Karl Radek


A Letter to a Friend in Germany in February, 1919


You tell me that the Hamburg comrades are highly elated over the decision of our Communist Congress to boycott the elections to the National Assembly, and see in the contrary attitude of Luxemburg and Liebknecht a strange sign of opportunism. Alas! things are not so simple. The question cannot be decided by such a simple attitude as this: “We have taken our stand on the dictatorship of the Soviets, and therefore, must boycott the National Assembly, as the Bolsheviks have suppressed theirs.” Before I discuss the subject proper, I want first to tell you this. When in October last our Austrian comrades, on the receipt of the first news of the outbreak of the revolution, were hurrying back to Austria, I had a talk with the leading comrades among the Austrian war prisoners, by instructions from the Central Committee of the Soviets. We unanimously came to the conclusion that the question of taking or not taking part in the elections to the National Assembly of this or that country, must depend on the degree of the development of the revolution among the Hungarians, or German-Austrians, or Czechs, or Jugo-Slavs, and so forth, at the moment when the question would have to be decided. I think you have had ample opportunity to see that neither I, nor Bela Kun, nor Muna, nor Toman are addicted to opportunism. Moreover, as I know that you have particular confidence in Lenin, I can tell you that when I informed him of the results of this discussion, he not only completely agreed with me, but asked me, in addition, to impress upon every comrade returning to Austria, that one must not at the beginning of a revolution pursue a policy which the Bolsheviks only took up after their victory.

One must not, on the strength of the fact that a small portion of the revolutionary masses, has, through experience, or insight, or instinct, become ripe for such a policy, assume that the masses as a whole are also ripe for it. To finish with the personal aspect of the question, I once discussed the problem in all its aspects with Liebknecht, and he, laughed and said: “Do you know, I get up every day as an opponent of participation in elections, and I got to bed as an advocate of it?” You will certainly not regard Liebknecht on that account as a weathercock, but will perceive that the problem is not so simple.

Anarchist-Syndicalist Balderdash

What are the real facts of the case? Bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism were the means to arouse, collect and organise the masses, and to obtain reforms which improved the condition of the masses, and gave them an opportunity of thinking of something else besides their daily bread. The Anarchists and Syndicalists argue that we were mistaken, and that they were right, and point to the collapse of the Second International as the result of parliamentary demoralisation. This is not so, as proved by e simple fact that the Syndicalists and Anarchists, like Jouhaux, Cornelissen, Kropotkin, have collapsed as fully as Scheidermann and Legien. The International did not collapse because parliamentary cretinism had gained in it the upper hand, but parliamentary cretinism had gained in it the upper hand for the same reasons for which it collapsed, namely, because in the “peaceful” period following 1890, the working class was not revolutionary, did not carry on (and did not want to carry on) any revolutionary struggles, and therefore, had no strength to avert the war. Parliamentary opportunism was the result of this peaceful era, when the workers hoped to be able to manage with mere reforms;—which circumstance, however, does not mean that opportunism did not strengthen this reformist infatuation, and thereby rendered the collapse still more ghastly. It is only due to the influence of Anarchist and Syndicalist balderdash that many, especially among the younger comrades, assume that we have become enemies of parliamentarism out of sheer disappointment and have, for this, reason specially “invented” the Soviet system.

Wherein Parliamentarism Is Necessary and Wherein it Fails

You will, perhaps, remember how in March of last year, at the German party school in Petrograd, I pointed out to you and your colleagues, in the report about the Party Congress, that Lenin had introduced in the resolution on the situation a passage which left to the Bolsheviks a loop-hole for the use of Parliament. I at that time put to you, students of the party school, the question, why had Lenin done so, although the Bolsheviks had only a short time previously dissolved the National Assembly. You looked puzzled at the time, and I then explained: Although in the first months of the revolution the Bolsheviks formed but a minority in the working-class, they nevertheless agitated in favour of all power being transferred to the Soviets. At the same time, however, they demanded the summoning of the National Assembly. Kautsky thinks that the Bolsheviks hoped in those days to obtain a majority in the National Assembly. This is certainly nonsense. It is just because they looked forward in the distant future to the conquest of power, which was only possible in the form of Soviets, that they advocated the National Assembly in order to use its platform and the party struggle within it as a means of arousing the masses and of gaining their adhesion to the idea, of Dictatorship. When the Bolsheviks conquered political power—sooner than they expected—they could not accommodate themselves within the framework of the National Assembly, and would not have been able to do so even if they had a majority there, which, however, was not the case, although, as you know, they had behind them the majority of the peasants, who expected from them land. The Bolsheviks dissolved the. National Assembly, not merely because of its composition, which, owing to the defective Bolshevik organisation in the villages and to the erroneous identification of the Left Social-Revolutionaries, the allies of the Bolsheviks, with the Right Social-Revolutionaries, their opponents—that is, owing to the peasant lack of intelligence—was in contradiction with the real aspirations of the popular masses. If that had been the only issue, the Bolsheviks could have ordered new elections. The real reason was that we saw that parliamentarism cannot be the instrument of Socialist construction. The building up of Socialism needs the co-operation of the workers in the factories with the technical staff, the co-operation of manual and brain workers in the Soviets for various concrete objects. A parliament of representatives of various warring classes cannot possibly be the crown and the synthesis of all of the Soviets: it must be a body representing the very class which is building up Socialism, that is, the proletariat, and the organisations which are building it up, that is, the workers’ Soviets. We rejected parliamentarism, not because we were disappointed, but because it was useless for the object to which a victorious working-class must devote itself, that is for Socialist construction. Parliamentarism was a necessity so long as it was necessary to arouse and to gather the workers. It becomes useless when the next task is to build up a Socialist economic order. But should the working-class be defeated for a length of time, and should we, therefore, again be confronted with the task of gathering it together, we should again make use of Parliament the more energetically, the more our organisations and our press were subjected to persecutions. And it is just because Lenin, in March, 1918, after the great defeat in the domain of foreign politics, at Brest, was reckoning with the possibility of a temporary triumph of the enemies that he pointed out to the comrades that it would be necessary, should the parliamentary method be left open to us, to make use of it in order to emerge from “underground.” I remember how you, German and Austrian students of the party school, were impressed by this foresight and elasticity of Lenin when I showed you by this example, how dialectical the tactics of the Communists must be.

A Process of Development

But the wine of the young German revolution has now gone into your heads, and the heads of all our adherents. You thought in December that you could in a short time overthrow all obstacles. For this reason you were in favour of boycott. Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Levi reckoned with the probability or at least with the possibility of a slower development, and therefore advocated participation in the national election. They wanted to make use of the tribune of the National Assembly in the interests of our agitation. When I came to Berlin, before the Party Congress, I was in perfect accord with them. Only after I became acquainted with the prevalent temper, in the organisations I realised that, in spite of their being in the right, they would not be able to obtain the upper hand. The party was only just being born, and its members having come together for the first time felt the need of drawing a sharp line of demarcation between themselves and the rest of the world. They carried the day. The leaders of the Communist party had known that they would not win, and understood very well the revolutionary reason in favour of the boycott; yet they stood up one after the other publicly in favour of participation in the elections. Why did they do so? Because they said to themselves: should the development not proceed at a very quick pace, should it not sweep aside the National Assembly, it would perhaps he found necessary to take part in the municipal elections, or in the elections of the Assemblies of the Federal States, or for the next Reichstag. At this moment when I am penning the letter we do not, of course, know yet how rapidly the revolution will develop. As I often wrote in the Russian press, and as I pointed out to you in my letter, I am convinced that in western Europe, owing to the strength of the organisation of the bourgeoisie, and the absence of the revolutionary ally of the proletariat such as the peasantry was in Russia, the development of the revolution will proceed slowly. In these circumstances it would be perfect nonsense to throw away the possibility of using even the slightest instrument for purposes of Communist organisation and agitation.