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Book Review: 'Social Democracy Versus Communism'

'Social Democracy Versus Communism', by Karl Kautsky (Rand School of Social Science. New York)

This book, “Social Democracy versus Communism’’ (Rand School of Social Science. New York. $2) comprises selections from the various writings that Kautsky published in German during the eventful years 1932-37. The selection of subjects is good and covers theory and events: The Materialist Conception of History, The Origin of Socialism, Marxism and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, The Beginning of Bolshevism, Lenin and the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Road to Power, Socialism and Democracy, to mention a few. Many of these subjects Kautsky has dealt with in larger works. In this small volume (142 pages) he touches on them again with a freshness, lucidity and soundness which lack nothing because of compression and show that Kautsky maintained his outstanding abilities as a Marxist up to a great age.

Kautsky’s anti-Sovietism was never based upon petty party considerations. His opposition to the Soviet régime and to Bolshevism arose out of his fine understanding of history and Marxist theory. His case for Democracy is not one of sentiment or preference for one form of working-class struggle as against another, but that without Democracy there can be no Socialism. Two simple propositions form the basis of Kautsky’s opposition to the Communists in Russia and elsewhere: (1) Democracy and free discussion are the only means upon which could be built a Socialist party which could give the working class the experience and knowledge which would fit it to achieve its purpose. (2) Socialism was not possible in Russia because the material conditions which would permit it were not there. These two propositions he argued with scholarship and closely reasoned deductions which were never answered by the early Bolshevists nor by their apologists and admirers since. In the section “Lenin and the Russian Revolution of 1917 ” he restates and re-examines the circumstances in which the Bolshevists took power in Russia in 1917.

He argues a strong case that Russia would have developed industrially and politically more rapidly than has been the case under the dictatorship. Briefly the facts stand repeating. The Bolshevists were brought to power in 1917 by military and administrative collapse and the inability of a weak and immature capitalist class to take control of the situation. Up to the time they took power the Bolshevists demanded a Constituent Assembly based upon universal suffrage. After the election the voting revealed 9,000,000 votes cast for the Bolshevists and 23,000,000 for the other “Socialist” parties, the Menshevists and the Social Revolutionists, the openly bourgeois parties receiving only 4,000,000 votes. Thus the Bolshevists received only a quarter of the votes cast. Here was an opportunity for the “United Front” ! Ignoring the bourgeois parties, all the other parties had similar aims, and in and through the Constituent Assembly could have carried out all that was realisable at that time in the interests of the workers and peasants, allowing for the limitations imposed by the backwardness of Russia. Instead the Bolshevists watched their opportunity and used their control of the armed forces, which they had through their control of the soldiers’ soviets, to crush the Assembly. That was the last that was heard of Democracy and freedom of speech in Russia. Civil war followed with disastrous consequences for the recovery of Russia. And, Kautsky notes with emphasis, the civil war and the reign of terror followed the Bolshevist suppression of the Constituent Assembly and did not precede it. Instead of co-operation and support, which the Constituent Assembly would have received from the people through the safety valve of Democracy, there were years of civil strife, organised and unconscious resistance to the plans for industrial development and reform. The Bolshevists were only able to hold power through a ruthless dictatorship and police-ridden bureaucracy. Thus the Bolshevists overthrew the pretence of democracy. Before they came to power they had defended dictatorship within the party organisation as a necessity imposed by the secret nature of Russian political organisations in the days of the Czar.

As to whether Kautsky is right in believing that the course of European history after 1917 might have been profoundly different had the Bolshevists remained faithful to Democracy will not be discussed at length here. Certainly Sidney Hook makes a point in his preface when he says:—

   “ . . .  If one denies that there are major alternatives in history, and makes his moral judgement completely dependent on historical fact, not only must he believe that Stalinism and Hitlerism were inevitable, but that whoever wins is right.”

The “right” or “wrong” of Hook’s deductions will not be argued here. But both Kautsky and Hook deliver a blow to what was a popular assumption, and is to-day a widely held belief, that the Bolshevist Dictatorship was inevitable and justifiable in Russia in 1917, and that there was no alternative. The "major alternative” the Bolshevists might have chosen was support for Democratic and constitutional freedom for the workers. A mature understanding of the part that they were playing in Russian history would have shown them that in the circumstances as they existed they could not achieve more than this. In their blindness they chose Dictatorship. The Russia that exists to-day followed logically from that step. If there was anything "inevitable” about the Bolshevist Dictator- ship it was because of the limited Socialist understanding among the select few in the ranks of the Bolshevists who claimed it. Can it be argued that the Dictatorship was any the less inevitable when history, in producing the alternative, did not at the same time produce the men who could see it and grasp it? The picture of the Russian Revolution as being an example of the "enlightened few” imposing its paternal will upon the ignorant majority was never historically true. Those who accepted the picture were mostly those who saw "Socialism” in the glorified state capitalism in Russia, and who aim at a similar state of things in this and other countries, though with the pious reservation that it should be achieved in a constitutional manner. History has shown that the "enlightened few” were very immature in their Socialist understanding and were a reflection of the general backwardness in Russia. There are many to-day who see this who were unable to do so before. If there is one lesson that comes out of the Russian Revolution above all else it is that Democracy is the life force of working-class politics, without which it cannot emancipate itself. It is an essential principle of Socialism, and to betray one is to betray the other. Russia and the Communist organisations that it controls are a warning to the workers that they abandon Democracy at their peril.

Kautsky was among the few who saw the Russian picture clearly from the beginning.

The section "Is Soviet Russia a Socialist State” is potent in facts and argument. It would be a service to the workers if it could be distributed to members of all working-class organisations. Space forbids more than a quotation:—

   "Collective ownership and management of large enterprises with fullest freedom for the workers is Socialism, which is superior to industrial capitalism. But this capitalism is superior not only to the small industry of the guild craftsman, but also to large industry with compulsory labour, as well as to every form of state economy based upon conscript labour. Every economy of this sort must be rejected in spite of the fact that it is not capitalist.

    Our duty is not merely to abolish the capitalist order, but to set up a higher order in its place. But we must oppose those forces aiming to destroy capitalism only to replace it with a barbarous mode of production.

    It is for this reason that the democratically-minded portion of the working class must oppose all tendencies toward dictatorship threatening the freedom of the workers, tendencies manifested not only by the capitalists, but also those that originate with anti-capitalist groups.

     What we see in Russia is, therefore, not Socialism but its antithesis. It can become Socialism only when the people expropriate the expropriators now in power, to use a Marxian expression. Thus the Socialist masses of Russia find themselves, with respect to the problem of control of the means of production, in the same situation which confronts the workers in capitalist countries ” (p. 90).

It is fundamentally true that the workers in Russia are faced with the same problems as workers elsewhere. But it is not the "control” of the means of production by the workers which will bring Socialism, but the ownership of them by Society. Kautsky appears to indicate here that his alternative to the prevailing form of capitalism in Russia would be "Collective ownership and management of large enterprises with fullest freedom for the workers ”; in short, a form of State Capitalism without "conscript labour.” This would conform to his position in the reformist Labour Movement and to the habit of the Labour parties everywhere in describing any form of State enterprise as Socialism.

Quoting Otto Bauer, Kautsky says:—

    "Russia is a State of unlimited absolutism, much more than it was under the Czar. The Government is all-Powerful. No meetings are permitted except those agreeable to the Government, no newspapers except those of the Government party. Members of all other organisations are at best jailed, at worst shot. The control of the police over the population has attained a measure which can hardly be imagined in free countries. It is a régime of absolutist dictatorship, of a power quite without any limitation, which holds every human being completely in its hand but is itself subject to no control.

   Such a system of dictatorship destroys all intellectual liberty. In Russia there is only one form of science—that officially authorised by the Government. He who entertains scientific views other than those prescribed officially is thrown out to starve and must, indeed, consider himself fortunate if he is not exiled or shot ” (p. 91).

Kautsky continues:—

    "In this manner there has been set up, after the destruction of the old classes, a new differentiation of classes, a hierarchy headed by a Pope.

     The fruit of the Bolshevist régime has been the establishment of a new class rule. The Bolsheviks, to be sure, have destroyed the old classes, but new classes, new elements of aristocracy, have arisen under their régime. They have arisen of necessity from the conditions of the Bolshevist dictatorship, although they may be invisible at first glance because they had not been foreseen in Bolshevist ideology and phraseology. But they are there, nevertheless. They are striking ever deeper root and are becoming in ever increasing measure the determining factor in the actions and aspirations of Bolshevism. Its ultimate Communist objective is becoming more and more a matter of decoration, a mere memory or allurement for Socialist idealists whom the dictator seeks to utilise for his own purposes” (p. 98).

   "Erstwhile Communists who preached the doctrine of equality have become the parvenus of a climbing party hierarchy, archbishops and cardinals of the pope of the Bolshevist church. The new generation of Communists, however, consists for the most part of conscienceless careerists, whose Communism is limited to mere lip service and whose activities are devoted solely the attainment of power and the privileges it implies.

       Acquisition and retention of these privileges is their only aim ” (p. 99).

Sidney Hook, in his preface, takes Kautsky to task for starting off this section with the proposition that the Communists are a working-class party. He argues that it mars the strong case that he has made out, that the basic loyalties of the Communist parties are not to a set of values or principles, but to the concrete interests of the Russian State, that to abandon the working class of any nationality in order to serve the Russian State brands them the servile instruments of that State, and the enemies of the workers who have long since removed themselves from the working-class movement

To assume that the Communist Party might so betray the workers in the future charges them with no more than being consistent. But to say that the Communist Party has removed itself from the working-class movement is to ignore the fact that in some countries the workers are organised in considerable numbers in the Communist organisations through which the class struggle manifests itself.

A work which will repay time and money if the reader does not waste time trying to understand why so outstanding a Marxist theoretician was at the same time a Labour reformist.

Harry Waite