The Revolutionary Perspective Obscured by Parliamentary Illusions

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At the end of the last article in this series, we looked at the principle danger posed to the social democratic parties operating at the zenith of capitalism’s historical development: the divorce between the fight for immediate reforms and the overall goal of communism. The growing success of these parties both in winning ever increasing numbers of workers to their cause, and in extracting concessions from the bourgeoisie through the parliamentary and trade union struggles, was accompanied, and indeed partly contributed to, the development of the ideologies of reformism - the limitation of the workers’ party to the immediate defence and improvement of proletarian living conditions - and of gradualism, the notion that capitalism could be abolished through an entirely peaceful process of social evolution. On the other hand, the reaction against this reformist threat by certain revolutionary currents was a retreat into sectarian or utopian misconceptions which saw little or no connection between the defensive struggle of the working class and its ultimate revolutionary aims.

 The following article, which completes a first volume of studies dealing with the development of the communist programme in the period of capitalism’s ascendancy, looks in more detail at how the perspective of the communist revolution became obscured during this period, focusing on the key issue of the conquest of power by the proletariat, and on the key country of Germany, which boasted the largest social democratic party in the world.

On a number of occasions in this series, we have shown that the fight against that form of opportunism known as reformism was a constant element in the marxist struggle for a revolutionary programme and for an organisation to defend it. This was particularly the case with the German party, formed in 1875 as the result of a fusion between the Lassallean and marxist fractions of the workers’ movement. In that same year, Marx had written The Critique of the Gotha Programme (see International Review 79) to combat the concessions made by the marxists to the Lassalleans. A central theme of the Critique was the defence of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat against the Lassallean idea of a People’s State, which actually covered this tendency’s penchant to accommodate itself to the existing Bismarkian state.

In writing the Critique, Marx had the benefit of the experience of the Paris Commune, which had shone a bright light on the problem of how the proletariat would assume political power: not by the peaceful conquest of the old state, but through its destruction, and the establishment of new organs of power directly controlled by the workers in arms.

This did not mean that from 1871 onwards, the marxist current had attained some finished clarity on this question. Since the inception of this current, the struggle for universal suffrage, for working class representation in parliament, had been a key focus of the organised workers’ movement - this after all had been the goal of what Marx termed the first working class political party, the Chartists in Britain. And having fought for universal suffrage against the resistance of the bourgeoisie, who at that time saw it as a threat to their rule, it was only too understandable that revolutionaries themselves should entertain the notion that the working class, being the majority of the population, could come to power via parliamentary institutions. Thus, at the Hague Congress of the International in 1872, Marx made a speech in which he was still prepared to consider the possibility that in countries with more democratic constitutions, such as Britain, America and Holland, the working class “may attain their goal by peaceful means”.

Nevertheless, Marx quickly added that “in most continental countries the lever of revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour”. Furthermore, as Engels argued in his introduction to Volume One of Capital, even if the workers did come to power via parliament, they would almost certainly have to deal with a slaveholders’ rebellion which would again require the lever of force. In Germany during the period of the Anti-Socialist Laws introduced by Bismark in 1878, a revolutionary view of the conquest of power prevailed over the seductions of social pacifism. We have already demonstrated at length the radical conception of socialism contained in Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism (see International Reviews 83, 85 and 86). In 1881, in an article in Der Sozialdemokrat (6th April 1881), Karl Kautsky was defending the need “to demolish the bourgeois state and to create the state anew” (cited in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938, London 1979, p 22). Ten years later, in 1891, Engels wrote his introduction to The Civil War in France, which ends with an unambiguous message to all the non-revolutionary elements who had begun to infiltrate the party:

Of late the Social Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. In that same year, he caused a rumpus in the SPD by finally publishing the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which Marx and Engels had decided not to publish in 1875. The party was about to adopt a new programme (which was to be known as the Erfurt Programme), and Engels wanted to make sure that the new document would finally be free of any lingering Lassallean influences [1].

The reformist hydra raises its many heads

Engels’ concerns in 1891 show that an opportunist, philistine wing was already taking root in the party (indeed had been there from the beginning). But if the revolutionary current, and the conditions of illegality imposed by the Anti-Socialist laws, kept this wing at bay during the 1880s, it was to grow increasingly influential and brazen in the ensuing decade. The first major expression of this was the campaign in  the early 1890s  led by Vollmar and the Bavarian branch of the SPD, demanding a practical policy on the agricultural question which amounted to a policy of state socialism - that is, an appeal to the Junker state to introduce legislation on behalf of the peasantry. The state socialists were in favour of  voting for credits in state legislatures when these appeared to benefit the peasantry, and in general their appeal to the peasantry compromised the proletarian class character of the party. This rebellion from the right was defeated, not least through the vigorous polemics of Karl Kautsky. But by 1896 Edward Bernstein had published his revisionist theses, openly rejecting the marxist theory of crisis and calling on the party to abandon its pretensions and declare itself as a “democratic party of social reform”. His articles were first published in Die Neue Zeit, the party’s theoretical review; later on they were published in a book whose English title is Evolutionary Socialism. For Bernstein, capitalist society could grow peacefully and gradually towards socialism, so what need was there either for the violent disruptions of revolution, or for a party advocating the intensification of the class struggle?

Shortly after this came the Millerand case in France: for the first time, a socialist deputy entered a capitalist cabinet.

This is not the place for a profound analysis of the reasons for the growth of reformism during this period. There were a number of factors acting at the same time: the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws enabled the SPD to enter the legal arena, and it grew rapidly in numbers and influence - but working within the norms of bourgeois legality also nourished illusions in the degree to which the working class could use these norms to its advantage. This period also saw an influx into the party of petty bourgeois intellectuals who had a certain natural inclination towards ideas about reconciling the warring classes of capitalist society. We could also talk about the national limitations of a movement which, while founded on the principles of proletarian internationalism, was still largely federated into national parties - an open door to opportunist adaptation to the needs of the nation state. Finally, the death of Engels in 1895 also emboldened those - including Bernstein, who had been one of Engels’ closest associates - who wanted to dilute the revolutionary essence of marxism. All these factors played their part. But fundamentally, reformism was the product of the pressures emanating from bourgeois society in a period of impressive economic growth and prosperity in which the perspective of capitalist collapse and the proletarian revolution seemed to be receding into a remote horizon. In sum the social democracy was gradually being transformed from an organ geared essentially towards a revolutionary future to one fixed on the present, on the gaining of immediate improvements in working class living standards. The fact that such improvements were still possible could make it seem increasingly reasonable that socialism could come about almost by stealth, through the accumulation of improvements and the gradual democratisation of bourgeois society. Bernstein was not altogether wrong when he said that his ideas were just an acknowledgement of what the party really was.

But he was wrong in arguing that this was all the party was or could be. This was proved by the fact that his attempts to overthrow marxism were vigorously opposed by the revolutionary currents who had the temerity to insist that a proletarian party, however much it had to fight for the immediate defence of working class interests, could only retain its proletarian character if it actively pursued the revolutionary destiny of that class. Luxemburg’s reply to Bernstein (Social Reform or Revolution) is justly recognised as the best of all the polemics aroused by Bernstein’s assault on marxism. But at this stage she was by no means alone: all the major figures in the party, not least Kautsky and Bebel, made their own contributions to the fight to preserve the party from the revisionist danger.

On the surface, these responses put the revisionists to flight: the rejection of Bernstein’s theses was confirmed by the whole party at the 1903 Dresden conference. But as history would show so tragically in 1914, the forces acting on social democracy were stronger than the clearest congress resolutions. And one measure of their strength was the fact that the revolutionaries themselves, even the clearest of them, were not immune to the democratic illusions being peddled by the reformists. In their replies to the latter, the marxists made many errors which constituted so many chinks in the armour of the proletarian party, chinks through which opportunism could spread its insidious influence.

Engels’ errors and Luxemburg’s critique

In 1895, Engels published in the SPD paper Vorwarts an introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles In France, the latter’s celebrated analysis of the events of 1848. In this article, Engels quite correctly argues that the days when revolutions could be made by minorities of the exploited class, using only the methods of the street fight and the barricade, were over, and that the future conquest of power could only be the work of a conscious, massively organised working class. This did not mean that Engels considered streetfighting and barricades would be ruled out as part of a wider revolutionary strategy, but these precisions were suppressed by the editors of Vorwarts, as Engels angrily protested in a letter to Kautsky: “To  my astonishment I see today in Vorwarts an extract from my Introduction, printed without my knowledge and trimmed in such a way as to make me appear a peace-loving worshipper of legality at any price (Engels, Selected Correspondence, p461).

The trick played on Engels worked well: his letter of protest was not published until 1924, and by that time the opportunists had made full use of the Introduction to present Engels as their political mentor. Others, usually elements who like to think of themselves as rabid revolutionaries, have used the same article to justify their theory that Engels became an old reformist in later life, and that there is a real gulf between the views of Marx and Engels on this as on many other points.

But leaving aside the opportunists’ doctoring of the text, a problem remains. This was recognised by no less a revolutionary than Rosa Luxemburg in the last speech of her life, a passionate intervention at the founding congress of the KPD in 1918. It is true that at this stage Luxemburg did not know that the opportunists had distorted Engels’ words. But still, she found certain important weaknesses in the articles which, in her characteristic style, she did not hesitate to subject to a detailed marxist critique.

The problem posed to Rosa Luxemburg was this: the new Communist Party was being founded at a moment of immediate revolutionary possibility. The revolution was on the streets; the army was disintegrating; workers and soldiers councils were mushrooming throughout the country; and the official marxism of the social democratic party, which still had enormous influence within the class despite the role that its opportunist leadership had played during the war, was calling on the authority of Engels to justify the counter-revolutionary use of parliamentary democracy as an antidote to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As we have said, Engels had not been wrong to argue that the old 48 tactics of the more or less disorganised street fight could no longer be the proletariat’s road to power. He showed that it was impossible for a determined minority of proletarians to take on the modern armies of the ruling class; indeed, the bourgeoisie was only too willing to provoke such skirmishes in order to justify massive repression against the whole working class (in fact this was precisely the tactic it used against the German revolution a few weeks after the KPD Congress, pushing the workers of Berlin into a premature uprising that led to the decapitation of the revolutionary forces, including Luxemburg herself). Consequently, he insisted “a future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavourable situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These however, may then well prefer, as in the whole Great French Revolution on 4th September and 31st October 1870, in Paris, the open attack to the passive barricade tactics” (Introduction to The Class Struggles in France). In a sense, this is precisely what the Russian revolution did achieve: by building itself up as an irresistible, organised force, the proletariat was able to topple the bourgeois state with a well timed and relatively bloodless insurrection in October 1917.

The real problem is the manner in which Engels envisaged this process. Rosa Luxemburg had in front of her eyes the living example of the Russian revolution and its counter-part in Germany, where the proletariat had developed its self-organisation through the process of the mass strike and the formation of soviets. These were forms of action and organisation that not only corresponded to the new epoch of wars and revolutions, but also, in a deeper sense, expressed the underlying nature of the proletariat as a class which can only assert its revolutionary power by bursting asunder the routines and institutions of class society. The fatal flaw in Engels’ argument in 1895 was the emphasis he placed on the proletariat building up its forces through the use of parliamentary institutions - ie, through organisms specific to the very bourgeois society it had to destroy. Here Luxemburg points to what Engels did say and was quite aware of its inadequacies.

After summing up the changes which had occurred in the intervening period, Engels turned to consider the immediate tasks of the German Social Democratic Party. As Marx had predicted, he wrote, the war of 1870-71 and the fall of the Commune shifted the center of gravity of the European labour movement from France to Germany. Many years had naturally to elapse before France could recover from the bloodletting of May 1871. In Germany, on the other hand, manufacturing industry was developing by leaps and bounds, in the forcing-house atmosphere produced by the influx of French billions. Even more rapid and more enduring was the growth of social democracy. Thanks to the agreement in virtue of which the German workers have been able to avail themselves of the universal (male) suffrage introduced in 1866, the astounding growth of the party has been demonstrated to all the world by the testimony of figures whose significance no one can deny.

Thereupon followed the famous enumeration, showing the growth of the party vote in election after election until the figures swelled to millions. From this progress Engels drew the following conclusion: The successful employment of the parliamentary vote entailed the acceptance of an entirely new tactic by the proletariat, and this new method has undergone rapid development. It has been realised that the political institutions in which the dominion of the bourgeoisie is incorporated offer a fulcrum whereby the proletariat can work for the overthrow of these very political institutions. The social democrats have participated in the elections to the various diets, to municipal councils, and to industrial courts. Wherever the proletariat could secure an effective voice, the occupation of these electoral strongholds by the bourgeoisie has been contested. Consequently, the bourgeoisie and the government have become much more alarmed at the constitutional than at the unconstitutional activities of the workers, dreading the results of elections far more than they dread the results of rebellion.

Luxemburg, while understanding Engels’ rejection of the old streetfighting tactics, makes no bones about the dangers inherent in this approach.

Two important conclusions were drawn from this reasoning. In the first place, the parliamentary struggle was counterposed to direct revolutionary action by the proletariat, and the former was indicated as the only practical way of carrying on the class struggle. Parliamentarism, and nothing but parliamentarism, was the logical sequel of this criticism. Secondly, the whole military machine, the most powerful organisation of the class state, the entire body of proletarians in uniform, was declared on a priori grounds to be absolutely inaccessible to socialist influences. When Engels’ preface declares that, owing to the modern development of gigantic armies, it is positively insane to suppose that proletarians can ever stand up against soldiers armed with machine guns and equipped with all the other latest technical devices, the assertion is obviously based upon the assumption that anyone who becomes a soldier, becomes thereby once and for all one of the props of the ruling class”.

The experience of the revolutionary wave had quite definitively refuted Engels’ scenario: far from being alarmed at the  use of constitutional action by the proletariat, the bourgeoisie had understood that parliamentary democracy was their most reliable bulwark against the power of the workers councils; all the activities of the social democratic traitors (led by the eminent parliamentarians who had been among the most susceptible to bourgeois influences) had been geared towards persuading the workers to subordinate their own class organs, the councils, to the supposedly more representative national assembly. And both the Russian and German revolutions had clearly demonstrated the capacity of the working class, through its determined revolutionary action and propaganda, to disintegrate the armies of the bourgeoisie and win the mass of soldiers over to the side of the revolution.

Thus Luxemburg had no hesitation in describing Engels’ approach as a blunder. But she did not therefore conclude that Engels had ceased to be a revolutionary. She was convinced that he would have recognised his error in the light of later experience: “Those who know the works of Marx and Engels, those who are familiarly acquainted with the genuinely revolutionary spirit that inspired all their teachings and all their writings, will feel positively certain that Engels would have been one of the first to protest against the debauch of parliamentarism, against the frittering away of the energies of the labour movement, which was characteristic of Germany during the decades before the war.

Luxemburg goes on to offer a framework for understanding the mistake that Engels had made: Seventy years ago, to those who reviewed the errors and illusions of 1848, it seemed as if the proletariat still had an interminable distance to traverse before it could hope to realise socialism... such a belief, too, can be read in every line of the preface which Engels wrote in 1895". In other words, Engels was writing in a period when the direct struggle for revolution was not yet on the agenda; the collapse of capitalist society had not yet become the tangible reality it was in 1918. In such circumstances, it was not possible for the workers’ movement to develop a totally lucid view of its road to power. In particular, the necessary division, enshrined in the Erfurt Programme, between the minimum programme of economic and political reforms, and the maximum programme of socialism, contained within it the danger that the latter would be subordinated to the former; likewise that the use of parliament, which had been a viable tactic in the struggle for reforms, would become an end in itself.

Luxemburg shows that even Engels had not been immune from confusion on this point. But she also recognised that the real problem lay with the political currents who actively embodied the dangers facing the social democratic parties in this period - with the opportunists and those who covered for them in the party leadership. It was the latter in particular that had consciously manipulated Engels to achieve a result very far from his intentions: “I must remind you of the well-known fact the preface in question was written by Engels under strong pressure on the part of the parliamentary group. At that date in Germany, during the early nineties after the Anti-Socialist law had been annulled, there was a strong movement towards the left, the movement of those who wished to save the party from becoming completely absorbed in the parliamentary struggle. Bebel and his associates wished for convincing arguments, backed up by Engels’ great authority; they wished for an utterance which would help them to keep a tight hand upon the revolutionary elements”. As we said at the beginning: the fight for a revolutionary programme is always a fight against opportunism within the ranks of the proletariat; by the same token, opportunism is always ready to pounce on the least lapse in vigilance and concentration by the revolutionaries, and to use their errors for their own purposes.

Kautsky: error becomes orthodoxy

After Engels’ death in 1895, in the theoretical field the leadership of the party passed into the hands of Kautsky. The upshot of this change was that at every annual congress the energetic protests of the left wing against a purely parliamentarist policy, its urgent warnings against the sterility and the danger of such a policy, were stigmatised as anarchism, anarchising socialism, or at least anti-marxism. What passed officially for marxism became a cloak for all possible kinds of opportunism, for persistent shirking of the revolutionary class struggle, for every conceivable half-measure. Thus the German social democracy, and the labour movement, the trade union movement as well, were condemned to pine away within the framework of capitalist society. No longer did German socialists and trade unionists make any serious attempt to overthrow capitalist institutions or put the capitalist machine out of gear” (Luxemburg, speech to the founding congress of the KPD).

We are not of that modernist school of thought which likes to present Karl Kautsky as the source of everything that was wrong with the social democratic parties. It is certainly true that his name is often associated with profound theoretical falsities - such as his theory of socialist consciousness as the product of the intellectuals, or his concept of ultra-imperialism. And indeed, to use Lenin’s own term, Kautsky finally became a renegade from marxism, above all because of his repudiation of the October revolution. Such associations sometimes make it hard to remember that Kautsky was indeed a marxist before he became a renegade. Like Bebel, he had defended the continuity of marxism at a number of crucial moments in the life of the party. But like Bebel, like so many others of his generation, his understanding of marxism was later revealed as suffering from a number of significant weaknesses, which in turn reflected more widespread weaknesses in the movement as a whole. In Kautsky’s case, it was above all his fate to become the champion of an approach which, instead of subjecting the contingent errors of the past revolutionary movement to a searching critique in the light of changing material conditions, froze these errors into an unchallengable orthodoxy.

As we have seen, Kautsky often took up swords against the revisionist right in the party: hence, his reputation as a stalwart of orthodox marxism. But if we look a little deeper into the manner in which he waged the battle against revisionism, we will also see why this orthodoxy was in reality a form of centrism - a manner of conciliating with opportunism; and this was the case long before Kautsky openly avowed the label of centrist as a description of his half way house between what he saw as the excesses of right and left. Kautsky’s hesitations in taking up an intransigent fight against revisionism were initially exposed at the very beginning of the furore over Bernstein’s articles, when his personal friendship with the latter made him dither for some time before answering him politically. But Kautsky’s tendency to conciliate with reformism went deeper than this, as Lenin noted in The State and Revolution:

Of immeasurably greater significance [than Kautsky’s hesitations about taking up the fight against Bernstein], however, is the fact that, in his very controversy with the opportunists, in his formulation of the question and his manner of treating it, we can now see, as we study the history of Kautsky’s latest betrayal of marxism, his systematic deviation towards opportunism precisely on the question of the state” (Chapter VI, 2: “Kautsky’s controversy with the opportunists”). One of the works that Lenin chose to illustrate these deviations was one whose form is that of a thorough-going rebuttal of revisionism, but whose real content reveals his increasing tendency to accommodate himself with it. This is his book The Social Revolution, published in 1902.

In this book, Kautsky offers some very sound marxist arguments against the main revisions put forward by Bernstein and his followers. Against their argument (which has such a familiar ring these days) that the growth of the middle classes was leading towards a softening of class antagonisms, so that the conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat could be sorted out inside the framework of capitalist society, Kautsky responded by insisting, as Marx had done, that the exploitation of the working class was growing in intensity, that the capitalist state was becoming more and not less oppressive, and that this was exacerbating rather than attenuating class antagonisms: “the more that the ruling classes support themselves with the state machinery and misuse this for the purposes of exploitation and oppression, just so more must the bitterness of the proletariat against them increase, class hatred grow, and the efforts to conquer the machinery of state increase in intensity” (The Social Revolution, Chicago, 1916, p 36-7).

Likewise, Kautsky refuted the argument that the growth of democratic institutions was making the social revolution unnecessary, that “by the exercise of democratic rights upon existing grounds the capitalist society is gradually and without any shock growing into socialism. Consequently the revolutionary conquest of political power by the proletariat is unnecessary, and the efforts towards it is directly hurtful, since they can operate in no other way than to disturb this slowly but surely advancing process” (ibid, p66). Kautsky argues that this was an illusion because while it was true that the number of socialist representatives in parliament was increasing, “simultaneously therewith the bourgeois democracy falls to pieces (p75); “the Parliament which was formerly the means of pressing the government forward upon the road to progress becomes ever more and more the means to nullify the little progress that conditions compel the government to make. In the degree that the class which rules through parliamentarism is rendered superfluous and indeed injurious, the Parliamentary machinery loses its significance” (p78-9). Here was a real insight into the conditions that would more and more develop as capitalism moved into its epoch of decadence: the decline of parliament even as a forum of intra-bourgeois conflict (which the workers’ party could sometimes exploit to its own advantage), its conversion into a mere fig-leaf covering an increasingly bureaucratic and militaristic state machine. Kautsky even recognised that, given the stultification of the bourgeoisie’s democratic bodies, the strike weapon - up to and including the mass political strike, whose outline had already been glimpsed in France and Belgium - “will play a great role in the revolutionary battles of the future (p 90).

And yet Kautsky was never able to take these arguments to their logical conclusion. If bourgeois parliamentarism was in decline, if the workers were developing new forms of action such as the mass strike, these were all signs of the approach of a new revolutionary epoch in which the focus of the class struggle was moving decisively away from the parliamentary arena and back to the specific class terrain of the proletariat - to the factories and the streets. Indeed, far from seeing the revolutionary implications of the decline of parliamentarism, Kautsky drew from it the most conservative of conclusions: that the proletariat’s mission was to salvage and revive this dying bourgeois democracy: “Parliamentarism becomes ever more senile and helpless, and can only be reawakened to new youth and strength when it, together with the total governmental power, is conquered by the rising proletariat and turned to serve its purpose. Parliamentarism, far from making a revolution useless and superfluous, is itself in need of a revolution in order to vivify it” (p 79-80).

These views were not - as in the case of Engels - in contradiction with numerous other, and far clearer statements. They express a consistent thread in Kautsky’s thought, going back at least to his comments on the Erfurt Programme in the early 90s and going forward to his well-known work The Road to Power in 1910. This latter work scandalised the open reformists with its bold affirmation that “the revolutionary era is beginning”, but it maintained the same conservative view on the seizure of power. Commenting on both these works in his State and Revolution, Lenin was especially struck by the fact that nowhere in these books does Kautsky defend the classic marxist affirmation about the need to demolish the bourgeois state machine and replace it with a Commune state:

Throughout the pamphlet [The Social Revolution] the author speaks of the winning of state power - and no more; that is, he has chosen a formula which makes a concession to the opportunists, inasmuch as it admits the possibility of seizing power without destroying the state machine. The very thing which Marx in 1872 declared to be obsolete in the programme of the Communist Manifesto, is revived by Kautsky in 1902” (ibid).

With Kautsky, and thus with the official marxism of the Second International, parliamentarism had become an immutable dogma.

Taking over the capitalist economy

The increasing tendency for the social democratic party to present itself as a candidate for government office, for taking over the reins of the bourgeois state, was to have profound implications for its economic programme as well; logically, the latter appeared more and more not as a programme for the destruction of capital, for uprooting the foundations of capitalist production, but as a series of  realistic proposals for taking over the bourgeois economy and managing it on behalf of the proletariat. It was no accident that the growth of this vision, which contrasts quite sharply with the ideas of socialist transformation defended in previous decades by the likes of Engels, Bebel and Morris (see the articles in this series in International Reviews 83, 85 and 86), coincided with the first expressions of state capitalism, which accompanied the rise of imperialism and militarism. It is true that Kautsky criticised the state socialist deviation advocated by the likes of Vollmar, but his criticisms did not go to the root of the matter. Kautsky’s polemic opposed programmes which called on the existing bourgeois or absolutist governments to introduce socialist measures such as the nationalisation of the land. But it failed to see that a programme of statification introduced by a social democratic government would also remain inside the boundaries of capitalism.

Thus, in The Social Revolution, we are told that “the political domination of the proletariat and the continuation of the capitalist system of production are irreconcileable” (p113). But the passages that follow this bold statement give a truer flavour of Kautsky’s vision of the socialist transformation: “The question then arises as to what purchasers are at the command of capitalists when they wish to sell their undertakings. A portion of the factories, mines, etc could be sold directly to the labourers who are working them, and could be henceforth  operated co-operatively; another portion could be sold to co-operatives of distribution, and still another to the communities or to the states. It is clear, however, that capital would find its most extensive and generous purchaser in the States or municipalities, and for this very reason the majority of industries would pass into the possession of the States and municipalities. That the Social Democrats when they came into control would strive consciously for this solution is well recognised” (ibid, p 113-114). Kautsky then goes on to explain that the industries most ripe for nationalisation are those where trustification is the most highly developed, and that “the socialisation (as one may designate for short the transference to national, municipal and co-operative possession) will carry with it the socialisation of the great part of the money capital. When a factory or piece of landed property is nationalised, its debts will also be nationalised, and private debts will become public debts. In the case of a corporation, the stockholders will become holders of government bonds” (p116-117).

From passages like these we can see that in Kautsky’s socialist transformation all the essential categories of capital remain: the means of production are sold to the workers or the state, money capital is centralised in government hands, the private trusts give way to national and municipal trusts, and so on. Elsewhere in the same work, Kautsky argues explicitly for the retention of the wage labour relationship by a proletarian regime:

I speak here of the wages of labour. What, it will be said, will there be wages in the new society? Shall we not have abolished wage labour and money? How then can one speak of the wages of labour? These objections would be sound if the social revolution proposed to immediately abolish money. I maintain that this would be impossible. Money is the simplest means known up to the present time which makes it possible in as complicated a mechanism a that of the modern productive process, with its tremendous far-reaching division of labour, to secure the circulation of products and their distribution to the individual members of society. It is the means which makes it possible for each one to satisfy his necessities according to his individual inclination. As a means to such circulation money will be found indispensable until something better is found” (p 129).

It is of course true that wage labour cannot be abolished overnight. But it is equally false to argue, as Kautsky does in this and related passages, that wages and money are neutral forms that can be retained under socialism until such time as the increase in production leads to abundance for all. On the basis of wage labour and commodity production, increasing production will be a euphemism for the accumulation of capital, and the accumulation of capital, whether directed by the state or private hands, necessarily means the deprivation and exploitation of the producers. This is why Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, argued that the proletarian dictatorship would have to make immediate inroads into the whole logic of accumulation, replacing wages and money with the system of labour time vouchers.

Elsewhere Kautsky insists that these socialist wages are fundamentally different from capitalist wages because under the new system labour power is no longer a commodity - the assumption being that once the means of production have become state property, there is no longer any market for labour power. This argument - which was often used by the various apologists of the Stalinist model to prove that the USSR and its offspring could not be capitalist - has a fundamental flaw: it ignores the reality of the world market, which makes each national economy a competing capitalist unit irrespective of the degree to which market mechanisms have been suppressed internally.

It is true, as we have noted before in this series, that Marx himself made statements which imply that socialist production could exist inside the boundaries of a nation state. The  problem is that the ideas developed by official social democracy in the early part of the 20th century - in contrast to the resolutely internationalist approach assumed by Marx - were more and more seen as part of a practical programme for each nation taken separately. This national vision of socialism even began to be enshrined programmatically. We thus find the following formulation in another work by Kautsky from the same period, The Socialist Republic [2]:

a community able to satisfy its wants and embracing all industries requisite thereto must have dimensions very different from those of the Socialist colonies that were planned at the commencement of our century. Among the social organisations in existence today, there is but one that has the requisite dimensions, that can be used as the requisite field, for the establishment and development of the Socialist or Co-operative Commonwealth, and that is: the Nation” (p11).

But perhaps the most significant thing about Kautsky’s vision of the socialist transformation is the degree to which everything takes place in a legal, orderly fashion. He spends several pages of The Social Revolution arguing that it will be far better to compensate the capitalists, to buy them out, than simply to confiscate their property. Although his writings about the revolutionary process allow for the use of strikes and other actions by the workers themselves, his overriding concern seems to be that the revolution should not frighten the capitalists too much. One of Kautsky’s reformist opponents at the 1903 Dresden congress, Kollo, put his finger on the problem quite astutely, when he observed that Kautsky wanted a social revolution without violence. But neither the overthrow of the political power of the capitalist class, nor the economic expropriation of the expropriators, can take place without the unruly, violent, but uniquely creative irruption of the masses onto the stage of history.


We repeat, it is not a question of demonising Kautsky. He was the expression of a deeper process - the opportunist gangrene of the social democratic parties, their gradual incorporation into bourgeois society, and the difficulties that the marxists had in understanding and combating this danger. Certainly, on the problem of parliamentarism, perfect clarity was nowhere to be found in the period we have studied. In Reform or Revolution, for example, Luxemburg makes a very telling attack on Bernstein’s parliamentary illusions, but even she leaves open certain loopholes on the question (in particular, when she fails to recognise the  very blunder in Engels’ Introduction to the Class Struggles in France which she castigated in 1918). Another instructive case is that of William Morris. In the 1880s, Morris made a number of insightful warnings against the corrupting power of parliament; but these perceptions were undermined by his tendency towards purism, an inability to understand the necessity for socialists to intervene in the daily struggle of the class and  - in that epoch - to use elections and parliament as one focus for this struggle. Like many of the left wing critics of parliamentarism at this time, Morris was thus highly susceptible to the timeless anti-parliamentary attitudes of the anarchists. And, towards the end of his life, in reaction to the havoc that anarchism had wrought on his efforts to build a revolutionary organisation, Morris himself tended towards the growing infatuation with the parliamentary road to power.

What was missing during those years was the real movement of the class. It was above all the earthquake of 1905 in Russia which enabled the best elements in the workers’ movement to discern the true contours of the proletarian revolution and move beyond the outmoded and erroneous conceptions that had hitherto clouded their vision. Kautsky’s real crime would then be to fight tooth and nail against these clarifications, presenting himself more and more openly as a centrist whose real bete noir was not the revisionist right but the revolutionary left, as embodied in figures like Luxemburg and Pannekoek. But that is another part of the story.  


[1] It has to be said that Engels’ efforts to counter the weaknesses in the Erfurt Programme were not altogether successful. Engels clearly recognised that the opportunist danger had been codified within it: his critique of the draft programme (letter to Kautsky, June 29, 1891) contains the clearest definition of opportunism to be found in the writings of Engels and Marx, and his central concern was the fact that the programme, while containing a good general marxist introduction about the inevitable crisis of capitalism and the necessity for socialism, remains completely vague about how the proletariat will come to power. He is particularly critical of the implication that the German workers could use the Prussian version of parliament (“a fig-leaf for absolutism”) to gain power pacifically. On the other hand, in the same text Engels repeats the view that in more democratic countries, the proletariat could come to power through the electoral process, and he does not make a sufficiently clear distinction between the democratic republic and the Commune state. In  the end, the Erfurt document, rather than showing the connection between the minimum and the maximum programmes, creates a gulf between the two. This is why Luxemburg, in her speech to the founding congress of the KPD in 1918, talks of  the Spartacus Programme as  deliberately opposing” the Erfurt Programme, rather than merely superceding it.

[2] This passage is taken from an English version “translated and adapted to America” by Daniel De Leon (New York, 1900), so we are not sure what elements are original to Kautsky. Nevertheless the quote gives us a taste of conceptions developing in the international movement at that time.


Historic events: 


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: