Lenin: State and Revolution, Chapter 6: Vulgarisation of Marx by the Opportunists
Mon 22nd Dec 2014
This chapter is a polemic against the "best known theoreticians of Marxism" namely Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) and Karl Kautsky (1857-1938) who were the leading thinkers of the Second International (1888-1914). Lenin thinks that the collapse of the Second International was brought about by opportunism (abandoning the long term goals of the party for short term advantages) which was fostered by the evasion of discussion on the relation of the state to the social revolution and vice versa. This "evasion" has persisted to the present day. The well known A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Second Edition) edited by Tom Bottomore, for example, has no entry on "opportunism" and does not even list it in the index. The entry on The State and Revolution does not even mention it.
The chapter is divided into three sections: a short one contra Plekhanov and two long ones dealing with Kautsky. This article will deal with the first two sections.
Plekhanov's Polemic Against the Anarchists
This section deals with Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov’s 1894 work Anarchism and Socialism. Lenin says in this work that Plekhanov doesn’t even mention the most important issue between these two ‘isms’ — namely the nature of the state and the revolution’s relations to it. The work has two parts: the first, or historical part, Lenin approves of because it has useful information for the history of ideas, especially regarding Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Max Stirner (1806-1856). The second, or “literary” part Lenin calls “philistine.” This part is a “clumsy” attempt to equate anarchists with “bandits.”
After the Paris Commune the anarchists had tried to claim that the commune and its history was a vindication of their views. Lenin of course rejects this claim and maintains that the true understanding of the meaning of the Commune is to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, especially Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. Neither the Anarchists, nor Plekhanov in his polemic, have grasped the main issue presented by the history of the Paris Commune i.e., “must the old state machinery be shattered, and what shall be put in its place.”
By completely ignoring this issue Plekhanov, whether he knows it or not, has fallen into opportunism because opportunists want us to forget all about this question and not even discuss it all. It would seem that opportunism flourishes best where the working people are ignorant of Marxist theory and concentrate exclusively on short term goals and struggles.
Kautsky’s Polemic Against the Opportunists
Lenin says the most important German opportunist was Bernstein whom Kautsky criticized in his first foray against opportunism: Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Bernstein had charged Marxism with “Blanquism” [Louis Auguste Blanqui, 1805-1881- advocated a coup by a small group who would then turn the government over to the people after they had instated socialism] in his great revisionist opus Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus. Bernstein particularly likes Marx’s conclusion (based on his study of the Paris Commune) that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it to its own purposes.” But he has his own interpretation of the meaning of Marx’s dictum which is exactly the opposite of what Marx intended.
Marx meant, according to Lenin (following Engels), that the working class had to destroy the bourgeois state and replace it with a working class state. Bernstein says it means that the working class should cool it after the revolution and try and reform the state rather than getting carried away and trying to smash it. “A crasser and uglier perversion of Marx’s ideas cannot be imagined,” Lenin says.
So, how did Kautsky deal with this crass opportunistic formulation in his critique of Bernstein? He glosses over it. Kautsky writes: “The solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship we can safely leave to the future.” Lenin says the since opportunists want to defer to the future all talk about a working class revolution this is not a real critique of Bernstein but “ a concession to him.”
Kautsky himself is thus an opportunist and, Lenin points out, as regards Marx’s understanding of how the workers should be educated with respect to a working class revolution and Kautsky’s understanding “there is an abyss.”
In 1902 Kautsky wrote a more mature work, The Social Revolution. Lenin says there is a lot of valuable information in this work but the author still evaded the vital question of the state. Again, Kautsky ends up giving de facto support to the opportunists because he writes about the possibility of the working class taking state power without abolishing the currently existing state. This view, which derives from The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx had declared “obsolete” in 1872.
Kautsky writes about democracy and that the working class will come to power and “realise the democratic programme” but he never mentions the lessons of the Paris Commune and the conclusions Marx and Engels drew from them that bourgeois democracy had to be replaced by working class democracy.
Here is a quote from Kautsky: “It is obvious that we shall not attain power under the present order of things. Revolution itself presupposes a prolonged and far-reaching struggle which, as it proceeds, will change our present political and social structure.” While this is even too much for some present day “socialists” to stomach, Lenin thought it was as banal and obvious as “horses eat oats.” Lenin wanted this “far reaching struggle” spelled out so that working people would understand the difference between a working class revolution and the non working class revolutions of the past.
Kautsky wars against opportunism in words, Lenin says, but actually promotes it in the way he expresses himself. Here is an example from The Social Revolution: “In a Socialist society there can exist side by side, the most varied forms of economic enterprises — bureaucratic trade union, trade union, co-operative, private…. There are, for instance, such enterprises that cannot do without a bureaucratic organization: such are the railways. Here democratic organisation might take the following form: the workers elect delegates, who form something in the nature of a parliament, and this parliament determines the conditions of work, and superintends the management of the bureaucratic apparatus. Other enterprises may be transferred to the labour unions, and still others may be organized on a co-operative basis.” Lenin says this quote is not only wrong headed but is a backward step from the ideas Marx and Engels elaborated in the 1870s as a result of their study of the Paris Commune.
Of course modern industrial production in general, not just railroads, needs to be conducted under rigid work rules and regulation but after the workers come to power they won’t be organized on bureaucratic lines overseen by “something like” the old bourgeois parliaments. There will no bureaucrats as such. The workers will directly control their industries and delegates will be subject to instant recall, no one will earn more than ordinary workers, and the old state will be replaced by a new worker’s state where everyone will gain experience in administration and planning so that “bureaucrats” in the sense used by Kautsky will no longer exist. Kautsky has not paid attention to the words of Marx: “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”
Lenin next takes up Kautsky's short work The Road to Power [Der Weg zu Macht]. Lenin thinks this is the best of Kautsky's writings against opportunism, yet it too is found wanting and for the same reason "it completely dodges the question of the state." It is this constant dodging that Lenin thinks weakened the German Social Democrats theoretically, led to the growth of opportunism, and ultimately to the great betrayal of socialist principles: the support of the German imperialists in the Great War. These three short works of Kautsky came out in 1899, 1902, and 1909 respectively but it was not until 1912 that Kautsky's opportunism became explicitly expressed. We will deal with this in the next and (por fin) last installment of this review, Kautsky's polemic against Pannekoek.