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Kautsky and the Parliamentary Road to Socialism – A Reply to Eric Blanc

By Rob Rooke, member of Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US- article was originally published in its journal Socialist World) 

We are living through a dramatic period in U.S. history. While the Trump presidency has emboldened the right, we have also witnessed the re-emergence of strikes, the growth of a new left with DSA, Alexandria Occasio Cortez’s stunning rise to the center of American politics, and now the possibility of a Bernie Sanders presidency. Eric Blanc’s recent article in Jacobin on “Why Kautsky was Right” (4/2/19) is clearly aiming to help newer activists grapple with how socialists’ electoral successes can add up to system change and ending capitalism. The article argues for going beyond running candidates to the importance of building movements and for the need for a Marxist current to be built within DSA. All of this is enormously positive.

The recent experience of the left coalition Syriza government in Greece and the possible election of a Corbyn government in Britain makes a discussion about the road to socialism, and the role of a left party in parliament, a vital one for activists. That is why Socialist Alternative welcomes this discussion.

For much of the last century almost half of the world lived in societies that had overthrown capitalism. This process began with the working class taking power in Russia in 1917. Despite the USSR’s political degeneration, the crisis of capitalism during the 20th century continuously drove working people towards revolution. It is critically important for those fighting for a democratic, socialist society today to be familiar with those revolutionary processes to help us understand how the working class tests its own organizations based on its victories and defeats, and the role a Marxist current and party can play.

Blanc rightly criticizes those ultra left groups who oppose participation in parliaments “on principle” and reduce revolutionary strategy to the question of “taking power.” However by counterpoising Lenin to Kautsky, and the Russian to the Finnish Revolutions, Blanc asks the reader to choose between two wrongly polarized conceptions. Missing the most important lessons of each revolution, the article’s conclusions are unbalanced and will miseducate young socialist activists.

Is Kautsky Now Relevant?

Karl Kautsky was a leading socialist theoretician during the rise of German capitalism in the late 19th century, when the idea that socialism could replace capitalism by incremental legislative reforms first developed among trade union leaders and in a wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Kautsky opposed this reformism primarily because of the conclusions Marx had drawn from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, where the working class held power for three months. Kautsky and Lenin both agreed with Marx that the old capitalist state apparatus could not be taken over one brick at a time, but needed to be dismantled and replaced with a democratic workers state.

Kautsky, as Blanc himself points out, eventually fell prey to reformism. As World War I broke out, Kautsky, along with the leadership of the SPD, rejected socialist internationalism and supported the German ruling class’ war mobilization. This historic betrayal, repeated by almost all the leaders of the mass workers’ parties in Europe, led 16 million working people to their deaths. In the war’s wake revolutions spread across Europe.

Finland’s Parliament and Party

At the heart of Blanc’s article is the idea that the Russian Revolution is not relevant for working people in advanced capitalist countries and that, within the Finnish Revolution of 1917-8, we will find a new model for a “parliamentary road to socialism” that Kautsky had conceived.

At the time of these revolutions, Finland and Russia were ruled by the Tzar with an iron fist and had limited electoral freedoms. Russia’s political system favored large landowners and the nascent capitalists, and prevented workers and poor peasants, the vast majority of the population, from having any political power. The Duma which was created by the Tsar was in no sense a true bourgeois parliament. It had very limited power, and could be dismissed at any time by the Tsar. In fact a real parliamentary democracy was a significant demand of the anti-Tsarist opposition. Nonetheless the Bolsheviks, the left wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, participated in most elections and were able to get representatives elected to the Duma. According to the book, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma by Aleksei Badayev, the Bolsheviks won the support of 88% of the one million industrial workers who voted in the 1912 election.

In Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, the Tsar conceded a limited parliament in 1907 following the 1905 Revolution. Between 1908 and 1916 the power of the Finnish Parliament was almost completely neutralized by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II with a government formed by Imperial Russian Army officers during the second period of “Russification”. The Parliament was dissolved and new elections were held almost every year. When the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) won a majority in the 1916 elections, the Tsar once again closed parliament. Thus Finland did not experience prolonged political stability, unlike Kautsky’s Germany or Finland’s neighbor Sweden, where the ideas of reformism were stronger and the socialist parties became more bureaucratic as they were increasingly dominated by the trade union officials and parliamentary representatives.

Blanc attributes the Finnish SDP’s electoral victory to “patient class conscious organization and education” which is true but omits the dramatic change of consciousness brought about by events, especially the war. Finland did not experience steady, gradual economic progress, but was highly volatile during this period, in many ways more akin to the Russian experience. Russian and Finnish socialists were also in constant dialogue and the Bolsheviks’ correct approach to national oppression and support for Finland’s right to self-determination strengthened relations. At the June 1917 Finnish SDP Congress the Russian Bolshevik leader, Alexandra Kollontai won thunderous applause when she called for socialist revolution and for Finland’s right to independence. The Bolsheviks were deeply internationalist, reflected in the many Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians and other national minorities in their leadership.

The suggestion that Finnish socialists “fell under the guidance of a cadre of young ‘Kautskyists’ led by Otto Kuussinen” is a very one-sided snapshot of the process. By late 1918 Kuussinen, having fled Finland with the victory of the Whites in May, 1918, had joined the Bolsheviks and founded the Finnish Communist Party in exile. Unfortunately he later sided with Stalin against Trotsky. Kautsky’s writings were widely read by Finnish socialists, but only until more useful theoretical ideas came along based on the rich experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

How the Finnish Revolution Unfolded

The Finnish revolution broke out in late 1917 after the SDP’s electoral defeat that year. Tensions rose with rising strikes and demonstrations. The Finnish capitalist class organized anti-socialist armed militias to prepare to behead the socialist movement and the threat of a Bolshevik Finland.

The leaders of the SDP, the LO (the union federation), and the Red Guard (the workers’ armed self-defense militias) organized into a new formation, the Revolutionary Central Council. The Council initiated a general strike as a show of strength against the capitalist class. The strike paralyzed all of Finland and workers were poised to take power. However the workers’ leadership was split on the way forward and the general strike was called off. This was a crucial mistake that allowed the ruling class to remobilize.

The Finnish capitalists, backed by Germany, then launched a civil war in which 20,000 people died. Blanc makes no reference to this. After the bosses’ victory, a further 10,000 activists were executed, and some 5% of the entire Finnish population placed in political concentration camps. This is a not a secondary detail to overlook if you are proposing the Finnish revolution as your model of the “democratic road to socialism.” This terrible defeat allowed Finland to become a launching pad for the imperialist nations’ invasion of the young USSR by 21 armies, including the U.S., aimed at restoring capitalism in Russia. By 1921 the Bolsheviks had repelled this invasion, but at a tremendous cost to the socialist democracy they were attempting to establish.

Why the Russian Revolution Still Matters

Capitalism, through an army of hired academics, has produced scores of books aimed at distorting and vilifying the Bolshevik revolution. Students are taught that a genuine people’s revolution was flourishing in 1917 which was hijacked by an insurrection led by a conspiratorial grouping, the Bolsheviks, who established a dictatorship. All bourgeois histories of 1917 are variations on this basic theme. They cannot accept that working people could choose and successfully begin to construct a democratic workers government. Unfortunately Blanc dances around this untrue but commonly held view.

When the revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917, the Tsar was imprisoned, but a coalition Provisional Government came to power that refused to challenge the power of the capitalists and landlords and continued the imperialist war. Over the following eight months the Bolsheviks (Russian for “majority”), whose representatives in the Duma had been exiled for opposing the war, increasingly regained popularity with almost a quarter million people joining the party.

Workers Councils

In the rapid pace of a revolutionary situation, the working class will use whatever structures they see as viable to advance progress. In strikes, for instance, workers will throw up all sorts of structures that allow them room to go beyond the slow, sometimes over-centralized formal union bodies. This happened for example in West Virginia last year in the lead up to the historic teachers’ strike. These organs can complement or clash with the existing union structures. In the 1905 Russian Revolution a body of 30-40 workers from a number of workplaces in Saint Petersburg, the capital, came together to organize a political general strike. This strike committee filled out, with delegates directly elected in workplaces and subject to immediate recall. This became the first Soviet (Russian for council). This method of organization enabled workers to be fully involved in determining the direction of the revolution. The example was replicated nationwide because it met the needs of the movement.

After the February 1917 Revolution, while most Bolshevik leaders were still in exile, the working class rebuilt the Soviets. Soldiers and sailors, primarily drawn from the peasantry, also built these revolutionary delegate organizations that held frequent elections and represented the moods and opinions of ordinary people at a given moment. They affiliated together into city-wide councils of delegates of workers, soldiers, sailors, and were the most fluid, democratic and transparent forms of democracy yet devised.

Despite not yet having a majority in the Soviets, the Bolsheviks called for “all power to the Soviets,” as the clearest road to workers power. They campaigned for a fuller democracy with no representation for the employers. With the threat of a Bolshevik majority in the Soviets, the capitalist class, under General Kornilov organized an attempted military coup in September 1917 that was defeated by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd. When the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets met in October, with a Bolshevik and Left Social Revolutionary Party (a key peasant party) majority, they replaced the defunct Provisional Government and took concrete steps to take power away from the landlords and capitalists. They sent soldiers and workers out to take over all government functions and arrested the tops of the army and the old capitalist state. These “harsh” measures were a critical part of overthrowing capitalism, but were carried out in Russia with a huge mandate. This insurrectionary element of the revolution resulted in a relatively bloodless revolution.

Within days of the Soviets taking power in Russia, they declared the war over; all land was given to the peasants; all rents abolished; Russia’s former colonies were free to declare independence; discrimination and inequality for women was banned; the right to speedy divorce passed; banks were nationalized and homosexuality was decriminalized. For the first time, the construction of a world free of exploitation and oppression had become a realistic prospect if the revolution could be spread, especially to the advanced capitalist countries, as was the Bolsheviks’ strategy. News of October spread globally, and every boss wondered when the pitchforks were coming for them.

While the initial revolution was relatively bloodless, serious violence came to Russia when the landlords and capitalists linked up with foreign imperialist powers and launched a civil war, which engulfed Finland as well. Many of the left workers leaders in the Finnish Social Democratic Party taking part in the Finnish Revolution believed a general strike would force bosses into accepting a parliamentary transition to socialism. Engels had long before warned of the dangers of making half a revolution. Both the Bolsheviks and the Finnish SDP were rooted in the working class but the crucial difference was that the Bolsheviks had a clear perspective on the class forces at work in the revolutionary process and an organizational model suited to be able to lead a decisive struggle to its conclusion.

Parliament, the State, and Insurrection

Marx campaigned against “insurrectionism” led by small conspiratorial groups, arguing for mass action. Lenin and the early Kautsky concurred. October was a mass democratic action. The seizure of political power from the capitalists was carried out as a defensive measure against the imminent threat of a military coup by General Kornilov. But the Bolsheviks were not in fear of “illegally” taking decisive action at the critical point because they understood that not do so would open the road to counter-revolution and the smashing of the workers’ gains. Parliamentary legislation would not have ended landlordism and capitalism in Russia, nor anywhere else. In the U.S., when the slave owners had their property rights threatened by legislation they responded by initiating the Civil War, the bloodiest war fought on U.S. soil.

The state under capitalism comprises all institutions that protect the economic system: the police, the courts, the prison system. Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels studied the history of the state in class societies and determined that the state is an instrument of class rule. This apparatus enables capitalism to function without constant class conflict. He added that in the final analysis the state under capitalism “could be reduced to armed bodies of men” whose job it is to protect the status quo. It is in this light that we see parliament as a part of the maintenance of the power of the capitalist class. But Blanc argues, on the contrary, that we should “focus on fighting to democratize the political regime” which implies that legal reforms can change the nature of the state.

We think socialists should challenge the state by uncovering its capitalist bias. We also fight for every possible democratic reform including reforms of the state forces, like the police. But we do so in order to expose the limits of reforming the state, and the need for systemic change. For example, through building strong mass movements opposed to police violence, policing can be made less brutal, and important reforms can be won which will positively impact the communities affected by police violence. But at the end of the day the police will defend the interests of the capitalists by keeping workers and the oppressed “in their place”. The only way this can end is through revolutionary change.

While many U.S. workers see the capitalist state as impartial, other workers often see the role of the state more clearly because of their experience. African Americans often do not see the U.S. capitalist state as democratic at all, or neutral, but as part of a system of oppression. For Marxists, the role of even the most “democratic” parliament under capitalism is to maintain class rule. If it stops working for them they will seek to undermine it. Lenin in State and Revolution argued that a “democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism” and that “it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake this.” This is why so many working class people, while defending democracy, feel that the government is also a puppet for the billionaires.

Socialists in Parliaments

During a period of social upheaval, socialists in parliament can lend critical weight to mass movements. In Britain in the 1980s, the Militant tendency of the Labour Party, Socialist Alternative’s sister organization, initiated and led the Anti-Poll Tax campaign which became a mass movement of millions refusing to pay the British government’s new flat tax. Over ten million people joined the non-payment movement forcing Margaret Thatcher, then the Prime Minister, to resign. All of Militant’s city councilors and MPs were threatened with prison for non-payment. However this movement to break the law got little support among the majority of Labour’s Parliamentary group, with MP Jeremy Corbyn being one of the few exceptions.

City councils, legislatures, and parliaments are inherently conservative and hostile environments for the working class. Once a workers’ representative enters these institutions, the ruling class uses its full historic, cultural, and economic weight to convince them that big reforms are simply unrealistic. It is no coincidence that since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party the biggest support for his left policies is from the party’s base and the biggest resistance comes from the majority of the party’s elected MPs.

Despite the obstacles, running and winning seats in bourgeois institutions is a necessary and important part of building mass support for socialist change. Socialist Alternative sees the election of socialists as an opportunity to amplify and build mass movements, and win victories that encourage the working class to self-organize. SA member and Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant uses her seat to fight for reforms, like the $15/hr. minimum wage victory, not as an end in itself, but as a means to raise the confidence and willingness of the working class to fight.

When socialists enter these bodies of the capitalist state, to ensure they remain faithful to the movement we need a healthy, functioning mass, independent political party of the working class. Through its democratic mechanisms it can ensure accountability. Such representatives must not only refuse to accept corporate money in their election campaigns, but also accept a workers’ wage and donate the rest back to the movement.

Marxists have an even higher standard. The policy of the Bolsheviks and the Communist International established in 1919 was very specific. The day to day work of our representatives in bourgeois parliaments must be accountable directly to the party, with their work integrated into the wider political work of the party. Much of the thinking for this approach flowed from the disastrous breach with Marxism of the SPD Members of Parliament who voted overwhelmingly for World War I.

Will Revolutionary Movements Use Parliament?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, during most extensive revolutionary wave since 1917-23, most working class upheavals did not take “the parliamentary road.” The 1968 French general strike assumed revolutionary dimensions. In the Portuguese Revolution of 1975, workers nationalized their industries from below by occupations and direct mass action. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution workers organized their own Shoras (councils) that mushroomed all over the country, before the counter revolution of the mullahs led by the Shiite clerical caste succeeded.

The Chilean revolution 1970-73, in contrast, did appear to take the parliamentary road as events were accelerated by the election of a Socialist government. Here too the workers began building alternative structures to defend against the capitalist state. The Cordones (revolutionary councils) helped coordinate factory occupations and food distribution. But when the working class demanded their government arm them against a potential U.S.-backed military coup, the socialist parliamentary leaders hesitated, hoping for a compromise with the Chilean ruling class. The moment was lost and General Pinochet, with the backing of the CIA, drowned the revolution in blood, executing more than 4,000 socialist and union activists.

All these revolutions unfolded in a period where Stalinist parties played a major and very negative role in the workers’ movement, constantly seeking an accommodation with capitalism as the social democrats did in the period after 1917. Missing in all these revolutionary periods was a leadership inside the workers movements with a clear understanding of the capitalist state which could develop the strategy necessary to lead the movement to victory and create a democratic workers republic.

Perspectives for a Left Government

Resorting to military dictatorship to stop radical change is an approach associated with the ruling classes of “third world” countries, not the “advanced” capitalist countries. But in reality all ruling classes are prepared to go to extreme lengths to defend their rule. The German, Italian and Spanish ruling classes resorted to fascism. Right wing dictatorships continued in Spain, Greece and Portugal into the 1970s.

In 1975 a left Labour government in Australia was dismissed by a constitutional coup carried through by the British monarch. The 1982 best seller by British politician Chris Mullin, A Very British Coup, explored the prospect of similar developments if a left Labour government was elected in Britain. All the legal and illegal mechanisms of the state will be used to undermine any serious attempt by the working class to use parliament or Congress to implement socialist policies. The working class movement needs to be as prepared for such moments as the capitalist class are. To be successful in winning Medicare for All and other key demands a Sanders White House would need to be backed by a mass movement in the streets and workplaces. It would also need the support of an independent left party based on the interests of working people and the oppressed with a fighting program. Such a party should seek full majorities in Congress, state legislatures and city councils. However, in taking on the most powerful ruling class in world history, a leadership with a clear understanding of the role of the capitalist state will be decisive.

In the U.S., the ruling class in the past accused revolutionary socialists of engaging in a conspiracy to “overthrow the government.” Unfortunately Blanc echoes this argument. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marxists seek to win the majority of the working class and indeed the population as a whole to the necessity for socialist change.

But we also believe that the ruling class will not accept the democratic will of society if that points to them losing their power and privilege. If democracy doesn’t work for them they will try to shut it down. In the 1930s Congress investigated a military coup plot against President Franklin Roosevelt organized by a wing of the U.S. ruling class because they couldn’t abide even the limited reforms of the “New Deal.”

Revolutionary Organization

Blanc’s article, in not fully recognizing the nature of the state, ignores the limits of capitalist democracy and then goes on to argue that socialism can be won within a bourgeois parliamentary framework. His goal is to refute the Russian Revolution as being in any sense a model for today. Along with his strawman criticism of insurrectionism, he essentially argues against the idea that the working class needs its own revolutionary organization rooted in the working class. However a mass revolutionary party that understands the limits of bourgeois democracy is critical for the success of the transition for humanity to socialism. Such a party would have to be based on a clear understanding of perspectives and the tasks ahead for the working class. It would seek to build a common organization nationally and internationally. It would have to be fluent in the lessons of the past in order to fight for its ideas in the unions, broader political formations and in all the struggles of working and oppressed peoples.

We are now entering a new, more politically convulsive period in the U.S. Gone is the time when capitalism used the “threat of communism” to create fear. Gone is the market euphoria that accompanied the collapse of Stalinism. Kshama Sawant’s surprise 96,000 votes as a Socialist Alternative candidate in the Seattle City Council in 2013 signaled the re-emergence of socialism to a new generation. This victory was part of the current that, paved the way for Bernie Sanders running in 2016, which in turn triggered the explosion of membership of the DSA.

As we fight for socialism with eyes wide open, our movements must also be fluent in the pitfalls and opportunities that will shape the path forward. Eric Blanc’s article does not paint the economic background to his lineal, orderly road to socialism. We are not about to enter a similar economic period to the one that accompanied the rise of social democratic parties in the 1890s or the 1950s when the “welfare state” was at its height in the West. We are in a period where the capitalist class has no way forward to develop the economy, where crisis and instability are permanent features. This will provoke huge social upheavals and will radically change working class consciousness. It will be a period where socialists will be challenged with the complexities both of rising right and left populism, as well as new versions of reformism.

Parliaments must be used by socialists, but we need to understand what those institutions represent and the dangers inherent in them for socialists.

The capitalists have attempted to bury Karl Marx many times, yet his ideas keep coming back. With a Marxist understanding of the coming changes to our world, and our history as a class, the working class will find the road forward to replace all the rotten and corrupt institutions of capitalism and build a global socialist democracy for all humanity.