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.