Karl Kautsky

The Russian Revolution

(November 1917)

Source: The Class Struggle, Vol.I, No.4, November-December 1917.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, June 2002.

The fight for peace, the question of questions in these times, is intimately associated with the problems of the Russian Revolution and the revival of the International. And these two, again, are closely allied with each other. Stockholm was to have been the visible realization of the triumph of both these forces. But the glad hopes that greeted the revolution and the Stockholm meeting have ebbed as the months have gone by. And yet we must not despair. The revolution in Russia is but undergoing the various stages through which every revolution must go. The glorious, most hopeful, most exalted stage is the first, when the power that has threatened to crush and choke everything is swept aside. The people draw the first deep breath of freedom, and look forward upon the open road that leads to progress and happiness. Never, in all the revolutions of the past, has this first stage been the work of a single class; always these upheavals have been the product of the revolt of different classes, all suffering under the same oppression, all straight-jacketed by the same insufferable conditions, all with the same hope, the overthrow of the power that is oppressing them.

This co-operation of classes may be kept up, yes, may even increase during the second period of the revolution, in which the new regime first takes the place of the old.

They are held together by a common fear, the dread that the power just overthrown may again raise its head. It becomes the most important task of the new regime to clean away the refuse that the old has left behind it. Furthermore, the exploiting class hesitates to maintain its own class interests, largely because it fears the strength demonstrated by the laboring masses in the struggle against the rulers whom they have overthrown. They are trembling with fear, and dare not step into the foreground. They still hope to pacify the masses by small concessions and sacrifices.

It was this fear of the masses that led the representatives of French nobility on that famous 4th of August, 1789, to voluntarily sacrifice their feudal rights.

In this stage, coalition governments, with representatives of the working class, may be of value to their interests. But it must be born in mind that this can be only a short transition period. On the other hand, it would be senseless to attempt to curtail this stage artificially or by force.

The class struggle cannot, of course, be set aside for any length of time, so long as class rule exists. The greater the demands of the working classes become, the sharper will grow the resistance of their exploiters.

And so, of necessity, the third stage of the revolution must come: the revival, yes the intensifying of the struggle between the classes which united in overthrowing the old government. Through this stage, too, the Russian revolution must inevitably go. No cleverness of tactics, no terroristic recklessness can prevent it. It will be the deciding stage of the Russian revolution, albeit not its most joyous one. It lacks the glad joyousness, the unfounded hopes of the first stages. But it is the most important period, that period which will determine its historic character, in which the significance that coming generations will ascribe to it, will be decided.

In this period not only the two classes will fight against each other, but tactical differences between the various groups of the same class will appear as well. These tactical questions may make themselves felt under certain circumstances even before the class differences themselves become apparent. The class interests are a deciding factor in politics, but not the only factor.

In war the plan of action of an army is determined not only by the whereabouts of the enemy, but by a fairly definite knowledge of his strength and the strength of one’s own forces as well. In an army there may be a variety of opinions. But it stands under the direction of a single commander, and he decides upon a single plan of action for the whole army. The political army of democracy knows no commander in chief. In spite of uniform class interests, yes, in spite of absolute agreement in political theory, it may be split up by a difference in the estimation of strength of the movement itself and of the power of its enemies.

This is particularly true of a movement that is evolving under conditions such as exist in Russia at the present time. Czarism and the war have made it practically impossible to determine, even approximately, the strength of the various parties and tendencies. It becomes the more important for the consolidation of the revolution, therefore, to find a definite basis upon which this knowledge may be more or less adequately established. The election of a constitutional assembly is an absolute necessity. Not because it will wipe out the differences between the classes and parties, but because it will permit a fairly accurate calculation of their relative strength, giving to their struggles a more rational basis. But even more important for the future of the Russian revolution than a constitutional assembly is peace.

It has become customary to compare the present Russian movement with that of France in 1793. But they are widely different in character. When war broke out between France and reactionary Europe the revolution in France had practically accomplished its work. The agrarian population had already gone over to the new regime, won by the confiscation of church lands and the lands of the feudal lords who had rebelled against the revolution. The war was in the main a war to defend the revolution from the threatening attacks of European monarchs. It was a sort of international class struggle. And in this struggle the revolution gave to its defenders a new war measure of epoch-making importance, placing a mass army raised by popular conscription in the field against the small professional armies of the monarchies. To this it owed its victory and thus the war brought to France, after the first heavy loss, not the misery of invasion, but rich gain.

In Russia war preceded the revolution, and brought to the latter only unspeakable suffering, complete disintegration. It does not preserve for the working class what the revolution has accomplished; on the contrary, it makes it impossible for them to take advantage of their victory. Nor has the revolution given to Russia any war measure that would place it at an advantage over its opponents.

And there is still another difference. The significance of the French revolution was tremendous. It was the signal for the overthrow of the whole feudal system. The Russian revolution of to-day can have no such efforts. A bourgeois revolution is no longer necessary even in Russia; the capitalist class and even a considerable portion of the agrarian population had secured practically every juridical and economic right they needed, even before the revolution broke out. But the proletariat in Russia is still too weak and too undeveloped to rule the nation, to accomplish a revolution in the Socialist sense of that term.

The significance of the present Russian revolution is, above all, political. Its aim lies chiefly in the winning of democracy as a foundation upon which the proletariat may most successfully carry on its class struggle, may develop and organize its forces for the conquest of political power.

But war and democracy are two forces that cannot easily be brought into harmony. A state of war brings, even in highly democratized nations, for the period of its duration, a certain curtailment of democratic rights.

That was also true in democratic France. The reign of terror, generally regarded as a product of the revolution, was, as a matter of fact, the product of the war. And this explains, too, the fact that the climax of the rule of democratic forces in France, coincided with the climax of political persecution and political death sentences.

This war threatens the very essence of the Russian revolution, its democracy. Furthermore, it robs the revolution of the opportunity to counteract its political sacrifices by economic gain.

An early peace is therefore indispensable for the success of the Russian revolution. But it, too, will endanger the revolution, if it is a peace at any price, a peace other than that formulated and demanded by its leaders, a peace without annexation and indemnities, a peace preserving the right of small nations to decide their own destinies in every direction. If the war should end with the rape of nations, weakening instead of strengthening this outcome, then revolution, not its aim, but its method, would be discredited for years to come, not only among the Russian people, but among all other nations as well.

Thus they stand between Scylla and Charybdis. The continuation of war threatens economic and political, separate peace, moral bankruptcy.

A revolution that is an outgrowth of existing conditions possesses a gigantic vitality and momentary reverses are by no means cause for despair. But they should bring to us the grave warning, not to leave our Russian comrades alone to their fate. Their cause is the cause of the international proletariat. The collapse of revolutionary Russia would halt the process of democratization in Central Europe that has already begun.

Revolutionary Russia alone is not in a position to enforce a peace upon the terms it has proclaimed. It is time for the International to do its duty, at last, toward itself as well as toward the Russian revolution.


Last updated on 12.12.2003