Tuesday, October 04, 2011

V.I. Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

Cover of Russian first edition (1918)
The outbreak of World War One was supposed to have been met by mass strikes and protests led by the mass socialist organisations of the Second International. At numerous meetings and conferences, leaders of these organisations had declared the coming war to be an imperialist one. Not in the interest of the proletarians who voted and supported these organisations. With the start of the war, one by one these parties capitulated to their national bourgeois, declaring that the defence of their nation state was the most important priority. This abandonment of revolutionary socialism shocked those socialists who remained loyal to Marx's ideas. In particular Lenin's Bolsheviks remained one of the few organisations to remain opposed to the war and imperialism.

In this short book, Lenin deals directly, in polemic, against Karl Kautsky. Kautsky had been a leading Marxist for several decades, heading up the German SPD and Lenin had looked to him for most of his life as a revolutionary. Kautsky's conversion to supporting the German capitalism was a great shock to Lenin. This polemic though is a response, not to Kautsky's initial betrayals, but to his later attacks and criticisms of the Russian Revolution.

There is too little time for me to rehearse the history of the Russian Revolution here. Suffice to say this book will remain mostly incomprehensible if you haven't read some history of that momentous point in working class history. Amongst the things that Lenin takes Kautsky to task for is the belief from Kautsky that the revolution in Russia was premature. Like many of the pre-war Marxists, Kautsky (and indeed Lenin) had argued that the coming revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois one. One that would create a capitalist state like those in Western Europe. Russia's economy, and in particular its working class were too immature to lead a successful revolution. Kautsky's criticism is based on this mechanical interpretation of events.

Lenin and Trotsky had argued two things. That the revolution against the capitalists and their government in Russia could lead to the workers taking control, so long as the peasantry was on their side. Secondly, they argued that a successful Russian Revolution could only survive if followed by a European wide insurrection. Kautsky criticises this, asking "what if it did not happen?" To this Lenin points out, that the "expectation of a revolutionary situation in Europe was not an infatuation of the Bolsheviks, but the general opinion of all Marxists". To betray the revolutionary opportunity would have been a betrayal of revolutionary principles.

Kautsky supports his argument with what Lenin refers to as many "liberal" arguments. The declaration of the dictatorship of the Proletariat is undemocratic, that with a majority of support and vote of the population there should be no need for the new workers state to protect itself against the capitalists. These were hollow words for Lenin, who was in a country assailed by the forces of the capitalists. Lenin rehearses the basic Marxist arguments of the role of the state - an instrument for the oppression of one class by another. The nascent workers state, Lenin says was as much in need of defending itself against external threats as the capitalists needed to protect their interests from the workers and the mass of the population.

Lenin argues that Kautsky's position on this is the crux of his abandonment of Marxism.

"Infatuated with the 'purity' pf democracy, blind to its bourgeois character, he 'consistently' urges that the majority, since it is the majority, need not 'break down the resistance' of the minority... Kautsky inadvertently commits the same little error that all bourgeois democrats always commit, namely he takes formal equality... for actual equality. Quite a trifle."

As Lenin then points out this trifle is a failure to understand the most basic of Marxist ideas, namely that "the exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal." As a result of this abandonment of his politics, Lenin explains that Kautsky spent the war years, trying to "extinguish the revolutionary spirit, instead of fostering and fanning it."

Kautsky's betrayal of Marxism was an enormous shock to the workers movement. In this book Lenin argues against Kautsky's new positions, and defends the revolution, in particular challenging Kautsky's criticisms of the disolution of the Constituent Assembly and the agrarian policies carried out by the Soviets. His defence of soviet power as a higher form of democracy is based on a re-reading and reassertion of many of Karl Marx's core ideas. In particular Marx and Engels' writings on the Paris Commune, and specifically, Marx's book The Civil War in France. This reassertion of Marx and the defence of the revolution, in the midst of the revolution itself is what makes this book so powerful and interesting.

The only thing that is lacking in the book is an attempt at an explanation of why so many great Marxists and their organisations capitulated to capitalism. In his excellent book The Comintern Duncan Hallas argues that the parties like the SPD in Germany that Kautsky led, had managed to gain a foothold inside the system. Their bureaucracies, their MPs, their organisations gave them a significant inertia and interest in maintaining the status quo. For them to break with Marxism in practice, meant, Hallas says a return to illegal, under-ground work. For many of the leaders, whose Marxism was limited to speeches on May Day, there was much more "to lose than their chains". This stake in the system, combined with a bastardisation of revolutionary politics, began to undermine the desire for genuine revolutionary change. Rosa Luxemburg in particular had before the war broke out, fought a hard fight against such reformism from one of the SPD's leading members.

The book itself has no conclusion. Lenin notes at the end of the last chapter, that his last few lines were written on the same night that news reached Russia of the seizure of power in numerous German towns, including the capital by Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. For Lenin this in itself was the final rebuttal of Kautsky's politics and offered new hope for the Russia Revolution itself. Sadly this was a false dawn, but this neglected book of Lenin's remains a powerful declaration of the hopes of the revolution and a defence of the revolution itself.

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky - full text from the Lenin Public Archive here.

Related Reviews

Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1
Cliff - Revolution Besieged
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Marx - The Civil War in France


Bert said...

Thanks for the post, did not know that people actually read these books anymore. I actually was wondering is this not also about different ways to restructure capitalism: radically (Lenin) or incrementally (Kautsky). Furthermore, the basic idea of Lenin was that he addressed the "weakest" link in the capitalist chain (Russia in terms of economic development) and not the strongest countries like Germany after WW1?

Resolute Reader said...

Thanks for the comment Bert. Not sure that Lenin didn't address the strongest nations like Germany. He wass emphatic, time and again, before and after the October Revolution, that without a revolution in the industralised west, the Russian revolution would be doomed.

He did see Russia as a weak link in the capitalist chain, and concentrated on it, because he was a Russian revolutionary, quite rightly believing that he had to do his best to further the revolution in his own country.

Also, I don't think that Lenin ever had a plan to "restructure" capitalism. His intension was to destroy it. In his Marxist days, this was Kautsky's ambition to, though he, as I tried to outline, gradually shifted to an accomodating position, by first believing that socialism could come through a gradual transition, and then by siding with his national capitalist in WW1, he abandoned the struggle for socialism all together.

frank56 said...

I find Lenin so easy to understand, I don't know that having some knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, made it any easier, in my case at least. How hard is it for anyone of any background to understand the following quote from Engels in the same book?

Have these gentlemen” (the anti-authoritarians) “ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is an act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon-all of which are highly authoritarian means. And the victorious party must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted more than a day if it had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Cannot we, on the contrary, blame it for having made too little use of that authority?”[6]
Here is your “pure democracy”! How Engels would have ridiculed the vulgar petty bourgeois, the “Social-Democrat” (in the French sense of the forties and the general European sense of 1915-18), who took it into his head to talk about “pure democracy” in a class-divided society!

To me the most important points, were that Lenin, made it easy for me to understand, what the State, democracy, dictatorship of one class over another, and the difference between socialist society and communist society. I recommend the book, cover to cover, for everyone.