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Assessing revolutionary social democracy: A response to Duncan Hart

July 13, 2017

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1917 helsinki general strike-3

Helsinki general strike 1917

By Eric Blanc. First of all, I would like to thank Comrade Duncan Hart for his contribution “Lessons from Finland: Reply to Eric Blanc.” While I do not share its analysis, I agree that a serious discussion about the Finnish Revolution is useful for Marxists today. Though some of Hart’s criticisms of the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) are well founded, I will argue below that his text fundamentally mischaracterizes the political stance of the SDP and its revolutionary social democratic leaders.

As such, Hart’s article does not help us come to a clearer analysis of Finnish (and German) “orthodox” Marxism, Finland’s 1917-18 revolution, or the lessons we can learn from this history. My forthcoming book goes into these questions in detail; here, a few comments will have to suffice.

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Contrary to what Hart implies, I never argued that the SDP leadership’s approach – or Karl Kautsky’s political strategy – should be “emulated” today. In fact, my “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 Revolution” (first published in Jacobin) consciously and explicitly highlighted not only the important strengths but also real limitations of revolutionary social democracy, namely an underestimation of mass action, a tendency to bend to moderate socialists, and an over-focus on the parliamentary arena.

In my view, there is no contradiction between making a balanced and nuanced assessment of “orthodox” Second International Marxism and upholding the best political traditions of Bolshevism. My hope is that once comrades like Hart and others move past the prevailing myths and critically examine the actual stance of early revolutionary social democracy they will see that the differences between this strategy and that of Lenin, Trotsky, and the pre-Stalinist Communist International are far less than they initially assumed.

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Comrade Hart’s piece makes various unfounded assertions about the politics of the Finnish revolutionary social democrats (whom he somewhat misleading labels the party “Centre”) and their political strategy. At no point does he present us with any actual citations from the writings or speeches of SDP leaders during the revolution. Instead, as Hart himself stresses, he reiterates the analysis of a short August 1918 polemic by Otto Kuusinen, the former leader of the SDP “orthodox” Left who went on to become a founder of Finnish Communism.

Though some important insights can be gleaned from Kussinen’s 1918 piece, it is critical to keep in mind that this was a one-sided polemic published to win cadre to a new Communist Party. Moreover, it was written at a moment when Kuusinen adhered to Left Communism (which he mistakenly equated with Bolshevism). In August 1918, Kuusinen rejected parliamentary activity, trade union work, immediate and democratic demands, and tactical compromises – instead, he insisted that all Marxist work must be concentrated on armed struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Concerning the founding program of the Finnish Communist Party – also written by Kuusinen in August 1918 – historian Anthony Upton notes that the “Marxist observer will also perceive that this document is riddled with what Lenin later defined as ‘left-infantilism’.” Upton explains that the Finnish Communist Party later acknowledged that “it was a mistake to have condemned democracy in those terms and to have rejected all forms of non-revolutionary activity; it accounts for the error as an overreaction to the experience of defeat and the still very imperfect understanding by the members of Bolshevik ideology.”[1] As such, there is no need for socialists today to base their critique of Finland’s revolution on Kuusinen’s ultra-left August 1918 polemic.

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Neither Hart nor Kuusinen cite any primary documents to substantiate their assertions that the SDP Left advocated a reformist, fatalistic, gradualist strategy of socialist transformation. This is not surprising since the historical record does not support such claims. Early “orthodox” Marxism’s stance on the state was far more radical – and closer in letter and spirit to Lenin’s State and Revolution – than has usually been assumed. In an October 2016 article written for John Riddell’s blog, I demonstrated in detail the actual stances on the state and revolution shared by the Finnish revolutionary SDs and the early Karl Kautsky, i.e., prior to his steady turn to the right from 1910 onwards. (For space reasons, I wasn’t able in “Lessons from Finland” to delve into the critical distinction between Kautsky’s politics before and after 1910, but it must be underscored that it was the early revolutionary “orthodoxy” rather than later moderate approach that the SDP Left defended.)

Rather than reiterate the points made in my previous article, I will limit myself here to pointing out some of the more significant factual errors made by Comrade Hart. Following Kuusinen, Hart asserts that the SDP advocated purely peaceful tactics and opposed the axiom “through peaceful means if possible, but violent means if necessary.” In fact, the latter stance was literally the SDP Left’s explicit and longstanding position. Of many such quotations, consider the following case made by the mainstream SDP newspaper Kansan Lehti on November 11, 1917: “The conscious social-democratic workers have never admired violent occurrences. For us, civil war is particularly terrible. But social democracy cannot forbid its members from armed activity when things can no longer be solved otherwise.”[2]

That the SDP was not committed to purely peaceful means was made obvious not only by its push for armed insurrection in January 1918, but also by its earlier successful initiative in October 1917 to establish a national organization of Red Guards. Citing the radicalism of the Red Guards, Hart fails to mention that these bodies were affiliated to the SDP and the unions, were primarily composed of party members and cadre, and (despite some real ongoing organizational and political differences with the Guards) were actively defended by the top SDP “orthodox” leaders against the SDP Right and the Finnish bourgeoisie.

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Comrade Hart asserts that “the SDP was hostile to revolution.” In actuality, Left SDP leaders throughout 1917-18 argued that a revolution in Finland would become an immediate possibility and necessity once peaceful, parliamentary means were no longer suitable. Even SDP leader Oskar Tokoi (who belonged to the wavering Centre of the party, rather than its “orthodox” Left) declared in a mid-October speech that workers have “other means of power besides the ballot to bring home their claims. It was necessary to stand firm, and fight for the victory of the revolution when the right moment had come.”[3]

One of the reasons that the SDP was particularly focused on parliamentary work for much of 1917 was that the February Revolution had completely destroyed any bourgeois armed apparatus for the Finnish elite. Because of this rather exceptional context, combined with the SDP’s parliamentary majority, it seemed that it might be possible to utilize the legitimacy and power of the existing parliament to push through burning economic and democratic reforms.

Thus while the SDP leadership was practically oriented to parliament, it simultaneously from February 1917 onwards fought hard against all attempts by Finland’s upper class to rearm itself. Kuusinen himself noted this exceptional dynamic in his 1918 piece: “At this moment the path of parliamentary democracy seemed cleared to an extraordinary extent, and wide vistas opened themselves out before our working-class movement.”[4]  It was precisely to escape this dangerous situation that the Finnish bourgeoisie successfully convinced the Russian Provisional Government in the summer to dissolve Finland’s democratically-elected parliament, with the support of the moderate socialists in Russia.

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Comrade Hart asserts that the SDP adhered to a “passive and fatalistic attitude to pushing forward the class struggle.” But in fact political fatalism was explicitly rejected by the SDP leadership and Kautsky alike. The Finnish Social Democracy adhered to the “tried and tested” strategy of Marxist “orthodoxy” in which the party would accumulate strength for the final battle primarily by spreading the socialist message and building proletarian organizations. As I noted in my “Lessons from Finland,” this strategy problematically entailed prioritizing education and organization more than mass action. But it was hardly a “passive” approach.

Moreover, the Finnish SDP – unlike the bureaucratized German Social Democracy – did initiate and support mass actions at critical junctures throughout 1917-18. In addition to building various mass demonstrations, SDP leaders called the November general strike that brought workers to the edge of conquering power. The strike call declared that it was necessary for workers to take “the mass action route” to win their demands.[5] As Rosa Luxemburg had justifiably argued since 1905, a socialist party’s approach to mass strikes was a critical test of its revolutionary credentials. I don’t see how one can plausibly square the fact that the SDP launched a general strike in November and an armed uprising in January 1918 (discussed below), with claims about the party’s purported fatalism.

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The one major piece of solid evidence Hart puts forward to substantiate his critique is that the SDP didn’t take power in November 1917. I also highlighted in my article that this was a missed opportunity. But, as always, a sense of context and critical balance is necessary. Since my “Lessons from Finland”and Hart’s contribution both make a case for why November was most likely the best moment for revolution, here it is more useful to lay out a few of the reasons that the SDP Left did not attempt to seize power during the general strike.[6]

The degree to which the hesitancy of the SDP “orthodox” leaders in November was rooted in their strategic conceptions is difficult to gauge precisely. The SDP Left’s focus on parliament, and its relative lack of mass action traditions, certainly contributed to a tendency to stick with the parliamentary arena at a moment when this was arguably already politically anachronistic. But there were other key contextual and conjunctural factors that weighed just as heavy.

Much of the hesitancy of Kuusinen’s Left wing of the party leadership reflected a desire to prevent a potentially debilitating party split. Contrary to Hart’s assertions, the revolutionary social democrats did not have a decisive majority in the party leadership. Between the orthodox Left and the intransigent Right minority, there was a broad and wavering Centre. In late October and early November Kuusinen had raised the possibility of seizing power, but he temporarily backed down in the face of the strident opposition of more than half the top party leadership to this call. Given that fact, Kuusinen felt during the November general strike that it was premature to attempt to seize power, since this would certainly result in a party split. In his view, such an organizational rupture would be potentially fatal for the proletarian uprising, leading the most radicalized wing of workers to confront the bourgeoisie without the backing of the rest of the organized workers’ movement.

For the most part I think that Kuusinen’s tendency to politically compromise with moderate socialists to preserve organizational unity was a mistake. That said, it must be acknowledged that a split down the middle of the SDP at a moment of insurrection may indeed have prevented Finnish workers from seizing and/or holding onto power. We’ll never know. And though it is far from evident that the benefits of preventing a party rupture outweighed the costs of delaying the revolution, the plausibility of the SDP Left’s approach was nevertheless manifest over the two months following the general strike. In a rapidly polarizing political context, Kuusinen’s wing had by late January 1918 isolated the SDP Right, won over the Centre, and cemented an alliance with Red Guards. In so doing, the “orthodox” Left was able to win the party and the unions as a whole to fight for power.

Furthermore, it is important to highlight that many of the SDP Centre and Left’s hesitations in November were rooted in real-world uncertainties about the rapidly evolving political situation. An analogous debate, it merits mention, wracked the Bolsheviks in the fall of 1917 in Petrograd. Bolsheviks had at various moments in 1917 sought to prevent what they considered to be a premature seizure of power. And in many parts of the empire the Bolsheviks did not attempt to take revolutionary action in October given what they saw as the still-unripe conditions on the ground – in Baku, for instance, the party waited until March 1918 to take power. Ideology, in this sense, was necessarily only one factor in determining Marxist practices at any given moment. No matter how revolutionary one’s politics, wagering on the most opportune moment for insurrection was an extremely challenging task.

Apart from the aforementioned issues of party unity, of the questions that weighed on the minds of all Finnish party cadre seriously considering the prospects of revolution, the following were most prominent: How would the stationed Russian soldiers react to a Finnish workers’ uprising? Did Finland’s working people have enough weapons to take power and hold on to it? If Finland went down the revolutionary road, would the German government intervene or invade? Could the new Soviet government in Petrograd last more than a few days or weeks? And would it be able to provide armed support for Finnish workers? Of course, the responses SDP leaders gave to these questions were shaped by their particular political perspectives. Yet the difficulty of reading – and wagering on – the concrete empirical situation was certainly no less important. The bloody course of Finland’s Civil War would demonstrate that many of the these questions concerned very real social and political challenges that were not so easily overcome.

Though I agree that (in hindsight) November 1917 was the most favorable moment for insurrection in Finland, Hart exaggerates the extent to which this was the case. Some points to keep in mind: In both November and later months, the overwhelming bulk of Russian soldiers were opposed to directly participating in Finland’s revolution; their presence one way or the other wasn’t ever a decisive factor. Similarly, the first major military defeat of the Finnish Reds (the March 1918 “Battle of Tampere”), a critical turning point in the Civil War, came before Germany’s invasion in April 1918.

It is an exaggeration to claim that “the bourgeoisie was entirely on the defensive” in November 1917– the general strike itself was initiated largely in response to the Finnish bourgeoisie’s deepening activities to build up a new military apparatus. By January 1918, the upper class no doubt had more time to cohere its armed forces, but so did the workers (whose Red Guards in November were rather poorly organized). Unlike in November, the party and mass workers’ organizations in January 1918 were overwhelmingly in favor of revolution. In the interim, however, the workers certainly lost some significant forward momentum and the bourgeoisie gained some (as well as more arms and organizational cohesion).

On the whole, while November was likely the most favorable moment for revolution, this shouldn’t be overstated. In any case, such political developments are far clearer from today’s vantage point than they were at that moment. There was no way of knowing during the November general strike whether a more favorable moment for taking power might subsequently present itself.

That the Reds lost in Finland’s Civil War does not as such constitute “a searing indictment” of the Finnish “orthodox” social democrats or revolutionary social democracy generally. By this criteria, we should also condemn Bolshevism, since its 1917-18 governments in Latvia, Estonia, and Baku were similarly defeated. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks as a whole were eventually vanquished by the Stalinist counter-revolution. Adhering to revolutionary politics, unfortunately, does not automatically guarantee political victory.

– 8 –

A final point: it is inaccurate for Comrade Hart to assert that the supposedly non-revolutionary SDP was “propelled” by circumstances into making a revolution for “self-preservation.” The “unique situation” of the SDP’s “lack of inclusion in the institutions of the state” was not an accident of history, but the direct result of years of “orthodox” Marxist class intransigence against the corporatist project of Finnish nationalism. In 1917, this took the form of specific revolutionary initiatives: in the Summer of 1917 the SDP Left set into motion the break-up of the Finnish Popular Front government by taking the revolutionary step of unilaterally declaring Finland to be sovereign against the Russian regime. In the wake of this clash (and the subsequent Finnish-Russian dissolution of parliament), the SDP ordered its Right and Centre ministers to leave the Finnish government; soon after, the SDP and its associated labor unions began building up Red Guards to counter the bourgeois offensive. Without these actions, the situation in late 1917 would have been entirely different.

And throughout the Fall of 1917 and early 1918 there were still numerous opportunities for the SDP leadership to reverse course and pull back from revolution. “Self-preservation” along these lines is precisely what the SDP Right stridently demanded of the party from November onwards: condemn Red Guard violence/anarchy, and reestablish a socialist-liberal bloc, so as to prevent an anti-capitalist rupture. The Finnish revolutionary SDs, not without some significant wavering along the way, consciously rejected this stance and instead fought a difficult factional battle in December and January to isolate the SDP’s moderate parliamentarist wing, make an alliance with the Red Guard radicals (whom they successfully incorporated into the top party leadership in January), and seize power. Nothing was inevitable about this outcome.

Though there is no need to place an equal sign between the two revolutions and their political leaderships, the fact remains that the October Revolution too was in large part a defensive act against counter-revolution – indeed, it was framed as such by the Bolsheviks and largely supported from below on these grounds.[7] In the class struggle, as in war, the line between defensive and offensive actions, if it existed at all, was often extremely blurry. Casting the blame on the bourgeoisie for the onset of civil war was both accurate enough and smart tactics for winning over those workers (and wavering cadre) hesitant to support a revolutionary insurrection. Adhering to such an approach did not mean the Finnish SDP was somehow unwittingly led by circumstances to make a revolution against its will.

Given Hart’s criticism of “fatalism,” it is ironic that he claims that a “passive” SDP could be “propelled” by the objective context into overthrowing the capitalist state. Such a deeply fatalistic analysis ignores the decisive importance of revolutionary leadership, of the subjective factor of party intervention, in making possible a workers’ seizure of power. The general role of class-collaborationist Social Democrats and labor bureaucracies historically has been to actively prevent anti-capitalist ruptures, not passively lead them. In Germany, the SPD crushed the workers’ revolution – in Finland, the revolutionary SDs led it.

Explaining how and why the Finnish SDP guided workers to power in 1917-1918 requires that we understand the actual politics of “orthodox” Second International Marxism, with all its strengths and weaknesses. It seems to me well past time to acknowledge that revolutionary social democracy was politically far closer to the stance of Bolshevism and the early Comintern than it was to the class-collaborationism of the German SPD officialdom and its bureaucratic counterparts across Europe. In other words, the political “cousins” of the Finnish SDs were the Bolsheviks, not – as Hart asserts – the Western reformists.


[1] Anthony F. Upton, The Communist Parties of Scandinavia and Finland (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), 116.

[2] Cited in Sami Suodenjoki and Jarmo Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2007), 244.

[3]  Cited in Henning Söderhjelm, The Red Insurrection in Finland in 1918, translated by A.I. Fausbøll (Harrison & Sons: London, 1919), 30.

[4] Otto Kuusinen, The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism (London: Workers’ Socialist Federation, 1919), 2.

[5]  Cited in Suodenjoki and Jarmo Peltola, 246.

[6] Readers interested in a critical and extremely detailed account of the SDP Left during the November strike, and the revolution generally, can consult Maurice Carrez, La fabrique d’un révolutionnaire, Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen: 1881-1918: réflexions sur l’engagement politique d’un dirigeant social-démocrate finlandais (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse le Mirail, 2008).

[7] See, for example, Rex A. Wade, “‘All Power to the Soviets’: The Bolsheviks Take Power,” in Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2004).

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One Comment
  1. Felipe Stuart C. permalink

    One question that occurs to me, especially when reading such articles about 1917-1918 Finland, is why the Marxist left in North America and Western Europe, and in Latin America, has paid so little attention to Finland’s role in the great wave unleashed by the Greater Russian revolutions. Many are schooled in the German and Hungarian events, and of course the Soviet Union itself, but little at all about Finland. Could it be that both the Stalinists and the Social Democrats found it convenient to sweep that history under the rug? Even were that the case, what explains the Trotskyist or Bukharinist disinterest in that history?

    All I recall in the F.I. tradition (that I participated in during the 60s and 70s) are the intense debates in the F.I. and the USSWP over the 1939 Nazi–Soviet Pact and Stalin’s annexation of Finnish territory, and, of course, the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. The spineless response of leftists who refused to defend the Soviet Union when attacked by fascist Germany and the discussion of theories used to cover-up that capitulation, might also have served to turn attention away from Finland’s earlier revolutionary history, and that of other so-called ‘marginal’ or ‘borderland’ regions of the former Tsarist Empire.

    Perhaps Eric, Duncan, and John would care to comment on my question.

    Felipe Stuart C.

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