Military history

Chapter 20

Revisionists and Vanguards

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past.

—Frederic Engels, 1895

Engels’s last published work, which appeared a few months before his death in 1895, is sometimes known as his “testament.” That was not how he viewed it, but it was nonetheless a reflective piece, using the republication of Marx’s 1850 Class Struggles in France to comment on the changing fortunes of the working-class movement during the second half of the century. The political significance of the piece was that it was used by the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to justify the parliamentary strategy they had been following, with some success, and to warn against violent revolution. Because of Engels’s singular authority, those who continued to yearn for a more militant approach to revolution found it troubling. They could argue, with some justice, that Engels had been put under pressure by the SPD hierarchy to tone down his language because a new antisubversion law was under consideration. Yet despite insisting that he was not ruling out force, and that the more optimistic aspects of his analysis only truly applied to Germany, he acknowledged that his views on socialist strategy had changed significantly since 1848. Then revolution was seen as a “great decisive battle,” that once commenced would continue, no doubt at length and with many vicissitudes until it concluded with the “final victory of the proletariat.” Almost fifty years on, however, a street-fighting insurrectionary victory over a regular army could only be envisaged as a rare exception.

The influence of the military debates of the past decades was evident as he tried to think of ways in which insurrectionists could operate as a successful army. The only way the balance of forces could be tilted in favor of the revolution was by playing on the doubts of troops about the cause for which they were fighting and encouraging them not to fire on their own people. In all other circumstances, the superior equipment and discipline of the regulars would prevail. It was always likely that poorly armed demonstrators would be outnumbered, but now army reserves could use the railways to rush to any trouble spot. Their arms would also be far more effective. Even city planners had been working against the revolution. Cities were now “laid out in long, straight, broad streets, tailor-made to give full effect to the new cannons and rifles.”

It would be difficult for the revolution to defend a single borough, never mind a whole town.

Concentration of the military forces at a decisive point is, of course, out of the question here. Hence passive defense is the predominant form of struggle; an attack will be mounted here and there, by way of exception, in the form of occasional thrusts and assaults on the flanks; as a rule, however, it will be limited to the occupation of positions abandoned by retreating troops.1

The only value of the barricade was in its moral rather than material effect, as a means of shaking the “steadfastness” of the military. This was another reason why revolutions could not be undertaken “by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness.” If the masses were not directly involved there was no chance.

By contrast, universal male suffrage had created real opportunities and the working classes, via the SPD, had taken full advantage. If the steady rise in the party’s vote continued, “we shall grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not.” The risk to the rise of socialism in Germany therefore would be “a clash on a grand scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris.” To avoid that, resources should be conserved. So Engels saw it as ironic that the “revolutionaries” and “overthrowers” were thriving far better on legal methods. It was the “parties of order” that were “perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves.” If the movement was “not so crazy as to let ourselves be driven to street fighting in order to please them,” it would be their opponents who would have to contemplate illegal action.

Engels privately was adamant that he could not advocate complete abstinence from force. He was annoyed at being presented as “a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price.”2 He was of the view that when socialists acquired the sort of electoral strength that would justify them taking power, the government would clamp down. It might then be necessary to take to the streets. A couple of passages in his testament, which the party hierarchy feared were too inflammatory, referred to the need to avoid frittering away strength in “vanguard skirmishes” but to “keep it intact until the decisive day.” Rather than start the revolutionary process on the streets as a way of stimulating support, his view was that it would only be taken when the masses were fully behind the revolution, for this would be the time when the resolve of the government troops would be at its lowest. A few years earlier he had explained that he doubted that the SPD would be allowed to take power as a majority party. He gave ten to one odds that well before that point “our rulers” would “use violence against us, and this would shift us from the terrain of majority to the terrain of revolution.”3

Revisionism

Marx’s theory implied economic determinism, but as an activist he never denied the possibility of consequential action within the political sphere. Works such as The Eighteenth Brumaire made little sense unless it was recognized that the links between class interests and political action could be diffuse and distorted, and that poor choices caused revolutionary opportunities to be lost. Marx would not dismiss any setting, including parliamentary elections, where the cause of the working class might be promoted. His political judgments could be quite pragmatic even while he remained dogmatic in his underlying theory.

By insisting on the scientific basis of socialism, not a mere act of imagination but a causal theory, everything had to turn on how the working classes came to understand their situation and struggle against it. The key moment would come when the proletariat moved from being a class in itself to one for itself, grasping their full power and potential. One reading of Marx was that this should, somehow, happen naturally—almost spontaneously—as collective eyes were opened to the reasons for their misery and how all could be transformed. But what role did this leave for the party? Surges of popular anger and yearnings for a better life so often resulted in dashed hopes and more persecution and misery. Radical movements either petered out or suddenly took a turn toward respectability, becoming part of the system rather than a means to its overthrow.

This was the curse of Marx, from which he personally suffered: a theory of inevitable, progressive change but one that could doom the activist to frustration. If the politics could never be right without the correct material base, what was the revolutionary politician to do? One answer was to wait until the conditions were right, building up strength until the moment eventually arrived and the working class was ready. The alternative was to find a way of accelerating the pace of change, creating conditions in which class consciousness could develop faster. The SPD as the most substantial and confident of all Marxist parties presented itself as having found the happy medium. The rise in class consciousness could be measured in the growth of party membership and steady successes in elections. There would be no mystery about when the moment of transition to socialism would come: the party would have majority support among the electorate. The risk was that successes in achieving improvements in workers’ conditions would drain the movement of its revolutionary fervor, while the party would develop a stake in the system.

Marx and Engels had always put a far greater stress on a correct socialist program rather than a particular strategy. When the SPD was founded in 1875, they were furious with their acolytes, August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, for merging with Ferdinand Lassalle’s General German Workers’ Association, which they disapproved of as reformist and unscientific. Marx accepted cooperation between the two parties but not the joint program, which he saw as an attempt to find common ground with the bourgeoisie, as if conflict was based on an unfortunate misunderstanding. It was vital not to “expunge the class struggle from the movement” or even hint at the possibility that workers were too uneducated to emancipate themselves and could only be freed by the bourgeoisie.4 Three years later, Engels published a critique of the gradualist notions of the blind socialist philosopher, Eugen Duhring, who argued against the determinism of Marx and Engels and for self-governing cooperatives. This tract, known as Anti-Duhring, played a significant role in transmitting Marxism in an accessible form to a new generation of socialists. It urged the working class not to settle for second-best, not to rely on philanthropy when they deserved power.

In 1891, following the repeal of an antisocialist law, the SPD adopted the Erfurt Program, written by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. This still anticipated the end of capitalism but was prepared to pursue socialism through peaceful means. After Engels died it was Bernstein, his literary executor, who began the process of adjusting revolutionary theory to reformist practice. He noted, contrary to Marx’s predictions, that working-class conditions were not declining but improving. In 1898, he published Evolutionary Socialism, which, as the title suggested, concluded that revolution was unnecessary and that combinations of cooperatives, unions, and parliamentary representation allowed the progressive and benign transformation of society. He contrasted an intelligent, methodical, but slow process of historical development, depending on legislative activity. While revolutionary activity offered faster progress, it was based on feeling and depended on spontaneity. For Bernstein, “the movement [was] everything, the goal nothing.”

His erstwhile collaborator Karl Kautsky disagreed, presenting himself as a keeper of the true faith. As the leading exponent of Marxism in the leading party which embraced Marx, Kautsky was extraordinarily influential in shaping views about scientific socialism. His approach was plodding and unreflective, betraying no doubts about the essential correctness of Marxism and its broad application. Even after the turmoil of the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, he never deviated from a set of views acquired at an early age. The science told Kautsky that socialism would develop as capitalism matured and classes polarized. He argued against Bernstein that the issue was not so much the increasing poverty of the workers but the sharpening of class antagonism. Eventually capitalism would be ripe for destruction and the proletariat could take power. Premature action could not lead to the destruction of capitalism. Exactly how the right moment could be properly recognized he never quite explained, nor how the seizure of power would actually occur. It would be a revolution, but its form was hard to judge in advance. His hope was that the more the working class prepared during the prerevolutionary struggles, the more likely the great event would pass peacefully. This left him claiming that SPD was a revolutionary party that saw no point in actually making a revolution.

In principle this made little sense. A party preparing for a long haul of gradual acquisition of power had educational and organizational tasks quite different from one geared to a “once-and-for-all act of violence.”5 Yet in terms of political strategy it made perfect sense. As the party’s chief theoretician, Kautsky had hit upon a formula that followed Engels: dogmatic Marxism combined with cautious politics. It kept the revolutionaries in the fold but gave the authorities no excuse for repression. It was hard to argue with success. From 10 percent in the 1887 Reichstag elections, the social democrats polled almost double in 1890, getting up to over 30 percent by 1903. To understand the maturity of the class consciousness of the proletariat, one only had to observe the SPD’s developing support.6

Rosa

Rosa Luxemburg was a ferocious critic of the revisionists, but she was also wary about the complete identification of the worker’s cause with the party. Though born in Russian-ruled Poland, she moved to Zurich after her radical politics got her into early trouble. There she gained a doctorate and then moved to Germany, soon establishing a reputation as brilliant but extreme in her views. She provided a unique link between the Russian and German parties and at different times was active in both, although that meant she also could be an outsider in both. She described herself as “thrice stigmatized: as a woman, as a Jew, and as a cripple.” As an intellectual, she introduced a complex proof of why capitalism was doomed economically. Her main impact, though, was as a theorist of socialist strategy and tactics. She was a lively writer, with a vivid turn of phrase, reflecting her conviction that readers must be enthused and inspired and her despair at the language of party articles: “The style is conventional, wooden, stereotypical . . . just a colorless, dull sound like that of a running engine.”7

Luxemburg’s starting point was that workers would become increasingly socialist through struggle and experience. The task for a party was to help draw this out, but there was no need to impose the ideology from above. She was opposed to the very idea of a centralized, bureaucratic party. The real tactical innovations were not the organizational inventions of party leaders but the “spontaneous product of the movement in ferment.” Where there had been upsurges, “the initiative and conscious leadership of the Social Democratic organizations played an insignificant role.” She was aware of the potentially troubling implications of Engels’s preface to The Class Struggles in France. This supported the legal struggle and rejected a rush to the barricades. She insisted, however, that Engels was referring to how the proletariat would struggle while confined by the capitalist state, not to the actual seizure of power. He had been “giving directions to the proletariat oppressed, and not to the proletariat victorious.” When the moment came, the proletariat would do whatever was necessary to secure the future of socialism. Only by falling for “Blanquism,” or a coup d’état, was there a risk of a premature seizure of power. So long as reliance was placed on the “great conscious popular mass,” then the moment would be right for power because, by definition, this could only have come about as a result of the “decomposition of bourgeois society.” It was impossible to believe that “a transformation as formidable as the passage from capitalist society to socialist society can be realized in one happy act.” The struggle would be a long one, no doubt with setbacks. What she found difficult to imagine was how the struggle could proceed, or the point of victory be identified, without attacks on state power.8

She hit upon the idea of the mass strike as the best way to avoid the pitfalls of parliamentary reformism without risking all in a premature insurrection. Her inspiration came not from Germany but from Russia. In January 1905, there began in Russia the first serious uprising in a European country since the 1871 Commune. Against the backdrop of Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan, and with the shooting of unarmed workers marching on the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar as the trigger, years of economic and political anger spilled over onto the streets. Numerous organizations, from workers’ committees to trade unions, sprang up, reflecting the unrest and giving it expression. Soldiers and sailors mutinied, peasants seized land, and workers put up barricades. Luxemburg returned to Warsaw to play her part and emerged convinced that the true revolutionary method was the strike. This would be the spontaneous expression of an objective revolutionary condition, a deeply radicalizing process from which appropriate organizations would emerge. Class feeling would be awoken“as if by an electric shock.” Once a real, earnest period of mass strikes began, all calculations of cost would become “merely projects for exhausting the ocean with a tumbler.”9

There was nothing particularly new in the idea of the mass strike, but it was not normally associated with Marxists. Its potential had been demonstrated by the General Strike in Britain in 1842, which involved some half a million workers. This was a response to wage cuts during tough economic times but then picked up on the political demands associated with the Chartists. Even then the Chartist leadership was equivocal about the connection and in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, strikes had come to be associated with trade unions and economic demands. Only anarchists adopted the idea of political strikes as a reflection of the sort of mass spontaneity celebrated by Bakunin. For that reason alone, the tactic was treated skeptically by Marxists. In 1873, Engels had mocked the Bakuninist idea that one fine morning all the workers in all the industries of a country, or even of the whole world, stop work, thus forcing the propertied classes either humbly to submit within four weeks at the most, or to attack the workers, who would then have the right to defend themselves and use this opportunity to pull down the entire old society.

According to Engels, a mass strike required a “well-formed organization of the working class and plentiful funds.” Before that was achieved, the workers would have achieved power by other means. And if they did have the organization and the funds “there would be no need to use the roundabout way of a general strike to achieve its goal.”10

Luxemburg therefore needed to explain how her idea met Engels’s objections. She argued that 1905 had demonstrated something new about the tactic and that it had nothing to do with anarchism. However, her enthusiasm for the idea of change coming about as a natural, organic response of the working classes to their conditions rather than as a device of party strategy was not far away from Bakunin. In her treatise, she thus went out of her way to demonstrate her contempt for anarchism. Still, her distrust for party bureaucrats was evident in the polemics against those who treated tactics as if a “board of directors” could decide on them for an appointed day, and against those who respected only “orderly and well-disciplined” struggles that ran “according to plan and scheme.” In Russia in 1905 there was “no predetermined plan, no organized action.” The parties were almost left behind by the “spontaneous risings of the masses.” Here she was careful to argue that the events were not wholly spontaneous but reflected years of agitation by social democrats.

Nor did she agree with those, such as the German trade unions, who saw strikes in a separate category of economic actions. The economic and political spheres could not be separated. One fed off the other. The advantage of the mass strike was that this was where they came together. The strikes could start with economic demands and then the combination of socialist agitation and government responses would turn them into something more political. Above all, they would be consciousness-raising events: “The most precious, lasting, thing in the rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle.” Her aim was to assert the role of the mass strike in Germany as the “first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle.” The more developed the antagonism between capital and labor, the more effective the mass strikes. They would not replace “brutal street fights,” for at some culminating point the armed power of the state would have to be faced. This would be no more than “a moment in the long period of political struggle.”11

I n his memoir, Leon Trotsky described being present at an encounter between Luxemburg and Kautsky in 1907. The two had been close friends but since 1905 had diverged. Trotsky described Luxemburg as small and frail but intelligent and courageous, with a “precise, intense and merciless” style. Kautsky, by contrast, Trotsky found “charming,” but with an “angular and dry” mind lacking in “nimbleness and psychological insight.” He was caught up in the reality of reform: revolution was just a “misty historical prospect.” Together they went to a demonstration, and the exchanges between the two intensified: “Kautsky wanted to remain an onlooker, whereas Rosa was anxious to join the demonstration.”12 The antagonism between the two came out in 1910 over Luxemburg’s continued advocacy of the mass strike.

We noted in the last section the influential distinction, introduced by the military historian Hans Delbruck, between a strategy of annihilation, which demanded a decisive battle to eliminate the enemy’s army, and a strategy of exhaustion, which drew on a range of alternative means to wear down the enemy. These could also be understood respectively as strategies of overthrow or attrition—terms that might be more helpful in the context of political strategy. In 1910, responding to Luxemburg, Kautsky drew explicitly on Delbruck’s work. While overthrow depended on drawing “forces rapidly together in order to go to meet the enemy and to deal decisive blows by means of which the enemy is overthrown and rendered incapable of struggle,” with attrition the commander-in-chief initially avoids any decisive battle; he aims to keep the opposing army on the move by all sorts of maneuvers, without giving it the opportunity of raising the morale of its troops by gaining victories; he strives to gradually wear them out by continual exhaustion and threats and to consistently reduce their resistance and paralyze them.13

Kautsky was all in favor of attrition. Luxemburg’s mass strike was an attempt at overthrow, imprudent because it would provoke the state repression and antisocialist legislation he was so anxious to avoid. What if a mass strike was called and few turned up? All the gains from the parliamentary strategy would be lost.

Lenin

Kautsky’s distinction between overthrow and attrition was also adopted by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democrats. He was arguing about the meaning of 1905 with the opposing Menshevik faction who had used Kautsky’s formulation.14Later, Kautsky and Lenin would fall out, but for the moment Kautsky was the leader of European socialists and Lenin had his own disagreements with Luxemburg.

Lenin’s extraordinary appetite for factional struggle reflected his top priority, which was to get the right form of party organization—with him in control. It was for this reason that while the 1905 revolution was getting started, he was locked in battle in a party congress in London, vying for control of the party newspaper. His approach to all revolutionary matters betrayed a single-mindedness acquired at an early age. Lenin’s formative political experiences included his brother Aleksandr being executed for an attempted assassination attempt against the Tsar and expulsion from university for participation in demonstrations. In 1891, having spent two years studying Marx, he was drawn into more active politics (as were others of his generation) by the terrible famine that overtook the country that year, which was only aggravated by government action. He began to identify himself as a socialist revolutionary, true to the word of Marx. He had followed the familiar Russian path of imprisonment and exile, traveling around Europe, attending meetings with other revolutionaries, attempting to establish clandestine organizations that could escape police scrutiny, and editing a revolutionary paper (Iskra) while in Zurich.

If Lenin had a model it was Rakhmetov, the new man of Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is to Be Done? He shared the ascetic lifestyle, neither smoking nor drinking, and had a total devotion to the cause, for which he was prepared to sacrifice all. He also borrowed Chernyshevky’s title for his first major statement of strategy, published in March 1902 when he was 33. The character he deliberately cultivated was hard, tough, disciplined, and uncompromising, prepared to break with old comrades over points of doctrine and tactics, blistering in his polemics. There was little attempt at empathy with those of different views; he could not admit to error. Into his own What Is to Be Done? Lenin poured all that he had studied in theory and learned in practice. He intended it as a landmark statement. It took broadly accepted positions in socialist circles to ruthlessly logical conclusions. Even those who deplored revisionism recoiled at the starkness of Lenin’s message.

If moving quickly to a revolution meant accelerating the pace of historical development, in the case of Russia there was an awful lot of history to be passed through in short order. Russia was backward in its material development, straining to leave feudal times. At the same time, it was forever showing symptoms of mass discontent and militancy. Lenin’s energies were geared to making revolution. His pamphlet explained why alternative approaches led to dead ends and why his own might succeed, but only if it was conducted relentlessly by a tightly controlled and disciplined party.

For much of What Is to Be Done? Lenin’s main target was “economism.” The economists in question derided doctrinaire Marxists for filling workers’ heads with unrealizable demands. Better to concentrate on practical proposals that could show real and early results. In the context of the oppressive conditions prevailing in Russia, economic demands were less risky than political demands, which could be left to the bourgeoisie who were still waiting for their revolution. Lenin derided this approach as “tailism,” following rather than leading the proletarian movement. He pointed to the German SPD as demonstrating how effective organizations could encourage workers to embrace socialism as the best explanation for their everyday struggles. Because socialism was the best explanation it must not be diluted. The “philosophy of Marxism” was “cast from a single block of steel.” It was impossible to “eliminate a single substantial premise, a single essential part, without deviating from objective truth, without falling into the arms of bourgeois, reactionary falsehood.”15

As his critics pointed out, this assumed that workers could not be trusted with their own struggle and so must be guided by those with the education to grasp socialist theory. “Social-Democratic consciousness,” Lenin wrote, “had to be brought to the workers from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” As there were only two forms of political consciousness—bourgeois and socialist—failure to adopt one inevitably meant being part of the other. Lenin did not seem, however, to have worried about this part of the equation. He was optimistic about the natural instincts of workers. So he was not suggesting that the efforts of a vanguard of professional revolutionaries could substitute for those of the working class. His main concern was with the defects of Russian socialism. With its limited political development and poor organization, it was unable to give the struggle the necessary coherence and purpose and steer it away from “bourgeois consciousness.” This required professional revolutionaries. He was not against a democratic party in principle, but in practice revolutionaries were bound to act conspiratorially, otherwise they could not survive. One of Lenin’s closest associates turned out to be a police agent.

None of this was particularly controversial among mainstream European Marxists, other than the sharpness of his bifurcation between bourgeois and socialist consciousness resulting in the odd conclusion that purely working- class movements were almost bound to be bourgeois unless they were led by professionals, versed in the theory, who were invariably from the bourgeoisie. Nor was Lenin expecting leadership from intellectuals, a group far too dreamy, individualistic, and impervious to party discipline for his taste. What mattered was the party, which needed proletarian roots and support, but which had to set the objectives and the associated strategy for the movement as a whole. The anarchists had warned how the party could become an end in itself, but the Marxists had insisted that any supreme role would be a momentary function of the exigencies of the revolutionary process rather than reflecting the self-interest of the leadership.

Lenin insisted that the party was no more than a means to an end, yet he lavished care and attention on matters of organization and leadership in a quite unique way. If the revolution was to succeed, then endless disputes about small points of theory and forms of internal democracy designed to give everyone their say—whether or not they were truly committed to the cause—were luxuries that could not be afforded. Essential political work required organization, and in the face of police agents and a dispersed leadership, often in exile, this was bound to take on conspiratorial aspects. In addition, many other energetic alternatives were competing in the same political space. The Russian Social Democratic Workers Party was in a fragile state. Lenin’s ideas were therefore aspirational, looking forward to a party that could serve as the instrument of a decisive leadership, sure in theory and determined in practice.

Lenin’s capacity for organization and drive was at first turned against critics within his party rather than the system he was trying to overthrow. The Second Party Congress met in Brussels in July 1903, with Lenin’s group associated with Iskra, the party paper that he edited. The outcome was two parties rather than one, although it took another congress in 1905 for the split to be confirmed. The argument between Lenin’s Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) came over control of the paper. This became linked to claims that Lenin was determined to create an all-powerful central committee, and was in turn connected to the question of whether membership should be confined to those wholly committed to the party program and prepared to work for it or opened up to those who were only prepared to give some support. One route turned the party into a focused elite group; the other created the basis for a mass party, with some expectation of democratic control of the leadership by the party. In addition there were wider differences over strategy. The Mensheviks were inclined to ally with the liberals and use parliamentary means. Lenin would place little reliance on parliament and saw peasants as more natural allies.

In all these radical groups there was tendency for disagreements to be naturally elevated to core issues of principle and theory. Lenin aggravated the situation even more. The Mensheviks (who bizarrely embraced a name that diminished their standing) were also not particularly good at compromises, largely as a result of inner disagreements. Their leadership was not united and their discipline was poor. Lenin was a polarizing influence, making no claim to an open mind and showing scant patience with trimmers and compromisers. He would rather control a small group than share power with a larger one. He recorded an argument with a party member who deplored “this fierce fighting, this agitation one against the other, these sharp polemics, this uncomradely attitude!” Lenin retorted that this was good:

Opportunity for open fighting. Opinions expressed. Tendencies revealed. Groups defined. Hands raised. A decision taken. A stage passed through. Forward! That is what I like! It is something different from the endless wearying intellectual discussions, which finish, not because people have solved the problem, but simply because they have got tired of talking.16

Far from finding splits in the party depressing, he relished them even if they meant estrangement from old colleagues. His critics accused Lenin of being a Blanquist, aiming to achieve power through a coup d’état. Lenin denied this. The masses must be there but they would need direction. Revolution was bound to be an authoritarian event, needing a coercive dictatorship inspired by “a Jacobin mentality.”

Rosa Luxemburg was appalled at these organizational proposals, undoubtedly with her own experience of the German SPD bureaucracy in mind. She saw them strengthening the forces of conservatism and undermining creativity, denying all sections of the party—and the wider movement—the ability to use their initiative. Lenin’s “ultra-centralism” was “full of the sterile spirit of the overseer.” It was all about control, binding the movement rather than unifying it. Yet social democracy in Russia stood “on the eve of decisive battles against Tsarism.” Surrounding the party with a “network of barbed wire, is to render it incapable of accomplishing the tremendous task of the hour.” The question of the moment, she argued, was “how to set in motion a large proletarian organization. No constitutional project can claim infallibility. It must prove itself in fire.”

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The events of 1905 could be taken as a vindication for Luxemburg. Despite all the failures, she emerged with a vision for the future and a grand strategic project. For Lenin, by contrast, it was the start of a difficult period. Even as that year’s revolution got underway, the infighting continued through into February 1905 at yet another congress. This time the Mensheviks got the upper hand, largely because the party’s elder statesman, Plekhanov, swung away from Lenin. The title of Lenin’s assessment of the congress, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, conveyed his gloom at the setbacks. His opponents were accused of being opportunistic. Now in charge of Iskra, they countered by lambasting his intolerance and elitist centralism. Both factions claimed to be acting in the interests of the proletariat. For the Mensheviks this meant supporting the developing workers movement; for the Bolsheviks this meant ensuring the supremacy of a true proletarian ideology, whatever the current beliefs expressed by actual workers.

So as the divided party leadership squabbled and exchanged polemics in exile, a real revolutionary situation, which they were unable to lead, appeared to be developing at home. Their contribution to the events was tiny, part of a wide range of political tendencies—including those of liberals and disgruntled junior officers, who all sought the end of the monarchy. The focal points were the local workers’ councils—the Soviets—that emerged in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Bolsheviks viewed them with suspicion but they had to make some accommodation. Their evident limitations confirmed Lenin’s misgivings about the consequences of a lack of organization. After the authorities broke up the Soviets, there was a desperate uprising in Moscow. In the face of the army, the inadequately armed revolutionaries were slaughtered.

It was November before a general amnesty made it safe for Lenin to return to Russia from Geneva. By this time the revolution had peaked. An all-Russian strike had begun in October and the Tsar had promised constitutional changes which helped diffuse the immediate crisis, and then the authorities persecuted the revolutionaries. All options seemed poor for socialists and they argued among themselves on where and how to position themselves in the narrow political space available.

The experience clearly left Lenin unsettled. So long as there was general sympathy for the broad political movement, there was no need to distract it through terrorism and random violence. Once it had been defeated, he became more militant, demanding more direct action. Like Engels after 1849, Lenin concluded after 1905 that he must study military strategy. “Great historical struggles can only be resolved by force and in modern struggles the organization of force means military organization.”17 He enthused about armed militants building barricades, with “a revolver, a knife, a rag soaked in kerosene for starting fires.” He complained about his comrades having talked for six months about bombs without a single one being manufactured. This appears to have reflected frustration more than strategy. He toyed with the methods of the terrorists, including expropriation of funds from banks. This action for action’s sake confirmed Lenin’s reputation as a hard man, but it also made him appear reckless.

War and Revolution

On the eve of the Great War, the socialist parties of Europe had confidence in their future. In France and Germany in particular, they were becoming formidable electoral forces. They met together in the Second International, founded in 1889 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, and with anarchists safely excluded to avoid the fate of the First International. The ideological arguments were strong, but the different factions were generally on speaking terms (which is why Lenin’s behavior was considered so outlandish). Issues of revisionism and mass strikes were divisive but rarely caused comrades to fall out completely. There was one issue, however, that was potentially more divisive than the ideology and that was war. War involved nationalism, which was in principle threatening to class solidarity.

While Marxists were not pacifists they had been assumed to be antimilitarist and antiwar, for war would do nothing for the working classes. They were well aware of the great power tensions of the time and the risk that this could turn into a major conflict. There were earnest debates about what socialists could do to stop such a catastrophe, including use of strikes and demonstrations. None of this got very far, in part because there was a disbelief that anything so awful would ever come to pass, whatever the bellicosity evident in a number of countries, and a pacifist action could be easily presented as unpatriotic, providing an excuse for repression and the loss of public support. The only agreed position was that workers should hinder the outbreak of war; but if it occurred, they should bring it to a rapid conclusion. Here Luxemburg and Lenin came to a similar discordant view. If war came it should be used to hasten the revolution.

As the crisis developed during July 1914, the mainstream socialist parties lacked urgency. They did not appreciate how serious it was this time compared with previous crises. There was not necessarily much the Second International could do. Among socialists, views of war had been shaped by theories of imperialism and “a stock image of territorial acquisitiveness generated by economic competition.” They were unprepared for popular wars justified as self-defense. A formal position had been adopted by the Second International designed to maintain unity. This stressed the danger of peacetime militarism but treated the threat of a European war as being sufficiently remote that it need not expose the “latent nationalist splits in its own body.” Thus, they were caught out by the sudden rush to war.18 The Second International collapsed. Each party went its separate way as patriotic fervor overcame their members.

Lenin saw the danger that war posed for the Tsar and argued from the start that it would be for the best if Russia was defeated. So it proved. The monarchy collapsed in February 1917 following bread riots, strikes, and street demonstrations. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. At the time, with their leaders still in exile, the Bolsheviks were in no position to take advantage. Those that were in Russia initially gave their support to the liberal constitutionalists who were trying to run the government. When Lenin returned in April from his Swiss exile, he immediately called for a worldwide socialist revolution and made it clear that there should be no support for the new government. The risks were high: his party was isolated. But that meant it had no responsibility for the dire conditions. Meanwhile the government was struggling, divided, and postponing hard issues until a constitutional assembly could be put in place. The economy deteriorated while the war continued. Amid accusations of pro-German treachery, Lenin fled to Finland.

Despite Lenin’s strictures on the need for an elite vanguard party, in the fevered atmosphere of the time Bolsheviks were becoming a mass party with a membership not fully indoctrinated into scientific socialism. Lenin was the party’s leader; but he was on its extreme wing, while others were ready to compromise. Lenin’s success was not the result of painstaking organization or ideological purity but of his unique grasp of the dynamics of the situation. He understood the desperation of the people and how they were ahead of all the parties in their complete frustration with the existing order. This was not a time for the propagandist, who gave many ideas to a few, but rather the agitator, who gave a few ideas to many. He led the Bolsheviks to campaign on the slogan “Peace, Bread, Land” and to distinguish themselves by their unrelenting opposition to the war. As fresh military offensives brought fresh disasters, the credibility of the Bolsheviks grew. A misjudged insurrectionary push in the summer almost cost everything. A crackdown by the authorities could have forced the Bolshevik leadership to scatter, but they survived. By August, popular support for the Provisional Government had collapsed.

Should the Bolsheviks go for a broad-based government or a revolution which risked civil war? By September, Lenin had concluded that the country was so polarized that there was going to be a dictatorship of either the Left or Right. In October, Lenin returned from Finland. The slogan was now “All Power to the Soviets!” This meant no power to the government. He gained the assent of the Bolshevik Central Committee for an armed uprising. With his former antagonist Leon Trotsky now a close ally, the two worked together to use the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet as their instrument for seizing power. Troops loyal to the Soviets began to seize key buildings. Nobody was prepared to resist on behalf of the provisional government—not the liberals nor the military nor the Right.19

Lenin won in 1917 because he survived. A couple of times he could have been lynched or incarcerated, or he could have thrown in his lot with the Provisional Government and then been as culpable as everybody else. The isolation that had left him apparently irrelevant before now turned out to be his greatest advantage. He did not need a coalition from the top down when his numbers were growing from the bottom up.

The Bolshevik Revolution changed forever strategic discourse on the Left. This had always been lively and often vituperative, but until 1914 was also inclusive, fluid, and responsive to events. In the meetings of the Second International before the war, socialists of all persuasions rubbed shoulders and argued. With Lenin’s success, a progressive rigidity was introduced. The center of the movement shifted from Berlin to Moscow. Lenin, who judged ideas and arguments in terms of their political effects, could now be the arbiter of Marxist interpretation. In State and Revolution, a pamphlet written in 1917 but only published in 1918, Lenin asserted an extreme and uncompromising view of Marx, calling him to aid when explaining why Russia should bypass a bourgeois revolution on a quick road to communism. Much of the pamphlet was devoted to denouncing Karl Kautsky, previously recognized— even by Lenin—as the most authoritative interpreter of Marx and Engels but now forever labeled as a “renegade.”

I f Lenin had fallen during his revolutionary exertions, this pamphlet would be long forgotten. But as the thoughts of a man on the verge of achieving a revolutionary victory, the first professional in his field to do so, it achieved a canonical status. Lenin and his successor, Josef Stalin, were to be the popes of a movement in which doctrinal orthodoxy was rigidly enforced, with excommunication or worse consequences facing dissenters. The official position was not merely the better view; it was the “correct” and scientifically based view. The incorrect were not just wrong but class traitors.

The new Third International, established by Lenin in 1919, insisted that communist parties should be centralized, prepared for violent revolution and then dictatorship. They split away from the established socialist parties, stressing their differences more than shared values and objectives. At the time, Lenin and Trotsky believed themselves to be the vanguard of a revolutionary surge and looked expectantly for others to follow their example. In the postwar tumult, the expectation was not unreasonable, and some of the attempted revolutions of 1919 made progress. In the end, except for the Soviet Union, this was a period of disappointment comparable to 1848. This was particularly so in Germany. With the sudden defeat in November 1918, the monarchy fell and a new government led by Social Democrats was formed. The radical Spartacist League, which had already broken with the Social Democrats over their support for the war, assumed the moment had come. Led by Karl Liebknecht and a wary Rosa Luxemburg, an uprising was called for New Year’s Day 1919. It was a disaster and soon both were murdered by rightists. More progress was made in Bavaria where there was a brief Soviet Republic, but it was soon crushed. In Hungary, communists did seize power for a while, but the regime was inept and soon collapsed under worsening economic conditions and international isolation. There were stirrings in Italy, especially in the factories of Turin, but the authorities were able to cope.

While all this was going on, the Bolsheviks fought their own civil war, unable to help their European comrades. The nearest they got to exporting revolution was a skirmish with Poland which ended in failure as the Polish workers and peasants responded more to national than class solidarity. Later attempts from Moscow in 1921 and 1923 to reignite the revolutionary flame in Germany ended in farcical failures.

Alone and beleaguered, the Bolsheviks managed to cope with civil war, external intervention, and famine. All this confirmed their need to retain a firm grip on the levers of power. The grip was further tightened by Stalin, who maneuvered to become Lenin’s successor. He achieved his position by mastering party organization and then excluded all potential opponents, using show trials and mass purges. Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s close lieutenant, was forced into exile. As an eloquent intellectual who could trade insults with the best, Trotsky had credentials which were hard to dismiss and ensured, especially as Stalinist methods became more transparent and despised, a persistent challenge to the Moscow line, at least until he was assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940.

Although Trotsky denounced Stalin’s methods, he was in no position to question an uncompromising dictatorship of the proletariat. Nor did he try. He had been complicit in the ruthless methods of the revolution’s early days and would not accept that the original Soviet concept was in error. He insisted that the Soviet Union had been undermined by its leadership but was still a workers’ state and could recover from the bureaucratic degeneracy under which it temporarily suffered. Stalin’s paranoia, which attributed everything bad to Trotsky, fed Trotsky’s own egomania. He retained a delusional view of himself as the leader of an effective “Left Opposition” in the Soviet Union and an international mission still destined to perform its historic mission. His writings undoubtedly were more stylish than those of the turgid Stalin, but he was as dogmatic and tended to fall out with his supporters over deviations.

He played his own role in ensuring that the discourse on the Left became arid and unreflective, focused entirely on the legacy of 1917.

Left-wing politics outside of the Soviet Union was marked by a bitter sectarianism, highlighting the gap between capacities and its resources, and between political forms and democratic ideals. Moscow demanded support against its external and internal enemies as the first priority for the mainstream communist parties. Responses to local conditions and issues were smothered by the need to fit in with the latest stage of Soviet foreign policy and to deny any succor to anti-party elements, even if in practice this made life easier for the capitalist classes. This stultifying atmosphere turned idealists into party hacks and forced intellectuals into agonizing choices between loyalty to the working-class movement and to their own integrity. European Marxism as a source of strategic innovation never recovered.

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