ABSTRACT: Recent sympathetic re-readings of Lenin run the risk of divorcing or unnecessarily distancing his project from that of Marx and Engels. One of the many claims in Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done in Context is that “Marx as incarnated by European Social Democracy and the German SPD in particular” especially its theoretical leader Karl Kautsky, was the “inspiration” for the Bolshevik leader’s politics. A close reading of Marx and Engels on the Russian question as well as Lenin up to and including What Is to Be Done disputes this argument, a variant on a long-held assumption, and the more general claim about the supposed distance between their projects. Marx and Engels accurately anticipated the Russian Revolution and provided the young Lenin with the necessary tools for applying their program to its reality. Rather than Kautsky and the German party, it was their perspective and program that he drew upon to understand and respond to developments, not only in Russia but in Germany as well. This enabled Lenin to appreciate not only the strengths of German Social Democracy — Lih’s focus — but also its weaknesses.

A potentially positive development in the study of revolutionary Marxism is the newfound interest in Lenin. The recent publication of a collection of essays that mainly originated in a conference on the Russian revolutionary in 2001 (Budgen, et al, 2007), and a very weighty — and, unfortunately, prohibitively expensive — tome by one of the participants, Lars Lih (2006) registers this advance. Lih’s magnum opus devotes itself exclusively to one of Lenin’s best-known works, What Is to Be Done?, with a new and improved translation. The appearance of the two books is to be applauded — with, however, a caveat. Both reinforce, implicitly, and unwittingly or not, the old and still reiterated marxological fable about the supposed distance between Lenin’s project, on the one hand, and that of Marx and Engels, on the other. In so doing an opportunity is lost to make a more convincing case for Lenin’s continuing relevance, at least for those authors who so believe.

The editors’ introduction to the collection of essays is unambiguous.

One cannot emphasize enough Lenin’s externality with regard to Marx: He was not a member of Marx’s inner circle of the initiated. Indeed, he never met Marx or Engels. Moreover, he came from a land at the eastern borders of “European Civilization.” ... Lenin violently displaces Marx, tearing his theory out of its original context, planting it in another historical moment, and thus effectively universalizing it. (Budgen, et al, 2007, 2–3.)

Perhaps this is simply a rhetorical device to get the reader’s attention, but it unfortunately gives credence to the supposed distance claim. Of the 17 contributors to the collection, some quite notable like Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Etienne Balibar and Antonio Negri, only Slavoj Žižek and Lars Lih make an explicit case for Lenin today via his roots in Marx.

Lih poses the question: “Where did Lenin get his inspiration? He got it from Marx, to be sure, but more concretely and effectively from Marx as incarnated by European Social Democracy and the German SPD in particular” (ibid., 287 [italics in original])[1]. In his massive tome Lih elaborates on this claim. In general, he argues that the very success of the German party, its history and what it had been able to accomplish, the most successful example of Social Democracy in the world, is what gave the young Lenin the confidence that the same could be done in Russia. What Is to Be Done? (hereafter WITBD) is squarely, Lih’s central argument, in the tradition of European Social Democracy.

More specifically, Lih, on the basis of quotes and citations in Lenin’s writings prior to and within WITBD, argues that Karl Kautsky, the so-called “pope” of Social Democracy, exercised a decisive influence on the young Lenin when he was just coming into revolutionary politics. The key evidence is, first, Lenin’s translation in 1894 of Kautsky’s most popular writing, The Erfurt Programme, his commentary on the German party’s program adopted at its congress in Erfurt in 1891[2]. In a draft program for Russian Social Democracy that Lenin wrote in 1899 he says: “We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme” (Lenin, 1977, Vol. 4, 235 — hereafter LCW, 4, 235). Also important for Lih is the long — and, for some, controversial — quote in WITBD by Kautsky that “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without” (LCW, 5, 384). This is the evidence that Lih employs to justify the label “Russian Erfurtian” to describe Lenin.

loys to justify the label “Russian Erfurtian” to describe Lenin. Lih is correct to make the case, in opposition to what he calls the “textbook” rendering of Lenin, as well as to some Lenin sympathizers on the left, that Lenin should be situated in European Social Democracy, at least — an important qualification to be addressed later — at a certain stage in his development[3]. But the problem with the formulation “Marx as incarnated” is that it conceals how Lenin learned and developed Marx’s and Engels’ program independently of German Social Democracy and Kautsky. I argue that Lenin mastered Marx and Engels through their own writings and not those of Kautsky. Exactly for this reason he could more accurately assess both the strengths and weaknesses of German Social Democracy and its leadership — his praise in WITBD for the party as a model of organization notwithstanding. To not appreciate this essential fact about Lenin is to fail to understand why he could eventually part ways with both the German party and its leadership, including Kautsky.

At the very moment that Lenin was translating the Erfurt Programme, Engels commented on an article Kautsky had written on political strikes. It revealed for Engels “the extent to which its author has lost touch with the living party movement” (Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. 50, 261 — hereafter MECW, 50, 261). Of course, there is no way that Lenin could have known about Engels’ less than positive assessment of Kautsky — not for the first time — but it anticipated just the kind of criticisms he himself would later direct at the “pope” of European Social Democracy.

What is presented here in no way pretends to be a review of Lih’s impressive and valuable 800-page rereading of WITBD, without which any future treatment of the latter will be inadequate. Rather, the focus is on his specific claim about the “Russian Erfurtian” based on the specific evidence he marshals, namely Lenin’s writings up to and including WITBD. There is no need, therefore, to address the larger question of Bolshevik continuity with Marx and Engels. That is a future and, necessarily, more elaborate project for which this more limited object — the genealogy of Lenin’s program and politics — is required.

After Marx and Engels, I also argue, no one, including the “pope,” grasped their ideas and politics better than Lenin, the denizen from the “eastern borders of European civilization.” Rather than externality, centrality best describes Lenin’s relation to their project. Marx and Engels would not have been surprised at such an outcome. Their “materialist conception of history” prepared them for such “ironies.” I intend now to provide evidence for these claims. A necessary place to begin is with Marx’s and Engels’ program and politics as it related to developments in Russia (also required in any future inquiry on Bolshevik continuity with Marx and Engels)[4].

Marx and Engels on Russia

Six years after the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), or First International, was launched in 1864 in London, Marx, who quickly emerged as its leading figure, was asked by Russian youth in exile to be their representative on the governing body, the General Council — the commencement of Marx’s formal ties to the Russian revolutionary movement. He thought the request ironic given his prior deprecation of Russia. But Marx took the request seriously and enthusiastically, and until his death in 1883 and that of his partner Engels 12 years later they both prioritized developments in Russia.

The combination of a peasant uprising in Polish Russia in 1863 and Marx’s expectation that it would spark a similar outbreak among their Russian counterparts — “emancipated” by the Czar in 1861 — signaled for him that the “lava will flow East to West.” The revolutionary process, in other words, would begin in Russia’s empire and move westward. Such a conclusion challenges the standard marxological — what Lih might call “textbook” — reading of the two revolutionaries, that is, that they intended their perspective only for the advanced capitalist world of Western Europe. A close and political reading of the two disputes such a claim. The fate of the revolutionary process in Western Europe, “this little corner of the earth,” as Marx sarcastically referred to it in 1857, depended on developments elsewhere in the world — the actual theater of operations for Marx and Engels.

Marx’s growing renown, owing to his leadership in the IWMA, in combination with the attention that came with the publication of Capital in 1867, is what led the Russian exiles to him. They wanted Marx to represent them, as they explained in their letter, “because the practical character of the movement was so similar in Germany and Russia [and] the writings of Marx were so generally known and appreciated by the Russian youth” (General Council, 1974, 220). So attractive was his book that some of them took the initiative to have it published in 1872 in Russian, the first non-German version. Eight years later Marx commented that it was in Russia “where Capital is more widely read and acclaimed than anywhere else” (MECW, 46, 45). All of this is noteworthy since it again contradicts the standard version about the supposed non-applicability of his ideas to less developed societies. Radicalizing Russians evidently disagreed.

While doing research for Capital Marx became quite interested in developments in Russia, particularly the peasantry, which spurred him in early 1870 to learn Russian. As Jenny, his wife, described it, “he has begun studying Russian as if it were a matter of life and death.” The political economy writings of two Russians, both Narodnik socialists, impacted him. One of them, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, published, by the way, his most popular book in 1863, a socialist and feminist novel whose title would be the very one Lenin would use for WITBD. After reading The Condition of the Working Class in Russia by N. Flerovsky (pseudonym of Vasily Bervi), the other author, a work that Marx described to Engels as “the most important book published since your work on the Condition of the Working Class” (MECW, 43, 424), Marx stated:

One feels deeply convinced that a most terrible social revolution ... is irrepressible in Russian and near at hand. This is good news. Russia and England are the two great pillars of the present European system. All the rest is of secondary importance, even la belle France et la savante Allemagne. (MECW, 43, 450.)

Five years later, Engels accurately foresaw — although the time frame was clearly longer than he expected — that the social revolution in Russia would “have inevitable repercussions on Germany” (MECW, 45, 103)[5]. From this point to the very end of their lives both Marx and Engels gave priority to developments in Russia over any other country, a fact virtually ignored not only by the marxologists but by their partisans as well.

The working-class uprising in Paris in March 1871 first brought Marx and Engels into direct political collaboration with young Russian revolutionaries, specifically, Elisaveta Dmitriyeva Tomanovskaya, whom the Marx family had befriended the previous summer. Marx’s need for accurate information about the Commune is one of the reasons she went to Paris where she organized the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris as a branch of the IWMA and eventually emerged as one of the Commune’s leaders. Through her Marx was able to provide strategic and practical advice to the Communards — such as the urgent need to form an alliance with the peasantry in the provinces. A year after the Commune, Engels said of the Russian youth like Tomanovskaya and others with whom they worked: “As far as talent and character are concerned, some of these are absolutely among the very best in our party.” And in anticipation of a Lenin: “They have a stoicism, a strength of character and at the same time a grasp of theory which are truly admirable” (MECW, 44, 396).

What Russian youth sought from Marx concerned the prospects for capitalist development in Russia. More specifically, would Russia be able to carry out socialist transformation on the basis of the still intact communal property in the countryside or would it have to go through a prolonged phase of capitalism before doing so? Because Marx recognized that Russia was a work in progress he was reluctant to make a categorical judgment. He drafted a number of replies that were never mailed but which revealed the extensive reading he was doing on the question. In a letter in 1881 to Vera Zasulich, one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor Group, the first Russian Marxist party, he said that for communal property to be the basis for socialist transformation, “it would first be necessary to eliminate the deleterious influences which are assailing it from all sides.” In other words, as one of the drafts of his letter put it, “to save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed” (MECW, 24, 359).

Engels was more categorical when in 1875 at Marx’s urging he polemicized with Peter Tkachev, a Russian Blanquist-Narodnik. Rejecting the Narodnik view that the Russian peasant was “instinctively revolutionary,” he warned against “a premature attempt at insurrection” — the Blanquist tendency — since “Russia undoubtedly is on the eve of a revolution.” Engels accurately anticipated how it would unfold, not when he expected but three decades later.

A growing recognition among the enlightened strata of the nation concentrated in the capital that ... a revolution is impending, and the illusion that it will be possible to guide this revolution along a smooth constitutional channel. Here all the conditions of a revolution are combined, of a revolution that, started by the upper classes of the capital, perhaps even by the government itself, must be rapidly carried further, beyond the first constitutional phase, by the peasants, of a revolution that will be of the greatest importance for the whole of Europe. (MECW, 24, 50.)

Two years later when the Russo-Turkish War broke out, both Marx and Engels thought it would precipitate the revolution. It was indeed a conflagration, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, that opened up the process that culminated in 1917.

In his polemic with Tkachev, Engels wrote that given Russia’s reality a revolution that began with a conspiracy was certainly justifiable. Never at any time “in my political career [have I] declared that conspiracies were to be universally condemned in all circumstances” (MECW, 24, 37)[6]. Later, both he and Marx praised Russian revolutionaries like Vera Zasulich who either carried out or attempted individual acts of terror against Russian rulers. When members of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881, Marx told daughter Jenny that they were “sterling chaps through and through, without melodramatic posturing, simple, matter-of-fact, heroic.... [They] are at pains to teach Europe that their modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable mode of action which no more lends itself to moralizing — for or against — than does the earthquake in Chios [Greece, 1881]” (MECW, 46, 83). For Engels, they were “our people” whose actions had helped to create a “revolutionary situation” in Russia (MECW, 46, 208). As Marx’s comment suggests, neither he nor Engels praised terrorism as a tactic suitable for all places at all times. But in the specific conditions in Russia it was justifiable.

Both also held that the social revolution in Russia would spread westward, leading to “radical change throughout Europe’ (MECW, 45, 296). In fact, the “overthrow of Tsarist Russia ... is ... one of the first conditions of the German proletariat’s ultimate triumph” (MECW, 24, 103). To a German comrade in 1882, Engels advised that the formation of the next international should only be done when the moment was right:

Such events are already taking shape in Russia where the avant-garde of the revolution will be going into battle. You should — or so we think — wait for this and its inevitable repercussions on Germany, and then the moment will also have come for a big manifesto and the establishment of an official, formal International, which can, however, no longer be a propaganda association but simply an association for action. (MECW, 46, 198.)

This was most prophetic since it was indeed the Russian Revolution in 1917 that gave birth within two years to the Communist or Third International, which proudly proclaimed its adherence to the Marx program.

In 1882 Marx and Engels publicized for the first time their view of Russia’s unique role. In the “Preface” to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, they wrote: “Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.” As for the future of the peasant commune in Russia they provided their clearest answer yet: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development” (MECW, 24, 426) . To the end of his life, only 15 months away, Marx continued to devote his attention to the peasant question in Russia — the very topic with which Lenin would begin his revolutionary studies.

The Russian front, more than any other, is what fueled Marx’s revolutionary spirit, his core, to the very end. Three months before his death he shared with his daughter Laura his joy about the popularity of his ideas in Russia: “Nowhere my success is to me more delightful; it gives me the satisfaction that I damage a power, which besides England, is the true bulwark of the old society” (MECW, 46, 399). Upon hearing of Marx’s death students in St. Petersburg took up a collection which they sent to Engels to have a wreath placed on his grave — a small but not insignificant sign that his joy about Russia was not unwarranted.

Having outlived Marx by 12 years, Engels could concretize more the program and politics he shared with his late comrade on the Russian question. He had close contact with the exiles, especially Zasulich, and to a lesser extent Georgi Plekhanov, and was able to distinguish clearly between the different generations. If Engels, like Marx, had once been open to the Narodnik perspective, that was no longer the case, at least by if not before 1895, a few months before his death (MECW, 50, 450). While he followed exile politics and its internal debates, he consciously declined requests to intervene, given his broader party commitments. On one occasion, however, he provided advice to Zasulich, which anticipated in many ways Lenin and WITBD, specifically the need for open debate within the Russian movement. “To inveigle his adversaries out into the open, into the light of day, and to attack them in full view of the public, was one of Marx’s most powerful and most frequently used ploys when confronted with clandestine intrigue” (MECW, 48, 484).

On the programmatic question of the future of the rural commune, Engels made his final judgment in 1894. Russia’s recent development, as he and Marx had suspected, was decidedly capitalist, and the “proletarianization of a large proportion of the peasantry and the decay of the old communistic commune proceeds at an ever quickening pace.” Whether enough of the traditional communes remained for a “point of departure for communistic development,” Engels could not say.

But this much is certain: if a remnant of this commune is to be preserved, the first condition is the fall of tsarist despotism — revolution in Russia. This will not only tear the great mass of the nation, the peasants, away from the isolation of their villages ... and lead them out onto the great stage ... it will also give the labor movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism. (MECW, 27, 433.)

Thus, in no uncertain terms, and contrary to all of the future Stalinist distortions of Marx’s and Engels’ views, Russia could “never achieve a socialist transformation” without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe by its own proletariat. Russia, furthermore, would not only be the “impetus” for the socialist revolution in the West, as Marx and Engels had been saying for two decades, but its own revolution was inextricably linked to that outcome. This forecast would be profoundly and tragically confirmed by subsequent history.

Missing in Engels’ scenario is Russia’s proletariat. This is because it would not be until a year after his death that the upheaval that launched the political career of Lenin and his generation occurred, the great textile workers’ strike in St. Petersburg of 1896, the first mass industrial strike in Russia. Had he lived long enough, Engels no doubt would have incorporated the worker-peasant alliance into his equation, just as he and his partner had done for other settings such as Germany and France[7]. It would fall to Lenin, drawing on that rich heritage, to make the programmatic adjustment.

This brief overview reveals in no uncertain terms that Marx and Engels, contrary, again, to the standard story, were as politically and programmatically at home in the “eastern borders of European civilization” as they were in its center. Because their arithmetic, not their algebra, was incorrect about the timing of the social revolution in Russia they would have only been surprised that it did not come sooner.

What the Young Lenin Knew about Marx and Engels...

Among the developments in Russia that Engels paid attention to was the devastating drought and famine that wreaked havoc on the country in 1891–92. Although he could not have known the particulars about how it would unfold, Engels correctly recognized that there would likely be political repercussions (MECW, 49, 375). According to Leon Trotsky, whose The Young Lenin remains arguably the best source on Lenin’s pre-St. Petersburg years, the drought and famine were decisive in his political trajectory. Witnessing the crisis with his own eyes, it steeled him in his belief that only a radical reordering of Russian society could prevent the kind of social devastation that came in the wake of an apparent natural phenomenon — exactly what Engels had also concluded (Trotsky, 1972, esp. ch. 13).

Of vital importance in understanding how and what the young Lenin knew about Marx and Engels were his extraordinary language skills — long in place before the 1891–92 famine. Mainly at the encouragement of his mother, of German origin, he and his siblings were fluent readers from a fairly early age of not only German but also French and English. His German skills made it possible for him to read Das Kapital at age 18, in 1888.

It was in Samara, in the Volga region and severely impacted by the famine, where he moved in 1889, that Lenin qualitatively deepened his understanding of Marx’s politics and analysis. A year later, he translated the Manifesto into Russian for use by a study circle there that he had contact with (LCW, 1, 540). The translation process, as anyone who has engaged in it knows, requires a degree of comprehension of a text much more advanced than for mere reading. During and immediately after the famine he immersed himself in the study of volumes I and II of Capital (Engels did not complete volume III until 1894[8]). In Trotsky’s opinion, “Marx has never had a better reader, one more penetrating or more grateful, nor a more attentive, congenial, or capable student.” The Samara period, owing to his intense study, specifically 1891–1892, is when, Trotsky argues, Lenin became a conscious Marxist for the first time. As to when he became familiar with Russian Social Democracy,

Lenin told [Karl] Radek on a walk they took together that he had studied not only Das Kapital but also Engels’ Anti-Dühring before he got hold of any publications of the Emancipation of Labor Group.... His acquaintance with the works of Plekhanov, without which one could not have arrived at Social Democratic positions, must have taken place in 1891.

In a party questionnaire in 1921 Lenin wrote that his revolutionary activities began in Samara in 1892–93.

It is instructive to note that Lenin, in 1904, said that prior to Marx and Engels, it was Chernyshevsky who “had a major, overpowering influence on me” (Pomper, 1990, 32–33). As already noted, Marx thought very highly of Chernyshevsky’s political economy writings, which like Capital owed a significant debt to Ludwig Feuerbach and the young Hegelians. Marx might have agreed, therefore, that reading Chernyshevsky would be a good place to begin for a young Russian wanting to understand his analysis[9].

It is one thing to read Capital and another to apply it. This is just what Lenin began doing at the end of his Samara period — 1889–1893 — that is, using Marx’s analysis to understand Russia’s reality, particularly the peasantry and the penetration of capitalist property relations in the countryside — exactly the question that occupied Marx at the end of his life. Employing Capital in his first analytical writing, Lenin reached essentially the same conclusion that Engels, as noted above, would a few months later in 1894: “the transformation of the country into a capitalist industrial nation ... proceeds at an ever quickening pace.” To reach similar conclusions — independently — testifies to how well Lenin had graduated from apprenticeship to full mastery of Marx’s method.

A close reading of Lenin’s early writings and correspondence, at least those compiled by the editors of his Collected Works, reveals the degree to which he was familiar with the writings of Marx and Engels. In addition to Capital, volumes I and II, the Manifesto, and Anti-Dühring, he either read, took notes on and/or cited Marx’s and Engels’ The Holy Family; Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, his correspondence with Arnold Ruge[10]; Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, The Housing Question, The Role of Force in History, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In his first trip to Western Europe from May to September 1895 he spent a considerable amount of time in libraries in Zurich, Geneva, Paris and Berlin which only deepened his knowledge of Marx’s and Engels’ writings[11]. Written shortly after his return, his article, “Frederick Engels,” testifies to this and, particularly, what they wrote about the course and tasks of the coming revolution in Russia[12]. By the time he wrote WITBD in 1902 Lenin was even more conversant with Marx and Engels; writings such as Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire would be added to his extensive list.

What is unexpected, if one subscribes to Lars Lih’s “Russian Erfurtian” thesis, is the paucity of references to Kautsky (as well as to Plekhanov). In what might be called Lenin’s manifesto, his opening salvo, What the ‘Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social Democrats, written in 1894 and about 200 pages — slightly longer than WITBD — he cites Kautsky only once in defense of Social Democracy against the Narodniks. Marx, on the other hand, is cited 41 times and Engels on 14 occasions. His trip to Western Europe — made shortly after writing “Friends of the People” — which no doubt allowed him to read many German party texts for the first time, did not significantly alter this ratio. In all of Lenin’s writings through WITBD, Kautsky is cited 42 times, while Marx is cited 151 and Engels 59 times. “Friends” previews the core arguments of WITBD and, in particular, the need for communists to fight for political democracy. It is the Manifesto, specifically Part Four, that is clearly the authority for Lenin’s argument, and without ever mentioning the German party he makes the case for employing the label Social Democracy — evidence for how thoroughly he had mastered Marx and Engels[13]. While Lenin had tremendous respect for Kautsky as an authority, he preferred to go directly to the sources of his authority — which gave him, I argue, the confidence for the eventual divorce[14].

...And What He Knew about the German Party

The evidence that Lih employs to make his case for Lenin as the “Russian Erfurtian” is accurate but it ignores other evidence that suggests that the future Bolshevik leader had a more realistic or sober view of German Social Democracy as he was writing WITBD.

Notably absent in Lih’s account is the reaction of the young Lenin to the all-important issue of Edward Bernstein and revisionism in the German party itself. When Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx began to get a hearing in Narodnik circles, Lenin responded as quickly as he could. In exile in Siberia he was eventually able to get ahold of Bernstein’s Problems of Socialism and denounced it for opportunism (LCW, 37, 278, 281). Although Kautsky’s first public attack on Bernstein, at the party’s Stuttgart meeting in September 1898, preceded Lenin’s critique by about a year, there is nothing to suggest that Lenin waited to hear what Kautsky or the leadership of the German party thought before launching his own attack. Lenin recognized that it was not enough to just critique the Russian echo — the sole focus of Lih — but rather the source of that echo. Again, his own thorough grasp of Marx, acquired independently of the German party, gave him the confidence to do so.

Most noteworthy about his critique is that Lenin reached conclusions similar to those that Engels had reached, at least by 1892, about Bernstein’s trajectory — a German version of the reformist British Fabianism (MECW, 49, 502–3; 50, 468). That Lenin and his wife Krupskaya had just translated Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The History of Trade Unionism, a major Fabian text, no doubt explains why he could see the parallels. But that he did so independently of Engels is evidence, once again, of his mastery of the Marx-Engels program. Also, that he took the initiative itself is testimony to his independence from the German party. The significance of the Bernstein issue is that it clearly signaled to Lenin that though the German party was the historie flagship for European Social Democracy it was not without its faults, at least in the person of one of its most respected leaders[15].

As he was writing WITBD Lenin had the opportunity to read a critique Engels wrote in 1891 of the German party, specifically, his criticisms of a draft of the Erfurt Program written by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Published for the first time by Kautsky in the German party’s theoretical organ which he edited, Die Neue Zeit, in the 1901–1902 issue, Lenin thought it of such importance that he sent it to Plekhanov, who was working on a programmatic statement for the newly founded Iskra organization, with this comment: “I think you will find it of some interest for your work, i.e., for drawing up the draft program” (LCW, 34, 87). Though the draft was in Engels’ opinion a marked improvement over the previous party program, known as the Gotha Program, it contained some important weaknesses in relation to the political demands. This reflected, in his view, the “opportunism which is gaining ground in a large section of the Social Democratic press.

Of utmost concern to Engels was the failure of the draft to make clear the central political demand of German Social Democracy, political democracy via an indivisible republican form of government. “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.“16 Not putting forth the democratic republican demand was in Engels’ view an attempt of the party’s leadership to try not to rile Germany’s “semi-absolutist political order.” And related to this tactic was the growing illusion of coming to power by legal means through elections — what would later be dubbed the Parliamentary Road to Socialism Thesis (PRST). The reality of Germany, he argued, “proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.” Such a tactic “may be ‘honestly’ meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!” (MECW, 27, 226–28) . Engels was also concerned that these issues had not been adequately discussed in the party, a point he harped on repeatedly in his critique.

If for legal purposes the demand for a democratic republic could not be explicitly stated in the program — more evidence for Engels about the “semi-absolutist” character of the regime — he offered an alternative formulation: “the concentration of all political power in the hands of the peoples representatives” (ibid., italics in original). In the final draft adopted at Erfurt, his suggestion appeared in the second of the ten demands as: “Authorities to be elected by the people; to be responsible and bound” (Steenson, 1991, 299). Engels, in general, felt that his intervention had been successful but continued to be sober about the party’s direction. When Bebel in 1894 complained “with reason that the party is going bourgeois,” he observed: that “is the misfortune of all extreme parties when the time approaches for them to become possible” (Engels and Lafargue, 1960, 344). He remained optimistic that there was still time to halt the slide toward reformism. In six months he would no longer be around to assist in that struggle.

The importance of the critique is that for the first time Lenin was able to learn of Engels’ misgivings about the direction of German Social Democracy, the opportunist tendencies that would later metastasize into a cancer[17]. Though Lih does not address this fact about his “Russian Erfurtian,” I argue that it, along with what he knew about Bernstein, gave Lenin a more sober and accurate reading of the German party[18]. The fact that Lenin witnessed this tendency with his own eyes — specifically, German Social Democracy’s leading daily, Vörwarts, maneuvering with Russian reformist tendencies — could only have reinforced his awareness of Engels’ concerns (for details, see Lih, 2006, 296–8). In the opening pages of WITBD, he suggested in fact that the German party’s response to opportunism à la Bernstein was less than resolute. And in a later chapter which calls for emulation of the German comrades he recognizes, without elaboration, the “weak aspects” of the party (LCW, 5, 439).

That it was Engels who chastised the party’s leadership for not being principled on the very question that Lenin himself was so insistent on, that is, the need for Social Democrats to fight for political democracy in near absolutist Russia, could only have added to his confidence in his reading of Marx and Engels vis-à-vis that of leading German Social Democrats. If the German party had once been his inspiration, as Lih claims, that was less the case after he read Engels’ critique. It is not coincidental that Lenin, shortly after reading and recommending it to Plekhanov, referred to the Communist Manifesto “the ‘Gospel’ of international Social-Democracy” (LCW, 5, 340). It was there, in Part Four, spelled out in unambiguous terms: the immediate task for communists to fight for political democracy in settings such as Germany and Russia. In other words, rather than look to any particular text from German Social Democracy, he now recommended the original source.

As already noted, of importance for Lih’s “Russian Erfurtian” thesis is Lenin’s translation in 1894 of Kautsky’s most popular work, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program). A comparison of Engels’ position on how the working class takes political power with the relevant section in Class Struggle, “The Political Struggle,” reveals a not-too-subtle difference. Whereas the emphasis in Kautsky is on the utilization of parliament, Engels sees the need to “smash” the state, to “burst this old shell by force.” Whether Kautsky intended it or not, it is easy to see why his very popular commentary served to make the PRST gospel for Social Democracy. Engels only had time — owing to the need to complete Volume IV of Capital — to read “the first 16 pages” of Kautsky’s manuscript. “I cannot give an opinion of the way the rest, the major part, is arranged” (MECW, 49, 367) . Thus, we don’t know, unfortunately, what he thought of Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Program. Subsequent history, however, would show that Lenin found Engels’ prescription for the working class taking state power — “what is to be done” — far more attractive than what Kautsky offered.

What Lenin probably did not know is that Engels’ critique was not the first time he and his partner had scolded the German party’s leadership for opportunism. In one of the most important texts in the Marx-Engels arsenal, which has come to be called The Circular Letter of 1879, the two excoriated the leadership for putting the edi- torial responsibilities of its newspaper Sozialdemokrat into the hands of three recent recruits to the party whose politics were antithetical to a revolutionary perspective. One of the three, in anticipation of his subsequent trajectory, was the young Edward Bernstein. Because Marx and Engels threatened to break with the German party over the composition of the editorial committee, the leadership, including Bernstein, traveled to London to meet with Marx and Engels to resolve their differences, to the mutual satisfaction of everyone[19]. Because The Circular was only made public in its entirety in 1931, when it was in the interest of Stalin to expose German Social Democracy’s reformist roots, it is unlikely that Lenin was familiar with it — at least not before writing WITBD. Neither is it likely that Lenin knew about Marx’s low opinion of Kautsky — “a mediocrity, narrow in outlook, overwise ... by nature a member of the philistine tribe” — from their first encounter in 1881 (MECW, 46, 82). Nothing in the two remain- ing years of Marx’s life suggests that he changed his opinion. Nor, probably, did Lenin know, that rather than Kautsky it was Bebel for whom Engels had the greatest respect in the German party[20]. Bebel’s working-class roots and political instincts were particularly attractive to Engels. “I never make up my mind about any point relating to German party tactics before having read Bebel’s views on the subject” (MECW, 48, 475). Marx and Engels both had a degree of skepticism about the intellectuals in the party of whom Kautsky was their leading light (for context see Pierson, 1993). Typical of an opinion that Engels had of his writing is a comment he made on a series of articles Kautsky wrote in 1889 on the French Revolution. Engels, ever the dialectician, admonished him: “Altogether you generalize far too much and this often makes you absolute where the utmost relativity is called for” (MECW, 48, 267).

Probably the main reason Lenin did not know about Marx’s and Engels’ real views on the German party leadership — again, certainly at the time of writing WITBD — is the conscious effort on its part to conceal much of what the two had written. Exactly because their letters were often unsparing in criticism, even Bebel, who almost singularly escaped their wrath, felt compelled to go along with this censure campaign in order to maintain good relations with pilloried comrades. The first publication in 1913 of what was advertised as their complete correspondence was in fact a massive bowdlerization project, largely at the hands of Bernstein’s editing, the first in the annals of the Marxist movement (see Morgan, 1965, Appendix III, for details).

Two years after the appearance of WITBD Lenin published his next major work, One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward, his account of the split in the Russian party that came in the wake of its second congress in 1903. He quickly discovered that the leadership of the German party, Kautsky in particular, sided with his opponents, the Mensheviks. It was Kautsky, editor of Neue Zeit, the German party’s theoretical journal, who published Rosa Luxemburg’s famous but very tendentious critique of Lenin’s defense of the Bolsheviks. He refused, however, to publish Lenin’s response. The diatribes of Trotsky, an opponent of Lenin at the time, were also welcomed in the pages of Kautsky ‘s journal.

If it wasn’t clear earlier, certainly by 1907 Lenin knew that a qualitative degeneration was under way in German Social Democracy. Nothing was more revealing for him than the party’s posture on the colonial question. At the Stuttgart congress of the Socialist International (the Second International) that year a majority of the party’s delegates, lead by Bernstein, supported a resolution — eventually overturned — that said: “The Congress does not in principle and for all time reject all colonial policy, which, under a socialist regime, may have a civilizing effect.” Lenin, like the majority of the delegates, mainly, as he noted, from countries without colonial possessions, denounced “socialist colonial policy.” In his widely distributed article on the congress as a whole, he wrote: “The remarkable and sad feature in this connection was that German Social-Democracy, which hitherto had always upheld the revolutionary standpoint in Marxism, proved to be unstable, or took an opportunist stand”[21].

The full break with the German party came with the “Guns of August” in 1914. The decision by its parliamentary delegation — as well as those of other Social Democratic parties in Europe — to vote to fund World War I, in clear violation of revolutionary Marxist norms and prior agreements, precipitated the divorce. To make sense of this, that is, what accounted for the war and why did the party that had once inspired him capitulate, Lenin decided to go back not to Marx and Engels but rather to their methodological origins. If he had once, in relation to Kautsky and the German party, been compelled to turn to the source of their ideas and program, Marx and Engels, for this critical question — how to explain the degeneration of German Social Democracy — Lenin devoted two years after the outbreak of the war to the study of the source of their method, that is, Hegel[22]. Both literary turns, when combined with the laboratory of the living revolution — what Germany lacked before 1917 — are crucial in understanding why Lenin could make original theoretical and programmatic contributions to Marx’s and Engels’ project, why he was and continues to be at its center.


A “return to Lenin” is, again, welcome news. But in so doing care must be taken to avoid two counterpoised errors — the attempt to divorce Lenin from Marx and Engels, as the editors of the Lenin Reloaded collection are wont to do, and the subordination of Lenin to German Social Democracy, as Lars Lih does. While making a convincing case that Lenin’s WITBD, at the time of its writing, was firmly situated in European Social Democracy, Lih bends the proverbial stick too far. What he ignores is the incipient debate within that current over the very definition of Social Democracy. Had he been, perhaps, a bit less insistent on making a case for his thesis he might have noticed how the young Lenin drew directly on the works of Marx and Engels in order to grasp their methodology and politics, and not on those of the German party’s interpreters of its two founders. Precisely because Lenin was so well rooted in their works, he was able to anticipate, learn about and confirm what they had seen — the increasingly reformist tendencies within the German party. Rather than wage a resolute fight for political democracy as Marx and Engels had advocated at the end of the Manifesto, Social Democrats in Germany were increasingly enticed by the siren song of possibility as Engels had once warned against. This tendency set the stage for the later and official split in Social Democracy.

In 1874 Engels wrote: “I think the next International — after Marx’s writings have been at work for some years — will be directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles” (MECW, 45, 42). Again, if Engels didn’t quite get the arithmetic correct, the algebra was nonetheless elegant. His forecast would be realized through the Russian revolution, an upheaval he and his partner confidently anticipated. And critical to the success of that overthrow was the one person about whom Trotsky so accurately wrote: “Marx has never had a better reader, one more penetrating or more grateful, nor a more attentive, congenial, or capable student.”


Anderson, Kevin. 1995. Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek, eds. 2007. Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Draper, Hal. 1986. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Volume III: The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986.

Engels, Frederick, and Laura and Paul Lafargue. 1960. Correspondence, Volume 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

General Council of the First International. 1974. Minutes, 1868–1870. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Harding, Neil. 1996. Leninism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. Iliffe, John. 2009. Tanganyika under German Rule, 1905–1912. London: Cambridge University Press.

Kautsky, Karl. 1971. The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program). New York: Norton. LCW.

Lenin, V. I. 1977. Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lih, Lars. 2006. Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context. Leiden, Amsterdam: Brill.

MECW. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. 1975 and afterwards. Collected Works. London: International Publishers.

Morgan, Roger. 1965. The German Social Democrats and the First International, 1864- 1872. London: Cambridge University Press.

Nimtz, August H. 2000. Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

______. 2002. “The Eurocentric Marx and Engels and Other Related Myths.” In Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies, eds. Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus. London: Cambridge University Press

Pierson, Stanley. 1993. Marxist Intellectuals and the Working-Class Mentality in Germany, 1887–1912. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Plekhanov, Georgi. 1974. Selected Philosophical Works. Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Pomper, Philip. 1990. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin: The Intelligentsia and Power. New York: Columbia University Press.

Steenson, Gary. 1991. After Marx, Before Lenin: Marxism and Socialist Working-Class Parties in Europe, 1884–1914. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Trotsky, Leon. 1972. The Young Lenin. New York: Doubleday.

Weber, Gerda and Hermann. 1980. Lenin: Life and Works. New York: Facts on File

[1] Lih’s thesis, therefore, challenges the externality thesis of the editors of the collection, a fact that he implicitly recognizes.

[2] For the English translation see Kautsky, 1971.

[3] There is one Leninologist or “textbook” writer on Lenin that Lih fails to note who does get it right about the continuity between Marx & Engels and Lenin: Neil Harding (1996). Harding’s problem is that he hates their politics. He is incapable, I contend, of being honest about what they stood for.

[4] One of the purposes of my Marx and Engels (2000) is to see to what extent the program and politics of Marx and Engels anticipated the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. For specifics see chapters nine and ten, and my article “The Eurocentric Marx and Engels and other Related Myths” (2002).

[5] I am referring, of course, to the revolutionary upheavals in Germany that followed in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

[6] Engels’ polemic with Tkachev anticipated Lenin’s critique of him and, more importantly, that of his later fellow traveler L. Nadezhdin in WITBD about the role of terror and conspiracy in Russia’s coming revolution. It is unlikely that Lenin had read Engels’ polemic; otherwise, he would have cited it to strengthen his case. Since Plekhanov mentioned it in Our Differences (1974), Lenin probably was aware of its existence. His 1915–1916 notebook for Imperialism (LCW, 39, 506) reveals that he read it some time later.

[7] On this under-appreciated dimension to Marx’s and Engels’ politics, see my Marx and Engels (Nimtz, 2000). Engels did foresee in 1891 that a successful peasant revolt in Russia depended on “successful insurrection in urban centers” where the “emergent proletariat” lived (MECW, 49, 243).

[8] Lenin anxiously tried to get a copy as soon as it was available (LCW, 37, 68) . Interestingly, the Russian Narodnik Nikolar Danielson, living in St. Petersburg, appears to have been the first party contact to receive from Engels the publisher’s galleys (MECW, 50, 280) — another indication of the importance that he and Marx lent to the Russian movement.

[9] Lih, 2006, 377–84, correctly disputes the frequent charge that Lenin never got over the Narodnik influence but misses an opportunity to show how Marx himself found Chernyshevsky attractive.

[10] Lenin’s early familiarity with the Marx-Ruge correspondence, 1842–1843, is of utmost significance. These letters, underappreciated until today, reveal the process by which Marx broke with the Young Hegelians, a necessary step on his road to communism. That Lenin was able to unearth them and see their significance speaks volumes about his prescience.

[11] While in Paris he “does some research on the Paris Commune” (Weber, 1980, 8).

[12] LCW, 2, 15–27. The final paragraphs clearly anticipate WITBD as regards the importance of political democracy.

[13] The masthead of the first issue of Iskra bears a striking similarity to that of Marx’s and Engels’ Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the paper they employed in the German Revolutions of 1848–1849. Its subtitle was “Organ of the Democracy.” Another core idea is the fusion between socialists/Marxists and the advanced ranks of the proletariat. Here too Lenin draws on Marx and Engels and not Kautsky or the experience of German Social Democracy, as Lih argues.

[14] The same argument can be made with regard to Plekhanov — cited just 41 times through WITBD — with whom Lenin too would soon break.

[15] Lenin recognizes, as indicated in his first footnote in WITBD, specifically, his reference to the “German Bernsteinians,” that Bernstein had a following in the party.

[17] This raises the question why Kautsky decided to publish Engels’ critique. Kautsky was still a staunch supporter of orthodoxy and no doubt saw the publication of Engels’ critique as ammunition against the right wing. Also, that he wasn’t an author of the draft made it certainly easier to make it public.

[18] I would also include Lenin’s break with Plekhanov that began, I argue, with that fateful and revealing meeting that Lenin had with him in Geneva in 1900; see “How the ‘Spark’ was Nearly Extinguished” (LCW, 4, 333–49). Breaking with this once esteemed hero prepared him to do the same when necessary with former heroes of German Social Democracy.

[19] For details on this row, see my Marx and Engels, 2000, 255–59.

[20] There were three issues that no doubt lowered Engels’ esteem for Kautsky toward the end of his life: one, Kautsky’s foot dragging on completing Volume IV of Capital, that is, Theories of Surplus Value, his shabby treatment of his former wife Louise; and, lastly, his failure to let Engels know that he was writing and editing a multi-volume history of socialism.

[21] See Lenin’s two articles on the congress for details (LCW, 13, 75–93). In his 1898 book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin noted the similarity between the Czar’s colonization of the “border regions” with what Germany was doing in Africa (LCW, 3, 258n). On Germany in Africa and German Social Democracy, see Iliffe, 1969, chapter 3 and passim.

[22] See Anderson, 1995, for the most detailed look in print so far at this question.