The great schism: socialism and war in 1914

Issue: 143

Paul Blackledge

On 4 August 1914 social democratic deputies in both the German Reichstag and the French Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously for war credits.1 Among those who voted on that day were deputies who had, less than a week earlier, met together under the auspices of the Socialist (Second) International to champion peace. The initial anti-war posturing of these representatives reflected the International’s declared policy as articulated at its Stuttgart conference in 1907 and reiterated at its Basel conference of 1912. This policy included not only the demand that socialists should “exert every effort to prevent” war, but also the requirement that they should “utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule”.2 Despite these unanimously agreed guidelines the French and German deputies were not alone in voting to support their governments’ war efforts in the first week of August. Two days earlier Belgian socialists voted to align themselves with their state in an act that was repeated shortly afterwards by the Labour Party representatives in the British parliament, albeit after the removal of Ramsay MacDonald, the party’s anti-war leader. Meanwhile Austrian and Hungarian socialists who had been denied the opportunity of a vote made up for this by publishing an outpouring of bellicose literature in their press.3

It is not that there was no opposition to this rush to patriotism. In fact, 14 of the 92 German socialist deputies who met in a closed session on 3 August opposed the vote for war credits. However, norms of party discipline meant that these opinions were not expressed on the floor of the Reichstag—and ironically it was one of the 14 anti-war deputies, Hugo Haase, who read out the party’s pro-war statement to the Reichstag. Unfortunately, this suppression of anti-war voices was typical within the International. Discounting the tiny Bulgarian and Serbian organisations, among socialists in the belligerent states the only group with a mass base to stand out against the war was the Russian party.

For the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), undoubtedly the centre of gravity within the International, the vote for war credits was partly justified as a means of entry into the inner sanctum of power: it was hoped that this vote, and in particular the unanimity of the vote, would make the party respectable. Whether or not the SPD succeeded on these terms, the vote certainly killed the Socialist International, and it did so in a way that was immediately recognised by contemporaries as a “seminal moment in the history of socialism”.4

The vote for war credits was not merely a betrayal of the hopes of a generation of socialists. It also marked the collapse of a form of socialist organising that had roots going back to Karl Marx. Upon its launch in 1889 the International tried to follow the example set by Marx at the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (First International) in 1864. In an attempt to come to terms with leftists of a plurality of different national and political traditions, Marx wrote a set of rules that were intended to maintain the broadest possible unity across the movement—and which largely succeeded in this task. Moreover, against criticisms from the anarchist wing of the movement, he insisted that revolutionaries should not counterpose struggles against the system to struggles for reforms within the system. Indeed, he outlined a series of reformist demands (reductions in the working day and limitations to child labour, etc) that, beyond being good in and of themselves, were effectively intended to bridge the gap between these two forms of struggle.5 Marx wagered that as the movement deepened and broadened revolutionary consciousness would develop more or less automatically and inevitably within the working class.6

The fatalistic optimism of this perspective illuminates an important flaw in Marx’s politics: he nowhere developed a coherent theory of working class reformism.7 Though this gap in his politics was partly understandable as a corollary of the relatively underdeveloped nature of institutionalised reformism at the time, it ultimately had disastrous implications when crudely applied within the Second International. In a context characterised by the growing strength of labour reformism, especially as institutionalised through the trade union bureaucracy, Marx’s example was used by a layer of Marxists to legitimise the way they gradually subordinated their politics to the increasingly reformist practice of the bureaucratic leadership of the movement.

If 1914 proved to be a cruel judge of the tendency within Marxism that had become enmeshed with the labour bureaucracy, the most sustained attempt to overcome the limitations of this interpretation of Marxism was made by Lenin. The votes for war credits had “shattered” the unity of the movement; and he responded to these votes by joining those voices calling for the creation of a new, third international to replace the now defunct Socialist International.8 Lenin supported this call with a sharp political explanation of the demise of the Second International: “overcome by opportunism” its leadership “betrayed” the working class; “the Second International is dead,” he wrote, “long live the Third International”.9

As part of his attempt to make sense of the collapse of the International, Lenin made a threefold study of its coordinates: he analysed the imperialist nature of the war; the material basis for working class reformism; and Marx and Engels’s analysis of the capitalist nature of the state. Simultaneously he underpinned all of this through a study of the Hegelian roots of Marx’s method. Taken as a whole, Lenin renewed Marxism through a root and branch critique of the theory and practice of the Second International. This renewal is best understood, in opposition to both Perry Anderson’s and Lars Lih’s contrasting interpretations of this project, neither as a voluntaristic inversion of Second International fatalism nor as a mere application of Second International theory to Russian conditions.10 Though Anderson is right to locate voluntaristic tendencies among the critics of the vote for war credits, and while Lih is correct to point to the continuities across Lenin’s oeuvre before and after 1914, neither standpoint adequately captures the novelty of his contribution to Marxism.

Lenin’s mature thought paralleled and significantly deepened the alternative to Second International fatalism embodied in Rosa Luxemburg’s claim that the alternatives for humanity were “socialism or a regression into barbarism”.11 Alongside Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s mature thought involved a profound break with fatalism that avoided the trap of voluntarism.12 He made this break in part by conceptualising socialist practice in a way that effectively recalled Marx’s attempt to overcome the one-sidedness of materialist and idealist conceptions of action through his synthesis of these approaches into a more powerful conception of practice. More specifically, Lenin raised theory to the level of his practical critique both of Second International fatalism and of the more general tendency to cover political passivity beneath radical rhetoric. At its core, his renewal of Marxism included a theory of imperialism as an internally contradictory stage of capitalist development which framed his understanding of the parameters of what was politically possible at the time: socialism or war.13 Beyond this, he insisted that if socialists were to have a chance of realising their hopes for a better society they must build an organisation independent of reformism. In what follows I first sketch the limitations of Second International Marxism before outlining the strengths and weaknesses of Lenin’s alternative.

1914: Betrayal of the working class?

In sharp contrast to Lenin’s claim that the Second International betrayed the working class in 1914, the ex-Trotskyist chronicler of Marxist approaches to war, S F Kissin, suggests that “the decision of the French Socialist Party to support the war and to enter the government is wholly understandable.” By way of justification for this claim he refers to Germany’s demands not only that France declare its neutrality in the context of Russian mobilisation but also that it hand over its fortresses at Toul and Verdun as a pledge of such neutrality. By contrast, he points out that the French government had made no bellicose moves in the immediate pre-war context. Whereas it might be supposed that the logic of this argument would lead Kissin to criticise the SPD’s vote for war credits, in fact he argues that the German Reichstag deputies were also justified in voting as they did because they believed their government’s claims that Germany was merely preparing to defend itself from Russian and French aggression. Interestingly, Kissin approvingly cites Karl Kautsky’s appeal to the authority of Marx and Engels to defend this argument.14

In his book Socialism and War (1937) Kautsky, who had been the foremost theoretician of the Second International—the so-called “Pope of Marxism”15—attempted to justify his own role in 1914 by extending arguments he had put at the outbreak of war in which he insisted that the “method used by Marx and Engels” did not start from either “supporting or opposing their own government under all circumstances; rather they had to examine the policy which had led to war and which was being pursued by means of war.” Kautsky concluded that the correct socialist attitude to war should proceed by asking which country “provoked” war and conversely which country was its “victim”. Kissin comments that “these were indeed the criteria Marx and Engels used when deciding whose victory to favour in a war”.16

If Kissin thus challenges the Marxist credentials of Lenin’s critique of the vote for war credits, Georges Haupt’s standard academic history of the split in the International also argues that Lenin missed his target when he criticised the leadership of the Second International for betraying the workers’ movement in 1914. Haupt claims that Lenin was wrong because the left in 1914 was, in fact, “helpless” in the face of war. Moreover, he suggests that it is too crude to blame the fatalistic resignation with which the majority reacted to the reality of war on their reformism, for even the minority of revolutionaries who took a stance against the war failed to offer concrete proposals to stop it.17 Haupt justifies this criticism of Lenin, in part, by reference to Lenin’s own advice to Communist delegates attending a peace congress at The Hague in 1922. In seeming contradiction to his assessment in 1914, in 1922 Lenin suggested that “workers’ organisations, even if they call themselves revolutionary organisations, are utterly helpless in the face of an actually impending war”.18

More recently Kevin Callahan has argued that Lenin’s claim that the Second International betrayed the working class rests upon the false premise that it was capable of preventing war through revolutionary agitation in 1914. Callahan suggests that because the International was not a revolutionary body it is wrong to berate it for refusing to act in a revolutionary manner.19 In a sense Kissin and Haupt share this perspective, though they approach it from different angles. In Kissin’s case this assumption is implied by his failure, as we shall see below, critically to examine Kautsky’s arguments in favour of the vote for war credits. Haupt’s position is slightly different. He does link the claim that the International was helpless in 1914 to its reformism, but insists that the parallel failure of the revolutionary left implies that the International’s helplessness cannot be blamed “solely” on its reformism.20

To an extent Haupt’s portrayal of the revolutionary left in 1914 is true. However, by limiting his analysis to the events leading up to 1914, he paints a distorted portrait of the revolutionary left. For while they were caught unawares by the swift move to war and offered little by way of concrete proposals to stop it, this is perhaps best understood as a function of how they had allowed themselves, prior to 1914, to become enmeshed within what were de facto reformist organisations, albeit reformist organisations that bowed before revolutionary rhetoric. Although 1914 exposed the revolutionary left’s failure to offer a political alternative to reformism, they subsequently differentiated themselves from the right wing leadership of the International by their reaction to this experience. Most importantly, they learned the limitations of social democracy and began to theorise an alternative model of socialist political practice.

Second International Marxism

The SPD was formed through a merger of existing Marxist and Lassallean groups at the 1875 Gotha Unity Congress.21 Though miles apart theoretically, the terrain of German politics forced the Marxists and the Lassalleans to move onto common ground: the strength of the German state compelled the Marxists to temper their revolutionary ambitions, while the oppression and exclusion of workers from political life meant that Lassallean reformism had to take a militant form.22 It was through this new party that Marx and Engels most directly influenced the European workers’ movement in the wake of the collapse of the First International. And in 1889 the SPD played a key role in the formation of the Second International over which it maintained political and theoretical hegemony until 1914.23

However, from the moment of its formation there was a problem with the SPD. Marx and Engels (and then Engels alone after Marx’s death) criticised both the programme that was embraced by the new party at the Gotha Unity Congress in 1875 and the revised version of the programme that was voted on at the 1891 Erfurt Congress. Commenting on the earlier document, Marx argued that the influence of Lassalle was evident in the way the programme avoided the issue of “the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. He suggested that by this failure the SPD opened itself up to a possible evolution towards liberalism.24 Indeed, in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme”, which took the form of a letter to a number of his closest comrades in Germany, he stated that: “after the unity congress Engels and I are going to publish a short statement dissociating ourselves from the said programme”.25 Interestingly, in a letter written later that year, Engels explained why neither he nor Marx had found it expedient to break with the new party in the wake of its adoption of the Gotha Programme. He pointed out that the bourgeois press had in fact read into it his and Marx’s views. More importantly, the workers had done the same, and “it is this circumstance alone which has made it possible for Marx and myself not to disassociate ourselves publicly from a programme such as this”.26

In this context, Marx and Engels wagered that, despite the shortcomings of the party’s programme, the general superiority of the party’s Marxist tendency would lead to its eventual hegemony within the organisation. This, in the medium term, was precisely the turn taken by events. In his superb history of German Social Democracy Carl Schorske points out that as Germany’s Chancellor Bismarck “unleashed his fury” against the socialist left in the period between 1878 and 1890 the party “became really receptive to Marxism”.27 Bismarck’s authoritarian turn coincided with the publication of Engels’s AntiDühring (1878), in which Engels took up the fight for hegemony within the party and which won over many of the organisation’s cadre to Marxism.28 This process culminated with the revision of the party’s programme at the Erfurt congress of 1891.

Though Engels welcomed the Erfurt Programme as an improvement on Gotha, he repeated Marx’s earlier criticism of the failure of the Germans to address the question of state power scientifically: “The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said”.29 Noting that “opportunism” was “gaining ground in large sections of the Social Democratic press”, Engels argued that it was incumbent upon the framers of the programme to spell out clearly to the German workers that the transition to socialism could only come “by force”.30 He insisted that if the SPD did not make this clear then, in the long run, the party would go “astray”, the

forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all.31

So, in a repetition of arguments he and Marx had put in 1875, in 1891 he reminded his comrades that socialism could only be realised through a revolutionary regime similar to the Paris Commune:32 “Our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”33

Schorske points out that the Erfurt Programme essentially included two related messages to members of the SPD. To the revolutionary left it said be “patient”, while to the reformists it said that “reforms are the first task. Pursue them. But remember, you must fight for them. And the faith in the bright new society is a weapon in your struggle. Do not ignore it.” He goes on to say that this compromise could hold so long as, on the one hand, the working class was maintained in its “pariah” status by the German state while; on the other hand, revolution was not on the immediate political agenda as economic growth gave rise to improvements in workers’ living standards.34

Whereas the unity of the various factions of the SPD was maintained on this basis in the decades up to the war, the tensions that exploded in 1914 had deep roots going back over the previous two decades. In particular, economic boom from the mid-1890s underpinned a massive expansion of trade unionism that in turn strengthened the social base of reformism within the party.35 The reformist influence of this increasingly powerful layer began to be felt within a few years of the party’s formal embrace of Marxism at Erfurt. It is an accident of history that the party’s de facto reformism came to be justified theoretically by one of the two co-authors of the Erfurt Programme: Eduard Bernstein.

At the core of Bernstein’s critique of Marxism was his claim that contemporary economic trends had disproved Marx’s theory of crisis, thus making Marx’s revolutionary politics irrelevant.36 This argument was countered by Kautsky, the second co-author of the Erfurt Programme, who pointed out that Bernstein’s Marx was a caricatured version of the real thing.37 Though Kautsky’s critique of Bernstein scored some important hits, because it focused on semantic issues about what Marx “really said” it missed the key point that the force of Bernstein’s argument came not from its intellectual merits (there were few), but from the fact that it gave voice to a real and growing reformist tendency within the SPD.

Unfortunately, Kautsky did little to address this problem. Or rather he was happy to win formal victories over revisionism at party congresses at the same time as revisionist ideas became increasingly hegemonic within the leadership of both the SPD and the union movement. This new balance of forces became apparent in the years immediately following the formal defeats of revisionism at the SPD congresses of 1899, 1901 and 1903; defeats from which revisionism, especially as embodied in the trade union bureaucracy, unfailingly grew in strength.38

To all intents and purposes there were no unions in Germany prior to the 1860s. Subsequently, the unions developed in close relationship first with the German Marxists39 and then with the SPD as a whole after 1875. Whereas both party and union leaders tended to stress the autonomy of the political and economic wings of the labour movement, party supremacy was effectively accepted by union leaders at the 1893 Cologne party congress. This moment marked the low point of union membership and union influence over the party. Subsequently, as the unions grew in size, so did their influence over the party. For instance, while only 11.6 percent of the SPD’s Reichstag deputies were union officials in 1893, by 1912 this proportion had increased to 32.7 percent. This was also the period when the unions became increasingly bureaucratised: between 1899 and 1914 the number of full-time paid officials in the German “Central Unions” increased from 108 to 2,867. Though union membership also increased in these years, the rate of expansion of the full-time machine far exceeded the growth in membership. More to the point, as the unions became increasingly bureaucratised their leadership tended to play a more and more conservative role within the labour movement.40

The tension between the union leaders and the party came to be played out through the debate on the mass strike. At the 1905 SPD congress in Jena the left carried the party and won a formal acceptance of the mass strike policy. However, this policy stood in opposition to another motion adopted earlier in the year by the trade unions at their congress in Cologne: here it was agreed that the mass strike could not even be discussed. The contradiction between these two statements was formally resolved at the 1906 party congress in Mannheim. Unfortunately, this solution to the rift between the party and the unions merely reflected the growing hegemony of the revisionist trade union leaders within the German socialist movement: it was simply declared that the contradictory Cologne and Jena resolutions were not in contradiction.41 Though Kautsky celebrated this vote as a victory for the left, in reality it amounted to a “historic victory of the trade union bureaucracy and the retreat of the party before its show of force”.42 Schorske suggests that it was from this point onwards that the passivity of Kautsky’s Marxism became most apparent. He was happy to win a formal acceptance of his interpretation of Marxism at party conferences while ceding the real leadership of the German workers’ movement to the increasingly reformist trade union and party bureaucracy.43

Rosa Luxemburg’s contribution to the revisionist debate was much sharper. She recognised that revisionism was not merely a theoretical error in the context of economic expansion, but that it was deeply rooted in the structure of modern trade unionism. Indeed, she insisted that the characteristically capitalist separation between politics and economics was reproduced in the labour movement through the division between parliamentary socialism and simple trade unionism.44 Moreover, she claimed that Bernstein’s revisionism was best understood as the theoretical expression of the interests of the trade union bureaucracy: a layer whose condition of life was, in many ways, divorced from that of the mass membership of the unions.45

Schorske confirms Luxemburg’s assessment of the trade union bureaucracy: “If we look back over the great issues on which the Socialist movement divided in the years 1906-9, we discover that in all those in which the trade unions threw their weight into the scales the reformist attitude was the one to prevail.” He explains this behaviour, as did Luxemburg, by the conservative function and structure of the union bureaucracy.46 Massimo Salvadori similarly notes that Kautsky failed to comprehend that which Luxemburg so clearly perceived: “a cleavage between a ‘goal’ that was socialist and a ‘means’ that was ever more thoroughly administered by a conservative and moderate bureaucracy, which was now concerned to fortify the organisation solely within the dominant system”.47

Whereas Kautsky’s Marxism became increasingly reformist as he tried to balance revolutionary rhetoric with ties to the labour bureaucracy, Luxemburg’s analysis of the conservatism of this layer allowed her to maintain political independence from reformism. Or at least this is eventually what happened: for in the immediate aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution and for a few years thereafter Kautsky grew more critical of the conservatism of the leadership of the unions. Nevertheless, this moment of radicalism was relatively short lived and from around 1910 Kautsky reverted to his earlier relationship to the trade unions.48

The rational core of Kautsky’s tendency to bend in the face of the pressure from the revisionist wing of the SPD had roots going back to Marx’s attempt to build and maintain unity within the working class movement. However, Kautsky went much further in this direction than Marx would have countenanced. This was in large part because he never fully accepted the critique of statist politics outlined in Marx’s and Engels’s criticisms of the Gotha and Erfurt programmes. This theoretical weakness grew in significance as the context in which the trade union and party bureaucracy operated became more favourable for reformism. In this situation the bureaucracy grew in strength and became increasingly tied to the state. Rather than view this process as a problem, Kautsky saw it as part of the solution. Indeed, his political pronouncements came increasingly to converge with Bernstein’s revisionism. Thus in 1912 he wrote: “The objective of our political struggle remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power”.49

In effect, his Marxism had become a radical cover for parliamentary politics. This process came to a head in 1910 when a growing strike wave in Germany converged with political struggles over suffrage. At this moment Kautsky sided with the trade union leaders who were doing everything in their power to suppress the mass movement and joined those who refused even to publish Luxemburg’s call for a mass strike to win universal suffrage in Prussia. It was from this point onwards that Luxemburg broke politically with him: she argued that his conciliatory stance in the face of the party’s shift to the right reflected the practical convergence of his Marxism with revisionism.50

Luxemburg was doubly right: the subordination of Kautsky’s Marxism to parliamentary politics informed not only his critique of the mass strike but also his assessment of imperialism. His claim that Marx and Engels judged wars by asking which country “provoked” the conflict and conversely which country was its “victim” was very flawed. On the one hand it combined a caricatured reading of Marx and Engels’s early writings on war with a failure to address the fact that they had radically rethought their approach to a European war in the wake of Prussia’s defeat of France in 1870.51 On the other hand it skirted over the fact that Kautsky had himself revised his model of imperialism. Whereas he attempted to justify his actions in 1914 by framing his analysis of the war in terms of which side was the aggressor, in 1907 and again in 1909 he “rejected” this model as “outdated”.52 According to Schorske, the Polish Marxist Karl Radek “observed correctly” that Kautsky’s reasons for returning, in the years leading up to the First World War, to what he had previously believed to be an obsolete theory was “not because imperialism had changed its nature, but because his Fabian strategy of ‘wearing out the enemy’ could not be sustained by his former analysis”.53 Similarly, Salvadori notes that the “political purpose of Kautsky’s analysis was to vindicate the possibility of Social Democracy pursuing its forward march along tried and true paths”.54 Thus it was that Kautsky’s ever more uncritical relationship to the labour bureaucracy informed not only his increasingly moderate stance in respect of domestic politics but also the growing lack of realism leading towards an apologetic relationship to German imperialism in his assessment of the international situation.

Whereas the revolutionary left within the International argued against illusions in “Peace Utopias” in the years leading up to 1914, Kautsky lent his intellectual prestige to those Reichstag deputies who focused their propaganda on proposals for disarmament—citing widespread support for this idea even within the “ruling class” itself.55 This argument culminated in his theory of “ultra-imperialism”, according to which the strongest imperialist powers had an interest in coming together to form a “holy alliance of the imperialists” that would “renounce the arms race” so as to more adequately exploit the colonies.56 So, just as war was looming, Kautsky threw his weight behind a utopian foreign policy that obscured the real forces leading to war while simultaneously supporting those elements of the party who were dampening the militancy of the one agency that had the potential power to stop the war: the working class.

As we have seen, this was no personal aberration on Kautsky’s part; it followed the logic of his parliamentarianism: through his links to the labour bureaucracy his politics became tied to the capitalist state. Indeed, in August 1914 his desire to maintain party unity at all costs meant that he was quickly pulled even further to the right: once he recognised that the right wing of the party would vote for war credits come what may, he dropped his argument that Reichstag deputies should abstain in the vote and then climbed down over his demand that the party should denounce imperialist intentions on all sides. Eventually, he simply tried to justify the war as a defensive endeavour.57 He went so far as to claim that “the International cannot be an effective instrument in time of war: it is essentially a peacetime instrument”—an argument that cast a cruel light on the vapidity of his earlier phrase-mongering: though he had argued in 1909 that “war means revolution”, because he hadn’t followed up on this claim by organising for revolution in practice it was meaningless rhetoric.58

If Luxemburg’s critique of the essential conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy helped immunise her against this pull to the right, she was nonetheless disarmed by the reality of war because her all too optimistic pre-war model of how the bureaucratic layer would be “swept aside” during periods of revolutionary mass action left little room for anything other than a propagandistic model of socialist politics.59 R Craig Nation is right to argue that though Luxemburg issued dire warnings about social democracy, these “never took the form of a comprehensive political challenge”.60 Indeed, in the decades before 1914 the most important political challenge to Social Democracy came not from Luxemburg and the left but from Bernstein and the right of the movement.

Despite its abject lack of theoretical sophistication,61 the great strength of Bernstein’s critique of Second International orthodoxy stemmed from his recognition of the limitations of the kind of fatalistic model of political practice implied by Kautsky’s infamous claim that “the Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a party that makes a revolution”.62 This argument was underpinned by the latter’s suggestion that “socialist production must, and will, come. Its victory will have become inevitable as soon as that of the proletariat has become inevitable”.63 Lucio Colletti argues that this approach reflected a general failing of Second International Marxism: “its ‘fatalistic’ and ‘providential’ faith in the automatic progress of economic evolution gave it the certainty that its eventual rise to power would come about ‘in a spontaneous, constant, and irresistible way, quite tranquilly like a natural process’”.64 Bernstein took this approach to be true to Marx’s politics, and argued that Marxism’s political weaknesses could in part be understood as a consequence of its simplistic deduction of political conclusions from economic premises.

He claimed that this method betrayed the malign influence on Marxism of the Hegelian idea of the “self-development of the concept” which all too easily lent itself to arbitrary deductions.65 It was against the harmful consequences of the Hegelian dialectic that Bernstein famously called for socialists to embrace “Kant against cant”.66 The cant to which he referred was the meaningless revolutionary rhetoric of what was in practice a reformist organisation, while the interpretation of Immanuel Kant with which he sought to replace it included “a high degree of that scientific impartiality which is always ready to acknowledge errors and recognise new truths”67 alongside a recognition that socialists should be able to justify the sort of society they were fighting for morally.68 By its focus on activity, Bernstein’s argument highlighted a profound weakness with Kautsky’s fatalism. However, his moralistic and reformist alternative to Kautskyism tended to invert rather than overcome these weaknesses.69

Lenin’s renewal of Marxism

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Lenin’s response to the collapse of the Second International was his return to Hegel in an attempt to overcome the political limitations of Kautsky’s fatalistic Marxism while avoiding the trap of Bernstein’s moralism specifically and political voluntarism more generally.70 Though this led to a shift in Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism, the division between his writings pre and post-1914 should not be overstated: his non-voluntaristic alternative to Kautsky’s fatalism had origins going back over a two-decade long attempt to raise theory to the level of the practical tasks facing the Russian left.71

The roots of this process are evident in an early critique of the “legal Marxist” Peter Struve. Lenin argued that, while it was a weakness with traditional moral theory that it failed “to connect its ‘ideals’ with any immediate interests”, Struve ran the “risk of becoming an apologist” for the status quo because he erred in the opposite direction by reducing materialism to its objectivist caricature. In opposition both to moral subjectivism and economic objectivism, Lenin suggested that materialism, because it examined the contradictions of any social process, “includes partisanship, so to speak, and enjoins the direct and open adoption of the standpoint of a definite social group in any assessment of events”.72

Thus, from the off, Lenin’s materialism was imbued with a spirit of activism whose importance has been misunderstood by those such as Lars Lih who have one-sidedly stressed the continuities between Kautsky’s and Lenin’s Marxisms.73 Despite Lenin’s praise for Kautsky, there was an important tension between their conceptions of socialist practice long before their political split in 1914. This is evident, for instance, in the gap between Kautsky’s claim, noted above, that “the Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a party that makes a revolution”, and Lenin’s attempt in the penultimate chapter of What is to be Done? to theorise some form of practice which married the day to day socialist activities within the state with the eventual uprising against it. He suggested that:

A network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an uprising.74

Three years later he returned to this argument in response to criticisms made by the Menshevik Alexandr Martynov. In an essay that drew on Kautsky’s conception of revolution, Martynov claimed Lenin had forgotten that “Social Democracy has always and everywhere recognised that a people’s revolution cannot be timed in advance, that it is not prepared artificially, but that it comes about of itself.” Lenin’s reply was devastatingly simple: Yes, a revolution can only emerge from below, but the uprising itself must be organised: “We are obliged to explain to Martynov that uprising must not be confused with people’s revolution”.75

This simple point illuminates both the limitations and the rational core of Lih’s position. He is right to argue that there was no absolute division between Lenin’s Marxism pre and post-1914.76 But he is wrong to suppose that this is because Lenin was “aggressively unoriginal” in his application of Kautskyism. Rather the split of 1914 illuminated differences between Kautsky and Lenin that had been deepening for a number of years, but which were, in the first instance, largely implicit and best understood in terms of the register of their respective writings. Whereas Kautsky typically wrote at the level of broad generalisation, Lenin’s writings had a much more concrete focus. To a certain degree this was a difference of emphasis. Nevertheless, this difference created a space in which Kautsky could mask his increasingly conservative practice beneath revolutionary rhetoric—what Trotsky would later call his “organic opportunism”.77 The practical bent of Lenin’s Marxism, by contrast, meant that he always put activity at the centre of his analysis. So whereas Kautsky moved from conceiving revolution as a far distant moment that hardly impacted on day to day practice towards reimagining it as the day to day parliamentary practice of the SPD, Lenin understood revolution as an ongoing process rooted in underlying social contradictions that shaped practice even in seemingly stable periods.78

These differing conceptions of the oncoming revolution had immediate practical consequences. For instance, whereas Kautsky was happy to allow Bernstein to keep his party card despite his fundamental break with Marxism, Lenin insisted that if the party was to be an effective tool in the class struggle it could not tolerate members who rejected its basic values. This is not to say that he was against internal debate and critique within the party. Rather, he insisted that if the party was to be more than a talking shop, debate must be within agreed parameters.79 This is because there is a profound difference between a party that is an arena of debate between revolutionaries, and one that encompases reformists alongside revolutionaries. Whereas the former is a living space within which revolutionaries debate how best to intervene within social movements to take the struggle for socialism forward, the latter risks paralysis as fundamental strategic differences collide: whether or not to orientate towards winning or smashing the state. In the short term the differences between Lenin and Kautsky appeared to be of a merely tactical kind. However, the shock of war forced Lenin to recognise that these differences were of much greater moment and had roots going back long before 1914.

Lenin’s most important political responses to the war and the collapse of the International, his essays Socialism and War, The Collapse of the Second International, The State and Revolution, and Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism (the subtitle was revised to the Final Stage of Capitalism only after his death),80 provide the coordinates of a powerful alternative to Second International Marxism. On the one hand, Lenin showed that the tendency towards war was immanent to the monopoly stage of capitalism while, on the other hand, he revived Marx’s argument that modern states were capitalist structures that had to be “smashed” as a prerequisite to the realisation of human freedom. Lenin explained the capitulation of Kautsky and his ilk to imperialism in the first instance because they had erred, as Marx and Engels had pointed out in their critiques of the Gotha and Erfurt programmes, in believing that the existing state could be won by the left through parliamentary struggles and subsequently used as an instrument of socialist advance. In reality, socialists didn’t capture states—states captured them.81 To the extent that he located the social basis for the capitulation of the leadership of the Second International to imperialism he explained it in terms of the benefits supposedly accrued from imperialism by the “labour aristocracy”.

At its strongest, in the theories of imperialism and the state, this model marked the most “serious attempt to develop a Marxist understanding of the form taken by capitalism at the beginning of the 20th century”.82 If his attempt to theorise reformism was much less successful—Charlie Post points out that the concept of a labour aristocracy was “neither a theoretically rigorous nor factually realistic explanation of working class reformism or conservatism”83—this is a weakness that can be overcome by reference to Luxemburg’s account of the limitations of trade unionism and, in particular, the essentially conservative role of the labour bureaucracy as mediator of the sale of labour power.84

Notwithstanding this weakness, Lenin’s alternative to Second International Marxism was powerful, and was underpinned by his return to Hegel. By contrast both with Kautsky’s fatalistic materialism and Bernstein’s impotent moralism, Lenin followed Hegel to claim that:

The activity of man, who has made an objective picture of the world for himself, changes external actuality, abolishes its determinates (=alters some sides or other, qualities, of it) and thus removes from it the features of semblance, externality and nullity, and makes it as being in and for itself (=objectively true).85

Commenting on Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel, Stathis Kouvelakis points out that it is “particularly significant that Lenin ended the section on ‘philosophical materialism’ with a reference to the notion of ‘revolutionary practical activity’.” For Lenin understood that subjective practical activity lay at the centre of the “objective” world, and consequently insisted that social scientific laws should not be “fetishised” as things distinct from conscious human activity but instead be recognised as necessarily “narrow, incomplete, and approximate” attempts to frame political intervention.86 Consequently, whereas Second International theorists had interpreted Hegel’s claim that to act freely meant to act in accordance with necessity in a reductive manner, for Lenin “man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world but creates it”.87 Indeed, by contrast with Kautsky’s fatalism, it was because Lenin was unsure about the future that he acted with the intention of influencing the course of history: his activism was rooted in his belief that “the very unpredictability of history requires that we intervene to help shape it”.88

This is a far cry from John Holloway’s claim that Lenin took Engels’s supposedly “scientific” distortion of Marxism to its logical, undemocratic, conclusion when he posited the existence of a party of “knowers” who would impart their scientific knowledge from on high to the workers.89 In fact, as John Rees suggests, in the Philosophical Notebooks Lenin came to recognise that “practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective and the gap between essence and appearance”.90 By repositioning social practice at the core of Marxism, Lenin was able to recognise the affinity between Marxism and idealism: “Dialectical idealism is closer to intelligent [dialectical] materialism than metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, crude, rigid materialism”.91

However, because idealistic (moral) conceptions of activity tend to reify the material context within which people act they are necessarily hollow: from this perspective individuals can do anything except change the world! Because Lenin, by contrast, attempted to grasp agency in relation to a contradictory and therefore dynamic conception of the material context, he was able to grasp its really transformative nature. More clearly than anyone before, he concretely expressed the idea that the world can be changed through historically specific human agents acting within historically specific parameters.

Commenting on Lenin’s contribution to Marxism, Georg Lukács argued that he alone at this time held to “the original Marxist conception” against positivist and neo-Kantian alternatives.92 For instance, Lenin conceived imperialism neither fatalistically as a moment in capitalism’s supposed self-transformation into socialism nor voluntaristically as an abhorrent policy to be condemned from some abstract moral perspective. Rather he explained it as a specific historical form of capitalism that created the potential for, and hence informed a politics that oriented towards, the emergence of a historically specific and socially concrete possible alternative: workers’ power in the metropolis in alliance with national liberation movements in the colonies. Whereas Bernstein’s embrace of Kantianism merely inverted Second International fatalism—it “is the subjective side of the missing category of totality”93—Lenin pointed towards a model of political practice that, unlike fatalism, was really subjective and unlike voluntarism offered the potential of real social transformation. Lenin recognised that there are “moments of decision” in history. But he was equally aware, as Lukács points out, that these moments aren’t voluntaristically imposed upon history but are best understood as instants within “the objective process”.94

Moreover, the practical nature of Lenin’s Marxism led naturally enough from broad strategic analyses through general political conclusions to specific organisational consequences. More than any of his contemporaries Lenin recognised that the form taken by political parties depends on their function: reformist parties tend to mirror the ward and constituency structures of local councils and national parliaments while anarchist organisations are much less centralised because they aim at fostering a plurality of forms of direct action. Because neither reformists nor anarchists orient to smash state power—reformists want to win state power while anarchists generally aim to bypass it—their organisations will differ from the organisational forms taken by revolutionary socialist parties.95

Nonetheless, by contrast with the myth of Leninism, Lenin was actually very flexible about how revolutionaries should organise. This does not mean that there is no essence to his approach to organisation. It is just that this essence is political, not structural.

Indeed, despite the strong association between Leninism and the concept of democratic centralism, this idea both predates Lenin’s birth and is actually subordinated within his Marxism to his claim that revolutionary parties must maintain their political independence from reformist organisations.96 What Lenin brought that was new to this concept was its content rather than its form. As we noted earlier, it was through a form of democratic centralism that anti-war voices were suppressed within the SPD in 1914. If this kind of behaviour makes sense of the anarchist critique of democratic centralism, their error is to throw the organisational baby out with the reformist bathwater. The problem with the SPD in 1914 was its reformism, not its democratic centralist structure. In retrospect it is unsurprising that the generation of revolutionaries who had become enmeshed in its reformist logic found their voices suppressed at the outbreak of war. By contrast, Lenin’s interventionist conception of Marxism starts out from the assumption—rooted in his analyses of reformism, the state and imperialism—that the revolutionary left must organise itself independently of reformist tendencies. However, because “Leninist” parties aim to unify the myriad forms of struggle within the system into a concerted struggle against it they also aim to maintain the “closest possible relationship with the mass of workers…by providing practical leadership in every struggle involving the workers or affecting their interests”.97 If this project is best served through democratic centralist forms of organisation, the politics of these organisations is best understood neither as the fatalistic workings out of material contradictions nor voluntaristically as an imposition on reality. Rather Lenin’s conception of political leadership is best understood as the art of intervening to change reality on the basis of the practical experience of organised groups of militants working with a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.98


If the Stalinist ideology of Leninism involved a return to the kind of dualism Lenin criticised in the Philosophical Notebooks,99 the very fact that Lenin felt compelled to return to Hegel is evidence that his renewal of Marxism, in contrast to Lih’s account, involved much more than a return to an earlier form of Kautskyism.100 Lenin did contribute something new and important to Marxism, and this contribution went beyond his theories of the state and imperialism. His reading of Hegel set the political focus of his work upon firmer theoretical foundations. Though this political focus had roots going back to the 1890s, after 1914 he reconfigured socialist politics upon a firmly materialist conception of subjectivity.

Effectively, Lenin’s journey through Hegel facilitated his renewal of Marx’s transcendence of the one-sided limitations of materialism and idealism as articulated in the Theses on Feuerbach. In the first of these theses Marx famously wrote that:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism…is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

Later in the text he pushed this idea further to point to the historical co-ordinates of this mistaken way of conceiving the world: “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.” By contrast with this standpoint, he claimed that “the standpoint of the new [materialism] is human society, or social humanity”.101 And as he argued elsewhere, the concrete form of social humanity in the modern world is the standpoint of the working class.102 During the period of the Second International this conception of subjectivity was split asunder in the context of a broader, if largely unacknowledged, shift away from Marx’s ideas.

If Second International Marxism had degenerated into a form of pre-Marxist materialism, Bernstein’s alternative merely inverted the error by returning to a pre-Marxist form of idealism. Lenin’s reading of Hegel helped him to overcome this opposition. The comments he made to Communist delegates going to the 1922 peace conference in The Hague are best understood against this background. They show him to be neither a voluntarist nor a fatalist, but a realist who, as Michael Löwy puts it, always “put politics in command”.103 In 1922, as in 1914, Lenin’s analysis was intended to inform action. This, despite his use of the term “helpless” in 1922, is evident elsewhere in the text from which this comment is taken. Lenin wrote that “perhaps the most correct method would be to start with the sharpest refutation of” the claim made by Kautsky and other reformist politicians before the war that “we shall retaliate to war by a strike or a revolution”.104 Lenin’s observation about the helplessness of the left should be interpreted not as an excuse for fatalistic resignation before the facts but as a criticism of the pseudo-leftist posturing of those politicians whose radical talk masked practical passivity. He stressed the fact that once war broke out revolutionary socialists would be helpless to stop it, but this did not mean that there was nothing they could do. Rather, both in 1914 and in 1922 Lenin aimed at maximising the effectiveness of the left on the basis of a concrete analysis of the context in which they acted. Both interventions are examples of how his focus on politics did not lead him to fall into the trap of voluntarism. Rather he constantly “tracked backward and forward between theory and practice as new problems [forced him] even in the most pressing of circumstances to step back and reappraise the situation theoretically”.105

This perspective shows why it is far too simplistic to claim, as does Callahan, that the SPD’s vote for war credits in 1914 cannot be considered an act of betrayal because, among other things, it implies that “the International actually had the ability to stop the war”.106 Callahan’s argument overlooks the fact there are a large range of possibilities between the left voting for war credits on the one hand and stopping the war on the other. Nation is right to point out that “it was not the failure to prevent war, but the inability to muster resistance, that signalled the International’s faillite [bankruptcy—PB]”.107 By deploying the term “betrayal” in 1914 Lenin was able to focus on the small things that the left could do with a view to building its influence before a subsequent challenge for power—including the process of theoretical and political clarification that would provide it with the necessary tools to break with the old leadership of the International. Similarly, in 1922, his use of the term “helpless” was intended to focus minds on the small things that could be achieved rather than the big pipe dream that couldn’t. It is this relentlessly political focus of his work that set Lenin apart from other figures within the Second International, and subsequently informed the novelty of the Communist movement that he played a pivotal role in forging out of the wreckage of the Second International. The Communist International (Comintern) was launched in 1919 on the back of the revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War. Though it was effectively neutered in the name of “Leninism” in the years immediately following the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, there was a brief moment in the early 1920s when the Comintern began, in a faltering way, to realise Lenin’s project of organising the most militant sections of the European and international working class movement into an interventionist current that was able to play a real leading role in the class struggle by maintaining its independence from reformism without succumbing to sectarianism. This was Lenin’s legacy, and it repays revisiting a century on from the collapse of the Second International”.108


1: This essay draws on Blackledge, 2014. Thanks to Alex Callinicos and Camilla Royle for comments on an earlier draft.

2: Riddell, 1986, p88.

3: Kirby, 1986, p30. The chauvinism of the socialist press played an important role in securing working class support for the war in 1914 (Rosmer, 2000, pp40-41).

4: Eley, 2002, p30; Nation, 2009, p22.

5: Marx, 1974a; Fernbach, 1974, p17. In his recent defence of the Left Unity project Pete Green has made much of this programme-as if the experience of social democracy hadn’t happened!

6: Collins and Abramsky, 1965, pp32, 39.

7: Johnson, 1980, p73; Fernbach, 1974, pp59, 63; Molyneux, 1986, p31.

8: Liebman, 1964, p285; Day and Gaido, 2011.

9: Lenin, 1960-70, volume 21, pp40, 241.

10: Anderson, 1980, p101; Lih, 2011, pp158-165.

11: Geras, 1976, Chapter 1; Luxemburg, 1970, 269. Luxemburg was paraphrasing Engels who had written that “if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to class distinctions” (Engels, 1947, p194).

12: Cliff, 1989, p139.

13: Harding, 1983, p6.

14: Kissin, 1988, p165.

15: Salvadori 1979. For my thoughts see Blackledge, 2006a, pp56-59, and for a fuller treatment Blackledge, 2006b.

16: Kissin, 1988, p166.

17: Haupt, 1972, p235.

18: Lenin quoted in Haupt, 1972, p228.

19: Callahan, 2010, p300.

20: Haupt, 1972, p223.

21: Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64) had believed that socialism could be won through the state. Marx powerfully criticised the influence of Lassalle’s statism on the new party in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme” (see Draper, 1990, pp41-71).

22: Harman, 1982, p16.

23: Abendroth, 1972, pp51-68.

24: Marx, 1974b, p355.

25: Marx, 1974b, p339; see also Engels,1989, p71.

26: Engels, 1991.

27: Schorske, 1983, p3.

28: Steger, 1996, p3.

29: Engels, 1990, p225.

30: Engels, 1990, p226.

31: Engels, 1990, p227.

32: Draper, 1986, p321.

33: Engels, 1990, p227.

34: Schorske, 1983, p6.

35: Schorske, 1983, 12ff.

36: Bernstein, 1993, pp79ff, 56ff.

37: Kautsky, 1983.

38: Schorske, 1983, pp16-24.

39: Because the Lassalleans believed in an “iron law of wages”, according to which real wages tended to the minimum necessary to sustain workers, they generally dismissed union struggles over wages as pointless. Marx sharply criticised this idea in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme” (Marx, 1974b).

40: Steenson, 1981, chapter 3.

41: Schorske, 1983, p49.

42: Salvadori, 1979, p113.

43: Schorske, 1983, p115, Salvadori, 1979, p113.

44: Luxemburg, 1986, p80.

45: Luxemburg, 1986, pp81, 87-88.

46: Schorske, 1983, pp108, 127.

47: Salvadori, 1979, p144. For more on classical Marxism’s grappling with reformism, see Donny Gluckstein’s article elsewhere in this issue.

48: Gaido, 2003, pp109-110; Gaido, 2008.

49: Kautsky quoted in Salvadori, 1979, p162; See also Schorske, 1983, pp182-183; Geary, 1987, pp75, 77; Geras, 1976, p159.

50: Nettl, 1969, p285.

51: Draper, 2005, pp15, 159.

52: Haupt, 1972, p25; see also Day and Gaido, 2011, p35.

53: Schorske, 1983, p246.

54: Day and Gaido, 2011, p63; Salvadori, 1979, p174.

55: Day and Gaido, 2011, p64.

56: Kautsky, 2011, pp773-774.

57: Draper, 2005, p11; Donald, 1993, pp189-190.

58: Kautsky quoted in Liebman, 1964, pp283, 285.

59: Luxemburg, 1986, p80; see also Harman, 1982, p20.

60: Nation, 2009, p19.

61: Kolakowski, 1978, volume 2, p111; Gay, 1962, pp159ff.

62: Kautsky, 1996, p34.

63: Kautsky, 1892.

64: Colletti, 1972, p105; see also Timpanaro, 1975, p120. John Molyneux points out that Luxemburg’s fatalistic view of how the workers’ movement would sweep this layer aside had roots in Marx’s failure to theorise the problem of working class reformism (Molyneux 1986, p116).

65: Bernstein, 1993, pp30-31.

66: Bernstein, 1993, p189.

67: Bernstein, 1993, p210.

68: Bernstein, 1996, pp91, 94-95.

69: For an overview of these debates see Blackledge, 2012, pp107-114.

70: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 38, p180; Anderson, 1995; James, 1980; Dunayevskaya, 1988; Löwy, 1993, pp77-90.

71: Ilyenkov, 1982.

72: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 1, pp400-401.

73: Lih, 2006, pp27; 615. Lih intuitively grasps the key distinction between Lenin and Kautsky but fails to understand it. “For Lenin,” he argues, “Kautsky’s behaviour was emblematic of a general phenomenon which might be defined as ‘talking the revolutionary talk but refusing to walk the revolutionary walk’” (Lih, 2009, p5). This is true, but in attempting to “raise theory to the level of practice” (Cliff, 2002, p141) Lenin made a profound theoretical and political contribution to Marxism that Lih’s concept of “aggressive unoriginality” obscures.

74: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 5, pp515-516; see also volume 8, p150. Harman, 1968/9 stresses this distinction.

75: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 8, p152.

76: James, 1980, p113.

77: Trotsky, 1974, p129.

78: Lukács, 1970, pp9, 11.

79: Lih, 2006, pp474-475.

80: Callinicos, 2009, p44.

81: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 25, pp383-492.

82: Callinicos, 2009, p53; Harding, 1983, volume 2, pp140-141.

83: Post, 2010, p7. Post’s analysis draws on arguments first developed in this journal
(Cliff, 2003; Corr and Brown, 1993).

84: Darlington, 2014.

85: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 38, pp217-218 (emphasis in original).

86: Kouvelakis, 2007, pp174, 186.

87: Richard Day quoted in Anderson, 1995, p113.

88: Callinicos, 2007, p26.

89: Holloway, 2002, p128.

90: Rees, 1998, p191.

91: Lenin, 1960-1970, volume 38, p274.

92: Lukács, 1978, p162.

93: Lukács, 1971, p38.

94: Lukács, 2000, pp55-56.

95: Lukács, 1971, pp296-299.

96: Le Blanc, 1990, pp127-141.

97: Molyneux, 1986, p93.

98: Eagleton, 2007; Cliff, 1975, chapter 14.

99: Given that Lenin had done so much to overcome the profoundly one-sided limitations of materialist and idealist conceptions of agency, it is rather ironic that the ideology of Leninism, which emerged after his death in the context of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution (Le Blanc, 1990, pp1-13), found its highest expression in Stalin’s bastardisation of Marxism into an incoherent combination of idealism (his own visionary leadership) and materialism (the automatic development of the forces of production): Marcuse, 1958, pp121, 124; Harris, 1968, p156.

100: Lih, 2011, pp125-131.

101: Marx, 1975.

102: Arthur, 1986, p145.

103: Löwy, 1993, p71.

104: Lenin quoted in Haupt, 1972, p223.

105: Callinicos, 2007, p25.

106: Callahan, 2010, p300.

107: Nation, 2009, p21.

108: Hallas, 1985.


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