Karl Radek


Is the Russian Revolution
a Bourgeois Revolution?

(13 December 1921)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 1 No. 16, 13 December 1921, pp. 129–130.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2019). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

We request all editors to reprint the following article in full, although it is somewhat long It gives a most appropriate answer to the latest Menshevist campaign against the proletarian revolution, which the Mensheviki are trying to discredit by calling it a bourgeois revolution.

The Editor


In 1905–1906, after the first Russian Revolution, the question as to the social character and the part to be played by the next Russian Revolution was of great importance in the process of self-determination of the labor movement. The questions asked were:

“Will it be a bourgeois or a proletarian revolution? Which class will lead it if it is to be a bourgeois revolution? What will be the relations of this class to the other classes?”

Even the first revolution had settled many disputes in spite of the fact that it had not reached its goal. Although it was suppressed before it could decide upon vital questions, the questions of power, it became absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie was a counter-revolutionary class which sought to enter into an agreement with the old Czarist regime for the perpetuation of the condition of half-serfdom in order to subdue the proletariat. Two classes proved to be revolutionary, the workers and the peasants. The workers were the leaders, the main driving force of the revolution.

During the decade between the first revolution and that of 1917, the disputes over the character of the revolution gave place to definite questions dealing with the conditions for organizing the working-class after the revolution, the question of social changes as a result of the first revolution, and particularly the question dealing with the changes within the working-class and with Stolypin’s agrarian policy. The March and October revolutions, four years of Soviet rule and finally our new economic policy have restored the question of the character of our revolution to the order of the day. The Mensheviks and their international friends, the Social Democrats and Centrists, are madly howling over the new economic policy of the Soviet government, and are putting the following question to us:

“Why was all that necessary? Does not the fact that you Bolsheviki are compelled to restore the very capitalism you have destroyed, prove that it was a bourgeois revolution?”

It is necessary to answer this question if we ourselves wish to grasp the meaning of this four years’ fight, and the significance of our new policy. Are we actually renouncing the past four years? Is the Russian Revolution a proletarian one or is it a bourgeois revolution?

First of all, we must establish certain facts. We designate all the revolutions from the Dutch uprising against Spanish tyranny up to the English and French revolutions, or more strictly, speaking up to the three French revolutions, as bourgeois revolutions, because their result was bourgeois rule, which meant a step towards its universal triumph and to the bourgeoisie’s acquisition of power in all civilized countries. But none of these revolutions was purely bourgeois; we must take into consideration the classes that participated in them and the goals aimed at by these classes. The large landowning class played a considerable part in the Netherlands and even in the English revolution. Cromwell himself was a large landowner; he was backed by a considerable part of the big English landowners. At the same time, beginning with the English revolution we see that not only did the craftsman, the industrial worker and the young proletarian class which was just coming into existence, participate in the revolutions, but we even notice a strong tendency to exceed the bounds set by the growing capitalist system. The movements of Levellers, Diggers [1] and Chiliasten were proletarian democratic movements which strove towards instituting the Socialist order and that of collective ownership; they sought the abolition of private property and capitalist competition. Considerable masses participated in these movements. To them Socialism was a religion. Even at that time Socialism represented a danger to the young capitalist order, and the bourgeoisie suppressed it with all the cruelty of which it is capable in defending its interests. Cromwell well understood the conflict between capitalism and this religious Socialism. In his speeches he fought against the latter with the same arguments which the bourgeoisie used against revolutionary Socialism in the 19th century.

During the French revolution and parallel with its development, the Socialist current gained strength in the depths of society; it was then represented by the party of the “Enragés”, whose history has not yet been written, but which played a very important part in the events of 1793 (the literature on this party is very poor). Robespierre was an avowed and convinced opponent of this movement. In the pamphlets of the Girondist, Brissot, the representative of the commercial bourgeoisie of Southern France, we find not only all the arguments with which the bourgeoisie later fought Socialism, but we also find the mad, raging hatred which is due to the recognition of the power of the Communists in the French revolution. These were backed by a considerable part of those who saved France in 1793.

One of the reasons why the petty-bourgeois democrat Robespierre was overthrown, was that he had lost the working masses of Paris through his campaign against the “Enragés” and their defenders in the Paris Commune, like Chaumette. for the heads of Chaumette and Leroux. Robespierre paid with his own head. After he had lost connection with the working masses he could no longer instil fear into, nor be of any use to the Thermidorists of the young bourgeoisie of the French Revolution, which was gaining ground in the war against the feudal world. When the head of Robespierre fell amid joyous cheers of the speculators and the “Jeunesse dorée”, the suburbs of Paris were maliciously silent.

In the revolution of 1789, and still more in the Revolution of 1848, the working class of France together with the artisans who joined it, was already a growing and threatening power which clearly understood the conflict of proletarian and capitalist interests. These masses who were not yet united by industries on a large scale and who did not yet have a party which could unite them by an idea, these masses who fought With a confused idea of the Socialist Republic, were already the driving power and the leaders of the revolution. The defeat of these masses in June was the defeat of the revolution. The bourgeoisie did not develop the revolution after their victory; it was rather the workers who did it. The bourgeoisie ended it and flocked to the standards of Napoleon III.

What is the significance of this historical reminiscence? The existence of the bourgeoisie is a necessary condition for a bourgeois revolution. In all bourgeois revolutions however, the working-class stepped into the historical arena together with the bourgeoisie, for there is no bourgeoisie without a working class. At first the working class moved under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. Then, in the process of revolution it became conscious of the clash of interests between itself and the bourgeoisie. It therefore attempted to exceed the bounds of the French revolution, the aims which the latter set in the fight for the working-class and in the struggle for vaguely formulated Socialist principles.

In 1896, Eduard Bernstein who at that time was still considered a revolutionary Marxist, pointed out in his preface to Heritier’s history of the French Revolution of 1848, that, due to the bourgeois character of the revolution, the working class should not have put any demands which exceeded the bounds of the bourgeois order. This he considered the great error committed by the working class. But the workers did not reduce their demands in the bourgeois revolutions. They understand Bernstein well. What Bernstein told them the representatives of the bourgeoisie and of petty bourgeois socialism are always telling them. The workers could not withdraw their demands because they had come out of cellars and dogs’ kennels and dirty workshops. They were suffering and consequently could not calmly look on while the bourgeoisie was reaping the harvest. They had to fight for their own interests and pursue their own aims, because they felt that it was they who had overthrown the old order, and that the bourgeoisie only wanted to modify their slavery. They had to go still further for, without doing so, they would have been unable to defeat the old order. They succeeded in doing so only because they had exceeded the limits of bourgeois interests. Friedrich Engels was right when he spoke of the historical law, according to which the revolutionary class puts demands to the leaders of a revolution which by far exceed the apparent possibilities of the particular moment, thus making the overthrow of the old order possible. Rosa Luxemburg was also right in her statement that in all bourgeois revolutions it was the proletarian, communist efforts of the workers that constituted the power which made the overthrow of feudalism possible.

This recognition of the historical tendencies in every bourgeois revolution is a necessary condition for the theoretical comprehension of the fate of the Russian Revolution.

In 1905, when disputes over the character of the Russian Revolution were still going on, Trotzky rightly pointed out that whether we wanted it or not, the working class would exceed the bourgeois limits of the revolution, because it would have to seize power, even through it might do so together with the peasantry, in order to end the bourgeois revolution and in order to overthrow the Czarist regime, and that in order to reach a practical solution in the questions of unemployment and lockouts, it would have to base and answer these questions upon its own interests, that is, upon Socialism. At that time Karl Kautsky who now speaks like a Menshevik, agreed with Rosa Luxemburg that the Russian Revolution was at the same time a bourgeois and non-bourgeois or proletarian revolution, because, although it established the capitalist order on the land by leaving the land in the hands of the peasants, it must seek to establish Socialism in the cities. At that time Kautsky said that according to its position in history the Russian Revolution was the transition from the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution.

If the influence of the Russian Revolution was to let loose the revolutionary forces in Europe (and in Western Europe only a proletarian revolution is possible) the Russian Revolution would be compelled to realize Socialism in its own peculiar way.

Ten years after Kautsky hat made these observations upon the driving forces of the revolution, the March revolution took place. The leaders of the proletarian vanguard, the Bolsheviki, were well aware of the petty bourgeois character of the Russian industries, and they therefore consciously attempted to limit the aims for which the proletariat fought, by placing upon the order of the day not Socialism, but the transition measures towards Socialism. Lenin’s program in April 1917 had for its aim the bringing of the government machine into the hands of the workers’ and the peasants’ Soviets, and the nationalization of banks without doing away with private property. Even after the workers and peasants had seized power the Soviet government made no attempt to expropriate the bourgeoisie, but rather to develop and organize the workers’ control of industry. The working class, however, proceeded with dynamic force. It seized the factories and nationalized enterprises in the provinces against the will of the central government. This it did, not out of ignorance of the program of the Bolshevik Party, but because of the resistance of the bourgeoisie which attempted to sabotage the workers’ control or to hide the supplies necessary for running the industries. The workers had to get hold of the bourgeoisie by the neck. Even if there had been no economic necessity for this move, the class which had overthrown the bourgeoisie and had seized power would not have permitted the bourgeoisie to enjoy the possession of the means of production undisturbed. The proletariat ruled in the country and could not possibly have permitted the bourgeoisie to rule on the economic field and live accordingly.

(To be concluded)

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Footnote by MIA

1. In original: “Leweers, Digors”. Obviously a typographical error – probably based on lack of knowledge of English history.

Last updated on 14 February 2018