It is definitely not going according to the books in Russia. The theorist Kautsky laments the absence of evidence in Russian occupational statistics for its maturity for social revolution, given that it is still a predominantly agrarian society.1 He forgets that, if dependent on occupational statistics, neither the Great Revolution in France nor the March Revolution in Germany would ever have taken place.
So what exactly is the matter with statistics and historical materialism? In Germany, where statistics fully attest to the proletariat’s ripeness to seize power, a medieval semi-absolutism is experiencing its best days. In Russia, where the statistics indicate economic and social backwardness, the urban proletariat, with the support of the peasantry, has already taken over the helm of the state. The great theorist of the swamp and all those who look on the upheaval in Russia with him, full of good will, yet simultaneously pessimistic at heart, might be correct if Russia were on the moon. It turns out, however, that Russia is just another economic and political part of Europe.
In the thin air of abstraction, the Marxist theorists of Kautsky’s type love to ruminate about the world economy, international development and all the many related interconnections. But once the actual connections are spelled out for them on the flat surface of the earth, they immediately fall back on a purely bourgeois mode of thinking: For them, national borders represent the boundary for social forces and effects. Russia appears as an isolated world, and so does Germany, etc. Whether Russia has reached the maturity for a social revolution?
What a marvellous question! As if social revolution was a “national” matter, the driving forces and completion of which could be found in Russia alone. What these so—very-generous patrons of Russia’s upheaval forget is that it has its own peculiar trajectory that is not only the result of developments in Russia alone, but rather of worldwide capitalism and its class contradictions. It is more or less a matter of so-called coincidence, meaning the outwardly concealed concurrence of numerous historical conditions, which determine the country that takes the initiative and assumes leadership during any given era that is mature for revolution. During the last third of the 18th and well into the mid-19th century, capitalist development was far more advanced in England than in France, as it still is today.
And yet it was not England, but France that took the political lead in Europe during that period and conveyed new impulses across Europe with each of its convulsions. Now it is Russia that has taken the initiative towards Europe’s social renewal, in part precisely because it lags behind in social development. Russia combines all the revolutionary energy of modern capitalist class contradictions which were pent up for so long under the reign of absolutism: on the one hand, the tremendous tension of the unresolved – and, in the confines of the bourgeois state, irresolvable – agrarian question and, on the other hand, the most mature proletarian ideology which the West has produced: scientific socialism.
While this ideology has become no more than a dead letter in its country of origin, Germany, without any invigorating effect on the minds and hearts of the masses, it is flaring up like a pillar of fire over in Russia, manifesting as one of the greatest deeds in world history and thus a burning testament to its fundamental principle: internationality. The Russian proletariat must be regarded as nothing other than the vanguard of the world proletariat, expressing the degree of maturity of international class contradictions through each and every of its movements. It is the development in Germany, England, France, respectively, that is now making itself heard in St. Petersburg.
That is the fate of the Russian Revolution, as well as its fortune and end. It can only attain its goal as a prologue to the European proletarian revolution. Should the European and the German workers continue to merely watch the excitement as benevolent onlookers, then the Russian revolution can expect a similar outcome to that of the Paris Commune. These inner connections are already manifesting in all kinds of visible obstructions of the Bolshevists’ policies. It is the desperate reach for some kind of sign of proletarian action in Germany that explains, albeit without justifying it, the Bolshevists’ eventual agreement to get involved in an entanglement with German government-socialism.
That they are negotiating with Hindenburg and Hertling may be nothing more than an unfortunate necessity in their eyes, but one that sheds light on conditions in Germany and does not cast any shadows on the rulers in St. Petersburg. That they even attempted to spread the revolutionary contagion to the German masses through such horrid channels as Parvus-Scheidemann should signify a muddled ambiguity even for them, one that perfectly matches the Bolsheviks’ otherwise extreme puritanism and impatience. Another problem may prove far more important and serious: the “right to national self-determination” – which so excessively flourishes in the Soviet Union these days.
In reality there is only one form of the self-determination of nations that would not represent a mockery of this “right”: that is the revolution of the proletariat as the mass of the people in every nation. With the exception of this scenario, and moreover within the framework of the bourgeois state, the “right to national self-determination” is a hollow phrase which in practice always leaves the popular masses at the mercy of the ruling classes. It is of course the task of the revolutionary proletariat to implement, as far as possible, utmost political democracy and the equality of nations, but the least concern it ought to have is giving the world the gift of new-fledged national class societies.
Only the bourgeoisie of each nation is interested in that national outward independence which has nothing to do with democracy. After all, state independence itself is a dazzling bauble which has often enough served to mask the people’s slaughter. Correspondingly, the annexation of Poland, Lithuania or Courland by the Central Powers, stipulated by the peace treaty or arranged otherwise at a later point, will most likely be declared to be enacted in the best interest of the nations in question. What could be easier than finding the necessary favourable “ministers” in each nation of the Kucharzevsky2 kind or similar “Krapülinskis”3 who serve formidably as the Mamluks of German militarism, hoping to be able to establish ruthless class rule over their people.
Over course of the events to come, the Bolshevists will therefore likely get stuck time and again in the thorns of this carelessly propagated phrase. Yes, they are committing numerous mistakes, and will likely make many more. Yet that tends to be the case during great historical upheavals. Things only run smoothly in conventicles, or in mass parties who lead a false existence and wage phantom battles, as formerly done by German Social Democracy. Of course, during the unforgettable massive demonstrations demanding universal suffrage in Prussia through Treptower Park and Tiergarten,4 where we managed, with the ingenious leadership of Eugen Ernst5, to fool a dozen Berlin policemen, everything went gloriously according to plan.
Except, maybe, for the fact that when the vast masses, led by Eugen Ernst, stood before these same twelve mounted police who had drawn their weapons, they cleared off in such a panicked hurry that the police horses couldn’t even breathe for all the dust. Apart from that, everything went superbly. Yet things do not always go this smoothly during actual great historical contestations. In this sense, the Bolsheviks may well commit many more mistakes. But they do match Lessing’s quip on the noble horse which never kicks up more sparks from the pavestones than when it trips. And history will certainly pass judgement over them, just as old Ziegler did at Lasalle’s grave: “He was a man with a thousand flaws, even vices, but he was a whole human being.”
What will be history’s verdict on the Russian working class?
1 Cf. Karl Kautsky: “Die Erhebung der Bolschewiki”, in: Sozialistische Auslandspolitik. Korrespondenz. Herausgegeben von Dr. Rudolf Breitscheid et al., vol. 3, no. 46, Berlin, 14 November 1917; republished in: Clara Zetkin: Die Kriegsbriefe, ed. by MargaVoigt, Berlin 2016, pp. 447-451 and in: Schütrumpf (ed.): Diktatur statt Sozialismus. Die russische Revolution und die deutsche Linke 1917/18, pp. 98-102, here p. 98.
2 Jan Kucharzewski, installed by the German occupiers and protected by German bayonets, was the Prime Minister of Poland from November 1917 to February 1918.
3 A character in Heinrich Heine’s poem “Zwei Ritter” (Two Knights), a Polish nobleman who squanders his money.
4 “For 6 March 1910 the German Social Democratic Party had called for a large march for a democratic right to vote, called the “Walk for the Right to Vote”. In order to confuse the Prussian authorities, Treptower Park in Berlin was announced as the meeting point. The chief of the Berlin police forbade the march and had Treptower Park occupied by a large contingent of police. In the meanwhile, 150,000 people gathered in Tiergarten park and began marching in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate. Mounted police rode on the marchers with sabres out and wounded several of them. On the same day, there were large demonstrations in many other Prussian cities and in the rest of the German states, marching for the universal, equal and direct voting rights.” From the Spartacusbriefe (Spartacus Letters), published by the Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim Zentralkomitee der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands, Berlin, 1958, p. 417, footnote 1.
5 When Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Paul Levi and others were hunted like game in open season in January 1919 in Berlin, the SPD politician Eugen Ernst (1864 –1954) was the chief of the Berlin police, as the replacement of Emil Eichhorn who had been removed from office by the Prussian SPD government. Gustav Noske thanked Ernst on 17 August 1920, saying, “I will always think of Eugen Ernst, my comrade-in-arms during difficult days, in true friendship. Noske”. Cf. the exemplar with Noske’s memoirs (Von Kiel bis Kapp. Zur Geschichte der deutschen Revolution, Berlin 1920) in the library of the Federal Archives of Berlin-Lichterfelde (Signature: 66 B 1737). After 1945 made another transformation: He became a model politician for the East Berlin SED. The regional party leadership of the SED in Greater Berlin even published his autobiography Ein Leben für die Arbeiterbewegung. Ansporn für unsere Jugend, (A Life for the Labour Movement) Berlin 1948 – where Ernst at the very least forgot to report on his comradeship with Gustav Noske. Paul Levi speculated as early as 1927 on a possible unification of the SPD and the KPD: “It is perfectly clear to us that in creating an organisational unity, the emphasis among the communists will fall not lean towards the so-called left view in the party, but for the right” Levi: “Die Hamburger Wahlen”, in: Sozialistische Politik und Wirtschaft, vol. 5, no. 41, 14 October 1927; republished in: Levi: Ohne einen Tropfen Lakaienblut. Schriften, Reden, Briefe, vol. II/2: Sozialdemokratie, ed. by Jörn Schütrumpf, Berlin 2016, pp. 1098-1099.
First published in: Spartacus, No. 8, Januar 1918.
Quotes taken from: Paul Levi, Spartakus, Vol. I / 1, pp. 445-449.
Translated by Zachary Murphy King an Jan-Peter Herrmann.