Karl Kautsky

The Bolsheviki Rising

(March 1918)

Source: The Class Struggle, Vol. II No. 2, March–April 1918.
Originally published in Weekly People.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, June 2002.

Now, for the first time in history the proletariat has conquered the governmental powers in an entire great state. Every rising on the part of the proletariat has ever hitherto been acclaimed by the Socialists of all countries with stormy jubilation. Thus lately even the Russian revolution in March. Consequently one ought now expect that the Bolsheviki’s success should everywhere create in earnest an enthusiasm beyond all bounds.

Instead we meet, as far as we now can see, in wide circles of the Socialist International, the uneasy question: How will this end? And this is easily understood in view of the peculiar circumstances under which the rising took place and which are a consequence of the enormous difficulties with which the Russian Social Democracy is struggling for the present.

The population of Russia is still three-fourths agricultural, a great number are illiterates, agriculture is technically little developed, the system of communication utterly poor.

In this backward agrarian country, however, in a few industrial centers, which at the same time are the centers of Russia’s political life, there have developed, on a large scale, entirely modern industrial enterprises, with a proletariat which, true enough, has not yet emancipated itself from the low cultural level of the peasant class from which it issued, yet at the same time is perfectly free from the bourgeois traditions with which the proletarians of Western Europe are afflicted, those who have already fought through so many bourgeois revolutions. The workingmen of France are today even dominated by the traditions of the great revolution; those of England are still in many respects enmeshed in the free trade radicalism methods of thinking. The leaders of the Russian proletariat, on the other hand, readily and thoroughly adopt the youngest and highest form of proletarian thought: Marxism; and through it the farthest advanced and most powerful strata of the Russian proletariat have been led forward on a road entirely Marxian.

It is these strata who carried to victory the revolution they still dominate.

Thus is explained the paradoxical in the situation; that a revolution, which according to the whole structure of the country can be but a bourgeois and not a Socialist revolution, rests on a proletariat possessed of a far clearer class consciousness, and which has far more clearly realized its implacable antagonism to the bourgeois world, than any proletariat participating in any of Europe’s earlier victorious revolutions.

To maintain their position in this paradoxical situation implies in itself a gigantic task on the part of the Russian Socialists. And now it is a question of accomplishing that task in the midst of the most terrible world war history has ever known.

The army that went to war with the 1905 traditions of defeat and dissolution has fallen asunder as a consequence of the long fruitless fighting, full of the most painful losses and humiliations. Only that made possible the revolution which was carried through by the army as much as by the civil population.

All rose in March against the regime of the Czar; some because it did not carry on the war vigorously and successfully; others because it carried an war at all. The latter constituted the great majority; to this category belonged the proletarians and the peasants as well as the great mass of the middle class. All longed for peace, peace the revolution would bring.

Among the pacifists, however, one could distinguish two currents, one crying for peace at any price in order to put a stop to the slaughter and hunger; another composed of men, who, while they in nowise underestimated the great significance of that endeavor and had an eye to the realization of political goals at the conclusion of peace, yet now rejected the peace of brutal Might, whether the consequences of such peace would fall on foreign peoples or on the people at home. They willed a peace that corresponds not only to the commandment of physical self-preservation, but also to the conditions requisite for the re-establishment and strengthening of international democracy and the political foundation for the proletarian struggle.

The Socialists who thought thus could not well agitate for a simple laying down of arms with no regard to whatever results might follow therefrom. But neither could they simply leave to the bourgeoisie the army.

In peace time it would have been conceivable that the Socialists would have contented themselves with the thought that Russia under existing conditions could not become a Socialist State, and that it would be enough for the nonce to make of her the world’s freest bourgeois republic, with one of the farthest reaching social polity’s withal. That alone would have been an enormous gain not only for the Russian people, but for all peoples. But in the midst of war to abdicate to the bourgeoisie the power the proletariat had won in and through the war, that would have meant to turn over the army to the bourgeoisie and intrust it with the formulating of the war aims and the concluding of peace; it would have meant a conjuring forth of the danger of a useless prolongation of the war for anti-democratic annexationist purposes.

The very war which made so enormously difficult the position of all governments, which to an awe-inspiring extent aggravated the evils heaped up by the regime of Czarism, which heightened to the extreme the army’s and the civil population’s demands on the government and at the same time caused the means of satisfying those demands rapidly to shrink together – that very war compelled the Russian Socialists to exert themselves to the limit of their strength, in order to keep the bourgeoisie from establishing itself in supreme command.

To attain this, however, two roads were open, and it was over the question of which road to travel that the split of the Russian Socialist forces came about. The one wing, the Menshiviki, sought to circumscribe the all-powerfulness of the bourgeoisie through a coalition cabinet; the other the Bolsheviki, which aimed at the same goal through a dictatorship of the proletariat, which, true enough, had to derive support also from the revolutionary element of the peasantry.

The Bolsheviki held forth the prospect of immediate peace if the proletariat alone were to take the government into its hands and with force keep the bourgeois elements down, incurring the risk, of course, of letting loose a civil war thereby.

The Bolsheviki way of reasoning was the one most simple, the one that closely corresponded to the proletariat’s position as a class. But also the one that threatened to aggravate to the extreme the antagonisms between the high aims of the proletariat and the low stage of development of the country.

The dictatorship of the proletariat means the inhibition of capitalist production. The capitalist mode of production becomes an impossibility under a proletarian regime. Is Russia already equipped to put in its place a Socialist mode of production? Besides, the Russian working class is neither sufficiently strong nor sufficiently developed to be able to take over the entire apparatus of government and supervise its needs. Therefore the danger lay close at hand that the proletarian regime would strive to dissolve the power of the state instead of conquering and reshaping it. And in that country, where a few advanced centers are in danger of being pulled down by a backward majority out in the provinces it is quite possible that the threatening elements seek to retain their position by working for complete independence for the provinces, aye, for the communes, as for example the Bakunin adherents in Spain in the early seventies.

Thus, under the conditions of Russia’s life, the dictatorship of the proletariat threatened to lead to the political and social dissolution of the country, to chaos, but thereby also to the moral bankruptcy of the revolution and a preparing of the way for a counterrevolution.

As a consequence of these fears, it happened that until now the Menshiviki held the upper hand in the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils, although a bourgeois-proletarian coalition cabinet cannot possibly be a durable formation and cannot create anything great. The longer such a cabinet lasts the more must both classes, the one as well as the other, in view of the inherent antagonisms between them, come to lose confidence in the government, so that little by little the ground is pulled from under its feet. The Russian revolutionary cabinets were also only meant as provisional governments to bring about peace and call together the Constitutional Assembly. They could only perform their function on the condition that peace and the Constitutional Assembly were brought about quickly. The longer peace took in coming the more untenable the coalition became and all the faster grew the mass of Bolsheviki adherents until they finally came into power.

Now we shall see whether the fears entertained regarding their advent were well grounded. In the matter of energy nothing is lacking. They count among their adherents very intelligent keen-sighted comrades. But the difficulties that lie in the actual conditions before them are enormously great. Should they succeed in overcoming them their success will carry in its train unheard-of consequences. It will mean the beginning of a new epoch in the world’s history.

For the present nothing can be said with certainty regarding this, however.

That does in no wise imply, though, that the Russian events must leave us passive. Whatever the result may be, whether peace be brought about or the war prolonged, whether these events leave Russia a defenseless spoil to be disposed of according to pleasure, or whether the Bolsheviki or the Mensheviki come out on top, – whatever the outcome may be these events signify to us a serious admonition to deliberate upon the question of making easier the situation for the Russian Proletariat.

Still we need do nothing more for the Russian revolution than just the fulfilling of our duties to the German proletariat, to the German people. These duties resolve themselves into a peace according to our fundamental principles and the democratization of Germany.

Establishing the supremacy of the parliament is a step toward democratization, but alone and in and of itself insufficient. However great is the significance of the dependency of the government on the parliament, this makes for democratization only provided that hand in hand with this condition goes the growing dependency of parliament on the great mass of the people. A parliament that does not derive its support from the mass of the people is powerless. On the other hand, the people in a parliamentary state that leaves its fate exclusively in the hands of the parliament is likewise impotent.

Marx acknowledged the necessity for the parliament in modern politics, but just as much the necessity of pressure on the parliament from without. He who demands the supreme power be lodged in the parliament, but at the same time holds back the proletariat from all efforts to influence the parliament through methods corresponding to the nature of the proletariat as a class, he does not seriously desire the democratization of the (German) political system. His declarations of sympathy for the Russian revolution are consequently only hypocritical.

Sadly enough, the Socialistic elements which in this manner paralyze the proletariat at present – at a time so decisive as regards the future of the working class – they still dominate a number of important portions of the proletariat.

Only if events in Russia take a direction so that they carry with them all the proletarian masses of Western Europe will it be possible to overcome the paralyzing influence of these elements.

It were idle today to try to prophecy anything as regards this matter. We must be prepared for anything, the worst as well as the best.

Last updated on 29 May 2016