Posted on 13th July 2020
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. Ctd....