Guest Posts

Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade

In the last few years, there has been a revival of interest in Kautsky's politics in both academia and on the political left.

October 03, 2018

Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, 1910

At the height of the Second International, Karl Kautsky was recognized by socialists and anti-socialists alike as “The Pope of Marxism” for his popularization and systematization of Marxist ideas. The great figures of the day looked to him for guidance, whether Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, or Eugene Debs. Since Kautsky was such an authoritative voice on Marxism, his subsequent betrayal was so deep that later communists could be forgiven for mistaking his first name as “Renegade” (as Lenin bitterly called him). Although Kautsky fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, in the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his politics in both academia (notably by the scholar Lars Lih) and on the political left. This raises questions about the meaning of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism and about what, if anything, a renewed revolutionary left should adopt from it as our own?

Kautsky’s Orthodoxy

Karl Kautsky was originally born in Prague in 1854 and joined the socialist movement while a student there in the mid-1870s. However, it was only after moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that he began his rise to prominence. In 1883, Kautsky was made editor of Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s main theoretical journal, for which he wrote on many theoretical, historical, and political topics. By 1891, Kautsky’s reputation had grown so much among socialists that he was chosen to co-write the SPD’s Erfurt Programme and a popular commentary on it known as The Class Struggle.

The Erfurt Programme and subsequent works by Kautsky systematized the SPD’s understanding of Marxist orthodoxy. According to Kautsky, the contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to break down. Capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization, and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and sharper divisions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Ultimately, the relations of production would cease to foster the development of the productive forces, and this would signal the onset of the socialist revolution.

For Kautsky, it was the mission of social democracy to educate the workers that their salvation could not be found in capitalism, but only in socialism. To accomplish this task, social democracy had to be the leadership not only of the workers, “but of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population. We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class.”[1] It was the great mission of social democracy to merge Marxist theory with the working class movement in order to lead it to final victory: “Socialism as a doctrine certainly has its roots in modern economic relationships just like the class struggle of the proletariat, and just like the latter, it emerges out of the struggle against the poverty and misery of the masses that capitalism creates. But they arise simultaneously, not one out of the other, and on different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” [2] Without the merger of the working class movement and revolutionary social democracy, Kautsky thought, the proletariat would merely struggle for day-to-day reforms, and socialism would remain a futile discussion among intellectuals.

It was Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy with its belief that socialism was inevitable that shaped a generation of socialists from the United States to the Russian Empire.

The Revisionist Heresy

Kautsky’s Marxism did not go unchallenged within the SPD. In 1896-1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a series of articles that argued the time had come to revise Marxist theory, which amounted to renouncing socialist revolution as a goal and a call for the SPD to focus all their efforts on seeking social reform, and abandon the prospects of a social revolution.

Bernstein’s revisionist challenge threatened the entire edifice of Kautsky’s orthodoxy and the SPD’s raison d’être. Kautsky’s response restated his basic positions on class polarization, the difference between reforms and revolution, and the need for the conquest of power. This largely satisfied the SPD party leadership, who twice voted against Bernstein’s revisionism in 1899 and 1901.

However, strains were beginning to show at the seams of Kautsky’s Marxism. His orthodoxy could explain the past and predict a glorious socialist future, but it was of little use in present struggles. Kautsky tended toward fatalism and passivity in the here and now. He simply advocated that the SPD slowly accumulate its forces through a “strategy of attrition” by strengthening its apparatus and winning votes until they achieved a parliamentary majority. In practice, this was little different than what the revisionists argued. Despite what Kautsky may have believed, socialism as a goal receded into the horizon. At one point, he even stated: “[the SPD is] a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

The practical triumph of revisionism in the SPD was something that Kautsky was unwilling to confront since he perceived it largely as a theoretical issue and not an organizational one. For Kautsky and other orthodox Marxists, the unity of the SPD was something that needed to be maintained at all costs. The SPD’s powerful apparatus, millions of votes, and the support of the trade unions was a sign of the coming socialist future. In fact, he believed that the unity of the SPD was identical to the unity of the working class. It did not even matter to Kautsky that all members of the party did not share a common Marxist worldview: “One can be a good comrade without believing in the materialist conception of history, but one is in no sense a good comrade if one does not submit to the congresses of the party.”[4] All theoretical differences could be solved within the party, no matter how serious they were.

However, this dream of party unity and Kautsky’s historical schema would not survive a practical challenge of war and revolution.

The Bolshevik Challenge

In 1905, revolution erupted in Russia, and Kautsky offered strategic advice on the way forward. Kautsky angered the more moderate Mensheviks (who shared his orthodoxy) by advocating that the workers lead the revolution as opposed to subordinating themselves to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky declared: “The age of bourgeois revolutions, i.e. of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… As soon as the proletariat appears as an independent class with independent revolutionary aims, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class..."[5] It is no wonder that both Lenin and Trotsky saw Kautsky’s positions as endorsements of their own.

That Kautsky could be claimed by Trotsky and Lenin showcased the ambiguity of his own position. For one, Kautsky did not advocate permanent revolution as Trotsky did (the democratic revolution growing over to a socialist one). As Kautsky said, “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”[6] While Lenin and Trotsky believed that Czarism would not be toppled without an armed struggle (leading them to hail the December insurrection in Moscow), Kautsky argued instead: “the revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war.”[7]

Still, Kautsky had placed himself on the left in those debates and hoped that the Russian Revolution would revitalize the SPD. The party bureaucracy remained immobile and continued on its conservative course. Kautsky buried whatever misgivings he had and accepted this state of affairs. After all, the SPD was playing the role that Kautsky had assigned to it. Once again as a champion of party unity, he refused to advocate any other course. To that end, when Rosa Luxemburg argued for the SPD to employ mass strikes to win meaningful reforms, Kautsky condemned her “rebel’s impatience” of trying to reach socialism by forcing the march of history and ignoring objective limitations..[8] Rather, Kautsky felt confident in waiting for socialism since he believed that history was on the party’s side.

The Test of War

Kautsky’s entire system was shattered with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The SPD ignored its solemn internationalist and anti-war commitments in order to support the Kaiser’s war effort. As he said in retrospect: “It is amazing that none of us who were there had the idea of raising the question: What to do if war breaks out? What attitude should the Socialist parties take in this war?”[9] Kautsky could offer no revolutionary path for the SPD to follow in the bloody maelstrom. Instead, Kautsky offered “left” rationalizations for the SPD’s pro-war position, which led them to publicly oppose strikes against the war and even collaborate to arrest revolutionary union leaders who organized them. Thus, Kautsky was politically impotent at a critical hour. By contrast, internationalists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for revolutionary action against the war.

While Lenin had denounced Kautsky’s opportunism in the face of war, it was only following the Bolshevik Revolution that Kautsky became a “renegade.” In Terrorism and Communism, Kautsky condemned the Bolshevik Revolution on no uncertain terms for creating a minority Jacobin-style dictatorship that violated bourgeois democratic norms. Even though the Soviet Republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolutionaries, both Lenin and Trotsky took the time to respond to the slanders of their former mentor. Lenin denounced Kautsky for emptying Marxism of its revolutionary content and transforming it into something acceptable for liberals.

Trotsky said that by “abandoning the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship, Kautsky transforms the question of the conquest of power by the proletariat into a question of the conquest of a majority of votes by the Social Democratic Party in one of the electoral campaigns of the future.... This fetishism of the parliamentary majority represents a brutal repudiation, not only of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of Marxism and of the revolution altogether.”[10] The Marxist Pope had at last become the Renegade who betrayed everything he claimed to believe in.

The Verdict

While Kautsky proclaimed his Marxist orthodoxy until his death in 1938, he remained a marginal figure in political life, ignored by both social democrats and communists. His orthodoxy had at last ripped apart at the seams. Kautsky could offer no viable response to the rise of fascism, beyond viewing it as an aberration from the inevitable march of history. This would be cold comfort to the SPD members languishing in Nazi jails. His last years were spent writing
theoretically impoverished works on Marxism and vitriolic anti-communist tracts.

In his obituary for Karl Kautsky, Trotsky generously noted: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”[11] The younger Kautsky made invaluable and necessary contributions by spreading Marxist ideas, but ultimately his theoretical and organizational weaknesses proved to be his undoing. At decisive moments, when the situation called upon Kautsky to act, he failed the test. In the final instance, Kautsky’s Marxism could offer no practical revolutionary path forward to great convulsions, just assurances in the steady march of progress. Kautsky’s final legacy was in providing a “left” cover for imperialist war and an anti-communist “socialism” made safe for bourgeois liberalism.

[1] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910), 210.
[2] Quoted in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (Boston: Brill, 2014), 342.
[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.
[4] Quoted in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 127.
[5] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009), 605.
[6] Ibid. 607.
[7] Ibid. 179.
[8] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983), 185.
[9] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, Fire And Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 38.
[10] Leon Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” Marxists Internet Archive.
[11] Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky,” Marxists Internet Archive.


Karl Kautsky   /    revolutionary strategy   /    reformism   /    German Social Democratic Party (SPD)   /    Strategy   /    Elections   /    Guest Posts   /    Germany   /    Ideas & Debates