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Summary Article: Kautsky, Karl (1854-1938)
from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

Karl Kautsky was the intellectual powerhouse of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) from the 1890s until the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, as editor of the party's theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit. He was also, along with Eduard Bernstein and August Bebel, coauthor of the party's Erfurt Programme (1891), which influenced all the other European social democratic parties. Seen as successor to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and known semi-ironically as the pope of Marxism until World War I, Kautsky was dubbed a renegade by Vladimir Lenin in 1918, after Kautsky had challenged the Marxist credentials of the October Revolution. Kautsky was, in effect, the first Marxist ideologist of the first Marxist mass political party and was expected to offer a worldview in keeping with the aspirations of the late Engels. In particular, consonant with the Communist Manifesto, he saw his job as enlightening the proletariat, making it aware of its historic mission to become a ruling class. His working assumption, in line with the Manifesto's call to “win the battle of democracy,” was that the nexus between democracy and socialism was created by capitalism: The logic of democracy was socialism, once capitalism had made the proletariat the majority of the working population.

Kautsky's Marxism reflected the conditions surrounding the birth of the SPD and its continued existence. German Marxists found themselves at the head of an emerging labor movement committed largely to trade union activity and piecemeal economic, social, and political reforms. Retrospectively, this reformism was very much an expression of modernity: a developing, sophisticated division of labor; the growth of parliamentary democracy and large-scale political organizations (whether in the form of state or party); and the emergence of economic organizations (whether trade unions, companies, or employers' organizations). In other words, there existed a potential discrepancy between revolutionary Marxist theory and working-class reformist practice. The SPD, established in 1875, sought to represent the whole of the growing German proletariat embodied this dilemma. It was an amalgam of reformists and revolutionaries. The Erfurt Programme (1891) gave simultaneous expression to these potentially contradictory maximalist and minimalist aspirations, which Kautsky sought to reconcile. This task helped form the basis of his centrism.

This attempt to maintain a middle ground was even more understandable given the situation faced by the SPD. The German state, its bureaucratic machine, and its army were the most formidable in the world. Socialist activity had been outlawed between 1878 and 1890, with SPD members suffering from different forms of persecution. A background fear was that calls for militant action could again drive the party underground. Thus, winning the battle of democracy had to take account of the fact that the German army could not be confronted head-on but would have to be subverted through the democratic process itself, rendering it “faithless to the rulers.” Thus, Kautsky followed the late Engels in holding that working-class attempts to overthrow the capitalist class through violence, as occurred in France in 1848 and with the Paris Commune of 1871, ended only in defeat and were therefore things of the past. Kautsky also argued that as political culture became more democratic and consensual, a massive working-class parliamentary majority would induce the capitalist class to give up its rule relatively peacefully.

Yet, the power of the German state was not the only reason for Kautsky's advocacy of a parliamentary route to socialism. It was a key process by which the working class would develop the political maturity to become a ruling class, along with activities in trade unions and local government. Although objective, economic preconditions were necessary for socialism (socialization of production and so on), subjective ones were equally vital. The working class had to have the organizational cohesiveness and skills to become a ruling class, to become a fully fledged proletarian dictatorship.

Kautsky also justified parliamentary democracy because it was a manifestation of the growing division of labor in modern society, with its division between executive and legislative functions. Given what he saw as the obvious benefits of an increasingly sophisticated division of labor he wanted to minimize the effects of any revolutionary rupture. The danger of violent revolution was that the productive base required for a socialist economy would get destroyed, producing a “crippled capitalism.” Again, this was one of the virtues of a parliamentary transition, enabling socialism to be introduced in a relatively orderly manner.

Kautsky's centrist and parliamentarist positions put him at odds with many in the SPD. He opposed the party's revisionist right wing in the early 1900s, not merely because it assumed that the contradictions of capitalism could be eliminated within capitalism, but also because it threatened party unity. Eduard Bernstein, in calling for an alliance with middle-class parties, blatantly challenged the theoretical raison d'être of the SPD, of alerting the proletariat to its historic mission. Kautsky held that the German middle class was by and large conservative and nationalistic. He also opposed electoral and governmental coalitions between the SPD and bourgeois parties because of the fundamental conflict of interests between them. In 1910, Kautsky campaigned against the party's left wing, led by Rosa Luxemburg, who had been inspired by Russian workers in 1905, over the mass strike tactic aimed at broadening the Prussian franchise. Kautsky contrasted the relative strengths of the Russian and German states and feared the response of the German military-bureaucratic machine; he thought the tactic could only harm the SPD's prospects in the forthcoming elections.

Kautsky was not opposed to the mass strike in principle but held that it was not an alternative to electoral activity and should be employed only in the final phases of a revolutionary process, when workers had every chance of winning against the capitalists. During the German Revolution of 1918, his centrism and parliamentarism led him to refuse to opt for either parliament or workers' councils as the institutional embodiment of proletarian dictatorship, preferring parliament and workers' councils.

The need for party unity and Kautsky's parliamentary strategy also induced him not to oppose Germany's participation in World War I, the beginning of what Lenin regarded as apostasy. While the war lasted, the social and economic issues that could bring the SPD to power through the electoral process were marginalized. In calling for a democratic peace without annexations, Kautsky was prepared to ally himself tactically with the middle classes. His theory of ultra-imperialism supported this electoral strategy in suggesting that World War I did not constitute the final crisis of capitalism because capitalist powers could cooperate in exploiting the economically underdeveloped regions of the globe.

From Lenin's viewpoint, Kautsky's opposition to the Bolshevik Revolution consummated his apostasy from the Marxist cause. Kautsky's case against the Bolsheviks was grounded on his parliamentary strategy and his appraisal of Russian and world conditions. He rejected Lenin's “weak link” hypothesis—that a proletarian revolution in Russia would detonate revolutions in the West—and he was hostile to the Bolshevik dictatorship, which started with the disbanding of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918. Kautsky insisted instead that a democratic parliamentary path was the only viable one in fostering the ruling skills of the proletariat—a vital subjective precondition for socialism. Furthermore, in the absence of imminent world revolution, only one conclusion could be drawn: Economic and social conditions—a numerically small proletariat, a large peasantry, and underdeveloped productive forces—rendered Russia unripe for socialism. Kautsky was also appalled by the denial of full civil and political rights to the former bourgeoisie, demonstrating the Bolsheviks' unwillingness to raise the “whole of humanity” to “a higher plane.” He rejected Lenin's idea of proletarian dictatorship, which consisted of a tyrannical form of government, rather than a political condition naturally arising from the proletariat constituting the majority in a capitalist and democratic state. Kautsky characterized the Soviet Union as state capitalist, with the state and capitalist bureaucracies merged into one system.

Kautsky, a Marxist Renegade?

Does Kautsky deserve the opprobrium heaped on him by his critics? Whatever the slight tactical changes during World War I, Kautsky was remarkably consistent, both strategically and theoretically. Thus, if he was a renegade, he had been so throughout his long political career. Indeed, Lenin between 1914 and 1917 made the greater theoretical changes in seeing World War I as representing the terminal crisis of capitalism and the Russian Revolution as the beginning of a global workers' revolution.

The differences between Kautsky and his critics partly reflect various tensions within Marxism itself, either inherent in the theory or arising from the practical difficulty that any political ideology has in adjusting to specific economic, social, political, and cultural circumstances. Thus, on the question of socialist transition, he could claim that he was merely echoing Marx's and Engels's optimism about the efficacy of universal suffrage as an instrument of working-class self-emancipation, of winning the battle of democracy by using the weapons that the bourgeoisie itself had created, as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx had also alluded to the possibility of relatively peaceful parliamentary change in such countries as Britain, the United States, and Holland. Marx also, unlike Lenin, made no distinction between bourgeois (that is, parliamentary) and proletarian (that is, direct) democracy. In addition, the later Marx extolled the productive virtues of the division of labor, which Kautsky then, like Max Weber, extended to the operation of the modern state with reference to the legislature, executive, and bureaucracy. Furthermore, Kautsky could rely on the late Engels's observation that street-fighting days were over, given the organization and weaponry of modern armies. Lenin, on the other hand, could refer to Marx's antistatism, his emphasis on the need to “smash” the state because it reflected the existence of a class society and impeded workers' self-emancipation. Marx also maintained that parliaments concealed the real power of the executive arm of the state. Ultimately, the choice of which Marx or Engels to cite was the product of different conditions in which Kautsky and Lenin were operating. Kautsky's wish to avoid violence almost at all costs meant that he had little to offer to a Russian society, which was in deep crisis and subject to rapid change. Likewise, Lenin was unable to appreciate the depth of the Western working-class's attachment to parliamentary democracy.

The differences between Kautsky and his neo-Hegelian critics, especially Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, who held that Kautsky's political failure was the result of his philosophic failure, reflected another kind of tension within Marxism. What was the actual status of Marxism? Was it a positivistic and deterministic science of society and history, concerned with historical laws and capitalist structures, or was it a dialectical tool enabling the working class to emancipate itself? Was it structure- or agency-centered? Again, the relevant quotations could be plucked out of Marx's texts. Yet, contrary to these critics' assertions, Kautsky did attempt to overcome this tension. Thus, he distinguished between the determined nature of a social revolution (the effects of economic development), and the will needed to create a political revolution (party organization, the level of class consciousness, and political mobilization). As with Marx, Kautsky was keener to insist on economic, political, and social conditions as limiting what sort of society and action was possible, rather than to posit a determining relation. Moreover, although he talked about the inevitability of socialism, which the neo-Hegelians claimed encouraged working-class passivity, so, too, did Marx. In both cases, inevitability was in a propagandistic register, aimed to inspire the proletariat to take political action rather than induce retreat. And Kautsky's awareness of the unpredictable consequences of using political violence, as demonstrated by the nature of the revolutions in France in 1789, 1848, and 1871, provide the background understanding of his caution on this issue. Indeed, the reluctance to advocate a violent revolution sprang less from his philosophy than from his analysis of the concrete conditions needed for socialist transition.

We should also note that the neo-Hegelians were wrong to assume that Kautsky was a positivist intent on using natural (Darwinian) laws to understand society. Although he was strongly influenced by Darwin in his early years, he later explicitly held in The Materialist Conception of History that natural and social laws were different and that human history could not be explained solely in terms of human survival. Finally, the neo-Hegelians claimed that Kautsky divorced Marxist theory from working-class (revolutionary) practice. What we have seen is that Kautsky's theorizing was definitely practice laden but also that his conception of revolution was fundamentally different from the Soviet model. In a sense, Kautsky was an evolutionary revolutionary: He sought to achieve revolutionary ends through evolutionary means.

In sum, Kautsky was a far more complex and sophisticated thinker than he is often portrayed. He was sensitive to some of the tensions within Marxism, but he was also attempting to grapple with the concrete problems of a nascent working-class movement when faced with a state machine that was militarily well organized. Retrospectively, we can see that his model of socialist transition was closer to the limited aspirations of the European working class, but perhaps, he failed to see precisely how limited they were. Ironically, when Communists fully embraced the parliamentary road to socialism in the 1970s, they did not turn to Lenin's old adversary for inspiration but to Antonio Gramsci, who was deeply critical of the Second International Marxism as represented by Kautsky.

See also

Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Marx, Karl, Marxism, Revolution, Socialism, Weber, Max

Further Readings
  • Geary, R. (1987). Karl Kautsky. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
  • Kautsky, J. H. (1994). Karl Kautsky: Marxism, revolution, and democracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  • Kautsky, K. (1909). The road to power. Chicago: Bloch.
  • Kautsky, K. (1913). The social revolution. Chicago: Kerr.
  • Kautsky, K. (1925). The labor revolution. New York: Dial Press.
  • Kautsky, K. (1964). The dictatorship of the proletariat. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Kautsky, K. (1971). The class struggle. New York: Norton.
  • Kautsky, K. (1988). The materialist conception of history (J. H. Kautsky, Ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Korsch, K. (1970). Marxism and philosophy. London: New L.
  • V. I. (1967). The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky. Moscow: Progress.
  • Lukács, G. (1972). Political writings, 1919-29. London: New Left Books.
  • Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1988). The communist manifesto (F. L.Bender, Ed.). New York: Norton.
  • Salvadori, M. (1979). Karl Kautsky and the socialist revolution. London: New Left Books.
  • Steenson, G. P. (1979). Karl Kautsky, 1854-1938: Marxism in the classical years. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Townshend, J. Reassessing Kautsky's Marxism. Political Studies 37 : 659-664.
  • Townshend, Jules
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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