First Published: In Struggle! No. 222, October 14, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Editor’s note: This article is the second to draw the lessons from the period 1800-1921. The first was published in issue 220. For those who would like to read the other articles in this series, here are the issues to be consulted: issues 212, 214, 216, 218 and 220.
During the period 1800-1921, the working class struggled for the bourgeois democratic revolution, but that was not all that it did. More than once, it went after political power directly. But, both in June 1948, and the Paris Commune of 1871, it suffered defeats which forced the social democracy of the time to take a closer look at what conditions had to be created for the proletariat to take power. One thing quickly became clear. The path of spontaneous insurrection and improvised street battles was a dead-end.
But this does not yet explain under what subjective conditions (meaning particularly to what degree the working class must be organized and what policy it must pursue) and what objective conditions (those independent of human will) revolution will break out. The period which we have been looking at offers two very different sorts of experiences which are indeed contradictory in their interpretation of what these conditions are. We are going to dwell on this point here, especially since the opposing paths forward have continued to have had repercussions right up to today. The conflict between them underlies present-day ideological debates.
The task of the IInd International was to map out the path for the taking of power by the proletariat in a new context, that of imperialism. As we saw previously, the main characteristics of imperialism were the rapid development of the productive forces in a relatively peaceful context, and the extension of social reforms and democratic rights. It was necessary to evaluate the significance of these reforms for working-class strategy.
This situation progressively gave rise to a very peculiar view of what the conditions for revolution were. Karl Kautsky, one of the most well-known theoreticians of the IInd International and social democracy, systematized this approach in 1918.  It became the majority viewpoint among social democrats by the end of this period, but it was not necessarily the dominant view everywhere up to then or afterwards.
For Kautsky, the key to taking power is the development of the material productive forces. Big enterprises create a whole series of conditions favourable to the proletariat. They increase its numbers and consciousness, as well as arousing a desire for socialism. At the same time, they create the material conditions to achieve it, such as a high level of production, the centralization of production, etc.
Kautsky noted, in addition, the gradual extension of democracy over the previous decades, and drew a very simple conclusion: capitalism increases the numbers and the consciousness of the proletariat, and democracy gives power to the class which has the majority behind it. When the working class becomes the majority, political power will “naturally” fall into its hands, like a ripe fruit. There is thus no need for civil war or a dictatorship over the bourgeoisie, since through the democratic process, the bourgeoisie will have automatically become the minority. And, according to Kautsky, the bourgeoisie will even more readily accept things given that democracy gives it the right to try and take back its power. Social democracy’s practice was quite consistent with this point of view. It increasingly concentrated on parliamentary activities and the legal organization of the proletariat. With its trade unions, its own spurts and cultural clubs, its cooperatives and its newspapers, the proletariat could set up a kind of parallel society, as it did, notably in Germany, a society destined to replace bourgeois society.
This perspective retains certain basic elements of Marxism, particularly the fact that the evolution of material and economic life affects transformations in political life, but it leaves out all revolutionary aspects. There was no longer any question of proletarian revolution for the IInd International. Instead there was to be a gradual and democratic evolution which was to lead to the taking of power, seen as a simple change of government. This is what happened in November 1918 in Germany when social democracy took power. The change meant nothing more than a change in who was managing the bourgeois State. The smashing of the proletarian worker soviet-style revolution a few months later in Germany by the social democratic government was no accident. It was consistent with a clear point of view on the path to follow.
This path did not give a very important place to the struggles which periodically broke out in the colonies and semi-colonies. According to Kautsky, the taking of power by the proletariat was only thinkable in the most advanced countries. The IInd International’s influence in the non-Western world remained minimal because it was thought that the future of the working class was entirely dependent on what would happen in the advanced countries. Although the IInd International officially condemned colonialism, there was always a very strong tendency among the social democrats to see it as objectively progressive. A right-wing minority even defended colonialism as a factor which helped develop the productive forces in the advanced countries, thus bringing them closer to socialism.
In this way, the social democrats of that time progressively lost sight of the fact that there are international conditions for the struggle for socialism. Not only did they neglect the colonies, but also worker struggles across national boundaries in the most advanced countries. Shortly before the war, it became more impossible than ever to organize a united fightback against the danger of war. Nationalism won out in the bigger parties which had always refused to delegate real power to the international organization in the name of complete freedom of action within their national context. It was difficult to see the need for a common struggle when the taking power was to come through an electoral process which by definition is limited to a particular nation. Social democracy’s identification with national interests led it to promote the “defence of the homeland” during the imperialist war.
One might conclude that the idea that socialism will come as the result of the peaceful and democratic development of the productive forces within a national framework was simply the result of a theoretical error or the betrayal of a few leaders. This is not the case. This entire theory is the authentic product of an era, the faithful reflection of the interests of social classes and strata which profit from the expansion of THEIR national imperialism, and which are ready to support it under all circumstances. In November 1918, it was the social democrats who saved German imperialism from its downfall. These classes and strata are basically composed of the labour aristocracy and parts of the petty bourgeoisie whose growth we documented in the previous article. The theory of productive forces fits them like a made-to-measure suit. In it, the support given to “one’s” own imperialism is presented as being the path to socialism. This enables them to promote their own vision of the world within the working class.
Social democracy chose a specific path which was supposed to lead to the taking of power by the proletariat, It is worthwhile to situate this path in terms of the lessons which we can begin to draw from the revolutionary experiences accumulated by the working class between 1800-1921. This is what we are now going to do, both regarding the bourgeois and the proletarian revolutions.
The very first lesson is without a doubt that although economic development changes the relation of power between classes, it does not automatically, of itself, assure the hegemony of the rising class. This requires a revolution. This is easy to say, but it is something which should not be forgotten. There is no other way to chase the former ruling classes from power.
Experience also enables us to distinguish the conditions in which revolution can arise, from the conditions in which it can win in a relatively long-lasting durable way.
In what conditions does revolution arise? It is essentially during major crises and periods of great misery for the masses.
The revolution of 1848 broke out following the crisis of 1846-1847, while the Russian revolution of 1905 broke out after the 1903-1904 crisis. But a factor even more important was the war, especially in the defeated countries. The material conditions of the masses were dreadful. People were reduced to eating rats, as was the case when Paris was beseiged by the Prussian army in 1870. The 1905 Russian-Japanese war had the same results in Russia, as did the First World War in Germany, Russia and elsewhere.
Under such objective conditions, which change very quickly in times of war, the ruling class demonstrates that it can no longer assure social progress nor even the survival of the society. This arouses a whole series of different movements which put forward one common demand: abolish the established order. In 1848 and 1917 in Russia, for example, there was a coming together of the peasant movement against the feudal lords and the landowners, the national movements against oppression, and the bourgeois and proletarian movements against the aristocracy and absolutism.
The crisis creates a political vacuum and all the classes which have been oppressed up to then try to seize political power, which is no longer solidly held. Here, it is important to point out that in 1848, 1871, and 1917, the proletariat tried to take power just a few months after the bourgeoisie had seized it. These facts suggest that revolution, be it bourgeois or proletarian, can break out prematurely, at a time when the forces are clearly insufficient for a long-lasting victory, but sufficient, in a particular context, to momentarily dethrone the former ruling classes. The revolution permits a testing of the relative strength of the opposing classes, but it does not transform a weak class into a powerful class by magic, nor does it cause the former classes to disappear overnight. On the contrary, these classes maintain their existence for a long time and continue to exercise their influence. The numerous cases of victorious counter-revolutions are proof of this.
War played a major role in permitting revolutionary conditions arise because it brought back into play the international factors which had been so underestimated by the IInd International. During wars, the ruling classes are not only shaken up by the class struggle within their own country, but also by blows from outside. And, for a certain time, war can prevent a threatened ruling class from getting all the support it would like from other countries. Russia is an interesting example of this because the Russian bourgeoisie was not able to receive immediate aid from the other bourgeoisies who were too busy fighting among themselves. The experience of the revolution does show, however, that the reactionary forces are able to unite across national borders when it is a question of smashing the forces of progress. This is what we saw in 1848, 1871, and 1918-1920.
Revolutionary conditions rarely appear in the context of a single country in isolation. This is what makes mutual support among revolutionary forces a good idea and indeed necessary. This is one of the consequences of the existence of a world market created by capitalism which links the different countries together. The revolutionary period after the First World War had repercussions as far away as China with the May 4, 1919 anti-imperialist movement. The foundation of the Third International and its preoccupation with the struggles in the colonies was due to an understanding of the international nature of the struggle.
There we have some of the aspects of the conditions in which a revolution can arise, based on historical experience.
We saw Kautsky’s answer on this subject. He comes back to the need for a major development of the productive forces which would make the working class the largest class. But the period which we are examining furnishes another answer.
The path advocated by Kautsky ran into enormous problems when it was applied to the very different conditions in backwards and despotic countries like Russia. If the Bolsheviks had had to wait for the development of capitalism to do their work, they would probably still be waiting and revolution would still be in the distant future. In Russia, that approach did not have a strong class base as in Germany. This situation led the Russian communists to have a very different view of the conditions needed for revolution. They gave much more importance to the subjective factors, as if to make up for the weak objective development of the proletariat. In this context, the Party and its policy were of great importance and were to assure that revolution not remain the exclusive “privilege” of the more industrialized countries. This is perhaps the source of a tendency which is still influential today that explains the history of the struggle for socialism in terms of the political ideas and actions of the parties while neglecting the importance of the objective conditions.
In any case, the success of the October revolution in Russia and the failure of the revolution in Germany, were a turning point. People talked less about revolution in the more advanced countries and more about revolution in the “weakest link of the imperialist chain”, that is, there where the sharpest contradictions of imperialism were concentrated. The accent was thus placed on the conditions which enabled revolution to arise, and with victory being assured by the subjective conditions, namely by the Party and its political capacity to lead. This is what the experience of the Russian revolution, has shown.
At every decisive stage of the revolution, the Bolshevik Party determined a very specific tactic which it united on and then tried to unite the working class around. A clear understanding of the objective it was pursuing enabled it to increase its effective forces greatly. On the other hand, the Party’s policy resulted in the fact that a class like the peasant class, which at first glance seems to have no special reason to support the taking of power by the proletariat ended up supporting it and gaining greatly by doing so. Instead of waiting for the working class to become the majority, the Party makes alliances which greatly magnify its strength. The same thing can be said for the work of the communist parties within national movements in non-industrialized countries. Through its policy, the Party tries to channel all the movement of revolt of the oppressed, who form the majority, because they face the specific condition of being in a non-proletarian country.
The importance of the political line in these conditions required a party which was organized differently from those of the IInd International. This led to a break with the practice established during the two first internationals which were composed of contradictory tendencies working within the labour movement. Particularly during the revolutionary period, the Bolsheviks had no hesitations about splitting with the opportunists, in the same way that the IIIrd International was to do. In this perspective, the unity of the labour movement was no longer based on the existence of a kind of united front of all the tendencies, but rather, on the capacity of the communist forces to conquer the almost exclusive leadership of the working class. This was the case in Russia. In Europe, the situation evolved differently and the period under study ended with the working class divided almost everywhere into two main parties, one communist and the other socialist (social-democratic). In coming articles we will see the difficulties that this led to.
At the end of this period, two distinct paths for taking power which represent a very different understanding of the conditions necessary to achieve this goal, exist. The path of the Bolsheviks is one of maximal stretching out of the forces of the working class so as to seize on occasions as they arise. As we saw with the experience of the Russian revolution, the difficulties stand out baldly after taking power. At that point it is necessary to start building socialism in a country which is mainly composed of the petty bourgeoisie, which does not have very developed material productive forces nor the men needed to work them. This was why the Russians placed so much hope on the international aid which they hoped would come from a victorious revolution in Germany, and which, in the beginning, they felt was a condition for the lasting success of their own revolution. This weakness in the development of the productive forces in Russia in an international context which was at first favourable but then became unfavourable was a heavy weight on the shoulders of the Soviet regime, as the civil war period clearly demonstrates.
A quick glance at the period from 1800-1921 points up what a wealth of political experience the proletariat accumulated both during the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, It had the opportunity to try out the first forms of its class dictatorship. A mere hundred years before it had been a totally oppressed class completely dispossessed of everything. We can also see that many of the current questions posed by the revolutionary struggle today were already posed. Different solutions were advanced which we will have to continue evaluating in the study of the next periods. The next article in this series will particularly touch on the struggles which developed in the colonies and semi-colonies, notably in the period between the two world wars.
 For a complete account of this approach, our readers can turn to the work of Karl Kautsky himself, particularly the book The dictatorship of the proletariat.