What can we learn from Kautsky today?

Issue: 167

Tony Phillips

Karl Kautsky was known as the Pope of Marxism in the early 20th century, but until recently he appeared to have been almost forgotten.1 He was the leading theorist of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), a nominally Marxist mass workers’ party, and the Second International of socialist parties in the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet he was completely discredited among the revolutionary left because he provided theoretical cover for the SPD leadership’s support for the German ruling class during the First World War, and because of his hostility to the Russian Revolution. Contrastingly, his ideas were also rejected implicitly and later explicitly by the reformist leaders of the SPD as too radical for the party’s accommodation to the capitalist system.

However, in recent years there has been a revival in his reputation, at least on the left in the United States. This rehabilitation of Kautsky is tied up with the popularity of democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Last year a series of articles appeared in the left-wing US publication Jacobin that defended Kautsky’s pre-First World War writings and argued that there is much of value to socialists today in this work. For example, a contribution by socialist historian Lars Lih argued that, although Kautsky himself may have moved to the right in his later years, there was a continuity between his politics and the practice of Leninism.2

In this article I will reject these views and argue that Kautsky’s version of Marxism was always flawed. Although he did increasingly accommodate himself to the right wing of the SPD, his eventual explicit rejection of socialist revolution was not a radical break with his earlier ideas, as his recent champions have claimed. Kautsky lived a long life through many world-historic events and his views evolved over time, but there was also significant continuity in his ideas. I will examine both Kautsky’s theoretical writings and his record as an actor in the key debates in the SPD, and I will ask if he held the party to the revolutionary politics that he claimed to stand for. Crucially for us today, as we stand confronted by pandemic, economic disaster and catastrophic climate change, I also want to argue that there is no parliamentary road to socialism, Kautskyian or otherwise.

Karl Kautsky—reformist or revolutionary?

Two of the Jacobin articles in the series on Kautsky portray him as a left reformist, for good or ill. Lih’s article argues that Kautsky’s earlier works, particularly The Road to Power, informed the strategy of the Bolsheviks and were essential to the victory of the Russian Revolution in October 1917. In another article, provocatively entitled “Why Kautsky was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, the socialist writer Eric Blanc claims that the difference between Kautsky and Lenin “was not whether a revolution was necessary, but how to get there”.3 Blanc argues that Kautsky had no illusions about the possibilities of peacefully and gradually using existing state institutions to bring about socialism. In a third article, James Muldoon claims that “Kautsky’s thought still offers a compelling vision of how to democratise all aspects of our lives.”4 How true are these claims? To answer that question, we will need to look at Kautsky’s theoretical evolution up to 1914 with reference to his key works.

Prior to the German Revolution of 1918, Germany was not a democracy. The Kaiser, an unelected head of state who controlled the army and foreign policy, could appoint and dismiss governments. Unlike Britain, there was universal male suffrage, but the Reichstag, the lower and more representative of the two houses of parliament, had only limited powers. The German Reich, which had only been formed in 1871, was a federation of petty states known as Länder, which each had their own Landtag or parliament. The largest was Prussia, which was disproportionately powerful. How to democratise the resulting tangle of state institutions was a major concern of the SPD leadership.

Until 1890, trade unions were illegal and the SPD could not organise openly due to the Anti-Socialist Laws, which were brought into force in 1878 by the first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. After the repeal of these laws, the SPD grew rapidly in influence and electoral support. Nevertheless, the party leadership remained very nervous about provoking further state repression. One particularly stark symptom of this anxiety presented itself in 1895, when SPD national newspaper Vorwärts reprinted Friedrich Engels’s introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Engels, Marx’s close collaborator and a key figure in the formation of German socialism, was infuriated to discover that the document had been edited to downplay his commitment to insurrectionary methods of struggle. The party’s increasing size and associated organisations, which included 75 newspapers and a range of sports clubs, cooperatives and even party taverns, created an apparatus of full-time officials. These SPD officials and the rising trade union bureaucracy steadily developed into a powerful, conservative force within the workers’ movement. Increasingly the fear of repression became an excuse for the party’s reformist practice.5 Kautsky’s political evolution is best understood against this background.

Kautsky’s first major work was his commentary on the SPD’s Erfurt Programme, published in English in 1892 as The Class Struggle.6 The programme, which had been partly written by Kautsky, emphasised the historical “necessity” of socialism: “The capitalist system has run its course; its dissolution is now only a matter of time. Irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist production. The substitution of a new social order for the existing one is no longer simply desirable, it has become inevitable.”7 Nonetheless, Kautsky was unclear about how the transition to socialism would take place. Notably he used the word revolution to mean radical social change rather than an uprising from below:

Such a revolution may assume many forms, according to the circumstances under which it takes place. It is by no means necessary that it be accompanied with violence and bloodshed. There are instances in history when the ruling classes were either so exceptionally clear-sighted or so particularly weak and cowardly that they submitted to the inevitable and voluntarily abdicated. Neither is it necessary that the social revolution be decided at one blow; such probably was never the case. Revolutions prepare themselves by years or decades of economic and political struggle; they are accomplished amidst constant ups and downs sustained by the conflicting classes and parties; not infrequently they are interrupted by long periods of reaction.8

Earlier, in 1881, Kautsky had held to a more traditional Marxist view that socialists should “harbour no illusions” that they “can directly achieve their goal through elections”.9 However, even by the time he wrote The Class Struggle, he had come to see parliamentary action as central to the fight for power. In fact, he argued that it was necessary for the working class to fight to increase the power of parliament, at least in relation to the other institutions of the state:

The proletariat has…no reason to mistrust parliamentary action; on the other hand, it has every reason to exert all its energy to increase the power of parliaments in their relation to other departments of government and to swell to the utmost its parliamentary representation.10

Kautsky may have used Marxist terms such as class struggle, revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but what he meant by these terms in practice was vague and ambiguous. Despite all this radical terminology, he advocated the peaceful assumption of state power by the working class and ruled out armed insurrection. The Marxist writer John Molyneux explains:

When…Kautsky appears as the defender of “revolution” it is a conception of parliamentary revolution he is defending: in other words, that the ­workers’ party will remain in opposition, refusing all coalitions or participation in bourgeois ­governments until such time as it has won an overall majority in parliament and forms the government. It will then use its majority to legislate the introduction of socialism.11

Kautsky’s focus on the importance of parliamentary activity was absolutely emphatic. The Class Struggle lays out why he saw the legislative chamber as the focal point of political action: “In all parliamentary countries it rests with the legislative body to grant tax levies. By electing representatives to parliament, therefore, the working class can exercise an influence over the government”.12

Kautsky did not stop at seeing parliament as a means of pressurising the capitalist class into carrying out reforms that are beneficial to workers. His entire theory of socialist transformation was based on winning a majority in parliament. With such a majority would come control over the apparatus of the capitalist state. As Massimo Salvadori explains in his detailed study of the evolution of Kautsky’s thought, this political strategy envisioned the “maintenance of the technical legacy of the institutions produced by the modern bourgeoisie.” These institutions would then be wielded by the SPD and they would “not be dispensed with for an entire historical epoch”.13 As we shall see, looking to the state as a force that could, in the right hands, deliver social change would ultimately lead Kautsky and the SPD onto dangerous political terrain. Too often, seeing the state as a necessary tool for the construction of socialism meant defending that state, even when it was engaged in bloody struggles against progressive movements.

The attitude of The Class Struggle to bourgeois parliaments was a far cry from the later practice of the most radical and revolutionary elements that emerged from the socialist movement. For example, Lenin’s Bolsheviks took a very ­different attitude to the Duma, the Tsarist parliament that was established after the Russian Revolution of 1905. For Lenin, parliament could only be a platform for exposing the evils of the capitalist system and building the struggle outside the legislative chamber not a means of changing the system in itself.14 This was an attitude towards parliamentary politics that Lenin and the Bolsheviks took into the Communist International when it broke from the Second International after the Russian Revolution.

However, Kautsky’s approach was not only alien to Lenin and the Communists. It also flew in the face of Marx’s understanding of the state, which had been shaped by the experience of the Paris Commune. This rising of the Parisian masses in 1871 was brutally repressed by government forces, and thus showed what the state was capable of when faced with challenges from below. However, it also threw up a model for a new way of running society. The Commune, the world’s first workers’ government, did not establish itself over the heads of ordinary people; instead it drew its strength from their participation in it. For this reason, it was very different from the type of state that presides over a capitalist society, as Marx explained when he pointed out, “the Commune was to be a working body, not a parliamentary body—it was to be legislative and executive at the same time”.15 In his The Civil War in France, in which he drew the lessons of the Commune, Marx was clear that it was only through this type of organisation that socialism could be established, and not through attempts to take over the existing capitalist state: “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.16

The subsequent history of the socialist movement has shown that Marx was right that the state is not a neutral body, but a means of perpetuating capitalist class rule. Real power does not lie in the parliament of even the most democratic capitalist state. Instead it resides in the boardrooms of the big banks and giant corporations that control the economy and in the state machine—the senior civil servants, military top brass, chiefs of police and judges. Left-wing governments that are perceived to be a threat to capital have been routinely subjected to economic blackmail and sabotage by financial institutions with the support of senior civil servants. The crushing of the hopes of the radical left-wing Syriza formation by the the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund after it was elected to office in Greece in 2015 is a recent example of this.17 If that does not work, capital is willing to ditch parliamentary rule and use the deep state to overthrow reformist governments. The most notorious example of this was the bloody overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973. Even the possibility of mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn becoming British prime minister was met with dark threats of army mutinies from a senior serving general in 2015.18

Because these barriers to a socialist transformation of society come from unelected centres of power, establishing a socialist society will mean going much further than winning a majority in parliament or a presidential campaign. It will require general strikes, militant demonstrations and the rest of the tactical repertoire of insurrection. Most crucially, the working class will need to generate alternative organs of working-class power: democratic workers’ institutions based around workplaces that can first paralyse and then replace the economic and repressive functions of the capitalist state. This is unlikely without the formation of a revolutionary party that sets such a process of working-class empowerment as its aim. Looking to parliament as the key arena of political contestation demobilises working-class self-activity by passing responsibility for the struggle to a small group of parliamentarians. That means that socialists should never act as though movements from below are simply an auxiliary to debates in parliament, or even to a left-wing government. As the Marxist writer Chris Harman once put it, “the job of revolutionaries is to break the illusions that workers have in a ‘left’ government—and that means taking up all the partial limited struggles of workers, generalising them and leading them even if they conflict with the strategy of the government. In short, it is to organise a left opposition to the government, seeking to replace the reliance on the state with the self-organisation of workers”.19 However, this approach was always foreign to Kautsky.

A passive revolution

In 1894, Kautsky published a history of representative democracy called Parliamentarism and Democracy, which defended parliamentary democracy against expressions of direct democracy such as referendums and local assemblies. Importantly, he also argued that parliamentary democracy was not a specifically capitalist form of government, but could be used in order to “serve the most diverse class interests”.20 According to Kautsky: “It is beginning to become apparent that a real parliamentary regime can be just as well an instrument for the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.21 He went on to criticise anarchists for wanting to destroy the state.

Kautsky’s support for parliamentarianism portended the emergence of even more right-wing currents within the SPD. In 1899, Eduard Bernstein published his book Evolutionary Socialism and began an open struggle against the Marxist “orthodoxy” of the SPD that was associated with Kautsky. Bernstein had penned the Erfurt Programme alongside Kautsky, writing the SPD’s “minimum programme” of immediate demands. Evolutionary Socialism argued in theory for what was increasingly the practice of the party: circumscribed trade union and parliamentary action to achieve limited reforms. For Bernstein, the partial gains of the trade unions and the passage of social legislation through the Reichstag would permit a very gradual “growing over” of German society into socialism:

Constitutional legislation works more slowly… Its path is usually that of compromise… But it is stronger than the revolutionary scheme, where prejudice and the limited horizon of the great mass of the people appear as hindrances to social progress, and it offers greater advantages where it is a question of the creation of permanent economic arrangements capable of lasting.22

The views of Bernstein and his supporters were an intellectual expression of the interests of the trade union bureaucracy and the openly class-collaborationist politics of figures such as Georg von Vollmar of the Bavarian SPD. Vollmar had opposed the Erfurt Programme and wanted to water down the party’s politics to make it more attractive to the peasantry and the liberal middle classes, and thus open the way for coalition governments with their political representatives.

After some hesitation Kautsky fought back against this emerging political current in the SPD. He was supported both by veteran party leader August Bebel and younger radicals such as Rosa Luxemburg and Alexander Parvus. Bernstein was accused of “revisionism”—the abandonment of the fundamental tenets of Marxism. Kautsky challenged opportunist appeals to the peasantry and the middle classes, defended the political independence of the working class and opposed Bernstein’s open reformism. In The Social Revolution, published in 1902, he decried the idea of a gradualist “evolutionary socialism” as utopian:

The working class, when it has gained the first great victory over capital that will place the political powers in its hands, can apply them in no other way than to the abolition of the capitalist system. So long as this has not yet happened, the battle between the two classes will not and cannot come to an end. Social peace inside of the capitalist system is a utopia that has grown out of the real needs of the intellectual classes, but has no foundation in reality for its development. And no less of a utopia is the imperceptible growth of capitalism into socialism.23

However, despite these attacks on Berstein’s evolutionary socialism, Kautsky’s alternative was an entirely passive political strategy. His own theory of social transformation was underpinned by the view that socialism would come as the inevitable result of the economic development of capitalism. As capitalist industry grew, the working class would become bigger and more organised; as it became bigger and more organised, so its class consciousness would also develop; and as its consciousness developed, so the number of votes for the SPD would pile up. This irresistible growth would ultimately mean an overwhelming socialist majority in parliament and the beginning of the socialist reconstruction of society. The party thus played a passive role as the final term in a mechanical social process rooted in the economic development of capitalism. Kautsky summed up this theory when he explained that the SPD “is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponent to prevent it”.24

By 1904, revisionism appeared to have been defeated in the party. However, the apparent victory of the left was superficial. Reformist and ­electoralist practices continued to grow in influence, even as party leaders paid lip service to Marxist orthodoxy. Indeed, Bernstein and Kautsky had far more in common than was suggested by the heat and light generated by the debates in the party about revisionism. In 1898, before Kautsky had decided to take up the fight against revisionism, he had written to Bernstein, “I completely agree with you that in England the road to the development of a socialist society is open without a revolution”. Thus, although he criticised Bernstein’s open abandonment of revolution, he did not do so in terms that challenged reformist practice.

In the next few years, under the influence of the 1905 Revolution in Russia and growing class polarisation in Germany, Kautsky appeared to move to the left. The huge uprising across the Russian Empire had a major impact on the left in Germany, where workers showed a new combativity. Unlike the leaders of the right-wing Menshevik wing of the Russian socialist movement, such as Georgi Plekhanov, Kautsky had foreseen the revolution in the Russian Empire and the leading role of the working class within it. He expected it to stimulate class struggles in the rest of Europe. Interestingly he also argued that events in Russia showed that it was possible for countries that had developed economically at a slower pace than the leading capitalist nations could skip over the stages of development that those more advanced economies had gone through:

Society as a whole cannot leap over any stage of evolution, but single backward portions thereof can easily do this. So it was possible that Russian society might leap over the capitalist stage in order to immediately develop the new communism out of the old. So it was possible that Russian society might leap over the capitalist stage. But a condition of this is that socialism in the rest of Europe should become victorious.25

He also had insight into the role of the peasantry, claiming that “the Russian and the French Revolutions will be alike in that the breaking up of the great private landed estates will constitute a tie that will bind the peasants indissolubly to the revolution”.26 Nevertheless, he ultimately argued that the underdevelopment of capitalism in Russia meant that the aims of the 1905 Revolution should be limited to winning bourgeois democracy. Furthermore, no matter how radical his positions on the revolution in Russia were, Kautsky proceeded far more cautiously closer to home.

The road to power?

In the 1907 general election, the SPD experienced its first major electoral setback since the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws, losing 38 seats in the Reichstag. The crucial issue during the election had been colonial policy, which had been put under the spotlight when troops bloodily repressed a revolt in Germany’s South West Africa colony (now Namibia). The SPD had condemned the massacres and opposed colonialism. This lost it middle-class support, although its working-class base remained solid. The party’s right wing, led by Gustav Noske and backed by the trade union leaders, blamed the left for the losses and demanded a more patriotic line. Kautsky opposed this and argued that the election had politically solidified the party’s working-class support. At the conference of the Socialist International that was held that year in Stuttgart, he challenged openly Bernstein’s support for colonialism.27 However, from this point onwards, Bebel and the party leadership allied ever more closely with the union bureaucracy and the revisionists.

In the shadow of these events, and the defeat of Russia’s 1905 Revolution, Kautsky published The Road to Power. This book is still regarded by some as his most radical work. Even after his fall from grace among the revolutionary left, some Bolshevik leaders continued to regard it as a revolutionary manifesto.28 But was it?

In The Road to Power, Kautsky argued that two social developments were leading towards “a new era of social revolutions”.29 First, the concentration and centralisation of capital was resulting in imperialist tensions between the most powerful national capitalist classes. Second, the labour movement was growing in strength and this would lead to major class struggles. Trade union action on its own would no longer be sufficient to advance the interests of the working class. The employers were getting more organised. The rise of monopoly capitalism, tariffs and increased taxation to fund the arms race meant that prices were going up faster than unions could win wage rises. Yet despite this radical prognosis, Kautsky maintained a studied vagueness on what form a revolution would take. The historian Carl Schorske explains, “although Kautsky’s descriptions of the objective development pointed towards revolution more surely than his earlier writings, his conception of the role of the proletariat had evolved towards passivity.”

One measure of this was Kautsky’s attitude towards mass strikes in The Road to Power. The tactic of mass strikes was to be reserved for attacks by the ruling class on parliamentary democracy: “‘direct action’ of the trade unions can effectively serve only as a supplement and reinforcement, not as a substitute for the parliamentary activity of the labour parties”.30 Even if used, a general strike would have to be tightly controlled from above. Although he recognised the important role that mass strikes had played during the 1905 Revolution, he always saw them as an auxiliary to electoralism, never an alternative.

Kautsky’s views on the mass strike were developed in confrontation with Luxemburg, who stressed the importance of the mass strike as a means of ­raising the working class’s confidence and recognition of its own collective power. In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, Luxemburg argued that mass strike movements would be key to overcoming the separation between politics and economics that she saw as central to reformism. The mass strike was not just a means to circumscribed goals but stimulated the revolutionary consciousness and spiritual growth of the working class. Describing the dynamics of the mass strike, she explained:

The most precious, lasting thing in this rapid ebb and flow…is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further progress in the economic as in the political struggle.31

As Schorske sharply observes, “Luxemburg viewed the proletariat as an irresistible force. Kautsky seemed to see it as an immovable object”.32 Even in small strikes today we see workers grow in confidence and political consciousness as they see that ideas such as racism and sexism, which divide them in normal times, are a barrier to effective action. In elections workers vote as isolated individuals exposed to all the pressures of the mass media and the political system; in strikes, particularly on a large scale, they can become aware of their unique strength as a class and can thus draw closer to socialist ideas.

Even at his apparently most radical, there was an essential continuity in Kautsky’s politics. Social revolution was inevitably determined by the development of capitalism and could only come through parliament. Kautsky’s road to power was one of slow and gradual advances rather than, as Blanc claims, “a path to an anti-capitalist rupture”.33 Nonetheless, the radical tone of The Road to Power infuriated the increasingly assertive and conservative union leaders, as well as the SPD’s executive, which tried to stop the book being published by the party. Although Kautsky won that particular battle, he increasingly accommodated to the openly reformist forces now dominant in the party.34 Kautsky did oppose renewed demands from the revisionists for a coalition with the liberal capitalist parties over tax policy and electoral reform. However, this defence of the political independence of the SPD from capitalist political parties didn’t translate into a focus on working-class self-activity.

In 1910 demonstrations broke out in Prussia. Luxemburg and the local SPD congress called for mass strikes in support of them. The protests demanded the democratisation of the government in Prussia, challenging the state’s three-class system of suffrage. This crooked electoral set-up meant that the SPD gained relatively few seats in the Prussian Landtag compared to amount of working-class votes it won. Yet despite this electoral focus of the movement, Kautsky opposed mass strikes, exaggerating the strength of the German state. He argued that the mass strike had been appropriate in Russia in 1905 due to the total absence of democracy but could only be used in Germany as part of the final struggle for power.35

Kautsky and his supporters now constituted what was called the “Marxist Centre” of the SPD. He and Luxemburg had broken with one another after he refused to print an article by her in Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s theoretical journal, because it urged the use of the mass strike in the fight for democracy. He was increasingly challenged by figures on the party’s radical left, such as Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Karl Radek and Anton Pannekoek, who celebrated the spontaneous militancy of the mass strike and argued that it should be used not just to democratise the state, but to heighten workers’ revolutionary consciousness. In an article in Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky attacked the radicals’ stress on the power of direct action by workers and denounced the “the cretinism of mass actions”:

The objective of our political struggle remains…the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position in the state…not the destruction of state power.36

In a new preface to Parliamentarism and Democracy, published in 1911, Kautsky went on to criticise the giant strike wave that was then sweeping Britain, the Great Unrest. He bemoaned these strikes, which were often led by the rank and file trade unionists in the teeth of opposition from the union leaders, and claimed that “the trenchant, unbridgeable contradiction between leaders and masses that is asserting itself here is actually a great evil”.37 This interpretation of one of the greatest upsurges in British working-class history is typical of his attitude to workers’ self-activity. Luxemburg described such positions as giving theoretical cover to right-wing elements in the party and unions that wanted to return “as quickly as possible to the old comfort of the daily parliamentary and trade union routine”.38 Pannekoek explained the developing debates among socialist theorists during this period:

Under the influence of the modern forms of capitalism, new forms of action have developed in the labour movement, namely mass action… This gave rise to two trends of thought: the one took up the problem of revolution, and by analysing the effectiveness, significance and potential of the new forms of action, sought to grasp how the working class would be able to fulfil its mission; the other, as if shrinking before the magnitude of this prospect, groped among the older, parliamentary forms of action in search of tendencies which would for the time being make it possible to postpone tackling the task.39

Kautsky on imperialism and war

The is not the place to rehearse Kautsky’s polemics with Lenin about imperialism and war. Nevertheless, it is important to touch on this area of his thought because it is a key example of where his reformist politics led. By 1914 Kautsky saw imperialism as a policy choice of big capital rather than an economic necessity determined by the development of the system. Unlike Lenin and Luxemburg, he did not regard imperialism and war as inseparable from capitalism. Instead, he believed that war was only rational for certain sections of capital, such as arms manufacturers. Early in the First World War he devised his theory of “ultra-imperialism”. This argued that the next stage of capitalism would involve big business pressurising states to reach international agreement on economic competition, trade and access to raw materials, thereby avoiding conflict.40 Furthermore, with the outbreak of the world war, Kautsky now saw socialism as one possibility and no longer inevitable.

As we have seen, with the rise of German imperialism and the approach of world war, the SPD leadership had abandoned its earlier opposition to militarism and colonialism. This shift was driven mainly by the increasing control of the party by the trade union bureaucracy. Kautsky adapted his positions to this political reality and based his opposition to imperialist war on a qualified, legalistic basis. He argued that socialists should react differently to a war of defence as opposed to a war of offence. He also abandoned his earlier position that the duty of socialists was to oppose militarism in their own country, regardless of the nature of the internal regime of the belligerent nations. He rejected the idea of a mass strike against war and argued that it was unrealistic to expect the Second International to stop the bloodshed: the International was only effective in peace time.41 He now accepted the “necessity of defending one’s own homeland”.42

Kautsky participated in the notorious meeting of the SPD’s Reichstag fraction on the night of 3 August 1914. With his support, the SPD parliamentarians voted to give the government access to war funds on the following day. Kautsky viewed the maintenance of party unity as the priority for socialists during the war. Once the war ended, Kautsky expected business as usual to resume—the peaceful expansion of capitalism and gradual democratisation.43 Thus, in the meantime, socialists should work for peace rather than revolution—only peaceful capitalist development and the slow work of democratisation could lead to socialism.

The position of the revolutionaries on the SPD left was the total opposite. They argued that workers should seek to turn the imperialist war between ­different countries into a civil war between the capitalists and the working class. Liebknecht declared that “the main enemy is at home”.44 These radicals rightly criticised the Second International for failing to oppose the war and denounced their apologists, such as Kautsky. Luxemburg called for the creation of a new revolutionary anti-imperialist international.

Lenin the Kautskyian?

Both Lih and Blanc, with different emphases, try to paper over the differences between Kautsky and Lenin in their Jacobin articles.45 Lih argues that Kautsky’s pre-1914 ideas guided the Bolsheviks during 1917 and that the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917 through winning a majority in the soviets rather than through insurrection. He goes on to argue that they were not in principle opposed to convening a parliament, the Constituent Assembly, as they had called for this to happen before the October revolution.

In fact, Lih fudges form and content. The insurrection in October meant that the Bolshevik slogans demanding a Constituent Assembly were no longer relevant. To allow such a body to be set up would not have furthered the aims of the working class, but simply handed a platform to right-wing political currents such as the Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, allowing them to continue their opposition to the October Revolution. Soviet power and the Constituent Assembly were incompatible. For this reason, the Constituent Assembly that was formed in January 1918 was subsequently dispersed by the Soviet government.

Lih also makes much of Kautsky’s opposition to agreements between the SPD and bourgeois democrats, which he described in The Road to Power as “moral and political suicide”.46 This focus on working-class political independence apparently informed Lenin’s revolutionary strategy: “For Russia in 1917, Kautsky’s advice about anti-agreementism was political gold, enabling the Bolsheviks to win political power”.47 However, the idea that the Bolsheviks substantially drew on Kautsky to inform their political strategy in 1917 is baseless. The Bolsheviks had held this position long before the publication of The Road to Power.48 It had been a central focus of their disagreements with the Menshevik wing of Russian socialism even before the 1905 Russian Revolution.49

Kautsky’s Marxism appeared consistent with the ideas of his mentors Marx and Engels and fitted the period of relative stability of the capitalist system at the turn of the century. Its focus on gradualism and the supposed inevitability of socialism reflected the steady growth of the German workers’ movement between 1871 and 1914. However, its limitations were exposed by the great ruptions of the 1910s: the growing intensity of imperialist rivalry and its impact on domestic politics in Germany, the outbreak of the First World War and the crisis of the international socialist movement, and the Russian and German Revolutions that ended the war. The Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky describes how this new situation made Kautsky’s politics less and less relevant:

The more plainly was the question of mass action in Germany itself put forward by the course of events, the more evasive Kautsky’s attitude became… The imperialist war, which killed every form of vagueness and brought mankind face to face with the most fundamental of questions, exposed all the bankruptcy of Kautsky.50

In reality Lenin and Kautsky had nothing in common in terms of practical politics even before 1914, except for a shared Marxist terminology. Lenin wasn’t aware of this and looked to Kautsky as an intellectual authority before the First World War. However, the SPD’s support for the war in August 1914 forced him to confront the problems with Kautsky’s theory and practice. The politics of Bolshevism, with its rejection of parliamentarianism and its focus on building underground organisation and workers’ self-activity, had seemed like a necessary adaptation to the Russian situation, where the socialist movement faced harsh repression and bourgeois democracy had not developed. But Lenin now recognised the relevance of Bolshevism beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. He constructed a theory of imperialism that stood in contrast to Kautsky’s, arguing that the war was a result of the dynamics of the capitalist system itself, not some narrow section of business owners such as arms manufacturers. He also looked back to Marx’s writings for a theory of the state that could counter Kautsky’s reformist approach. Most fundamentally, Lenin redeveloped the Marxist attitude to theory and practice, rejecting the passivity of Kautsky on the basis of a study of the German philosopher G W F Hegel.51

Kautsky and the German Revolution

As predicted by the most radical elements with the SPD during the First World War, the conflict did not lead to Kautsky’s vision of the resumption of peaceful capitalist development. Instead the war ended in revolution—first in Russia in 1917, and then in Germany in 1918. As Germany stared down the barrel of military defeat in November 1918, sailors’ mutinies and mass strikes gripped the country and forced out the Kaiser. Workers’ councils were formed to take control over the factories. In a desperate attempt to maintain the integrity of the army, the German military elite handed formal power to the SPD and let the party form a government for the first time in the 47 years since Germany was founded. The next five years were characterised by bitter struggles between the working class and the SPD government, which attempted to suppress the workers’ councils and channel the movement onto the terrain of parliament. All too often, the SPD allied itself with the military top brass and their paramilitary Freikorps units to suppress workers’ uprisings. In practice, the SPD’s theory that the state was the fulcrum for progressive social change meant a defence of that state from working class resistance.

James Muldoon argues in Jacobin that Kautsky “offered a vision of a socialist republic worthy of renewed attention today” during this period. However, as Chris Harman and Pierre Broué show in their classic histories of the German Revolution, Kautsky played a dismal role in these events.52 Kautsky had reluctantly left the SPD in 1917 in protest at its slavish support for the war effort and helped to form the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Its leaders’ rhetoric was revolutionary at times, but its practice was no different from the SPD’s pre-war Marxist Centre. When the revolution broke out in 1918, Kautsky saw its aims as a democratic parliamentary republic, which had already been achieved by 1919, and the “socialisation” of production through factory and workers’ councils. In practice, this meant opposing the overthrow of the state when it was at its weakest, arguing against workers disarming the military high command and allowing time for the generals and capitalists to regain their strength.

Kautsky’s attachment to parliamentarianism meant that he was a strong supporter of the new National Assembly and an opponent of workers’ councils assuming political power, because he believed that they would disrupt production and provoke counter-revolution. Any alternative to parliamentary democracy was chaos to him.53 He argued that democracy required that parliament existed alongside workers’ councils as, unlike workers’ councils, it included the whole population. Of course, this contradicted his previous belief that the dictatorship of the proletariat would mean the exclusive rule of the working class, albeit one exercised by a socialist majority in parliament. Furthermore, all of this ignored the real function of the National Assembly, which was to demobilise the energy of the workers’ movement.

The new SPD government appointed Kautsky as chair of the Commission for Socialisation in November 1918. The official role of the commission was to prepare for the “socialisation” of industry—its transfer from private ownership to public or workers’ control. However, the leaders of the SPD saw things much more cynically. For them, the role of the commission was to appease the workers’ councils and stop them taking radical action against their employers. SPD ministers had no intention of carrying out the commission’s recommendations and Kautsky and all its members resigned in protest in February 1919. Nevertheless, Kautsky’s role in the commission never posed a real threat to capital. He saw the revival of production as the priority for Germany after the war; after all, socialism was impossible without economic development. His goals were far more limited. Speaking at the Second Congress of the Workers’ Councils in February 1919, he argued that “complete socialisation is an empty slogan” and a “ruinous aspiration” that would “render all capitalist production impossible”.54 Instead, he advocated the establishment of works councils consisting of employers and unions.

Kautsky’s belief that the capitalist state could be transformed and democratised framed his political activities. Since socialism required a left-wing majority in parliament, he placed a special emphasis on the unity of the SPD and the USPD. When a large section of the USPD voted to fuse with the fledgling German Communist Party (KPD) in 1920, Kautsky took the opportunity to re-join the SPD. Increasingly, he blamed Bolshevism and the KPD for the divisions in the workers’ movement, the defeat of the German Revolution and the ultimate victory of the Nazis and Stalinism.

Kautsky and left reformism today

Do the ideas of Karl Kautsky matter today? The left-wing reformist political practice that he advocated has grown in popularity over the past decade. Although most of those who rushed to the banner of Sanders or who flooded into the Labour Party to support Corbyn will have never heard of Kautsky, his ideas are important—but not for the positive reasons set in the Jacobin articles referred to above. In his piece, Blanc argues, “Kautsky’s radical democratic vision is not the final word in Marxist politics, it’s an excellent starting point.” He goes on to write:

We’ll never overcome capitalism without a realistic strategy for doing so. Without first winning a democratic election, socialists won’t have the popular legitimacy and power necessary to effectively lead an anti-capitalist rupture.55

In his book The Socialist Manifesto, published last year, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara envisages a socialist society being introduced in the US by a left-wing president with a socialist majority in Congress.56 Sunkara may have had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he predicted this future socialist president would be Bruce Springsteen, but he is very clear that there is an electoral road to socialism in the US. Emphasising the need to democratise the US election system, Sunkara acknowledges the problems of electoralism for the left and argues that mass ­pressure through street actions and strikes is needed and that socialists must “embed themselves in working-class struggles”.57 Nevertheless, he clearly sees socialism as coming through elections rather than revolution and workers’ struggles as auxiliary rather than central to social change. Moreover, Sunkara does not envision a break with the Democratic Party, a purely capitalist electoral formation that he admits is designed to “stymie challenges from below”.58

Blanc cites the experience of Finland in 1917-18 as a positive example of the utilisation of parliament in a bourgeois democracy. Unfortunately, it was anything but that.59 Within months of taking power, the socialist government was overthrown with extreme brutality and an estimated 100,000 workers were massacred by the victorious reactionary armies.60 Otto Kuusinen, one of the leaders of the Finnish Social Democrats, summed up the mistakes of the revolutionaries:

But what was the watchword of the Social Democrats? The power of the workers? No, it was democracy, a democracy which should not be violated. Our position…was utopian. Such a democracy could at best be created only on paper. Such a thing has never existed in a society formed of classes and can never develop there. In democracy a robber class has always stolen power from the people.61

Blanc claims that democratically elected governments “had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for a revolutionary approach to be realistic”.62 He states that the October Revolution in Russia “toppled an autocratic, non-capitalist state, not a parliamentary regime.” Of course, this forgets that a capitalist regime had been set up in February 1917 and was overthrown in the October insurrection.63 He further argues that the working class has never preferred workers’ councils to parliament, but this is a selective reading of international working-class history, at best. It is true that workers’ councils have not yet replaced a parliamentary regime. However, there are a number of examples where workers established workers’ councils or similar bodies alongside parliament in revolutionary situations: Germany between 1918 and 1923 Italy in 1920, Spain in 1936 and Chile in 1972.64

Parliaments and similar institutions of bourgeois democracy legitimise capitalist class rule by concealing the real relations of power. They atomise the working class geographically, institutionalise the separation of politics from economics, and separate the legislative and executive functions of the state. The lack of accountability of representatives means that even the most democratic parliament does not represent workers’ interests. Parliaments paralyse rather than facilitate workers’ ability to fight. Workers may largely accept the legitimacy of parliaments in normal times but in revolutionary situations they are driven to set up their own forms of collective social organisation. Its thorough institutions such as workers’ councils that they can use their power at the point of production for both economic and political ends, and begin to take over the functions of the capitalist state.

Blanc refers favourably to Kautsky’s view that “technological advances…had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old 19th century model of barricade street fighting”.65 Engels came to the same conclusion as early as 1895, as he explained in his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France. That did not mean, however, that Engels believed that socialism would come through parliament, that insurrection was a thing of the past or that there was no role for street fighting. He meant only that a successful revolution could no longer be made by a minority.66 Engels was writing before the revolutionary role of mass strikes and workers’ councils was known. The Kapp Putsch of 1920, the defeat of the fascist coup in Spain in 1936 and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 all show that modern armies can be defeated by revolutionary workers. More recently, the Sudanese Revolution, although not yet victorious, shows that the army can be successfully confronted by popular resistance in a modern state.67 Clear political leadership is at least as important as brute force.

For Kautsky, democracy was an abstract historical phenomenon that existed under feudalism and capitalism and will exist under socialism. Democracy is thus influenced by the class structure of particular societies but is also essentially independent of it. For revolutionary Marxists, bourgeois democracy is qualitatively different from workers’ democracy. It is the preferred form of rule by the capitalist class because it enables it to claim popular legitimacy, even if universal suffrage and many other democratic rights had to be won through working-class struggle.68 The bourgeoisie has frequently scrapped parliament when it felt this was necessary.

Kautsky believed that democracy is something different to socialism, though essential to it, and, in his earlier days, that the dictatorship of the ­proletariat could be exercised through parliament. What revolutionary Marxists understand by the dictatorship of the proletariat is the exercise of the power by the workers themselves to suppress the ruling class and smash its state. This would make possible democratic rule by the working class through a network of workers’ councils and a workers’ militia. Contrary to what Kautsky argued, these forms of proletarian democracy must be thrown up in the course of the struggle to replace the special bodies of armed men and women and the state bureaucracy whose function is to ensure the continuation of capitalist class rule. As Lenin put it, “dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over the other classes, but it does mean the abolition (or very real material restriction, which is a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised”.69 Luxemburg observed:

As bred-in-the-bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German social democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must have a majority. The same, they say, applies to revolution: first let’s become a “majority”. The true dialectics of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority —that is the way the road runs.70

Blanc levels the strange accusation that, “Leninists have often been reluctant to proactively fight for major democratic reforms”.71 In fact where they have had the forces on the ground, Leninists have been in the forefront of all significant struggles for democratic reforms over the last century from the fight to overthrow Tsarism in the Russian Empire through to the anti-apartheid movement and the struggle against military dictatorship in Egypt today. It is part of the basis of Marxism that bourgeois democracy is the most favourable terrain for the struggle for socialism and that socialists must defend it. However, it does not follow from this that capitalism can be overthrown by means of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, as Kautsky believed throughout his life.

Left reformists will point out that, apart from the short-lived success of the Russian Revolution, there has never been a victorious socialist revolution. Revolutionary socialists will respond that no genuine, permanent socialist society has ever been established through parliament either. There has been a very welcome revival of interest in socialist ideas, inspired by Corbynism in Britain and Sanderism in recent years. However, these movements have failed to put a socialist into either 10 Downing Street or the White House—let alone begun the socialist transformation of society that is so urgently needed. Socialists should of course support and participate in electoral campaigns where appropriate, but these must be a means to build the mass movement in the workplaces and communities. It is in those places that the power of working people lies, and thus it is in those places that the capitalist system will be overturned. We will search in vain in the works of Kautsky for guidance on how to do that.

Tony Phillips works in the fire service and is a Unison trade union branch secretary.


1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Gareth Jenkins and John Rose for their comments and helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

2 Lih, 2019.

3 Blanc, 2019.

4 Muldoon, 2019.

5 See Schorske, 1955, chapters 4 and 5.

6 Kautsky, 1910.

7 Kautsky, 1910, p15.

8 Kautsky, 1910, p2.

9 Quoted in Molyneux, 1985, p37.

10 Kautsky, 1910, p16.

11 Molyneux, 1985, p37.

12 Kautsky, 1910, p15.

13 Salvadori, 1979, p39.

14 See Badayev, 1987.

15 Marx, 1969, p220.

16 Marx, 1969, p217.

17 See Garganas, 2015.

18 See Kimber, 2020.

19 Harman, 1977.

20 Lewis, 2019, p129.

21 Lewis, 2019, p139.

22 Bernstein, 1907, part 3.

23 Kautsky, 1903, volume 1, part 3.

24 Kautsky, 2007, p50.

25 Kautsky, 1905.

26 Kautsky, 1906, p102.

27 Riddell, 1984, pp45-47.

28 Lenin, 1970, p2.

29 Kautsky, 2007, p91.

30 Kautsky, 2007, p80. Italics in original.

31 Luxemburg, 1986, pp38-39.

32 Schorske, 1955, p115.

33 Blanc, 2019.

34 See Schorske, 1955, pp182, 186.

35 Schorske, 1955, p184.

36 Quoted in Salvadori, 1979, p162-163.

37 Lewis, 2019, p49.

38 Quoted in Salvadori, 1979, p142.

39 Pannekoek, 1978.

40 See Kautsky in Riddell, 1984, p287.

41 See Kautsky in Riddell, 1984, p236.

42 Quoted in Salvadori, 1979, p184.

43 Salvadori, 1979, pp183-190.

44 Liebknecht, 1915.

45 A previous article in this journal by Gareth Jenkins and Kevin Corr has challenged Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered, which claims that Lenin’s politics were indistinguishable from those of Kautsky—see Jenkins and Corr, 2014.

46 Kautsky, 2007, p105.

47 Lih, 2019.

48 See Lenin in Day and Gaido, 2011, pp580, 586.

49 Cliff, 1986, pp142-146.

50 Trotsky, 1975, p189.

51 Molyneux, 1978, pp70, 78.

52 See Harman, 1986 and Broué, 2006.

53 Salvadori, 1979, p238.

54 Fowkes, 2015, p33.

55 Blanc, 2019.

56 Sunkara, 2019, p14.

57 Sunkara, 2019, p226.

58 Sunkara, 2019, p231.

59 For the full story, see Serge, 1992 and Newsinger, 2018.

60 Serge, 1992, p188.

61 Quoted in Newsinger, 2018.

62 Blanc, 2019.

63 Blanc, 2019.

64 On Germany and Italy, see Gluckstein, 1984; on Spain, see Broué and Témime, 2008, chapter 5; on Chile, see Barker, 1987, pp55-61.

65 Blanc, 2019.

66 Engels, 1895.

67 See Alexander, 2020.

68 Blanc, 2019.

69 Lenin, 1970, p10.

70 Luxemburg, 1970, p374.

71 Blanc, 2019.


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