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The democratic road to socialism: A reply to Mike Taber

April 11, 2019

breadandrosesBy Eric Blanc: I wrote my piece on Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky’s pre-1910 strategy on the democratic road to socialism in the hopes of helping socialists today sharpen our political strategy. Moving beyond various unfounded assumptions about working-class politics and history — particularly regarding the generalizability of the October 1917 model for capitalist democracies — is a good starting point for critically thinking about the specific challenges facing us today and in the coming years.

I was excited to read Mike Taber’s response to my article, since I am a big fan of his historical work. Though his contribution distorts some of my arguments and misrepresents key historical facts, I appreciate his contribution and I hope that responding to it will help clarify the political and historical stakes of this debate. Here are my responses to what I see as the main problems with his piece.

An evolutionary road to socialism?

Taber implies that I’m trying to “prove” the case for “the perspective of evolutionary change through the capitalist political set-up.” As such, he seeks to rebut my piece by noting that because capitalists inevitably resist being overthrown, “there is no example in history where a transition to socialism was successfully achieved entirely through peaceful and electoral means.”

Previous articles in this exchange:

I don’t know what to make of this critique, since so much of my article advocated revolutionary rupture on precisely these grounds — and in demonstrating that early Kautsky positively articulated this position as well. One of the reasons why Kautsky’s radical strategy remains compelling is that it posits that to overthrow capitalism a) socialists should fight to win a socialist universal suffrage electoral majority in government/parliament and b) socialists must expect that serious anti-capitalist change will necessarily require extra-parliamentary mass action like a general strike and a revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.

Dual power and insurrection

Taber claims that “Lenin and the early Communist movement never put forward an ‘insurrectionary strategy.’” This is factually incorrect. The early Comintern was explicitly committed to insurrection as the path to institute soviet power. The Second Congress’ “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism” insists that “the mass struggle is a whole system of developing actions sharpening in their form and logically leading to the insurrection against the capitalist state.” What differentiated Communists from Blanquists was not over whether an insurrection was needed, but whether or not it could be the product of a relatively small group of conspirators (a position Communists rejected).

Indeed, even when the term insurrection wasn’t explicitly used, the early Comintern’s commitment to fighting for soviet power necessarily meant advocating insurrection — that is, an “instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government” — since nobody believed that the existing capitalist state would peacefully cede power to workers’ councils.

Even in Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, in which he famously advocates the tactical participation of Communists in capitalist parliaments, he makes clear that in all countries “workers must prepare—ideologically, politically and technically—for the struggle of the Soviets against parliament, for the dispersal of parliament by the Soviets.”

That a commitment to a dual power/workers’ council strategy necessarily meant orienting to insurrection was articulated and upheld by Leon Trotsky in subsequent decades. As he argued in a 1937 balance sheet of Bolshevism, the “Bolshevik party has shown the entire world how to carry out armed insurrection and the seizure of power.”

But history has shown, as I argued in my article, that “[n]ot only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection.” Neither Taber, nor other critics of my article, have sufficiently grappled with the strategic implications of this fact.

Whereas there have been dozens of occasions over the past century in which a majority of workers have supported a process of democratic socialist transformation, there’s never been anything even approximating a majoritarian working-class push towards replacing parliamentary rule with workers’ councils. Why exactly should we expect this to change in the future — let alone hinge our strategy on such a possibility? Leninists have yet to provide a compelling response to this crucial question.

Taber misses the main point that I and others have made about why we can’t overgeneralize from the Russian experience. Soviets were only able to become the legitimate democratic expression of the majority of working people in 1917 because (due to Tsarism’s autocratic legacy) they didn’t have to compete with any elected democratic parliament; the Russian Provisional Government was an unelected body with almost zero legitimacy. But in countries where democratic parliamentary bodies already existed, dual power bodies have never gained anywhere near the same amount of popular traction.

Any even-handed balance sheet of the past century must acknowledge that a widespread adherence to a dual power/insurrectionary strategy has facilitated the marginalization of revolutionary socialists in democratic polities for generations. This is not primarily because of failed attempts in practice to organize insurrections, though there are some examples of these. The reason is more simple: assumptions about the generalizability of the October 1917 model have led most (though not all) revolutionary socialists for generations to downplay the importance of contesting for power in the electoral arena.

As I’ve written about extensively in my coverage of the educators’ revolt, building disruptive strikes, mass actions, powerful social movements, and militant unions is an essential and central component of any viable socialist strategy. But for socialism to become a majoritarian movement, these forms of action will very likely have to be combined with a serious and consistent intervention in electoral politics — which, whether we like it or not, is the political terrain that the largest numbers of working people engage with.

The workers’ government strategy

As I noted in my article, “the most perceptive elements of the early Communist International began briefly moving back towards Kautsky’s approach in 1922–23 by advocating the parliamentary election of ‘workers’ governments’ as a first step towards rupture.” Taber says this is untrue.

Yet the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in 1922 explicitly argued that “a workers’ government that arises from a purely parliamentary combination, that is, one that is purely parliamentary in origin, can provide the occasion for a revival of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Obviously, the birth and continued existence of a genuine workers’ government, one that pursues revolutionary policies, must result in a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie, and possibly a civil war.”

In terms of pro-actively “advocating” such parliamentary elected workers’ governments, I was referencing the practices and agitation of national Communist parties who in 1922-23 did openly push for the election of joint Communist Party-Socialist Party governments in countries including France, Poland, and Germany.

Unfortunately, the political advance represented by the Comintern’s workers’ government discussion was short lived and it never fully strategically crystallized. Though the demand has been periodically raised by revolutionary socialists since 1923, it’s fair to say that a majority of Trotskyist and Maoist currents have stood fast to a dogmatic commitment to the dual power/insurrection strategy, as have the newer “base-building”. formations grouped in the Marxist Center.

See, for example, Sophia Burns’ case for the goal of “launching a revolutionary uprising” and Sandra Bloodworth’s recent defense of the axiom that “[t]he system of world capitalism that we confront today cannot be overturned by any means short of mass insurrection.”

I’m sympathetic to Taber’s implied argument that Marxists should remain relatively strategically open-ended when it comes to the state and revolution. A more agnostic orientation on this question would be a step forward for many socialists who have uncritically assumed the generalizability of the October 1917 model.

It’s impossible, of course, to predict the precise form through which a future socialist revolution will look like. One of the compelling aspects of Kautsky’s early writings is his stress on precisely this question. As he pointed out in 1902, “I am thoroughly convinced that it is not our task to invent recipes for the kitchens of the future. … In this field [of revolution] many surprises for us may yet appear.” Like Kautsky before 1910, I agree that there’s no need to deny the possibility that insurrection could at some point be viably posed in the future.

This acknowledgement, however, doesn’t oblige us to avoid staking out a strategic stance based on a critical balance sheet of the accumulated experience of class struggle over the past hundred and fifty years. Politics is about wagers, not certainties. If unexpected conditions and developments emerge, we can and should always adjust our approaches accordingly.

In my view, building a militant working-class mass movement and fighting to elect workers’ governments remains the most likely path to begin a process of structural transformation and mass action capable of culminating in the overthrow of capitalism. In other words, there’s sufficient historical and contemporary evidence for Marxists to make a strategic wager on a democratic road to socialism.

Kautsky’s democratic road to socialism

But what exactly was Kautsky’s “democratic road to socialism” strategy? Taber asserts that Kautsky only first articulated this conception in 1918, i.e. after his reformist turn. This is not accurate.

As Kautsky’s biographer Salvadori notes, Kautsky from at least 1892 onwards “posed an indissoluble link between the conquest of the state and the conquest of a majority in parliament.” Indeed, I included a 1909 Kautsky quote in my article in which he argues that once workers won a majority in parliament, this would lead to a revolutionary, extra-parliamentary clash because the bourgeoisie would refuse to accept the socialists’ anti-capitalist policies.

This was the hegemonic conception of revolutionary rupture among Second International Marxists. As Kautsky put it in 1905, “the bourgeoisie has long ceased to see parliament as the chosen instrument of its rule – as an instrument that is safe under all circumstances. It feels that … the hour is approaching where the proletariat … in Germany it will conquer parliament with the aid of universal suffrage. The bourgeoisie feels that it is lost if parliamentarism becomes a truth.”

Darren Rosso’s recent article charting and condemning Kautsky’s parliamentarism provides more than enough further textual evidence demonstrating that, notwithstanding his repeated caveats about not being to predict the precise form of a social revolution, Kautsky from the 1890s onwards generally portrayed anti-capitalist rupture as passing through a victorious election of a workers’ party in parliamentary, universal suffrage elections.

Against ‘Ministerialism’

Taber claims that Kautsky’s “unsavory” stances after 1910 were rooted in his supposed “longstanding tendency of adapting to reformist and opportunist currents.” Yet Taber’s evidence of the “best example” of this supposed tendency in fact proves the exact opposite.

In 1899-1900, Kautsky led the fight to denounce the entry of reformist socialist Alexandre Millerand into the French government. Rather than praise Kautsky’s sharp fight against reformism in practice, Taber ungenerously criticizes the fact that Kautsky’s written resolution condemning Millerand and socialist “ministerialism” left open the possibility of socialists joining a capitalist government in exceptional circumstances. Yet, far from being a particularity of Kautsky, this exact same position was also shared at the time by fellow revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Giorgi Plekhanov.

Moreover, Taber fails to acknowledge that it was Kautsky himself who only three years later took the lead in articulating and advocating what soon became the standard “orthodox” Marxist stance on this question: non-participation in capitalist governments as a matter of principle. In 1903, the German SPD Dresden congress adopted the resolution written by Kautsky making a case against any such participation under any circumstances. The 1904 Amsterdam Congress of the Second International reaffirmed the Kautsky/SPD 1903 resolution.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, Kautsky from 1903 onwards was the most prominent opponent in Germany and internationally of “ministeralism,” or what would later become known as Popular Frontism. Only many years later, during the German Revolution of 1918-23, did Kautsky reverse his stance on this crucial question. In short, even Taber’s cited “best example” shows that Kautsky led the international fight against reformism before 1910 — as Lenin rightly argued, Kautsky’s later move to the center was a break from, not a continuation of, his earlier strategy and approach.

The lessons of Finland

I noted that Kautsky’s early radical strategy guided Finnish Marxists to successfully overthrow capitalist rule in 1917-18 — arguably the world’s only successful workers’ revolution in parliamentary conditions. Yet Taber argues that the Finnish Revolution is an example of why “sowing illusions among working people in a purely ‘electoral road to socialism’ is a recipe for disaster and defeat.”

It’s worth pointing out that neither I, the early Kautsky, nor the Finnish Marxists ever advocated a “purely electoral” strategy. As I stressed in my piece, and as the experience of Finland bore out, “avoiding the dead-end of social democratization will above all require a very intense and sustained degree of mass action and independent working-class organization outside of parliament. Without this, even the most well-intentioned government will flounder.”

But the main substantive point I want to address here concerns what lessons we can draw from the crushing of the Finnish workers’ government in 1918.  Taber implies that this outcome somehow invalidates Kautsky’s Marxist strategy. In my view, it’d be a mistake to throw out the strategic lessons learned from a successful workers’ revolution on the grounds of its later military defeat.

By this criteria, we should also dismiss the 1871 Paris Commune as well as Bolshevism, since its 1917-18 governments in Latvia, Estonia, and Baku were similarly taken down by the combined military forces of domestic and international counter-revolution. Furthermore, the Bolshevik project was also fundamentally defeated in Russia’s civil war, though this took the unexpected form of the rise of a Stalinist bureaucracy. Anything resembling workers’ democracy in Russia lasted less than half a year after the October Revolution, not much longer than the Finns.

Adhering to revolutionary politics, unfortunately, does not somehow automatically guarantee victory for one’s political project. Taber’s case would only be valid if the Finnish socialists’ commitment to Kautsky’s strategy was the primary reason for the defeat of their workers’ government. But, in reality, the Finnish socialists were militarily defeated because they were isolated and outgunned by the combined weight of the German and Finnish ruling classes — and because the Bolsheviks were too weak to offer them serious armed support.

Democratizing the regime

Since space restrictions prevented a thorough discussion in my Jacobin piece, I’m glad to get the opportunity to expand on my argument that “reclaiming Kautsky’s strategy should prompt socialists to focus more on fighting to democratize the political regime.” My point here was not to deny that Leninists have often fought for democratic rights like political equality for all or self-determination for oppressed peoples.

Rather, I sought to show that Kautsky’s strategic emphasis on fighting for the radical republican transformation of the existing state has been unfortunately marginalized on the far left since the October Revolution. As such, I linked to Chris Maisano’s excellent article on the anti-democratic U.S. political regime, which raised the need for socialists to fight for structural reforms like proportional representation, abolishing the Electoral College and the Senate, democratizing the Supreme Court, lowering the power of the executive branch, and enacting deep labor law reform. In this sense, it’s fair to say, as I wrote, that “Leninists have often been reluctant to proactively fight for major democratic reforms [to the structures of the political regime] because they seek to completely illegitimate the current state.”

Taber acknowledges that “one can unquestionably find some self-styled Leninist groups and parties that undervalue this fight [for democracy].” But I am not convinced of his assertion that “one cannot find such undervaluing in Lenin, Trotsky, [and] the early Comintern.” Even if we leave aside my main intended point regarding the forgotten socialist legacy of fighting for democratic republicanism, the fact remains that many of the post-1917 writings of these figures and the Comintern did diminish the importance of democracy. As Rosa Luxemburg famously argued, Bolshevik leaders as early as 1918 had a tendency to make a virtue of necessity in their suppression of basic political freedoms and democratic structures within Russia.

And on an international level, Lenin and the Comintern’s often one-sided denunciations of bourgeois democracy as a complete sham lent itself to ultra-leftism even in the early days of the Communist International. As John Riddell’s work on this website has demonstrated, for example, Communist leaders before 1923 often failed to distinguish sufficiently between capitalist democracies and authoritarian regimes, including fascism.


I hope that this debate, as it develops, will not remain limited to discussing the details of Second International Marxism — the case for and against distinct socialist strategies for contemporary conditions certainly doesn’t hinge on what activists wrote or did over a century ago.

As other comrades consider weighing in, I would again underscore that nobody, to my knowledge, has yet made a compelling positive case for the relevance of a dual power/insurrectionary strategy for advanced capitalist democracies. An article along these lines would do much more to clarify this debate than another volley of quotes from Lenin or Gramsci. Criticizing social democracy and democratic socialism is not politically convincing unless you can provide a viable alternative.

The Exchange on Kautsky and the road to socialism

Related articles by Eric Blanc on this website:

  1. How odd that Eric Blanc would take Sophia Burns’s words on “dual power” as good coin in a discussion like this. She is very well-intentioned but she has come up with her own definition rather than one commonly understood within Marxism. Just consider her citation of a neighborhood vegetable garden as an example of “dual power”.

    Furthermore, there is no “insurrectionary/dual power” strategy as such. Marxist strategy flows from concrete conditions in the class struggle. We are so far removed from such conditions in the USA, despite Sophia Burns, that it makes no sense to refute a strategy that nobody supports in the here and now. As for Kautsky’s declaration for the need for a revolution, I don’t know what to make of that. Every self-proclaimed Marxist in history has been for revolution, including Stalin–the greatest counter-revolutionary outside of the capitalist state.

    In referring us to Kautsky’s writings, Blanc leaves us with slim pickings Empty declarations about the need for socialist revolution are practically useless. I discovered that long ago when I ran into the articles of Daniel De Leon.

  2. geoff1954 permalink

    I am sympathetic — up to a point — with Eric Blanc’s plea to avoid, “another volley of quotes from Lenin or Gramsci.” However, if we are going to reconsider the ideas Kautsky expressed must we also ignore Lenin’s direct answers to Kautsky?

    I have posed this question to Eric before but perhaps he has not seen it. A clear answer might help advance the discussion. Are you aware that Lenin’s “State and Revolution” is in large part a polemic against Kautsky’s views? In rejecting what you call (falsely in my view) an “insurrectionary strategy,” are you also rejecting the conclusions Lenin outlined in what has long been considered a fairly basic work of Marxism?

    Are you aware that “State and Revolution” is based primarily on reviewing the lessons Marx and Engels drew from the experience of the Paris Commune? Do you consider those conclusions either false or “outdated”?

    Eric writes:

    “One of the reasons why Kautsky’s radical strategy remains compelling is that it posits that to overthrow capitalism a) socialists should fight to win a socialist universal suffrage electoral majority in government/parliament and b) socialists must expect that serious anti-capitalist change will necessarily require extra-parliamentary mass action like a general strike and a revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.”

    However that is not accurate. Or at least it was not Lenin’s view of Kautsky’s position. And Eric’s account of the fourth congress of the Comintern notwithstanding, Lenin’s views on how the working class can take political power were the starting point for the fourth congress discussion, not Kautsky’s.

    In “State and Revolution” Lenin quotes Kautsky as follows specifically with respect to the tactic of the general strike:

    “Its object [the object of the mass strike],” Kautsky continues, “cannot be to destroy the state power; its only object can be to make the government compliant on some specific question, or to replace a government hostile to the proletariat by one willing to meet it half­way [entgegenkommende]… But never, under no circumstances can it [that is, the proletarian victory over a hostile government] lead to the destruction of the state power; it can lead only to a certain shifting [verschiebung] of the balance of forces within the state power…. The aim of our political struggle remains, as in the past, the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the ranks of master of the government.”

    Lenin then answers:

    “This is nothing but the purest and most vulgar opportunism: repudiating revolution in deeds, while accepting it in words. Kautsky’ s thoughts go no further than a ‘government… willing to meet the proletariat half­way—a step backward to philistinism compared with 1847, when the Communist Manifesto proclaimed ‘the organization of the proletariat as the ruling class'”.

    “Kautsky will have to enjoy the pleasant company of …[those ]who are quite willing to work for the ‘shifting of the balance of forces within the state power’, for ‘winning a majority in parliament’, and ‘raising parliament to the ranks of master of the government’. A most worthy object, which is wholly acceptable to the opportunists and which keeps everything within the bounds of the bourgeois parliamentary republic.

    “We, however, shall break with the opportunists; and the entire class ­conscious proletariat will be with us in the fight—not to ‘shift the balance of forces’, but to overthrow the bourgeoisie, to destroy bourgeois parliamentarism, for a democratic republic after the type of the Commune, or a republic of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

    The very title of Eric’s most recent article, poses the question falsely, in my view: “The democratic road to socialism: A reply to Mike Taber”

    As if Mike — in defending Lenin and the conclusions of the first four congresses of the Comintern — has opted for the “undemocratic road.”

    So I will end by citing these words, not because they are another volley from Lenin, but because they express clearly what has always separated genuine Marxism from what today is known as social democracy:

    “Kautsky has not understood at all the difference between bourgeois parliamentarism, which combines democracy (not for the people) with bureaucracy (against the people), and proletarian democracy, which will take immediate steps to cut bureaucracy down to the roots, and which will be able to carry these measures through to the end, to the complete abolition of bureaucracy, to the introduction of complete democracy for the people.”

  3. Dayne Goodwin permalink

    Eric Blanc seems to be advocating a stages strategy of socialist revolution. First stage is winning the democratic revolution and then in stage two you overthrow the capitalist class. Kautsky’s political opponents Lenin and Luxemburg did not counterpose democracy and insurrection. There is no “October 1917 insurrection model” for socialist revolution outside of an intellectual construct. There was the democratic insurrection socialist revolution of 1917.

    Blanc finds Kautsky’s “radical strategy…compelling” in that it posits “fight[ing] to win a socialist universal suffrage electoral majority.” This would seem to also require fighting for a universal suffrage electoral system. But as i recall from the Luxemburg biographies by Paul Frolich and by J.P. Nettl, Luxemburg first became an open political opponent of Kautsky when Kautsky refused to join with Luxemburg in fighting for universal suffrage democratic reforms in Prussia in 1909/10. Charlie Post wrote about this recently at the Jacobin magazine: “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough”

    My understanding is that revolutionary socialists base our evaluation of socialist activists and leaders primarily on their practice, not on what they’ve preached. Isn’t “centrism” defined by revolutionary stance in word but compromise and retreat in deed? What is the political purpose and motivation behind writing an article for Jacobin magazine themed “Why Kautsky was right (and why you should care)” which draws attention to and applauds political stances Karl Kautsky took only prior to 1910? What was Kautsky’s role in revolutionary times?

  4. I’m having trouble understanding where the controversy lies here, or what the precise topic is, but it seems about important fundamentals, so I welcome it. Just to add my few cents.

    About the “the radical republican transformation of the existing state”, this involves for example replacement of the army/police (today things like ICE?) by militia, a demand which the post-1918 Kautsky still upheld. Another demand, that has never been fulfilled (since the Chartists raised it), is the reduction of parliamentary terms to a single year (the Erfurt Program demanded two year periods). An elevation of parliament’s power over the executive, would I think in practice resemble a system like the Soviets, or face similar problems: both are representative organs, Soviets in practice had their own executive organ, and there was an upper Soviet (with a similar number of members as bourgeois parliaments). A functioning parliament necessitates the creation of many parliamentary commissions (or councils), which allow for the participation/control/influence of workers (“society”) in them.

    About strategy, it is said that we shouldn’t generalize the experience of the initial “success” of the insurrectionary October 1917 revolution in Russia, but then, to be fair, we shouldn’t be allowed to generalize from its subsequent “failure” either. The post-1918 Kautsky recognized the need and power of mass strikes, lying in their unexpectedness (something which the labour unions by their nature are unable to match). This is partly the meaning I think for his so-called “passive radicalism”; we can’t “make” revolution, ie determine when it breaks out. Furthermore he recognized councils would play a key role for the future in workers’ movement, as organs of struggle for power (and not as some model “participatory democracy” of harmless cogs in a state). Eric admits that Kautsky never dismissed “insurrection” as a possibility, but surely we can see even today in plenty of “popular” (non-socialist, not to say anti-socialist) revolts that street battles are characteristic feature (in Ukraine Madian, or in Syria they quickly were a fully armed insurrection). Plenty of American right-wingers already dream of or prepare for an upcoming civil war in the US. Btw, not only Russia October 1917, but also the German 1918 revolution was an insurrection, requiring preparation many months in advance, if we’re to believe Emil Barth, leader of the revolutionary shop stewards.

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