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

[1] D. Matthews, “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas”, March 26, 2016,

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

[6] Kautsky, The Road to Power, Marxists Internet Archive, Ch. V ,

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this clear and concise history. It is often interesting to trace the germs of what later becomes an obvious rightward lurch, and you've done an excellent job here with Kautsky.

The point Luxemburg makes about the role of a party in regards to a mass movement of the working class stands out today, as the Amazon workers are on strike. I often see such strikes or movements ignored or condemned by ostensibly socialist papers as being some sort of sham because they're not started nor lead by the parties in question. What needs doing in such times is, exactly as you show Luxemburg's position here to be - to "seek to give them political direction."

I look forward to reading further.

Christie S.