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Revolutionary strategy and the electoral road

April 13, 2019

A rejoinder to Eric Blanc

By Mike Taber: It should be apparent that my exchange with Eric Blanc (See part 1, part 2, part 3) involves more than different historical appreciations. In the background are clear differences over how to evaluate politics in general, as well as what perspective socialists and revolutionaries should adopt today. But to conduct a fruitful discussion of these points of debate, questions need to be presented clearly and assessed accurately.

I won’t try here to take up all of Blanc’s arguments, but I do hope to point to some questions that can facilitate broader discussion, hopefully outside the narrow framework of this polemical exchange.

The danger of nebulous language

What is a “democratic socialist transformation”?

The most democratic revolutionary event in modern history is undoubtedly the October Revolution in Russia of 1917. Here the insurrection was carried out by the Bolshevik-led soviets, democratically elected bodies of workers and majority-peasant soldiers. This was workers’ democracy in action.


Previous articles in this exchange:

  1. Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care) by Eric Blanc
  2. Kautsky, Lenin, and the Transition to Socialism: A Reply to Eric Blanc by Mike Taber
  3. The Democratic Road to Socialism: A Reply to Mike Taber, by Eric Blanc

But is this what Blanc has in mind? Is this one of the “dozens of occasions over the past century in which a majority of workers have supported a process of democratic socialist transformation”?

No. When he says “democratic road to socialism,” he actually appears to mean “electoral and parliamentary road to socialism.” He should just say that, so we can debate out whether or not such a road exists. I don’t believe it does.

And what “dozens of occasions” is he talking about? I know of a few cases where electoral victories by socialist parties have led to periods of intense class struggle and revolutionary mobilization, usually initiated by the forces of reaction. Spain, Chile, and Blanc’s example of Finland come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are a few more.

In thinking about it, however, it seems clear that Blanc must be talking about the dozens of elections won by social democratic and labor parties in Britain, Germany, Sweden, and many other countries. These are parties with no serious intention of carrying out any type of socialist transformation, let alone revolutionary measures.

This is not the only example of nebulous language.

A curious feature of Blanc’s articles is his frequent use of the word rupture: “anticapitalist rupture,” “revolutionary rupture,” “institutional rupture,” “rupture-oriented left-wing governments,” “path towards rupture.” I don’t object to the word itself, but unless what’s meant is spelled out, its ambiguity raises questions. What type of rupture are we really talking about?

The rupture, or break, that I would endorse is the one Marx indicated when, referring to the Paris Commune of 1871, he stated that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” And that it needs to “break” this machinery, or as Marx’s term has sometimes been translated, to “smash” it.[1]

Kautsky and the electoral road

Blanc speaks of elections as if participation in them is the same thing as belief in a “democratic [i.e., electoral and parliamentary] road to socialism.” But these are entirely different matters. One is a tactic; the other is a strategy.

He points to a 1909 quotation by Kautsky to rebut my assertion that prior to 1918 Kautsky did not put forward a strategy of a “democratic road to socialism.” The quote stated that the bourgeoisie would not simply tolerate a socialist electoral victory, and that this fact could have revolutionary implications.

I don’t see how that correct observation by Kautsky can in any way be read as outlining a strategy of a democratic (i.e., electoral and parliamentary) road to socialism.

On the other hand, the 1892 quote from Kautsky that I cited gives an accurate view of what I believe Kautsky’s strategic framework actually was in his early period. The role of democracy, he stated, was “as a means of ripening the proletariat for the social revolution.” In other words, socialist electoral participation and the full utilization of democratic rights serve to prepare the proletariat for the revolutionary struggle.

It was not until after 1917 that Kautsky put forward the “democratic road to socialism” as a fully blown strategic course. And he did so as a way to attack Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik revolution.

While fully appreciating the possibilities that the electoral arena can provide to socialists, however, it’s also important not to inflate its importance in the struggle. Any accurate assessment of the pre-1914 German Social Democratic Party that Kautsky came out of has to acknowledge that one of its major weaknesses was precisely that of overemphasizing the electoral and parliamentary struggle at the expense of mass action by working people. This was something that Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionary left-wingers in the party came to understand well.

Lenin and strategy

In the case of Lenin, too, there’s a disagreement on what strategy consists of.

The strategy of Lenin, as I stated, “was aimed at mobilizing the proletariat and its allies around the fight for their class interests, and to direct it toward the conquest of political power and the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie. In this they utilized all methods. They also recognized the reality that socialism could not be reformed into existence; a revolution was required to overturn capitalism’s political apparatus. This revolution would lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, based around a soviet-type system of workers’ democracy.”

The various aspects and stages of the Russian revolutionary fight – clandestine organization, utilization of democratic openings, efforts of popular mobilization, soviets, dual power, insurrection, civil war – all fit into a single overall strategy of Lenin’s aimed at the conquest of power by workers and peasants. To make any of these separate things into a strategy in and of itself is wrong.

On Blanquism, Eric is correct that one of Lenin’s main criticisms was its idea that an insurrection could be carried out by a minority. But Lenin also criticized Blanquism for its tendency to turn a tactic (or as Lenin would say, an “art”) into a strategy.[2] There have been a number of negative examples of those who have attempted to turn tactics into strategies. In addition to Blanquism, there’s the case of a number of Latin American revolutionaries in the 1960s, who made the mistake of viewing the tactic of guerrilla warfare as a universal strategy.

In Blanc’s view, opposing the perspective of parliamentarism and exposing capitalist democracy, as Lenin and Leninists have done, automatically means opposing parliaments and democracy in general. But these are totally separate things.

Likewise, advocating a course toward the revolutionary seizure of power cannot be equated with an “insurrectionary strategy.”

Tasks of a workers’ government

The workers’ government (and workers’ and peasants’ government) was presented by the early Communist International, and subsequently by Leon Trotsky in the late 1930s, as the outcome of the revolutionary struggle by working people, with the task of leading the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In his reply to me, Blanc speaks of an “elected workers’ government” as the goal he envisions.

But what are we actually talking about? To help clarify, we need to look at the tasks of such a government.

A good outline of these tasks can be found in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

In other words, such a government will need to move, at whatever pace, toward expropriation of the bourgeoisie and nationalization of the means of production. Interconnected with this, such a government must work to facilitate the education, organization, and arming of the proletariat and its allies. Along this road, a workers’/workers’ and peasants’ government can advance toward the dictatorship of proletariat. Unless it does so, it will inevitably fail.

It should be obvious that an “elected workers’ government” that seeks to implement such a program will almost inevitably face civil war conducted by the bourgeoisie and its defenders.

To wage the struggle effectively, organs of workers’ and popular power will be essential – whether they’re called “soviets,” “workers’ councils,” or whatever. Saying this does not amount to a “dual power/workers’ council strategy,” as Blanc asserts. It’s simply a recognition of reality.

* * *

As I said at the beginning, a serious discussion of these issues is of vital importance and should be welcomed. At the heart of it is what should be the strategy and perspective to be followed by socialists and revolutionaries today. The discussion takes on added importance given the enormous growth of interest in socialism that we’re seeing today, as well as increasing signs of crisis in the capitalist system.

While I don’t agree with Eric Blanc’s arguments on this question, I share with him a recognition of the importance of these issues. Anyone who has read Eric’s many fine articles on the history of the socialist movement knows that he is not afraid to deal with controversial questions. In this case, I’m glad he’s taken the initiative to revisit this historical debate – which is just as relevant today as it was a century ago.

The Exchange on Kautsky and the road to socialism

Notes

[1] Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 328.  Marx, letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871, in MECW, vol. 44, p. 131.

[2] See “Marxism and Insurrection” in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, pp. 22-27.

3 Comments
  1. geoff1954 permalink

    I agree with Mike Taber that it would advance the discussion if we can all agree to state clearly what perspective we are for and what alternate perspectives we reject. In an effort to contribute to that process I have called to Eric’s attention — as well as all who are following this discussion — that Lenin did exactly this in his polemics with Kautsky, most importantly, “State and Revolution,” and “Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.”

    In both works Lenin argues that working people need to understand the class nature of the state. He explains the ways in which a capitalist state — including those with forms of bourgeois democracy — is fundamentally undemocratic, while, as Mike has also pointed out, the victory of Soviet power in 1917 was a deeply democratic event.

    On Facebook Eric has just posted this statement by the “Bread and Roses” caucus of DSA, which I believe Eric urges others to join. The statement, which outlines in more detail Eric’s current views on how socialists should make use of elections today in the U.S. among other issues, offers further insight into the political strategy he favors.

    It is not the road of Marx, Engels or Lenin. Nor is it the road of the Cuban Revolution. In and of itself that does not make Eric’s views wrong. But it would help if he made clear that he is proposing a course that is based on the perspective Kautsky adopted later in his life, that the revolutionary movement rejected for excellent reasons.

    Again the differences on the lessons to be drawn from the victory of the Russian Revolution and the first four congresses of the Communist International, were most definitely NOT only theoretical ones.

    https://breadandrosesdsa.org/tasks/?fbclid=IwAR1btx4S3xSJxA9fp89DRLa13XFDQsdwFqoFAPVdnSmg6sUNXPa1slVOnCc

    • Elena Zeledon permalink

      Notice NOT ONE WORD on US imperialism. NOT ONE. Blanc is just another US-centric reformist hiding out in the Vampire Castle. For revolutionaries, anti-imperialism is not just an after thought, but the center of their socialist politics.

  2. My full criticism of Eric Blanc’s article, Post-Insurrectionary Strategy, can be found here:

    Another comrade, Donald Parkinson, has written an article in response to Eric Blanc:

    https://cosmonaut.blog/2019/04/13/revolution-or-the-democratic-road-to-socialism-a-reply-to-eric-blanc/

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