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The proletariat and its ally: The logic of Bolshevik ‘hegemony’

April 26, 2017

Part 2 of Lars Lih’s series ‘All Power to the Soviets’

By Lars T. Lih, April 2017. Were the Bolsheviks fundamentally prepared or fundamentally unprepared by their previous outlook to meet the challenges of 1917? To answer this question, we must first arrive at an understanding of the political strategy of Old Bolshevism. A coherent political strategy must answer two fundamental questions:

  1. What are the driving forces of the revolution in Russia—that is, what classes of Russian society would determine the course of the revolution, what were their interests and degree of organization, how would these classes clash and interact?
  2. What are the prospects of the upcoming revolution—that is, what progressive accomplishments could socialists reasonably hope for and what accomplishments were unlikely to happen?


Karl Kautsky

In late 1906, Karl Kautsky published an article that responded to exactly these questions, as shown by its title: “The Driving Forces and the Prospects of the Russian Revolution.” Kautsky’s analysis was greeted by the left wing in Russian Social Democracy with high enthusiasm and unqualified endorsement. Lenin and Trotsky each arranged for Russian translation and wrote glowing commentaries, as did Iosif Stalin for a Georgian edition. Lenin wrote that Kautsky’s articles was “a brilliant vindication of the fundamental principles of Bolshevik tactics … Kautsky’s analysis satisfies us completely.” In his commentary, Trotsky strongly equated Kautsky’s outlook with the views expressed in Results and Prospects, his own classic exposition of “permanent revolution”: “I have no reason whatever to reject even a single one of the positions formulated in the article I have translated by Kautsky, because the development of our thinking in these two articles is identical.” In a private letter to Kautsky in 1908, Trotsky told him that his article was “the best theoretical statement of my own views, and gives me great satisfaction.”

Even after 1917, Kautsky’s 1906 article was remembered as a classic exposition of Bolshevik tactics, although now more in anger than in sorrow over his seeming renunciation of these views. In his Renegade Kautsky and the Proletarian Revolution, written in late 1918, Lenin accused Kautsky of covering up his earlier endorsement of Bolshevik tactics. Trotsky no doubt had this article in mind when he wrote in 1922 that Kautsky had earlier published “a merciless rejection of Menshevism and a complete theoretical vindication of the subsequent political tactics of the Bolsheviks.” Stalin chose his commentary on Kautsky to lead off the second volume of his Collected Works, and his pride that such an eminent authority endorsed Bolshevism still comes shining through.[1]

In this second installment of my series “All Power to the Soviets!” I propose to document the political strategy of Old Bolshevism by using Kautsky’s article and the commentaries provided by the Russian “revolutionary Social Democrats.” I have also newly translated the final section of Kautsky’s article, where (as Trotsky noted) “Kautsky sets forth the basic tactical conclusions from his analysis.”

Kautsky entitled this final section “The Proletariat and Its Ally.” Lenin borrowed these words for the title of one of his two commentaries, and I in turn have borrowed them from Lenin. They express the heart of the political strategy of Old Bolshevism: the relationship between the Russian socialist proletariat and the peasantry. After the 1905 revolution, the Bolsheviks summed up their political strategy by labeling it “hegemony,” by which they meant the leadership provided by the proletariat and its party in the common revolutionary struggle of workers and peasants.

Lenin A

V.I. Lenin, drawing by Isaak Brodsky

Given that “hegemony” has a great many meanings in different contexts, an advantage of using Kautsky’s article is that it helps us grasp the underlying logic of the hegemony scenario apart from particular polemical formulations. Both Lenin and Stalin made a direct connection between Kautsky’s article and Lenin’s earlier book Two Tactics of Social Democracy; they argued that Lenin’s polemical formula “the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” followed the logic of Kautsky’s argument. Lenin nevertheless pointed out that “what is important here, of course, is not this or that formula used by the Bolsheviks to describe their tactic, but the essence of this tactic, totally affirmed by Kautsky.” For his part, Trotsky remarked in his commentary that while Kautsky “very rarely speaks of dialectical materialism, he always uses the method excellently in analyzing social relations.”


Leon Trotsky

Kautsky wrote his article in 1906 as a response to questions posed by Georgy Plekhanov about tactical disputes within Russian Social Democracy. Kautsky’s answers were immediately seized on by the left wing of the Russian party as a crushing vindication of their own strategy. These Russian commentaries increase the value of this set of materials. The question for us in 1917 is not primarily “how did Lenin himself understand Old Bolshevism,” but rather “how did other prominent Bolshevik activists understand it?” Stalin himself is a key figure in controversies about the impact of the April Theses, given his role as a top leader among Petrograd Bolsheviks in March 1917. Discussions of these issues also usually assume a gulf between Old Bolshevism and Trotsky’s “permanent revolution,” yet Lenin and Trotsky both completely endorsed Kautsky’s position without any cavil at all. This mutual endorsement allows us to concentrate on the huge overlap in the outlook of Lenin and Trotsky rather than the relatively minor differences.

Finally, Kautsky’s “Driving Forces” plus the Russian commentaries form a relatively compact body of material, all available in English (although it is much to be regretted that no easily accessible version of Kautsky’s seminal article is available online).[2] I will here set out the course of Kautsky’s argument in a way that brings out its underlying logic (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from “Driving Forces” and the Russian commentaries). I conclude the essay with a brief look at 1917 and beyond.

Hegemony: The heart of Old Bolshevism

Kautsky’s overall argument can be presented as a loose sort of syllogism: a major premise about class allies in general, a minor premise about the specific situation in Russia, and a logical conclusion about how to describe the current Russian revolution. What I call the axiom of the class ally constitutes the major premise: If it is not possible for Social Democracy to achieve victory without the help of another class, then “as a victorious party it will not be able to implement any more of its program than the interests of the class that supports the proletariat allow.” This axiom was not questioned by any Social Democrat and any reasoning about the nature of the Russian revolution had to take it into account.

The application of the axiom to post-1905 Russia was based on the empirical finding that “a solid community of interest [Interessengemeinschaft] exists only between the proletariat and the peasantry. This community of interest must furnish the basis of the whole revolutionary tactic of Russian Social Democracy.” Combined with the axiom of the class ally, the possible worker-peasant alliance pointed to both the victory of the revolution and the limits to its advance: “The revolutionary strength of Russian Social Democracy and the possibility of its victory rests on this community of interests between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry—but this same factor establishes the limits to the possible utilization of this victory.” This assertion about the proletariat and its ally is the heart of Old Bolshevism.

What kind of revolution?

Lenin summed up Kautsky’s recommended tactical principles: “A bourgeois revolution, brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry despite the instability of the bourgeoisie” (according to Lenin, this represented “the fundamental principle of Bolshevik tactics”). This summary formula shows the strain on the traditional Marxist binary of bourgeois vs. socialist revolution. Kautsky reacted to this strain by arguing as follows:

The age of bourgeois revolutions, that is, of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over—in Russia too. There too the proletariat is no longer an appendage and tool of the bourgeoisie, as it was in bourgeois revolutions, but an independent class with independent revolutionary aims. But wherever the proletariat comes forth in this way, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class … The bourgeoisie does not belong to the driving forces of the present revolutionary movement in Russia and to this extent we cannot call it a bourgeois one.

But the revolution in Russia cannot be called a socialist one either, because the axiom of the class ally means that the proletariat will not be in a position to express fully its own ultimate program. Kautsky’s final formula stresses the uniqueness of the Russian revolution:

We should probably best do justice to the Russian revolution and the tasks that it sets us if we view it as neither a bourgeois revolution in the traditional sense nor a socialist one but as a completely unique process that is happening on the borderline between bourgeois and socialist society—one that requires the dissolution of the one while preparing the formation of the other and, in any case, one that is bringing all of humanity [die ganze Menschheit] living within capitalist civilization a powerful stage further in its development.

Why is the peasantry a good ally?

The foundation of the alliance between workers and peasants is ultimately based on a solid community of interests. The peasant wants land on acceptable terms—as Kautsky explains, this means confiscation of gentry land without any compensation. But the drive for land was only the most urgent and visible peasant demand. According to Kautsky, Russian agriculture could only advance if the countryside was given knowledge and capital—or, to translate this argument into Soviet terms, mass literacy campaigns and tractors.

The militaristic tsarist state could not respond to these needs, nor could the wishy-washy liberals with their frightened landowner allies. This situation will therefore “drive the peasants increasingly into the arms of those parties that protect their interests energetically and ruthlessly and that do not permit themselves to be intimidated by liberal doubts: the socialist parties.” Eventually, the proletariat can become “the representative of the mass of the population and thus the victorious party.”

This community of interest was not the only reason why the Russian peasant made a good ally for the workers. Qualitatively, the Russian peasant was steadily becoming less passive and more active, more insightful, more interested in national affairs and political questions.

Events which thirty years ago would have passed the Russian peasant by without a trace now arouse a lively echo from him. He has woken up and realized that the hour has come at last to put an end to his misery. It no longer oppresses him: it provokes him. All of a sudden, he sees himself in a completely new way: he regards the government, to whose control he has hitherto trustingly submitted, as an enemy that must be overthrown.

He will no longer allow others to think for him—he must think for himself, use all his wits, all his energy, all his ruthlessness, abandoning all his prejudices, if he is to hold his own in the whirlpool into which he has been sucked … The easy-going, sleepy and unthinking creature of habit is transformed into an energetic, restless and inexhaustible warrior for the new and the better.

This eloquent passage tells us something important about the classical Marxist attitude toward the peasant. In 1850, Marx argued that the peasantry in France had little chance of acting independently in defense of its own interests on a national scale: it was too isolated, too illiterate, too parochial. This assessment was certainly not based on contempt for peasants as such, but on an empirical assessment of possibilities for effective class organization in the French villages. Accordingly, if the facts on the ground changed, the attitude toward peasant organization should logically also change.

By 1906, according to Kautsky, “the isolation of the [Russian] village had come increasingly to an end”: among the many forces that were breaking down the walls of parochialism were participation in world trade, army conscription, and family members working in the factories. Writing a decade later in 1917, Kautsky reaffirmed this argument and noted that while “the peasantry is still not so advanced in any European country as to seize the political initiative, its interest in and understanding of political questions is expanding everywhere. And this means that the peasantry’s interest in democratic rights and freedoms is growing.”[3]

What is the optimal relationship between the class allies?

Despite the growth in the peasant’s awareness and independence, the role of leader or political leadership on a national scale—the “hegemon”—was still assigned to the proletariat. The proletariat and its party will lead ideologically (making clear to the peasants what was at stake in coming revolutionary battles) and organizationally (making ultimate strategic decisions on a national scale). Thus Russian Social Democracy will take over “the leadership role” [der Führerrolle] that was exercised in earlier revolutions by the radical democratic petty-bourgeoisie in the cities. The Social Democratic proletariat will eventually become the vozhd [leader] of the people as a whole.

[Regarding meaning of “vozhd” and other Russian terms used in this article, see “A Small Glossary for the Hegemony Scenario.”]

Bolshevik “hegemony” does not mean ideological dominance à la Gramsci: the proletariat is not attempting to get the peasantry to accept the proletarian view of the world. Rather, the proletariat helps the peasantry realize its own perceived interests. Precisely because of their growing sophistication and awareness, the peasants will accept proletarian rather than liberal leadership as the most rational way to achieve their own goals.

This leadership role is not tied to any specific prediction about the constellation of political parties and the relations between them. Perhaps the peasantry will become organized in relatively coherent political parties, perhaps not. As Lenin was at pains to point out, the role of leadership could be exercised in many ways; it was not dependent on such unpredictable matters. In any event, neither Kautsky nor any of the Russians saw Social Democracy as the junior partner in a governmental coalition of worker and peasant parties. They all envisaged Social Democracy itself coming to power in the revolution, if only temporarily.

What can the worker-peasant revolution hope to accomplish?

The point of creating a worker-peasant vlast [governmental power], with the socialist worker party exercising leadership, is to carry out a program based on “the community of interests” that bind together the two class allies. This situation defines what the revolution can do: carry out the vast agenda of far-reaching change deemed “democratic” by the Marxist tradition. The same situation defines what the revolution cannot do: bring about a lasting socialist transformation of the economy.

There is perhaps a tendency among some Marxists today to look down on a “merely” democratic revolution as one restricted to paltry reforms and a measly “minimum program.” The Bolsheviks had a very different attitude. They saw the democratic transformation of Russia—creation of a radical democracy, land to the peasants, liquidation of the landowning gentry as a class, the eight-hour day for workers, and modernization of all spheres of life—as a highly ambitious and rewarding mission. Furthermore, it was one that only committed socialists could carry out. “The liberals recoil before such gigantic tasks” (Kautsky), but the socialists do not.

Concretely, the main democratic changes sought by the worker-peasant vlast are (politically) a radically democratic republic with full political freedom and (economically) land to the peasants along with the liquidation of the pomeshchiki (gentry landowners) as a class. Some readers will perhaps be surprised by some of the other far-reaching measures mentioned by Kautsky: cancellation of state debts, nationalization of railways, oil wells, mines, dissolution of the standing army, mass education. These and other similar measures are examples of the “minimum program”—an incongruous name, since it means the maximum that could be achieved without abolishing capitalism. A revolution that carried out “the minimum program” would utterly transform Russia.

Nevertheless, “it is not to be expected that the peasants will become socialists.” Kautsky’s reasoning here was axiomatic for all Social Democrats. Peasant agriculture was still based too exclusively on small farms, and socialism cannot arise from such restricted enterprises. The “intellectual and material conditions” for socialism are still lacking in the Russian countryside, which still made up the vast bulk of Russian society and economy. Even so, Kautsky suggests a possible path forward. If socialism came to dominate in large-scale industrial and agricultural enterprises, it might be able, “through the power of its example, to convince the small-scale peasants and stimulate them to imitation.” This idea is very close to the rationale behind NEP in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

Back in 1906, however, Kautsky concluded that the worker-peasant revolution will most probably result in “a strong peasantry on the basis of private ownership” and thus also the creation of the same gulf between worker and peasant that was the norm in Western Europe. “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already pointing toward the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring Social Democracy to the helm temporarily” (Trotsky translates: “bring to power [vlast]”.) No Social Democrat (including Trotsky), no matter how much to the left, would have disagreed that Russia’s peasant majority blocked socialist transformation in Russia taken by itself.

But at this point in the argument, Kautsky inserts a surprising yet characteristic caveat:

Clearly, however, we may experience some surprises. We do not know how much longer the Russian revolution will last—and the forms that it has now adopted suggest that it has no desire to come quickly to an end. We also do not know what influence it will exert on Western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there. Finally, we do not yet have any idea how the resulting successes of the Western European proletariat will in their turn act on the Russians. We should do well to remember that we are approaching completely new situations and problems for which no earlier stereotype is appropriate.

Writing a decade later, immediately after the February revolution, Kautsky opens up the possibility that the peasant will follow the proletariat, not only against the forces of tsarist reaction but also the bourgeoisie. He again insists that the Russian peasant is a dramatically unpredictable factor:

If one is able to roughly, if not exactly, place the tendencies and needs of the other classes in Russia in parallel with the same phenomena in western Europe, this way of looking at the situation breaks down with the Russian peasant. His material circumstances and historical traditions are quite unique, and at the same time have been in the process of colossal change for three decades.

The peasant is the ‘x’, the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a quantity for it. And yet we know that this quantity is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.[4]

Kautsky’s remarks give rise to the following crucial observation: the argument that sets out what the worker-peasant revolution can and cannot do is empirically based and as such open-ended. The facts on the ground will change in surprising ways, and this means we cannot set rigid limits in advance about how much progress toward genuine socialist transformation can be made by a worker-peasant vlast.

What can we expect from the anti-tsarist liberals?

The Russian liberals are indeed motivated to fight against tsarism, but they are also afraid of unbridled revolution. They will therefore try to lead the anti-tsarist revolution, but only in order to cut it off long before it goes “to the end.” They will eventually turn against the revolution if it threatens to get out of hand (as it inevitably will). Fortunately—assuming the Social Democrats do not renounce their own mission to act as vozhd of the Russian narod [people]—the liberal bid for leadership will fail.

This projected scenario is based on an analysis of the liberals’ class position. As a general rule throughout Europe, the liberal bourgeoisie becomes less and less revolutionary as the proletariat becomes more and more organizationally and ideologically independent—and the Russian proletariat is exceptionally advanced in this regard. The main class ally of the liberals—the gentry landowners—were able to play at anti-tsarist radicalism as long as the peasantry seemed quiescent, but 1905 had shown that these days were gone forever. The gentry landowners will therefore become more and more reactionary, and the liberals along with them.

In any event, the liberals are unable to respond in an effective way to the central economic challenge facing Russia: making peasant agriculture progressive and productive. The liberals can only respond to this radical crisis with halfhearted analysis and halfhearted solutions—for instance, transferring gentry land to the peasants, accompanied with a crippling compensation package.

Furthermore, Russia is dependent on foreign capital and is obliged to pay extensive foreign debts in support of the government’s drive for Great Power status. These foreign entanglements make it impossible for the liberals to challenge the interests of European capital. There is a continuity between Kautsky’s critique of the liberals in 1906 and later Bolshevik critiques of “liberal imperialism” before and during the war. Bolshevik rejection of the Provisional Government’s foreign policy in 1917 was thus well prepared.

What implications does Kautsky’s analysis have for disputes among socialists?

Kautsky himself does not dwell on the more divisive implications of his argument, but he is clearly aware of them. He wrote his article in the first place in order to respond to questions submitted by Georgii Plekhanov, who was trying to gather ammunition for one side in the debate among Russian Social Democrats over political strategy. Plekhanov’s quest backfired, since Kautsky’s argument ended up giving powerful ammunition to the other side in the dispute—a fact duly noted not only by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, but also by Mensheviks such as Yurii Martov: “Kautsky, in his final conclusion, is an agreement with com. Lenin and his fellow thinkers who proclaim the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”[5]

The Russian writers dotted Kautsky’s i’s and crossed his t’s in order to bring out the implications of his argument for their factional disputes. Stalin’s commentary focuses exclusively on this issue and spells out for us why Kautsky was seen as an honorary Bolshevik. At the beginning of his pamphlet in Georgian, Stalin remarked that Kautsky was known as “a thorough and thoughtful investigator of tactical problems.” At the present time, “when mutual criticism often aggravates the situation by passing into recrimination and it becomes extremely difficult to ascertain the truth, it is very interesting to hear what an unbiassed and experienced comrade like K. Kautsky has to say.”

Stalin 1917

Iosif Stalin (1917)

Stalin’s exposition is useful for another reason. We are often told that, in March 1917, Stalin was thoroughly disoriented and offered passive or even active support to a Provisional Government dominated by liberals. We are further told that this unrevolutionary behavior was the direct consequence of the inadequacies of Old Bolshevism and its inability to respond to the post-February situation. We therefore need to ask how Stalin himself saw the supposedly inadequate hegemony scenario (it is remarkable how little interest this obvious question has aroused in the past).

Stalin sets out four issues at dispute between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, showing that in each case Kautsky’s authority comes down solidly on the side of the Bolsheviks. The first issue was the nature of the Russian revolution: who will be the leader of the revolution, who will be the vozhd of the rebellious narod? Will it be the bourgeoisie, as in the classic instance of the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” in France? Or will it be the proletariat? Stalin cites the Menshevik writer Aleksandr Martynov: “The hegemony of the proletariat is a harmful utopia.” Stalin defiantly replies: “The hegemony of the proletariat is not a utopia, it is a living fact, the proletariat is actually uniting the discontented elements around itself.” The proletariat is the vozhd of the revolution.

Well then, if the liberals are not the vozhd of the revolution, can they at least be allies of the proletariat? The Bolsheviks answer “no,” because the only reliable allies are the “poorest peasantry” or just plain “peasantry” (Stalin uses these terms interchangeably). Only the peasants can “conclude a solid alliance with the proletariat for the whole period of the current revolution.”

In contrast, the Mensheviks overestimate the revolutionary qualities of the liberals and seek an “agreement” [soglashenie] with them both during Duma elections and in general political strategy. For the sake of this agreement they are ready to compromise on programmatic demands, even to the extent of renouncing the ambitious minimum program (for example, accepting the goal of a constitutional monarchy instead of demanding a democratic republic). The Bolsheviks reject any such deals and agreements, and they can cite Kautsky as an authority.

The third question separating the factions: “what is the class essence of the victory of the revolution, or, in other words, which classes must claim victory in our revolution, which classes must conquer power [vlast]?” According to the Bolsheviks, victory in the revolution entails a worker-peasant vlast. In contrast, Mensheviks want the vlast to be incarnated in a liberal-dominated Duma legislature—a “dictatorship of the Kadets” (the main political party of the liberals). But according to Kautsky (Stalin triumphantly asserts), any such government would be counterrevolutionary.

The fourth and final issue: is it permissible for Social Democrats to participate in a revolutionary worker-peasant government? The Mensheviks say “no,” the Bolsheviks say “yes”: “if in the struggle on the streets the proletariat together with the peasants destroys the old order, if the proletariat sheds blood alongside the peasants, then, naturally, the two should go together into the provisional revolutionary government in order to carry the revolution to the desired results.” In support of the Bolshevik position, Stalin quotes Kautsky’s assertion that the revolution might very well bring Social Democrats to the helm of power.

There exists an opinion that the hegemony scenario allowed and even committed the Bolsheviks in 1917 to participate in the liberal-dominated Provisional Government that was set up immediately following the February revolution. The preceding exposition of Stalin’s argument shows the baselessness of this argument. The “provisional revolutionary government” envisioned by the Bolsheviks in 1906 was a worker-peasant vlast, directed against liberal attempts to lead the revolution, with the party of the socialist proletariat exercising full political leadership. The Bolsheviks rejected in advance any socialist “agreement” with the liberals, not to mention participation in a government dominated by them. Stalin was therefore only stating the obvious when he remarked in March 1917 that the actual Provisional Government was not to be confused with the “provisional revolutionary government” envisioned earlier.[6]

We can conclude that Kautsky’s article not only affirmed the Bolshevik position on the major issues separating the factions, but it also supported in advance the Bolshevik crusade in 1917 against the “agreementism” of the other socialist parties. We may further conclude that if Stalin had actually offered support for the Provisional Government in March 1917 (later posts in this series will refute any such assertion), he did so not because of, but rather in spite of, the clear mandates of Old Bolshevism’s logic of hegemony.

What are the international implications of the hegemony scenario?

We have already mentioned in passing the main international implications of Kautsky’s argument. Tsarism’s Great Power ambitions are a central cause of the burdens placed on the peasants, and both the tsarist state and the liberals are beholden to international capital. The revolution itself and the tactical decisions of the Russian Social Democrats will also have profound international effects:

It is, of course, urgently necessary for us, Western European socialists, to form a definite view of the Russian revolution: it is not a local but an international event, and the way we interpret it will exert a profound influence on the way we view the immediate tactical tasks of our own party … . We also do not know what influence it will exert on Western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there. Finally, we do not yet have any idea how the resulting successes of the Western European proletariat will in their turn act on the Russians.

The hegemony scenario summarized

We are now in a position to summarize the hegemony scenario as set forth by Kautsky and enthusiastically endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. This scenario was first and foremost an empirical analysis of the class dynamics of Russia at a particular conjuncture. But these empirical findings are the result of asking a specific set of questions: they are Social Democratic answers to Social Democratic questions. As Lenin put it, Kautsky “has fully confirmed our contention that we are defending the position of revolutionary Social Democracy against opportunism, and not creating any ‘peculiar’ Bolshevik trend.”[7] Furthermore, the various tenets of the hegemony scenario are held together by a single logical argument.

The tactics mandated by Bolshevik hegemony can be concisely summed up in a single sentence: In order to carry the revolution as far as permitted by the community of interests between worker and peasant (“to the end”), the socialist proletariat and its party should strive to institute a worker-peasant vlast based on proletarian leadership of the peasantry, and they should also combat any attempt by liberals to retain leadership of the revolution as well as any attempts by moderate socialists to come to some sort of political agreement with the liberals.

All Power to the Soviets!: Bolshevik hegemony in action

The Second Congress of Soviets was in session on October 25 and 26, 1917 (according to the old calendar). During that short time, it accomplished the following:

  • Proclaimed the whole vlast was now in the hands of the Soviets of Worker, Soldier and Peasant Deputies.
  • Established a government that rejected any coalition with liberal or other elite parties.
  • Refused to be budged by the boycott of the “agreementist” moderate socialists.
  • Named an exclusively Bolshevik cabinet.
  • Transferred land to the peasants and eliminated gentry property in land.
  • Issued a sweeping proposal for ending the war with a “democratic peace.”

Do these actions of the Second Congress and/or the tactics of the Bolshevik party during the revolutionary year confirm or refute the hegemony scenario as set forth by Kautsky in 1906 and endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin? Let us go through the list of the scenario’s key features and check off the items that apply to 1917.

Establishment of a worker-peasant vlast. Check. The official title of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception was “Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies” (emphasis added). The soldiers in the Petrograd garrison and in the tsarist army generally were overwhelming peasant in origin, and thus the Soviet claimed even in February to be the authoritative voice of a class alliance.

When Lenin passionately argued in autumn 1917 that the time was ripe for a full exercise of soviet power, one of his central arguments was the nation-wide wave of peasant disturbances. In making this argument, he insisted on continuity with the hegemony scenario: events have “confirmed the Old Bolshevik formulation, correspondingly modifying it, that the peasants must be wrested from the influence of the bourgeoisie.”[8]

Of course, the soviets per se—the institutional vehicle of the worker-peasant vlast in 1917—were mentioned neither by Kautsky nor by the Russian Social Democrats in their commentaries. The hegemony scenario envisaged the establishment of a revolutionary vlast based in some way on the workers and peasants; its exact institutional form could not usefully be predicted in advance. Even in 1917, the possibility of an alternate institutional incarnation for a worker-peasant vlast was bruited by Lenin and others.

As we know, Lenin had ambitious hopes for the soviets as a higher type of democracy that superseded “bourgeois parliamentarianism”—hopes that he expressed in State and Revolution, written in 1917 but published in 1918. Owing to Lenin’s book, this rationale for soviets is very well-known today. What is important for historical understanding is to distinguish between this rationale and the rationale that was crucial in 1917, namely, the soviets as a vehicle for class power.

In his April Theses, Lenin wrote that “the masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Worker Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government.” In response, the Bolshevik Mikhail Kalinin asserted: “The only thing new in com. Lenin’s theses is the assertion that the Soviet of worker deputies is the only form of [revolutionary] government. That’s not true, but what is true is that the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies is for the present moment the only possible vlast.”[9] Thus Kalinin endorsed the “class vehicle” rationale and expressed skepticism about the “higher type of democracy” rationale. Possibly he modified his skepticism after reading State and Revolution a year later. Nevertheless, he was right to distinguish the two ways of looking at the soviets, and also to assert that what was crucial for the ongoing revolution was the idea of the soviets as a vehicle for class power.

Hegemony proper: political leadership by a socialist party based in the proletariat but claiming to express basic peasant interests. Check.

Proclamation of an ambitious and transformational set of measures based on the community of interests between workers and peasants. Check. Lenin made it quite clear that any “steps toward socialism” would be taken only if they responded to perceived peasant interests (as shown later in the present series). The rationale for soviet power presented by the Bolsheviks throughout 1917 was a “democratic” one: the immediate aims of the revolution—land to the peasants, a democratic peace, economic regulation in the interests of the people—could not be attained in coalition with the elites (“agreementism”), but only by an exclusively soviet government.

Combatting any attempt by liberals to lead the revolution, or to halt the unfolding of the revolution, or to turn against the revolution. Check.

Rejection of the “agreementism” of the other socialist parties. Check.

Opposition to militarism and imperialism, hopes for a European revolution that will in turn accelerate the development of the Russian revolution. Check.

Hegemony: victory and limits of the revolution

The pillar of the hegemony scenario was the following assertion, in Kautsky’s words: “The revolutionary strength of Russian Social Democracy and the possibility of its victory rests on this community of interests between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry—but this same factor establishes the limits to the possible utilization of this victory.” As Kautsky’s further discussion revealed, these “limits” were not rigid barriers set in stone, but rather based on an open-ended judgment call about prevailing circumstances—in particular, growing peasant awareness and organization. This crucial assertion is also the fundamental explanation for the Bolshevik victory in the civil war: the Bolsheviks were able to use “a solid community of interest” between workers and peasants, but they did not overstep the limits imposed by the interests of their peasant allies.

In early 1922, Menshevik leader Fyodor Dan wrote about his recent experiences in Soviet Russia in 1920, as the civil war was coming to an end. Dan felt that the defeat of the peasant-based Red Army in Poland was not just a military failure:

[The Red Army] was, is and will remain invincible when it is a question of defense, or protecting the peasants’ revolutionary gains against encroachments from domestic reaction or foreign imperialism. To defend the land he has seized against the possible return of the landlord, the peasant Red Army man will fight within the greatest heroism and the greatest enthusiasm. He will advance barehanded against cannons, tanks, and his revolutionary ardor will infect and disorganize even the most splendid and disciplined troops, as we saw with the Germans, the British and the French in equal measure…

But the idea of Bolshevik communism is so alien and even hostile to the mindset of the peasant Red Army, that he can neither be infected by it himself, nor can he infect others with it. He cannot be attracted by the idea of war to convert capitalist society into communist society, and this is the limit of the Red Army’s potential for the Bolsheviks.[10]

Dan had a strange understanding of “the idea of Bolshevik communism.” Nevertheless, this passage brings home to us two central points about the Russian revolution. First, it was strong when it expressed the peasant program, and weak when it strayed beyond those limits. In his 1907 commentary on Kautsky’s article, Trotsky had suggested that a proletarian regime would feel compelled to insist on socialist changes that would alienate the peasantry, leading to the downfall of the regime, if no help arrived from abroad. As a member of the Bolshevik leadership during the civil war, Trotsky worked hard to falsify this prediction—and indeed, whenever forced to choose between socialist ideals and peasant support, the Bolsheviks chose peasant support.

Immediately after the October revolution, they gained peasant support by letting the peasants break up large estates (much to the scorn of Western socialists, who saw the breakup of large production units as economic regression). In 1919, they moved away from “class war in the villages” to an accommodation with “middle peasants.” In 1920, they based long-term agricultural policy on small-scale peasant agriculture rather than socialist experiments. In 1921, they retreated further by allowing free trade in grain.

“Hegemony” means “leadership.” Although this point was obscured by the Menshevik Dan, the peasants could hardly have constituted an effective fighting force unless they had been given political leadership by a political party based on the urban branch of the narod—a party that was also able to use the essential elite skills of the officers even while ensuring that the officers had no political influence, especially on the central question of peasant land. The Red Army was Bolshevik hegemony in action.

The Russian revolution set off tremors around the globe and unleashed strivings for vast democratic as well as socialist changes. As far as Russia itself was concerned, however, the bottom line was that the West European proletariat did not take power in any country. To the surprise of the Bolsheviks, the worker-peasant vlast survived. Why?—because the core insight of the hegemony scenario proved more robust than even its proponents believed. As pointed out in the title of a Pravda article written by Evgenii Preobrazhensky for the third anniversary of the October revolution in 1920, the “middle peasant” turned out to be “Social Base of the October Revolution.”

Preobrazhensky (later a member of the Left Opposition) argued that “over the whole course of the civil war, the middle peasantry did not go along with the proletariat with a firm tread. It wavered more than once, especially when faced with new conditions and new burdens; more than once it moved in the direction of its class enemies. [But] the worker-peasant state, built on the foundation of an alliance of the proletariat with 80% of the peasantry, already cannot have any competitors for the vlast inside the boundaries of Russia.”

To conclude: The hegemony scenario as set out in 1906 by the spokesman of revolutionary Social Democracy, Karl Kautsky, and enthusiastically endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, tells us why a worker-peasant vlast was created in 1917 as well as why it survived in the civil war that followed.

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[1] In 1922, Karl Radek also pointed to the seminal importance of Kautsky’s article. He argued further that Kautsky was closer to Trotsky than to Lenin and indeed that his article was a forerunner to the April Theses. Radek’s memory did him a disservice, since he clearly misdescribes both Kautsky’s article and Lenin’s Theses (see Radek, “Paths of the Russian Revolution,” available on Marxists Internet Archive).

[2] Kautsky’s article plus excerpts from commentaries by Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record, eds. Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (2009).

[3] Kautsky, “Prospects of the Russian Revolution” (1917) translated by Ben Lewis.

[4] Kautsky, “Prospects.”

[5] As cited by Stalin in his commentary.

[6] Stalin Sochineniia, 3:10.

[7] As cited in Day and Gaido 2009, p. 568.

[8] Lenin, PSS 34:198.

[9] Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov); Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov) (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958).

[10] Two Years of Wandering: A Menshevik Leader in Lenin’s Russia, ed. Francis King, London 2016. This well-presented memoir is highly recommended.

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