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When revolution broke out in St. Petersburg in 1905, Vladimir Lenin, a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, wrote a treatise on “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.” At the same time, in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg was organizing within the Social Democratic Party’s tent.
A decade and change later, when Lenin’s ragged band of Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and won state power, they did so under the banner of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Similarly, when Luxemburg took part in the ill-fated German Revolution, it was as a member of the Communist Party of Germany.
For Lenin, especially—who remained loyal to the ideas of German Social Democratic Party theorist Karl Kautsky even when Kautsky was no longer loyal to them himself—this change in language was not meant to signal a shift in ideology. What it did symbolize was outrage at the betrayal of a movement that had capitulated to—and even abetted—European capitalism as it plunged the world into a Great War that would kill more than 16 million people.
They called themselves “communists” to be the real “social democrats.”
For decades afterward, radicals embraced the label “communist”—often at great personal risk—to proclaim not just their allegiance to the Soviet Union, but to the spirit of hope and transformation embodied in those early workers’ movements and the Paris Commune.
This wasn’t some “brand” conjured up by a public-relations firm; it was a word with deep roots in those struggles. Labels, after all, do matter: they connect new generations of activists with a real history and tradition, with the lives and ideas of the millions who came before them. The left often struggles with this. Debates that have no relevance still fracture and divide our many sects. One can sympathize with Pablo Iglesias, of Spain’s Podemos party, when he decries those “trying to transform society by mimicking history, mimicking symbols.”
But it’s also worth remembering Leszek Kolakowski’s assertion that “the Left strives to base its prospects on the experience and evolutionary tendencies of history; whereas the Right is the expression of capitulation to the situation of the moment.” This is why, Kolakowski says, “the Left can have a political ideology, while the Right has nothing but tactics.”
Today, nearly a century after the October Revolution, I’m part of a new wave of Marxists who shy away from the “communist” label. Not because we’ve given up on grand narratives and the prospect of creating a society without class or want, but because we believe that in the same way the ideals of social democracy were betrayed during the Great War, those of the communist movement were tarnished by the crimes of the Soviet Union.