Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

3. The Beginning of Bolshevism

Russia, too, could not remain closed to the rise of Marxism and of a Socialist working class party founded upon its ideas. These met with even greater obstacles from the czarist regime than did the earlier socialist parties of non-Marxian character. Another obstacle to Marxian ideas in Russia was her economic backwardness, which delayed considerably the development of large, capitalist, mass industry and with it the growth of an industrial proletariat in the large cities. No less a barrier to the development of a park of working class struggle was the absence of democracy, which made impossible the development of any party activity, any legal mass-organization and a free press.

Added to this was the fact that due to her backwardness Russia retained until about the end of the last century more pronounced traces of a primitive village communism than were to be found anywhere in Europe. Due to these factors, socialist ideas in Russia continued to bear pre-Marxian characteristics for a longer period than in the West. The Russian fighters for liberty and equality inherited socialist tendencies from Western Europe. It was natural for them to see the power for a socialist regeneration of czarist Russia not in the numerically weak city workers but in the great masses of the peasantry. Moreover, the city workers themselves came largely from the village, the bulk of them remaining peasant in their thinking and feeling.

The working masses in the cities and the champions of their interests among the intellectuals, namely the students, were influenced much more by the ideas of a peasant socialism than by Marxism. The development of Marxism in Russia came later than in Western Europe, and the growth of its influence upon the Russian city workers was slow and difficult.

Not until 1898 did the groups who embraced Marxian ideas become sufficiently numerous to venture upon the establishment of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

This was a thoroughly Marxian party and brought forth leaders and thinkers who have enriched mightily Marxian thought not only in Russia but throughout the world.

Nevertheless, the peculiar conditions prevailing in Russia remained unfavorable for the development of a consistent Marxism. In Germany, too, it made itself felt effectively only with the rise of her heavy industry and after her political constitution had provided ample opportunity for the creation of free working class organizations, a socialist mass literature, as well as the participation of the masses in strikes and electoral battles. In Russia, even after the establishment of the Social Democratic Labor Party, the industrial workers remained relatively small in numbers, while retaining their peasant viewpoint, without any working class consciousness of their own. Added to this was the fact that only a secret press and secret organizations were possible, which, naturally, could not be developed beyond painfully restricted proportions.

The conditions unfavorable to the development of Marxian socialism remained. Even many of those who considered themselves Marxists fell victim to these conditions. They interpreted Marxism frequently in a rather fanatical sense. And involuntarily they injected into it in increasing measure ideas of a pre-Marxian, Blanquist or Bakuninist coloration.

Outstanding among the Marxists of this character was Vladimir Ulianov, better known as Lenin. He joined the Social Democratic Labor Party at its inception. He accepted its program, having helped formulate it. What first brought him into conflict with the consistent Marxists in the party was the question of party organization. Under the conditions prevailing in czarist Russia this organization was of necessity a secret one. Nevertheless, the intention was to give it a form conducive to the highest possible development of the intellectual and spiritual powers of its members and the promotion of independent thinking among the greatest possible number of the workers. This could be achieved only through closest participation of all party comrades in party work, their intimate contact with the labor movement, i.e. only through the widest possible measure of democracy within the party This was entirely in accord with the ideas of Marx, who at the beginning of the movement regarded democracy less as a means of gaining political power and more as an instrument of education of the masses.

The Communist League, which Marx and Engels joined in 1847, was obliged to be a secret organization under the political circumstances then prevailing on the continent of Europe. And such, indeed, it was at the beginning. Such an organization presupposes the vesting of its leadership with dictatorial power. Marx and Engels declined to accept this, however. They joined the League only after it had ceased to be a conspiracy, although it had been obliged to remain a secret organization due to the absence of all freedom of organization. Engels reports about it as follows:

“The organization (of the Communist League itself was entirely democratic, with elected officials, always subject to removal, thereby putting an end to all urge for conspiracy, which requires dictatorship.” (Introduction to K. Marx, The Cologne Trial, Zurich 1885, p.10)

The First International of 1864, like its predecessor, the Communist League, was also compelled to maintain secret organizations in some countries. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels fought repeatedly against transforming the International into a conspiratory organization, as Mazzini would have it. Marx won over Mazzini. The first International was organized not dictatorially but democractically. Marx was also opposed to the manner in which the General Workingmen’s Association was organized in Germany in 1863, in which Lassalle wielded dictatorial power. In contrast to the Lassalleans, the Eisenach group under Bebel and Liebknecht, who had Marx’s support, was organized in 1869 democratically. The dictatorial form of organization in Germany gave way to the democratic form.

Nevertheless, the urge for a conspiratory organization with unlimited dictatorial power for the leader and blind obedience of the members continued to manifest itself wherever the organization had to be a secret one, where the masses did not as yet possess their own movement and where the political organization was regarded not as a means of educating the proletariat to independence but as a means of obtaining political power at one stroke. Not the class struggle but the putsch, the coup d’etat is thus brought into the foreground of interest, and together with this a form of militarist thinking there is carried into the party organization the kind of thinking which relies upon victory in civil war rather than upon intellectual and economic elevation of the masses. The latter are regarded as mere cannon fodder, whose utilization can be made all the easier the more obedient they are to any command, without independent thought and will of their own.

The Social Democracy of Russia was conceived as a democratic organization, in accordance with Marxian principles. But Lenin soon discovered that this was a mistake. He began to demand ever greater powers for the central organ of the party and increasingly circumscribed powers for the membership.

Paul Axelrod, Vera Zassulitch, Alexander Potresov, Julius Martov and, later, George Plekhanov opposed him. Even Rosa Luxemburg, who was more inclined to side with him in other matters, expressed misgivings on the score of dictatorship which Lenin sought to introduce in the party.

In his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904) Lenin went so far as to assert:

“Bureaucratism against democracy – that must be the organizational principle of the revolutionary Social-Democracy against the organizational principle of the opportunists.” (p.51.)

I take the following from a criticism of Lenin by Rosa Luxemburg in Die Neue Zeit (XXII.2). She declared:

“The establishment of centralization in the Social Democracy on the basis of blind obedience, to the very smallest detail, to a central authority, in all matters of party organization and activity; a central authority which does all the thinking, attends to everything and decides everything; a central authority isolating the centre of the party from the surrounding revolutionary milieu-as demanded by Lenin-appears to us as an attempt to transfer mechanically the organizational principles of Blanquist conspiratory workmen’s circles to the Social Democratic mass movement. (p.488, 489.)

“Lenin’s ideas are calculated principally to promote control of party activity and not its development, to foster the limitation rather than the growth, the strangulation rather than the solidarity and expansion of the movement.” (p.492.)

That was how Rosa Luxemburg characterized Leninism from its very beginning

Already in 1904, Rosa Luxemburg discovered that all that dictatorship in the party could accomplish was to stem and stifle the intellectual development of the workers. Yet, it is precisely in the early stages of a labor movement, in which alone a voluntary recognition of the dictatorship of any of its leaders is possible, that the education of the workers to independent thinking and action is far more important than the winning of power by the leaders.

For this reason, as early as 1904, Rosa Luxemburg perceived Leninism as an element inimical to the higher development of the working class. Naturally, she could not then foresee all the destructive influences it carried within itself.

In the meantime, at the very beginning of Leninism, another extremely injurious element became apparent side by side with its strangulations and stifling of the movement.

Like the God of monotheists, the dictator is a very jealous god. He tolerates no other gods but himself. Those in the party who do not believe in his divine infallibility provoke his fierce hatred. Lenin demanded that the entire working class submit meekly to his leadership. Those in the party who were inclined to show more confidence in other leaders or to defend opinions of their own were regarded by Lenin as the worst possible enemies, to be fought with any and all means.

Hence it was impossible for Lenin, as it is impossible for anyone who would be dictator of a party, to work together with comrades who occasionally differed from him. Hence the impossibility of working at all for any length of time on a level of equality with comrades of character and independence of thought.

Whenever dictatorship assumes powers in a party organism, that organism is bound to deteriorate intellectually, for dictatorship either degrades the best elements, compelling them to surrender their independence, or expels them from the party.

Dictatorship in the party starts out with the idea of bringing about a split in the party. This is apparent in the very nature of dictatorship. The dictator not only declines to combine his organization with other, independent working class organizations into a higher general organism, but he does not even think of cooperating at least occasionally with other socialist parties against the common enemy. Leninism had hardly begun to manifest itself in the Russian Social Democracy when it brought about a split into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

Intellectual impoverishment of its own party, obstruction of the intellectual development of the workers, their weakening by prolonged internecine conflict – these were the consequences of the Leninist party dictatorship even before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

That revolution brought with it a fundamental change in all social and political relations.


Last updated on 27.1.2004