What percentage of Americans are (now) fascist?

Sharlet offers no empirical data on how many US-Americans now fit the fascist/neo-fascist/ “true fascist” profile – the prolific and quantitatively astute political scientist and Marcon Center researcher Anthony DiMaggio (author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here) tells me it’s about a quarter of the nation. Sharlet doesn’t tell you how and why the nation’s fascist minority has such lethally outsized political voice in the United States (the answer requires a harsh look at the institutional Minority Rule structure of US politics and governance and the long reach of the US slaveowners’ Constitution). You won’t learn from The Undertow how and why capitalism and bourgeois democracy breed fascism or how fascism relates to the underlying capitalist-imperialist order.

Travels Through “the Trumpocene”: Jeff Sharlet’s Dark Take on Our Fascist “Condition” BY PAUL STREET

Photograph Source: Chad Davis – CC BY 2.0

Jeff Sharlet, The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War (New York: WW Norton, 2023)

Jeff Sharlet’s new book The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War is a distinctive, brilliant, and poetic study of Amerikaner fascism – here I might say fascination – over the last three years of what a friend of his calls “The Trumpocene.”

The F-Word

Sharlet makes no bones abut using the big-scary F word, fascism, to describe what he sees as having taken over one of the nation’s two dominant parities and the minds of millions of US-Americans. “One by one in recent years,” he writes:

“objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away. In addition to ‘the personality’ of Trump, the movement his presidency quickened now cultivates paramilitaries and glorifies violence as a means of purification, thrives on othering its enemies, declares itself persecuted for ‘Whiteness,’ diagnoses the nation as decadent and embraces the revisionist myth of a MAGA past – as exemplified in its dream of adding Trump’s likeness to Mount Rushmore” (p.165).

The F-word rightly appears again and again through The Undertow, as in these examples:

“Why go on abut the barely sublimated eroticism and ecstasy of a congregation I’ve already let you know is in denial of death….stoking the return of a fascism not really gone?” (p. 222)

“The witnesses [before the US House Select Committee on January 6th in the summer of 2022]…were three Trump administration lawyers who had resisted the president’s would-be coup. I listened to their testimony, their graying voices, their account of the pressure building [from Trump to help him overthrow the 2020 presidential election], thinking This is the stress test of fascism. Trump, probing, prodding, feeling for weak links. Will this bend? Will this one break?” (271),

“Athena [a young far-right militia woman and expert AR-15 shot Sharlet met in rural Wisconsin last summer], for instance, embraced fascism and yet bridled at the name. ‘They call me a Nazi…just because of my German flag tattoo….Honor and Glory for Germany,’ she said, her voice in a low drone. Which was complicated because Rob [Athena’s father] considered himself Jewish. ‘I’m not,” Athena said” (279-80).

“The anger kept twisting. Rob and Peggy and Jerry and James [white Amerikaners Sharlet interviewed in Mountain, Wisconsin]. Abortion and guns and God and Whiteness and women and cities and borders and then guns again. The intersectionality of fascism: all perceived threats, across all time- ‘Indian war’ and new Cold War and critical race theory – brutally interconnected.”

“But for all its guns and Punisher skulls and actual killers, [US-Amerikaner] fascism is actually worse than a death cult: It’s an innocence cult, the belief that one might be as innocent of history – read, race – as a fetus is of the world. Perfect and pink (White), unbloody in the Dobbsian imagination of the womb. The gun, too, is made clean by the cult of innocence, born again not as a tool of aggression but of defense, as the protection of purity, inscribed by a growing number of manufacturers with Stars and Stripes and biblical verse; advertised as a form of evangelism, a means of spreading God’s goodness in the world. Like a baby. The fetus and the gun. Small wonder nobody’s yet put them together on a flag.”

Things You Won’t Get from The Undertow

I’m not sure when exactly (and correctly) Sharlet determined that Trumpism is fascism. He cops to having earlier believed that US Christian nationalism could never cross over into full on personality cultist “true fascism” because of its “ostensible commitment to some kind of idea of Christ.”

“I was wrong,” Sharlet writes. Good for him. A hardly band of left and liberal commentators and activists were on to Trumpism as fascism from the very beginning, but, well, better late – if it is in fact late in Sharlet’s case – than never, right? I know more than a few haughty academic and other fascism-deniers who still even now cling to their faith that fascism isn’t really happening and indeed can’t actually happen here in the United States.

Sharlet isn’t a radical Left analyst or activist inclined towards empirical social-scientific and historical inquiry or popular organizing. The Undertow won’t give you an explicit and precise definition of fascism beyond the passage I quoted in the second paragraph of this review (though that passage is very good and consistent with serious historical and sociopolitical definitions of the lethal pathology).

Sharlet offers no empirical data on how many US-Americans now fit the fascist/neo-fascist/ “true fascist” profile – the prolific and quantitatively astute political scientist and Marcon Center researcher Anthony DiMaggio (author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here) tells me it’s about a quarter of the nation – or how those people are distributed across the country in regional, socioeconomic, and other demographic terms. He doesn’t tell you how and why the nation’s fascist minority has such lethally outsized political voice in the United States (the answer requires a harsh look at the institutional Minority Rule structure of US politics and governance and the long reach of the US slaveowners’ Constitution). You won’t learn from The Undertow how and why capitalism and bourgeois democracy breed fascism or how fascism relates to the underlying capitalist-imperialist order.

You won’t find learned and deep empirical reflections on why fascism has broken through American politics to the lethal and chilling degree it has now in this particular, late neoliberal moment of US history. Or on how and why the dismal, dollar-drenched “hollow resistance” Democrats have helped grease the skids for the “return of a fascism not really gone.” Or, for that matter, on what’s different about Trump-era fascism as compared to earlier versions of the pathology in American and world history.

While The Undertow includes an inspiring vignette on some cool, mostly female Wisconsin teens who told their local women-hating fascists literally to “Fuck Off” after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, you won’t learn much if anything about what should or even could be done to stop the fascist Amerikaner juggernaut in its tracks And you won’t find all that much in the way of hope for the future since this is a pessimistic book that seems to see US fascisation not as a crisis to be fought and averted than as our tragic “shared condition” – the long unavoidable, almost naturalized “undertow” of Amerikan racism and Whiteness (he capitalizes this word to emphasis the racist essence of Trumpism-fascism), patriarchy, fundamentalism, and violence.

A Travelogue of Terror

But other folks (including myself, the aforementioned DiMaggio, and members of the nearly seven-years-old organization Refuse Fascism) have tried their hands and are working on all that and more. Sharlet’s mission is neither academic nor activist. It is to tell a highly personal, moving and lyrical yet dark and trepidatious series of stories that grippingly warn his readers about a great menace stalking the land.

The Undertow is part travelogue, part prose poetry, part first person journalistic inquiry, part participant observation, part personal memoir, part history, and part horror story. Sharlet attends and reports on Trump’s campaign/hate rallies, driving across the country asking Trumpists about their world view. Presenting himself as a neutral, open-minded journalist investigating the meaning and legacy of the fascist January 6th “martyr” Ashli Babbitt – the Capitol Rioter shot dead as she burst though a Congressional door’s glass panel – he talks to Trumpist QAnoners, militia members, gun nuts, abortion haters, racists, women-loathing/-fearing incels, and far-right pastors and fantasists. The result is not pretty: a fasci[st]nating, patchwork of potentially genocidal derangement that makes Hillary Clinton’s term “deplorables” look like an understatement. In one case after another, from California to the upper Midwest, Sharlet approaches his right-wing subjects with a welcoming spirit, seeking their opinions on the state of the nation in the wake of Joe Biden’s ascendancy. He nods along as they tell him that: Democrats are sub- and/or super-human child eaters; Trump has strange mystical powers and speaks to his followers in code; Trump is God’s chosen instrument for human salvation and will lead a great Storm of retribution; Covid-19 and vaccines are Chinese conspiracies; women gang rape men; true Amerikans must be armed to the teeth with high capacity assault weapons to avert urban communist takeover; women have no right to control their own reproductive lives (cuz God says); abortion gives women too much power; civil war is around the corner and can’t come soon enough; city-dwelling socialists are taking down the Second Amendment; abortion is worse than murder and “a plot to replace American newborns with adopted foreign ones.”

“Soon,” a deranged old white man in Wisconsin told Sharlet, “they will try to make us all speak one language, a one-world government tongue, an evil Esperanto that will rob us of that which is particular to our lives, our places, our pasts. It’s coming, he said. No, he said, it’s here.”

Sharlet seems to depart from each of these encounters ever more hopeless and anxious, his already brittle mental and physical state – the product of high blood pressure, two previous heart attacks, mourning for his recently departed and beloved stepmother, and concern for his transgender child – put further at peril. I’ll be honest: the horror of these people he hung out with is hard to bear.

We are NOT “All the Same Underneath”

Sharlet pulls this off without conveying any sense of superiority towards or contempt for his subjects. He leaves moral judgement up to the reader. The Trumpist Amerikaners of the early 2020s United States’ “heartland” simply exist for Sharlet. They just are, and they scare the Hell out of him. They are part of our “condition” now.

Sharlet manages to retain a sense of his God and Guns subjects’ underlying if lethally alienated humanity while pulling no punches about the existential menace they pose to what’s left of democracy and decency in the world’s most powerful nation. His approach is far superior to that of the sociologist Arlie “Strangers in Their Own Land” Hochschild, who decided that the proper response to the rise of the white nationalist right was to descend from her liberal ivory tower, bond with Trumpsters, and make Christo-fascists part of her extended family. Hochschild’s exercise was dedicated to a silly notion that Sharlet explicitly rejects – that “we’re really all the same underneath”… “No,” Sharlet rightly says, “we really are not. We’ve made different choices” (p. 222). Oh, indeed.

Oh, indeed. Do not tell me that I’m the same underneath as the Christian fascists who want to bring the women-hating, eco-cidal neo-Nazi pig Donald Trump back into the world’s most powerful and dangerous office in 2025 or, if Trump is unavailable, the fascist zealot Ron DeSantis. Don’t tell me I’m the same underneath as the vicious red- (try brown-) state legislators and governors who sign bills that send women into septic shock when they are denied proper miscarriage and abortion treatment, bills that ban books, suppress votes, and criminalize the accurate teaching of American history with racism, sexism, and genocide included. Don’t tell me I’m the same underneath as the people who applaud all that fascism.

The Christianity and Diversity of Trumpism-Fascism

Married to a historian, Sharlet finds the “Trumpocene” (I wish I’d come up with that term!) all too richly consistent with longstanding ugly undercurrents of violence-imposed Amerikan racism, nativism, ethnic cleansing, patriarchy and Christian fundamentalism – currents that (as he notes) inspired Adolph Hitler’s vision for the Third Reich. Consistent with his previous two books on American right-wing Christianity, The Undertow repeatedly weaves into its collage the strongly religious dimensions of Trumpism-fascism. He refers again and again to the Trumpist-fascists’ distrust of scientific and academic knowledge, their division of the world into believers and nonbelievers, and their strong resemblance to “Gnosticism” – a Christian tradition that speaks of “paradoxical wisdom,” secret and esoteric vision, and the dance between fantasy and illumination. The neo-Gnosticism of the Trumpers, Sharlet suggests, helps explains how millions of evangelical Christians have been able to embrace an epic philanderer and likely rapist like Herr Donald, who was just held liable by a jury for sexually abusing and defaming the New York journalist E. Jean Carroll.

Another key contribution of The Undertow merits special mention. The fascist base Sharlet finds in his trek across Trump terrain is less uniformly Caucasian and aged than many of us think. He runs across Black, “LatinX” (he used that PC word that no Latinos or Latinas I’ve ever met want anything do with), and even Native American Trumpsters, suggesting that the revanchist power of neofascist Whiteness reaches into the hearts and minds of more than a few nonwhites. That is certainly suggested by the examples of the recently convicted Proud Boy chief Enrique Tarrio and Mauricio Garcia, the fascist pig who murdered nine people mostly of Korean and Indian descent with an AR-15 outside an outlet mall in a Dallas suburb last Saturday. Garcia wore the same “Right Wing Death Squad” patch donned by Proud Boys in Washington DC after Joe Biden’s election.

Four Points of Difference

This is an at once beautiful and terrifying book. I do have four criticisms, or points of difference.

First, I think Sharlet should have added the words “for me” to his statement that “one by one, in recent years, objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away.” The objections have faded for him, which is excellent, but many others still pathetically refuse to identify, much less resist the Amerikaner fascism that is staring us in the face. Fascism denial and related fascism normalization remain alive and well in the nation’s dominant media-politics and intellectual cultures. (And Sharlet should see the denialist emails I get from those I at first jokingly designated “the Trumpenleft.” There’s a bunch of them still hanging around even at this late date.)

Second, I understand the pessimism but find it problematic. Antonio Gramsci’s oft-cited phrase “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will,” has long struck me as self-cancelling. Without being Panglossian, we can and must always struggle to keep our minds attuned to possibilities for radical popular change and even revolution.

Fascism need not be our “condition.” It reflects a very real crisis of class rule and new divisions within both the US capitalist class and the broader population – a crisis that will be resolved either through something truly terrible (fascist consolidation, a very real possibility) or something beautiful and liberating (popular rebellion and socialist transformation). Can we steer the crisis towards the better, liberating outcome? Si, se puede. And, indeed, we must.

I respectfully dissent from Sharlet’s belief that “the return of a fascism not really gone” is our naturalized “condition” and from his related rejection of the notion that the country is in a crisis. Behold this passage on p. 238: “There were other investigations stemming from January 6, many hundreds, but I do not believe they will ever, in a true sense, be ‘resolved.’ This isn’t that kind of a story. The crisis kind. The kind in which the outcome is yet to be determined. It isn’t a ‘crisis,’ January 6, any more than the fire and heat I’d been driving through all these miles. It’s a condition [like a bad heart – P.S.]. Our condition. The one we share” (emphasis added).

No, I disagree. Sorry for the repetition, but, as Bob Avakian notes, there’s a crisis of previously normative bourgeois-democratic rule underway within and beyond the United States right now. It’s a crisis, not a condition, and it’s resolution is a matter of individual and collective human agency. Historical contingency and human intervention in social and political life have not been rendered extinct. We had better and can in fact get our shit together and act to avert fascist consolidation. The pessimism of much of the intelligentsia – including most of the Left-identified people I know – is a mental and emotional and even physical condition that is getting in the way of a decent, democratic, and human resolution of the, well, crisis.

Third, listen to this interesting passage from p. 301: “Some friends, rural Wisconsinites, queer, left, and armed, wanted me to stop talking to angry people. ‘Why talk to Nazis?’ asked one of their children, a six-year-old of strong common sense. Well, they’re not exactly Nazis,’ I said but I knew that wasn’t a real response.”

Well, yes, and it was not a good response because, well, they’re pretty much Nazis. As the brilliant Marxist historian Alan Kulikoff recently wrote me:

“We should use the term ‘Nazi’ more often to describe our fascist anti-conservative far right-wing Republican ‘party.’ Its trajectory certainly resembles the early Nazi Party, complete with demonization of humans they consider savages: Gay folk (loathed by Nazis), Jews, people of African descent. And they add the Nazis’ deeply misogynist views of women. We need…to stop viewing them as laughable characters. They are dangerous to humankind and could be our rulers come January 2025, given the extraordinary incompetence of the Democratic Party, still fully beholden to capitalists, striving mightily to ignore young voters, among other absurdities. (Push comes to shove, our capitalist ruling class will go with our Nazi/Fascists, just as the German capitalists did with the Nazis. My former Princeton colleague, David Abraham, proved this in his first book, for which sin he was chased out of the profession).”

About David Abraham: German Big Business as a group sought to sabotage the late Weimar state by supporting Hitler and the Nazis, the faction they saw as best representing their economic interests, especially in the face of a rising threat from the Left. This thesis … is an old one, stated many times over the years in such well-known works as Arthur Rosenberg’s Der Faschismus als Massenbewegung, Daniel Guérin’s Fascism and Big Business, Robert Brady’s The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, … and, perhaps the most sophisticated example, Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. Known as the “classical Marxian interpretation” of Fascism, it retains, in its numerous variations, many adherents on the Left today [This was written late in 1984.] In support of his variant, Abraham cited and quoted from many primary sources which seemed to show just how ardently pro-Nazi and anti-Weimar, for their own narrow ends, were some of Germany’s most important business and financial leaders”.  When Wiener wrote about the case in The Nation in February 1985 he started by noting, “Two senior historians, one at Yale University and one at the University of California, Berkeley, have devoted their time and professional reputations to destroying the career of a young Marxist historian David Abraham whose book … has been found to contain numerous errors… Abraham’s critics led by Professor Henry A. Turner Jr of Yale and Gerald A. Feldman of Berkeley, seek not just to expose Abraham’s errors but also to make sure that he will never get another academic job”, and then quoted Lawrence Stone as saying “I’ve never seen a witch hunt like this in forty years in two countries”.

First, the weaknesses that exposed Abraham to this ferocious attack; “In the course of researching and writing his book, Abraham misdated and misattributed one document, mistranslated another document in a way that distorted its meaning and treated a paraphrase of a third document as a quotation”. Abraham acknowledged his errors in print and apologised for them. To no avail. Wiener goes on to say, “The campaign against Abraham was begun by Turner, a bitter opponent of Marxist history who had been working for years on a defense of German businessmen in the period immediately preceding the rise of Hitler. Turner became furious after hearing Abraham’s work praised at a March 1983 colloquium on Weimar history at Harvard University”. A few months later, he wrote to the American Historical Review alleging that “Abraham had forged a document showing business support for Hitler in the last days of Weimar”. With Abraham’s application for tenure at Princeton turned down, “Feldman began his (own) campaign of letters and telephone calls to make sure that no university hired Abraham”.  Wherever Abraham made a job application (and these were numerous), Feldman intervened (successfully), and when Princeton University Press planned to bring out a revised edition of Abraham’s book, he wrote to them denouncing it as “fraudulent” and saying “it should be withdrawn from sale”. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/node/1730

The links given above go into the details of this sordid battle against left-wing interpretations of the collapse of Weimar. And for those of you who have access to jstor, Abraham’s brilliant paper in Past & Present 1980 (a summary of the argument of his book which is called “Conflicts within German Industry and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic”) is accessible there. It is quite clear that Abraham’s whole approach to the Weimar crisis was deeply influenced by the argument that Sohn-Rethel had proposed (about the divisions within German capital) in the 1973 German edition of his book Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism.

Since 1991, Abraham has been a professor of law at the University of Miami. The subjects he taught there before retirement included Property, Immigration & Citizenship Law; Citizenship and Identity; Law and the Transition to Capitalism; and, Law and Social Theory. His Miami web site says, modestly, “Prior to entering law school, Professor Abraham taught for many years in the History department of Princeton University”.(Photo: John Heartfield’s famous photomontage describing Hitler as a “toy in Thyssen’s hand”. It was published in Prague in August 1933.) 

The conclusion I get from that is this: thank you, Jeff Sharlet for talking to Amerika’s 21st Century version of the Nazis and helping us get our minds around their world view. We can stop talking to them now. Let’s talk to each other about how to defeat them once and for all.

Fourth, and this is directed at WW. Norton and the publishing industry, not the author, I am militantly opposed to the growing abolition of the index and think it belongs at the end even of non-academic books like The Undertow. Why should a reviewer not be able to easily look at an index to find every page on which Sharlet discusses Ashli Babbitt or mentions the F-word or Gnosticism, or the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, or Nazis? I realized after reading this wonderful book that I had not entirely grasped entirely what he meant by “the undertow.” What would be wrong with me being able to access an index with an entry for “undertow, meaning of” at the end of the volume? Plus, indexers need work.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).

Historical Materialism https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/international-social-democracy-and-road-to-socialism-1905-1917-ballot-street-and-state

John Marot

German Social-Democracy does not put into its programme the demand for a republic. The situation in Germany is such that this question can in practice hardly be separated from that of socialism.

Lenin, 1905

[T]he sole state form in which socialism can be realised is the republic, the democratic republic.

Kautsky, 1909.

Introduction: Kautsky or Lenin?

The “S” word no longer scares as many people in the United States as it used to. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign made it official: democratic socialism will not bring an end to common decency, good cheer and Christianity. Moreover, the break-out Black Likes Matter movement in the United States has once again shown the world the political bona fides of mass, direct action in the streets – an essential component of any revolution worthy of the name. Finally, the recent centenary of the October Revolution sparked an interest in the history of socialism and socialist political theory among radicalizing youth. Many learned about Lenin and the Bolshevik Party and how they led the working class in Russia to power.

And yet, when all is said and done, the socialist Elysium remains for many distant, elusive.

Over a century later, the October Revolution and Bolshevism are still unduplicated originals. No reasonable facsimile of either has ever been reproduced outside Russia. In Russia itself a murderous Stalinist dictatorship soon supplanted soviet democracy and workers’ rule. ‘Leninist Bolshevism’ leads to Stalinism. For many post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The ultimately disastrous outcome of the October Revolution prompted many socialists in the West to condemn wholesale Lenin and Bolshevism very early on. Leading the charge was Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), the ‘pope’ of Second International Marxism, the most prominent theoretician of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), the party most socialists, especially the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia, looked up to for guidance in the classical epoch of the Second International, 1889-1914.

Beginning on the morrow of the October 1917 Revolution until his death, Kautsky denounced the Bolshevik leader and his ‘anti-democratic’, ‘Blanquist’ and ‘insurrectionary’ conception of socialist revolution.1 With the onset of the Cold War, ‘free-world’ socialists raised high the banner of Kautsky’s crusade, broadcasting their anti-communism far and wide.

For his part, Lenin and other revolutionaries turned against Kautsky for not doing anything in 1914 to stop the inter-imperialist slaughter. Lenin excoriated the ‘renegade’2 and set out to destroy the hold of ‘Kautskyism’ in the workers’ movement by founding the Third International in 1919 as a revolutionary, communist alternative to the social democratic, pro-war, counter-revolutionary reformism (as he now saw it) of the Second. So began the Great Divergence in a period of revolutionary upheaval: Social Democracy vs. Communism, the ballot box vs. the street, reform vs. revolution, workers’ self-determination vs. party dictatorship, slavery vs. freedom. The debate continues.

Despite (because of?) Lenin’s anathema, Kautsky’s pre-1914 writings presently appear to many socialist activists politically relevant whereas Lenin’s do not. This is understandable. But appearances can be deceptive.

Kautsky addressed an array of political issues facing socialists operating in an advanced capitalist society, addressing us. In sharp contrast, Lenin dealt with a ‘backward’ society where the working class was but an island in a sea of small-holding peasants, and an autocrat ruled Russia by the Grace of God. This reality was far removed from ours, from secular, bourgeois-democratic states of Western Europe and the United States, with their very large working classes and (more or less) extensive representative political forms, and other regions of the world where, broadly speaking, the capitalist mode of production reigned (and reigns).3

Today’s watchword is: free Kautsky from Lenin’s damnatio memoriae and give his political writings a second reading. Lars Lih has given a historical justification – and much more.

In Lih’s view, Kautsky’s pre-1914 political writings – Kautskyism – guided Lenin and his partisans in Russia not just before 1914, but right through 1917 as well. Indeed, Kautsky was nothing less than the “architect” of the October Revolution – a singular claim as Lih realises.4 But this is the least of it.

Lih also claims that Lenin’s politics, right through the 1917 Russian Revolution, are relevant to modern day socialists in advanced capitalist societies with bourgeois-democratic states. He contradicts those socialists who think bourgeois-democratic revolutions in countries with non-bourgeois-democratic states, with autocracies such as Tsarist Russia, mandate political strategies and forms of party/political organisation fundamentally different from with those required for socialist revolutions in capitalist democracies.5

Lih’s double conception of overarching continuity in Bolshevik politics, from 1903 on, and fidelity to Second International Marxism – Lenin’s ‘Kautskyism’ – up to and including 1917, has no precedent. It has been hailed in academia as a breakthrough, generally by non-specialists of Russian and Soviet history. In some quarters of the activist left, it has earned Lih Herostratic fame. The latter, ‘orthodox Leninists’ mostly, deny that Lenin continued in Kautsky’s footsteps, retorting that the Bolshevik leader had broken with him not just in 1917, but that Bolshevism itself, from its very inception in 1903, actually represented an organized political trend – a ‘party of a new type’ – distinctly, if only implicitly, at odds with Second International orthodoxy, with Kautskyism. August Nimtz’s work is the latest and fullest iteration of this argument.6

These competing lines of argument clash. In their totality, both cannot be right.

In 1917, Lenin deepened his attack on Kautsky counter-revolutionary politics, initiated in 1914, to embrace Kautsky’s theory of democracy, parliament and the state underlying those politics. Lenin’s State and Revolution, drafted in early 1917, was its centrepiece. Here, there was no continuity with Kautskyism, as Lih thinks. Here, the ‘Leninists’ are right. But this is not to endorse as well the standard ‘Leninist’ view of Bolshevism as sui generis long before 1917 (a view also shared by Stalinists, the latter just pushing back Lenin’s hostility to Kautsky almost to a time when Lenin was still in his crib).

These Leninists are skating on dangerously thin ice to single out Bolshevism as the only true-blue revolutionary trend in the Second International, with a few approving nods in Luxemburg’s direction. They understand something the leading thinkers of the Second International did not only because they have the benefit of hindsight. For the orthodox Leninists recognise today that no one then thought the ‘left’, Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP was incompatible with membership in the Second International – just as little as anyone thought the left or ‘Luxemburgist’ wing of the SPD was beyond the pale.

As Lih has shown beyond all reasonable doubt, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg were all adherents of ‘Erfurtianism’ – Lenin especially. As used here – and only here, for the purposes of my argument – Erfurtianism is synonymous with ‘Kautskyism’: a concrete political strategy for a socialist transformation of a developed capitalist society with a bourgeois-democratic state – and understood to be such by Second International Marxist theorists, by Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and others.7

The social transformation we strive for, Kautsky wrote in Road to Power (1909), can only be attained through a political revolution, by means of the fighting proletariat conquering political power. And the sole state form in which socialism can be realised is the republic, the democratic republic.8

Broadly speaking, Kautsky argued that the German Social-Democratic Party, legalised in 1890, could use the legislative arm of the bourgeois-democratic state – the Reichstag (or Parliament, Congress, Diet, House of Commons, Chamber of Deputies, Sejm, Knesset, etc.) – to blaze a parliamentary road to socialism. Conquering a majority in parliament by winning seats to it in electoral contests, possible only under a democratic republic with universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage, was the first step. Once won, a socialist transformation of capitalist society could begin promptly, via the institution of parliament.9 Ben Lewis accurately restates Kautsky’s position: The “struggle for more extensive representative political forms in state and society forms the strategic bridge between existing society and the socialist state of the future.”10 In this sense, all Social Democrats in Russia and the West were partisans of “Marxist Republicanism” to use Lewis’s apt, if jarring, expression

But could Marxist republicanism also ‘extend representative political forms’ to Tsarist Russia, as Lih holds, a country where there was no democratic republic, indeed, where there was no republic at all but a feudal autocracy? Where a transition to socialism was off the table because the material pre-requisites for it were absent there but present in the West? The relationship between ‘Kautskyism’ and ‘Leninism’ in the light of these heterogeneous social realities is more complex than Lih, ‘orthodox’ Leninists and many others allow.

After the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, Russian Social Democrats divided over whether Kautsky’s political thinking could be suitably modified to fit Russian conditions simply because they could not agree what conditions in Russia were and how they were developing. Only the Mensheviks believed that Erfurtian conditions were being realised in Russia, that the country was making slow, mottled progress toward bourgeois democracy, as expressed in the formation of the Duma in 1906, the Russian Parliament, rendering Kautsky’s strategy, devised for a bourgeois-democratic state, increasingly relevant. The Bolsheviks thought otherwise.

The Bolsheviks did not think an Erfurtian strategy could be adapted to conditions that were not Erfurtian at all, nor becoming Erfurtian. The Russian state remained in their eyes an unreconstructed feudal or quasi-feudal autocracy.  Here, the state ran parliament. In the West, however, parliament ran the state – or so nearly every social democrat then thought. Lih misses this inverse causal relation. So does Nimtz. Only a fuller analysis of the singularities of the Russian state and its parliament in relation to bourgeois-democratic states and their legislative arms can lay the basis for a better, more politically fruitful grasp of the issues at stake.

In Lenin’s view, post-1905 Russia with its parliament still required a political strategy qualitatively different than Kautsky’s in the West, catering to the specificities of Russia’s class and property relations. The Mensheviks did not. Pace Lih, the Mensheviks were the true Erfurtians in Russian Social Democracy, not the Bolsheviks. Pace Nimtz, the Bolsheviks limited their attack on the relevance of Erfurtian strategy to Russia alone before 1917; only in 1917 did Lenin extend it to the West as well, universalising the Russian experience – but in a very specific sense. Below, I try to substantiate these and other broad claims.

I: Before 1917

The Road to Socialism in the West: Winning the Battle of Democracy

“Winning the battle of democracy” in capitalist society, declared the Communist Manifesto, ultimately spelled the “conquest of political power by the proletariat,” the “overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy,” and the subsequent formation of a new society. The 1891 Erfurt Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party codified these spare remarks into a full-fledged strategy. Kautsky was the most powerful exponent of Erfurtianism, working out in intricate detail the tactics of this strategy in many books and articles.

One aspect of Kautsky’s politics did generate critical scrutiny, though. On Kautsky’s left, Rosa Luxemburg became well known after the 1905 Russian Revolution for promoting the revolutionary tactic of the mass strike to complement and bolster the SPD’s electoral strategy.

In The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906), her masterly study of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Luxemburg envisaged the use of the mass strike even in bourgeois-democratic, Erfurtian conditions, in the West and not just in autocratic Russia. Should bourgeois parties dare contest the SPD’s democratically acquired and legally constituted supremacy in parliament by unlawful, extra-parliamentary, extra-electoral means, potentially creating a revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary crisis, Social Democrats must be prepared to respond with mass strikes and mass action in the streets to crush any would-be usurpers of the democratically expressed will of the people.

Moreover, events in Russia had revealed the labour movement’s discontinuous, episodically revolutionary character, mandating dynamic changes in the SPD’s hitherto more-or-less permanently defensive Ermattungstrategie, or strategy of attrition. Here, Luxemburg took exception to the SPD leadership’s marked tendency to call for the mass strike only defensively, only as a last resort, in spectacular, do-or-die circumstances – a veiled reference to Kautsky who often invoked Engels to justify prudence: “…if we are not insane enough to favour them by letting them drive us into street battles, nothing will in the end be left to them but themselves to break through the legality that is so fatal to them.”11

Luxemburg pressed for mass, direct action offensively as well, even in non-revolutionary situations, whenever the opportunity arose. She insisted that the party promote and deepen working-class activity by providing the workers’ movement with political leadership oriented toward a strategy of confrontation instead of accommodation with the employers and the state, opening the way for victory. In this way, non-institutionalised forms of working-class power in the streets could decisively influence the course of politics off the streets, in parliament. Luxemburg proposed what some today call the ‘inside-outside’ strategy: the ballot box and the street.

Right, Centre and Left in the SPD well understood Kautsky’s strategy for realising socialism under a bourgeois-democratic state. As Lih has copiously shown, no Social Democrat in Russia took fundamental issue with Kautsky’s political thinking – though Lenin and the Bolsheviks almost always upheld Luxemburg’s bolder, more activist tactics, tactics that often went beyond police legality, or threatened to do so.

To Lenin and his partisans, Kautsky was no reformist but a revolutionary whose theory did not exclude revolutionary tactics a priori to achieve a socialist transition. And they staunchly defended Kautsky whenever the ‘revisionist’, Bernsteinian right in the SPD dismissed the mass strike as ‘mass nonsense’, with trade union leaders especially opposed to ‘adventurist’ tactics under any circumstances because they were illegal, provoking state repression of the party and the trade unions, inevitably destroying both.12 Nevertheless, there is an all-important caveat.

Soviets and Revolution: ‘Smashing’ Parliament? ‘Smashing’ the State?

Rarely, if ever, discussed in the relevant literature is that Luxemburg did not think direct action in the streets would ‘smash’ parliament, replacing it with something else. Once the smoke cleared, the dust settled and the barricades came down, parliament would still stand as it remained the institutional fulcrum of the democratic republic around which the transition to socialism could be organised. Neither she, Kautsky, Trotsky, Lenin nor anyone else in the Second International then recognised in the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905 a working-class institutional alternative not only to parliament, to the democratic republic, but to the state qua state, whether capitalist or feudal. Lenin’s State and Revolution was still 12 years away.

In the 1905 Revolution, workers in Russia established soviets to regulate their self-movement. The soviet exhibited features of the 1871 Paris Commune, notably the fusion of legislative and executive functions through the mandat impératif. Moreover, whereas artisans, craftsmen and shop-owners of Paris formed the cadres of this first iteration of direct producers’ rule, 34 years later, these had been replaced in Russia by great assemblages of skilled and unskilled workers in very large units of production, units resembling, outwardly at least, the great industrial enterprises of America and Western Europe. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, however, only acknowledged soviet power as the organised embodiment of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ much later, in 1917. Luxemburg and the revolutionary left world-wide would soon follow suit.

No one in international Social Democracy before 1917 had reflected much about the world-historical significance of the 1905 Soviet because no one thought it had such significance. It was an institution that had appeared and disappeared like a meteor. The Mensheviks speculated the Soviet might evolve into an extremely powerful trade union, looking after the economic interests of the working class. It might even become a kind of ‘big tent’ political party operating under a bourgeois-democratic state, hence the Menshevik project after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in favour of convening a ‘Labour Congress’ to represent all trends in the workers’ movement, not just Social Democracy.13 Lenin had other ideas.

In 1905, Lenin thought the Soviet was an organ of insurrection, possibly the “embryo” of a provisional government, or that it could set one up.14 Certainly, he never thought a Labour Congress – the Soviet under an alias in the Menshevik conception – could be convened in autocratic conditions.

The key point, however, is that it did not come into Lenin’s or anyone else’s mind until many years later to join three critical ideas: the Soviet itself was a government; it was (relatively) permanent, making it a (transitory) state, run by the working class; a state that would “wither away” as the classless, communist Eldorado approached. Lenin came to these conclusions only in January-February 1917, just days before the second coming of the Soviet – the mark of genius (within limits). In State and Revolution Lenin looked to the October Revolution as a practical confirmation of a new, Marxist theory of the state.

Kautsky: ‘Architect’ of the October Revolution?

According to most Leninists, only the outbreak of WWI and the catastrophic collapse of the Second International in 1914 opened Lenin’s eyes to the hitherto unrecognised reality that an unbridgeable chasm separated Bolshevism from the rest of International Social Democracy not just in 1917, or even in 1914, but had separated them long before.

Lih finds the conventional account of Lenin’s tardy coming-to-awareness unconvincing. His scepticism is well-founded. As Lih has emphasised, for many years Lenin never raised any basic theoretical objection or criticism to Kautsky’s analysis of parliament and state or political strategy. “When and where did I ever claim to have created any sort of special trend in international Social-Democracy not identical with the trend of Bebel and Kautsky?” queried Lenin in 1905.15

The standard interpretation, as Lih rightly says, presupposes “Lenin’s inability to understand what he read, or Lenin’s unawareness of his own beliefs.”16 It fails because the documentary record does not support it. The same documentary record, however, does not support Lih’s alternative either.

Lenin’s 1917 April Theses staked out an irreconcilable position vis-a-vis Kautsky’s strategy. Kautsky recognised, at once, that the October Revolution marked a definitive break, in practice and in theory, with Erfurtianism. He launched an unremitting ideological crusade against Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in the Proletarian Revolution (1918), to which Lenin responded with The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). Consistency within Lih’s paradigm would require that Kautsky not understand Lenin, or be unaware that Lenin was actually ‘adapting Erfurtianism’ to Russian conditions before, and in, 1917. But the facts show that Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not follow Kautsky’s strategy, as is universally agreed among specialists of the 1917 Russian Revolution, such as Rabinowitch.17 Lih has not persuaded these historians otherwise, as Lih himself ruefully remarks on occasion.

Nonetheless, what gives Lih’s revisionist argument a semblance of plausibility to many, especially to non-readers of Russian and to lay historians of Russian and Soviet history, is his extraordinarily loose handling of Social-Democratic political nomenclature, indeed, his readiness to substitute his own political definitions for those of the disputants, warping the historical record. Why Lih has developed a special, distorting and imprecise vocabulary for commonly translated Russian expressions, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

In support of his thesis of Bolshevik continuity dating from before 1914 through 1917, together with the parallel claim of Lenin’s fidelity to Kautskyism in the same period, Lih highlights that in 1906 Kautsky came out four square in favour of the Bolshevik, not Menshevik, assessment of the current and future roles, and relative strengths, of the liberal-bourgeois and working-class oppositions to Tsarism, respectively. The Bolsheviks felt vindicated by Kautsky.18 So did Trotsky. The 1905 Revolution had laid bare the impotence of the liberal bourgeoisie and the ‘hegemonic’ power of the working class in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, Kautsky concluded. Implicitly, Kautsky had rebuked the Mensheviks. However, this did not constitute ‘tactical advice’ to the Bolsheviks as Lih thinks.

Rather, Kautsky’s was a broad historical perspective, a sociological generalisation shared by Social Democrats with different tactics. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed politically for the better part of the inter-revolutionary period yet always lay into what they saw as the Mensheviks’ misunderstanding of the class forces driving the revolution. 1917 changed all that.

In 1917, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks because Lenin now rejected the idea Kautsky and the Mensheviks had held in 1906, and still held in 1917: that the working-class driven revolution must stop short of a proletarian socialist revolution, respecting its bourgeois-democratic limits. Kautsky could not have advised the Bolsheviks to adopt de facto Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory – “democratic revolution do kontsa” (to the end) – in Lih’s parlance. The defrocked pope of Marxism could not be the architect of the October Revolution.

Nor does the relevant political documentation bear out Lih’s assertion of continuity in Bolshevik political strategy with the pre-1917 period. Lih bases his conclusion, in part, on a reading Lenin’s texts but does not examine closely what the Mensheviks had to say. If Bolshevism alone meant Erfurtian political practice, what non-or-anti-Erfurtian political practice did Menshevism represent? If both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were bona fide Erfurtians, what where they arguing about? A comparative study of both trends in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) reveals that the prize of Erfurtianism must be categorically awarded to the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks.

Parliamentary Roads in Russia and the West: How they became commensurable only after 1905

Was Lenin adapting Erfurtianism to Russian conditions as Lih proposes? That is not the right question. The right question is: did Erfurtian conditions prevail in Russia? Before 1905, Russian Social Democrats were of one mind: Erfurtian conditions did not prevail.

In Russia, there was no bourgeois-democratic state, no parliament, and no parliamentary road from a feudal or semi-feudal state to a capitalist one. Even after Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split in 1903 over the internal functioning of their party, both trends understood they lived under an autocratic regime that outlawed free elections, freedom of speech, assembly and press. The Tsars upheld the existing order by any means necessary – and necessity knew no law. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1894, Nicholas II unceremoniously dismissed “senseless dreams” of constitutional limits to his authority deferentially proposed by the miniscule, cowed and hesitant liberal opposition.

Since no parliament in Russia existed, only the Tsarist autocracy, there was no parliamentary road to overthrowing the Tsarist state or even to materially transforming it. Lenin made no reference to that road in What Is to Be Done? (1902). No wonder: Russian Social Democrats neither rejected nor accepted it. Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy was simply irrelevant to the then nascent mass movement in Russia, a non-starter with respect to both institutional means and political ends.

With respect to means, in the absence of any democratic-parliamentary form only an RSDLP-led armed insurrection of the people in a bourgeois-democratic revolution could topple the Tsarist state. With respect to ends, an RSDLP-led Provisional Government would found after the Tsarist state’s destruction the most democratic form of the capitalist state, the democratic republic. Until this Erfurtian goal was reached, the RSDLP could not emulate the lawful functioning of the SPD either politically or organisationally.

Unlike its Western counterparts, the Russian section of the International could not have open debates in publicly-held conferences and Congresses; it could not disseminate its views in the popular press, or hold elections to leadership positions. It had to operate in violation of law, underground.

Once the democratic republic had been established in Russia, however, the RSDLP could emulate – perhaps even copy – the SPD’s internal and external modus operandi. But the RSDLP would then become the means to another end – socialism – and Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy now became applicable because relevant. Russian Social Democrats maintained a clear consensus on this strategic question until 1905.

The 1905 Revolution: A Fork in the Road

The 1905 Revolution forced the Tsar to issue the October Manifesto granting the Russian people an elected parliament – the Duma. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed that Parliament was a central institutional component of Erfurtianism. But was this Russian parliament real or illusory? Were Erfurtian conditions being realised or not? For the next 12 years, until 1917, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks fought it out.

The Menshevik Road19

The Mensheviks insisted the Duma was the authentic keystone of an emerging capitalist state, albeit a most authoritarian one. Elections to the Duma were based on estates or property qualifications, relics of Russia’s feudal past, awarding the landed gentry parliamentary representation far above, and the working class and peasantry far below, their respective numbers in society.

Despite being a minority in the Duma, Russian Social-Democratic deputies had a parliamentary duty to democratise the Tsarist state just as (for example) the SPD could use the Reichstag as a platform from which to call for the abolition of the undemocratic, three-class electoral system that guaranteed Junker domination of the Prussian Landtag, a feudal enclave within the Rechtsstaat.20

As the Mensheviks saw it, the RSDLP in the Duma must work with its (admittedly inconstant) allies, notably the bourgeois Kadet Party, to lift the prohibition on openly functioning political parties. Socialists and liberals must act jointly to remove gross limitations on the right to vote, keeping their eyes on the prize: universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage. Deft parliamentary maneuvering will lift onerous restrictions on freedom of speech, press and assembly. Lesser measures will be realised more easily and quickly, such as making the Tsar’s cabinet ministers accountable to the Duma, or passing legislation to help workers: the eight hour day, a minimum wage, and improved working conditions.

In the streets, the workers’ movement must support the parliamentary activity of its Social-Democratic representatives within limits acceptable to its non-socialist partners. Naturally, to press beyond, to socialism, was politically out of the question. In the first place, and of great theoretical importance for all Russian Social Democrats taking the long view, the material basis for socialism did not yet exist in Russia — a point of political economy on which Social Democrats everywhere, Trotsky included, agreed. Of far greater practical importance, though, the Mensheviks feared scaring away liberals into the arms of reactionaries with irresponsible, Bolshevik talk of an RSDLP-led working class in the vanguard of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks dismissed Menshevik apprehension as a politically demoralising consideration. Placating liberals, ever fearful of mob rule and other unpleasantries meant limiting, narrowing, and undermining independent working-class activity that, along with the support of the land-starved peasantry, was the only way to win the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the first place.

As the 1905 Revolution receded into history, the workers’ movement collapsed, bottoming out in 1909-1911. The RSDLP mirrored the collapse, with membership cratering from 150,000 to fewer than 1,000. Reformism became ever more pronounced among the Mensheviks in this period of downturn.

In light of the destruction of the revolutionary movement, many Menshevik leaders called ever more insistently on all Social Democrats to give priority to electoral work over illegal street action, overtly political demonstrations and wild-cat strikes, even to consider dismantling the underground apparatus of the RSDLP in favour of a law-abiding party, just like the German SPD, foregoing, for good measure, ‘adventurist’ thoughts of insurrection that frightened liberals, even dropping the demand for a republic.

From the common premise that the coming democratic revolution was not socialist but bourgeois, Lenin deduced a wholly different scenario, one incompatible with the Menshevik.

The Bolshevik Road21

In Lenin’s view, the Mensheviks were evading the “difficult and urgent question of how a particular class, in non-European conditions, ought to act for a stubborn struggle to secure a basis” for European conditions in the first place. Only “after a radical change in political conditions – after a definite constitutional system had been firmly established”22 – could all Russian Social Democrats unite and act as one, in a newly-Europeanised party. He thought the Menshevik reading of post-1905 Russian realities was unrealistic.

He agreed there were

bourgeois-democratic regimes like the one in Germany, and also like the one in England; like the one in Austria and also like those in America and Switzerland. He would be a fine Marxist indeed, who in a period of democratic revolution failed to see this difference between the degrees of democratism and the difference between its forms. . .23

But Tsarist Russia formed a category apart. Lenin did not think the Duma was a genuine parliament. It did not and could never reform the Russian state forward, toward a democratic republic.

Unlike parliaments in the West, the Duma was impotent, Lenin wrote, a trompe-l’oeil ornament mounted atop the wall of the Tsarist autocracy. Social-Democratic parliamentarians must use the Duma as a tribune from which to speak the truth to the oppressed masses, not foster reformist illusions. And, in truth, the Duma could not be used as an instrument of capitalist (let alone socialist) transformation because it was a feudal or quasi-feudal institution, implacably dedicated to maintaining gentry rule, the Bolshevik leader argued. It was less a relic of the past than a living element of the current political order.

Lenin’s stance requires the closest analysis in light of present-day historiographical and political controversies swirling around the relationship between parliament, suffrage and revolution.

Lenin’s assessment of the Russian parliament in the inter-revolutionary period was not an assessment of parliaments in advanced capitalist societies as well, as Lih and Nimtz both think, for example. Because their respective positions fail to recognise the historical specificity of the Duma and the Russian state that, in Lenin’s estimation, distinguished both from parliaments and states in the West, the Leninists inadvertently make Lenin’s pre-1917 attacks on the Duma appear relevant to current debates about the parliamentary road to socialism in advanced capitalist countries. For Leninists (and this writer) they are relevant today – but they were not relevant thenThen Lenin addressed the Mensheviks alone in his polemics against the parliamentary road to a democratic republic in autocratic Russia. Lih makes an inverse mistake.

Lih thinks Lenin’s Menshevik-centred polemics – Lenin’s ‘Kautskyism’ – were relevant to, and supportive of, Kautsky’s parliamentary road to socialism in the bourgeois-democratic states of Western Europe and the United States. This, too, is a mistake. Lenin, at this juncture, did not have such as expansive understanding of Bolshevism, covering both the West and Russia, and running together socialist and bourgeois-democratic revolutions.

With respect to Kautsky’s occasional comments on intra Social-Democratic affairs in Russia, Lenin protested that “even clever and revolutionary Social-Democrats” like Kautsky were liable “to put their foot in it” because they tended to make light of, even dismiss, Bolshevik and Menshevik political competition for leadership of the workers’ movement in Russia, along with their competing notions of political realities, of Tsarism, and of party organisation.24

Readers must always keep in mind that, institutionally, Kautsky’s strategy was minimally premised on an at least partially successful bourgeois-democratic revolution having breached the old order, exemplified by the emergence of parliamentary forms, and then using these forms as a means to complete the democratisation of the state through universal, direct and equal suffrage. Social Democrats could then capture the state by winning a Social-Democratic majority in parliament, and then using that majority to legislate a socialist transition, resorting to revolutionary means, if necessary, to put down extra-parliamentary coups by irredentist bourgeois parties.

In contrast, Lenin’s position was that there had not even been a partial breakthrough toward a bourgeois-democratic state in Russia leading the Mensheviks to a mistaken because irrelevant application of Kautsky’s strategy, even, ultimately, to the “liquidation” of the RSDLP as a revolutionary party. However, Lenin did not advocate abstaining or boycotting the Duma.

Once it became clear that the 1905 Revolution had been defeated, and the Duma was here to stay in the new, counter-revolutionary conditions, he urged Social Democrats to vote for their candidates in elections to Duma, however grossly limited, unequal, open, and indirect suffrage remained in Russia.

Lenin argued that, while no opportunity should be missed to introduce legislation in the Duma benefiting the direct producers in the city and the countryside, all parliamentary activity must be subordinated to developing the independent activity of the working class in the forthcoming bourgeois-democratic revolution. Russian Social Democracy must expose in the Duma the Kadet Party as a false friend of the people. It must lead the working class and its only true ally, the land-hungry peasantry, in an armed, insurrectionary fight for freedom and democracy. Victory will bring down the autocracy together with the Duma. Here was the striking difference between autocratic Russia and the more-or-less bourgeois-democratic states of the West, a difference not sufficiently appreciated by most analysts, if not missed entirely.

In the West, apart from anarchists, no one called for the destruction of parliament. In the West, all Social Democrats wanted to use their (eventual) supremacy in parliament to lay hold of the existing state and move toward socialism if, and only if, parliament was supreme.

Marx thought a possible candidate for a peaceful, electoral transfer of power to the working class was England, where the monarch was but a figurehead and Parliament all-powerful. Eduard Bernstein, Kautsky’s Anglophile colleague, mooted this possibility at length. In 1893 and again in 1911, Kautsky himself noted with keen satisfaction how the English working class

… is already capable of influencing domestic politics in its favour in and through parliament, and, with giant steps, the day is approaching when the almighty English parliament will be a tool of the dictatorship of the proletariat. 25

If parliament was not almighty, as in a Bonapartist-type regime, then the working class could not “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” This was the lesson Marx learned from studying the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune.  Kautsky repeated that lesson time and again. The Commune had arisen entirely outside the Bonapartist, military-bureaucratic state apparatus, like “Venus from the foam”, to use Luxemburg’s lyrical expression. In Russia, however, the “ready-made state machinery” was an autocracy, not a democratic republic. Workers could not seize it (or any of its component parts) and use it for their ends. It had to be destroyed in a bourgeois-democratic revolution.26

Whereas social-democratic advocates and adherents of Marxist republicanism in the West could use the democratic republic as a stepping stone to socialist transition, Social Democrats in Russia had first to set up that democratic republic – and that could only happen only after smashing the absolutist Tsarist state in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, not before. This was Russian Social Democracy’s immediate task.

As late as October 1915, Lenin wrote:

The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. The latter task now stands very close to the former, yet it remains a special and second task, for it is a question of the different classes which are collaborating with the proletariat of Russia. In the former task, it is the petty-bourgeois peasantry of Russia who are collaborating; in the latter, it is the proletariat of other countries.27

In 1917, socialist revolution was no longer a ‘special and second task’ but the order of the day.

Bolshevism, the Provisional Government, and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry

At their June 1905 London Congress, held months before the formation of the St. Petersburg Soviet, emerging from a general strike in October, climax of the 1905 Revolution, the Bolsheviks called for the formation of a Provisional Government after the anticipated RSDLP-organised and led overthrow of the Tsarist state and its toy-parliament. Having won the people’s confidence, the Bolsheviks also forecast leading the Provisional Government. Owing to that leadership, the Provisional Government would be a revolutionary one, the Social Democrats in it working furiously to enlarge “from above” the democratic component of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, by forcefully championing the rights of workers, peasants, women, national and religious minorities, all the oppressed, giving the revolution a “proletarian imprint”28.

Once a revolutionary provisional government was up and running, it would convene a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for the new state. Russian Social Democrats would again play a directing role. Capitalising on the masses’ trust in the RSDLP as valorous leader of the people’s insurrection, a provisional “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” would write the most democratic constitution in the world, creating the most democratic republic in the world, endowed with the most powerful parliament in the world. The Russian Revolution of the 20th century would surpass “almost all the nineteenth-century democratic revolutions” in its world-historical significance, Lenin enthused.

With the foundation of a republic, the Provisional Government, its work done, would dissolve, and the RSDLP, following the example of German Social Democracy, would become a party of revolutionary opposition to capitalism and the capitalist state, inside and outside the newly constituted parliamentary institutions.

Until that revolution had come to pass, however, the “Europeanisation” of Russian Social Democracy was a Menshevik pipe-dream, its Erfurtian premises inapplicable where non-Erfurtian, autocratic conditions prevailed.

The Mensheviks had cause and effect reversed, in Lenin’s view. Acting as if Erfurtian conditions were present, they thought these conditions would materialise: if the Mensheviks looked at the mirage of a parliamentary road hard enough and long enough, one-day, somehow, the mirage would become real. This was a politically pernicious “dream.”29

Once Erfurtian conditions were really present, though, and Erfurtian institutions – elected office generally – firmly anchored, Kautsky’s strategy, especially Luxemburg’s tactically daring variant, became applicable because relevant. The democratic road to socialism was now open. Lenin and the Bolsheviks would think this way until 1917 caused them to reconsider – not the democratic road, as Eric Blanc and others have imprudently argued – but using bourgeois-democratic institutions, the democratic republic, to travel down that road to reach socialism.

1914: Lenin breaks with Kautsky

Lenin could not believe his eyes when he read in Die Neue Zeit that German Social Democrats had almost unanimously voted to fund Germany’s participation in an imperialist world war. He thought the issue was a fake. It was not. Lenin’s surprise was a spontaneous expression of his longstanding and firmly-held belief in the viability of the Erfurtian road to progress and socialism – a belief now unexpectedly shattered.

In doing nothing to oppose the Kaiser’s war-making machine, Kautsky caused great offence to Hegel and dialectical thinking according to some. But Lenin was in no doubt about this: Kautsky had betrayed the cause.

Kautsky had wilfully violated Second International resolutions requiring all Social Democrats to do everything in their power to prevent the outbreak of war or, if it could not be prevented, to do everything in their power to stop it. For the next three years, Lenin condemned Kautsky for his treachery, for what he thought was an objectively pro-war position, camouflaged by Marxist phraseology.

Seconding Lenin was Luxemburg, who pronounced the SPD a “stinking corpse”. She, Trotsky and a few others joined Lenin to propagandise in favour of a fresh start, for the eventual formation of a Third International that was revolutionary.

Lenin’s break with Kautsky in 1914 was at first a crack, narrow but deep, and could not be plastered over. In 1917, the crack became a canyon.

II: 1917

The Russian Revolution of 1917 radically transformed longstanding debates in the West and in Russia around what road to take to reach the ultimate goal of socialism. As in 1905, the Russian working class once more created new realities, raised new issues, and posed new problems that no Second International political text of Kautsky’s, Lenin’s, Luxemburg’s, or Trotsky’s had ever dealt with before, raising the debate to an altogether higher plane.

How the February Revolution spoiled the Menshevik and Bolshevik scenarios in some respects but not in others.

The Mensheviks had always looked to Kadet leadership to reform the Tsarist state in a democratic direction. The February Revolution put paid to this component of the Menshevik scenario, in two respects. A popular, largely spontaneous insurrection in the streets, not studied reform, brought the autocracy down, giving way to a Provisional Government. Further, the liberal Kadets had done nothing to lead the people. While workers and soldiers in the streets of the capital were fighting and dying, Kadets took cover, waiting for the outcome, a few parlaying with high Tsarist dignitaries to save what could be saved.

The February Revolution went according to the Bolshevik scenario of armed insurrection of the people over and against the double-dealing, cowardly Kadets, party of the bourgeoisie in the Social Democratic scheme of things. In another respect, it did not. Though thousands of former and current RSDLP rank and filers risked life and limb to overthrow the Tsar, the insurrection was not organized and led by the RSDLP. Finally, in still another respect it confounded the Bolsheviks utterly: leading the Provisional Government were counter-revolutionary Kadet politicians, not revolutionary Social Democrats!

The incredible, the unimaginable, the perverse had taken place: Kadet Duma liberals were running the Provisional Government, just as the Mensheviks thought they should. After all, this was a bourgeois-democratic not a socialist revolution. Even so, how was it that these pro-war, anti-working class Kadet politicians had reaped the harvest without sowing it? Consternation and alarm seized the local Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd before this stunning turn of events. They were thrown for a gigantic loop.

Confronted with the unanticipated situation of the counter-revolutionary Kadets heading the Provisional Government, the two national Bolshevik authorities Stalin and Kamenev, newly arrived in the capital from exile, introduced a tactical novelty to take into account the equally novel and distressing fact that the Provisional Government was not the one the Bolsheviks had anticipated, prepared, and fought for since 1905, that is, a revolutionary because RSDLP-led Provisional Government.

Because it was a Kadet-led Provisional Government instead, the top Bolshevik leadership decided that the 1905 slogan of democratic dictatorship was now best expressed by “critical support” for the Provisional Government “insofar as” it carried the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the very end, setting up a democratic republic – and opposition to them if they did not. Kamenev and Stalin overruled Petrograd Bolsheviks of the Vyborg district, who demanded a more radical solution.

The middle-level cadres of Vyborg were pressing for a Provisional Government led by representatives of parties elected to the Soviet, by the RSDLP, by the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by others.30 As they saw it, purged of Kadet counter-revolutionaries and replaced by revolutionaries, a new, revolutionary Provisional Government would convene a constituent assembly that would establish a fully democratic capitalist state, in strict accordance with the 1905 Bolshevik platform.

Millerandism and the Provisional Government

Before Lenin’s homecoming then, Stalin, Kamenev and others tried to advance the cause within the longstanding theoretical framework of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, upheld by both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks – but with the Bolsheviks modifying their platform by adopting one, tactical or subordinate feature from the 1905 Menshevik platform: non-participation in bourgeois governments, whether provisional or not, whether long-established or not, whether revolution was in the air or not. To use Lih’s nomenclature, this was ‘anti-agreementism’. To do otherwise and accept government posts was, conversely, ‘agreementism’31 – or Millerandism – to use the customary expression.

Millerand was a French socialist parliamentarian who in 1899 joined a bourgeois government as cabinet minister. Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and all the major Marxist authorities of the Second International condemned him for violating the ban on Social Democrats joining non-socialist administrations.

With the autocracy overthrown, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks now had to define their attitude toward Millerandism: refuse – or accept – cabinet posts in a provisional government run by bourgeois liberals. To be sure, it was not a government operating in reformist, economically stable political environment – the only environment Millerandism had ever dealt with – but a highly unstable one, trying to function in a revolutionary situation and with an economy in free-fall. Only in the latter case, in the midst of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, had the Bolsheviks justified leadership – and only leadership — of a provisional government by the RSDLP. In their minds, this had nothing to do Millerandism, where liberals held hostage a handful of socialists in the cabinets of a stable democratic republic, such as France in 1899, or even in a revolutionary period, as in 1848 France, where Louis Blanc was the only socialist sitting (duck) in Lamartine’s provisional government.

Refusing to join the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks avoided all direct political subordination to the Kadet party which ran it. However, by staying outside (anti-Millerandism) and offering conditional support to them, Lenin’s partisans subordinated themselves indirectly to the liberals in the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks had no alternate plan of action “insofar as” the Kadets did not do what they were supposed to do in the interim – end the war, give land to the peasant, and bread to the worker.

Neither did the Mensheviks. The national leaderships of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks agreed the bourgeois-democratic revolution needed to be completed, crowned with a democratic republic. Soon, visions of a reunited, fully Europeanised RSDLP danced before them, organised according to the best practices of German Social Democracy.

In short, no Bolshevik, whether radical or not, gave serious consideration to campaigning at once to transfer permanently all power to the soviets. This is because pre-1917 Bolshevism, like Menshevism, never entertained the idea that a soviet-led socialist revolution could be on the agenda. Instead, the Bolsheviks had to restrict themselves to pressuring the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries in the soviet to compel the Provisional Government to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, ultimately creating in Russia a democratic republic and Erfurtian conditions of working-class political struggle.

Since Lih gives extraordinary salience to linguistic issues and to certain Russian expressions in his work, I must unequivocally state: nobody “actually proclaimed” soviet power in the first weeks of the revolution. The most comprehensive account of the February Revolution, weighing in at 654 pages, finds no call for the permanent transfer of power to the soviets at this time – and Lih cites no resolution, decision, article, essay, declaration, manifesto, graffito, and so on, proving the contrary.32 Nobody considered the soviets a “viable candidate for sovereign authority in the land that relied on this broad popular constituency,” as Lih asserts.33 This is not surprising. No one then looked to the Soviet to ultimately and permanently replace the democratic republic – the democratic republic that many thought would be set up after the self-dissolution of the Provisional Government.

The Bolshevik call for “All Power to the Soviets” would only come many weeks later, after Lenin’s April Theses had been ratified by the rank-and-file in late April 1917 – collaterally warding off the imminent danger of Bolshevik-Menshevik reunification projected by starry-eyed, stuck-in-the-past ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who still anticipated the RSDLP making its mark on events not by participation in the Provisional Government, as they had originally forecast in 1905, but by ‘critically supporting’ it from the outside, influencing it without ever taking ministerial posts in it – an anti-Millerandist, ‘anti-agreementist’ stance.

Dual Power

The root cause of the Bolshevik leadership’s disorientation in the first days and weeks of the February Revolution was understandable (though Lenin did not excuse it). Something without precedent and never forecast by any Social Democrat anywhere arose – and for which Kautsky could not provide any guidance whatsoever: the simultaneous formation of a never-before-seen Provisional Government, sitting in one wing of the Tauride Palace, and the reappearance of the Petrograd Soviet, sitting in the other.

As in 1905, the soviets were rooted in the working class of the city. They arose outside any previously existing political organisation, outside the Duma, outside the Russian state. As with the Paris Commune, the soviets lay no hold on the previously existing machinery of the state, they lay hold of the urban economy instead.

Inside every factory, at the point of production, workers, many of them armed, elected factory committees. This represented a direct challenge to managerial authority, to put it mildly. They also sent representatives to the soviets. Order No. 1 of the Petrograd Soviet put the Russian armed forces under its ultimate authority, thereby seizing state power de facto. Elected democratically, its proceedings public, the Mensheviks led the soviets. The Socialist Revolutionaries followed the Mensheviks. Only 15% of the delegates present at the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, held in June 1917, were Bolsheviks.

The appearance of the soviets contained not only the potential to take the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the limit, but to go beyond it, toward a workers’ state and socialism – the perspective of Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory.

“We need a state,” Lenin declared on his way to Russia, “but not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites…” This state was not limited to Russia.

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies are a form of state which does not exist and never did exist in any country. This form represents the first steps towards socialism and is inevitable at the beginning of a socialist society. This is a fact of decisive importance. The Russian revolution has created the Soviets. No bourgeois country in the world has or can have such state institutions. No socialist revolution can be operative with any other state power than this.34

The April Theses: The Bolsheviks Change Course

Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in early April. Having examined from afar the balance of class forces and concluded that it favoured a soviet-led socialist revolution, he campaigned for “All Power to the Soviets,” jettisoning the idea of critical support to the Provisional Government, let alone joining it to create a Revolutionary Provisional Government as the Bolsheviks had originally intended.

The Mensheviks, for their part, had initially adopted a position in accordance with their, ‘anti-Millerandist’, ‘anti-agreementist’ platform of 1905. That platform stipulated that the RSDLP “must not set itself the aim of seizing power or sharing power in a provisional government, but must remain the party of extreme revolution opposition,”35 from the outside, to any provisional government. In fact, ‘anti-agreementism’ was, and remained, for the next 12 years, Menshevik, not Bolshevik policy — a fact that flies in the face of Lih’s contrary assertion.

The Mensheviks abandoned their ‘anti-agreementism’ in early May 1917, when they took up ministerial posts in the Provisional Government. By taking this ‘Millerandist’ step, the Mensheviks adopted the 1905 Bolshevik resolution calling for such participation – but only formally because Menshevik participation was now devoid of a revolutionary perspective pushing beyond revolution do kontsa, beyond the democratic republic and capitalism, toward soviet power and socialism.

The balance of forces in the Bolshevik rank-and-file favoured Lenin. The remorseless, Kadet-eating polemics the cadres had read in the Bolshevik press over the last decade or so had not gone down the memory hole, and many among them had presaged, if in institutionally ambiguous terms, Lenin’s unconditional rejection of the Kadet-dominated Provisional Government.

Beyond reaffirming Bolshevism’s long-standing tradition – continuity – of intransigent, ferocious, and persuasively-argued anti-Kadet, anti-Menshevik, anti-liberal, anti-reformist politics – ‘parliamentary cretinism’ for short – what Lenin was able to show in the April Debates of 1917 was that the issue of state-power, that is, power to the soviets, was the crucial issue for all the others – for ending the war; for giving land to the peasants and bread to the workers; for taking the first steps toward socialism in Russia; and for encouraging socialist revolution abroad. Calling for “All Power to the Soviets,” Lenin broke with the past and forged the future. With the support of the rank and file, he executed a strategic reorientation. ‘New Bolshevism’ now led the way. 

Without the Bolshevik cadres’ sterling education in the ways and means of Menshevik/Kadet, reformist politics – soon to be identified with the apostate Kautsky – Lenin’s victory would not have been so swift, if, indeed, he would even have won in a timely manner. This alone justified the rationale for organising a revolutionary party long before the revolution to lead the revolutionary masses. In any event, Lenin did not have to reinvent the wheel on this score.

For the next seven months Bolshevik workers in and out of uniform did the job of organising and leading at all levels, on the shop-floor, in the barracks, at the front, by fully participating in workers’ struggles, in street demonstrations and strikes.

The street was not the only arena of class struggle, so was the ballot box.

The Bolsheviks no longer operated under an autocracy but in the freest and most democratic country in the world, freer and more democratic than any in the West, where Eugene Debs, Luxemburg and thousands of other anti-war socialists were under lock and key. Here, in Russia, there was a ‘parliamentary’ road to proletarian rule – so long as that ‘parliament’ was a soviet one!

The Bolshevik electoral campaign to the soviets was successful. By late September 1917, the overwhelming majority of the working class had voted Bolshevik, for All Power to the Soviets.36

It was indispensable that an important section of worker leaders become Bolshevised and accept its cardinal conception, All Power to the Soviets. Without the Bolshevik conception, these worker leaders could not have fought for it. That they fought for it, interpreting the world from its standpoint was indispensable.

The October Revolution and After

In The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin charged Kautsky with rehashing truths that had been valid and accepted by all Social Democrats before 1917. But the experience of the working-class movement, and the critical study of that experience, had since shown many of these truths to be false or inadequate. New realities and new truths had to be recognised, not dismissed. In short, Kautsky had renounced living Marxism in favour of dead dogma.

Closely studying the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not merely reaffirm long-standing polemics against the Mensheviks that Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy had never been inappropriate for backward, feudal or semi-feudal Russia and its state. Worse, the strategy was mistaken for all advanced capitalist countries with bourgeois or semi-bourgeois-democratic states as well. A revolution in revolutionary thinking led them to strategise, inter alia, about how to get rid of the state qua state, the feudal no less than the capitalist state, no matter the form of the latter, including the democratic republican form. Such was the essence of Lenin’s State and Revolution.

The October Revolution proved to Lenin’s satisfaction that the working class had created the new institution, the new state – the soviets – it required to exercise its political supremacy. Revolutionary socialists everywhere soon recognised it as the only possible form of working-class rule. Thus, Lenin believed his polemic against Kautsky in State and Revolution, once critically assimilated, was relevant anywhere and anytime workers were presented with the opportunity to seize power, whether in ‘backward’ Russia or ‘advanced’ Europe, whether in 1917 or 2017.

Conclusion: The Political Take-away of this Historical Intervention

No Leninist today can say with absolute certainty that the soviet is the final form of workers’ rule. To do so would be to repeat Kautsky’s fallacy of identifying a suitably transformed democratic republic as the finished institutional expression of a workers’ state. But the soviet is the latest form that state has taken. If a practical alternative to it exists, theory alone will not find it, only the “direct training that the masses and the classes receive in the course of the revolutionary struggle itself”37 will – by creating it. Theory will then study it.

The last word in revolutionary theory will only be understood to be such – the last word – only if revolution succeeds, retrospectively. Until then, all Leninists have to go on is the latest word. But the first Four Congresses of the Third International pronounced the latest word a century ago. In the eyes of the delegates assembled in Moscow, Social Democracy – Kautskyism – had proved in practice to be unsuited to lead a workers’ revolution in Germany, or anywhere else. Worse, in revolutionary times it was a counter-revolutionary force every time, and was destined to remain so.38

Afterword: The Stalinist Apocalypse

The Stalinist counter-revolution was a world-historical disaster for the workers’ movement. It destroyed Leninism and Bolshevism in Russia and abroad within ten years of the foundation of the Third International in 1919.

At its Fifth Congress, held in June 1928, the Third International forsook, inter alia, two great political lessons it had taught a new generation of revolutionaries at its first four Congresses: the united front strategy on the one hand, and the need for a revolutionary break with the state, whatever socio-property regimes of class rule it defended, in favour of soviet power, on the other.

From the late 1920s, communist parties followed Moscow’s new strategic lead and renounced the united-front strategy, careering instead from infantile ultra-leftism to cross-class, popular-front politics – and back again. The other shoe dropped a half-century later, in the 1970s.

In the 1970s ‘Euro-Communism’ renounced de jure the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and revived Kautsky’s parliamentary road to socialism. But the long march through the institutions of the bourgeois state in the last half-century has been a revolving door to nowhere. Socialism is, arguably, further away now than it was over a century ago.


Axelrod, P.B. 1906, Narodnaia duma i rabochii s’ezd, Geneva.

Blanc, Eric 2019, ‘Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)’, available at https://jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture.

Brenner, Robert 1985, ‘The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case’, in The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook, London: Verso.

Engels, Frederick 1895 ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/

Kouvelakis, Stathis 2021, ‘On the Paris Commune: Part 3’, available at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5044-on-the-paris-commune-part-3.

Lenin, Vladimir 1962a, ‘What Is to Be Done?’, in Collected Works, Volume 5, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

 – – – 1962b, ‘Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution’, in Collected Works, Volume 9, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

——— 1962c, ‘Report on the Unity Congress’, in Collected Works, Volume 10, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat .

——– 1962d, ‘Two Worlds’, Collected Works vol. 16, pp. 305-313.

——– 1962e, ‘How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators’ 1912 Collected Works vol. 18, pp. 175-183

——— 1962f, ‘Several Theses’ in Collected Works 21, pp.402-403.

 – – – 1964a, ‘The April All Russia Conference’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

 – – – 1964b, ‘Letters from Afar’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat.

Lewis, Ben 2019, Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Ben Lewis editor and translator, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Lih, Lars T. 2006, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

 – – – 2010, ‘Lenin Disputed’, Historical Materialism, 18, 3: 108–74.

 – – – 2011a, Lenin, London: Reaktion Books

——— ‘Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution’ available at https://jacobinmag.com/2019/06/karl-kautsky-vladimir-lenin-russian-revolution.

———, ‘From February to October’ available at https://jacobinmag.com/2017/05/russian-revolution-power-soviets-bolsheviks-lenin-provisional-government.

——- ‘For or against ‘AGREEMENTISM’? available at https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1332/for-or-against-agreementism.

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1971 [1906], The Mass Strike: The Political Party and the Trade Unions, translated by Patrick Lavin, New York: Harper Torchbooks.

1996, Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-fevral’ 1917 gg. Moscow Rosspen.

Nimtz, August H. 2019, The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rabinowitch, Alexander 1967, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising

——– The Bolsheviks Come To Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd.

Sankara, Bhaskar, 2017 ‘Lessons from the First Red Century: Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara’, available at https://jacobinmag.com/2017/12/russian-revolution-bolsheviks-social-democracy.

Schorske, Carl 1955, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • 1.Kautsky, 1918, The Proletarian Revolution.
  • 2.Lenin, 1918, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
  • 3.’Lessons from the First Red Century: Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara’. https://jacobinmag.com/2017/12/russian-revolution-bolsheviks-social-democracy.
  • 4.Lars Lih, ‘Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution’ https://jacobinmag.com/2019/06/karl-kautsky-vladimir-lenin-russian-revolution.
  • 5.Eric Blanc, ‘Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)’ https://jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture.
  • 6.August H. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2019.
  • 7.Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered, Historical Materialism Volume 18, (2010) 108–174. My conception of Erfurtianism is more historically specific than Lih’s. Lih’s Erfurtianism is much more general or abstract, “a complex but coherent outlook that combined the world-historical narrative set out in the writings of Marx and Engels, an idealized model of the German Social-Democratic Party, and an ideological self-definition set out to greatest effect in the writings of Karl Kautsky.” p. 109
  • 8.Lewis, Kautsky 1909, pp. 49–50
  • 9.Ben Lewis offers a comprehensive and exact survey of Kautsky’s political thought, “Introduction: Karl Kautsky’s Democratic Republicanism,” in Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Ben Lewis editor and translator, Brill 2019.
  • 10.Lewis, p. 18.
  • 11.Engels, ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, 1895, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Class_Struggles_in_France.pdf
  • 12.Engels, ‘Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France’, 1895, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Class_Struggles_in_France.pdf
  • 13.P.B. Axelrod, Narodnaia duma i rabochii s’ezd (Geneva, 1906).
  • 14.Lenin 1962c, p. 20
  • 15.CW vol. 9 p. 66.
  • 16.Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered 2006, p. 25
  • 17.Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power
  • 18.Lenin, 1962c CW vol. 10, p. 379
  • 19.I have mapped out the Menshevik road on the basis of political resolutions adopted at the Menshevik-led Fourth Unity Congress of the RSDLP in 1906; Menshevik resolutions submitted but voted down at the Fifth London Congress, held in 1907; and resolutions at Menshevik-only conferences held in 1905, 1908 and 1912. Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-1917 gg. Pp. 107-129, 155-163, 304-309, 323-339, 340-346, Moscow: Rosspen, 1996.
  • 20.Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (Cambridge, 1955) pp. 177-187. With an absolute social-democratic majority in the Reichstag, feasible only where suffrage was universal, equal and direct, Kautsky “held out the possibility of an early, peaceful revolution by parliamentary means” in Germany writes Schorske. p. 184.
  • 21.Lenin detailed the basic Bolshevik scenario in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, in Collected Works, Volume 9, Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat. He amended it in subsequent years to address what he saw as the Mensheviks’ growing reformism, toward a de facto alignment with the right-wing of Social Democracy internationally, which had abjured all thought of revolution.
  • 22.“How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators” 1912 CW vol. 18, pp. 184
  • 23.Lenin 1962b, CW vol. 9 p. 5
  • 24.Lenin 1962b, CW vol. 9 p. 109. In ‘Open Letter to the Leipziger Volkszeitung’, organ of the left-wing in the SPD, Lenin chided Kautsky for his ignorance, for his distorted view of relations within the RSDLP, and for condoning measures to silence the Bolshevik viewpoint in the German Social-Democratic press. CW vol. 8 531-533.
  • 25.Lewis, Kautsky p. 129 ‘Parliamentarism and the Parties in England.’ Pp. 118-129. Originally published in 1893, its republication in 1911 demonstrates an overarching, quasi-doctrinaire continuity in Kautsky’s political thinking, sharply calling into question the notion of a ‘break’ around 1910, as Ben Lewis, Eric Blanc and others have proposed.
  • 26.Stathis Kouvelakis misses the wholesale democratic-republican appropriation – récupération — of the Paris Commune by Second International Marxists and by Kautsky in particular because he accords great weight to the post-1917 Leninist take on the Commune – greater weight than the pre-1917 historical record warrants. On the Paris Commune: Part 3 https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5044-on-the-paris-commune-part-3. Luxemburg was referring to the lightning-fast formation of ‘buoyant’ trade unions in 1905 Russia, festive year of the oppressed.
  • 27.CW 21, pp.402-403.
  • 28.CW 9, p.21
  • 29.“How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators” 1912 CW vol. 18, pp. 175-183.
  • 30.Hasegawa, pp. 333-334.
  • 31.Lars Lih, “For or against ‘AGREEMENTISM’?” https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1332/for-or-against-agreementism/
  • 32.Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, 1981, The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917, Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 582-583. Hasegawa does note Vyborg militants demanding the Soviet take the place of the Provisional Government. But this was a call for soviet power only provisionally, followed eventually by a democratic republic. This was not the “alternative” (p.334) Lenin would present in his April Theses, as Hasegawa thinks. For his part, Lih references an old, 1915 article of Lenin’s (Lenin, 1962f) ostensibly calling for “all power to the soviets”.” Lih 2011a, Lenin, Reaktion Books, 2011, p. 113. But no such call appears in Lenin’s text – not even the cited phrase.
  • 33.Lars Lih, “From February to October” https://jacobinmag.com/2017/05/russian-revolution-power-soviets-bolsheviks-lenin-provisional-government. Lih invests ‘agreementism’ with a meaning that serves his revisionist agenda. It is to assert that the allegedly Kautsky-inspired Bolshevik strategy of ‘anti-agreementism’, from 1905 up to and including 1917, automatically meant: do not sit in – ‘agree with’ – any Provisional Government, overthrow them no matter their political physiognomy might be, in any political situation, in favor of …Soviet Power. But Lih attributes to the Bolsheviks a position they had never held, indeed, that no one could have held anywhere in the world before April 1917 given that no one recognised the Soviet as an alternative to a provisional government, let alone to a capitalist Republic, until April 1917.
  • 34.Lenin, ‘The April All Russia Conference’, in Collected Works, Volume 23, p. 241 Fourth Edition, Moscow: Gospolizdat. Lenin, 1964a.
  • 35.Mensheviki: dokumenty i materialy: 1903-1917 gg. p. 123.
  • 36.The Bolsheviks Come to Power. Rabinowitch’ tracks, with the utmost precision, the Bolshevik electoral campaign. His account does not in the least give credence to Lih’s revisionism, or to Eric Blanc’s revival of Cold War historiographical tropes – tropes Rabinowitch did much to destroy in the first place.
  • 37.’Revolutionary Days’ CW. Vol. 8 p. 104
  • 38.Why social democracy is and must remain a counter-revolutionary force is beyond the scope of this paper. Robert Brenner examines the structural reasons in The Paradox of Social Democracy.


9th-12th November 2023,SOAS, Russell Square, Central London

Deadline for abstracts: Monday 12 June 2023: https://conference.historicalmaterialism.org/e/hm2023

For full conference information, including the different streams at this years’ conference, see: https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/conferences/twentieth-annual-conf… 

Whether the discussion is about reforming pension systems, overhauling health care or the sources of inflation, we are constantly reminded that life has a cost, a price to pay, a burden to bear. At the same time, we are also periodically reminded that not all lives are valued or priced in the same manner; some lives are cheaper and more expendable than others: from over-work and deteriorating living conditions for billions of ‘essential workers’ to police violence and incarceration; from sexual abuse and the denial of bodily autonomy to the socially determined vulnerability and ‘susceptibility’ during the pandemic; from the persistence of racialised exploitation and oppression to the many faces of neocolonialism; from militarised borders turned into kill zones to the ongoing climate disaster.

But there is also the struggle of life (and the struggle for a decent life). As the impressive UK strike wave, the French insurrection against Macron’s aggressive neoliberalism, mass protests in Greece, farmers’ strikes in India, the new wave of struggles in the Americas, and the continuous youth rebellion against a future of extinction show us, there is a multitude of resistances to exploitation, racism, systemic violence and ecological degradation;  resistances that are facing the increasingly authoritarian mutation of contemporary capitalist states trying to cope with the hegemonic crisis of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’.

These recent struggles pose important practical and theoretical questions. How can we articulate a reading of the conjuncture that can bring forward the common thread running through all these attacks on life, the common thread of capitalist social-property relations in their articulation with patriarchy, racialisation and imperialism? How can we bring together the collective aspirations, demands and desires in a manner that leads to a coherent strategy for emancipation? What can we learn from these struggles and how can we treat them as experimental terrains for new political practices? And how can critical Marxist theory, in all its necessary and welcome polyphony, contribute to such an endeavour, bridging the gap between radical theory and collective praxis? These are some of the questions we want to be discussed at the twentieth annual Historical Materialism Conference.

We still believe that this particular format of the in-person conference offers a unique and irreplaceable form that brings together comrades, enables discussion, helps the dissemination of new and original research, creates research networks and communities, and builds solidarity. This is why we will not accept online presentations, except in very rare and specific cases. We would also note that we do engage in online broadcasts and podcasts all year round for such sessions.

As in the past, the conference ethos is strictly egalitarian. This means everyone is invited to contribute in a comradely spirit, the conference is open to all currents of critical Marxist theory and we expect all presenters to attend the entire conference, not just their own session (with no ‘cameo appearances’). We also expect all speakers to make themselves available for the whole period of the conference for their sessions (with only completely immutable circumstances constituting exceptions), as tailoring a conference of this size around individuals’ preferences and desires is not feasible or desirable. The conference is an important part of the broader Historical Materialism project – including the journal, the book series, and the global network of HM conferences – and we want to encourage all conference participants to get involved with these different elements, for example by subscribing to the journal and submitting their conference paper to us for consideration.

In line with the central theme of this year’s conference, we particularly want to invite contributions on the following non-exclusive questions:

· Marxist perspectives on the capitalist economic conjuncture and the signs of an emerging crisis;

· Contemporary imperialism, the shift towards a more divided and polarised world, and all these fuelling war;

· The tendency towards hegemonic crises in advanced capitalist formations;

· Racism and processes of racialisation.

· The new wave of struggles and their strategic significance;

· The social conditioning of pandemic and health threats and the social production of vulnerability;

· Authoritarianism and restrictions over the conditions of life;

· Ecology, the ongoing climate disaster and the movements against extinction;

· The new and old forms of collective politics emerging within struggles and how they might help or hinder the renewal of radical politics.

Whilst we encourage papers and panels that address these themes, as always, the Historical Materialism conference seeks to provide a space for critical Marxist theory and research across the globe and a range of disciplines and interests, so submissions on other themes are welcome.

The following streams will each be issuing individual CFPs:

·         Workers’ Inquiry Stream

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·         Sexuality and Political Economy Stream

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·         Culture Stream

·         Marxism and Technology Stream

·         Ecology and Climate Change Stream

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Individual proposals for papers and panels must include: i) Names of participants with e-mails and institutional affiliations. Where there is more than one participant, we require a clear indication of a corresponding author. ii) Title and abstract of the paper or panel. In the case of a paper, please submit an abstract of no longer than 300 words. In the case of a panel, please submit an overarching description of 300 words, names and details of each participant and abstracts for individual papers.

The deadline for submissions is Monday 12 June 2023. Partial submissions may be rejected.

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In the course of this talk, I will be referring to, and digging further into, key points that are put forward in two very important documents which are featured on our website revcom.us: A Declaration, A Call To Get Organized Now For A Real Revolution; and an article of mine, following up on that “Declaration and Call”: This Is A Rare Time When Revolution Becomes Possible—Why That Is So, And How To Seize On This Rare Opportunity. So, for everyone getting into this talk, everyone who cares about the crucial questions it is speaking to, it is also important to take up (or return to) and get deeply into those documents as well—and to go regularly to revcom.us, and watch the weekly YouTube show Revolution—Nothing Less, both of which sharply illustrate why a real revolution is urgently needed, and is possible, what are the goals of this revolution, and how to be part of building for this revolution. What I will be speaking to here is, as the title says, a necessary foundation and a basic roadmap for this revolution.

One other point: I am going to say what needs to be said about the way things are, why they are that way, where things are headed, and what needs to be done to radically change this in a positive way—and, as part of that, I am going to bluntly speak some truth that is bound to offend some people. I do this because the stakes in all this are so high, and (to refer to a line from Bob Dylan) the hour is getting late, and there is no time to speak falsely now. But I do this, not out of a sense that people are so deeply caught up in, that they cannot break with, ways of thinking and acting which serve to perpetuate their own oppression and degradation, and that of others as well. No, I am doing this precisely out of the understanding that masses of people not only need to, but can, make a profound break with this—that they can radically change themselves as part of, and in the process of, radically changing the world, in an emancipating way. So, let’s get to it.

Here is the heart of the matter: Many people—including someone like Martin Luther King—have argued that attempting to carry out a revolution to overthrow this system is suicidal, particularly for Black people in this country—when, in fact, Black people, and masses of other oppressed and exploited people, profoundly and desperately need this revolution. The reality is that such a revolution can succeed, but this is possible, particularly up against powerful ruling forces, like in this country, only in rare times and circumstances. And here is a very important truth: This is one of those rare times and circumstances.

This rare time must not be wasted, squandered, thrown away. Rather, revolution must be actively prepared for and vigorously, consistently worked for—now, and in an ongoing wayto build up the scientifically oriented and powerfully organized forces for, and to prepare the ground for, this revolution.

And that is why we revolutionary communists say:

[E]veryone who can’t stand this world the way it is … who is sick and tired of so many people being treated as less than human … who knows that the claim of “liberty and justice for all” is a cruel lie … who is righteously enraged that injustice and inequality go on, and on, and on, despite false promises and honeyed words from people in power (or those seeking power) … everyone who agonizes about where things are headed and the fact that to be young now means being denied a decent future, or any future at all … everyone who has ever dreamed about something much better, or even wondered whether that is possible … everyone who hungers for a world without oppression, exploitation, poverty, and destruction of the environment … everyone who has the heart to fight for something that is really worth fighting for: You need to be part of this revolution.

We’re talking about real revolution, not playing around with a few changes that leave this system in place and in power, while benefitting only a small number. As the “Declaration and Call” makes very clear:

A revolution means a force of millions, drawn from many different parts of society and organized for an all-out fight to overthrow this system and replace it with a radically different and much better economic and political system, a socialist system, based on meeting the needs of the people and carrying forward the fight for a communist world where there will finally be an end, everywhere, to the exploitation, oppression, and destruction of the environment that is built into this system of capitalism-imperialism. Anything less than this revolution will completely fail to deal with the root of all the problems or lead to the actual solution. [Emphasis added here.]

So let’s get more deeply into why this is one of those rare times and circumstances when this revolution is possible, and what must be done for there to be a real chance for this revolution to actually succeed.

First, let’s get clear on these BASIC TRUTHS:

We live under a system—the system of capitalism-imperialism (capitalism is an economic and political system of exploitation and oppression, and imperialism refers to the worldwide nature of this system).

It is this system which is the basic cause of the tremendous suffering that people, all over the world, are subjected to; and this system poses a growing threat to the very existence of humanity, in the way that this system is rapidly destroying the global environment, and in the danger of war between nuclear-armed capitalist-imperialist powers, such as the U.S. and China.

All this is reality, and no one can escape this reality. Either we radically change it, in a positive way, or everything will be changed in a very negative way.

To be very clear once more: Changing it in a positive way means making revolution—a real revolution, to overthrow this system of capitalism-imperialism and replace it with a radically different and emancipating system. For it is also a basic truth that: In today’s world, to fundamentally change society, you must seize power—overthrow the existing state power and establish a new state power.

And here is another very important truth from the “Declaration and Call”:

We have seen the potential for revolution powerfully demonstrated in the summer of last year (2020) when millions of people, of all races and genders, all over this country, and all around the world, rose up together against racist oppression and police murder. We have seen this potential in the mass outpourings of women, in countries all over the world, refusing to put up with being abused and degraded. This potential is also revealed in the deep distress being expressed, by scientists and millions of ordinary people, about the continually worsening climate crisis and the threat this poses to the future of humanity—a crisis this system cannot solve, but can only make worse.

As we have also seen, when millions of people do take to the streets—and, especially when they do this not just for a day or so, expressing their feelings and then going home, with things returning quickly to “normal,” but when they do this with real determination and in a sustained way—this can change the “political atmosphere and alignment” in society as a whole, compelling every section of society, and every major ruling institution, to respond to this. To again cite a powerful example, this was the case with the massive uprising in the summer of 2020.

But, as important as it is, millions taking to the streets, even in a sustained militant way, cannot by itself lead to fundamental change—which can only happen if the system that they are rebelling against is actually brought down.

There have been many situations in different countries where a huge part of society has rebelled, even taking to the streets for weeks and months, but the ruling institutions, and in particular the police and military, did not “break apart,” and the people were not prepared to take the struggle to the next level—so there was no fundamental change. There have also been disastrous outcomes when people rising up in a mass revolt have mistakenly believed that, simply because their cause is just, the armed forces of the existing system will sympathize and join with them—when in fact those armed forces continued in their role as violent enforcers of the existing system and sooner or later acted to forcefully suppress the people.

No, the existing oppressive system must be overthrown—the institutions of violent suppression of this system must finally be broken apart, defeated and dismantled by an organized revolutionary force. That is what is necessary for things to go beyond just mass protest, however militant and determined, and become a real revolution.

Speaking specifically of this country, even in a situation where millions of people are taking to the streets, in a sustained way, in determined rebellion against oppression and injustice, and even with some among this system’s armed forces sympathizing and identifying with this, it is very unlikely that this, in itself, would lead to those armed forces splitting apart and a significant part of them joining with the people rising up in this way. (This is all the more true of the police, whose ranks are filled with hardcore right-wing brutes.)

It is a fact that one of the objectives of the revolution—and what would be a necessary part of the strategy of the revolutionary forces—would be to win over significant parts of armed forces that start out opposing the revolution. But the possibility of this, and the way in which it could be achieved, would depend on how the revolutionary process actually unfolded.

Later, toward the end of this talk, I will speak to this more directly, and get into some key aspects of the doctrine and strategic approach that would need to be applied by the revolutionary forces in order to have a real chance to win, when the necessary conditions for the all-out revolutionary fight had been brought into being—including the approach to winning over forces from the opposing side, in the course of that all-out fight. And, as part of that, I will talk about how, in an actual civil war, fought between opposing sections of society, things could develop in such a way that the armed forces that had been the backbone of state power, enforcing the existing capitalist-imperialist system, would split apart in the context of such a civil war—and what would be the implications of that for carrying revolution to a successful outcome.

But, before that, it is important to get into this fundamental question: What are the necessary conditions for a revolution? In basic terms, they are:

A crisis in society and government so deep and so disruptive of the “usual way of things,” that those who have ruled over us, for so long, can no longer do so in the “normal” way that people have been conditioned to accept.

A revolutionary people in the millions and millions, with their “allegiance” to this system broken, and their determination to fight for a more just society greater than their fear of the violent repression of this system.

An organized revolutionary force—made up of continually growing numbers of people, from among the most oppressed but also from many other parts of society—a force which is grounded in, and is working systematically to apply, the most scientific approach to building for and then carrying out revolution, and which is increasingly looked to by masses of people to lead them to bring about the radical change that is urgently needed.

To get into this further, let’s start by focusing on the first of these conditions.

There is some important historical experience to learn from—situations where a ruling class was no longer able to rule in the “normal way” that people had been conditioned to accept, and a real possibility arose of putting an end to the existing system, even one which had been so powerfully entrenched that such a profound change had long seemed impossible. This has happened especially when the ruling class, or a section of the ruling class, of that system no longer believes in, and more or less openly abandons, what had been the “cohering norms”the regulating set of beliefs and processes—of that system.

An example of this kind of thing—which involved a significant change, even though it was not brought about by a real revolution—is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the years 1989-91. The Soviet Union was the world’s first socialist state, brought into being through the Russian Revolution of 1917. The truth, however, is that capitalism had actually been restored in the Soviet Union, in the mid-1950s—even as it continued for some time to maintain the façade of “socialism.” But then, in the 1980s, “reforms” were instituted that began to unravel this whole thing, and finally sections of the ruling class abandoned the pretense of socialism, and the country underwent a transformation to an openly capitalist society, dropping even its outward identity as the “USSR” (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The same kind of thing happened in some Eastern European countries that had been under the effective domination of the Soviet Union—countries where there were massive uprisings, the ruling structures split apart, and the result was a change from disguised capitalism to open capitalism—a major change, even if not a real revolution.

This, again, is part of a more general phenomenon where major change, and even a real revolution, can become possible (or more possible) not simply when there is a deep crisis in society, and not just when the ruling forces are seriously divided, but when they actually split apart, and the old way of ruling can no longer hold. Another example of this kind of thing is the creation of the Soviet Union itself, resulting from the Russian Revolution. This occurred during World War 1, in which millions of Russian people died and the masses of people overall suffered tremendous hardship. In this critical situation, the ruling forces of that country split, resulting first in the overthrow of the long-entrenched rule of absolute monarchs (the Tsars), but with an opening created for a revolution that overthrew the exploiting classes as a whole, including the bourgeois forces that were attempting to consolidate capitalist rule without the Tsars.

Or, to take another important example, this time from the history of this country: Why did so many Black people (nearly two hundred thousand) join the Union Army fighting against the southern Confederacy during the Civil War in the 1860s? Because the country, and those who ruled it, had split apart, and masses of Black people could sense that, in this situation, there was a real possibility of putting an end to their enslaved condition, which did happen as a result of that Civil War.

How does this kind of thing apply to this country now? As is becoming more clear every day, there are deep, and continually deepening, divisions not only in this country overall but among the ruling powers of this system. And, as I will get into more fully in a little while, one part of those ruling powers, represented by the Republican Party, no longer believes in or feels bound by what have been the “cohering norms” of “democratic” capitalist rule in this country. This is leading, and will increasingly lead, to further, deepening divisions and bitter clashes throughout society, as well as “at the top.” All the ruling institutions of this system will be increasingly affected by this. The polarization will continue to sharpen, with forces grouped around and led by the Republican Party becoming even more aggressive in insisting on imposing, including by violent means, their vision of what “makes America great,” with all the very real horrors, on top of horrors, that this involves.

All this in itself will have contradictory effects—some definitely negative, but some positive, or with positive potential. And, as this unfolds, this profound truth will be more and more forcefully demonstrated: The crisis and deep divisions in society can only be resolved through radical means, of one kind or another—either radically reactionary, murderously oppressive and destructive means or radically emancipating revolutionary means.

With all this, what is urgently needed, what is possible—and what must be actively, tirelessly worked for, in order for there to truly be a positive outcome to all this—is a fundamentally different alignment in the country as a whole: a Repolarization that is favorable for, and brings forward the necessary forces for, Revolution—a real revolution to overthrow this system, and bring into being a radically different and much better system.

But why, and how, could it be possible to bring about such a repolarization for a real revolution?

This is because of something that is very different, in a very profound way, from what has been, for generations, the “normal situation” in this country. I spoke to how this has come about, in the following from “Rare Time”:

Even though “democracy, with liberty and justice for all” is a cruel lie, this lie has been crucial for the rulers of this country to keep things together under this system—and especially to keep people who are oppressed under this system believing in the possibility of making this system more just. This is why both ruling class parties generally agreed, for a long time, to work within the same framework for ruling this country—they agreed to accept the results of elections and bring about “the peaceful transfer of power” between the different representatives of this same system, whether Democrat or Republican.

With changing conditions in this country, and in the world as a whole, over the time since the end of World War 2 (75 years ago), it has been necessary for the ruling class, in order to maintain “order and stability” in this country, to make certain concessions to the struggle against white supremacy, male supremacy, and some other oppressive relations, while at the same time insisting that this is all part of “creating a more perfect union” and “further perfecting the great democracy that has always existed in this country.” This has also been necessary in order for the rulers of this country to continue promoting it as “the leader of the free world,” which they say must remain the dominant power in the world—but which, in reality, is the most oppressive and destructive power, plundering masses of people as well as the earth.

But a section of the ruling capitalist class, represented by the Republican Party, has all along resisted even these partial concessions to the fight against oppression, and has become convinced that these changes have now gone too far, that they threaten to destroy what has held this country together and enabled it to dominate the world.

The Republicans have become a fascist party—a party based on open and aggressive white supremacy, male supremacy and other oppressive relations—a party convinced that only it deserves to rule, moving to manipulate elections and suppress votes in order to gain and hold onto power, refusing to accept the outcome of elections it does not win, determined to gut and pervert “the rule of law,” trample on people’s rights, and adopt what amounts to an undisguised capitalist dictatorship, ready to use violence not only against masses of people but also against its rivals in the ruling class.

These Republicans have mobilized a significant section of people who believe, with an intense, irrational passion, that white supremacymale supremacy, and other oppressive relations (as well as unrestrained plunder of the environment) must be firmly upheld and enforced. They have been driven to a state of vicious insanity, embracing all kinds of lunatic conspiracy theories, along with a crazed Christian fundamentalism, as a response to the threat they see to their entitled (or “god-ordained”) position and their insistence that further concessions to the struggle against oppression will destroy what has “made America great.”

Every day, and in a thousand ways, the reality screams out that there is no living together with this fascist lunacy—and no one should want to! There is no way that any decent person should want to live in the society, and world, that these fascists are determined, that they are willing to kill, to bring into being.

As I wrote in my New Year’s Statement, this January (2021):

Biden and the Democrats cannot “bring the country together,” as they falsely claim, because there can be no “reconciliation” with these fascists—whose “grievances” are based on fanatical resentment against any limitation on white supremacy, male supremacy, xenophobia (hatred of foreigners), rabid American chauvinism, and the unrestrained plundering of the environment, and are increasingly expressed in literally lunatic terms. There can be no “reconciliation” with this, other than on the terms of these fascists, with all the terrible implications and consequences of that!

Early in his campaign for president, Biden bragged about how, as a senator, he was able to work with white supremacist, southern segregationists! Now, he is still trying to work with the blatant white supremacists and outright fascists of the Republican Party. But, try as he might, they are not willing to work with him—except on their terms.

Things are not as they were in the past, and the reality is this: The profound divisions, within the ruling class, and in the society overall, cannot be smoothed over—they are only going to become deeper and sharper, more acute and antagonistic. Here is the fundamental truth that needs to be clearly and deeply understood: These divisions

cannot be resolved within the framework that has existed, and has held things together, for nearly 150 years, since shortly after the end of the Civil War which led to the abolition of slavery—they cannot be resolved on the basis of the capitalist “democracy” that has been the “normal” means of capitalist rule (dictatorship) for so long.


Teach-In: Fascism in America

Could It Happen Here?

Is It Happening Here?

What Is the Danger that the Trump/Pence Government Poses?

Andy Zee

“The essence of fascism as a form of rule of a capitalist society is blatant dictatorship, that when it is fully imposed will mean the virtual elimination of basic democratic rights, including the right to dissent. And such change is most definitely now afoot…” Video and transcript

George Prochnik

“There is a window in which it’s possible to act. But once that comes down, you’re in a whole other reality and there’s no way out… I hope that all of us do everything in our power to seize this hour… ” Video and transcript

Rita Dentino

“No, it’s not the next election—it might not be any election. I worked at the election, actually, and I woke up and I had, maybe, five minutes or so, to get upset, and then it was time to get back to work…people have, for too long been in their comfort zones…we have to make a pledge to ourselves now, every single day to step out of that normal comfort zone… ” Video and transcript

Kierán Suckling

“You’ve got to go to war with science if you’re a fascist, because if you have absolute authority you get to say what’s true… And we’ve seen with Trump just an extraordinary war on science… ” Video and transcript

Humanity faces an extreme emergency with Trump’s rise to power. On April 27, this nationally live-streamed Teach-In deeply explored, from different perspectives, the essential nature of the Trump/Pence Government, the relevance of the history of fascism, the threat it poses to humanity and the planet itself, and the dangers of normalization.

Speakers (click for video presentations):

  • Andy Zee, Refuse Fascism co-initiator, Revolution Books NYC spokesperson
  • George Prochnik, author, New Yorker contributor
  • Rita Dentino, Exec. Dir., Casa Freehold of National Day Laborers Organizing Network
  • Kierán Suckling, a founder and Executive Director of Center for Biological Diversity


Teach-In: Fascism in America

Could It Happen Here?

Is It Happening Here?

What Is the Danger that the Trump/Pence Government Poses?

Andy Zee

“The essence of fascism as a form of rule of a capitalist society is blatant dictatorship, that when it is fully imposed will mean the virtual elimination of basic democratic rights, including the right to dissent. And such change is most definitely now afoot…” Video and transcript

George Prochnik

“There is a window in which it’s possible to act. But once that comes down, you’re in a whole other reality and there’s no way out… I hope that all of us do everything in our power to seize this hour… ” Video and transcript

Rita Dentino

“No, it’s not the next election—it might not be any election. I worked at the election, actually, and I woke up and I had, maybe, five minutes or so, to get upset, and then it was time to get back to work…people have, for too long been in their comfort zones…we have to make a pledge to ourselves now, every single day to step out of that normal comfort zone… ” Video and transcript

Kierán Suckling

“You’ve got to go to war with science if you’re a fascist, because if you have absolute authority you get to say what’s true… And we’ve seen with Trump just an extraordinary war on science… ” Video and transcript

Humanity faces an extreme emergency with Trump’s rise to power. On April 27, this nationally live-streamed Teach-In deeply explored, from different perspectives, the essential nature of the Trump/Pence Government, the relevance of the history of fascism, the threat it poses to humanity and the planet itself, and the dangers of normalization.

Speakers (click for video presentations):

  • Andy Zee, Refuse Fascism co-initiator, Revolution Books NYC spokesperson
  • George Prochnik, author, New Yorker contributor
  • Rita Dentino, Exec. Dir., Casa Freehold of National Day Laborers Organizing Network
  • Kierán Suckling, a founder and Executive Director of Center for Biological Diversity


Don’t Laugh Off Fascism -Three Key Mistakes on Trumpism-Fascism

April 9, 2023 by Refuse FascismShareTweet

by Paul Street (reposted from The Paul Street Report)

It’s easy to dismiss the fascist menace stalking the United States by focusing on the outrageous wackiness and buffoonery of national-level Republi-fascist politicos like the Republicans’ leading 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump, his US House of Representatives friends Marjorie Taylor-Greene (MTG), Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, and Lauren Boebert, and national Trump allies like “My Pillow” CEO Mike Lindell, the bizarre Nixonite putschist Roger Stone, and the raving former Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn

Don’t do it. Bear in mind that Adolph Hitler was widely dismissed as a bloviating clown as he rose to power and marched humanity towards a global war that killed at least 50 million people.

For what it’s worth, liberal petty-bourgeois intellectual laughter at Hitler and at America’s rising fascist star and future president “Buzz Windrip” is a key theme in Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel of American fascism denial and fascist takeover It Can’t Happen Here.

There are at least three critical errors in the reflexive dismissal response that remains all common among many US liberal and left sorts – this even after the fascist Trump wreaked havoc as a literal fascist (if you don’t believe me read the third and fourth chapters of my most recent book This Happened Here: Neoliberals, Amerikaners, and the Trumping of America) in the world’s most dangerous office for four years.

“We’re Now in a Marxism State of Mind, a Communism State of Mind”

The first blunder is to miss the fascist content of what the national-level “clowns” are saying.  Trump often sounds and looks like an evil and stupid villain out of a bad James Bond movie, but folks should pay attention to the serious politico-ideological content of what he says. Don’t believe me? Look at this passage from Trump’s darkly sinister speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) delivered last March 3rd as rumors swirled of his coming first indictments for the least of his crimes:

“…The greatest in our history…[the] most important battle in our lives is taking place right now as we speak. For seven years, you and I have been engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it…The sinister forces trying to kill America have done everything they can to stop me, to silence you, and to turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants. No other country wants them. If those opposing us succeed, our once beautiful USA will be a failed country that no one will even recognize. A lawless, open borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare. That’s what it’s going and that’s where it’s going. I used to say that we will never be a socialist country. I said it oftentimes. I said it once at the State of the Union address and people didn’t understand what I was saying. But I’d shout it out loud and I was right because that train has passed the station long ago of socialism. It never even came close to stopping, frankly.”

“We’re now in a Marxism state of mind, a communism state of mind, which is far worse. We’re a nation in decline. Our enemies are desperate to stop us because they know that we are the only ones who can stop them. They know that this room is so important, the people in this room. They know that we can defeat them. They know that we will defeat them. But they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you and I’m just standing in their way. That’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in their way. And that’s why I’m here today. That’s why I’m standing before you because we are going to finish what we started. We started something that was America. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory. We’re going to make America great again. With you at my side, we will demolish the deep state…. We will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists. We will throw off the political class that hates our country. They actually hate our country. No walls, no borders, bad elections, no voter ID. We will beat the Democrats. We will route the fake news media. We will expose and appropriately deal with the rhinos. We will evict Joe Biden from the White House. And we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all. When we started this journey, a journey like there has never been before, there’s never been anything like this. We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots, and fools. But we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.”

“From the beginning, we have been attacked by a sick and sinister opposition, the radical left communists, the bureaucrats, the fake news media, the big money special interests, the corrupt Democrat prosecutors. Oh, they’re after me for so many things. Oh, those prosecutors. Some are racists. Some hate our country. They all hate me. They’ll get me for anything, anything. You put a comma in this paragraph. Why did you do that? I don’t really know. The partisan and often corrupt intelligence agencies, the George Soros money machine that spends a lot of money on the prosecutors, by the way. The Antifa thugs who are allowed to roam the streets while we have people that in many cases are great patriots, great, great patriots, sing prayers every night, playing our national anthem every day. And they’re sitting in a jail nearby, rotting away, and being treated so unfairly like nobody’s probably ever been treated in this country before, except maybe me.”

Sorry, not sorry for pasting in that long quote.  It merits attention. Wacky as it all sounds,  that right there is 646 words of nicely distilled fascist ideology, replete with paranoid-style anti-Marxism intimately linked to anti-globalism, fanatical nativism, fantastic unreality (the United States as currently in transition from “socialism” to “communism”), aggrieved palingenetic nationalism, political eliminationism, them and us Othering, white victimhood, the claim of reverse racism, the antisemitism (Trump and Trumpists’ by now ritual Soros-mongering is an obvious dog-whistle of  Jew-hate), authoritarian law-and-order-ism, demonization of competing parties, personality cultism (“I [alone] am standing in their way”), hatred of the merely bourgeois media, the absurd false conflation of the non-fascist major party (the corporate and imperialist Democrats) with the alleged Marxist menace, the determination to purge insufficiently loyal politicos within his own maximalist party, the ridiculous inflation of supposed Left power (“Antifa thugs” who “roam the streets”?), and defense of putschist political violence (the “great, great patriots” who are said to be “rotting” in jail are January 6 “insurrectionists” who physically attacked the US Capitol to try to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory).

MTG, Gosar, and Gaetz et al might play the role of destructive clowns within and beyond Congress but they and numerous other Republikaners share all these fascist playbook narratives with Herr Donald.  

“I am Your Retribution”

Not long after his fascist speech at CPAC, as his first indictments drew closer, Trump went to his first official 2024 campaign/hate rally in Waco, Texas, site of an infamous confrontation between the federal government and a far-right religious cult thirty years ago, to tell his gunned-up supporters “I am your retribution.”  He invoked Armageddon imagery to fuel his fundamentalist base by proclaiming that the 2024 presidential election would be “The Final Battle.”

As if all that wasn’t fascist enough, the former president and fan of the blood-libel QAnon cult, opened up his rally with an eerie version  of “The Star-Spangled Banner” crooned by inmates incarcerated for their role in the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol. Celebratory footage of the putschist Capitol Riot was put up on a giant telescreen during this fascist “Justice for All” ballad.

Dead Serious National-Level Handmaids of Trumpism-Fascism

The second big mistake in the liberal dismissal reflex I criticized at the outset of this essay is that an over-focus on the bizarre antics of Donald and his most visible national level allies (MTG et al) obscures the critical role played by other dead serious fascist elements within the national political, business, and media classes. Here I am referring to people like the dedicated national and international fascist strategist Steve Bannon, the leading Fatherland News propagandist Tucker Carlson, the Christian white nationalist American Conservative Union leader Matt Schapp, and the various big and dark money far-right plutocrats who fund Trump and the Trump movement and who will bankroll the arguably more dangerous and fascist Ron DeSantis movement and presidential candidacy if Trump falters. Also requiring mention here are the “serious as a heart attack” neofascists who proliferate across the powerful federal judicial branch, from the Trump- and McConnell-made/Handmaid Supremes on down.

As I neared completion of this essay, Mathew Kacsmaryk, the far-right federal judge who was handpicked by women-hating Christian fascist anti-abortionists to ban the abortion drug mifepristone nationwide, did so.  His GoodFriday ruling, which cancels Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the nation’s top and highly effective and safe medical abortion pill, is an outrageous violation of women’s fundamental reproductive rights. Kacsmaryk has arrogantly trumped established scientific opinion on mifepristone with anti-scientific bigotry.  He has  attacked women’s freedom and their very humanity by significantly strengthening the state’s power to force women to bear children against their will.

The women-hating Christian right was never satisfied with the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson’s decision to disastrously return abortion policy “to the states.” It has always sought a nationwide abortion ban.  Kacsmaryk’s ruling is meant to apply across the entire United States of America. It moves us ever closer to the sexist, racist, and fascist dystopia depicted in Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have federal judges acting to create a society where – in the words of Rise Up for Abortion Rights co-founder Merle Hoffman – “ the physicians and medical practice are turned into an arm of a misogynist state, denying patients the medications and services they need…. a society where women will be prosecuted for homicide for miscarriages and denied emergency medical care when the carry a fetus that could kill them.”

The State Level: “Committed Ideologues Fully Determined to Impose Their Reactionary Vision”

The third big mistake is inattention to the dead-serious fascist politics and policy being conducted at the important and powerful state level, where Republi-fascists are quite effectively and – in their own sick way – intelligently doing some very real and horrifying things in broad jurisdictions under their often badly gerrymandered  control:

* re-imposing the female enslavement of forced motherhood by criminalizing abortion.

* enacting fascist laws against the accurate teaching of past and present US history with racism, sexism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism and nativism properly included.

* banning books that challenge white Christian racist, sexist, and anti-gay norms and practices.

* undermining public protections against current and future pandemics.

* fueling the nation’s insane gun violence epidemic by rolling back firearms controls.

* denying  basic human and civil rights to gay and transgender people.

* suppressing the voting rights of racial minorities and others likely to oppose the Christian white nationalist agenda.

* attacking public schools and slashing social  services and environmental regulations.

* outlawing liberal, progressive, and left protest.

*strengthening and expanding the nation’s giant racist police and prison states.

Three months ago, Refuse Fascism (on whose editorial board I sit), interviewed the perceptive historian and political commentator Thomas Zimmer.  Zimmer said something very important regarding the difference between the wild-eyed doings of the MTG-Gosar “wrecking crew” in the US Congress and the steely-eyed advance of the Christian white nationalist agenda in state capitals:

“…on the state level, we’re not seeing chaos. We’re seeing a very deliberate, very systematic, very successful counter offensive, reactionary offensive, against civil rights, against the post-1960s civil rights system… at the state level, they’re banning abortion and they want to control women by whatever reactionary measure they can come up with — even including passing dress codes, where now women lawmakers have to cover their arms for something. To criminalize LGBTQ people; install authoritarian, white nationalist education systems; ban dissent; restrict voting rights; purge election commissions; criminalize protest. That’s happening wherever Republicans are in charge, and all Republican led states. These are not disparate actions, it’s one political project…Once you look beyond the ‘chaos’ in Washington, what you see is the work not of nihilists, but committed ideologues fully determined to impose their reactionary vision of what America should be on as many people as possible and to punish those who dare to deviate from that vision or dissent…Ideally, in a better world, the Supreme Court would step in and say: No, wait a minute, you can do this, stop this. They would stop these escalating attempts to undermine democracy and rollback civil rights. But… the conservative reactionary majority on the court is doing the opposite. It’s acting as the spearhead of this reactionary counter-mobilization”

I diverge from Zimmer’s refusal to label the Republicans as fascists but think he is correct to two key things: the excessively neglected significance of the state level, where a vast swath of reactionary policy is made in bold defiance of majority national opinion; the close and mutually reinforcing relationship between what Republi-fascists are doing in the states and what they are doing in the federal courts.

Republi-fascists Throw Down in Nashville

Speaking of fascism at the state level, Tennessee’s absurdly gerrymandered far right House of Representatives last week expelled two democratically elected Black legislators – one from Nashville and the other from Memphis – for having offended the body’s “decorum.” The expelled representatives’ sin? Joining a mass protest in the Tennessee legislative chamber for gun reform after Nashville was hit by another one of the mass school shootings that have become so chillingly commonplace in the USA thanks to the sick lobbying power of the neofascist National Rifle Association (NRA).

Think about that. Yet another “lone wolf” lunatic equipped with military-style assault weapons courtesy of the fascist NRA murdered children in a school within walking distance of the Tennessee State Capitol. Hundreds if not thousands of Nashville residents marched to the State Capitol and started a protest for gun reform in the gallery above the legislative chamber. Two Black legislators from communities ravaged by the gun violence – bloodshed fueled by the rich white gun lobby that funds many of the now former state representatives’ white nationalist colleagues – had the audacity to help lead the protest.  And for this their “republican” colleagues voted to politically eliminate them – to literally remove these democratically elected Black officials from the state’s legislature.

Channeling the Orwellian unreality and truth inversion that is a defining aspect of fascist politics, the RepubliNazi Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton actually likened the peaceful gun rights protest in the Tennessee Capitol to January 6th, when a frothing horde of demented Trumpists violently stormed and trashed the US Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence” while trying to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory under the influence of the Big Hitlerian Lie that the “socialist” Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election.

That, my friends, is Amerikaner fascism, something that – sorry Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Laurence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow et al – you are not just going to vote or adjudicate out of existence within the killing confines of a blatantly Minority Rule political and legal order so absurdly gerrymandered and otherwise tilted far to the right of the citizenry that the half-century right to abortion was liquidated despite being supported by two-thirds of the US populace.

Here’s a fun Nashville fact: Joe Biden won 65% of the vote in that city in 2020 but it is not represented by a single solitary Democrat in the US Congress. That isn’t about a fickle electorate.  It’s about right-wing gerrymandering, which has sliced and diced the city’s Congressional districts in such a way as to make a Democratic majority impossible in even one district representing the country music capital.  Such gerrymandering is protected by Republi-fascists in the federal courts all the way up to the Supremes.  It promotes not merely Republicans over Democrats but the most far-right and neofascist elements within the nation’s rightmost major party.

Meanwhile, dedicated state-level Republi-fascism is breeding a new wave of wannabe national-level Republi-fascist leaders, including the no. 2 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, who has turned his state into the world’s leading fascist laboratory this side of Hungary, and Iowa governor “Killer” Kim Reynolds, who is running to be Trump or DeSantis’s vice presidential candidate by turning her once half-way human state into “the Florida of the north.”