Marx and the Bolsheviks1

Franz Mehring

Translated by Tibor Szamuely


In the defense which the Party leadership of the USP opposed to the letters which I published a few months ago in Pravda, it was said that the entire USP admired the Russian Revolution, even if some cranks like Kautsky and A.Stein, whose freedom of speech it was not permitted to curtail, held rancor towards the Bolsheviks2. This “defense” is certainly not in concord with the facts, but I leave it so much the better, as Sozialistische Auslandspolitik, a recognised organ of the USP, has turned away from its Bolshevist binge and its editor Breitscheid-without the interference of a Biblical miracle has changed from a Saul to a Paul to such an extent, that he fights with “heart and soul” for the Bolsheviks like the lion for its cubs.

This agility in relearning is however quite beyond Karl Kautsky, and he takes up the struggle against Bolshevik policy once again in the pages of Sozialistische Auslandspolitik. We do not want to disturb him in these amusements, firstly from personal feeling, and secondly because we don’t enjoy banging our heads against the wall. Who could not be moved by the drama, when while the mounted Hector on flying shoes hastens into the camp of the enemy, the father Anchises is seen to appear on the walls of deserted Troy armed for the life or death struggle with sword and shield?

And furthermore any mediation or blurring is impossible between Bolshevism and that “Kautskyism” which Lenin already defined in the following words three years ago: “the working class cannot fulfill its world historic revolutionary mission without a ruthless struggle against this treason, this lack of character, this servility before opportunism, and this unprecedented theoretical vulgarization of Marxism. Kautskyism is no accident, but a social product of the contradictions of the Second International, the conjunction of loyalty to Marxism in words with subordination to opportunism in deeds.”3 We deeply regret Lenin’s use of such harsh words, but as he had sufficient grounds to do so, we must reconcile ourselves to his tone.

Thus we do not wish to be mixed up in Kautsky’s feud with the Bolsheviks. But Kautsky seeks to bring this feud onto German territory, by alleging that in Germany, the dictatorship of the proletariat is understood not as the terrorist methods of the Bolsheviks but as democracy-whose essential feature is general, equal, direct and secret voting rights. This claim has an oppressive air about it.-It even surpasses in profundity Uncle Bräsig’s claim that poverty [Armut] comes from the purest poverty [Powerteh]4. But it reflects “Kautskyism”, as it lives and breathes.

We want to give him the credit of observing that his talk does not come from out of the blue. In his glory days, it was the oft defended opinion in the party that so long as we won a few hundred thousand more votes every five years, one fine day, and completely automatically we would dock in the harbor of socialist society. It was a time in which even a man like Bebel predicted the total collapse of the capitalist system first in 1893 and then in 1899, and as reckoning with the above mentioned numbers would be awkward, a Party Congress asserted that few of its members would not live to see the red flag waving victoriously over the world. Nonetheless, universal suffrage showed its quirks, as in 1887 and 1907, however, these “notches” were always polished into “shine”5. At its “most brilliant” in 1912, the Party already saw itself as an arbitrator of the field of battle to such an extent, that it sacrificed almost two dozen mandates to the miserable blackmail of the same Radicals who had shamefully betrayed it in every vote for decades, of course with the blessing of “Kautskyism”6. With this clever trick, the current Reichstag was saved from its baptism as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” a discovery which would have led to many difficulties for Kautsky himself.

Simultaneously victim and cause of these pathological phenomena, Kautsky is unable to separate from them and is quite outraged over Comrade Zetkin who with much justice sees that to cling to such illusions is a matter for political children. But, when he seeks to deride Zetkin for rejecting the foundations of democracy, where they would be inconvenient for her, he overlooks the trivial detail that he is only repeating an age-old philistine trump card with this fatuous catch phrase.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is a word and a concept originating with Karl Marx and the choice of expressions alone designates that it does not concern eternal principles but a temporary condition, namely the stage of transition between capitalist and socialist society in which the proletariat has already conquered political power, but must first remove the rubble of the old society in order to clear the road for the new.

Storming die Barrikaden

That in this stage it is not that democracy whose inalienable hallmark is universal suffrage which should have the final word, but rather that interests of the proletariat are alone decisive lies in the nature of the situation. Marx himself did not allow the slightest doubt on this.

Only once did he have the good fortune to participate in a revolutionary movement, but one scans the 300 issues of the Neuen Rheinischen Zeitung in vain for any trace of the fanciful idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat amounts to universal suffrage. Quite the contrary! Precisely the then current product of universal suffrage, the assemblies in Frankfurt and Berlin were showered by Marx with the most brutal criticism, and he declared himself for the right of the revolutionary popular masses to terrorize these conservative popular representatives. If Marx had come to victory and was then confronted with the proposal of now bringing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to life on the basis of universal suffrage, Marx would have transferred this deep thinker to a locked ward, albeit not a prison. He himself, never tired of repeating that in case of victory he had only one method in mind: “to shorten the murderous death agony of the old society and the bloody birth agony of the new, to simplify it, to concentrate it, there is only one method-revolutionary terrorism.” Driven from Köln Marx uttered his final word to his opponents, who attempted to cloak their brutality in legality:

“When our turn comes we will make no excuses for the terror”7

  1. Die Internationale, 1. Jg. 1927, Heft 21, S. 678-680. In Gesammelte Schriften, Band 15, S. 778-780. 

  2. The journalist Alexander Stein (1881-1948). 


  4. A comic character in Fritz Reuter’s 1862 novel Ut mine Stromtid

  5. In the 1887 Reichstag elections the Party lost the minimum of fifteen members required to constitute itself as a Fraktion. It was to regain Fraktion status in 1890 (Garry Steenson, “Not One Man! Not One Penny!” German Social Democracy, 1863-1914, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981. 48-9). In the so called “Hottentot election” of 1907 the seats held by the Party fell from 81 to 43 (Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy: 1905-1917 The Development of the Great Schism, Harvard University Press, 1983. 61). 

  6. In the 1912 Reichstag elections carried out within the framework of a front with the bourgeois opposition the Social Democratic leadership agreed to suspend all campaign activity during the runoff elections in sixteen districts in which their candidates faced those of the Progressives. They further agreed to put the Social Democratic vote behind the Progressive candidates in the runoff elections in twenty six districts. The effect on the composition of the Reichstag was significant. Ibid 226-35.