Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

4. Lenin and the Russian Revolution of 1917

The Russian Revolution of March 1917 occurred under circumstances which could not possibly have been more favorable for the socialist parties, even though not for the immediate introduction of Socialism. The czarist governmental machinery was in ruins, the obsolete nobility lay helpless, while the capitalist class, its capital largely of foreign origin, showed itself impotent. All-powerful were only the workers and intellectuals in combination with the peasantry. Among these the Socialists were in overwhelming majority – the Social Revolutionists among the peasants; the Social Democrats, Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks, among the wage earners and intellectuals.

After the fall of Czarism it appeared self-evident that the various Socialist parties, the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionists would work together in the Soviets, and that the cooperation would embrace both wings of the Social Democracy, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. And why not? Did not all of them have a common aim: establishment of a democratic republic, the eight hour day, confiscation of the land?

But Lenin disliked intensely any such cooperation with the Socialists. Long before the revolution he had formed his own organization within the Social Democracy. This dual organization was built on military lines and within this organization Lenin had established his own dictatorship. For this reason he had brought about a split in the Russian Social Democracy in 1903 and declared war against all Social Democrats who had refused to pay blind obedience to his leadership.

After the split of 1903 and as late as July, 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the war, Lenin fought bitterly against unity with the Mensheviks. During the war he continued to preach the idea of split not only in the Russian Social Democracy but in the entire Socialist International. For this reason he fought bitterly against any united front of the workers when such a united front became possible after the revolution of 1917.

Lenin was in Switzerland when the revolution of March, 1917, occurred in Russia. He returned to Russia a month after the revolution and found a situation which made him very bitter. Shortly before his arrival there was held an all-Russian conference of Soviets which revealed a very great measure of agreement between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

“There followed at the conclusion of the conference a joint meeting of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks to discuss unity of both factions. These negotiations were stopped through the arrival of Lenin, who succeeded in turning sharply the wheel of Bolshevist policy, although not without stubborn opposition of many influential Bolsheviks.” [1]

Lenin’s aim in the Russian Revolution was to destroy not only all organs of self-administration, but also all other parties and social organizations, except his own.

To this end he employed falsehood, slander and brutal force against all opponents, among whom he counted all Socialists, except those who were willing to obey his commands. He finally succeeded in smashing all his opponents through his coup d’etat of November 7, 1917.

Nevertheless, efforts were continued by some to bring about a government of all Socialist parties.

“At this time Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Rjazanov, Lozowski and other prominent Bolsheviks demanded the formation of a Socialist government composed of all Soviet parties. They declared that formation of a purely Bolshevist government would lead to a regime of terror and to the destruction of the revolution and the country.” [2]

But again Lenin won his point in the Bolshevist Parry. He hoped that the elections to the All Russian Constituent Assembly, which were then in progress, would bring him a majority.

Until 1917 the Bolshevist Party regarded the dictatorship within its organization as a means of struggle for democracy in the state, and Lenin’s fight for democracy in the state proceeded along the line of the other socialist parties. Like the latter, as late as 1917, he demanded the convocation of a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal suffrage.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly revealed that the Bolshevist Party had far from a majority in the Constituent Assembly. But the Socialist parties – Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Social Revolutionists – constituted an overwhelming majority in the assembly. (The Bolsheviks had approximately one fourth of the membership, the Socialist Revolutionists having a majority. – Ed.) Once more the Bolsheviks had an opportunity to take part in a Socialist united front, which could be the basis of a government supported by the overwhelming majority of the people. A government founded on such a basis and having virtually the entire people behind it would have been in a position to crush without any difficulty any attempt at counterrevolution. In fact, any such attempt would have been nipped in the bud.

Had the Bolsheviks at that time agreed to a united front, Russia would have been spared the three years of civil war and the consequent horrible misery. Peace and freedom would have made possible rapid economic recovery and with it a speedy development of the working class, which in turn, would have promoted the realization of a large measure of Socialist economy and its successful administration. All this would have been possible without dictatorship, without terror, through the democracy of the workers and peasants. To be sure, we cannot say with certainty that this would have actually come to pass, but this was the only road that offered a possibility of obtaining for the people through the revolution as great a measure of liberty and welfare as existing circumstances permitted. But this would have been possible only through the establishment of a revolutionary government supported by the overwhelming majority of the population. Such a government could have been set up only on the basis of a united front of all Socialist parties.

This united front was rendered impossible by the insatiable yearning for power on the part of Lenin and other leaders of the Bolsheviks. They dissolved the Constituent Assembly, which they themselves had previously so passionately championed, and with the help of the politically inexperienced and ignorant soldiery drawn from the disorganized army, whose support they had won by limitless and irresponsible promises, they succeeded in seizing power, by means of which they strengthened their own parry, organized on militarist lines, and crushed completely all their opponents.

The Bolsheviks attained power and have been ruling ever since not through the confidence and support of the majority of the people.

There were two roads open: the road of a Socialist united front or the road of power for the Bolsheviks alone over all other Socialists. It was the Bolsheviks who utilized a favorable combination of circumstances to render impossible any united front in order that they might establish their own dictatorship.

Having established this dictatorship, they inevitably created a situation in which only the mailed fist, unconcerned too much with intellectual and moral restraints, can be victorious.

To emphasize their differentiation from the Social Democracy the Bolsheviks have called themselves Communists since 1918.

Upon the ruins of democracy, for which Lenin had fought until 1917, he erected his political power. Upon these ruins he set up a new militarist-bureaucratic police machinery of state, a new autocracy. This gave him weapons against the other Socialists even more potent than shameless lies. He now had in his hands all the instruments of repression which czarism had used, adding to these weapons also those instruments of oppression which the capitalist, as the owner of the means of production, uses against wage slaves. Lenin now commanded all the means of production, utilizing his state power for the erection of his state capitalism.

No form of capitalism makes the workers so absolutely dependent upon it as centralized state capitalism in a state without an effective democracy. And no political police is so powerful and omnipresent as the Cheka or G.P.U., created by men who had spent many years in fighting the czarist police, and knowing its methods as well as its weaknesses and shortcomings, knew also how to improve upon them.

It would have been absolutely unnecessary to resort to any of these instruments of repression had Lenin agreed to form a coalition with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists in 1917. These parties commanded the support of the overwhelming majority of the population, as the elections to the Constituent Assembly had shown. Everything of a truly progressive nature which the Bolsheviks sought at that time to realize was also part of the program of the other Socialist parties and would have been carried out by them, for the people had empowered them to do so. The confiscation of the big landed estates had also been planned by the Social Revolutionists and Mensheviks-they actually put it into effect in Georgia. Abolition of illiteracy, marriage law reform, social welfare measures, children’s homes, public hospitals, shop councils, unemployment insurance and laws for the protection of labor, about all of which such a big-to-do is being made in Soviet Russia, have been attained to a much greater and more perfect degree in capitalist countries where the democracy of labor has won any considerable power. The socialization of heavy industry, insofar as this would have appeared economically advantageous, would likewise have been approved by the majority of the Constituent Assembly.

All the innovations in the domain of social welfare in which the Communists take so much pride and which so greatly impress tourists would have been introduced by the majority of the Constituent Assembly, and in much better fashion than the dictatorship has been able to do, because the country’s economic condition would have been immeasurably better. All the social welfare measures in force in Russia suffer from lack of resources, the hasty and ill-prepared manner in which they have been introduced, as well as from the methods of brutal force used by the dictators even in instances where abstention from force would have been more advantageous. Many workers were thereby embittered against the new regime when their willing cooperation was possible and necessary.

How disgusting and unnecessary, for example, have been the forms of struggle against religion in Soviet Russia. The dictatorship does not seek to find a substitute for religion by promoting independent critical thinking and knowledge – such methods are not in the nature of dictatorship. Religious services and institutions, sacred to the devout, are subject to the coarsest insults and humiliations. Without the slightest necessity, harmless, devout folk are embittered and made to suffer while simultaneously the free thinkers themselves are degraded by such low forms of anti-religious propaganda.

All such difficulties of social change as arise from lack of means, undue haste, opposition of the population, would have largely been averted if these changes had been the work of the Constituent Assembly. They were accomplished directly or indirectly through the civil war, which was the inevitable consequence of Lenin’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by the hands of his sailors in January 1918.

The majority behind the Constituent Assembly was so overwhelming that not a single one of the czarist generals dared move against it. Had any one of them ventured to do so he would have had no following. These generals were emboldened to counter-revolutionary mutiny only after Lenin had dissolved Constituent Assembly and enabled them to put forward the pretense of seeking to restore the rights of the Assembly.

Had Lenin not dissolved the Constituent Assembly, Russia would have been spared the civil war with all its horrors, cruelties and destruction. How much richer the country would have been, how much greater the good of the social transformation! All the enormous expenditures of the military bureaucratic police apparatus, insofar as it has been devoted to purposes of repression, could have been spared. These expenditures could have been applied to productive purposes for the promotion of the general welfare.

The population should have been accorded the greatest possible measure of freedom, freedom of the press, of assembly, of organization, of self-government. Under such conditions the masses would have speedily developed economically, physically, intellectually. All this stimulation of independent thinking and mutual confidence among the workers, peasants and intellectuals would have genuinely enhanced the development of socialist production, of a nation of liberty, equality, fraternity.

This noble development was halted on the day when Lenin ordered his military bands to make an end of the Constituent Assembly.

Certainly, the fact that it proved easy to dissolve it indicates the high degree of political immaturity of the elements who dominated Petrograd at that time – quite ignorant soldiery who had but one wish, immediate peace, and who sensed that Lenin’s dictatorship was the one infallible instrument to bring it about.

Not the confidence of the majority of the working class but the complication of the revolution by the war brought Bolshevism to power. And because it did not possess this confidence it was compelled, once in power, to maintain itself by terrorism, which it is employing to this day without the slightest prospect of its mitigation.

It is often said that terror belongs to the nature of revolution, that revolutions are not made with rose water or silk gloves, and that this has ever been so.

It is, indeed, a peculiar revolutionism which asserts that what has always been must ever be so. Moreover, it is not true that there never were revolutions without terror. The great French Revolution began in 1789, but the terror did not come until September 1792, and only as a consequence of war. Not the revolution but war brought about the terror as well as the dictatorship. Revolutions resort to terror only when they are driven to civil war.

This was absolutely unnecessary in Russia in 1917. Democracy had been achieved. The workers and peasants were in power. The demands of labor could have been satisfied by democratic methods, insofar as these demands were compatible with the interests of the peasantry and with the material resources available.

The rule of the overwhelming majority in the interest of the overwhelming majority does not require the use of brutal force in a democratic state in order to assert itself.

In the election to the Constituent Assembly 36,000,000 votes were cast, of which only 4,000,000 were polled by the bourgeois parties and 32,000,000 by the socialist parties. The Assembly was in no way threatened from the right. It was in a position to proceed undisturbed, with full hope of success, with the task of the regeneration of Russia and preparation for Socialism.

As the Bolsheviks saw it, it had but one great fault: they had failed to obtain a majority in it. The Bolsheviks received 9,000,000, while 23,000,000 votes were cast for the other Socialist parties. This was an intolerable situation for any brave Bolshevik. The Constituent Assembly would have carried out everything in the interests of labor that was at all realizable, and in more rational, more successful manner than the Bolsheviks acting alone have been able to do. But this would have required the Bolsheviks to act merely as equals and not as a party of dictatorship issuing orders from above.

Against any such democratic procedure the Bolsheviks struggled with all their might, and they utilized a favorable situation to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. This blow they struck not against a czarist, aristocratic, bourgeois or “white guardist” counter revolution but against the other Socialist parties, who had been more successful than the Bolsheviks in the struggle for the soul of the workers and peasants.

Hence, the abolition of all democratic rights of masses, ergo the terror. It was the necessary consequence of the rule of a minority over the great majority of the people. Hence, the fact that the terror has been indispensable for the Bolsheviks not only in the civil war but throughout the years after its conclusion. They resort to terror not only as a means of repelling counter-revolution but as an instrument of holding down and destroying all revolutionists among the workers and peasants who refuse to submit without protest to the whip of the new Red czar and his Communist Cossacks.

Having seized control, Lenin at once conceived himself powerful enough to undertake from above and by utopian methods the carrying out of a task which until then he himself as a disciplined Marxist had regarded as unrealizable, namely the immediate establishment of the Socialist order of production with the aid of an immature working class. It should be noted that it was a question not of village communism, for the private economy of the individual peasant was preserved (until the collectivization under Stalin – Ed.), but of state economy in industry and commerce.

This was the task undertaken by Lenin, in opposition to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists, who declared the undertaking utopian and unrealizable. They likewise denounced the dictatorship and the destruction of democracy.



1. Theodore Dan, in his Continuation of Martov’s History of the Russian Social Democracy (p.296).

2. Theodore Dan, in his Continuation of Martov’s History of the Russian Social Democracy (p.307).


Last updated on 27.1.2004