Different critics of the Bolsheviks - Karl Kautsky

Luise and Karl Kautsky Ca. 1918-19

24 March 1918, Mitteilungsblatt (der Berliner SPD). Translation (in part) of Verschiedene Kritiker der Bolschewiki. Reproduced for reference.

When the Bolsheviks in Petrograd conquered political power, many of our friends had celebrated them. That was very understandable in view of the vigour with which they now acted in the realisation of the socialist goal which we share with them. Some among us, including myself, nevertheless stood critically to them, not because we reject their end goal, but because we feared that their methods would not bring us to these goals, but rather distance us from them.

This criticism was leveled at a time when the Bolsheviks were atop not only in Russia, but also enjoined grace in the bourgeois world of Germany and consequently the favour of the government socialists [SPD].

This has changed since then. The bourgeois parties, the government just as the government socialists, no longer want to know anything of the Bolsheviks. So the critics in the camp of the independent social democracy [USPD] face the danger of ending up in a company in which they do not fit. Under these circumstances it becomes urgent that we draw a thick line of demarcation, one between ourselves and the more or less bourgeois opponents of Bolshevism, and that we show wherein our critique differs from theirs.

The main reproach which the others make against Bolshevism is that it wants to bring the revolution from the East to the West. That is a reproach in the eyes not merely of the bourgeois parties, but also of the government socialists. Thus Scheidemann in his Reichtstag speech on 26 February (according to the report of Vorwärts):

Scheidemann wrote:
When Bolshevism now desires that we by a revolution fix again the created damage, it desires too much from us. We in the West still are in [a situation of] war, and Bolshevik recipes did not show themselves to be such, that their application in Germany is to be recommended.

Scheidemann thus rejects the revolution, not because he regards the striving for its realisation as hopeless, but because the victorious revolution must ruin Germany. It is the first time since the existence of German Social Democracy that a social democrat expressed this viewpoint in the Reichtstag, and moreover with the approval by his closer party comrades. Hitherto we lived in the confidence that when the by us represented politics came to power – and that was through the revolution – this would mean the liberation of Germany from its distress and not its ruin.

Our criticism of Bolshevism is of an entirely different nature. We do not reproach it that it wants to bring the revolution from the East to the West, and propagates it abroad. Our criticism is that Bolshevism misjudged how different the conditions of the revolution are in present Russia from those of a revolution in present Western Europe.

The overthrow of Czarism and its replacement by democracy had become a necessity for the entire bourgeois society of Russia. In this revolution participated not only proletarians, though they, as in any revolution, from the start stood at the forefront; but also the petty-bourgeois, the peasants, the intellectuals, many agrarians and even large landowners. The majority of the army and also the officers endorsed it.

It is entirely different in Western Europe. Here, if not always every government, at least the ruling government-system satisfies the propertied classes. These have no cause to fundamentally change it. The sole class that here comes into play for such a change, a revolution, is the proletariat. Wherewith it has the total bourgeois society against it, can count on a change of the state organism in its sense only when it is stronger than all other classes combined. Since its power lies in its mass, it can expect this only there where it forms the greatest part of the population. The best method to bring the weight of its superior number to bear, the least painful method, the sole, which gives lasting results, is that of democracy.


Not against the revolutionary propaganda of the Bolsheviks abroad is our criticism directed, but against the anti-democratic methods internally, which do not save the revolution, but spoil it.

Precisely that however is not that which bourgeois opponents in Germany make a reproach of. It would also be very strange, when the supporters of the three-class franchise system in Prussia and the opponents of parliamentarism – and there is no bourgeois party in Germany, which did not at least for a time belong to them – were to be outraged about Lenin precisely because he does not feel enough respect for the general and equal suffrage and does not want to lift up the Reichs-parliament to the highest political authority.

The conflict with the Bolsheviks was rather about the question of the right of self-determination of the Russian neighbouring nations, wherewith the Bolsheviks acted not as despisers, but as defenders of democracy, above all of the general and equal suffrage. They stood here on the same ground as the other socialist parties in Russia, yes of the International. Also here it was again shown, that what we object to the Bolsheviks is precisely not that which arouses the indignation of their bourgeois opponents in Germany.

But their acts of atrocity! Are we here not all of one voice? Not entirely. Of course we regret and condemn every cruelty. But after all only those that are proven. The mere telegraphic transmission we do not regard as evidence. The telegraph has already so often shown entirely stupendous gullibility. What tissues of lies were spun already about the Paris Commune 1871!

Meanwhile that atrocities take place in Russia, who can doubt this? Once the Bolsheviks put in place of the struggle of parties by suffrage the struggle by superior military force, they had to grasp that their violence would encounter violent resistance, that in place of the election campaign the civil war came. And every war of weapons takes its bloody victims from both sides. Do the bourgeois critics of Bolshevism also for their side fundamentally repudiate every application of violence in politics, do they want to see it everywhere and under all circumstances replaced by democratic methods? And do they desire for example of Germany, that it intervene everywhere in the world where violence rules instead of democracy, and that it set forth to replace the violence by democracy?

One has not yet heard that the present critics of the Bolsheviks called for intervention of the German government,
"When far away, abroad, in Turkey the peoples massacred one another."

Neither were such calls raised when in the Baltic governorates after the defeat of the 1905 revolution the counter-revolution there held forth almost as terrible, as the Kurds in Armenia.

Do the critics of the Bolsheviks perhaps make a distinction in the atrocities about which they become indignant, and do they perhaps make of acts of atrocity a ground for interventions only there where power is in the hands of the revolutionaries?

These indications may suffice to make clear that the criticism which the independent socialists make of the Bolsheviks is of an entirely different cut, than the criticism of their bourgeois opponents and the latter's supporters originating from the socialist camp. The contrast between the one and the other kind of criticism is as great as between the position of the one and other critics toward revolution.

The bourgeois critics are quite indifferent, when not even sympathetic, to the disrespect of the Bolsheviks to the dictates of democracy. By contrast any step toward maintenance or even expansion of the revolution meets the most decisive rejection. For us by contrast the salvation of democracy for present Russia is synonymous with the highest extent of power which the proletariat can attain and maintain under given conditions. And therefore, in the interests of the revolution and of the proletariat, our most urgent demand is the upkeep of democracy.


(I add an anecdote about Lenin. - NR. This is from Lincoln Steffens (pp. 33–5) in his book Moses in red (1926):

"What we need," said Lenin to me in 1919, "is a revision of all our theories in the light of the war, the peace and this and the other revolutions. I can't undertake it. I can't even change my own ideas very much. When you are in action you cannot stop to theorize; it is difficult even to think. I have to live in the country to think clear. But if there were scientific men outside, in America, England Europe they could look on and they could study, think and tell us. We need criticism. The captains in all crises really need the counsel of wise, thoughtful, sympathetic observers safely, quietly out of the storm center. But there is no such criticism; there are no such critics. All we get is the ignorant horror at the signs of our distress, the height of the waves, the discipline of the crew and the number of poor devils washed overboard. That is no help. We feel all this, more than our critics do. What we want to know is how to get through the difficulties to an objective, which is the aim of all men who have a purpose in life. We differ about the route; we agree on the port - all of us."

The horrors of a revolution are never singular; they are the ever-recurring symptoms and signs of the natural phenomenon they accompany always. This one can see by observing that they occur regularly in all revolutions, some of them in all social crises. There are killings and terrors, loot and destruction, in a war or a strike. The side or the leaders blamed for them do not always wish for and command them. They also deplore them. When I asked Lenin officially about the terror, he whirled on me fiercely.

"Who wants to ask us about our killings?" he demanded.

"Paris," I said, meaning, as he well understood, the Peace Conference.

"Do you mean to tell me that those men who have just generaled the slaughter of seventeen millions of men in a purposeless war are concerned over the few thousands that have been killed in a revolution which has a conscious aim to get out of the necessity of war and – and armed peace?"

He stood a moment facing me with his blazing eyes, then quieting down, he said:

"But never mind, do not deny the terror. Don't minimize any of the evils of a revolution. They occur. They must be counted upon. If we have to have a revolution, we have to pay the price of it."

That is the point. The evils of revolution happen in a revolution. They have to be studied, therefore; not merely shied at, but examined and then, perhaps, when they are understood scientifically, they can be avoided or used.

  • 1. I leave out the middle part of the article. Kautsky writes that the weakness of the proletariat in the West is its division, which lies in its insufficient independence from bourgeois leadership. And although the West is more economically advanced, precisely because of that the government is more adapted, and the other classes rally around it in view of the more numerous proletariat. - NR
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Noa Rodman
Mar 27 2017 00:27