Karl Kautsky

Differences Among the Russian Socialists


From The International Socialist Review, Vol.V, No.12, June 1905, pp.705-17.
Originally published in Neue Zeit.
Translated by A. Al. Simons.
Many thanks to Adam Buick.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Some names have been modernized.

GAPON, as is well known, has lately sent out a call through the secretary of the International Socialist Bureau to the Russian socialists urging them to unite and the Vorwärts has published a comment thereon in which it talks about the “chaos of divisions and conflicts that disrupt the socialist camp” as well as of the “note of union” which the Revolutionary Socialists have brought into this chaos. A few remarks that I have made regarding this in the Leipziger Volkszeitung [1*] have brought requests to me from various directions that I explain this Russian chaos to the German Comrades and I respond all the more willingly to this request since I believe that it has become necessary to set the comrades of Germany right concerning the Russian differences. The less they know of these differences the more they have, simply the indefinite idea of a chaos, in which the friends of socialist unity are seeking in vain to bring order, and so much the greater the danger that they will condemn our Russian comrades falsely, and that their support will be weakened. Such a result would be a great misfortune to socialists not only in Russia but throughout the world.

I would have been glad to have left a description of the Russian differences to some other pen, to a comrade who stood closer to Russian affairs than I. But if such a comrade is a member of one or the other of these different parties, his description no matter how non partisan, would be open to the suspicion that it was colored.

If we seek to find the truth about the “chaos” in the midst of the Russian dissensions we will soon notice that not all of these divisions are of the same nature but that they fall naturally into certain groups. Things that, to the superficial observer appear an inextricable chaos are then easily distinguished.

Three groups can be plainly distinguished.

The first is that based upon national divisions, Russia includes many more nations than Austria. Some of these, like Poland, previous to their union with Russia, led an independent political existence. Others such as the Armenians had long ago lost this independent existence, or had never had it, and constituted simply the ruins of peoples, often nomadic, when they came beneath the rulership of the Czar. Out of this confusion of peoples the proletariat of Russia is recruited. The mixture of peoples is even more varicolored, the further capitalism extends and the greater the number of new circles which are opened. The socialist propaganda must naturally be conducted among each people in their own speech. This in itself, since the party has become of any strength leads easily to a certain independence of organization, into many national party groups, even if they agree with the main party on programme and tactics. The backwardness of commerce and the impossibility of a popular organization strengthened still further the independence of individual groups. But independence of organization leads always to differences of opinion and this naturally will never fail to bring about slight friction, conflicts of authority and conflicts of all kinds. There is need not only of great theoretical and tactical agreement, but also a personal unselfishness and the greatest possible tact if the solidarity is to avoid all rocks.

In view of all this we should not wonder that such great differences exist. The Social Democratic organization of the peoples of the Caucasus (the Armenians, Georgians, etc.) constitute an integral portion of the Russian Social Democracy. These latter as a whole, together with the Jewish “Bund,” the Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania and the Livonian Social Democracy formed a socialist “Bloc” which seems to promise a mutual co-operation of these organizations.

Of a wholly different character than the national differences are those inside the organization of the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia. Here we have to do with actual differences which have formed two factions inside the party each of which have their organ. One of these is the Iskra (Spark) among whose contributors are, many who are well known to the German comrades, especially Axelrod, Deutsch, Plekhanov, and Vera Zassulich. The other is Vperyod (Forward) whose most prominent representative is Lenin.

So far as programme and tactical principles are concerned both factions are completely agreed, much more than are the German Social Democracy. There are no revisionists among them. The only question at issue between them is that concerning the best form of party organization. These differences can be well compared to those which existed between the Lasalleans and Eisenachers and Lenin is often compared by his critics to Schweitzer. He demands strong centralization with dictatorial powers vested in a central committee, while Axelrod and his friends would leave much greater freedom of action to the individual local committee. The longer the separation continues, as with every quarrel, the more, no matter what may have been its origin, do personal antagonisms develop, together with other reasons for antagonism. The contest, however, of organization is pushed into the back ground by the tactical question of the best means to overthrow absolutism.

There is no doubt but what all these are extremely important questions whose discussion is very necessary. Nevertheless there is no doubt but what the feud of the two papers is at the present time injuring the Russian revolutionist movement; something that is all the more to be regretted since the actual differences of opinion are not so great as to make the cooperation of the opponents impossible. We can not set these differences on the same level with those which divided the French socialists at the Paris and Amsterdam congresses. In France. it was a question of different tactical principles, which gave different character to the continuous work of the party. In the Russian social democracy there is complete unity concerning tactics, and differences exist only over the question as to the form of practical application of these principles to the immediate situation. These differences must disappear with the situation that brought them forth. They may lead to differences of opinion and to discussion, but not to separation.

But because the antagonism between Iskra and Wperjod are wholly different than those between the Parti Socialiste Français and the Parti Socialiste de France it does not necessarily follow that outsiders should mix in or that they can be decided by an international congress. There are certain tactical principles which follow from our programme and which are the same for all socialist parties. An international congress can give a decision on these, and especially if in case of a division concerning them one of the contending parties ask for a decision as was the case with the French, where in Paris both divisions, and in Amsterdam at least one appealed to the congress. How can an international congress, however, decide which form of organization is best in Russia, or under what circumstances the armed revolt, the strike or the peasant uprising is the most effective, or what we may expect from the Russian laborers?

However desirable it may be that the two factions should come to an understanding it is nevertheless impossible that outsiders should do anything. The most that would be possible would be to reduce the personal mistrust and antagonism that stands in the way of every union movement today, by means of a non-partisan court of arbitration which should examine into these personal accusations. But even this cannot be forced from without, but must come in response to the request of the participants. The practical differences, however, can only be settled by the Russian Social Democrats themselves, and this is not so simple since it appears as if each faction contained a majority, and from the very nature of a secret organization each little increase for one side is claimed by the other as accidental. We can only hope that the battle against the common enemy and the rapid changes of the political situation will bring about a removal of the bone of contention and the unity of the party.

We come now to the third group in the Russian divisions, – that between the different social democratic organizations on the one side and that of the Revolutionary Socialists upon the other, including the Terrorists, and which the Vorwärts seems to look upon as the leaders of the unity movement in Russia.

Immediately after the call of Gapon the Vorwärts published a letter written by Karl Marx in 1881 to his daughter concerning the Russian terrorists at that time. The Vorwärts took the letter from La Vie Socialiste and accompanied it with comments in which is stated among other things “In a few lines Marx here exhausts all that can be said over the question of Russian terrorism.”

No one would have been more astonished at such a statement than Karl Marx himself could he have read it today. For what was in this letter after all? In the first place Marx’s statement of the fact that the originators of the St. Petersburg attempt upon Alexander II “were true heroes with no melodramatic poses.” Wholly correct, but something that today does not hold true for the Russian terrorists alone, but for the whole mass of Russian revolutionists to whatever faction they may belong. But this says absolutely nothing concerning the real question of Russian terrorism.

The two statements contained in the letter are equally true that the tactics of the Russian terrorists are a “peculiar Russian tactic” and “historically unavoidable.” So far as I know nobody has ever denied this, but this is very far from “exhausting everything that can be said on the question of Russian terrorism.” Rather this statement merely formulates the question without attempting to give a final answer. That there is almost nothing else in the letter concerning Russian terrorism, shows that the exaggerated importance which has been given to these “few lines” as an expression of “Marxism,” is only intelligible by a complete ignoring of all that has been previously accomplished by the “orthodox Marxists.” This exaggeration shows however that those who make it would maintain that the Russian terrorism of today is identical with that of a quarter of a century ago. Otherwise it would be understood how impossible it would have been, even in a complete and scientific investigation of many volumes, to say nothing of a “few lines” written in 1881, to exhaustively treat the question of terrorism in 1905.

Let us endeavor, not necessarily to exhaust the question, but at least to briefly indicate what are the specific Russian circumstances which have created the Russian terrorism.

Are they to be found iii absolutism? Certainly not. The whole European continent was under the yoke of absolutism in the 18th century, as were Austria and Russia in the first half of the 19th, without a terrorist tactic developing among the classes striving for political supremacy. The peculiarity of the Russian absolutism in opposition to that of Western Europe consists in the fact that it is Oriental and not founded upon a balance of powers between a strongly rising bourgeoisie and a feudal nobility which made the King a sort of court and over-lord of both; but was founded upon the absence of a bourgeoisie, the domination of a landed class, and a people scattered in countless village communities with no unity among themselves and consequently helpless before a central political power; so that the leader was absolute over the whole mass.

In the 18th century this absolutism came in closer touch with Western Europe and at the same time it began to take on something of the features of the political organization of the latter, such as bureaucracy, army, navy and the corresponding tactics. For this purpose an educated class was necessary which grew out of the hereditary environments and sought to immediately take on all the views and needs of the intellectuals of Western Europe. These views and needs influenced the ruling circle itself to a certain degree, at least so long as the circle was itself assisted thereby. When, however, the intellectuals became more numerous and began to constitute a class outside of the ruling circle, and in opposition to it, a struggle began between the intellectuals and the government, which grew all the more sharp and the intellectuals all the more revolutionary, and the government the more reactionary, the longer it continued.

In the eighties of the last century, however, the intellectuals stood alone in this battle. They found no other class which supported them; no strong independent bourgeoisie, no revolutionary class of little capitalists. In Western Europe it had been these classes which had constituted the heart of the popular revolutionary forces. of the English and French revolutions up to the middle of the 19th century. In Russia the little traders were generally nothing more than uprooted peasants who still were inferior to the peasant of the villages, since they had lost the support which the village community with its communist system had given. The peasant stood higher than the little trader, but his democratic and communistic inclinations and instincts did not extend beyond the borders of the village community. For a national democracy the Russian peasant lacked both understanding and interest.

All of this led to a condition where the Russian intellectuals after many disappointing attempts at a democratic propaganda finally came to trust in their own strength as a means of overthrowing absolutism. This strength, however, was utterly inadequate to conquer the enormous powers of a modern government. There remained to them therefore, the single form of battle, of intimidation, of terrorism – the battle of individual heroes, who took their lives in their hands in order to threaten the lives of the possessors of governmental power. This was the root of the “historically unavoidable, peculiarly Russian” tactics of terrorism.

In connection with these tactics, however, there were also certain peculiar socialistic views. The Russian intellectuals were. as we have seen, wholly dependent for their political views and needs upon the West, during the time that terrorism was developing. Meanwhile, the liberalism of Western Europe had ceased to become revolutionary and had become a conservative power. There was now but one revolutionary factor, the Social Democracy. This reacted upon the Russian revolutionists. They had been from the beginning also socialists. Where, however, in so economically backward a land were they to find the starting point of a transformation of society in the socialist sense. A developed industry which could offer such a starting point did not exist, but they hoped to find a complete substitute for this in a direction which is in the Europe of today “peculiarly Russian” – the agrarian communisms of the village community. That was the theory of the Narodniki, which became the theoretical foundation of the terroristic agitation of the Narondnaya Volya.

Like the terrorist battle against the government, so also the agrarian socialism of the Russian revolutionists was “historically unavoidable.” This does not by any means say that it was certain to attain its object. All political tendencies and efforts of a definite epoch are “historically unavoidable,” but only a portion thereof are destined to succeed. Another portion must just as unavoidably disappear without result as that they appear. Twenty-four years ago no one could assert with certainty that the Russian village communities might not become the starting point of a modern form of communism. Society as a whole can not leap over any stage of evolution, but single backward portions thereof can easily do this. They can make a leap in order to correspond with other and more advanced portions. So it was possible that Russian society might leap over the capitalist stage in order to immediately develop the new communism out of the old. But a condition of this was that socialism in the rest of Europe should become victorious during the time that the village communities still had a vital strength in Russia. This at the begin- fling of the eighties appeared still possible. But in a decade the impossibility of this transition was perfectly clear. The revolution in Western Europe moved slower and the village communities in Russia fell faster than appeared probable at the beginning of the eighties, and therewith it was decided that the special peculiarity of Russia upon which the terrorism and the socialism of the Narodnaya Volya was founded should disappear, and that Russia must pass through capitalism in order to attain socialism and that also Russia must in this respect pass along the same road as had Western Europe. Here as there socialism must grow out of the great industry and the industrial proletariat is the only revolutionary class which is capable of leading a continuous and independent revolutionary battle against absolutism.

That the tactics of the Narodnaya Volya alone were not sufficient to overthrow absolutism became evident at about the time the Marxian letter was written (April 1881). The death of Alexander II marked the highest point ever attained as a result of the terrorist tactics of that period. Indeed what mote could be attained than the killing of the Czars? But society did not move in accordance with this striking example; no class arose to support the brave fighter and so he was finally executed in the unequal struggle.

Marx did not live until these facts became evident, dying in 1883. In this very year however there arose a new body in Russia that set itself to work to establish a new foundation for the revolutionary movement. Since the 60’s there has been an industrial capitalism and an industrial proletariat in Russia. In the beginning, however, this possessed no special class-consciousness, resembling in many ways the little tradesmen of the cities, mere uprooted peasants, with peasant narrowness, but without that peasant strength which comes from contact with their native earth. In the 80’s however. Russian capitalism and proletariat began to rapidly develop. It now became evident that here was a wholly new revolutionary class. The first to recognize this were the Marxists – Axelrod. Deutsch, Plekhanov, Vera Zassulich, who, in 1883, founded the League for the Emancipation of Labor. This organization was in full accord with the German Social Democracy. It took up, not simply the battle against absolutism but also made the organization and education of the laborers to the end of conducting an independent class-struggle, a part of their program. Even at this time the conditions for the formation of a labor party in Russia were very unfavorable. Rut the comrades whose names we have just given did not permit this fact to discourage them. They labored with tireless activity, until in 1898, they at last succeeded in founding a Russian Social Democracy.

They did not attain this however, except after a continuous energetic fight against the Narodniki and the terrorists, to which, in the days of its greatest effectiveness, they had themselves belonged. Both their ultimate aim and their tactics brought them into conflict with the Socialist Revolutionists, who after the old terrorist wing had disappeared, sought to bring about a revival of the traditions of the Narodnaya Volya through the invigorating power of the new labor movement, by establishing the Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1901.

The Social Democracy sees in the industrial proletariat the force that must carry the revolutionary and socialist movement. A strong industrial proletariat, however, presupposes a developed capitalism. The Social Democracy resting upon the capitalist development of Russia, sees in. its rapid progress the inevitable preliminary condition of revolution.

The terrorists seek to found socialism on the inherited village communism. The enthusiasm for the little industry, the dislike of the economic development that dissolves the village communism, the desire to confine this development – all create reactionary economic tendencies among the terrorists, and bring their economic goal into opposition to that of the Social Democracy.

On the other hand also terrorism tests fundamentally upon the firmly rooted distrust of the political initiative and revolutionary attitude of the masses which existed at the time of its origin, as well as upon the conviction that only through the heroic courage of a few chosen individuals and, not through action of the masses can absolutism he overthrown. The Social Democracy makes it its special mission to destroy this very distrust, to arouse the masses, and to show them that only through themselves can they be freed; that they cannot depend upon any Messiah, that the boldest and most sacrificing heroism of individuals is incapable of accomplishing what only an uprising of the proletarian masses can accomplish.

As a result there followed the hitter struggle of the Russian Social Democracy, first with the Narodniki and then with the Socialist-Revolutionists, that has already been going on for two years, and that is just as “peculiarly Russian” and “historically unavoidable” as terrorism itself: unavoidable and necessary in order to raise the revolutionary movement out of its imperfect outgrown forms tip to a higher plane.

If they have today attained this higher plane and are able from it to direct socialism in its battle against absolutism with far different resources and objects than were possible for the Narodnaya Volya. then this is due, apart from the mightiest factor of all, the economic development, to the Russian Social Democracy, and the tireless criticism that it has directed against the Narodniki and their allies, the Socialist-Revolutionists.

So great were the results of the economic development, and the propaganda of the Russian Social Democracy, who, thanks to their theoretical training, comprehended the tendencies and direction of this development better than any other revolutionary group, that the Socialist-Revolutionists were themselves affected by it. The standpoint of the old Narodnaya Volya is today everywhere given up. The new terrorism is a wholly different thing from the old. It is compelled to adapt itself to the new facts and theories, and take more and more into consideration the proletarian class-struggle. On the other hand it is easy to understand how the Social Democrats in the heat of their polemic against the Socialist-Revolutionists might go to extremes. Because they value the action of the masses higher than the bomb, it may many times appear as if they completely rejected the terrorist tactics, something wholly aside from their intention. When they lay the emphasis upon the conversion and organization of the city proletariat, and point out the reactionary economic tendencies of the village communism, it may sometimes appear as if they undervalued the significance which a peasant uprising might have during a time of revolution in weakening absolutism – something also of which they have no intention.

At all events the actual antagonisms between the Social Democrats and the terrorists are less today than they were twenty-five years ago. But nevertheless the differences are great enough to lead the Social Democrats to refuse to unite with the Socialist-Revolutionists.

The latter are more “tolerant,” but this is simply because they have not yet passed the stage of continuous ferment, so that even at the present time they have no definite program. Their ranks are open to the most divergent factions – such as formerly composed the German National Socials – with which, however, I certainly do not wish to compare them. We find among them people who stand very close to social democracy, together with elements that are distinctly anarchistic, as well as small capitalist democrats and social reformers. The objects and their tactics are as indefinite as their boundaries, but everywhere there are antagonisms between them and the Social Democrats; not simply in theory but also in political tactics.

This was shown, for example, a few months ago, when Socialist-Revolutionists at Paris, in opposition to the Russian Social Democratic organizations formed an alliance with the Liberals. This served to considerably widen the division between them and the Social Democrats – a strange way to prove the necessity of a union with the Social Democracy. But they thereby to be sure gained the endorsement of the Vorwärts, whose sympathies they had long had, and which preached against the Social Democrats because they held themselves apart from the Liberal-Socialist alliance. It held that it was imperatively necessary for all the opponents of absolutism to unite. Certainly there is nothing more desirable than such a union, for in union is strength. But why should not the Russian Social Democracy be recognized as the base for unity? In practice the question always is, for what shall we unite? Shall all the elements of the opposition unite simply to shout “Down with absolutism?” Unfortunately the days of Jericho are past. Nothing is done by shouting alone. Fighting is what is needed. But for a common fight, common tactics are required. The creation of such a tactic is the preliminary condition of every union for fighting. So long as the antagonisms remain, any unity would be but an ineffectual pose. And this is just what the Liberal-Socialist alliance has become in spite of the enthusiasm of the Vorwärts. Its first act was also its last-the sending out of a signed proclamation to the various organizations. It has proceeded no further. Its single action consisted of a few phrases.

How then, for example, can the Liberals and the Socialist- Revolutionists fight together? The Liberals rest mainly upon the great land-owners, the Socialist-Revolutionists to some degree upon the peasants; the first demand a constitution in order to secure their landed possessions, the latter wish to seize this property. The fight against absolutism is only a class struggle to a certain degree, since each class is conducting it in a different manner and for a different purpose. [2*] The different classes can cooperate for certain definite objects, but a permanent alliance between them for a whole revolutionary period, with its rapidly changing combinations is evidently an absurdity.

But one motive, aside from mutual hate of absolutism, served to unite the various organizations that formed an alliance in Paris, – distrust of the fighting capacity of the Russian proletariat.

This is the animating thought of the Liberals. Their representative in Paris, the editor of Ozvobozhdenye, Peter Struve, was at one time a Social Democrat. He declares at the present time that lie is not false to his social democratic ideals in going over to the Liberals, but that he has become a Liberal for Russia only; because its proletariat is not in a condition to form an independent and militant political party.

In spite of all its transformations the old mistrust of the Russian industrial proletariat ever clings to the Socialist-Revolutionists. The Polish socialist party, when it finally concluded the agreement, stood firmly upon the ground of the class-struggle, but only for Poland, and they gave us a reason for their peculiar position in antagonism to the Russian Social Democracy, that the Polish proletariat, but not the Russian, was ripe for revolution, and that the former could not allow itself to be retarded in its struggle for freedom by the backwardness of the latter. This is one of the grounds of antagonism between them and the Social Democrats of Poland and Lithuania, the latter fighting as a part of the whole Russian proletariat.

No sooner, however were the three named organizations and a few others of insignificant importance, united with the Vorwärts in declaring the failure of the tactics of the Russian Social Democracy, than the latter were most splendidly justified by the events of the 22nd of January and the days that followed, which showed the Russian proletariat to be p revolutionary force of the first rank, and by far the strongest revolutionary force in the Russian empire. In spite of this the Vorwärts did not cease praising the Socialist-Revolutionists in contrast with the Social Democrats, as their note concerning Gapon and comment on the Marxian letter showed, which would however, have been wholly meaningless had they not stated that Marx in an exhaustive discussion had declared that the tactics of the Socialist-Revolutionists were the only correct ones for Russia.

* * *

Naturally we do not demand of the Vorwärts that it reverse its previous tactics and oppose the Socialist-Revolutionists In spite of all theoretical considerations we must grant our warmest sympathies to these fighters, who represent an important division of the Russian proletariat, and have entered heroically into the battle against absolutism, that is going on before our eyes and is creating a new Russia. This historic mission is so colossal that we can spare no force that makes for its realization, and the battle field is broad enough to offer room for the activities of. all. Wherever we can help the Socialist-Revolutionists in their fight against absolutism we must do so. But we have not the slightest reason for supporting them when they come in conflict with the Social Democratic organization. They have done nothing which would justify such an action.

Neither is socialist unity furthered by such interference, no matter how often the word “unity” may be used.

Fortunately there are just at this time far more powerful forces working for unity of the Russian socialists than the wise warnings of outside comrades. These forces arise from the very nature of the revolution itself, which is more and more compelling the activity of the Russian socialists to take on the form of a movement of the whole popular masses, in which the differences of the various groups are constantly dissolving, until at last a uniform tactic will grow out of the events, which in turn, will make possible a single organization.

The less a movement apparently progresses, the more urgent the demand for new tactical methods, and the greater also the diversity of views concerning these methods. The smaller a movement, and the more secret, the more do differences of opinion of individuals gain in strength and power to influence party activity. Just as easily do these differences lead to divisions. Smallness of party, slowness of growth, and dissensions in the ranks generally go hand in hand. The last however is much more of an effect than a cause. The party is more often split because it is small and ineffectual, than small and ineffectual because it is split. Once a party movement becomes a great popular mass movement, gaining victory after victory, and the differences lose their force and significance, and as the conflict goes on the party becomes continually more consolidated and united-so far at least as it rests upon the interests of a single class, as does the social democracy. A party that includes various and often antagonistic classes, as do the most bourgeois parties will to be sure, on the other hand, more frequently incline to divisions than to closer cooperation, as tile party development in France during the great Revolution shows. It is just exactly during the time of revolution that a coalition of various classes is the hardest to hold together.

It was just because the revolution was at the very door that the Liberal-Socialist alliance was a stillborn child. On the other hand the revolution has already strengthened the solidarity of the Social-Democratic forces. From Poland as well as from Russia comes the news that the latest activities have been common activities of the previously warring Social Democratic organizations.

Just what will be the relation between the Social Democratic organizations and the Socialist-Revolutionists is not yet clearly evident. Class parties are welded more firmly together by revolutions, white those that represent divergent interests are torn asunder. The Socialist-Revolutionists however are no purely proletarian party. They wish to serve the interests of the whole “laboring people,” by which they mean the peasants and the small tradesmen as well as the proletarians. The revolution will certainly bring about a deep transformation in this party. The direction of this transformation will depend upon whether it draws closer to the Social Democrats until the momentary cooperation of today leads to permanent amalgamation, or whether the antagonism between them grows sharper.

All that we in other countries can do must appear insignificant contrasted with the gigantic forces that are today operating in Russia, and which are determining the relations which party organizations shall bear to each other. These forces are working so energetically and so irresistibly for proletarian interests that we have not the slightest reason to take a pessimistic view of Russian affairs, or to speak of a “chaos” in the Russian Democracy. The relations of the Russian comrades are perfectly clear and intelligible for whoever has followed their development, from the beginning, and the revolution itself is now at hand to still further clarify them. Chaos exists far less in the ranks of the socialists than in those of the ruling classes. It is there we find dissension, anarchy, and mutual antagonism on the increase. In the midst of this chaos we find the chaos of the latest of the social strata to enter into political life – the peasants. This chaos will grow ever greater, but in the degree that it grows will grow the power and the influence of the industrial proletariat, united through the teachings of the class-struggle, impressing more and more its stamp upon the new Russia, that will finally arise from the chaos.



1*. See International Socialist Review for May.

2*. Even as I write word comes from St. Petersburg that the liberal papers are utilizing their slight temporary freedom of the press to preach against Socialism.


Last updated on 13.2.2004