Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Bending Right: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky Part II

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Rosa Luxemburg
Note: This is the concluding part of Bending Right: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky, by Jim Creegan
Part I is available here: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky Part I

Kautsky Against the Left

 In a 1912 essay, Massenaktion und Revolution, Pannekoek argued in essence that capitalism—or at least its German version--had entered a new period in which the steady, gradual progress of the working class was no longer possible. Such advancement, he held, was tolerated by the ruling class only when the workers’ movement had been weak. But growing proletarian strength, combined with intensified competition among imperialist powers, made the bourgeoisie much more prone to militarism and repression. German parliamentary democracy, truncated to begin with in the constitutional monarchy the country then was, was becoming even more impotent. The enemy of the workers did not consist of particular political parties, but the armed power of the state as a whole, to which the workers could counterpose nothing but their own concentrated force.

Under these conditions, the workers would be compelled to rely chiefly upon extra-parliamentary struggle, the major weapon of which was the mass strike. Contrary to Kautsky, Pannekoek asserted the mass strike could not be understood as a discretely employed tactic or single event, but as rather a recurring, and sometimes spontaneous, inflection point  in an ongoing mass struggle. Moreover, he asserted that such a struggle could not be confined to the existing organizations of the proletariat—unions and party-- as in what Pannekoek decried as Kautsky’s “cult of formal structures”. He viewed revolution as a profound social paroxysm  that would inevitably overflow established organizational bounds  and  draw in new layers, which were not mainly the marginal lumpen elements of  times past, but part of a larger proletarianized mass. The revolutionary process would consist of both organized efforts and spontaneous improvisations. Following Marx in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, Pannekoek argued that one of the most important things to emerge from revolutionary  struggle would be alternative, more radically democratic forms of political power, distinct from, and destined to replace, bourgeois parliaments and state structures. He also took exception to a view of imperialist war Kautsky had expressed earlier: that a socialist party too weak to prevent a war could do little to stop it once begun. On the contrary, Pannekoek declared, wars create social crises by straining the resources of the nation to the limit, and imposing heavy burdens upon the working class. Its sons comprise most of imperialism’s mass armies, and could therefore not necessarily be relied upon to repress the  revolts that war could trigger.   
It was in answer to Pannekoek that Kautsky clarified his own contrasting views on the transition to socialism, as they  evolved since he had taken up the cudgels against Bernstein and the revisionists in 1909.  Kautsky reaffirmed his belief in the slow but unstoppable advance of the working class. The SPD and the unions were far too big and powerful ever to be annihilated by the state or right-wing forces; reactionary thrusts aimed at breaking their power could be nothing more than transient episodes. The vehicles of proletarian progress were, and could only be, the party and the trade unions. In championing the ‘new tactic’ of mass action, Pannekoek and Luxemburg were indulging in romantic pipe dreams. Spontaneous initiatives on the part of unorganized elements, being both unpredictable and beyond party and union control, were highly suspect, and potentially damaging to the planned and methodical efforts of workers’ organizations . The attempts of the left to import the methods of a backward and undemocratic country like Russia into an advanced semi-democracy like Germany ignored all the obvious differences between the two countries. Germany had a stronger state, and to confront it directly would spell certain defeat.   “To direct the workers’ movement toward mass actions is merely to replace the old one-sidedness for which Marx coined the expression parliamentary cretinism with a new cretinism, which we may define, continuing the metaphor, as a cretinism of mass actions”[8] Kautsky called for a strategy of attrition rather than confrontation. The proletariat, growing continually in strength, could in his view wear down and exhaust the ruling class.    
Just as wild-eyed, according to Kautsky, as the “cretinism of mass action” was all talk of “smashing” or replacing the existing state. It was utopian, he said, to imagine that the modern state, with all its complex functions and  intricate division of labor, could be replaced by ordinary citizens who would run the state in their spare time (although it is not clear that Pannekoek or Luxemburg ever argued this position; Pannekoek said only that new, more democratic state forms would grow up in the course of mass struggle). Under a socialist regime, parliament, as well as  all the old ministries, would remain intact, although more decentralized and responsive to the people. What socialists should aim at was not a new state, but a shift of power within the state, i.e. not new state forms, but a new government, which would direct the old apparatus in working-class interests. “The objective of our political struggle,” he wrote, “remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state [as opposed to the then commanding position of the Kaiser—JC] Certainly not the destruction of state power.”[9]

If Kautsky’s polemic with Luxemburg and Pannekoek made explicit certain tendencies in his thinking implicit even in 1909, his writings on war and imperialism between 1912 and 1913 represent a complete abandonment of earlier views. At the Second Congress of the Second International in 1910, Kautsky reaffirmed his position that militarism and an  armaments race  were necessary parts of the foreign policies of all major capitalist powers:

…It is utopian to believe that bourgeois pacifist conferences or visits by friends of peace to foreign governments can abolish the danger of war and introduce disarmament and submission to international courts… national conflicts, like social conflicts, cannot be overcome in the bourgeois world of competition.[10]  

Yet, in an article titled “Ultra-Imperialism”, published after the outbreak of the war but completed beforehand, Kautsky argues that imperialism, while it arises for economic reasons, is not an economic necessity for capitalism. Just as competition within advanced countries leads to the formation of cartels, by which competition is restrained, so the calamities brought about by inter-imperialist rivalries can jolt the rival states into recognizing the necessity of restraining themselves in order to promote free trade, and come to international agreements to respect each other’s spheres of influence. Such an arrangement Kautsky dubs “ultra-imperialism”, reprising a term coined by the German socialist economic theorist Rudolf Hilferding. Kautsky further avers that, while imperialist nationalism is in the interest of finance capital, it is contrary to the interests of industrial capital, and socialists should therefore encourage the pacific sections of capital against the more bellicose ones.
 Kautsky wrote in 1907 that, in the event of war: 

…The German government  could convince the workers  that they were under attack, the French government could likewise convince the French workers, and we would then find ourselves confronted with a war in which the German and French proletariats would march with equal enthusiasm behind their own governments and massacre and slaughter each other. This must be averted, and it will be averted if we reject the criterion of a war of aggression and instead adopt the criterion of the interests of the proletariat, which are international interests.[11]       
But also around this time, Kautsky discovered the distinction between offensive and defensive wars. He wrote that, while the working class might be persuaded to oppose a war of aggression on its government’s part, attempting to turn it against a war for the defense of its own soil against invaders was a fool’s errand. It was this distinction that Kautsky invoked when he advised the SPD Reichstag deputies to vote for war credits in  1914.  One cannot but suspect that, beneath his resignation to the proletariat’s sympathy for a supposedly defensive war, lay a sneaking sympathy of his own.

Thus, by August 1914, all the theoretical arguments used to justify Kautsky’s capitulation were already elaborated. Their guiding thread—from a reverence of parliamentary forms to ultra-imperialism—is a  worship of order, methodical action and incremental progress, combined with a correlative abhorrence of spontaneity and confrontation. Kautsky even goes so far as to impute his faith in peaceful, reason-governed progress to the imperialist powers, or factions thereof, at the very time when inter-imperialist rivalries were exploding in salvos of machine gun and cannon fire, and the class struggle in many European countries was overflowing parliamentary sluice gates. 

In the Crucible

Kautsky’s post-World War I political thought cannot be usefully approached as an abstract debate over governmental forms—class dictatorship versus universal suffrage—as it is by James Muldoon in Jacobin. It must rather be understood concretely, amid the political crosscurrents of the time.
  As German soldiers streamed home in defeat from the fronts in 1918, they joined forces with rebellious sailors and workers to follow the Russian example by setting up democratically elected councils and overthrowing the Kaiser. The more radical of these insurgents were also inspired by the October Revolution to attempt to replace the Kaiser with a government based upon the active, participatory democracy of the councils. The majority Social Democrats adamantly rejected such efforts, insisting upon limiting the mass movement to the goal of establishing a conventional parliamentary republic.

But more was at stake here than a political preference. Behind the mask of parliamentary democracy, the ruling strata of German society—Junkers, capitalists and the army general staff—scrambled desperately  to preserve their dominion. The more astute among them knew that the official representatives of the status quo were now too thoroughly discredited to intervene effectively. They were forced to rely upon a party that wielded some influence among the masses. The leaders of the SPD, who were only too willing to lend themselves to these counterrevolutionary designs, were therefore allowed to form a government and proclaim a republic. But, unknown to the people, the new president, Friedrich Ebert, was colluding with the German commander of internal troops Wilhelm Groener, to suppress the growing revolt,  which much of the SPD rank-and -file had joined. The SPD placed itself at the head of many workers’ and soldiers’ councils, with the concealed aim of disempowering them. Military detachments were moved into Berlin to suppress the workers. Ebert’s minister of defense, the right-wing social democrat Gustav Noske, engaged and trained the proto-Nazi elite military bands  called the Freikorps, which, in the sanguinary finale to first phase of the German revolution in January 1919, slaughtered Berlin red guards and smashed in the skulls of the two principal leaders of the Spartakusbund, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

During these events,  and for some time after, Kautsky still adhered to the centrist USPD, or Independent Social Democrats, and realized that the repressions of the so-called Spartakus Week represented a victory for reactionary forces in the country. Yet he assigned the principal blame for this reversal to the Spartakusbund, which he claimed had provoked the right by misreading the temper of German workers, and leading a minority into a confrontation in which they were bound to be defeated.

While it was true that the rising of January 1919 was premature in that the majority of workers had not been won to the revolutionary cause, it was not the work of a small band of revolutionary conspirators in the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD, still widely called Spartacists), which was still far too small to wield any mass influence. The rising rather took place on the initiative of the more militant sections of the workers, centered in Berlin and the Ruhr valley, who were intent on making a bid for state power despite Luxemburg’s warning that the German revolution was still in an early phase. The other principal leader of the KPD, Karl Liebknecht, although showing  exemplary courage in opposing the war, was not a level-headed leader, and, much to Luxemburg’s reproof, allowed himself to be carried along by the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that enveloped his Berlin precincts. Yet, once the die had been cast, Luxemburg put aside all reservations to voice her complete solidarity with the revolutionary workers. Kautsky, on the other hand, moved rapidly in the opposite direction. From this time forth, his major efforts were directed at denouncing the German revolutionary left and the ‘Bolshevik menace’.

Mending Fences

Kautsky attempted to justify his rightward motion in theoretical terms.  In the early 20s, when socialist revolution seemed to many a more immediate prospect than ever before, Kautsky argued that the socialist goal had to be put on indefinite hold. Socialism, he wrote, required a high level of economic development, which in turn strengthened the proletariat and democracy. The war, however, had set back the economies of the belligerent powers, and temporarily strengthened the forces of militarism and right-wing reaction. Socialists should therefore seek to restore the preconditions of socialism by helping to revive capitalist economies, and align themselves with more democratic capitalist forces to achieve this end. We have already seen how, even when arguing against Bernstein in 1909, Kautsky revered bourgeois parliaments, and, even before 1914,  abandoned his belief that imperialism was endemic to capitalism. Now, with this endorsement of coalition politics, the last remnant of his earlier, more radical thinking—his assertion, in The Road to Power, that the working class and its party alone could begin the transition to socialism—had gone by the boards. In a 1932 obituary for Bernstein, Kautsky admitted that, since 1914, he and his erstwhile revisionist adversary “have always adopted the same point of view”[12]

Kautsky’s theoretical mending of fences with Bernstein was accompanied by a political rapprochement with German social democracy. The centrist party to which Kautsky adhered since 1917, the USPD, represented an alliance of all those tendencies in German socialism—some revolutionary, and others decidedly reformist-- that criticized the SPD from the left. Such a combination, however, could not withstand the polarization that took place in the aftermath of the war and the October Revolution.

The Spartakusbund, which had joined the USPD for want of a better alternative, split off to form the Communist Party in 1918. In 1920, a majority of the USPD voted at its Halle Congress to join the Communist International. Kautsky was one of the leaders of the right-wing faction that voted against the merger and advocated re-entering the SPD. The latter party’s role in saving the day for the ruling class and decapitating the incipient revolution did not deter him in the least.  According to Kautsky, the major threat facing the working class was not the re-armed German bourgeois state, but Bolshevism, which divided the working class and threatened to interrupt its peaceful parliamentary ascent by damaging the economy and provoking civil war. His denunciations of the left matched that of any reactionary in point of vehemence and class abuse: he wrote that Bolshevism represented,  “The rule of the unorganized over the organized, of the ignorant over the educated, of the selfish over the disinterested”[13]

Kautsky’s opposition to the Russian Bolshevik regime at this time was also more implacable than that of many a Menshevik and right social democrat. He wrote that Bolshevism aimed to impose a dictatorship of a militant working-class minority over the rest of the proletariat and other classes. The threat it posed to parliamentary democracy, which Kautsky regarded as the main institutional vehicle for worker advance, combined with the danger it presented of civil war, which would undermine the economic progress he viewed as a prerequisite for socialism, made Bolshevism the most deadly enemy of the working class, even more so than Mussolini or the Hungarian fascist dictator, Miklós Horthy.

There was, according to Kautsky, nothing defensible in the Soviet regime. Unlike western capitalist states, it could not be reformed, but could only be overthrown  Against the Menshevik, Fyodor Dan, he argued that state ownership of the means of production was nothing more than the power base of a Bonapartist dictatorship, and was not worth preserving by the working class; he even favored a partial restoration of private property. In a polemic with the Austrian centrist, Friedrich Adler, Kautsky categorically rejected the idea of any united-front effort with the Communists against the National Socialists .

As for the Nazis themselves, Kautsky initially maintained that they were impotent against steady democratic advance of the working class; they would prove to be nothing more than passing episode. When, contrary to his predictions, the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kautsky blamed the Communists for having created the brown scourge by inflaming the class struggle to begin with. Thus did the “pope of Marxism” end his days, in Amsterdam in 1938, with a political analysis which in certain respects anticipates the arguments of the 1980s German historians Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest to the effect that the rise of Nazism can be traced to the original “totalitarian” sin of the October Revolution.

Kautsky as Guide?

If  Marxists in the western countries during the 1950s and 60s faced the dilemma of maintaining a revolutionary outlook amid relative peace and prosperity, Kautsky’s thinking suffered from the opposite incongruity: a deepening commitment to orderly progress and comity among nations during a period in which the imperialists were bent on war, and (in Trotsky’s phrase) the voltages of class struggle in many European countries were far too high for parliamentary circuits.  

Heightened class struggle and revolution involve the unleashing of explosive social passions and hatreds, and are by their very nature disorderly affairs for which there was little room in Kautsky’s tidy schema for the transition to socialism. As far removed as this writer is from the formulaic thought of the Chinese revolution’s “Great Helmsman”,  Mao’s famous dictum about revolution not being a tea party or a card game, etc. seems appropriate in this context, if to these instances we add, a parliamentary debate. Some have argued that Kautsky became suddenly transformed from revolutionary to reformist in 1910.  But we have seen that his evolution  involved no abrupt turns, but rather an unfolding of tendencies implicit in his thinking from at least as early as 1909. On each occasion when his  schema ran up against the realities of class war, Kautsky clung all the more desperately to his schema to avoid reality. The end result was his adherence, despite centrist misgivings, to Social Democracy in its role as mobilizer of workers for imperialist war and savior of last resort of German capitalism. His aversion to “anarchy”, when all is said and done, amounted to a renunciation of revolution itself. His partiality to ‘order’ ultimately led to an embrace of the (temporarily) reconsolidated bourgeois order of Germany under the Weimar Constitution.

 Certain contemporary left currents are rediscovering Kautsky under circumstances very different from those of his time. His role as a centrist—seemingly poised equally between a reformist right and a revolutionary left, but veering ever rightward—may be difficult to grasp today because there is no revolutionary left of any consequence. In this political void-- and in the absence of sustained and militant industrial struggle—growing numbers  of people discontented with the manifest inequalities of neoliberal capitalism have nowhere to turn but to the electoral arena and left-reformist politicians. These left bulges in the Democratic and Labour Parties are highly significant indicators of shifting sentiments, which only hidebound sectarians can dismiss. Some on the left, however, seem determined to make a virtue of a deficiency. They can conceive of no way forward but the electoral path, and regard Kautsky’s apotheosis of parliaments and elections as a long-forgotten trove of theoretical support for what they call ‘democratic socialism’.

The meaning of the ‘democratic socialism’ now espoused by major currents of the rebounding left is as ambiguous as this reborn left itself in relation to reform versus revolution. If “democratic socialism” means a socialism founded upon institutions of popular participation, as opposed to some kind of state- bureaucratic dictatorship, few would disagree. But if means, following Kautsky and social democrats since, that elections and parliaments are sacrosanct, there is much to argue with.

Parliamentary democracy is the Western bourgeoisie’s  major source of ideological legitimacy. For this reason, the capitalist class is willing to put up with this form of government, even though parliaments may pass legislation it dislikes, and there is always the risk that legislative bodies may pass out of the control of carefully vetted politicians and political parties. When this happens despite the multiple levers for influencing politics that enormous capital sums place in their hands, the ruling classes resort to economic sabotage and/or deploying the non-elected components of the state—bureaucracy, police and military—to overthrow governments and reassert their domination.

This is not to say that socialists should not fight for the broadest electoral democracy, and use elections and parliaments to disseminate ideas and win beneficial reforms. But they must also be aware of democracy’s limits, and attempt to combat widespread popular illusions about its possibilities. Left politicians who fail to do this—from  Allende, to Mitterrand, to Tsipras—and lead their followers to believe that fundamental changes can be achieved simply by electing left-wing parties and heads of government—find themselves and their supporters defenseless when the final reckoning comes; they are either overthrown (Allende) or succumb to pressures to betray their electoral promises and do the bidding of the bourgeoisie (Mitterrand and Tsipras). Nothing in the experience of the past hundred years supports the conclusion that  socialism can be attained by voting.

The above points to the conclusion that, simultaneously with electoral efforts, socialists should seek to build organizations of working-class power, and encourage extra-parliamentary mobilizations, able to confront the capitalist state. These alone can constitute the core of the dual-power institutions capable of mobilizing subaltern classes for combat when even the most successful electoral efforts prove unequal to the task.

Electoral and extra-parliamentary efforts can complement one another. But they can also come into conflict.   Bureaucrats and elected officials typically shudder at any hint of confrontation; they counsel moderation to avoid damaging electoral prospects. Bourgeois politicians portray extra-parliamentary  positions of power as a danger to democracy, and demand their dissolution. This is what happened in the Prussian suffrage crisis of 1910, and again in Germany in 1918-19. Luxemburg and Liebknecht chose one course, Kautsky another. Such situations will arise again if the current  leftward  momentum continues. Thinking in exclusively electoral terms leads inevitably to defeat, and socialists must, like Luxemburg and unlike Kautsky, place their emphasis on initiating and advancing struggles that take place outside the electoral frame.   
Whatever the  political forms of extra-parliamentary power  may arise today will no doubt be quite different from those of a century ago. The masses of industrial workers, soldiers and sailors who made up soviets  no longer exist in western countries. Developing new forms of popular democracy is a major challenge for socialists today. In meeting it, the writings of Karl Kautsky may have insights to offer; the over-all curve of his political career can only serve as a negative example.

[8] Kautsky, “Die neue Taktik’, quoted in Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution by Massimo Salvadori, London, 1990, p. 163  

[9] Ibid. quoted in Salvadori, p. 162

[10]  Quoted in Salvadori, p. 171

[11] Kautsky, Protokol über die Verhandlungen desParteiages der SPD, quoted in Salvadori p.123

[12] Quoted in Salvadori, p. 324

[13] Quoted in Salvadori, p 241

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com


Jim Creegan

New York,

May 7, 2019

Friday, July 5, 2019

Bending Right: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky Part I

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Luise and Karl Kautsky in 1902
Marx observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that political movements inevitably seek legitimacy from historical traditions and personalities. In our electoral moment, when the hopes of the left revolve around  figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is a name from socialist history that seems to be recurring with increasing regularity: Karl Kautsky.  The editor of  Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara, when asked by an interviewer “to pick between Eduard Bernstein—the incrementalist German Marxist who sowed the seeds of modern social democracy—and Rosa Luxemburg, who assailed Bernstein for abandoning hope of revolution, answered “ ‘Kautsky’, naming Bernstein and Luxemburg’s contemporary who split the difference between the two.”[1] The historian of Bolshevism, Lars T. Lih, has emphasized the continuities between Kautsky and Lenin before their famous falling out in 1914. And, in January of this year, the blog of Jacobin magazine featured an article, “Reclaiming the Best of Kautsky” [2], by James Muldoon, who purports to have discovered in him “The original democratic socialist.” This article, in turn, elicited a reply from the Marxist activist-scholar Charlie Post, “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky isn’t good enough”[3] ,  who stressed the potential conflict between parliamentary politics and mass struggle, and the need to emphasize the latter. In a riposte, “Why Karl Kautsky was right and why you should care” [4],  Eric Blanc argued that Kautsky was right in his belief that the road to socialist revolution in western democracies must necessarily run through elections and parliaments.

Muldoon’s article allows that, between Kautsky and Lenin-- who hurled at Kautsky the enduring epithet of  “renegade”--there were “clear differences”. He limits himself, however, to a rather abstract discussion of government by workers’ councils versus parliamentary democracy, without once mentioning the main event over which the two became foes: the outbreak of World War I. Although it is widely known that the war caused a permanent rift within the international socialist movement, the tendency of writers like Lih and Muldoon to downplay or ignore the importance of the split makes it worthwhile to revisit the particulars.

The Great Betrayal

When the guns of  August erupted in 1914, Karl Kautsky enjoyed the prestige of being the leading interpreter of Marxism of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was the flagship party of the Second International--the biggest, best organized and most theoretically advanced. The war did not strike Europe like a bolt from the blue; it was the result of years of mounting rivalry—military and economic--among the great European powers of the day: France, Britain and Russia, on the one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. Sensing the danger of war, the Second International felt it necessary to declare in advance its position in the event of hostilities, which, by setting the workers of the belligerent countries against one another, would spell calamity for the  international proletarian solidarity professed by all the member parties. A resolution passed at a conference of the International at Stuttgart in 1907 pledged the national sections to do everything in their power to prevent the outbreak of what would be an imperialist war that workers should oppose in all countries, no matter who fired the first shot. Should war break out despite its efforts, the International vowed to  use the crisis the conflict would create to hasten the downfall of the capitalist order. This commitment was reaffirmed by the Basel Manifesto of 1912, adopted by the International in the midst of the Balkan Wars—a prologue to World War I.

Yet, when the shooting started, the leaders of all the major socialist parties threw their solemn anti-war declarations to the winds in a frenzy of capitulation to their respective governments. Rationalizations flew thick and fast. French and British socialists proclaimed their loyalty to what they now conveniently described as a war of the democratic powers against Prussian militarism;  German Social Democrats  supported Kaiser Wilhelm II’s purported struggle against Entente-allied tsarist despotism. A small group of internationalists—Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg among them—saw the descent of the socialist parties into national chauvinism as the bankruptcy of the Second International.  

Karl Kautsky, the “pope” of Social Democracy, thought otherwise. Although not himself a delegate to the Reichstag, Kautsky was present in a consultative capacity among his party’s parliamentary caucus on August 3,  the day before the SPD  voted in favor of war credits to the Kaiser. Kautsky approved of voting the credits, with the stipulation that the war be confined to defensive aims--ludicrous on its face, since the German army began its invasion of neutral Belgium the same day. When the government refused any such assurances, Kautsky nevertheless declined to condemn the delegation’s affirmative vote. Unlike Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Kautsky did not think that the question of  the war should stand in the way of SPD  unity. He wrote that, while socialists should strive to prevent the outbreak of war, they could not hope to end it if they had not been strong enough to prevent it in the first place. Socialism, he further wrote, can only thrive in times of peace. All opposition to the war now being futile, the SPD had no choice but to  support all efforts that were aimed strictly at national defense, and wait until the war was over and the working class could resume its forward march. For Rosa Luxemburg, this meant: “The global historical appeal of the Communist Manifesto [“Proletarians of All Countries , Unite!”—JC] undergoes a fundamental revision and, as amended by Kautsky, now reads: proletarians of all countries, unite in peace-time and cut each other’s throats in war!”[5]

Throughout the four years of the greatest mass bloodletting known to Europe up to that time, Kautsky would, it is true, hem his  acquiescence about with all manner of qualifications, caveats, stipulations and equivocations. But his refusal to take a clear anti-war stand had the convenient result of avoiding the kind of  head -on confrontation with the imperial government that would force  the opposition underground, and compel Luxemburg and Liebknecht to denounce the war from inside a prison cell, and ultimately pay for their opposition with their lives.

When, in 1917, the support of the official SPD for the Reich’s annexationist war aims became so abject, and the terms of the Burgfrieden (truce with the government decreed by the SPD during the war) became so repressive, that a faction of the party’s Reichstag deputies started abstaining on war credits and mildly criticizing the government’s conduct, they were expelled from the SPD.  They then formed the USPD (Independent Social Democrats). Kautsky joined the USPD only reluctantly, after having voted in a caucus of future members against the formation of a new party. We also know from his private correspondence that Kautsky considered it necessary to take a more critical stance toward the government mainly because popular disillusionment with the war was gaining ground, and with it the influence of the Spartakusbund, headed by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, which Kautsky hoped to outflank. And even in opposition, Kautsky and his centrist faction limited themselves to appeals to the Kaiser’s regime for a “democratic peace” without annexations or indemnities (which Lenin likened to preaching virtue to a brothel keeper), and studiously avoided any hint of implementing the call of the Stuttgart Resolution and Basel Manifesto to oppose the war with class-struggle methods. Kautsky was to rejoin the SPD in 1922.

I hope readers now have a better idea of at least one of the “clear differences” James Muldoon alludes to between Kautsky and Lenin, who asserted that the only realistic path to peace lay through the overthrow of the belligerent governments by the workers and the oppressed. It was Kautsky’s conduct during the war that first earned him the epithet of “renegade” in Lenin’s broadsides. He went along with a majority of European socialist leaders, who had reneged on their anti-war pledges in order to conciliate their governments and ruling classes.

Lenin denounced Kautsky with all the fury of a disillusioned follower.  Lenin’s pre-war  writings contain numerous favorable references to, and citations from, the works of the man that he, along with the entire International,  regarded as the socialist movement’s most venerable theoretical mentor.

Yet had he been more attentive to his mentor’s earlier evolution, Lenin may not have been as dumfounded as he was by Kautsky’s  cowering in the face of imperialist war. Lars Lih and Eric Blanc appear to admit that Kautsky turned to the right sometime before World War I. Yet, in their efforts to rehabilitate the pre-1914 Kautsky, they fail to specify the context or the content of his right turn, vaguely suggesting that it took place around 1910. In what follows, we will attempt to show that that Kautsky’s career displays no sharp discontinuities. Kautsky did indeed abandon some of his earlier, seemingly revolutionary positions. But we will demonstrate that his career consists of a steady rightward trajectory whose major premise  was present in his thinking before 1910, and which became increasingly pronounced in the course of events in the class struggle and the polemics they gave rise to within German social democracy.       

Fragile Synthesis

 The SPD was beset from the beginning by a tension between the ultimate goal of socialist revolution and the day-to-day struggle for reforms. The 1891 Erfurt Program, of which Kautsky was the principal author and interpreter, attempted to address the tension by elaborating two kinds of aims. The maximum program saw the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the socialization of the means of production as the only lasting answer to a capitalist system that was inherently crisis-ridden and class-divided. The program was drawn up, however, during a period of economic expansion and relative prosperity, which all party leaders regarded as non-revolutionary. The activity of the SDP in such periods had therefore to be directed toward a series of reforms that would improve the position of the working class within capitalist confines. These goals comprised the party’s minimum program. On the political side, it called for universal male and female suffrage; proportional representation; the right of referendum and recall of elected officials and the formation of a popular militia in place of the existing professional army. The economic part demanded a graduated income tax; the eight-hour day; the right of workers to organize; prohibition of child labor and the extension of social insurance, with workers as part of the administration.

The “Erfurt synthesis” did not, however, successfully remove the tension between the party’s reformist and revolutionary sides. On the theoretical plane, the main manifesto of what would become the party’s reformist wing came in the form of a series of articles assembled into a book whose German title is rendered into English as Evolutionary Socialism, by Eduard Bernstein, published in 1899.  

Bernstein argued  for a fundamental revision of Marxism. He asserted that, contrary to Marx’s predictions, class antagonisms under capitalism were becoming less rather than more acute, and the middle classes were expanding rather than contracting. The lot of the working class showed steady improvement, and the state, combined with high finance, had developed more sophisticated ways to ameliorate the cyclical economic crises to which the system was prone. Echoing the Fabian socialists among whom he had spent time in London, Bernstein argued that the advancement of socialism was now an ethical question, as opposed to one of conflicting material interests. The working class, in Bernstein’s view, no longer enjoyed a privileged role as the agency of socialist advance. Progress toward socialism now became a matter of persuading all men and women of good will of its inherent rationality in the context of a parliamentary democracy that stood increasingly above class, and was more powerful  than vested interests, however formidable. It was therefore the task of socialists to further this inexorable  progress, to which revolution and talk of revolution could only be  obstacles.

One of Bernstein’s principal opponents to emerge from the “revisionist controversy” started by his work was the young Rosa Luxemburg, who was unconvinced of the permanence of fin de siècle prosperity. She argued that the gains of the proletariat were never secure in a fundamentally class-divided society. Luxemburg by no means disparaged the struggle for reforms, but argued that their main value was not to introduce socialism by small steps, but to train the working class politically for the titanic class battles that lay ahead.
The right-left clash in German Social Democracy did not remain confined to the literary plane. The Russian Revolution of 1905, together with a hard-fought spontaneous coal miners’ strike in Germany’s industrial Ruhr basin, gave rise to a keen interest within the party in the mass political strike as a weapon of class struggle and, ultimately of workers’ revolution. However, the trade-union leadership, formally affiliated to the SPD,  reacted to the very notion of the mass strike with unmitigated horror. They said such strikes would involve inordinate expense to their treasuries and disrupt their steady economic progress, carefully orchestrated and controlled from the top down. They quickly moved to ban even the discussion of the mass strike from the party as a whole. In this they were supported by the right wing of the party’s officialdom, who tended to measure the progress of socialism almost exclusively in terms of ballots cast and parliamentary benches filled.

The SPD executive equivocated. August Bebel, the party’s  éminence grise,  made a report, ratified at a party congress, that the mass strike could at times be employed, but only if well thought out and carefully planned in advance. This notion was seriously at odds with the outlook of Luxemburg, who drew her conclusions on the basis of the Russian experience of 1905 and the strikes it triggered in Poland, which she witnessed first hand. In her book, Mass Strike, Party and Trade-Unions, Luxemburg argued that the mass strike represented a spontaneous movement of the working class that could not be started or stopped from above, as conceived of in what she called the “parade ground” mentality of many SPD leaders. The party, rather than controlling such strike movements, must seek to give them political direction.

In the end, it was the union and party bureaucrats who came out on top of the mass strike debate, winning from the party leadership a veto over any decision to call or support such strikes, meaning, in effect, that the tactic would not receive SPD support.

The Pope Weighs In  

Where did Kautsky stand in the widening left-right divide? In 1909, he published The Road to Power, thought of at the time to be a defense of Marxism’s revolutionary mission against Bernstein and the “revisionists”, and since considered his most radical work.

Here Kautsky reaffirmed that the goal of Marxism was the complete socialization of the major means of production, and that the workers alone could accomplish this objective. This they could only do by conquering state power exclusively for themselves; to share power with the political representatives of other classes-- which, unlike the workers, had no objective interest in achieving socialism—could only cripple the proletariat politically and implicate it in repressive measures  by the ruling class.

(It should be noted, however, that even the pre-1909  Kautsky had not consistently adhered to this position. In 1900, a fight broke out at a congress of the Second International over whether it was appropriate for three French socialists to have joined the French government of Waldeck-Rousseau, which had fired upon striking miners, and whose cabinet contained general Gaston Gallifet, whose troops has slaughtered 20,000 Communards in Paris during the “bloody week” of 1871. The congress passed a compromise resolution, written by Kautsky, which said that socialists should not enter bourgeois governments save in exceptional circumstances, without specifying what such circumstances were. One delegate characterized the resolution as made of elastic, meaning that it could be stretched to suit any purpose.)  
Kautsky also argued, contrary to Bernstein, that, far from being attenuated, class contradictions were becoming sharper due to the reaction of the bourgeoisie against the progress of the working class and the socialist movement; capitalists were increasingly organizing themselves into cartels, trusts and employer associations for the purpose of controlling prices, driving down wages and breaking unions. He observed that members of the ruling class, bereft since their political triumph of any higher unifying purpose, were now concerned almost exclusively with their own profits, which they used to bribe ever-more venal politicians. Early 20th Century capitalism emitted an unmistakable effluvium of corruption and moral decay. The ruling classes  were also driven by growing proletarian power to find a solution to intensifying class struggle in militarism and imperialism, which had now become the reigning policy in all advanced countries. All of these heightened contradictions made socialist revolution more imperative, and brought it closer to hand.

Thus far The Road to Power  appears to be a thoroughly revolutionary work. Yet the picture may change somewhat when we examine more closely the way in which Kautsky visualizes the proletariat’s path to power. He asserts that, ever since the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871—which he says was due to the small size and inexperience of the French proletariat—the workers and their parties have “moved forward everywhere uninterruptedly”[6] The working class was fast becoming the majority of the population in Europe and the US; it was growing ever-more confident and unified, with only minor defeats and setbacks.  It possessed the  authority and means of moral suasion that came with the growing recognition (except by the bourgeoisie) that the workers were necessary to the existence of society, while capitalist exploiters were superfluous. One major index of proletarian strength was the steady accretion of the numbers and influence of its parties in the parliaments of Europe. Parliamentary democracy did not abolish capitalist class rule or obviate the necessity for revolution. But it did provide the working classes with an accurate measure of their strength relative to other social strata, and allowed them to avoid the minoritarian revolutionary adventures that pre-dated the conquest of electoral democracy.

How, then, did Kautsky, in affirming the necessity of revolution, contemplate the possibility of a revolutionary conjuncture? The proletariat, he writes, was now possessed of the deliberate calm and confidence that resulted from its unbroken upward march. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was increasingly beleaguered and prone to panic. If it felt its power threatened, it could easily resort to violence, and move to abrogate democratic liberties and representative government. In such an eventuality, the working class would have no alternative but to resort to defensive violence of its own to ensure its steady advance toward socialism. This appears to be the major revolutionary scenario contemplated by Kautsky circa 1909.

From the distance of more than a century, few would deny that Kautsky’s revolutionary prognosis is over-optimistic to the point of complacency. Even in his time, the working class was multi-layered—foreign and immigrant, skilled and unskilled, and, in the US,  black and white--and conflicts within it could at times be exploited by the ruling classes; some workers could be influenced by reactionary petty- bourgeois moods. Kautsky appears greatly to underestimate the undoubted appeal that chauvinism and imperialism have had historically for sections of the working class.  And, far from marching from strength to strength, the course of class struggle describes a much more jagged line, with waves of high energy and initiative often followed by the extended spells of the  demoralization that accompany the major defeats that Kautsky seemed to rule out. Kautsky, in short, appears to regard the advance of the proletariat as a quasi-automatic process—a view that tends to deemphasize the need for bold initiatives on the part of the class and its leaders at crucial points in the struggle. While Kautsky states that the mass strike should be added to the SPD’s tactical repertoire, it receives only the most perfunctory mention, and then to say that it is not suitable in all situations. As the historian Karl Schorske put it, “Where Luxemburg viewed the proletariat as an irresistible force, Kautsky seemed to see it as an immovable object.” [7] All it had to do was stand its ground, while the bourgeoisie would lash out desperately and self-destruct amid its own decay.   

Moreover, while bourgeois politicians may have been thoroughly corrupt in Kautsky’s view, there is little mention of the power of the ruling classes to corrupt working-class politicians as well. The socialist movement could simply look forward to a linear parliamentary advance that would reflect the growing numbers of the proletariat in the population as a whole, until it was able to capture a parliamentary majority, the existence of which he viewed as a precondition for revolution.  Indeed, Kautsky states that the form of the proletarian dictatorship can be nothing other than the –fully democratized—democratic republic. In this assumption, he ignores the conclusion drawn by Marx as a result of the Paris Commune—and taken greatly to heart by Lenin and the Bolsheviks—that the working class cannot simply take over the bourgeois governing apparatus ready-made and deploy it for its own purposes, but must construct a new, radically democratized form of state power. Kautsky was, later to polemicize directly against the idea of a “Commune state”.

Thus, had Lenin read  the most radical of Kautsky’s writings with greater care, he could have detected distinct elements of what would later become the basis for an overtly reformist politics.  We shall see below how, in response to subsequent events, everything that supported The Road to Power’s   claim to being a revolutionary text—its belief in sharpening class contradictions, its rejection of coalition politics, its view of imperialism as integral to the capitalism of the time, indeed everything that distinguished Kautsky’s thought from the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein—was to fall by the wayside. What remained was Kautsky’s insistence on a controlled and orderly transition to socialism, coupled with an almost religious reverence for parliamentary institutions.

Prussian Suffrage Crisis

Kautsky’s rightward inclinations did not take long to reveal themselves. The greatest intensification of class struggle in Germany during the entire  pre-World War I period took pace in 1910. The SPD was then conducting a vigorous campaign to replace the three-class Prussian municipal voting system with one of direct and equal suffrage. In addition, workers struck in great numbers against a general fall in wages, as employers and the state pushed back hard. Troops were dispatched to quell a bitter strike that erupted in the Mansfeld coal region; an employers’ association locked out 175, 000 building workers throughout the country; and strikers were fired upon by troops in the Berlin district of Moabit. 

The Kaiser’s government had banned an SPD demonstration on the suffrage issue, scheduled to take place in the Treptow district on the southern edge of Berlin. But instead of assembling there and confronting the police, the party secretly directed its members to gather in the center of the city, in the Tiergarten, near the Reichstag. The 150,000 workers who answered the call threw the ruling class into a state of virtual panic, as their newspapers screamed that society was on the brink of anarchy. Talk of a mass strike began to percolate through the SPD ranks. Rosa Luxemburg became the spokesperson for this sentiment, calling for a limited demonstration strike to gauge the will of German workers for larger action, possibly a mass strike of the kind she had  earlier championed. She called for a thorough discussion of this question in the SPD.     
The party’s reformist right wing, on the other hand, took fright along with the bourgeoisie. They fretted that such anger in the streets might endanger support of a bourgeois party, the National Liberals, for the passage of a tepid suffrage-broadening bill, and hurt their chances in an  upcoming Reichstag election by scaring off more moderate provincial voters. While still attempting to steer something of a middle course between left and right, Kautsky came down substantially on the side of the parliamentarians. He emphasized the primary importance of elections, and branded advocacy of a mass strike in these circumstances adventurist; the tactic was appropriate perhaps for Russian conditions, but misguided in the conditions of legality and (limited) electoral democracy that prevailed in Germany. He wrote that the efforts of the party should be directed at obtaining a majority in the Reichstag—a goal he thought achievable in two years. Kautsky refused to allow Luxemburg’s dissenting views to be published in Die Neue Zeit, the party monthly he edited, thus attempting to suppress discussion of her views in the broader party . From this time forward, he was inclined to regard Luxemburg and her revolutionary cohort, as opposed to Eduard Bernstein and the reformist right, as his main adversary within the SPD.

The question posed by this dispute was not the worthiness of the fight for electoral reform . Both Kautsky and Luxemburg supported this elementary democratic demand. The argument was over whether the principal tactic in this struggle should be extra-parliamentary mobilizations, augmenting workers’ fighting capacity and preparing them for an ultimate contest for power, or subordinating such actions to winning a parliamentary majority.

Polemical exchanges followed in the next two years  between Kautsky, representing the now right-tending center, and, on the left, Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, a Dutch socialist then resident in Berlin, in later years to become a leading exponent of “council communism”. These debates, especially those between Kautsky and Pannekoek,  reveal two starkly contrasting visions of the transition to socialism, and prefigure, even more than the “revisionist controversy” of years earlier, the great schism in the International that followed  World War I and the Russian Revolution.


Jim Creegan

New York,

May 7, 2019

This article is a revised version of an article previously published in Weekly Worker.

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com

[1] D. Matthews, “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas” vox.com, March 26, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/3/21/11265092/jacobin-bhaskar-sunkara

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, New York, 1974

[6] Kautsky, The Road to Power, Marxists Internet Archive, Ch. V , https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/ch05.htm

[7] Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917, Cambridge, London, 1955, p. 115