What lessons can we draw for today from the Russian Revolution of 1917—the first socialist revolution and one of the most important events in modern human history? The Bolshevik Party, which led that revolution, viewed it as the beginning of the worldwide struggle to overturn capitalism and open the door to the socialist transformation of society by working people.
This is the topic of a recent debate between Eric Blanc, a socialist historian and activist, and Mike Taber, editor of a number of books related to the history of revolutionary and working-class movements. The magazine Jacobin published Blanc’s original article, “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution.” The website “Marxist Essays and Commentary,” edited by John Riddell, subsequently republished it along with a response by Taber, titled, “What Are the ‘Right Lessons’ for Socialists?”
World-Outlook is republishing this debate (and translating it into Spanish) for the benefit of our readers and to encourage further discussion on the issues involved.
Some may ask why this debate matters today. In the discussion on the Marxist Essays and Commentary site one reader argues, “It is hard to take any of this debate as relevant to current conditions and strategy (except the point about the viciousness of the ruling class), because world conditions of economy and communication have changed so much between 1920 and 2020.”
We disagree. The lessons of previous working-class struggles are of genuine importance to those seeking to end the evils of capitalism today. Those lessons have been learned at the expense of countless lives lost both in important victories and costly defeats. Beginning with Marx and Engels, revolutionary socialists have studied the lessons of history. Lenin and other Bolsheviks were serious students of the great French Revolution of 1789—a bourgeois-democratic revolution—although “world conditions of economy and communications” had been revolutionized between 1789 and 1917. The axiom, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” remains true.
Blanc argues: “Socialists have rightly taken inspiration from the Russian Revolution for generations, but many of the lessons drawn from it are wrong for our own time. To make change today, we need to take democratic socialism seriously as a theory and practice.”
“I believe the conclusions Blanc draws are flawed,” Taber replies, “and that the ‘right lessons’ he points to will lead socialists in the wrong direction.
“Above all, Blanc asserts that the central strategic objective of the socialist movement is to fight not for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism but for ‘transformative reforms, a struggle he envisions will be conducted largely through electoral and parliamentary means. In this he departs radically from the entire tradition of the socialist movement going back to Marx and Engels—including the perspective of the early Karl Kautsky that Blanc associates himself with.”
The editors of World-Outlook agree with Taber’s basic analysis. We share his view that, “A clear and open debate on questions of program, strategy, and history is needed by the socialist movement…that exchanges on these issues, and over the ‘right lessons’ socialists should draw, can be vital for new generations of activists hungry to learn where the socialist movement comes from, what it stands for, and where it is going.”
We want to add one political point to the discussion.
In his article Blanc writes: “What came to be known as ‘Leninism’ was founded on the myth of Bolshevik exceptionalism. This school of thought, [was] pushed by the early Communist International and subsequent generations of Stalinists and Trotskyists…”
No, Leninism was not founded on a “myth.” How did the term arise? Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the central leader of the Bolshevik Party, from its origins in a political divide within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, through the victory of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, to the end of his life in 1924. He was also the central leader of the workers and peasants government that came to power, and the workers state that was subsequently established. He led the team of Bolshevik leaders who helped found and guide the Communist International through its first four congresses. Lenin’s contributions to Marxist theory and practice rest on the foundational ideas of scientific socialism developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. His writings, speeches, and leadership example came out of the practical experience of the working class in making the first successful socialist revolution in history, and from efforts to aid workers and farmers around the world to extend that example.
Like Marxism, Leninism is not a gospel. Nor were Lenin’s ideas and political conclusions treated as such by the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International, prior to his death. What has come to be known as Leninism is a further contribution to scientific socialism.
In presenting his erroneous conception of “Leninism,” Blanc leaves out the views of Cuba’s revolutionary leadership on Lenin’s ideas and example. In fact, his entire discussion of revolutionary history and strategy omits any reference to the Cuban Revolution at all. Because the Cuban Revolution is the only surviving revolution upholding revolutionary Marxism today, this is a glaring omission and hardly an inadvertent one on Blanc’s part. Those who are attracted to revolutionary socialist ideas cannot ignore the essential example of the Cuban Revolution, the first socialist revolution in the Americas.
Blanc may dismiss the Cuban example as irrelevant to his argument because that revolution had to overthrow a brutal dictatorship, not a capitalist government resting on parliamentary democracy. But a decade or so after the victory in Cuba, the road Blanc advocates was taken in Chile when Salvador Allende, a left-wing member of the Socialist Party, was elected president as the candidate of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) a coalition led by the Socialist and Communist parties of Chile. In the events that followed, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionary leadership played an active role while explaining what was necessary to open the road to socialism.
Taber briefly called attention to the Chilean experience:
“I then gave the examples of Spain in 1936–39 and Chile in 1970–73, where working people were not told the truth from the outset about what they would be facing. As a result, they were left largely unprepared for the ferocious reaction by world capitalism, and went down eventually to bloody defeat.”
This deserves more discussion. We urge Blanc and others to study the lessons Fidel Castro explained to working people when he spent over three weeks visiting Chile in 1971—an unprecedented amount of time for a head of state—following Allende’s electoral victory in 1970.
A careful reading of Fidel’s speeches and interviews—presented often to crowds of radical-minded workers and peasants and others at times numbering in the thousands—confirms he did his utmost to warn Chilean working people of the dangers of the strategy Blanc now advocates again. The Allende government had introduced reforms including nationalization of foreign holdings in copper, nitrate, iron and coal, as well as banks and textile mills. As Allende’s government started to implement a previously adopted land reform law, peasants began to seize land. These and other steps taken by Allende’s administration and pushed forward by working people evoked a sharp response from the Chilean capitalist class and U.S. imperialism.
As evidence mounted that the ruling class would not accept these reforms, nor any further demands of workers and peasants, Fidel pointed to the lessons of history. In his farewell speech at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, on December 2, 1971, he explained:
“All obsolete social systems and societies have defended themselves when threatened with extinction. They have defended themselves with tremendous violence throughout history. No social system ever resigned itself to disappear from the face of the earth of its own free will…”
His warnings proved tragically accurate when the Popular Unity government was brutally overthrown by the Chilean military on September 11, 1973, at the cost of thousands of lives—a coup followed by years of repressive right-wing dictatorship.
While in Chile, Fidel gave Allende an automatic rifle as a gift. Allende used that rifle in his final moments to defend the Presidential Palace from the army. On September 28 during a mass rally at Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, Fidel spoke about the Chilean events:
“We were right in our premonition in giving the President that rifle,” Fidel said. “And if every worker and every farmer had had a rifle like it in his hands, there wouldn’t have been any fascist coup.”
Fidel’s speeches and interviews can be found here.
Today’s debate is not new. As early as 1900, the outstanding revolutionist Rosa Luxemburg defended Marxism against those who argued for a different course “in light of more recent evidence.” Luxemburg’s “Reform or Revolution” deserves study again, in view of Eric Blanc’s revival of this debate. It can be found here.
Challenges to Leninism are also not new. James P. Cannon, a founder of the communist movement in the U.S., wrote in 1936: “The struggle for a revival of the Leninist, that is the revolutionary, movement is a struggle against confusion and demoralization. Made-to-order substitutes for the revolutionary strategy of Lenin appear on every side. The renunciation of Leninism has become a fashion.”
Before rejecting Leninism, as Blanc advises, anyone interested in revolutionary strategy should study Cuba’s example and Fidel’s important contributions on Chile in particular. As Mike Taber explains, Blanc “departs radically from the entire tradition of the socialist movement going back to Marx and Engels.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks were the foremost continuators of that tradition. Fidel and the leadership of the Cuban Revolution picked up that mantle and acted on it. That example cannot be ignored in any serious discussion of revolutionary strategy.
Geoff Mirelowitz, for the Editors of World-Outlook
Both articles are reproduced by the authors’ permission. Due to their length, we are publishing each piece separately. Blanc’s article that prompted the debate was published first and can be found here. Taber’s response follows.
What Are the ‘Right Lessons’ for Socialists? A Reply to Eric Blanc
By Mike Taber
Eric Blanc is a serious and dedicated socialist historian and activist who doesn’t hesitate to jump into the fray and take positions he knows are controversial. Such an attitude is commendable, even if I disagree with his conclusions. His latest article, “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution” — published in Jacobin and reprinted on John Riddell’s website [as well as on World-Outlook.com]— is no exception and merits careful examination.
In his article Blanc aims to set the record straight on V. I. Lenin and the Russian Revolution, and to demolish the “myth of Bolshevik exceptionalism,” which he asserts is “wrong for our own time.” Instead, he seeks to establish the “right lessons” socialists should take from the history of the fight for “socialist transformation.”
I believe the conclusions Blanc draws are flawed, and that the “right lessons” he points to will lead socialists in the wrong direction.
Above all, Blanc asserts that the central strategic objective of the socialist movement is to fight not for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism but for “transformative reforms,” a struggle he envisions will be conducted largely through electoral and parliamentary means. In this he departs radically from the entire tradition of the socialist movement going back to Marx and Engels — including the perspective of the early Karl Kautsky that Blanc associates himself with.
Moreover, Blanc greatly underestimates the ferocious reaction by the capitalist class to any genuine “transformative reform” that threatens its basic interests. Such underestimation can have disastrous results for working people.
In his article, Blanc raises some of the same questions I addressed during our 2019 polemical exchange on Kautsky [see list of items at the end of this article]. Rather than simply repeating the points I made earlier or taking up all the things Blanc raises in his article, I’ll focus here on some key questions of socialist continuity, program, and strategy.
I’m sure Eric Blanc would agree with me that these are not just interesting historical questions, but relate to the most fundamental issues of what the socialist movement is and what its objectives should be.
1. Socialism’s Legacy
‘Revolutionary social democracy’ of the Second International
As an alternative to Leninism and the “Bolshevik myth,” Blanc holds up revolutionary social democracy, rooted in the Second International during its Marxist period prior to the First World War. The record of that movement deserves careful study, which I’ve tried to facilitate with my book Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International, 1889–1912. This new collection takes up the programmatic record of the Second International during the years when its adopted resolutions were guided by revolutionary Marxism.
Providing a full appreciation of the Second International in all its complexity still requires some work. Useful contributions to this work have been made in recent times by a number of socialist historians from a variety of perspectives, including Ben Lewis, David Broder, Jean-Numa Ducange, Lars Lih, Daniel Gaido, Eric Blanc himself, and others.
Blanc correctly identifies Karl Kautsky as the Second International’s generally acknowledged authority on Marxism during most of its existence. In my book, however, I stress the key role played by Frederick Engels in the Second International’s founding in 1889, and the important advisory role Engels played up until his death in 1895. As Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator and co-author of the Communist Manifesto,Engels helped link the Second International back to the beginnings of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Under his guidance, the Second International was established as an irreconcilable revolutionary opponent of capitalism.
The term “revolutionary social democracy” that Blanc uses is accurate enough as a description of Kautsky, August Bebel, Jules Guesde, and others who helped defend Marxism within the Second International during most of its existence. Among the elements of this label, however, it’s worth mentioning the following positions:
- For the revolutionary overturn of capitalism through expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the taking of political power by the working class.
- For building proletarian parties whose fundamental goal is revolutionary transformation of the capitalist social order, not simply reforming bourgeois society.
- Opposition to participation by socialists in capitalist governments. No support to bourgeois parties.
These adopted positions of the Second International — which virtually all social democrats today reject — testify to this International’s strengths and to the revolutionary underpinnings of its approved resolutions during the 1889–1914 period.
An additional achievement of the Second International was its advancement of international working-class unity and solidarity. The initiation of May Day as an international workers’ holiday — a day for demonstrating the power of the labor movement around the world — testifies eloquently to this accomplishment, as does the launching of International Women’s Day.
Alongside the Second International’s undoubted achievements and strengths, however, were important weaknesses and contradictions. One of these was its inability to build a truly worldwide movement that went beyond Europe and North America. But certainly the biggest weakness was the gap that developed in the Second International between theory and practice, between word and deed, as the day-to-day practice of most of its parties became increasingly dominated by reformist and nonrevolutionary perspectives. Moreover, these opportunist tendencies were increasingly obscured by centrist rationalizations on the part of Kautsky and others.
This gap between word and deed became a canyon with the onset of World War I in 1914. In clear violation of all the Second International’s resolutions, the main parties of the Second International renounced their past pledges to oppose capitalist war, and lined up behind their governments’ war efforts. Millions of workers and others were sent to the slaughter, with the open support of these parties.
The betrayal of 1914 marked the political death of the Second International. Even though it was formally relaunched in 1919, the new International bore little resemblance to the revolutionary movement Engels had helped found in 1889. It now openly defended capitalist rule, and to a large degree devoted itself to attacking the Russian Revolution.
Within the prewar Second International, however, a consistent revolutionary wing developed in opposition to the growing opportunist trend. The two individuals who best represent this opposition were Rosa Luxemburg and V. I. Lenin. Following the betrayal of 1914, Lenin and Luxemburg, each in their own way, contributed to assembling the nucleus of what was to become the Third, Communist International (Comintern), which crystallized following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
Blanc rejects the idea that the Bolsheviks created a “party of a new type,” and speaks of “the myth of ‘democratic centralism’” in Bolshevik organization. He then says that the hallmarks generally associated with Bolshevism and Leninism were determined simply by having to operate under conditions of illegality, and were essentially no different from those of socialists from other groups in the Russian Empire that he has studied in detail.
I agree with Blanc that Lenin’s contributions are sometimes torn out of context, and that innovations are occasionally attributed to Lenin and the Bolsheviks that are in fact completely rooted in a long Marxist tradition. Such attributions were a particular characteristic of Stalinism, which for its own purposes elevated “Leninism” into a state religion. It’s therefore important to render Lenin’s ideas accurately, and to get the lines of continuity straight.
While some of Blanc’s specific points on the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire are certainly correct, the narrative he gives in his article largely skips over the main rival socialist current the Bolsheviks had to contend with: the Mensheviks. Examining the Bolshevik-Menshevik divide, however, gives a clue as to what made the Bolsheviks different from other socialist organizations in the Russian Empire.
The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks came about at the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, during a debate over the organizational rules of the party drafted by Lenin. In Paragraph 1 of these rules, Lenin proposed the formulation: “A party member is one who accepts the party’s program and supports the party both financially and by personal participation in one of the party organizations.”
The future Mensheviks objected to the phrase “by personal participation in one of the party organizations.” They instead advocated a looser form of organization and a wider conception of membership, in which those who sympathized with the movement could join without having to be organizationally involved or committed.
That looser form of organization — and what came to be a different conception of what the party should be — remained a feature of Menshevism. This organizational disagreement was soon accompanied by, and was increasingly related to, differing political evaluations of the class forces in the Russian revolutionary struggle, which came to a head in 1917.
The Russian Revolution and its lessons
The October Revolution in Russia had a profound impact on the international working-class movement.
What was the overriding lesson of the Russian Revolution? That the working class was capable of taking political power in its hands, that proletarian revolution was a real possibility, and that the objective of workers’ power should be the central strategic goal of class-conscious working-class fighters. This unquestionably remains one of the “right lessons” that socialists today should draw from the Russian Revolution.
Not only did the proletariat take power in Russia in alliance with exploited peasants and oppressed nationalities, but it held this power against the onslaught of world capitalism and began the task of socialist construction. In an explosion of creativity, the early Russian Revolution began to tackle a scope of challenges such as organizing the economy, charting a course to deal with the national question, building a worker-peasant alliance, drawing in women as full members of society, opening up education and culture to millions, and much more. Regardless of the subsequent fate of the Russian Revolution under Stalinism, the legacy of these accomplishments retains its importance.
Led by Lenin, the early Communist International attempted to bridge the Second International’s gap between word and deed. The manifesto of the Comintern’s First Congress in fact described itself as “the International of the deed.” On the ashes of the Second International and its historic betrayal, they built a movement that began dealing with questions of strategy and tactics that had often been neglected or underappreciated within the Second International and its parties. And they began to construct, for the first time in history, a truly worldwide revolutionary movement that included toilers from countries oppressed by imperialism.
Based on this record, the continuity of revolutionary Marxism — and the legacy socialists today should look to — can be seen as passing squarely through the Communist International under Lenin. The pre-1914 Second International is a valuable part of the revolutionary socialist heritage, with rich lessons, but it is inadequate as a guide to the work of socialist activists and working-class militants in the twenty-first century. Contemporary appeals to “revolutionary social democracy” as the guidepost for socialists today are recipes for confusion, unclarity, and disorientation.
2. Aspects of Socialist Strategy
Democratize the capitalist state or replace it?
What should be the programmatic and strategic objective of the revolutionary working-class movement?
Giving his opinion, Blanc writes: “Because Leninists tend to focus more on exposing than transforming existing states, the project of democratizing the state [my emphasis, M.T.] — through initiatives like subordinating unelected governmental bodies to parliament, eliminating antidemocratic structures like the US Supreme Court, and giving public employees and trade unions substantial governance powers — has lost the centrality it had in early socialist strategies.”
Of course, Marxists have always championed democratic demands as an essential part of their program, and I agree with Blanc that some socialists and communists have greatly underappreciated such demands, as well as minimized the importance of defending democratic rights against capitalist attack. When one is talking about “socialist transformation,” however, clarity is needed on how this is to be achieved.
The classic statement on this question can be found in Karl Marx’s well-known account of the Paris Commune of 1871: “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” It “breaks the modern state power.” In other words, a genuine revolution replaces one state power with another.
The capitalist state and its apparatus is a reality. At the heart of this apparatus are the repressive forces, along with judicial and legal structures, political organs, instruments of ideological domination, and so on. These bodies all exist to defend the property relations at the root of the capitalist social order. Socialist transformation is possible only following the replacement of this entire apparatus by new institutions designed to serve the rule of the working class and the oppressed. Marx and Engels termed this the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
But from Blanc’s article, one would barely know that the capitalist state even exists. Ambiguous language is resorted to: Blanc speaks repeatedly of “rupture” or “revolutionary rupture.” What exactly is meant here? Does it signify a revolutionary overturn of the old state power such as France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1919, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, Nicaragua and Iran in 1979, and countless other such events and processes? Or does the term refer instead to electoral victories by social-democratic parties or candidates such as Bernie Sanders? Who knows?
Other ambiguous and contorted expressions appear too, such as when Blanc writes that “the central task, and the key political dilemma, is how to fight — both inside and outside the state — for transformative reforms that strengthen and unite the working class, especially in ways that open up, rather than close off, avenues for further organizing workers to overcome capitalist domination.”
What precisely is meant by “transformative reforms”? And what could possibly be the meaning of “organizing workers to overcome capitalist domination”?
Given that the theme of Blanc’s article relates to the lessons of the Russian Revolution, an example of this unclarity can be seen in his depiction of Russia in 1917. We are told that in Russia “there was neither a parliament nor a capitalist state to smash.”
Such a statement is strange indeed. A capitalist state and a parliament (of sorts) most definitely did exist in Russia — both under the tsar and under the Provisional Government created following the tsar’s ouster in February 1917— which defended capitalist property relations and the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie. True, there were peculiarities in Russia. The tsarist system rested on the landed nobility, in which the bourgeoisie itself did not hold the reins of power in its own hands. As for the parliament, the fact that the State Duma in Russia was never a sovereign body is not the key thing.
Specific features of capitalist regimes can certainly vary. One has only to look at the wide variety we have seen over the last century: the presidential administrations of Trump and Biden, the murderous fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Bonapartist systems of all types, administrations headed by social-democratic parties, and so on. The class nature of these widely different regimes is determined by their common defense of capitalist property relations.
Nevertheless, Blanc is certainly accurate in pointing to an unusual situation that existed in Russia between February and October 1917: dual power between the pro-capitalist Provisional Government on the one hand, and the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets on the other.
A ‘dual power’ strategy?
Dual power is a phenomenon that can emerge in the course of a revolutionary struggle, in which two competing powers, reflecting opposing class forces, temporarily co-exist. It is a highly unstable situation and is resolved relatively quickly, as one class or the other asserts its dominance.
Blanc refers to Lenin’s “dual power strategy.” That assertion is inaccurate. For Lenin, dual power was not a strategy; it was simply a fact.
Revolutionaries don’t aim for dual power with the capitalists. They aim for workers’ power, in alliance with the proletariat’s allies. They want to resolve situations of dual power in favor of the working class as quickly as possible. They strive to replace dual power with unitary workers’ power, embodied in popular organs of proletarian self-organization, whatever name they’re given — soviets in Russia, cordones industriales in Chile, shoras in Iran, or simply workers’ councils.
Incorrectly ascribing a “dual power strategy” and “insurrectionary strategy” to Lenin, Blanc then takes up aspects of Leninist practice that don’t correspond with his depiction, and portrays these as if they are movements away from “Leninism.” This is seen clearly in his discussion of the workers’ government.
The workers’ government: a revolutionary instrument
Eric Blanc writes that “the Communist International’s 1922 Fourth Congress rather ambiguously projected the possibility that electing a ‘workers’ government’ to the existing state could become a starting point for a socialist revolution. Advocacy of such governments by Leninists marked a significant move back toward revolutionary social democracy.”
The reality is quite different.
During the worldwide revolutionary upsurge of 1918–20, proletarian revolution and insurrectionary struggles appeared to be on the agenda throughout the world, especially in Europe. During this period, the young Communist movement put forward a series of immediate tasks in line with that short-term perspective.
With the receding of the revolutionary wave by 1920, however, the Communist International began to adjust its tactics. As the wave ebbed, the working class internationally was thrown on the defensive, with the capitalists and their governments launching wholesale attacks on workers’ rights and living conditions. The demand for unity in action to resist the capitalist offensive became an urgent matter in the eyes of millions of workers. Out of this reality, the Comintern’s united-front strategy was formulated in 1921.
The workers’ government demand, raised initially in the German workers’ movement in 1920 and subsequently at the Communist International’s Fourth Congress in 1922, flowed from this united-front perspective: a governmental slogan based on workers’ unity in the struggle against the capitalist class. Discussion at the congress drew on the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German revolutionary struggles of 1918–20.
With its position on the workers’ government, the Communist International showed clearly that it was not just issuing shrill calls for revolution and proletarian dictatorship, but was searching for effective roads toward them.
The workers’ government (and the workers’ and peasants’ government) was most definitely not seen as arising from elections, but on the contrary was envisioned as rooted entirely in revolutionary action and the class struggle.
At the Fourth Congress, Comintern leader Karl Radek stressed that the workers’ government was “not a matter of parliamentary coalitions but a platform to mobilise the masses and wage a struggle.” He then rooted the concept squarely in the united-front perspective. “The workers’ government slogan is important to guide us. It conceives of the united front as a unified political goal. The moment when workers come together to fight for the workers’ government and control of production will mark the beginning of our counteroffensive.”
With regard to Blanc’s claim about “electing a workers’ government,” it’s true that the Fourth Congress resolution on this subject stated 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.” It’s clear from reading the resolution, however, that the possibility of a workers’ government originally taking shape in parliamentary form was regarded only as a brief prelude to workers’ mobilizations aimed at overturning capitalist rule.
Additionally, the Fourth Congress raised the possibility of the election of social-democratic and labor parties as one possible variant of a workers’ government. But such developments were termed “illusory workers’ governments,” in contrast to “genuine” ones.
Electoral battles by working-class and socialist parties can and should be part of a revolutionary movement’s work. These can be important in registering gains obtained and can lead to an escalation of the class struggle, as long as the proletariat’s class independence is not compromised. But there is no electoral road to a workers’ and peasants’ government, any more than there is to socialist transformation.
Parliaments and elections
In his article Blanc rejects the assertion that he advocates an “electoral road to socialism,” and stresses that he does not “downplay the importance of non-parliamentary mass organizing.” How should these claims be assessed?
Referring to “a revolutionary rupture with capitalism,” Blanc writes, “Kautsky argued that this path would at some point require the election of a socialist majority to parliament and that this body would serve as a centerpiece of workers’ rule.”
Kautsky’s actual views on socialist transformation in the years Blanc discusses (prior to 1910) were much more rounded than what is presented above. For example, Kautsky wrote in 1908: “The transition to socialism thus means the transition to great struggles that will shake the entire structure of the state and are destined to become ever more violent; they can end only through the overthrow and expropriation of the capitalist class.”
It’s helpful to look at the long history of socialist electoral and parliamentary participation.
The first Marxists who fully utilized the electoral and parliamentary arena were August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht in Germany, both elected to the Reichstag in 1867. How did these two revolutionary social democrats view that arena? At all times, Bebel and Liebknecht sought to avoid illusions in what could be accomplished in such bodies, and tried to be as precise as possible about the value of this activity.
In Liebknecht’s words: “That propaganda is the main purpose of our participation in the elections and in parliamentary work, has been stated so often by my comrades and myself that it needs no further elaboration.”
Such propaganda did not consist simply in making speeches. It included putting forward proposals for concrete reform measures. Winning such reforms was obviously a goal socialists fought for and hoped to attain. But these proposals also had an overriding propaganda purpose. As Bebel put it: “I wish above all to emphasize that in my opinion the chief task of Social Democracy is not to secure laws for labor protection, but to explain to the workers the nature and character of present-day society, in order that this society should disappear as quickly as possible…. The workers must learn to understand the nature of this society so that when its last hour has struck, they will be able to establish the new society.”
The revolutionary perspective of Bebel and Liebknecht regarding bourgeois parliaments is entirely consistent with the views outlined in the Communist International’s 1920 “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism,” which Blanc considers to be a Leninist innovation. That resolution stated: “From the very outset, in the period of the First International, the attitude of socialist parties to parliamentarism was to utilize bourgeois parliaments for agitation. Participation in parliament was seen from the point of view of developing class consciousness, that is, of arousing the proletariat’s class hatred of the ruling class.”
The tradition of effective revolutionary socialist work in parliament was carried out by the Bolshevik Party in Russia too. Even under the tsar, the Bolsheviks utilized electoral openings for propaganda purposes, and did open and effective parliamentary work inside the tsarist Duma, even while the party itself was strictly illegal.
Electoral victories and capitalist reaction
Regarding Blanc’s point about “election of a socialist majority” as the “centerpiece of workers’ rule” and socialist transformation, two points should be made:
First, when speaking of “election of a socialist majority,” one needs to specify exactly what is meant. Is it intended to signify the election of procapitalist social-democratic parties, such as we’ve seen over the last century in numerous countries in Europe and elsewhere? Or does it refer instead to the Bolsheviks winning a majority in the elections to the Russian soviets on the eve of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia? Blanc would appear to be referring to the former, while disregarding the latter.
Secondly, on the question of working-class electoral victories and the reaction to them by the capitalists, I’ll repeat what I said in my 2019 reply:
“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.” I then gave the examples of Spain in 1936–39 and Chile in 1970–73, where working people were not told the truth from the outset about what they would be facing. As a result, they were left largely unprepared for the ferocious reaction by world capitalism, and went down eventually to bloody defeat.
In my earlier article, I wrote that certainly “a peaceful transition [to socialism] would be preferable to revolutionary upheaval. But has there ever been a ruling class in history that has calmly and peacefully surrendered its power? Will the bourgeoisie come shake the proletariat’s hand and say, in chivalrous fashion, ‘You won fair and square. Here are the keys to our government and to our industries. Good luck.’ No, I don’t think so!”
A ‘big tent’ or a party of revolutionaries?
Blanc puts forward a schema of party unity that advocates “broader workers’ parties that includes both revolutionaries and moderate socialists.” He calls this a “big tent.”
Many of us have frequently heard the view expressed: “Why can’t socialists all just get together?” The abstract idea of socialist unity strikes a chord with many people, particularly those who are new to the movement. But it would be an error to fetishize unity. At times, unity can certainly be positive and necessary; at other times not. The key questions to be asked are: “Unity with whom?” and “Unity for what?”
Unity between capitalists and workers? No. Unity between revolutionaries and right-wing opportunists who defend capitalism and attack revolutionary activists? No. Unity in action of those fighting for common objectives? Yes. Unity of the working class in the fight against capitalism? Yes, definitely!
There are also numerous forms of organizational unity that should be kept in mind, among them trade unions and factory councils, broad coalitions to organize specific actions, single-issue committees, and many more.
With regard to political parties, however, two points need to be made:
1. Revolutionary socialists at various times have called for the formation of a labor party, based on the trade unions, as a step toward breaking with capitalist parties and fighting for independent working-class political action, and they have participated in such parties. But Marxists have never advocated “broad labor parties” in general, and have instead stressed the class-struggle program that such parties needed to adopt, knowing that this would ultimately require the ouster of class-collaborationist labor leaders.
2. The socialist movement’s history on this question is instructive.
Marx and Engels were prepared on a number of occasions to part company with forces within the movement whose perspective ran counter to the line of march of the working class. They did so both within the Communist League in the early 1850s and within the First International in 1872.
The Second International was formed in 1889 in direct competition with reformist forces, who held their own rival congress at the same time. Marxists opposed unification of the two congresses unless it was based on clear revolutionary principles. Only when the new International’s revolutionary program was firmly established and accepted could the rival forces be united. But that didn’t end the story, however, as the example of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) shows clearly.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the SPD was an organization with expressed revolutionary aims, with close to a million members, and with the support of the majority of the working class. But within the party, an opportunist wing developed and grew over the years. Increasingly, reformists and opportunists simply ignored the SPD’s expressed aims, undermining them at every step. Centrists within the party leadership rationalized this situation and adapted to it.
The fruit of such “party unity” was seen in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. The SPD supported its own capitalist class in the war, and helped lead working people to the slaughter. Those socialists who sought to maintain the principle of working-class internationalism ultimately had to split from the SPD in order to continue the fight for socialism. Would Blanc have told them not to? Would he have urged them to remain in the “big tent”?
The experience of the SPD illustrates why revolutionaries and reformists cannot coexist for long in a party aiming for socialism. If they do, it almost always means that the revolutionary forces become imprisoned in a reformist straightjacket.
In Russia, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were often called splitters, harshly criticized for their unwillingness to reunite with the Mensheviks. But in 1917 Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were on opposite sides of the barricades, as most Mensheviks backed the Provisional Government while the Bolsheviks supported the demand of “all power to the soviets.” Meanwhile, at the same time as the Bolsheviks split with nonrevolutionary forces, they also united with other currents and organizations that were on the same side of the battle lines. In doing so, they gave a lesson of revolutionary unity that remains of value today.
A necessary debate
At the present time tens of thousands of young people and others are rallying to socialism in the United States and around the world. Most, however, have little idea of the history of the socialist movement, or of its revolutionary thrust. They know little about where this movement comes from.
Eric Blanc and I are fully in agreement that examining this history is not just an academic exercise, but is closely tied to day-to-day political tasks, and to broader questions of what we should be aiming for.
A clear and open debate on questions of program, strategy, and history is needed by the socialist movement. I believe that exchanges on these issues, and over the “right lessons” socialists should draw, can be vital for new generations of activists hungry to learn where the socialist movement comes from, what it stands for, and where it is going.
Mike Taber has edited and prepared a number of books related to the history of revolutionary and working-class movements—from collections of documents of the Communist International under Lenin to works by figures such as Leon Trotsky, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara.
(as they appeared on “Marxist Essays and Commentary”; republished by permission)
 For information on Under the Socialist Banner, see https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1649-under-the-socialist-banner
 The debate on these rules, as recorded in the congress minutes, can be found in 1903: Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1978).
 From the “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Proletariat of the Entire World” adopted by the Comintern’s First Congress in 1919.
 Marx, “The Civil War in France.” in Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 22, pp. 328, 333.
 From John Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, p. 400, 401
 Ibid., p. 1160.
 From Kautsky’s “Reform und Revolution,” cited in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880–1938 (London: New Left Books, 1979), p. 126.
 Wilhelm Liebknecht, “On the Political Position of Social Democracy, Particularly with Regard to the Reichstag,” in William A. Pelz (ed.), Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Chicago: Haymarket 2016) p. 153.
 Quoted in Mike Taber (ed.), Under the Socialist Banner, p. 30.
 The “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism” can be found in volume 1 of John Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991).
 See A. Bedayev, The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/badayev/1929/duma/index.html
Related Posts on ‘Marxist Essays and Commentary’
When Eric Blanc’s and Mike Taber’s articles were published on the website “Marxist Essays and Commentary,” John Riddell who edits the site listed related articles that also appear below. World-Outlook is sharing the list for the information of our readers.
- “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution,” by Eric Blanc (August 9, 2021)
- “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)” by Eric Blanc (April 4, 2019)
- “Kautsky, Lenin, and the Transition to Socialism’ a Reply to Eric Blanc, ” by Mike Taber (April 6, 2019)
- “The Democratic Road to Socialism: A Reply to Mike Taber,” by Eric Blanc (April 11, 2019)
- “Revolutionary Strategy and the Electoral Road,” by Mike Taber (April 13, 2019)
- “Karl Kautsky as the Architect of the October Revolution, by Lars T. Lih (July 4, 2019)
- “On the Democratic Character of Socialist Revolution,” by John Riddell (July 9, 2019)
- “Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action,” by James P. Cannon (1942, posted July 10, 2019)
Thanks for running this informative and highly relevant exchange. It helps that the participants are respectful and avoid ad hominem accusations. The two are participating in a Zoom discussion of a new collection by Taber this week:
Alan, thanks for sharing that information with our readers.