Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. Georg Lukacs 1924
But have we entered the period of decisive revolutionary struggles? Has the moment already come when the proletariat, on pain of its own destruction, is forced to take up its task of changing the world? For it is clear that even the most mature proletarian ideology or organization is unable to bring about such a crisis unless this maturity and militancy is a result of the objective socio-economic world situation itself pressing for a solution. Nor can a single isolated event, regardless of whether it is a victory or a defeat, possibly decide this. It is even impossible to say whether such an event is either a victory or a defeat; only in relation to the totality of socio-historic development can it be termed either one or the other in a world-historical sense.
This is why the dispute – which broke out during the actual course of the First Revolution (1905) and reached its climax after its defeat – in Russian Social Democrat circles (then both Menshevik and Bolshevik) as to whether the correct parallel was with the situation in 1847 (before the decisive revolution) or 1848 (after its defeat) inevitably extends beyond the Russian context in the narrow sense. It can only be resolved when the question of the fundamental character of our time is resolved. The more limited, specifically Russian, question as to whether the 1905 Revolution was bourgeois or proletarian and whether the proletarian revolutionary position taken by the workers was correct or ‘mistaken’ can only be answered in this context. To be sure, the very fact that the question was raised with such vigour indicates where the answer lies. For outside Russia, too, the division between Left and Right within the labour movement increasingly begins to take the form of a debate about the general character of the times: a debate about whether specific, increasingly manifest, economic phenomena (concentration of capital, growing importance of big banks, colonization) mark only quantitative changes within ‘normal’ capitalist development, or whether it is possible to deduce from them the approach of a new capitalist epoch -that of imperialism; whether the increasingly frequent wars (Boer War, Spanish-American War, Russo-Japanese War), following as they do a relatively peaceful period, are to be regarded as ‘accidents’ or ‘episodes’, or whether they are to be seen as the first signs of a period of even greater confrontations; and finally – if all this indicates that the development of capitalism has entered a new phase – whether the old forms of proletarian struggle are sufficient to express the proletariat’s class interests under the new conditions. Are, therefore, those new forms of proletarian class struggle which developed before and during the First Russian Revolution (the mass strike, armed uprising), phenomena of only local particular significance – ‘mistakes’ even, or ‘aberrations’ – or should they be regarded as the first spontaneous attempts by the masses, on the basis of their correct class instincts, to adjust their actions to the world situation?
Lenin’s practical answer to the interconnected complex of these questions is well known. It found its clearest expression immediately after the defeat of the First Revolution, at a time when Menshevik lamentations about the mistakes of the Russian workers in ‘going too far’ had not yet died away. Lenin then took up the struggle at the Stuttgart Congress to make the Second International adopt a clear and strong stand against the directly threatening danger of an imperialist world war, and to pose the question: what could be done to prevent such a war ?
The Lenin-Luxemburg amendment was accepted in Stuttgart and later ratified at the Copenhagen and Basle Congresses. The danger of an approaching world war and the necessity for the proletariat to conduct a revolutionary struggle against it were thus officially admitted by the Second International. So Lenin apparently by no means stood alone on this issue. Neither was he alone in recognizing imperialism economically as a new phase of capitalism. The whole Left and even parts of the Centre and the Right of the Second International recognized the economic roots of imperialism. Hilferding tried to provide a new economic theory for the new phenomena, and Rosa Luxemburg went even further and succeeded in representing the entire economic system of imperialism as an inevitable consequence of the process of the reproduction of capital -incorporating imperialism organically into the theory of historical materialism, thus giving ‘the theory of capitalist collapse’ a concrete economic foundation. Yet it was no mere chance that, in August 1914 and for a long time thereafter, Lenin stood quite alone in his attitude to the world war. Much less can it be explained psychologically or morally, by arguing that perhaps many others who had earlier made an equally ‘correct’ assessment of imperialism had now become hesitant out of ‘cowardice’? On the contrary: the different attitudes of the various socialist currents in 1914 were the direct, logical consequences of their theoretical, tactical, and other positions up till then.
In an apparent paradox, the Leninist concept of imperialism is both a significant theoretical achievement, and contains as economic theory little that is really new. It is partly based on Hilferding and, purely as economics, by no means bears comparison in depth and sweep with Rosa Luxemburg’s admirable extension of Marx’s theory of capitalist reproduction. Lenin’s superiority – and this is an unparalleled theoretical achievement – consists in his concrete articulation of the economic theory of imperialism with every political problem of the present epoch, thereby making the economics of the new phase a guide-line for all concrete action in the resultant decisive conjuncture. That is why, for example, during the war he rejected certain Polish Communist ultra-left views as ‘imperialist economizing’ and why his fight against Kautsky’s concept of ‘Ultra-Imperialism’ – which expressed hopes for a peaceful international trust towards which world war was an ‘accidental’ and not even ‘correct’ path – culminates in the charge that Kautsky separates the economics of imperialism from its politics. It is true that the theory of imperialism elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg (also by Pannekoek and others on the left) does not suffer from economism in the narrow, real sense of the word. All of them – especially Rosa Luxemburg – stress just that moment in the economics of imperialism when it is necessarily transformed into politics. Yet this connection is not made concrete. Rosa Luxemburg demonstrates incomparably how, as a result of the process of accumulation, the transition to imperialism as the epoch of struggle for colonial outlets, raw materials and export of capital, has become unavoidable; how this epoch – the last stage of capitalism – is bound to be one of world wars. In doing so, however, she establishes merely the theory of the epoch as a whole – the overall theory of modern imperialism. She, too, is unable to make the transition from this theory to the concrete demands of the day: it is impossible to establish an inevitable continuity linking The Accumulation of Capital With the concrete passages of the Junius Pamphlet. She does not concretize her theoretically correct assessment of the epoch as a whole into a clear recognition of those particular moving forces which it is the practical task of Marxist theory to evaluate and to exploit in a revolutionary way.
However, Lenin’s superiority here cannot by any means be explained away by cliché references to ‘political genius’ or ‘practical ingenuity’. It is far more a purely theoretical superiority in assessing the total process. For Lenin did not make a single practical decision in his whole life which was not the rational and logical outcome of his theoretical standpoint. That the fundamental axiom of this standpoint is the demand for the concrete analysis of the concrete situation removes the issue to one of realpolitik only for those who do not think dialectically. For Marxists the concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not the opposite of ‘pure’ theory; on the contrary, it is the culmination of all genuine theory, its consummation, the point where it therefore breaks into practice.
The basis of this theoretical superiority is that, of all Marx’s followers, Lenin’s vision was least distorted by the fetishist categories of his capitalist environment. For the decisive superiority of Marxist economics over all its predecessors and successors lies in its methodological ability to interpret even the most complex questions which, to all appearances, have to be treated in the most purely economic (therefore, most purely fetishist) categories, in such a way that behind these categories the evolution of those classes whose social existence they express becomes visible. (Compare, for example, the difference between Marx’s concept of constant and variable capital, and the classical division between fixed and circulating capital. Only through this differentiation was the class structure of bourgeois society clearly revealed. The Marxist interpretation of surplus value already exposed the class stratification between bourgeoisie and proletariat. The additional concept of constant capital showed how this relationship was dynamically connected with the development of society as a whole, and at the same time exposed the struggle of the different capitalist interest groups for the division of surplus value.)
Lenin’s theory of imperialism, unlike Rosa Luxemburg’s, is less a theory of its necessary economic generation and limitations than the theory of the concrete class forces which, unleashed by imperialism, are at work within it: the theory of the concrete world situation created by imperialism. When Lenin studies the essence of monopoly capitalism, what primarily interests him is this concrete world situation and the class alignments created by it: how the world has been de facto divided up by the colonial powers; how the concentration of capital effects changes within the class stratification of bourgeoisie and proletariat (appearance of purely parasitic rentiers, labour aristocracy); and above all, how, because of its different momentum in different countries, the development of monopoly capitalism itself invalidates the temporary peaceful distribution of ‘spheres of interest’ and other compromises, and drives it to conflicts which can only be resolved by force – in other words, by war. Because the essence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism, and its war is the inevitable development and expression of this trend to still greater concentration and to absolute monopoly, the relation of social groups within capitalist society to war emerges very clearly. The idea – a la Kautsky – that sections of the bourgeoisie ‘not directly interested’ in imperialism, who are even ‘defrauded’ by it, can be mobilized against it, shows itself to be naive self-deception. Monopoly development sweeps the whole of the bourgeoisie along with it. What is more, it finds support not only in the inherently vacillating petty bourgeoisie, but even (albeit temporarily) among sections of the proletariat. However, the faint-hearted are wrong in thinking that, because of its unqualified rejection of imperialism, the revolutionary proletariat becomes socially isolated. The development of capitalist society is always inconsistent, always contradictory. Monopoly capitalism creates a real world economy for the first time in history. It follows that its war, imperialist war, is the first World War in the strictest sense of the term. This means, above all, that for the first time in history the nations oppressed and exploited by capitalism no longer fight isolated wars against their oppressors but are swept up as a whole into the maelstrom of the world war. In its developed form capitalist exploitation does not just criminally exploit the colonial peoples as it did at its outset; it simultaneously transforms their whole social structure and draws them into the capitalist system. Naturally, this only happens in the course of the search for greater exploitation (export of capital, etc.); it results in the establishment of the basis of an indigenous bourgeois development in the colonies – naturally looked upon with ill-favour by imperialism – of which the inevitable ideological consequence is the onset of the struggle for national independence. This whole process is intensified still further because imperialist war mobilizes all available human resources in the imperialist countries while it simultaneously drags the colonial people actively into the fighting and speeds up the development of their industries – in other words, accelerates the process of national struggle both economically and ideologically.
But the position of the colonial peoples is only an extreme form of the relationship between monopoly capitalism and those normally exploited by it. The historical transition from one epoch to another is never mechanical: a particular mode of production does not develop and play a historic role only when the mode superseded by it has already everywhere completed the social transformations appropriate to it. The modes of production and the corresponding social forms and class stratifications which succeed and supersede one another tend in fact to appear in history much more as intersecting and opposing forces. In this way, developments which seem to be invariable in the abstract (for instance, the transition from feudalism to capitalism) acquire an entirely different relationship to the socio-historic whole because of the totally changed historical milieu in which they take place, and accordingly take on a completely new function and significance in their own right.
Emergent capitalism appeared as an important factor in the formation of European nations. After profound revolutionary struggles, it transformed the chaos of small medieval feudal governments into great nations in the most capitalistically developed part of Europe. The movements for the unity of Germany and Italy were the last of these objectively revolutionary struggles. But if capitalism has developed into imperialist monopoly capitalism in these new states, if it even began to take on such forms in some of the more backward countries (Russia, Japan), this does not mean that its significance as a nation-building factor ceased for the whole of the rest of the world. On the contrary, continuing capitalist development created national movements among all the hitherto ‘unhistoric’ nations of Europe. The difference is that their ‘struggles for national liberation’ are now no longer merely struggles against their own feudalism and feudal absolutism – that is to say only implicitly progressive – for they are forced into the context of imperialist rivalry between the world powers. Their historical significance, their evaluation, therefore depends on what concrete part they play in this concrete whole.
Marx had already clearly recognized the significance of this. In his time it was admittedly mainly an English problem: the problem of England’s relation to Ireland. And Marx stressed with the greatest force that, ‘questions of international justice apart, it is a precondition of the emancipation of the English working class to transform the present enforced union – in other words, slavery of -Ireland, if possible into an equal and free alliance and, if necessary, into total separation’. For he had clearly seen that the exploitation of Ireland was, on the one hand, an important bastion of English capitalism which was already- at that time uniquely – monopolist in character, and on the other, that the ambiguous attitude of the English working class to this issue divided the oppressed, provoked a struggle of exploited against exploited instead of their united struggle against their common exploiters, and that therefore only the struggle for the national liberation of Ireland could create a really effective front in the English proletariat’s struggle against its own bourgeoisie.
This conception of Marx’s remained ineffective not only within the contemporary English labour movement; it also remained dead in both the theory and the practice of the Second International. Here too it was left to Lenin to instill new life into the theory – a more active, more concrete life than even Marx had given it himself. For from being simply a universal fact it had become a topical issue and, in Lenin, is found correspondingly no longer as theory but purely as practice. For it must be obvious to everyone in this context that the problem which here confronts us in all its magnitude – the rebellion of all the oppressed, not only the workers, on a universal scale – is the same problem that Lenin had always persistently proclaimed to be at the core of the Russian agrarian question – against the Narodniks, Legal Marxists, and Economists. The crucial point at issue is what Rosa Luxemburg called capitalism’s ‘external’ market, regardless of whether it lies inside or outside the national frontiers. On the one hand, expanding capitalism cannot exist without it; on the other, its social function in relation to this market consists in breaking down its original structure, in making it capitalist, in transforming it into a capitalist ‘internal’ market, thus at the same time stimulating in turn its own independent tendencies. So here too the relationship is dialectical. But Rosa Luxemburg did not find the path from this correct and broad historical perspective to the concrete solutions of the concrete questions raised by the world war. It remained for her an historical perspective – an accurate and broadly conceived characterization of the whole epoch, but of it only as a whole. It was left to Lenin to make the step from theory to practice; a step which is simultaneously – and this should never be forgotten – a theoretical advance. For it is a step from the abstract to the concrete.
This transition to the concrete from the abstract correct assessment of actual historical reality, on the basis of the proven general revolutionary character of the whole imperialist epoch, culminates in the question of the specific character of the revolution. One of Marx’s greatest theoretical achievements was to distinguish clearly between bourgeois and proletarian revolution. This distinction was of the utmost practical and tactical importance in view of the immature self-delusions of his contemporaries, for it offered the only methodological instrument for recognizing the genuinely proletarian revolutionary elements within the general revolutionary movements of the time. In vulgar Marxism this distinction is, however, paralyzed into a mechanistic separation. For opportunists, the practical consequence of this separation is the schematic generalization of the empirically correct observation that practically every modern revolution begins as a bourgeois revolution, however many proletarian actions or demands may arise within it. The opportunists conclude from this that the revolution is only a bourgeois one and that it is the task of the proletariat to support this revolution. From this separation of the bourgeois from the proletarian revolution follows the renunciation by the proletariat of its own revolutionary class aims.
But the radical left-wing analysis, which easily sees through the mechanistic fallacy of this theory and is conscious of the age’s proletarian revolutionary character, is in turn subject to an equally dangerous mechanistic interpretation. Knowing that, in the age of imperialism, the universal revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie is at an end, it concludes – also on the basis of the mechanistic separation of the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution – that we have now finally entered the age of the purely proletarian revolution. The dangerous practical consequence of this attitude is that all those tendencies towards decay and fermentation which necessarily arise under imperialism (the agrarian, colonial and national questions, etc.), which are objectively revolutionary within the context of the proletarian revolution, are overlooked, or even despised and rebuffed. These theoreticians of the purely proletarian revolution voluntarily reject the most effective and most important of their allies; they ignore precisely that revolutionary environment which makes the proletarian revolution concretely promising, hoping and thinking in a vacuum that they are preparing a ‘purely’ proletarian revolution. ‘Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution,’ said Lenin, ‘will never live to see one. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.’
For the real revolution is the dialectical transformation of the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian revolution. The undeniable historical fact that the class which led or was the beneficiary of the great bourgeois revolutions of the past becomes objectively counter-revolutionary does not mean that those objective problems on which its revolution turned have found their social solutions – that those strata of society who were vitally interested in the revolutionary solution of these problems have been satisfied. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie’s recourse to counter-revolution indicates not only its hostility towards the proletariat, but at the same time the renunciation of its own revolutionary traditions. It abandons the inheritance of its revolutionary past to the proletariat. From now on the proletariat is the only class capable of taking the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion. In other words, the remaining relevant demands of the bourgeois revolution can only be realized within the framework of the proletarian revolution, and the consistent realization of these demands necessarily leads to a proletarian revolution. Thus, the proletarian revolution now means at one and the same time the realization and the supercession of the bourgeois revolution.
The correct appreciation of this situation opens up an immense perspective for the chances and possibilities of the proletarian revolution. At the same time, however, it makes heavy demands on the revolutionary proletariat and its leading party. For to achieve this dialectical transition the proletariat must not only have the right insight into the right context, but must in practice overcome all its own petty-bourgeois tendencies and habits of thought (for instance, national prejudice), which have hitherto prevented such insight. Overcoming its own limitations, the proletariat must rise to the leadership of all the oppressed. The oppressed nations’ struggle for national independence is an undertaking of the greatest revolutionary self-education, both for the proletariat of the oppressing nation, which overcomes its own nationalism by fighting for the full national independence of another people, and for the proletariat of the oppressed nation, which in its turn transcends its own nationalism by raising the corresponding slogan of federalism – of international proletarian solidarity. For as Lenin says, ‘The proletariat struggles for socialism and against its own weaknesses.’ The struggle for the revolution, the exploitation of objective opportunities in the world situation, and the internal struggle for the maturity of its own revolutionary class-consciousness are inseparable elements of one and the same dialectical process.
Imperialist war, therefore, creates allies for the proletariat everywhere provided it takes up a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. But if it remains unconscious of its position and the tasks confronting it, the war forces the proletariat to disastrous self-emasculation in the wake of the bourgeoisie. Imperialist war creates a world situation in which the proletariat can become the real leader of all the oppressed and exploited, and in which its struggle for liberation can become the signal and signpost for the liberation of all those under the capitalist yoke. At the same time, however, it creates a world situation in which millions and millions of proletarians must murder each other with the most refined cruelty in order to strengthen and extend the monopoly of their exploiters. Which of these two fates is to be that of the proletariat depends upon its insight into its own historical situation – upon its class-consciousness? For ‘men make their own history’, although ‘not in circumstances chosen by themselves but in circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’. So the choice is not whether the proletariat will or will not struggle, but in whose interest it should struggle: its own or that of the bourgeoisie. The question history places before the proletariat is not to choose between war and peace, but between imperialist war and war against this war: civil war.
The necessity of civil war in the proletariat’s defense against imperialist war originates, like all proletarian forms of struggle, in the conditions of struggle imposed upon it by the development of capitalist production in bourgeois society. The activity and correct theoretical foresight of the party only endows the proletariat with a power of resistance or attack which, because of the existing class alignments, it already objectively possesses but is unable to raise to the level of the possibilities before it, owing to theoretical or organizational immaturity. Thus, even before the imperialist war, the mass strike appeared as the spontaneous reaction of the proletariat to the imperialist stage of capitalism, and the connection between the two which the Right and Centre of the Second International did their best to conceal, gradually became the common theoretical property of the radical wing.
But here too Lenin was alone in realizing, as early as 1905, that the mass strike was an insufficient weapon for the decisive struggle. By evaluating the Moscow Uprising, despite its defeat, as a vital phase in the struggle, and by attempting to establish its concrete elements, in contrast to Plekhanov who thought that ‘there should have been no resort to arms’, Lenin already laid down in theory the necessary tactics of the proletariat in the world war. For the imperialist stage of capitalism, particularly its climax in world war, shows that capitalism has entered the crucial phase when its very existence is in the balance. With the correct instinct of an habitual ruling class, conscious that the real social basis of its authority narrows as the extent of its rule grows and its power apparatus increases, the bourgeoisie makes the most energetic efforts both to broaden this basis (alignment of the middle class behind it, corruption of the labour aristocracy, etc.), and to defeat its chief enemies decisively before they have organized for real resistance. Thus, it is everywhere the bourgeoisie which abolishes ‘peaceful’ means of conducting the class struggle, on the temporary, if highly problematic functioning of which the whole theory of Revisionism was based, and which prefers ‘more energetic’ weapons (one need only consider the situation in America). The bourgeoisie increasingly succeeds in seizing control of the state apparatus, in identifying itself so completely with it that even demands of the working class which appear only to be economic are increasingly blocked by it. Thus, if only to prevent the deterioration of their economic condition and the loss of vantage points already gained, the workers are compelled to take up the struggle against state power (in other words, though unconsciously, the struggle for state power). This forces the proletariat into using the tactics of the mass strike, in the course of which, for fear of revolution, the opportunists are always intent on giving up positions already gained rather than on drawing the revolutionary conclusions from the situation. But the mass strike is by its very nature an objectively revolutionary weapon. Every mass strike creates a revolutionary situation in which the bourgeoisie, supported by its state apparatus, takes the necessary steps against it wherever possible. The proletariat is powerless against such measures. The weapon of the mass strike is also bound to fail against them if the proletariat, faced with the arms of the bourgeoisie, does not also take to arms. This means that it must try and equip itself, disorganize the army of the bourgeoisie – which of course consists mainly of workers and peasants – and turn the weapons of the bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie. (The 1905 Revolution offered many examples of correct class instinct, but only of instinct, in this respect.)
Imperialist war means the sharpening of this situation to its utmost extremity. The bourgeoisie confronts the proletariat with the choice: either to kill its class comrades in other countries for the monopolistic interests of the bourgeoisie and die for these interests, or to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie by force. All other methods of struggle against this wholesale assault are powerless; all without exception would smash themselves against the military apparatus of the imperialist states. If the proletariat wants to escape this ultimate onslaught, it must therefore itself take up arms against this apparatus, undermine it from within, turn the weapons the bourgeoisie was forced to give to the people against the bourgeoisie itself, and use them to destroy imperialism.
So here too there is nothing theoretically in the least unprecedented. On the contrary, the core of the situation lies in the class relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat. War is, as Clausewitz defined it, only the continuation of politics; but it is so in all respects. In other words, it is not only in foreign affairs that war is merely the ultimate and most active culmination of a policy which a country has hitherto followed ‘peacefully’. For the internal class relations of a country as well (and of the whole world), it only marks the intensification and ultimate climax of those tendencies which were already at work within society in ‘peacetime’. Therefore war by no means creates a totally new situation, either for a country or for a class within a nation. What is new about it is merely that the unprecedented quantitative intensification of all problems involves a qualitative change and for this – and only for this – reason creates a new situation.
Socio-economically war is therefore only a stage in the imperialist development of capitalism. It is thus also necessarily only a stage in the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The Leninist theory of imperialism is significant because Lenin alone established this relationship between world war and historical development as a whole with theoretical consistency, and clearly proved it on the basis of concrete problems posed by the war. But because historical materialism is the theory of proletarian class struggle, the establishment of this relationship would have remained incomplete if the theory of imperialism had not simultaneously become a theory of the different currents within the working-class movement in the age of imperialism. It was not only a question of seeing clearly what action was in the interest of the proletariat in the new world situation created by the war, but also of theoretically demonstrating the basis of the other ‘proletarian’ attitudes to imperialism and its war – what social modifications within the proletariat gave these theories sufficient following for them to become political currents.
Above all it was necessary to show that these different currents did exist as such; to show that the Social Democrats’ attitude to the war was not the result of a momentary-aberration or of cowardice, but was a necessary consequence of their immediate past; that it was to be understood within the context of the history of the labour movement and related to previous ‘differences of opinion’ within the Social Democratic Party (Revisionism, etc.). Yet, although this idea should come naturally to Marxist methodology (see the treatment of the contemporary currents in The Communist Manifesto), it only penetrated even the revolutionary wing of the movement with difficulty. Even the Rosa Luxemburg-Franz Mehring Internationale groups were incapable of thinking it through and applying it consistently. It is however clear that any condemnation of opportunism and its attitude towards the war which fails to interpret it as an historically recognizable current in the labour movement, and which does not see its present existence as the organically developed fruit of its past, neither attains the level of a really principled Marxist discussion, nor draws from the condemnation the practical-concrete, tactical-organizational conclusions necessary when the time for action comes.
For Lenin, and again only for Lenin, it was clear from the onset of the world war that the attitude of Scheidemann, Plekhanov or Vandervelde towards it was merely the consistent application of the principles of Revisionism in the new situation.
What, in short, constitutes the essence of Revisionism? First, that it tries to overcome the ‘one-sidedness’ of historical materialism – in other words, the interpretation of all socio-historic phenomena exclusively from the class standpoint of the proletariat. Revisionism takes the interests of ‘society as a whole’ as its standpoint. But because such a collective interest has no concrete existence – for what can appear as such an interest is only the temporary result of these theories sufficient following for them to become political currents.
Above all it was necessary to show that these different currents did exist as such; to show that the Social Democrats’ attitude to the war was not the result of a momentary-aberration or of cowardice, but was a necessary consequence of their immediate past; that it was to be understood within the context of the history of the labour movement and related to previous ‘differences of opinion’ within the Social Democratic Party (Revisionism, etc.). Yet, although this idea should come naturally to Marxist methodology (see the treatment of the contemporary currents in The Communist Manifesto), it only penetrated even the revolutionary wing of the movement with difficulty. Even the Rosa Luxemburg-Franz Mehring Internationale group were incapable of thinking it through and applying it consistently. It is however clear that any condemnation of opportunism and its attitude towards the war which fails to interpret it as an historically recognizable current in the labour movement, and which does not see its present existence as the organically developed fruit of its past, neither attains the level of a really principled Marxist discussion, nor draws from the condemnation the practical-concrete, tactical-organizational conclusions necessary when the time for action comes.
For Lenin, and again only for Lenin, it was clear from the onset of the world war that the attitude of Scheidemann, Plekhanov or Vandervelde towards it was merely the consistent application of the principles of Revisionism in the new situation.
What, in short, constitutes the essence of Revisionism? First, that it tries to overcome the ‘one-sidedness’ of historical materialism – in other words, the interpretation of all socio-historic phenomena exclusively from the class standpoint of the proletariat. Revisionism takes the interests of ‘society as a whole’ as its standpoint. But because such a collective interest has no concrete existence – for what can appear as such an interest is only the temporary result of the interaction of different class forces in mutual struggle – the Revisionist takes an ever-changing product of the historical process as a fixed theoretical starting-point. Thus he stands things theoretically on their head as well. In practice he is always essentially a figure of compromise: necessarily so, because of this theoretical starting-point. Revisionism is always eclectic. Even at a theoretical level it tries to blur and blunt class differences, and to make a unity of classes – an upside-down unity which only exists in its own head – the criterion for judging events.
The Revisionist thus in the second place condemns the dialectic. For the dialectic is no more than the conceptual expression of the fact that the development of society is in reality contradictory, and that these contradictions (class contradictions, the antagonistic character of their economic existence, etc.) are the basis and kernel of all events; for in so far as society is built on class divisions, the idea of its ‘unity’ can only be abstract – a perpetually transitory result of the interaction of these contradictions. But because the dialectic as a method is only the theoretical formulation of the fact that society develops by a process of contradictions, in a state of transformation from one contradiction to another, in other words in a revolutionary fashion, theoretical rejection of it necessarily means an essential break with the whole revolutionary standpoint.
Because the Revisionists thus, thirdly, refuse to recognize the real existence of the dialectic, with its contradictory and thereby permanently creative movement, their thought always lacks historical, concrete and creative dimensions. Their reality is subject to schematic and mechanistic ‘eternal, fixed laws’ which continuously – according to their different properties – produce the same phenomena, to which mankind is fatally subjected as it is to natural laws. For Revisionists it is therefore enough to know these laws once and for all in order to know what the fate of the proletariat will be. They consider it unscientific to suppose that there can be new situations not covered by these laws, or situations whose outcome depends on the will of the proletariat. (Over-emphasis on great men or ethics is only the inevitable obverse of this attitude.)
Fourth, however, these laws are seen as the laws of capitalist development, and the emphasis Revisionists put on their supra-historical, timeless validity means that they regard society as the reality which cannot essentially be changed just as much as the bourgeoisie. They no longer regard bourgeois society as historically created and therefore destined to historical decline. Nor do they regard knowledge as a means of recognizing this period of decline and of working for its acceleration, but – at best – as a means of improving the condition of the proletariat within bourgeois society. For Revisionism, all thought which points in a practical way beyond the horizons of bourgeois society is illusory and Utopian.
Revisionism is therefore – fifth – tied to realpolitik. It always sacrifices the genuine interests of the class as a whole, the consistent representation of which is precisely what it calls Utopian, so as to represent the immediate interests of specific groups.
These few remarks alone are enough to make it clear that Revisionism could only become a real current within the labour movement because the new development of capitalism made it temporarily possible for certain groups among the workers to obtain economic advantages from it, and because the organizational structure of the working-class parties ensured these groups and their intellectual representatives greater influence than the instinctively if confusedly revolutionary broad mass of the proletariat.
The common character of all opportunist currents is that they never regard events from the class standpoint of the proletariat and therefore fall victim to an unhistorical, undialectical, and eclectic realpolitik. This is what unites their different interpretations of the war and reveals these to be without exception the inevitable consequence of their previous opportunism. The unconditional support which the Right offers the imperialist forces of its ‘own’ country develops organically from the view, however qualified at the outset, which sees in the bourgeoisie the leading class in the future development of history and assigns the proletariat the task of supporting its ‘progressive role’. And if Kautsky terms the International an instrument of peace and hence unsuitable for war, how does he differ from the Menshevik Cheravanin, who lamented after the First Russian Revolution: ‘It is indeed hard to find a place for sensible Menshevik tactics in the midst of revolutionary action, when revolutionary aims are so near their fulfillment?
Opportunism differs according to the strata of the bourgeoisie with which it tries to unite and in whose support it attempts to enlist the proletariat. For the Right, this can be with heavy industry and finance capital. In this case imperialism will be unconditionally accepted as necessary. The proletariat is supposed to find the fulfillment of its own interests actually in imperialist war, in grandeur, in its ‘own’ nation’s victory. Or union can be sought with those bourgeois who feel that they have been pushed into a position of secondary importance, although forced to collaborate with imperialism; necessarily supporters of it in practice, they yet complain about its pressure and ‘wish’ events would take a different turn, and therefore long for peace, free trade, and a return to ‘normal’ conditions as soon as possible. Such elements are naturally never in a position to emerge as active opponents of imperialism; indeed they merely conduct an unsuccessful campaign for their share of its booty (some sections of light industry and the petty bourgeoisie come into this category). To them imperialism is an ‘accident’. They try to work towards a pacifist solution and to blunt its contradictions. The proletariat too – whom the Centre of the Social Democratic Party wants to make the adherents of this stratum – is not supposed to fight actively against the war (although not to do so means in practice taking a part in it), but merely to preach the necessity of a ‘just’ peace, etc.
The International is the organizational expression of the common interests of the whole world proletariat. The moment it is accepted in theory that workers can fight workers in the service of the bourgeoisie, the International in practice ceases to exist. The moment it can no longer be concealed that this bloody struggle of worker against worker for the sake of the rival imperialist powers is an inevitable consequence of the past attitude of decisive sections within the International, there can be no more talk of rebuilding it, of its being brought back on to the right path, or of its restoration. The recognition of opportunism as a current within the International means that opportunism is the class enemy of the proletariat within its own camp. The removal of opportunists from the labour movement is therefore the first, essential prerequisite of the successful start of the struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is therefore of paramount importance for the preparation of the proletarian revolution to free workers intellectually and organizationally from this ruinous influence. And because this struggle is precisely the struggle of the class as a whole against the world bourgeoisie, the struggle against opportunism inevitably results in the creation of a new proletarian-revolutionary International.
The decline of the old International into the swamp of opportunism is the result of a period whose revolutionary character was not visible on the surface. Its collapse and the necessity of a new International are signs that the onset of a period of civil wars is now unavoidable. This does not by any means signify that every day from now on should be spent fighting on the barricades. But it does mean that the necessity to do so can arise immediately, any day; that history has placed civil war on the agenda. Accordingly, a proletarian party, let alone an International, can only survive if it clearly recognizes this necessity and is determined to prepare the proletariat for it intellectually and materially, theoretically and organizationally.
This preparation must start from an understanding of the character of the times. Only when the working class recognizes world war as the logical result of imperialist development, when it clearly sees that civil war is the only possible resistance to its own destruction in the service of imperialism, can the material and organizational preparation of this resistance begin. Only when this resistance is effective will the muffled stirrings of the entire oppressed link up with the proletariat in the fight for its own liberation. The proletariat must therefore, first and foremost, have its own correct class-consciousness tangibly before it so that it may thereby become the leader of the true struggle for liberation – the real world revolution. The International which grows from and for this struggle, with theoretical clarity and militant strength, is thus the union of the genuinely revolutionary elements of the working class. It is simultaneously the organ and focus of the struggle of the oppressed people throughout the world for their liberation. It is the Bolshevik Party – Lenin’s concept of the party – on a world scale. Just as the world war revealed the forces of declining capitalism and the possibilities of opposing them in the macrocosm of gigantic universal destruction, so Lenin clearly saw the possibilities of the Russian Revolution in the microcosm of nascent Russian capitalism.