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Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution: Part 2

July 5, 2019

1917: The Bolsheviks Apply Kautsky’s Tactics

Lenin remained true to the tactical ideas of Karl Kautsky after the latter had abandoned them.

By Lars T. Lih

Lars T. Lih

As we have seen, the Bolsheviks came into 1917 with two pieces of Kautsky advice firmly under their belts: enlist the peasantry as a revolutionary ally, and do not deviate from militant anti-agreementism. In order to see how this advice played out in 1917, we need first to dispense with a couple of will-o’-the-wisps about the October revolution.

What the 1917 Revolution Was Not

In his Jacobin article [republished on this blog], Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.”

This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy—parliamentary vs soviet—as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever. Let us consider.

“All power to the Soviets!” — this was the rallying cry of 1917. But “soviet” here expresses merely the institutional form of class power. “Soviet power” meant a vlast (sovereign authority or “power”) based on the workers and peasants. No one particularly cared about how much more democratic the soviets were as opposed to parliamentary democracy — these concerns were pretty much confined to Lenin, and even he downplayed them in 1917 (compare State and Revolution to writings published in 1917 such as Can the Bolsheviks Hold State Power [vlast]?). The Bolshevik message was based rather on anti-agreementism: the workers and peasants cannot get their basic needs met in league with the elite (more below on anti-agreementism in 1917).

In no way can it be said that the Bolshevik message was based on rejection of the Constituent Assembly as “parliamentary democracy”. The opposite is the case: defense of the Constituent Assembly was an integral part of the Bolshevik agitation throughout 1917. This was particularly true in October, when Bolshevik accusations that the Provisional Government would sabotage the elections for the Assembly reached a fever pitch. In fact, fear of such sabotage was a central argument for an immediate takeover of power. After the Constituent Assembly was disbanded, Trotsky affirmed that “when we argued [in October] that the road to the Constituent Assembly lay … through the seizure of power by the Soviets, we were absolutely sincere.”[1] (It is no surprise that this statement by Trotsky is met by a scornful laugh from academic historians. What is truly remarkable, however, is that many self-styled Trotsky admirers will also automatically assume that Trotsky is lying for political reasons and that I am naïve for taking him at his word.)

Nor, further, were the alleged defects of parliamentary democracy prominent among the announced motivations for disbanding the Constituent Assembly in January. Witness: Trotsky, who gives a number of pertinent reasons for disbandment at the time, but does not mention any contrast between soviet-style government and “bourgeois parliamentarianism”. Witness: The Left SRs, who cooperated with disbandment for their own reasons.

In October, when the Second Congress of Soviets voted for soviet power, a Bolshevik-dominated committee arrested members of the Provisional Government and took other actions to prevent armed overthrow of the new government. For a number of reasons, both academic and activist historians come together in exaggerating the importance of a violent “insurrection” in the Bolshevik path to power. Essentially, the academics want to delegitimize the Bolsheviks as a whole, while the Trotsky tradition only wants to delegitimize most of the top Bolshevik leadership.

But any contrast, whether in approval or disapproval, between the Bolshevik takeover and “electoralism” is absurd. The Bolsheviks won in 1917 through winning elections — through acquiring a majority in key soviet bodies as a result of arduous campaigning — campaigning that was based on a message (anti-agreementism) that made sense to people. In fact, the Soviet government set up in October was the only government in 1917 that had any real electoral legitimacy.

The Bolsheviks won majority support for full soviet power (in other words, for anti-agreementism) in the key capital soviets in early September. After that, it was only a matter of time, of making things official. Of course, this process was dramatic and no doubt that Bolsheviks could have screwed it up. But essentially what happened was that the Petrograd Soviet officially set up a body to protect the revolution and this body did so by making a few arrests in order to protect the Second Congress. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Second Congress would declare for full soviet power — so that the existing national soviet body, the agreementist TsIK, was already a lame-duck walking corpse.

Throughout 1917, the final say in the composition of the government had always rested with the Soviet, for the simple but profound reason that it commanded the ultimate loyalty of the Petrograd workers and soldiers (that is, “real force”). Thus the February Revolution and the October Revolution gave rise to a government in essentially the same way: the relevant soviet authority spoke, and that was it. In February, there was indeed a real “insurrection” from below, but in October the so-called uprising was a police action set in motion by duly constituted authorities.

One ill effect of the over-intense focus (I might even call it fetishism) on the October “insurrection” is to obscure the real problem with Bolshevik rule, which is neither the rejection of parliamentary forms nor the use of “insurrection.” It is, plain and simple, the rapid and complete destruction of political freedom. The Bolsheviks started by outlawing political parties and newspapers (the Kadets were outlawed in December 1917) and ended up squeezing all independent political and civil life out of society. This was done by the time NEP was established in 1921 and the resulting suffocation of independent civil society was never dented until perestroika.

However, it must be strongly emphasized that at no time prior to October did Lenin or the Bolsheviks speak of “insurrection” as a method opposed to majority rule, nor can we find any hint of a project to destroy political freedom. Quite the opposite. The Bolsheviks had long defined themselves as champions of political freedom for Russia, and indeed Russian Social Democracy was key in giving Russia what political freedom it had in the decade before the revolution. But ultimately the significance of this fact fades before the realities of the system created during the civil war.

Whether for good reasons or bad, Lenin and the Bolsheviks defined themselves after October as the destroyers of political freedom in Russia. People in Western Europe had a sense that Communists wanted to use “bourgeois” political freedom to get into power, and then eliminate it for everybody else. Did the Communists give them any reason to think they were wrong?

What the 1917 Revolution Was

In the aftermath of the February Revolution, the Bolshevik party as a whole emerged from the underground with Kautsky’s tactical advice in their political DNA: enlist the peasantry as a revolutionary ally, and do not deviate from militant anti-agreementism. From the very beginning of the revolution, the Bolsheviks acted on this advice and as a result they were accurately perceived as distinctive by all actors on the political scene. (Many people want to believe that the Bolsheviks were not anti-agreementist until Lenin presented his April Theses upon his return to Russia. I have documented the problems with this view elsewhere, but the issue has no bearing on the present discussion.[2])

A crucial fact, not sufficiently emphasized, is that the Petrograd Soviet was not a “Soviet of Worker Deputies” (as was the case in 1905) but a “Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies.” This fact changed the whole political meaning of the soviet and therefore of “soviet power.” At first, the preponderance of soldiers caused serious problems for the Bolsheviks and partly explains their original isolation within the Petrograd Soviet. But later, they began to see soldier membership in the Soviet as a great opportunity: win over the soldiers to the Bolshevik message (difficult as that may have been) and it’s game over for the Provisional Government. Which is what happened.

For this reason, Eric Blanc’s comment that Leninists wanted “to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils” leads to a serious distortion of the political dynamics of 1917. The Bolsheviks then and later interpreted the soldier presence in the soviets as a link to the peasantry — that is, as a gateway to carrying out the tactic of Bolshevik hegemony. And also from the very beginning, the Bolsheviks had their eye on the wider peasant constituency. A remark by Bolshevik activist Viktor Nogin in late March succinctly foreshadows one of the principal political dynamics of the following months:

This resolution [by the Moscow Bolsheviks] proposes the organized seizure of the lands without waiting for the Constituent Assembly. The SRs could not bring themselves to propose such a slogan, since they prefer to wait for the Constituent Assembly. When they learned of the decision of the Moscow [Bolsheviks], the SRs said, “too bad for us! Now the peasants are going to elect the Bolsheviks.”[3]

Thus the Bolsheviks quickly became identified with anti-agreementism. At an all-Russian conference of soviets in late March—that is, prior to Lenin’s return and his April Theses—the red line between agreementists and anti-agreementists was sharply drawn, with the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli as the spokesman of agreementism and the Bolshevik Lev Kamenev as the spokesman of anti-agreementism. No one deluded themselves about the reality of this clash. The agreementists wagered their political future on a viable working relationship with the social elites represented in the Provisional Government, while the anti-agreementists wagered their political future on a rapidly growing split between Provisional Government and the soviet constituency.

What was the heart of the message the Bolsheviks addressed to the soviet constituency to convince them of the necessity for all power to the soviets? It wasn’t: the soviets are a higher type of democracy, down with parliamentary democracy! It wasn’t: we need a socialist revolution in Russia! As noted earlier, the Bolsheviks had previously assumed that “socialist revolution” was incompatible with the peasant ally. After 1917, they changed their mind — not about the peasant ally, but about the meaning of “socialist revolution.” The Bolshevik message in 1917 was not even: land, peace, and bread! What political party was against land, peace, and bread?

The question was how to attain goals that everybody accepted as valid. And here the Bolsheviks had a clear if primarily negative answer: we cannot attain these goals through any sort of “agreements,” dual power, coalitions or political understandings with elites! Socialists who insist on these agreements are leading us to disaster. We need a worker/peasant vlast (state power), as expressed through the soviets, that excludes any political voice for the elite.

Thus the Bolsheviks championed a message based directly on Kautsky’s advice about hegemony and anti-agreementism, advice of long standing that was familiar to the whole party. Of course, there existed anti-agreementist factions within the other socialist parties — but they remained opposition factions until the very eve of October, when the anti-agreementist faction of the SR party bolted and founded the Left SR party, which promptly joined with the Bolsheviks in an anti-agreementist coalition government. Until October, then, the Bolsheviks remained the only party united around anti-agreementism. This fact determined the dynamics of the party system in 1917.

Full soviet power only became feasible when the two streams of Kautsky’s advice came together, that is, when the soldiers and the peasant majority in the country swung over to anti-agreementism. At least, such was the view of Lenin, as expressed in February 1918. (In the following passage, “the opportunists of October” refers to Zinoviev and Kamenev. Too much should not be read into this label, since Lenin is merely adopting the term used by his polemical opponents at the time. What can be legitimately read into Lenin’s comment is a challenge to the Trotskyist/Stalinist consensus that Zinoviev and Kamenev were enemies of the revolution and opposed in principle to soviet power. From Lenin’s standpoint, the dispute arose rather from different readings of empirical forces by leaders striving for an identical goal.) In Lenin’s words:

As matters stood in October, we had made an exact account precisely of mass forces. We not only thought, we knew with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that in September and in early October the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side. We knew, even if only from the voting at the Democratic Conference, that support for the coalition [of moderate socialists and “bourgeois” politicians] had also collapsed among the peasantry—and that meant that our cause had already won.

The following were the objective conditions for the October insurrectionary struggle:

1. There was no longer any bludgeon over the heads of the soldiers—it was overthrown in February 1917 (Germany has not yet reached “its” February);

2. The soldiers, like the workers, had already experienced enough of the coalition and had completed a purposive, thought-through, heartfelt withdrawal from it.

This, and this alone, determined the correctness of the slogan “for an insurrection” in October (the slogan would have been incorrect in July, when in fact we did not advance it).

The mistake of the opportunists of October was not that they “worried too much” about objective conditions (and only children could think it was) but that they incorrectly evaluated the facts —they focused on details without seeing the main thing: that the Soviets had come over from agreementism [soglashatelstvo] to us.[4]

Both “Leninists” and anti-Leninists should take careful heed to what the man himself says here: only support from an “overwhelming majority” of the mass worker-soldier-peasant soviet constituency made the armed action in October politically meaningful. This support can be measured by electoral success. Rejection of agreementism is equivalent to support for all power to the soviets. These political facts as set out by Lenin are overwhelmingly more significant than whether the “insurrection” took place the day before or the day after the Second Congress of Soviets.

History’s Lessons, History’s Questions

Alas, history does not always give us usable lessons to apply in the present day. At most, it thrusts upon us some unsettling questions. Here are some that arise from the episode we have just considered.

For Russia in 1917, Kautsky’s advice about anti-agreementism was political gold, enabling the Bolsheviks to win power. In Western Europe, Kautsky’s advice was political lead, with would-be Bolsheviks never successfully attaining power.

In my view, neither Lenin nor Kautsky really understood why Kautsky’s anti-agreementist tactics met such different political fates in Russia and Europe. One key difference, perhaps hard for the Marxist tradition to fully analyze: the complete and sudden collapse of state authority in Russia, which had no equivalent in Western Europe. In any event, this deficient understanding finds expression in both the Bolshevik’s expectations for socialist revolution in Europe and Kautsky’s often arid polemics against the Bolsheviks.

Our final question is about the Russian revolution and its fate. It was best put by Kautsky himself, to whom we should give the last word. In March 1917, immediately after the fall of the tsar, before the political lines of force became clear to outsiders, Kautsky recapitulated his longtime argument that “the new revolutionary regime will be well protected against a counterrevolution, [because] the peasants will join it and remain faithful to it.” He then wondered how long the worker-peasant alliance would remain in force, since “the peasantry’s dependence on the revolution does not mean that they will support a further revolutionary advance of the proletariat.” Therefore, “the peasant is the ‘x’, the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a figure for it. And yet we know that this figure is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.”[5]

Kautsky is right on target: the key question for the revolution and indeed for all of Soviet history, the equation that had to be solved, was always the nature of worker-peasant relations. We know now how tragically that history played out.

See also Part 1 of this article: “Before the War: The Bolsheviks Applaud Kautsky’s Tactics

Related Articles on Kautsky, Lenin, and the Road to Socialism


[1] Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk can be found at

[2] See my series “All Power to the Soviets!,” posted on John Riddell’s blog (see

[3] Trotsky, Stalinskaia shkola falsifikatsii, 264.

[4] From “The Revolutionary Phrase,” February 1918; see (accessed 9 May 2015). I have modified this translation in accordance with the Russian text at Lenin PSS, 39:349-50.

[5] Ben Lewis’s translation of Kautsky’s article of March 1917 can be found at

One Comment
  1. geoff1954 permalink

    As in the first part of this article posted previously, there are a number of useful points made above. Yet I do not share its primary conclusions which appear to view the October Revolution as a static event rather than a living process that continued to develop after October 1917.

    A full examination of Lars Lih’s argument is well beyond the scope of an initial reaction such as mine today. I will note a few points to indicate my thinking.

    Lars concludes, “Our final question is about the Russian revolution and its fate.” Here at least he concedes that the revolution that began in October 1917 did not end there. And neither I would add, did Lenin’s thinking about it, nor the thinking of other Bolsheviks who continued to support the revolution and Soviet power, taking the opposite path from Kautsky. Not for nothing is Lenin’s well known 1918 polemic NOT titled “Proletarian Revolution and the Architect Kautsky.”

    Lars then argues, “It was best put by Kautsky himself, to whom we should give the last word.”
    Really? Was Kautsky’s analysis truly the last word? Or is it rather the word that Lars agrees with, as opposed to later words offered by Lenin and others? Let’s examine Lars’ thesis a bit further:
    “Kautsky recapitulated his longtime argument that ‘the new revolutionary regime will be well protected against a counterrevolution, [because] the peasants will join it and remain faithful to it.’ Note as Lars does that Kautsky wrote this in March 1917 so the regime he is discussing was that of the Provisional Government, not the one established by the October Revolution.

    Lares continues regarding Kautsky: “He then wondered how long the worker-peasant alliance would remain in force, since ‘the peasantry’s dependence on the revolution does not mean that they will support a further revolutionary advance of the proletariat.'”

    A an absolutely essential question to be sure and one that preoccupied Lenin and the Bolsheviks until the end of Lenin’s life (and then following that, by those who tried to continue Lenin’s course).
    Lars then elaborates the question a bit further and, in my view muddles it in a way that Lenin did not:
    “Therefore, [now citing Kautsky’s words again] ‘the peasant is the ‘x’, the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a figure for it. And yet we know that this figure is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.'”

    Was the peasant the unknown variable? Was the peasantry an undifferentiated economic class or was it made up of different elements with political interests that were not always identical? I would argue the political course followed by the Bolsheviks — in the real situation that unfolded that included Civil War and foreign intervention — aimed at sustaining and strengthening the worker-peasant alliance, was the decisive variable. I am not quibbling about semantics here. The key difference is both the nature of the peasantry and the role of a revolutionary party in this process.
    As anyone who has read Lenin’s final writings knows, this issue preoccupied him until the very end of his life and he was not hesitant to express his concerns that the party was making important errors that required sharp correction. (I recommend this book to others but Lenin’s writings are all available separate from this collection.)…/dp/1604880279

    Lars appears to discount Lenin’s post-1917 writings (or most of them) for the purposes of this discussion. I find that decision inexplicable. Especially because Lars devotes quite some attention to the issue of the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks advocacy of it and then its dissolution. and he concludes with this:

    “Whether for good reasons or bad, Lenin and the Bolsheviks defined themselves after October as the destroyers of political freedom in Russia.”

    Really? If we are going to look at what happened “after October” should Lenin not be given at least equal time with Kautsky in any summation or “final word”? Is there no place in Lars’ analysis for Lenin’s arguments in his 1918 polemic with Kautsky mentioned above, including an entire chapter titled, “The Constituent Assembly And The Soviet Republic”?…/1918/prrk/soviet_republic.htm

    Early in this second article Lars refers to, “two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy—parliamentary vs soviet—as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.)”

    Lenin, who even Lars must admit has at least an equal claim to being the architect of the October Revolution as Kautsky, did not see it quite that way. Read Lenin’s postscript:

    “This pamphlet was written in August and September 1917. I had already drawn up the plan for the next, the seventh chapter, ‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917’. Apart from the title, however, I had no time to write a single line of the chapter; I was ‘interrupted’ by a political crisis–the eve of the October revolution of 1917. Such an ‘interruption’ can only be welcomed; but the writing of the second part of this pamphlet (‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917’) will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it.
    The Author
    November 30, 1917
    Having gone further through “the experience of revolution” Lenin DID write more on this subject, even if he did not return to the precise title of his unwritten chapter.

    By 1918 Lenin was again able to address these issues based on the actual experience of the first successful proletarian revolution, which led him to his polemic with Kautsky.

    The attempt to dispense with both this polemic and “State and Revolution,” in a discussion about Kautsky’s place in the history of Bolshevik thinking and analysis of October 1917, is quite mistaken it seems to me.

    My “initial reaction” has already gone on far longer than I intended so I will simply stop here and allow Lenin to have the last word:

    “Kautsky took an indirect part in this controversy in 1905, when, in reply to an inquiry by the then Menshevik Plekhanov, he expressed an opinion that was essentially against Plekhanov, which provoked particular ridicule in the Bolshevik press at the time. But now Kautsky does not say a single word about the controversies of that time (for fear of being exposed by his own statements!), and thereby makes it utterly impossible for the German reader to understand the essence of the matter. Mr. Kautsky could not tell the German workers in 1918 that in 1905 he had been in favour of an alliance of the workers with the peasants and not with the liberal bourgeoisie, and on what conditions he had advocated this alliance, and what programme he had outlined for it….

    “The question which Kautsky has so tangled up was fully explained by the Bolsheviks as far back as 1905. Yes, our revolution is a bourgeois revolution as long as we march with the peasants as a whole. This has been as clear as clear can be to us; we have said it hundreds and thousands of times since 1905, and we have never attempted to skip this necessary stage of the historical process or abolish it by decrees. Kautsky’s efforts to “expose” us on this point merely expose his own confusion of mind and his fear to recall what he wrote in 1905, when he was not yet a renegade.
    Beginning with April 1917, however, long before the October Revolution, that is, long before we assumed power, we publicly declared and explained to the people: the revolution cannot now stop at this stage, for the country has marched forward, capitalism has advanced, ruin has reached fantastic dimensions, which (whether one likes it or not) will demand steps forward, to socialism. For there is no other way of advancing, of saving the war-weary country and of alleviating the sufferings of the working and exploited people.

    Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the “whole” of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place. It means smuggling in a reactionary defence of the bourgeoisie against the socialist proletariat by means of quasi-scientific references to the progressive character of the bourgeoisie in comparison with medievalism.

    “Incidentally, the Soviets represent an immensely higher form and type of democracy just because, by uniting and drawing the mass of workers and peasants into political life, they serve as a most sensitive barometer, the one closest to the ‘people’ (in the sense in which Marx, in 1871, spoke of a real people’s revolution[35]), of the growth and development of the political, class maturity of the people. The Soviet Constitution was not drawn up according to some ‘plan’; it was not drawn up in a study, and was not foisted on the working people by bourgeois lawyers. No, this Constitution grew up in the course of the development of the class struggle in proportion as class antagonisms matured. The very facts which Kautsky himself has to admit prove this.

    “At first, the Soviets embraced the peasants as a whole. It was owing to the immaturity, the backwardness, the ignorance of the poor peasants that the leadership passed into the hands of the kulaks, the rich, the capitalists and the petty-bourgeois intellectuals. That was the period of the domination of the petty bourgeoisie, of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (only fools or renegades like Kautsky can regard either of these as socialists). The petty bourgeoisie inevitably and unavoidably vacillated between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (Kerensky, Kornilov, Savinkov) and the dictatorship of the proletariat; for owing to the basic features of its economic position, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of doing anything independently. Kautsky, by the way, completely renounces Marxism by confining himself in his analysis of the Russian revolution to the legal and formal concept of ‘democracy’, which serves the bourgeoisie as a screen to conceal their domination and as a means of deceiving the people, and by forgetting that in practice ‘democracy’ sometimes stands for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, sometimes for the impotent reformism of the petty bourgeoisie who submit to that dictatorship, and so on.”

    From the chapter in the 1918 polemic titled, “Subservience To The Bourgeoisie In The Guise of ‘Economic Analysis'”

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