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Two Trends in the American Socialist Movement: Why We Should Throw Kautsky Out With the Bathwater

After a decade of capitalist crisis and convulsions, interest in socialism has reached historic highs. Several members of Congress identify as socialists, and millions of Americans want to know what socialism is and what it isn’t. So what does it mean to be a “democratic socialist” or a “social democrat”?

Bourgeois versus workers’ democracy

The form of government we live under today, bourgeois liberal democracy, is predicated on the legal equality of individuals vis à vis their rights to private property. While we are led to believe that “everyone has a voice,” in reality, this is democracy only for the rich, since equality of property rights in the abstract means nothing when property is so unequally distributed in practice. As Marx put it, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

The term “social democracy” was originally used by those who wanted to move beyond the capitalist status quo towards a society in which everyone’s social needs were met. The debate over whether reforming capitalism is sufficient to achieve this—or whether a revolution is required—has raged ever since, as we shall see. It’s worth noting, in passing, that neither Marx nor Engels were fans of the term “social democrat,” as it reminded them of the petty-bourgeois dilettantes of the French Democratic-Socialist Party of 1848.

Nevertheless, the term caught on and was used for an entire historical period by socialists of various stripes, including the Bolshevik Party itself. The Bolsheviks coexisted with their Menshevik adversaries for over a decade as part of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), which was part of the Second International. Even in 1912, when the split between the two factions was formalized, the now-independent Bolsheviks were known as the RSDLP(b).

Lenin and Trotsky BolsheviksOnly after the October Revolution did the Bolsheviks finally drop the words “social democratic” from the party name. / Image: Public Domain

It was only after the October Revolution that they dropped the words “social democratic” altogether and became known as the All-Russian Communist Party. After the betrayal of the vast majority of the Social Democratic Parties in 1914, and the coming to power of the working class in Russia, it was no longer tenable to continue using the discredited term. A terminological line in the sand had to be drawn between the reformists and the revolutionary socialists. As Lenin said in March 1918:

As we begin socialist reforms we must have a clear conception of the goal towards which these reforms are in the final analysis directed, that is, the creation of a communist society that does not limit itself to the expropriation of factories, the land and the means of production, does not confine itself to strict accounting for, and control of, production and distribution of products, but goes farther towards implementing the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That is why the name Communist Party is the only one that is scientifically correct . . . In this respect, we may mention the many varieties of socialism, but they do not cause the confusion of the Social-Democrats with social reformers, or national socialists, or any similar parties.

But there is another aspect to the question of socialism and democracy. After the experience of Stalinism, many fear that socialism means despotism, a lack of democratic rights, and gulags. However, as Leon Trotsky eloquently stated, “Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen.” The democratic input and participation of the working majority in the running of society are indispensable for socialism to function. Socialist democracy would, therefore, be a new form of class rule, a workers’ democracy, in which the working-class majority holds the reins of political and economic power. All officials would be directly elected, accountable, and recallable by workers’ councils democratically elected by the working-class majority, drawn from all sectors of the economy. A glimpse of what this would look like was seen during the Paris Commune and in the early years of the Soviet Union.

In this way, direct, participatory democracy would supplant bourgeois representative democracy, in which only the capitalists’ interests are represented. Instead of the inefficient and phony “checks and balances” of liberal democracy—which serve only as a check on the influence and participation of the majority in government—executive and legislative functions would be combined in a single elective body. The growth of bureaucracy would be cut across by a politically active and engaged working class and by the fact that officials are paid no more than the workers they represent.

Karl MarxMarx explained that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” / Image: Public Domain

However, to replace bourgeois democracy with workers’ democracy, the old capitalist state apparatus must be smashed and replaced by a workers’ state. While there may be periods of “dual power” during which the contending forms of class rule vie with each other for dominance, the two cannot coexist indefinitely, or fuse. Either one class or another must rule society. As Marx wrote in The Civil War in France, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

Two trends

Thus, there are two main trends in the socialist movement. There are those who fight for socialist revolution, for reforms as a means to a revolutionary end, for the complete dismantling of the capitalist state, and for the establishment of workers’ democracy and a workers’ government, which would nationalize the key levers of the economy and mobilize the working class to defend the revolution. And there are those who limit their conception of socialism to gradual improvements in social welfare through a series of piecemeal reforms, treating these as an end in themselves and remaining within the limits of the capitalist economy and state. Moreover, the reforms they demand are contingent on what is “acceptable” to the capitalists, or “realistic” within the bounds of a system based on private ownership of the means of production—not the real needs of the workers and society’s material capacity to meet those needs.

In other words, the reformists accept capitalist profits and scarcity as a given, even though the objective potential for a world of superabundance exists here and now. The most one can hope for, they argue, is to adjust the balance between the haves and have-nots—instead of fighting to eliminate class divisions and altogether. And while some reformists may not rule out the idea of revolution in the abstract, it remains precisely that: a utopian abstraction, and certainly not something they envision happening in our lifetime. Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, they cling to the idea that a “good and just” life is possible for everyone under the present system. In the final analysis, the roots of these diverging trends can be traced to the divergent class interests and viewpoints—be they proletarian or petty bourgeois—held by those on either side of the divide.

The role of Jacobin magazine

Jacobin, the most widely read and influential periodical on the left and within DSA, has squarely inserted itself into this debate, offering its own social-democratic vision for socialism in the 21st century. While it does not put forward a clearly defined program, it does have a political line. And though it offers an eclectic mix of viewpoints, as a rule, it lands on the side of the gradualist, reformist conception of socialism, one that does not exceed the bounds of capitalism.

As part of its efforts to promote these ideas, Jacobin has increasingly sought to rehabilitate the ideas and legacy of Karl Kautsky, one of the most well-known social-democratic leaders of all time. “Programmatic” articles such as Vivek Chibber’s “Our Road to Power” include a titular nod to one of Kautsky’s classic works, and Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara has referred to Kautsky positively in several interviews over the years.

Kautsky’s conception was that the state does not represent the interests of a particular class and that capitalism could, therefore, somehow, “grow over” into socialism—without the need for revolution. This appears to be Jacobin’s basic approach as well. This “neo-Kautskyist” understanding of the state and socialism rejects the idea that we currently live under bourgeois democracy, and that the working class needs to smash the capitalist state and establish a workers’ democracy. Furthermore, it all but rejects or rules out the possibility of a successful proletarian revolution. Concrete tactical and strategic conclusions flow from this outlook—including finding ways to justify class collaboration, for example, by working within the capitalist Democratic Party.

Karl Kautsky Public DomainKautsky’s conception was that the state does not represent the interests of a particular class and that capitalism could “grow over” into socialism without the need for revolution. / Image: Public Domain

In a new Jacobin article by James Muldoon, “Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky,” the author argues that the German social democrat’s ideas are “worthy of renewed attention today” and offers “a program with much to draw on for socialists in liberal democracies today.” Socialist Revolution welcomes this contribution to the debate as it provides an opportunity to clarify a series of fundamental questions confronting the movement—above all, the question of reformism versus revolution. Unfortunately, like Kautsky himself, Muldoon’s article is not clear at all, and abounds with partial-truths, conflations, and the blurring of class lines.

Who was Karl Kautsky?

Karl Kautsky was one the historic leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the author of several notable programmatic documents, books, and articles including The Erfurt Program, Foundations of Christianity, and The Road to Power. The SPD was the “jewel in the crown” of the Socialist (Second) International. Given Kautsky’s direct connection to Marx and Engels, who he had met and corresponded with in his younger years, his authority in the socialist movement was colossal. Standing at the helm of the mightiest proletarian organization the workers of the world had ever built, he was looked to as the key theoretician of the Second International.

Lenin himself admired Kautsky—that is, until the fateful summer of 1914 when the SPD caved to social-chauvinism and sided with German imperialism in WWI. Kautsky could offer nothing as this calamity unfolded but the impotent and disarming suggestion that the SPD deputies “abstain” from voting for the Kaiser’s war credits. Though he later adopted an antiwar position, he at first viewed it as a “defensive,” and therefore “just” war against tsarist barbarism. And while he eventually left the SPD and joined the Independent German Social Democratic Party (USPD), he was always on the right wing of the antiwar socialists.

He served as under-Secretary of State in the brief SPD/USPD government of 1919, and in 1920, rejoined his old comrades in the SPD—fully aware of their crimes of murder and betrayal of the revolution. As there is no scope in this article for a full account of the various waves of the German Revolution, we wholeheartedly recommend our readers read Rob Sewell’s outstanding Germany 1918–1933: Socialism or Barbarism. But suffice it to say that when the revolution came knocking, Kautsky used his influence to derail it into safe channels for capitalism.

Muldoon writes that Kautsky “was widely considered the most authoritative interpreter of Marx’s thought.” (our emphasis) The choice of words is appropriate. In The State and Revolution, Lenin went straight to the nub of the matter:

[Marx’s] words, “to smash the bureaucratic-military machine,” briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism regarding the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to the state. And this is the lesson that has been not only completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, “interpretation of Marxism!”

As Lenin forcefully hammered home in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Kautsky “interpreted” Marx’s thought in such a way as to strip him of his revolutionary core, converting him into a harmless, “common liberal.”

Lenin Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade KautskyLenin pointed out that Kautsky’s “interpretation” of Marx’s thought stripped it of its revolutionary core. / Image: Public Domain

To be sure, some of Kautsky’s historical and economic writings, as well as his earlier—albeit half-hearted—defense of “Marxist orthodoxy” against the original revisionism of Eduard Bernstein are of some theoretical interest to this day. But even at his best, his rigidity and formalism are evident. It is no accident that he was known as “the pope” of Marxism. He thought in fixed, rigid categories, never fully absorbing—and ultimately explicitly rejecting—the dynamic and flexible dialectical materialist method of Marx and Engels. Lenin summed up the connection between Kautsky’s theoretical mistakes and the practical conclusions he drew from them: “As far as the philo­soph­ic­al roots of this phe­nomen­on are con­cerned, it amounts to the sub­sti­tu­tion of ec­lecticism and soph­istry for dialectics.”

Trot­sky neatly described Kautsky’s trajectory and role in the socialist movement his preface to the 1919 reissue of Res­ults and Pro­spects:

For decades Kautsky developed and upheld the ideas of social revolution. Now that it has become a reality, Kautsky retreats before it in terror. He is horrified at the Russian Soviet power and takes up a hostile attitude towards the mighty movement of the German Communist proletariat. Kautsky resembles a miserable schoolmaster, who for many years has been repeating a description of spring to his pupils within the four walls of his stuffy schoolroom, and when at last, at the sunset of his days as a teacher, he comes out into the fresh air, does not recognize spring, becomes furious (in so far as it is possible for this schoolmaster to become furious) and tries to prove that spring is not spring after all but only a great disorder in nature, because it is taking place against the laws of natural history. It is well that the workers do not trust even to the most authoritative pedants, but trust the voice of spring!

We, disciples of Marx, together with the German workers, stand by our conviction that the spring of revolution has arrived fully in accordance with the laws of social nature, and at the same time in accordance with the laws of Marxist theory, for Marxism is not a schoolmaster’s pointer rising above history, but a social analysis of the ways and means of the historical process which is really going on.

Long before Kautsky fully revealed his true colors, there were plenty of people who had their doubts about him. And not only Rosa Luxemburg, who worked in the same party as Kautsky and discerned the outlines of his degeneration well before Lenin, but even Marx and Engels. In Au­gust 1881, En­gels wrote to the latter-day revisionist Eduard Bern­stein that “Kaut­sky is an ex­cep­tion­ally good chap, but a born ped­ant and hair­split­ter in whose hands com­plex ques­tions are not made simple, but simple ones com­plex.”

As for Marx’s opinion:

He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature, he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

Muldoon seems to lament that Kautsky is “mainly read today as a negative example of a technical and deterministic thinker.” Well, was he or was he not that kind of thinker? He adds that Lenin accused him of being “a liberal political thinker.” We ask: did his ideas transcend liberal-capitalist legality and property relations or not? Further, he notes that Kautsky is seen as a “distorter of Marx’s writings.” We again ask: did he or did he not obfuscate the issues and amalgamate quotations selectively to fit his predetermined, anti-Marxist conclusions?

Kautsky’s “revolutionary” shell game

When reading Kautsky—or anything for that matter—what is ultimately decisive is the content, not the form, no matter how “radical” or “revolutionary” it may appear on the surface. As an example, Kautsky was an advocate of workers’ control of workplaces, partial nationalizations, and the establishment of worker cooperatives. This may appear quite radical at first glance. However, this was intended to cut across the magnificent upsurge of the German working class, which threatened to go beyond capitalist property relations altogether. Kautsky was opposed to a genuinely socialist program, i.e., the fight for public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and the democratic administration of a planned economy by the working class. In other words, in his scheme, although the workers would have more of a say in the day-to-day running of the factories, the capitalists would continue to have a majority stake in the economy, and thereby, in the running of society as a whole.

As another example, Muldoon writes:

Cutting across prominent debates at a time when the creation of a national assembly appeared to stand in tension with the formation of a “council republic,” Kautsky argued for the coexistence of parliamentary institutions alongside workers’ councils.

Again, this may sound radical on the surface. However, the idea that two antagonistic classes and governmental forms with diametrically opposed interests and can peacefully and indefinitely coexist is willfully misleading at best and an outright betrayal in practice.

Like the soviets in Russia, the workers’ councils that emerged on the initiative of the German working class represented the embryo of a new workers’ state. After the collapse of the Kaiser’s rotten Imperial regime, following years of slaughter and severe privations, the workers had every possibility of sweeping away capitalism altogether. With the capitalists too weak to smash the workers’ councils, Kautsky’s used verbal gymnastics to reduce them to a mere “consultative” role in relation to the bourgeois parliament—where the real decisions would be taken.

By buying time through these and other diversions, Kautsky and other “socialists” like him helped save capitalism from itself. They knew full well that if the revolution could be dragged out, the steam would eventually run out of the movement. Once they had reestablished a certain equilibrium, the capitalists could proceed to settle accounts with the workers. This is precisely what happened after the revolution was finally defeated after the Hamburg Uprising in 1923.

Time and again, Muldoon, like Kautsky, conflates bourgeois parliamentary democracy with workers’ democracy and assumes that the former is the only form of democracy possible. Furthermore, he repeatedly conflates workers’ democracy with Stalinism and offers no explanation for the degeneration of the USSR, taking it as a given that if the workers move to abolish capitalism, they will inevitably end up with bureaucracy and tyranny. Anyone who has read Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed knows it is a lot more complex than that, and that there is a clear, scientific explanation for what transpired in the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death.

There is no “third way”

Throughout Muldoon’s piece, reformism is passed off as revolution, and a utopian “third way” between capitalism and socialism is promoted as the way forward. However, there is no magical third way between capitalism and socialism, between reformism and revolution. Socialism is a transitional period standing between capitalism and moneyless, stateless, communism. It is not something you build within capitalism. You cannot make half a revolution, and you cannot mix oil and water. Anyone interested in what the implementation of Kautsky’s ideas looks like in practice should study the tragic defeat of the Finnish Revolution.

Finnish Revolution Red Army Prison CampAnyone interested in what the implementation of Kautsky’s ideas looks like in practice should study the tragic defeat of the Finnish Revolution. / Image: Public Domain

The aim of the Finnish social-democratic leaders was to carry out a workers’ revolution in the name of an idealized bourgeois democracy. As the Finnish revolutionary Edvard Torniainen concluded after the fact:

In theory, the highest conceivable degree in the development of bourgeois democracy was attained—a degree which is in practice unrealizable under the capitalist system. Bourgeois democracy has to either go on and be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat, if the proletariat is the winner, or become the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie if the proletariat is defeated.

Not understanding that democratic rights and conquests are merely a means to an end not the end in itself, their reformist illusions blinded them. The principal leader of the Finnish Social Democracy, Otto Kuusinnen, understood the following only after rivers of workers’ blood had been needlessly spilled:

The weakness of the bourgeoisie led us into being captivated by the spell of democracy, and we decided to advance towards socialism through parliamentary action and the democratization of the representative system.

He added,

Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to maneuver around this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution . . . We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it.

The result was the wholesale massacre of the flower of the Finnish working class, the rise of proto-fascist White guards, concentration camps, and a brutal military dictatorship—a preview of the fate that would befall the German working class just a few years later. History shows again and again that the social democrats are more concerned about bourgeois legality than the bourgeois themselves, who are willing to cast it aside in favor of more openly brutal methods of class rule if their property and power and at stake. Other examples abound, from the Spanish Revolution to Chile in 1973, and Venezuela today.

Betrayal is inherent in reformism

In short, there is nothing “neo” about neo-Kautskyism. These are the same class-collaborationist ideas peddled by the reformists for well over a century. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and these ideas have led the workers to defeat and disaster time and again. They are dangerous because they serve only to disarm the working class precisely when clarity and decisiveness are at a premium—in the heat of a revolution. The reformists soothe the workers into complacency with the promise of a nice and easy “road to socialism”—instead of preparing the workers for the worst while hoping and arguing for the best.

These ideas flow from a deep-seated lack of confidence in the working class, the ideas of Marxism, and the perspective for a victorious socialist revolution in our lifetime. The reformists are overawed by the apparent might of the capitalists, precisely at a time when their system and authority among the masses are crumbling. They pay lip service to class struggle, but they want it without irreconcilable class antagonisms or the struggle for political and economic power. This is why we say betrayal is inherent in reformism, because, whether consciously or unconsciously, these types of leaders always recoil at the last moment and lead the movement into a dead end.

One hundred years after the spectacular promise and crushing defeat of the German Revolution, it is vital for socialists to draw a balance sheet. Mistakes in theory lead inevitably to mistakes in practice, and these often have deadly consequences that can last generations. There is no better example of this than the ideas of Karl Kautsky, whose radical phraseology served as left cover for the right-wing reformists of the SPD.

German Revolution 1918-1919One hundred years after the spectacular promise and crushing defeat of the German Revolution, it is vital for socialists to draw a balance sheet. / Image: Public Domain

Although Marxists do not approach history deterministically, it is no exaggeration to say that Kautsky’s actions—or calculated inaction—ultimately led to the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the defeat of the German Revolution, the salvation of German capitalism, and by extension, the consolidation of Stalinism and the rise of Hitler. These were the stakes, and this explains Lenin’s livid anger at his former teacher. Far from using his position and authority to lead the German workers to socialist victory—which was entirely in the cards in 1918–19—he threw his weight into sowing confusion, fomenting illusions in bourgeois democracy, and generating suspicion of the Russian Revolution.

All of this is glossed over by Muldoon, who merely notes in passing that “there were clear differences between the two men [Lenin and Kautsky],” when it is, in reality, a question of two diametrically opposed world views. And though Muldoon concedes that Kautsky was “overly cautious,” “gradualist,” and “naïve,” he inexplicably considers him as an inspiration and model for socialist leadership today.

Muldoon is absolutely correct that the image of socialism has been rehabilitated on a mass scale, and that we must be clear as to its meaning. Unfortunately, his contribution merely adds to the confusion and aims to fill “socialism” with social-democratic content of the discredited, class-collaborationist variety. There are, indeed, many valuable lessons to be learned from the life and times of Karl Kautsky. However, they are almost exclusively negative in nature; it is for good reason that he has been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.

As we stand on the cusp of a new revolutionary epoch, the IMT looks to the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky for inspiration. These audacious and committed revolutionaries pointed confidently to a new future for humanity and never flinched in the face of adversity. They always told the working class the truth, no matter how bitter—something that cannot be said of Karl Kautsky.

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