Comrades from the German-speaking blog Communaut continued their historical debate over organisational forms – check out the translations of the first contributions here. Although there are no direct references, this debate forms part of a wider international grappling, e.g. in the US amongst the DSA Communist Caucus, the Marxist Unity Group, but also in the UK amongst comrades from Notes from Below. There is more to come, watch this space!
In order to broaden the horizon of the debate we have to work our way through historical experience anew. Historical reappraisal must precede the analysis of the present, because otherwise the view remains restricted by a reified approach to the history of our movement. Such an examination should not aim at another myth (of the party, of the movement, of the councils), but at a real understanding of the past.
“But once this history has been recovered, we are at liberty to offer judgement upon it.”
As expected, our contribution What is to be done in times of weakness? caused some surprise and disagreement, as it represents a revision of central, albeit little theorised, ideas within our milieu. The critical responses from Felix Klopotek and Aaron, Ruth and Stefan (henceforth ARS) have brought to light not only fundamental differences but also some ambiguities in our text. We will first try to clear these up, above all by clarifying once again the intention behind our text, and then turning to the differences. In doing so, we cannot avoid picking up our argument’s historical thread and developing our analysis of the achievements and failures of revolutionary social democracy. This is what we will focus on in this first part of our reply. In a second part, which will appear here shortly, we will deal with the more general theoretical questions concerning the concepts of party, programme and strategy. After that, we will formulate a few reflections on the present and the questions of organisation and strategy.
Guarantee Formulas and Reversing the Burden of Proof
An interesting detail of the criticisms of our text is that we have been accused of almost contradictory things. Felix Klopotek suspects that the search for a “guarantee formula”, which would make permanent the episodic revolutionary cycles of struggle which capitalism always produces from within itself, is an ulterior motivation behind our text. (1) While he considers our search for such a guarantee to be the most serious heresy, ARS demand such a guarantee from us. They see the “burden of proof that the party can (in the long run) play a positive role in the process of social revolution” (2) laying on our side, and apparently only want to counter our theses with a positive counter-proposal once we have shattered the “historical experiences and […] state-theoretical insights” of our milieu to their satisfaction. The intention of our text, however, was precisely to challenge “some basic revolutionary theoretical assumptions that prevail in our milieu”. However, the trick of shifting the burden of proof now leads to one side in the debate believing that it does not even have to formulate its own positive ideas.
The same trick also makes it possible to measure our text against a different yardstick to our own arguments. While we have been accused from all sides of making vague, imprecise and mystical proposals, and ARS, for example, have repeatedly demanded historical concretion from us, their own organisational and strategic determinations hover at a level of abstraction that is difficult to grasp. As an example of this, let us quote a passage from ARS:
“Precisely because the social revolution is about a socially comprehensive process, the very idea that a particular organisation or form of organisation can decisively advance it seems problematic to us. This does not mean that we reject organisations or consider any programme to be superfluous or even dangerous – no organisation can do without a certain programme – but rather to start from the necessity of different forms of organisation, to reflect on the respective constraints and contradictions in which they are entangled, and to think through the pitfalls that are connected with the practical implementation of the respective demands.”
This passage still represents the most concrete positive counter-proposal to ours. Some kind of organisation, although not one, but many. Some kind of programme, but only a “certain” one. Some kind of demands (to who actually?), but in any case always reflecting the pitfalls. In contrast, the fragmented multiplicity of organisational forms appears to us precisely as a sign of the weakness of the class: here a sports club, there a tenants’ association, a citizens’ initiative or a blog project. Everywhere helpless attempts to politicise individual aspects of proletarian existence on a small scale, which as such should be related to each other as a comprehensive context.
Only Fredo Corvo was able to throw a counter-proposal into the discussion with his defence of the KAPD party conception. The comrade’s critically questioning response shows the extent to which their own conceptions exist only as a critical negation of social democratic and Leninist theory and practice, to which they apparently feel superior. With our text, we wanted to shatter precisely this self-assurance, which is expressed in the idea of the “burden of proof”. A self-assurance that is probably only meant to conceal one’s own helplessness and which seems remarkable in view of the revolutionary history of the 20th century.
The aim of our intervention, which we also prefaced our text with, was thus to “stimulate a fundamental debate on questions of political strategy and organisation”. In doing so, we did not want to find “guarantee formulas”, as Felix Klopotek thinks, but to cast doubt on supposed guarantee formulas circulating in our milieu. Our turn to early social democracy also does not indulge in an “organisational fetish” (Klopotek) that “wants to retain the positive of the organisation, the party, without having to drag along the negative” (ARS). On the contrary, we explicitly assume the possibility of the failure of the policies we propose and wrote that “it [is] not guaranteed, of course, in which direction these organisations develop politically.” In our view, there is generally no question of guarantee formulas in the political field, and when Klopotek accuses us of looking for such, it seems more like projection is involved.
If one is always only a critical-commentary circle, if the historical task of overcoming the capitalist mode of production is imposed solely on the spontaneous movement of the class, if these communists do not even try to gain influence in relevant organisations of the class, then of course they can never fail politically. Those who want to win, however, can also lose. Our milieu has successfully averted this danger, since it does not even make this claim. Effective irrelevance seems to be preferred here to potential failure.
Finally, a last methodological point that once again touches on the intention with which we wrote the initial text. In his text, which otherwise evokes little dissent, Robert Schlosser warns against starting a dispute over direction based on the evaluation of historical events. We are certainly not interested in creating a rift over historical issues. This is contrary to our conviction that we seek unity on the basis of shared political goals, not on the basis of a shared theory or interpretation of history. We believe that different views on historical and theoretical issues should be the subject of lively debate. A split, for example, over the assessment of the historical role of the Bolsheviks seems to us to be of little use.
However, we think that the understanding of the history of our movement is also a lens through which we look at the present and the tasks set for us. On the basis of the respective glasses, only certain solutions come into question at all. This is why Klopotek’s suggestion, which makes sense in itself, that we should have examined the party-building attempts of the last few years, misses the point insofar as this question only concerns those who are prepared to learn from these experiences (and Klopotek is quick to exercise his scheme on these attempts). If the party as a form of organisation is rejected from the outset, then of course dealing with these processes does not seem to make much sense and accordingly there is a lack of corresponding analyses within the milieu.
In order to broaden the horizon of the debate, we must by necessity work our way through historical experience. Historical reappraisal must precede the present analysis, because otherwise the view remains restricted by a reified grip on the history of our movement. This situation becomes tangible not least in the response of ARS, who want the question of organisation to be dealt with in the context of a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation”. At the same time, they think they can reject the form of the party as inadequate even before examining the present – not least on the basis of their assessment of historical experience. Therefore, we cannot limit ourselves to the analysis of the present (which, of course, will be what matters in the end), but also want to initiate a historical discussion with our contributions. From our point of view, this would have the sense of appropriating the history of our movement for the present. After all, we can only learn from our experiences. This does not mean constructing any pure (traditional) lines, consisting of a canon of texts and models that we can adopt without hesitation like a recipe box. Rather, we should try to evaluate past organisational approaches, strategies and tactics. Not abstractly, but concretely in relation to the respective historical situation, in order to obtain from such a critical appropriation clues for the evaluation of modes of organisation, strategy and tactics today, whereby these approaches are to be examined for their relevance to the conditions of today. For this we need a real understanding of the past and not a myth (of the party, the movement, the councils). With this in mind, we turn first to the historical objections that have been raised against our text. (3)
An essential moment of our strategic considerations was to highlight, against the prevailing rejection of mass organisations in the milieu as reformist and counterrevolutionary institutions, their importance for the development of revolutionary movements at the beginning of the 20th century. While according to ARS we proceed too one-sidedly in this, Klopotek rejects our theses in this regard wholesale. His counter-thesis – which he considers to be covered by all social historical studies worth mentioning – is: “these mass strikes were the starting point for a new foundation of Marxism as a revolutionary theory against revisionism and centrism (Kautsky). It is true that the socialist and social democratic parties provided the framework within which the reappraisal of the mass strikes and first attempts at revolution took place – a framework that proved too narrow at the latest after the second, depressing mass strike debate in German social democracy after 1911.” (4) His supposed counter-thesis misses the point of our considerations and remains one-sided and at the same time contradictory. What is astonishing is the certainty with which Klopotek not only rejects our thesis, but in the same breath dismisses significant historiographical research (in particular, apparently, all existing research from the last 30 years) as not “worth mentioning”. This self-assurance is also remarkable because even the key witnesses he cites do not deliver what they promise.
Marxism, class movement and strategy
Klopotek misses the point of our considerations, because at no point did we put forward the erroneous idea that the social democratic parties had somewhere started a revolutionary movement. Rather, we explicitly referred to the spontaneous movements of the class as “innovations in the class struggle” and we see no problem at all in following Lenin (and to that extent Klopotek) when he writes: “Marxism learns in this respect, if one may so express it, from mass practice and is far from laying claim to teaching the masses forms of struggle devised by parlour ‘systematists’. We know, in the words of Kautsky, for example, when he examined the forms of social revolution, that the coming crisis will bring us new forms of struggle which we cannot now foresee.” (5) Klopotek’s thesis that the 1905 revolution and the European mass strikes led to a reassessment by Marxists of the spontaneous capacities of the working class seems correct to us. (6) The problem, however, is Klopotek’s one-sidedness, or perhaps better: his attempt to make the role of the social democratic parties disappear. He feels compelled to concede that they provided the framework for reflection on mass practice, but tries to portray their contribution as a purely negative-limiting one by referring to the development of German social democracy. Curiously, he is silent about Russian social democracy in the form of the Bolsheviks, who remained attached to the “centrism” that Klopotek chided, but who at the same time can hardly be accused of having acted in a merely restrictive manner in a revolutionary situation.
Even after the February Revolution and the mass strike movement, the Bolsheviks saw themselves in the tradition of the orthodox Marxism of the Second International. In July 1910, at the height of the mass strike debate, Trotsky – also listed by Klopotek for his counter-thesis – wrote to Kautsky that no one in the Russian party, “not even among the Bolsheviks” (7), had taken Luxemburg’s side in this. Rather, it was the outbreak of war and the shift of most social democratic leaders to a policy of war support that led to the break with the Right and the Centre. As a convinced “Erfurter” and revolutionary social democrat, Lenin, in the face of the collapse of the International, insisted on the application of the resolutions it had adopted: “The opportunists have flouted the resolutions of the Stuttgart, Copenhagen and Basel Congresses, which obliged the socialists of all countries to fight chauvinism under all circumstances, which obliged the socialists to answer every war started by the bourgeoisie and the governments with intensified propaganda of civil war and social revolution.” (8) Far from jettisoning the “centrist” strategy of the International, he sought to bring it to bear in this new but long-anticipated situation.
In general, Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ wartime politics followed a strategy already developed before the war, supported by Kautsky’s reflections on the Russian situation. (9) In order to be able to appear as leaders of the democratic revolution, the Russian social democrats could not compromise themselves by forming a coalition with the bourgeois forces – in this too the Bolsheviks followed Kautsky’s reflections on the necessity of the political independence of the proletariat. (10) After the betrayal of the social democratic leaders, the Bolsheviks adhered to the central programmatic-strategic guidelines of the International and tried to put them into practice under the conditions of the predicted war. The essential coordinates were precisely not certain forms of struggle (such as the mass strike emphasised by Klopotek), but the strategic orientation towards political independence from the bourgeoisie and proletarian hegemony in the democratic revolution in Russia. Klopotek’s thesis of the revolutionary re-founding of Marxism as a result of the mass strikes thus misses the development of the most significant part of historical social democracy and its strategic orientation.
But does the social historical research put forward by Klopotek contradict our initial thesis, as he claims?
The Old Doctrine of Social Democracy
In our view, the indispensable preliminary work of the social democratic movement, and especially of its party, was to instil a class consciousness in relevant sections of the class. It was on this basis that the workers oriented themselves vis-à-vis the other classes and the bourgeois or absolutist state, and it was with this consciousness that they waged their consequent spontaneous struggles.
Klopotek bases his rejection of our arguments on the insights of some social historians whose merit is to have overcome the view formerly dominant in historiography, according to which the working masses always appear only as the object of politics, but never as its subject. The standard interpretations of the October Revolution as a putsch by the Bolsheviks, who manipulated the unconscious masses and abused them for their own conquest of power, arose from this outdated historiographic tendency. It is thanks to the detailed study and appreciation of the independent movement of workers and soldiers in the revolution by historians such as Steve Smith and his detailed study of the “revolution in the factories” of Petrograd, which Klopotek highlighted, that this idea is now a thing of the past. The problem with these studies, however, is that they go too far in the other direction and underestimate the role of the parties in the revolutionary movements. But even Smith, whom Klopotek thinks he can use against us, agrees with other historians that most of the leading cadres of the factory committees he studied were members of the Bolsheviks. (11) He also explains that the development of revolutionary consciousness among workers was by no means a spontaneous product of the movement. Rather, Bolshevik agitation “played a decisive role in the articulation of this consciousness.” (12) David Mandel, in his study of the Petrograd workers, (13) comes to a very similar assessment of the importance of the Bolshevik Party organisation in and for the movement. Underlining the preliminary work of the social democratic party – in this case the Bolsheviks – which we have emphasised, he writes: “the initiative in the October Revolution lay with the most determined section of the working class, the members of the Bolshevik Party or the workers close to it. It was a layer of workers whose class consciousness, whose sense of personal and class dignity and whose striving for independence from the owning classes had been forged in years of intense struggle against the autocracy and the industrialists.” (14) An analogy can be made for Germany: here, too, it was the class-conscious workers who had been politically socialised in the SPD [the German Social Democratic Party] who took the leading role in the spontaneous strike movements. (15) An example of this is the group of ‘revolutionary shop stewards’, who were recruited from the Berlin metalworkers. One of their leading figures, Richard Müller, describes the constitution of the association as follows: “immediately after the outbreak of the war, an exchange of views took place among those trade union officials who, true to the old teachings of social democracy, saw their task in enlightening the masses of workers and mobilising them for a speedy end to the world war. (…) It was not a mass organisation (…), but a select circle of persons who had enjoyed a certain amount of training and experience in the political and trade union struggle of the day and who had to have an influence among the workers in the workplace. It was, in the true sense of the word, a ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.” (16) On the basis of the literature known to us, we see no grounds for revising our initial thesis of the importance that revolutionary social democracy played in the formation and generalisation of an action-oriented class consciousness. Applied to our present situation, the first thing to understand is the lack of relevant political class organisations and militant nuclei of communist workers for the emerging spontaneous movements.
Class action, organisation and party
With that, we now turn to Klopotek’s second counter-thesis: “socialist organisations could only gain agency if they related to the class.” The sentence contains a true moment, but it must be put in the right light. We are not talking about socialist organisations at all in the passage to which Klopotek refers, but about organisations of the class in general. In the revolutionary movement it was the trade unions, factory committees, or the councils that served as organisations through which the class organised its immediate struggle. The social democratic parties, on the other hand, were able to play their leading (and unfortunately counter-revolutionary) role because they were in fact also organisations of the class. They did not “relate” to “the class” as Klopotek says, evoking the outdated image of parties intervening from the outside into the class struggles. Rather, the social democratic parties were mass organisations of the working class. They represented what Karl Kautsky, following Engels, called the “union of the workers’ movement and socialism.” (17) The same is true of Russian social democracy and especially of the Bolsheviks, who were reviled as putschists. As Lars T. Lih has demonstrated in detail, (18) the party conception of German social democracy was a model for Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades. (19) It was precisely this orientation and the ability, in the course of the 1905 revolution (20) and then after the February revolution of 1917 (21), to open up the ranks of the party on the basis of the political freedoms that had arisen and to become at least a small mass party of revolutionary workers that enabled the Bolsheviks to play a propelling role in the movement. Contrary to both “Leninist” and anti-Leninist distortions, the party in the revolutionary year 1917 had a “relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralised internal structure and way of working” and was characterised by “its fundamental openness and mass character” (22).
As a result, on the eve of the revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks were a revolutionary workers’ party (both in terms of their composition and programme) with significant influence within the class as a whole. (23) As soon as the fall of the autocracy permitted, the party’s ranks grew strongly, with membership numbers in the hundreds of thousands during the revolutionary year. (24) If the revolutionary socialists had not already gained such mass influence under tsarism, it would have been extremely unlikely that they would have played such a significant role in the revolution after its fall.
So what was the decisive role of the party(/ies) in the revolution? Parties offer workers different ways of interpreting and responding to their experiences through the ideas and programmes they represent, and of placing their actions in the context of wider political decisions. Crisis experiences or mass strikes do not by themselves produce their own political interpretation. In other words: what solutions to the crisis appear as meaningful to workers does not lie in the crisis experience itself, nor in escalating mass struggles. In Germany, the SPD was able to maintain its leadership over the soviet movement until the end and to limit the aim of the movement to the establishment of a bourgeois republic. The same applies to Austria, where the “successful defensive struggle against communism was waged on the basis of workers’ councils.” (25) The historical experience of the workers’ movement in Germany and Austria clearly shows that escalating class struggles do not of themselves produce a revolutionary solution, even in the midst of a profound social and political crisis. For “the best way to meet the material interests of the working class is always worked out and transformed – mediated – in a competitive way, through competing political parties, competing programmes of social change and competing strategies of political action.” (26) Eric Blanc reaches the same conclusion in his comparative study of the revolutionary movements in the Russian Tsarist Empire, in which he summarises: “the cumulative effect of the mass actions [made] October possible, not inevitable. Even in the face of a relatively weak ruling class, the conscious intervention of organised Marxists proved necessary to help the workers overcome the various obstacles in their path to power. […] Militant mass struggles did not produce the same results in all areas. In important regions like Georgia and Ukraine, the radicals failed to win the leadership of the revolution and the soviets could not take power.” (27) In Russia, too, the mass strikes of the Russian workers for the first months of the revolution were compatible with the political hegemony of the Mensheviks, who wanted to complete the democratic revolution in alliance with the bourgeoisie. The turning point came with the political intervention of the Bolsheviks, who advocated a programme of proletarian autonomy and won a majority for it in the councils during 1917. (28) They declared that the successes of February could only be defended by the working class taking power in alliance with the peasants. However, the Bolsheviks only succeeded in winning this majority because they were a mass party of the working class and their members agitated for the Bolshevik programme in the factories, factory committees and among the soldiers, and were able to provide information about the character of the provisional government. Without the forward initiative of the Bolshevik workers, “the economic crisis and political stagnation would very likely have led to demoralisation and paved the way for counterrevolution. The role of the party was therefore decisive in October. But it could not have played this role if it had not been a democratic organisation, ‘flesh of the flesh’ of the working class.” (29)
This was the necessary practical organisational condition for the Russian proletariat to seize power on the basis of a political majority and in alliance with the peasants. This precondition is ignored by representatives of the KAPD-elite party conception (30) or those who place their hope in the work of radical circles. In the words of Alexander Rabinowich: “it is hard to overemphasise that during the October Revolution, at the height of the struggle for power, the great strength of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd lay in the representative character of their party, in its close relations and constant contact with factory workers, common soldiers, and innumerable mass organisations.” (31) In this sense, we can agree with Klopotek’s thesis with certain concretisations. Only by working as part of relevant class organisations can communists have a decisive influence on class struggles. They will not be able to develop agency if they try to influence the class movement as external circles or entrenched sects.
On the Evaluation of the History of the Revolution
Unlike Klopotek, ARS base their critique on two blanks in our argument. On the one hand, they say, we have not explained the rise of revolutionary social democracy historically (and thus threaten to transfer its strategic conception abstractly to our present). On the other hand, they accuse us of not having explained the ultimate failure of the revolutionary movement and the role of social democracy in it (and therefore not drawing the negative lessons from history, referring one-sidedly to the supposedly positive aspects).
The investigation and presentation that they call for, of the working and reproductive conditions of the working classes at the turn of the century, is certainly a meaningful undertaking, but it goes beyond the scope of the debate we wanted to initiate here. At this point we refer to the contributions to the history of the workers’ movement, where the historical background to the rise of revolutionary social democracy is developed. (32).
With regard to the failure of revolutionary social democracy, we will limit ourselves here to a few key points. For Germany, the following context seems decisive to us:
Revisionism is – contrary to the tradition suggested by the “revisionism controversy” – initially less a product of party theoreticians and leaders than of the rank and file. Reformism thrived particularly in the rural regions and the politically more liberal states of southern Germany, where there was more scope for social democratic politics and where the class composition encouraged an opportunist orientation towards petty-bourgeois strata. Here, the abandonment of principles promised short-term agitational and electoral success.
The votes and parliamentary seats won in this way indicate a change in the function of parliamentary tactics. It serves less and less as a “gauge of the maturity of the working class” (Engels), but establishes an unstable, cross-class coalition brought about by the dilution of party objectives. This has two important consequences: since the successes are accompanied by a surrender of the revolutionary programme in agitational activity, the party cannot, by any means, obtain a legitimate “mandate” for revolutionary measures through electoral success, since it cannot count on the voter base to carry them out. These gains in votes are therefore largely useless for a revolutionary party, since it cannot at all realise its programme without the active support and independent action of the masses. Moreover, a coalition established through such agitation constantly runs the risk of disintegrating, since the forces won over are addressed in their current moods and immediate interests, but do not enter into a comprehensive process of consciousness-raising and organisation that makes it possible to develop a stable class identity. The party thus made itself increasingly dependent on the prevailing mass consciousness and, especially after the nationalist and pro-colonial mobilisation against social democracy from 1904 onwards, partly also adapted to the existing nationalist sentiments instead of challenging them.
The programme and practice of social democracy drifted apart in this process and the theoretically and programmatically dominant centre of the party succeeded less and less in translating its theoretical dominance into practical hegemony in the party. Against the growing influence of revisionist tendencies, from 1904 the centre and left of the party pushed for a further concretisation of the party’s organisational principle in the direction of what can be called democratic centralism. In principle, this involved binding the representatives to the majority decisions of the party congress on the one hand, and on the other, giving the higher bodies the power to issue instructions to the lower ones. This interplay of democratic control, central decision-making power, and the binding of representatives to the party’s decisions was intended to enable the party to act in a unified manner. Finally, at the Jena Party Congress in 1905, the party left pushed for the expansion of the party apparatus, which was intended to improve the party’s control over the work of the reformists at the grassroots and in the provinces. In the course of the implementation of the organisational statute adopted there, which enlarged the executive of the party through the appointment of party officials and secretaries, however, it was precisely representatives of the quiet reformism of practice – for example, the later Reich Chancellor Friedrich Ebert – who entered the central technical organs of the party. Thus grassroots revisionism finally penetrated into the centre of the party and established itself there. (33) The political reorientation underlying revisionist practice, which was strengthened by its success, consisted in the weakening of radical goals in favour of short-term improvements in alliance with other political forces. The realism and attractiveness of this policy came from the fact that it is indeed possible to achieve short- and medium-term improvements within capitalism for certain segments of the class. However, this policy is accompanied by the subordination of class politics to the conditions of international state competition and thus to the interests of the national bourgeoisie. It is therefore only logical that it was the escalation of state competition into imperialist war that sealed the integration of the workers’ movement into the state in the most official way.
The Marxist centre and the left underestimated the possibilities for the spread of an opportunist tendency within the party and missed the chance to defend and consolidate their political hegemony. Buoyed by a historical optimism, Kautsky considered the formation of an independent bureaucracy impossible. (34) Luxemburg, in her dispute with Lenin, shifted the responsibility for overcoming opportunism to the movement instead of building a political fraction of the left. (35) Both underestimated the need to establish the unity and autonomy of the class politically and to defend it against the integrative tendencies from within and without. Unlike Kautsky, Luxemburg was a consistent and determined advocate of the democratic republic, whose achievement she wanted to push for by means of mass strikes. Kautsky’s attitude on this question, on the other hand, was ambivalent. On the one hand, he referred positively in places to Marx’s Commune writing and saw in the Commune the ideal of a democratic republic (36). In this spirit, he also explained the necessity of dissolving the existing state institutions as instruments of rule: “The conquest of state power by the proletariat does not, therefore, simply mean the conquest of the ministries, which then unceremoniously administers the previous means of rule – an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps – in a socialist manner. Rather, it means the dissolution of these institutions. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of rule, even the takeover of individual departments and whole governments will be of no avail. A socialist ministry can at best exist temporarily. It will be worn down in the futile struggle against these institutions of power, without being able to create anything permanent.” (37) On the other hand, such clear formulations no longer occur in his later text The Road to Power. Here, the class character of the state seems to result from the class character of the parties governing it, which is why a coalition policy with bourgeois parties is vehemently rejected. (38) However, the fact that the class character is rooted in the form of the bourgeois state itself is not here addressed: in its organised, armed formations (police, secret service, army), its separation of powers, its bureaucracy, its specific rule of law, its tax and credit financing, and finally in the international character of the state system.
This writing was already under the sign of political concessions to the increasingly strong party right and Kautsky submitted to the censorship of writing by the party leadership. In this respect, it is possibly less a theoretical than a political capitulation in the face of a worsening situation and the shifting balance of power to the right in the party. In any case, from 1910 onwards, and especially confronted with the October Revolution, the centre began to swing to the line of the party right and to declare the achievement of a bourgeois republic the end point of social democratic aspirations. It was this vacillation in relation to the bourgeois state – expressed also in a theoretical weakness on nationalism and imperialism (39) – and the lack of democratic and internationalist agitation that encouraged the integration of the working class into the imperialist state. (40)
With ARS, then, we can possibly state agreement here on our “state-theoretical insights” when we note the impossibility of the social emancipation of the wage-earning class within a nation-state and emphasise the fundamentally international character of the class and the socialist revolution. Historically, we also see social democracy’s establishment of itself in the state by means of parliamentarism as an abandonment of its revolutionary role. In this respect, we do not regard the catastrophe of social democracy around 1914 as a necessity shaped by the party form, but as an expression of political and theoretical weaknesses and errors, from which specific and concrete lessons would have to be drawn and no abstract condemnation would have to follow. Such a lesson would be to reject in principle, and not just tactically, any “responsible” policy of taking posts in the bourgeois state and co-managing capitalist exploitation. The only responsibility that communists should take politically would be the responsibility of dissolving the existing state institutions and replacing them with institutions that allow the working class to exercise political power itself.
Councils and the State
In contrast to the SPD, the Bolsheviks accepted the need to dissolve the existing state apparatus and in 1917 put themselves entirely on the line of the council solution, seeing in it a specific new form of proletarian self-government. Unlike the SPD, they agitated for the seizure of power by the working class through the soviets, then formed a government in alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and adopted a new soviet constitution. It is noteworthy that in their critique ARS simply collapse the completely opposite policies of the Bolsheviks and German Social Democrats into one when they write: “the problem here is that the class-conscious party leaders who ordered the murder, arrest and smashing of the workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils both in Russia and a short time later in Germany (key words: Spartacus, Ruhr battles) had also acquired their consciousness in precisely this social democratic movement.” (41) Instead of the historical concretion demanded of us, they here reductively collapse everything into an abstract critique of form. Moreover, the council solution itself is not problematised for them at all, but is simply presupposed as an ideal. According to our knowledge of the historical material, there is little evidence that the Bolsheviks wanted the soviets to be disempowered from the outset and established a party dictatorship without necessity. This is contradicted not only by the fact that they explicitly aimed at the council solution and adopted a corresponding constitution, but also by the fact that the role of the party in the first months after the October Revolution was limited to internal party affairs and that it was by no means the CC [Central Committee] of the Bolsheviks that regulated the political affairs of the new state. (42) Or in the words of Rabinowich: “the extensive source material available, however, clearly indicates that the majority of the Petrograd Bolsheviks generally did not see the need for a rigorously structured, all-powerful, and centralised party dictatorship in the first period. In 1917, the Bolsheviks had demanded that all power be transferred to independent, representative, and democratic soviets. After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik leaders in the Petrograd Soviet and in the district soviets had enthusiastically, if hesitantly at first, advocated this ideal.” (43)
In our view, the absence of the hoped-for revolution in the West, the civil war, economic devastation, and the unexpected problems that the new political system brought with it were decisive for further developments in Russia. The councils proved inadequate to exercise effective political authority under the conditions of the disastrous civil war and economic crisis. The Congress of Councils met too irregularly to actually control its Executive Committee. The Executive Committee, which in turn was supposed to control the government, also met too irregularly and assigned a Praesidium to this task. Then the coalition of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries broke up as a result of the peace of Brest-Litovsk and the former allies turned against the Bolsheviks, who were now ruling alone.
Under the pressure of the intensifying civil war, the Bolsheviks expanded the state executive and created another executive body, the Defence Council, in November 1918. Ultimately, the council system proved incapable of responding effectively to the emerging problems under “the urgent conditions of the civil war, which required the rapid, authoritative resolution of issues.” In April 1919, a “competing executive in a form better adapted to requirements” (44) was finally formed in the form of the Politburo, which began to exert direct influence on governmental affairs. The Bolsheviks resolved the crisis of political authority by militarising and centralising the party. Finally, the absence of international revolution condemned them to establish minority rule in a majority peasant country or abdicate and leave the field to counterrevolution.
These circumstances, and not the party form per se, are in our view much more likely to explain why they militarised their organisation by 1921, began to eliminate democracy in the state and the party, substituted themselves for the working class, and finally merged with the state: “neither revolutionary ideology nor a predetermined pattern of dictatorial behaviour explain the fundamental changes in the character and political role of the Bolshevik Party and soviets in Petrograd between November 1917 and November 1918, even though both factors are not without significance. It was the actual circumstances confronting the Bolsheviks in their often seemingly hopeless struggle for survival that decisively shaped the earliest development of the party and the soviet organs (sic), their relationship to each other and the Soviet political system as a whole.” (45) Rosa Luxemburg’s position therefore seems to us correct and far-sighted when she recognises the extremely adverse conditions of the revolution in Russia and at the same time criticises absolutising the practice developed in response to these specific circumstances into a universally valid model of revolution and party, (46) as happened especially by means of the Comintern in the following years. (47)
Of course, we have no interest in adopting this model, which demobilises the working class and destroys any possibility of self-government. But it is equally unhelpful to fundamentally reject the form of the party on the basis of this development and to absolutise even a universal model of revolution in the form of the councils. It would be up to the comrades to give a plausible account how the revolutionary movement in Russia could have succeeded under the circumstances outlined on the basis of a pure council system. What we want to do in this context is to point out the contradictions of the council model and to stimulate reflection on the forms of a possible socialist polity instead of setting the council solution – a spontaneous form of class organisation that emerged in the struggles – as a dogma. Or, to put it another way, such improvised fighting organisations of the class are not necessarily suited by their form to exercising political power, that is, to making coordinating and binding decisions for society as a whole. The question remains: how can the class of wage earners govern itself, what mechanisms enable it to exercise political power?
So what is the yield of this historical discussion? The reason for the central role we attribute to the revolutionary social democracy of the pre-war period is that it represented a party that enabled the proletariat to form a comprehensive view of society as a whole and thus also to form itself subjectively into a class. Moreover, it seems to us that there is no getting away from the historical experience that it was mass parties that allowed the working class to overcome the obstacles on the way to seizing power and to exercise power over society, at least briefly and in a deformed way. In the spontaneous mass movements it was organised socialists who played a leading role. Therefore, we think it is wrong to consider class organisations in general and parties in particular only as a barrier to the movement. Class organisations do also demonstrate a negative importance: at the same time, they represented those forces that could direct the spontaneous movements of the class into a framework loyal to capital and the state. From our point of view, therefore, the hope that the existing organisations of the class can simply be bypassed by a spontaneous movement becomes questionable.
The importance of the party as a decisive political force – in both a positive and negative sense – will be explored more theoretically in the second part. We will try to justify even more precisely why this form of organisation is not only of historical but of contemporary interest and offer considerations on how to contain the dangers associated with the form.
(1) Klopotek’s evidently irritated response to our opening text leaves us a little taken aback. He accuses us of imprecision and tries to prove it by means of conceptual quibbles, such as the question of whether it is legitimate to conceive of communism as a “final goal” or whether periods like ours should be called “phases of tranquillity” or “phases of counterrevolution”. Why he gets hung up on such verbiage is not apparent to us. When he writes that communist practice consists in an “analysis of mediations”, we do not know what is meant by this, for his elaboration remains too vague – indeed, imprecise – for it to become clear what he is getting at. Furthermore, Klopotek accuses us of complacency, while he confidently refers to all “noteworthy social historical study[s]” on the history of the revolution in the early 20th century, without apparently having a good overview of them – as this reply will make clear. Finally, our text is dogmatic, according to his judgement, to which he ironically responds with various dogmatic postulates. For example, when he declares that in situations of insurrection “everyone, as if by themselves, does the right thing” or that the council communists “already knew what they were talking about…”. We can therefore fully return his accusations against our side – dogmatism, inaccuracy, complacency and historical amnesia. However, we want to state above all that his contribution, which begins by dismissing our text as “annoying”, does not exactly contribute to a constructive climate of debate. Unlike Klopotek, who later in his text accuses us of being driven by unconscious motivations to “sublimate” our “fear” by seeking to transform the “flickering” of revolutionary spontaneity into “politics and programme”, we do not want to speculate about the psychological reasons for this tone. We find such psychologisation, which has nothing to do with a reflection on the affective dimensions of political and theoretical contradictions, annoying, since it is nothing other than a means of delegitimising the arguments of the opponent.
(3) We want to state, however, that in our questioning, historical examination of the history of the workers movement we have by no means reached firm conclusions, but that these remarks represent the current state of an ongoing process of research and self-understanding.
(5) Lenin: The Partisan War, at: http://www.mlwerke.de/le/le11/le11_202.htm
(6) As an example, we may refer to a formulation of Kautsky’s, the train of thought of which can be found quite similarly in Lenin and which can also be understood as a revision of earlier, more pessimistic reflections on the development of the consciousness of the working class: “But the pace of progress becomes rapid at a stroke when times of revolutionary fermentation come. It is quite incredible how quickly in such times the mass of the population learns and comes to clarity about its class interests. Not only their courage and combativeness, but also their political interest is most powerfully incited by the consciousness that the moment has come to work its way up at last from darkest night to bright sunshine. Even the most indolent becomes industrious, even the most cowardly bold, even the most narrow-minded gets a wider view. In such times a political education of the masses takes place in years which would otherwise take ages.” (Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power)
(7) Trotsky, quoted in Day/Gaidao, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: 53.
(8) LW 21: 18.
(9) See Kautsky, The Slavs and Revolution (1902) and The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospect (November 1906), in Day/Gaido: Witnesses to Permanent Revolution. Lenin sees Kautsky’s remarks as confirming Bolshevik tactics: “A bourgeois revolution carried out by the proletariat and peasantry because of the weakness of the bourgeoisie – this basic principle of Bolshevik tactics – is fully confirmed by Kautsky.” (quoted in Day/Gaido: 584).
10.”… the more [social democracy] persists in irreconcilable opposition to the corruption of the ruling classes, the more lively the confidence placed in it by the great masses of the people in the midst of the general rot (…). The more steadfast, consistent, irreconcilable social democracy remains, the more likely it is to master its opponents.” (Kautsky, The Road to Power)
11.Steve A. Smith, Red Petrograd. Revolution in the Factory, 1917-1918: 150, see also David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution. February 1917 – June 1918: 63, 216, 229.
(12) Smith, Red Petrograd: 3. In this sense Smith also argues against Klopotek’s other source Otto Anweiler and his assertion of a contradiction between the supposedly syndicalist to anarchist aspirations of the workers in the factories and the programme of the Bolsheviks (cf. ibid.: 150).
(13) David Mandel: The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution: February 1917-June 1918.
(14) Mandel: The Petrograd Workers: 5.
(15) See, for example, the overview in Pierre Broué: The German Revolution 1917-1923: 89 onward, 129 onward.
(16) Richard Müller: Geschichte der deutschen Revolution. Volume I: 161 onward.
(18) Lars T. Lih: Lenin Rediscovered. What is to be done in context; and: https://johnriddell.com/2019/07/04/karl-kautsky-as-architect-of-the-october-revolution-part-1/; but see also the earlier, fundamental study by Neil Harding: Lenin’s Political Thought: 169 onward.
(19) Fredo Corvo, on the other hand, repeats the distorting picture in his response when he states: “The views of the Bolsheviks were, and are, at variance with those of the council communists. Lenin and Trotsky, as Bolsheviks, assumed that communist consciousness does not arise in the working class but among the “intellectuals”. The latter had to lead the unconscious class through the party, using appealing but sometimes downright misleading slogans like “All power to the councils”. Once in power, the councils were disempowered by the unions and subordinated to a state capitalist conception on the reformist model.” (https://arbeiterstimmen.wordpress.com/2021/11/02/bolschewismus-als-alternative-zu-selbstgewahlte-ohnmacht/ )
(20) Harding: 169, 230 onward.; John Eric Marot, Class-Conflict, Political Competition and Social Transformation: Critical Perspectives on the Social History of the Russian Revolution, in: The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect. Interventions in Russian and Soviet History: 151.
(21) Liebman, Leninism under Lenin: 148 onward, 158 onward.; Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution. The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprisings: 231; and Die Sowjetmacht. Die Revolution der Bolschewiki 1917: xxv
(22) Alexander Rabinowitch, Die Sowjetmacht: 456.
(23) An influence that initially extended far beyond membership, as shown by successes in elections to the workers’ Kuria (the class-segregated primaries to the Russian Duma) in Petrograd and Moscow (August Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets – or both?: 140).
(24) Liebman, Leninism under Lenin: 158.
(25) Otto Bauer, quoted in Hans Hautmann, Die österreichische Revolution. Schriften zur Arbeiterbewegung 1917 bis 1920: 69.
(26) Marot, Class-Conflict, Political Competition and Social Transformation: 138.
(27) Eric Blanc, Revolutionary Social Democracy. Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917): 138.
(28) This propelling role of the Bolsheviks also shows that the considerations of ARS remain quite one-sided if they believe they can recognise the significance of parties in principle only in their counterrevolutionary function. For example, when they object that “the ability to prevail in such a situation could be based on depriving the movements of their revolutionary edge.” (https://communaut.org/de/keine-mystik-zeiten-der-schwaeche) On the contrary, the Bolsheviks prevailed in 1917 because they formulated a radical solution to the problems of the working class in Russia, a solution that the workers recognised and chose as appropriate to their problems. And vice versa: the party leadership was able to stop the insurrectionary efforts in July, not because they took the radical edge out of the movement, but because they did so by using their authority in the situation to prevent a premature showdown
(29) David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution. February 1917 – June 1918: 330
(30) ….as cited by our critic Fredo Corvo: https://arbeiterstimmen.wordpress.com/2021/11/02/bolschewismus-als-alternative-zu-selbstgewahlte-ohnmacht/ .
(31) Alexander Rabinowitch, Die Sowjetmacht. Das erste Jahr: 529.
(33) Georg Fülberth, 1971: Zur Genese des Revisionismus in der deutschen Sozialdemokratie. In: Das Argument.
(34) See, for example, Karl Kautsky: Der Ursprung des Christentums, https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/kautsky/1908/christentum/4-6-sozdem.html.
(35) See, for example, Luxemburg, Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokratie https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/luxemburg/1904/orgfrage/text.htm.
(36) Karl Kautsky, The Republic and Social Democracy in France, in Ben Lewis, Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism: 199.
(37) Karl Kautsky: The Republic and Social Democracy: 177.
(38) Whereby here too a certain ambivalence was evident in the attitude to the entry into government of the French socialist Millerand in 1899. In reaction to this, Kautsky drafted a resolution for the Congress of the International in Paris in 1900 which legitimised the entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government in exceptional cases (Mike Taber: Under the Socialist Banner. Resolutions of the Second International 1889-1912: 77).
(40) Mike Macnair, Revolutionary Strategy. Marxism and the Challenge of Left Unity: 62.
(42) At this point the party was also simply too weak for this at first, as in the course of the civil war its social base in the urban centres was severely weakened between war operations, hunger, and state duties (Rabinowich, Die Sowjetmacht. Das erste Jahr: 529 onwards). In the three years after the revolution, Moscow and Petrograd lost 44.5% and 57.5% of their populations respectively (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Vol. 2: 195).
(43) Alexander Rabinowitch, Die Sowjetmacht. Das erste Jahr: 528 onward.
(44) Lara Douds, Inside Lenin’s Government. Ideology, Power and Practice in the Early Soviet State: 125.
(45) Alexander Rabinowich, Die Sowjetmacht. Das erste Jahr: 527; see also Harding: 201 onward.
(46) “Everything that is happening in Russia is understandable, and an inevitable chain of causes and effects, whose starting points and keystones are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. To expect Lenin and his comrades to conjure up the most beautiful democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat, and a flourishing socialist economy under such circumstances would be to make superhuman demands on them. Through their resolute revolutionary attitude, their exemplary energy, and their unwavering loyalty to international socialism, they have truly achieved what had to be achieved under such devilishly difficult circumstances. The danger begins when they want to make a virtue of necessity, to theoretically fix their tactics, imposed by these fatal conditions, and to recommend them to the international proletariat as the model of socialist tactics for imitation. Just as they thereby place themselves in a completely unnecessary light and place their real, indisputable historical merit under a bushel of necessary missteps, so they do a disservice to international socialism, for whose cause and for whose sake they fought and suffered, if they want to enter into its memory as new knowledge all the obliquities introduced into Russia by necessity and compulsion, which in the last analysis were only emanations of the bankruptcy of international socialism in this world war.” (Luxemburg Zur russischen Revolution, https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/luxemburg/1918/russrev/teil4.htm) Whereas Luxemburg at the same time urged the immediate collectivisation of agriculture, which would probably have immediately broken the alliance with the peasants and would have brought about an even more terroristic rule.
(47) The ban on factions is first adopted at the 10th Party Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] (https://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/party-congress/10th/16.htm) and then in the resolution Guiding Principles on the Organisational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work, adopted at the 3rd World Congress of the Comintern in 1921: “Neither is an opposition or a struggle for domination within the party compatible with the principles of democratic centralism adopted by the Communist International.” The need for a steady process of purification of the communist parties was first emphasised at the 10th Congress of the CPSU and then in the 13th of the 21 Conditions of Admission to the Communist International, adopted at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern in 1920. The communist parties of all countries in which the communists work legally must periodically carry out purges (re-registrations) of the membership of the party organisations in order to purge the party systematically of the petty-bourgeois elements which inevitably attach themselves to it.” In addition, condition 2, the removal of centrists from all posts, condition 11, the purification of the parliamentary fraction. https://www.1000dokumente.de/index.html/index.html?c=dokument_ru&dokument=0010_int&object=translation