broad sociological assessments. The most read Russian Marxist among Russian social democrats was Georgi Plekhanov. But Blanc ignores his contribution to the Marxist analysis of tsarist Russia, developed in opposition to the Populist alternative that dominated Russian revolutionary thought in the 1880s and 1890s.

Plekhanov sketched out the basics, later endorsed by Kautsky. In tsarist Russia, the “democratic revolution” was an anti-feudal one, whereas in the West it was an anti-capitalist one. So, in the West, democratic revolution meant something completely different: it directly meant socialist revolution and building socialism, whereas in tsarist Russia it directly meant the bourgeois-democratic revolution to overthrow the feudal state, establish a capitalist state, ideally a democratic republic, thereby offering the working class the best possible political conditions under which to advance and defend its class interests over and against those of Russia’s emergent capitalist class. This is how all social democrats understood matters; it was the key to understanding what social democrats were doing, or thought they were doing.

Kautsky, the so-called pope of Second International Marxism, spelled out in many books, encyclicals, and articles how social democratic parties in the West could use the already existing capitalist state, specifically its legislative arm, in its various forms—parliament, Congress, chambers of deputies, the Knesset, and so on—to bring the working class to power by winning a majority in these bodies. The party would then pass legislation to expropriate the capitalists and socialize production.

In tsarist Russia, however, there was no capitalist state and no parliamentary road to establish. First because there was no parliament (Duma) until 1906. Even then, after 1906 and given the continued presence of autocratic rule, Russian social democrats split over whether the Duma was a real parliamentary form, as the Mensheviks believed, or an illusory one, as the Bolsheviks held. Yet, defying all evidence, Blanc’s “democratic revolution” is, apparently, a revolution against “capitalism” in the West and tsarist Russia. Again, how can this be?

Of the seventeen ‘revolutionary social democratic’ parties, tendencies, sects, and micro-sects that rose and fell between 1882 and 1905, (p. 3) only one, the short-lived Proletariat Party, vaguely advocated socialist revolution against capitalism in 1882. It is easy to understand why the others did not. Revolutionary social democrats thought the material premises of socialism and, consequently, of socialist revolution, were only present in the “advanced” West and not in “backward” Russia. It followed that virtually no revolutionary organizations, even non-social democratic ones—and certainly those with significant links to and influence over the organized working-class movement—set themselves the programmatic goal of a democratic revolution that was socialist (“anti-capitalist”), as Blanc holds. On the contrary, it would be objectively pro-capitalist. In other words, the bourgeois-democratic revolution would allow the “modernization” then developing in imperial Russia—which Blanc takes to be capitalist modernization, as if it were self-evident and conceptually unproblematic—to develop fully and freely, without the feudal or semi-feudal tsarist autocracy standing in the way. In short, Russia needed to go through, and complete, the capitalist “stage” of socio-economic development.

However, in 1917–19, peasants and workers took the path of permanent revolution in Russia and the borderlands, threatening to abolish landlordism, as well as private and state ownership of industry. Faced with this anti-capitalist movement, all revolutionary social democratic political organizations that had not broken with pre-1914 social democracy stood in their way, crushing them whenever possible. They rationalized their counter-revolutionary stance not in violation of pre-1914 revolutionary social democratic doctrine, or Kautskyism, as Blanc maintains, but in full accord with it. For orthodox social democrats, Kautsky above all, thought and wrote that none of the national components of the tsarist empire was “ripe” for socialism and, consequently, for a working-class, socialist, anti-capitalist revolution.

All social democrats agreed that the material premises of socialism were lacking in Russia. What are the analytical roots of Blanc’s misconception?

Blanc draws a purely political contrast between the tsarist state and the capitalist state, dividing states into those with political freedom, with parliament and civic liberties, and those without— that is between non-autocratic states of the West and the uniquely autocratic tsarist state. He cannot help doing so because Blanc abstracts from the very different relations of class and property that prevailed in the West and in tsarist Russia, together with the very different states dominant in each—a difference in kind, as the Bolsheviks held, not in degree, as the Mensheviks insisted. In this regard, Blanc has done a terrible injustice to Kautsky and Second International Marxism.

Kautsky understood the Marxist ABCs of political economy far better than Blanc. Like all social democrats, revolutionary or not, Kautsky determined the “ripeness” of society for socialism on the basis of its level of socio-economic development, not its political order taken in isolation from the class and property relations underlying it. But Blanc has little use for Marxist categories of analysis. Blanc is explicit: “a systematic analysis of the interaction between social structures and political orientation lies beyond scope of this project” (p. 19). He is true to his word.

The course of the Russian Revolution in 1917

Blanc reproduces Lih’s account of the Russian Revolution and of the RSDLP’s role in it virtually verbatim. I have dealt with Lih in other work, most relevantly “International Social Democracy and the Road to Socialism, 1905–1917: The Ballot, the Street and the State,” and will not repeat my analysis here. I will confine myself to exposing a contradiction in Blanc’s analysis that shipwrecks historically the politics of his intervention.

Though Blanc lists an array of books in his Bibliography, not one agrees with Lih’s unique notion that Kautsky was the architect of the October Revolution, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks followed Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy not just before 1914 but right through 1917, ostensibly establishing a seamless continuity in Bolshevik politics lasting nearly fifteen years. To be sure, being a minority of one does not invalidate an interpretation. But one has at minimum to come to terms with the competing alternatives. Lih does nothing of the sort—and neither does Blanc. Blanc just accepts whatever Lih says, without critical reflection, on faith.

Blanc lauds Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy as ideally suited to work in conditions of political freedom and not where those conditions are absent, as in autocratic Russia. But the February Revolution destroyed the autocracy. Workers, along with workers and peasants in soldiers’ uniforms, created the freest, most democratic conditions of political struggle in the world—freer and more democratic than in the freest and most democratic capitalist states. At last, Blanc’s revolutionary social democracy would finally get a chance to show what it could do in these ideal conditions. Correlatively, it would also show that Bolshevism would find itself completely out of its element, unable to function freely, and doomed to political irrelevance in the new non-autocratic conditions.

But nothing of the sort happened. The Bolsheviks took full advantage of the freedoms created spontaneously by a popular uprising in February. It is the Bolsheviks who won the support of the working class, using the mechanism of a new state, the Soviet; it is the Bolsheviks alone who called for the transfer of “All Power to the Soviets” permanently and not, as everyone else did, provisionally; it is Lenin’s partisans who led the democratic revolution to victory, establishing a workers’ state.

Meanwhile, Blanc details how the representatives of revolutionary social democracy—the Mensheviks—did everything in their power to prevent this outcome. And so, Blanc shows, despite himself, that Bolshevism could work in both autocratic and non-autocratic conditions, where political freedom exists and where it does not, in states with bourgeois parliaments and those without.

Kautskyism without Kautsky

Kautsky’s strategy has long outlived Kautsky, as the recent examples of Syriza, Podemos, and the Corbynite left of the Labour Party show. Even so, Kautsky’s political writings, we are told, are relevant to socialists today in ways that Lenin and the Bolshevik, “insurrectionary, ” non–social democratic road to socialism, via the October Revolution, could never be. As proof, critics invoke the Stalinist outcome of the Russian Revolution, ostensibly resulting from Leninist vanguardism and disregard for workers’ interests. But that outcome proves nothing of the sort.

Kautsky spoke for all social democrats—regardless of political tendency, revisionist or orthodox, reformist or revolutionary—when he held that the working-class movement was ripe for socialism only in the West because the capitalist mode of production prevailed only there. However, tsarist Russia formed a category apart. Unlike the West, the capitalist mode of production was not dominant there. Consequently, there was precious little material basis for socialism—no matter what kind of political order prevailed, whether dictatorship, parliamentary republic, constitutional monarchy, Rechtsstaat, or autocracy.

To grasp quickly and straightforwardly what went wrong in post-1917 Russia, one must recall that, with its huge peasantry of 100 million and miniscule proletariat of 3 million, the country that gave birth to soviets was still not ripe for building socialism. This must be the starting point for all serious discussion about the ultimate fate of the October Revolution, not a “deficit”’ in Bolshevik “democratic political theory,” as Samuel Farber argues in Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. The solution is not, as Michel Löwy asserts, quoting Rosa Luxemburg, “unlimited democracy,” as a substitute for the missing material basis for socialism, overcoming all problems. Such interpretations only rehash fossilized, post-1917 Kautsky, just as Blanc does in the book under review here.

Featured Image Credit:  Photo of Vorwarts newspaper, 1902, by Julie Wolfthorn Image modified by Tempest.

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John Marot View All

John Marot is the author of The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History. His articles have appeared in specialist journals and in socialist publications, Jacobin, New Politics, Against the Current, Historical Materialism and others.