[Classics] The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

The Soviets Dare Not Become State Organisations

The Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship. If a Marxist theoretician, writing a work on the dictatorship of the proletariat, had really studied the subject (and not merely repeated the petty-bourgeois lamentations against dictatorship, as Kautsky did, singing to Menshevik tunes), he would first have given a general definition of dictatorship, and would then have examined its peculiar, national, form, the Soviets; he would have given his critique of them as one of the forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It goes without saying that nothing serious could be expected from Kautsky after his liberalistic “interpretation” of Marx’s teaching on dictatorship; but the manner in which he approached the question of what the Soviets are and the way he dealt with this question is highly characteristic.

The Soviets, he says, recalling their rise in 1905, created “the most all-embracing (umfassendste) form of proletarian organisation, for it embraced all the wage-workers” (p. 31). In 1905 they were only local bodies; in 1917 they became a national organisation.

“The Soviet form of organisation,” Kautsky continues, “already has a great and glorious history behind it, and it has a still mightier future before it, and not in Russia alone. It appears that everywhere the old methods of the economic and political struggle of the proletariat are inadequate” (versa gen; this German expression is somewhat stronger than “inadequate” and somewhat weaker than “impotent”) “against the gigantic economic and political forces which finance capital has at its disposal. These old methods cannot be discarded; they are still indispensable for normal times; but from time to time tasks arise which they cannot cope with, tasks that can be accomplished successfully only as a result of a combination of all the political and economic instruments of force of the working class” (p. 32).

Then follows a reasoning on the mass strike and on “trade union bureaucracy”—which is no less necessary than the trade unions—being “useless for the purpose of directing the mighty mass battles that are more and more becoming a sign of the times. . . .”

“Thus,” Kautsky concludes, “the Soviet form of organisation is one of the most important phenomena of our time. It promises to acquire decisive importance in the great decisive battles between capital and labour towards which we are marching.

“But are we entitled to demand more of the Soviets? The Bolsheviks, after the November Revolution” (new style, or October, according to our style) “1917, secured in conjunction with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries a majority in the Russian Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and after the dispersion of the Constituent Assembly, they set out to transform the Soviets from a combat organisation of one class, as they had been up to then, into a state organisation. They destroyed the democracy which the Russian people had won in the March” (new style, or February, our style) “Revolution. In line with this, the Bolsheviks have ceased to call themselves Social-Democrats. They call themselves Communists” (p. 33, Kautsky’s italics).

Those who are familiar with Russian Menshevik literature will at once see how slavishly Kautsky copies Martov, Axelrod, Stein and Co. Yes, “slavishly”, because Kautsky ridiculously distorts the facts in order to pander to Menshevik prejudices. Kautsky did not take the trouble, for instance, to ask his informants (Stein of Berlin, or Axelrod of Stockholm) when the questions of changing the name of the Bolsheviks to Communists and of the significance of the Soviets as state organisations were first raised. Had Kautsky made this simple inquiry he would not have penned these ludicrous lines, for both these questions were raised by the Bolsheviks in April 1917, for example, in my “Theses” of April 4, 1917, i.e., long before the Revolution of October 1917 (and, of course, long before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on January 5, 1918).

But Kautsky’s argument which I have just quoted in full represents the crux of the whole question of the Soviets. The crux is: should the Soviets aspire to become state organisations (in April 1917 the Bolsheviks put forward the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” and at the Bolshevik Party Conference held in the same month they declared they were not satisfied with a bourgeois parliamentary republic but demanded a workers’ and peasants’ republic of the Paris Commune or Soviet type); or should the Soviets not strive for this, refrain from taking power into their hands, refrain from becoming state organisations and remain the “combat organisations” of one “class” (as Martov expressed it, embellishing by this innocent wish the fact that under Menshevik leadership the Soviets were an instrument for the subjection of the workers to the bourgeoisie)

Kautsky slavishly repeats Martov’s words, picks out fragments of the theoretical controversy between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, and uncritically and senselessly transplants them to the general theoretical and general European field. The result is such a hodge-podge as to provoke Homeric laughter in every class-conscious Russian worker had he read these arguments of Kautsky’s.

When we explain what the question at issue is, every worker in Europe (barring a handful of inveterate social-imperialists) will greet Kautsky with similar laughter.

Kautsky has rendered Martov a backhanded service by developing his mistake into a glaring absurdity. Indeed, look what Kautsky’s argument amounts to.

The Soviets embrace all wage-workers. The old methods of economic and political struggle of the proletariat are inadequate against finance capital. The Soviets have a great role to play in the future, and not only in Russia. They will play a decisive role in great decisive battles between capital and labour in Europe. That is what Kautsky says.

Excellent. But won’t the “decisive battles between capital and labour” decide which of the two classes will assume state power?

Nothing of the kind! Heaven forbid!

The Soviets, which embrace all the wage-workers, must not become state organisations in the “decisive” battles!

But what is the state?

The state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another.

Thus, the oppressed class, the vanguard of all the working and exploited people in modern society, must strive towards the “decisive battles between capital and labour”, but must not touch the machine by means of which capital suppresses labour!—It must not break up that machine! It must not make use of its all-embracing organisation for suppressing the exploiters!

Excellent, Mr. Kautsky, magnificent! “We” recognise the class struggle—in the same way as all liberals recognise it, i.e., without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. . . .

This is where Kautsky’s complete rupture both with Marxism and with socialism becomes obvious. Actually, it is desertion to the camp of the bourgeoisie, who are prepared to concede everything except the transformation of the organisations of the class which they oppress into state organisations. Kautsky can no longer save his position of trying to reconcile everything and of getting away from all profound contradictions with mere phrases.

Kautsky either rejects the assumption of state power by the working class altogether, or he concedes that the working class may take over the old, bourgeois state machine. But he will by no means concede that it must break it up, smash it, and replace it by a new, proletarian machine. Whichever way Kautsky’s arguments are “interpreted”, or “explained”, his rupture with Marxism and his desertion to the bourgeoisie are obvious.

Back in the Communist Manifesto, describing what sort of state the victorious working class needs, Marx wrote: “the state, i.e., the proletariat organised as the ruling class.”[17] Now we have a man who claims still to be a Marxist coming forward and declaring that the proletariat, fully organised and waging the “decisive battle” against capital, must not transform its class organisation into a state organisation. Here Kautsky has betrayed that “superstitious belief in the state” which in Germany, as Engels wrote in 1891, “has been carried over into the general thinking of the bourgeoisie and even of many workers”.[18] Workers, fight!—our philistine “agrees” to this (as every bourgeois “agrees”, since the workers are fighting all the same, and the only thing to do is to devise means of blunting the edge of their sword)—fight, but don’t dare win! Don’t destroy the state machine of the bourgeoisie, don’t replace the bourgeois “state organisation” by the proletarian “state organisation”!

Whoever sincerely shared the Marxist view that the state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another, and who has at all reflected upon this truth, could never have reached the absurd conclusion that the proletarian organisations capable of defeating finance capital must not transform themselves into state organisations. It was this point that betrayed the petty bourgeois who believes that “after all is said and done” the state is something outside classes or above classes. Indeed, why should the proletariat, “one class”, be permitted to wage unremitting war on capital, which rules not only over the proletariat, but over the whole people, over the whole petty bourgeoisie, over all the peasants, yet this proletariat, this “one class”, is not to be permitted to transform its organisation into a state organisation? Because the petty bourgeois is afraid of the class struggle, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion, to its main object.

Kautsky has got himself completely mixed up and has given himself away entirely. Mark you, he himself admits that Europe is heading for decisive battles between capital and labour, and that the old methods of economic and political struggle of the proletariat are inadequate. But these old methods were precisely the utilisation of bourgeois democracy. It therefore follows . . .?

But Kautsky is afraid to think of what follows.

. . . It therefore follows that only a reactionary, an enemy of the working class, a henchman of the bourgeoisie, can now turn his face to the obsolete past, paint the charms of bourgeois democracy and babble about pure democracy. Bourgeois democracy was progressive compared with medievalism, and it had to be utilised. But now it is not sufficient for the working class. Now we must look forward instead of backward—to replacing the bourgeois democracy by proletarian democracy. And while the preparatory work for the proletarian revolution, the formation and training of the proletarian army were possible (and necessary) within the framework of the bourgeois-democratic state, now that we have reached the stage of “decisive battles”, to confine the proletariat to this framework means betraying the cause of the proletariat, means being a renegade.

Kautsky has made himself particularly ridiculous by repeating Martov’s argument without noticing that in Martov’s case this argument was based on another argument which he, Kautsky, does not use! Martov said (and Kautsky repeats after him) that Russia is not yet ripe for socialism; from which it logically follows that it is too early to transform the Soviets from organs of struggle into state organisations (read: it is timely to transform the Soviets, with the assistance of the Menshevik leaders, into instruments for subjecting the workers to the imperialist bourgeoisie). Kautsky, however, cannot say outright that Europe is not ripe for socialism. In 1909, when he was not yet a renegade, he wrote that there was then no reason to fear a premature revolution, that whoever had renounced revolution for fear of defeat would have been a traitor. Kautsky does not dare renounce this outright. And so we get an absurdity, which completely reveals the stupidity and cowardice of the petty bourgeois: on the one hand, Europe is ripe for socialism and is heading towards decisive battles between capital and labour; but, on the other hand, the combat organisation (i.e., the organisation which arises, grows and gains strength in combat), the organisation of the proletariat, the vanguard and organiser, the leader of the oppressed, must not be transformed into a state organisation!

* *

From the point of view of practical politics the idea that the Soviets are necessary as combat organisations but must not be transformed into state organisations is infinitely more absurd than from the point of view of theory. Even in peacetime, when there is no revolutionary situation, the mass struggle of the workers against the capitalists—for instance, the mass strike—gives rise to great bitterness on both sides, to fierce passions in the struggle, the bourgeoisie constantly insisting that they remain and mean to remain “masters in their own house”, etc. And in time of revolution, when political life reaches boiling point, an organisation like the Soviets, which embraces all the workers in all branches of industry, all the soldiers, and all the working and poorest sections of the rural population—such an organisation, of its own accord, with the development of the struggle, by the simple “logic” of attack and defence, comes inevitably to pose the question point-blank. The attempt to take up a middle position and to “reconcile” the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is sheer stupidity and doomed to miserable failure. That is what happened in Russia to the preachings of Martov and other Mensheviks, and that will inevitably happen in Germany and other countries if the Soviets succeed in developing on any wide scale, manage to unite and strengthen. To say to the Soviets: fight, but don’t take all state power into your hands, don’t become state organisations—is tantamount to preaching class collaboration and “social peace” between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It is ridiculous even to think that such a position in the midst of fierce struggle could lead to anything but ignominious failure. But it is Kautsky’s everlasting fate to sit between two stools. He pretends to disagree with the opportunists on everything in theory, but in practice he agrees with them on everything essential (i.e., on everything pertaining to revolution).


[17] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Moscow, 1957, p. 85.

[18] Lenin refers to Engels’s Introduction to The Civil War in France by Karl Marx (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1962,Vol. 1, p. 484).

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