Kautsky, Lenin, and Why I am an Insurrectionist


0 - Introduction

I recently saw some discussion online about the change of fortune we communists seem to be experiencing in politics. One opinion put forward struck a chord with with me:

we are putting a lot more effort now into electoral ventures, but how much effort or visibility do our social movement efforts seem to be getting?

I myself have been putting a lot of effort into social movement work, and I know that my Party, the Socialist Alliance, always has, Perhapps this comment comes from someone is in too deepy with the work of a mainstream political party to see that there are indeed a lot of social movement activists and time and energy put into grass roots organising. But I didn’t take this as the actual point of what they were trying to say.

Personally, I share a concern quite similar. I think we are entering into a new phase of struggle in Western capitalist societies. I don’t really have another name for it, so I may as well give the current one I have: a “neo-Kautskyian” era.

Recently, the Jacobin website published an article by the former school teacher Eric Blanc. In that article, Blanc argues that the famous Leninist call for the eventual smashing of the capitalist state has outlived its relevance. One passage by Blanc really struck me:

even when a desire for immediate socialist transformation was deepest among deepest among working people, support to replace universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy with workers’ councils, or other organs of dual power, has always remained marginal.

In his article, Blanc argues that the pre-1910 theoretical work of Kautsky is the model we should be following in order to transform our capitalist societies into socialist ones. I hold off on describing this particular attitude as one for “making revolution” because I do not believe it seeks to actually achieve socialist transformation through revolution at all.

1 - What is Blanc on About?

The substance of Blanc, and Kautsky’s pre-1910 position, is that communists should aim to use the power of the capitalist state from above, while also maintaining grass roots political organising from below.

The upshot of Blanc’s position is that it is undesirable to try to smash the capitalist state, in the final instance. Instead what we should be doing is trying to elect official to organs of capitalist state power, while continuing to pressure for radical social change from below. Blanc states that there is not necessarily any antagonistic contradiction in pushing for this position. Further, Blanc argues that this position is in fact Marxist.

Lately, we have been experiencing a lot of electoral success. Look at what we have achieved in th Chicago City Council. More communists elected than ever before. In the Victorian state election, we very nearly elected a communist to the upper house of the VIC state parliament. As far as I am concerned, Bernie Sanders and AOC are virtually mainstream now. Imagine if these sorts of things had been happening 10 years ago. We would have been absolutely amazed and astounded. The political landscape was so moribund and depressing that socialism was unheard of.

But I take the fact that people are settling for the way things are going in an optimistic way. And that is really how I regard Blanc’s rehabilitation of the “parliamentary road” to socialism. The fact that we are focusing so much on winning elections is an opportunity to open up a debate on who we are and where we need to be heading.

I myself regard elections as insufficient for the transformation of society into a communist one. I think for now, some electoral work is necessary, but I don’t share the view of Blanc that the Kautskyian reoad to communist transformation (if it is one at all) is the right one. I also don’t regard Blanc’s view as Marxist.

2 - Why Smashing the State is Necessary

Forgive me if this sounds doctrinaire, but I really do think that Lenin is correct in State and Revolution when he analyses Marx and Engels and shows that the correct road to communism is in fact a “ruptural” one.

Blanc does not deal with the central piece of theory that Marxism relies on when it comes to dealing with the capitalist state, and that it is site of class struggle. The analysis of the state that marxism gives is that the state is both a site of combination of classes, as well as an instrument of domination. Blanc seems to be happy concluding that the state is just a combination of classes, and kind of neutral instrument that can be taken over and wielded by anybody.

But this is precisely the lesson of Leninism, both in its theoretical form, and the way Lenin actually ended up carrying out thebeginning stages of transformation of socialism in Russia. The major tragedy of the Russian Revolution was not just the decimation of the working class in the Civil War, it was also that enormous parts of the old Czarist bureaucracy were used in order to attempt to transform the country. Not enough (or “ not all “) of the state was smashed in order to carry out the Russian Revolution.

And this is precisely why I agree with Leninism. The smashing of the old capitalist state is absolutely necessary. This is the lesson of the 20th century. The reliance on bureaucratic officialdom to cary out the work of socialism necessarily corrupts the struggle because the class nature of the state is always in question. Especially when it comes to capitalist states.

The famous addage is that “the workers cannot simply take over the capitalist state, and wield it as if it was an instrument of workers’ power”. There is an enormous wealth of historical evidence on this point. Look at the way Chavez reformed the Venezuelan military. For that matter, look at the way Che and Fidel Castro purged the Cuban military.

3 - Neo-Kautskyism: Never Making the Jump to Communism

I am happy to be labelled an “insurrectionist” if absolutely necessary, because of the agreeent I find myself in with State and Revolution. But the label “insurrectionist” is used to slur the position of genuine socialist revolution with “blanquism”. Blanquism is the simple theory of revolution that a small number of revolutionaries can just seize power in a coup or putsch and command the rest of society to transform into a socialist one.

This is obviously wrong, and this is obviously not the position of Leninists. It stands that, in order to genuinely get to communism, the capitalist state absolutely must be smashed. The argument in support of this is not simply that the working class, when carrying out revolution, will encounter resistance rom the police or military, it is that the very essence of the capitalist state is the dictatorship of the capitalist class. The capitalist class have set up this state, this political state, in order to maintain the wage relationship, and the extraction of surplus value and profit in order to amass enormous amounts of money.

I predict that if Blanc’s Kautskyian road of merely staffing parliamentary seats with avowed communists ends up being the road that we take, then we will only ever get to a kind of left social democracy. We will never make the jump to communism.

The apparatus that we live under is a behemoth. It has been constructed and maintained for the purpose of extracting profit. The fact that Blanc disavows even dual power, a situation where workers self-organise and very primitively challenge the legitimacy and physical effectiveness of the capitalist state, is telling. This is the sticking point of the difference between “reforming” capitalism, and seeking to actually overthrow it.

I think this is the whole point of Marxism – capitalism has to be overthrown! It’s not that just the leaders have to be replaced, or that the “head” of the system needs to be cut off and replaced, but that the whole way of life we live has to be changed.

4 - Tailism (and the Dialectic)

Blanc is not asking very much of socialism if we are just to maintain ocial movements as well as, say, vote in a workers’ government who pass laws, or, even purge the bureaucracy. The quotation I gave from Blanc of revolutionary bodies of workers’ self organisation being marginal in the demands of “working people”, is the absolute centrepiece of the thinking of social democratic parties and what Lenin calls “opportunism” It is what Georg Lukacs calls “tailism”.

The argument that Blanc has constructed is that working people have not historically called for revolution in advance Western societies in the time of massive upheavals, therefore it would be undemocratic and authoritarian for one to demand insurrection as an element of establishing socialism. The same sort of argument appears in identitarian thinking, the arguments that people who adhere to identity politics make.

The same sort of argument is made by the racits in the ALP about refugee rights. Supposedly the ALP would not be elected to government if they didn’t pander to what they claim are the racist working class.

Tailing the consciousness of the masses was never something that Marxism advocated. Tailism is the confusion of the empirical consciousness of some political agent for what are its actual, intrinsic, interests. In this case Blanc is arguing that everything we are doing today, at this particular, limited and primitive level of struggle, is enough.

I say that this vision is very, very limited, and that my vision of liberation and communism is much grander.

Do not settle for a half-baked type of communism.

I want the whole thing.

Blair Vidakovich 19 April 2019