Kautsky: the abyss beyond parliament

by Darren Rosso • Published 12 July 2017

Thus parliamentarism confronts Social Democracy with many small, practical tasks, which easily lead away from the road of principled opposition to the Capitalist state and even more easily mislead the observer.”

– Parvus, 1901[1]

Eric Blanc’s recent articles on Karl Kautsky[2] have provided an opportunity to critically return to the historically preeminent theorist of the German socialist movement. This is useful. Some pre-war strategic debates are archaeological sites worth re-excavating because they speak to present debates on the left.[3] But the positive historical re-excavation of Kautsky’s work has often been coupled with an equally pragmatic argument for the broad party.

Kautsky became a renegade, but there is a connecting line between his earlier strengths and weaknesses and his subsequent shift to the right. His pre-war framework was historically progressive until it hit the limits of its own inbuilt fetters. His framework was tightly bound up with the evolution of German Social Democracy. Insofar as the social democratic project represented a step forward for the workers’ movement it was progressive; but the parliamentarist project and rising power of the trade union bureaucracy eventually stifled the struggle for emancipation.

Kautsky’s early writings show the fault lines between his theory and his party’s practice. His writings prior to The Road to Power (1909) demonstrate that radical rhetoric and theory need not be an obstacle to a major rightward shift under material pressures from the expanding bureaucracies of the trade unions and the party itself. He was reconciled to Social Democracy as it evolved and “did not respond positively to the attempts to give a firmer character to the party’s tactics”.[4] When it was necessary to give straight answers to theoretical questions – like the nature of the state – he became more and more befuddled. His work is an example of how Marxist theory can give up its role as an expression of workers’ struggle for liberation.

This essay will track Kautsky’s formulations about political power from his responses to Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws until The Road to Power. Each formulation was an historical product and can only be understood in that context. Kautsky’s key concern was the nature of revolution against the German imperial state. He faced these structures with a unilinear historical logic. This is the background for his move into the centre and then the reformist camp of pre-war Social Democracy.

Kautsky was known as the “pope of Marxism”. A protégé of Frederick Engels, he edited the SPD’s theoretical organ, Die Neue Zeit, during its most radical phase (1883-1908) and beyond. Before the outbreak of war, he was an embodiment of Marxist orthodoxy, a legitimate continuator of Marx’s and Engels’ theories. It “was a time when Kautsky was in the true sense of the word the teacher who instructed the international proletarian vanguard”.[5] He influenced Marxists in Austria, Germany, Russia and other Slavic countries. The “centre of Marxist theoretical elaboration before the outbreak of the First World War was not Russia, but Germany, the home of Marx and Engels”.[6]

But Kautsky’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was parliamentarist; strikes, demonstrations and other forms of pressure were subordinated to parliament. The political structures of the German Second Empire informed his perspective. The country was at a crossroads. Its economy, like that of the USA, was rapidly industrialising. But its political structures were closer to those of Russian tsarism: its parliament, the Reichstag, was a representative body elected by universal male suffrage, but had no real political power. A key difference between Russia and Germany was that in the latter, space for a prolonged and stable development of the trade union bureaucracy existed.

Kautsky saw social revolution as a process made by a majority fighting for universal suffrage and imposed by a democratic republic. Revolution was a means to achieve such a republic. However, parliamentary suffrage was the last word of democratic representation and class consciousness was subordinated to parliamentary tit-for-tat. This parliamentarism oscillated around a two-pronged strategy: neither provoke the enemy through mass action, nor collaborate with it in coalition government. Kautsky was ideologically formed between the fall of the Paris Commune and the first Russian Revolution, a time of relative stability in Germany. Workers’ organisation had grown almost automatically. This brought about what I call – following Daniel Bensaïd and Alan Shandro – a unilinear historical logic in Kautsky.

This logic prevented him from grasping the importance of the unexpected and unorganised explosions of mass activity that teach political lessons beyond parliamentary arithmetic, and alter the concrete conditions in which further struggle takes place. Thus he was incapable of identifying the possibilities opened up by great historical battles. This framework was a product of capitalist boom and the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement. It was a time of reforms and propaganda, and revolution was a mirage in the distance.

His writings on the state and parliamentary representation were obsessed with the fall of the German military monarchy. There is a gap in his pre-1910 argument: of course parliament can be used for socialist purposes, but the bureaucratic and military institutions of the state have to be broken first! Despite vague conjecture about revolution, there is little between the breakdown of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state and a sovereign parliament legislating the revolution through a socialist majority. Once the bureaucracy had fallen, a sovereign Reichstag could be used as an instrument to bring about socialism.

Kautsky’s unilinear vision of history

Kautsky had a stubborn faith in inevitable political progress. The ruling class would inevitably back down so long as German Social Democrats made their way up each step of history without slipping. The German Marxist Walter Benjamin attacked this kind of optimistic faith: “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current…[their progress] was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course”.[7]

Kautsky thought socialism would come about by the merger of socialism and the workers’ movement. This was part of the “tried and tested tactic” of building mass parties in the Second International; there was a natural harmony between Marxist theory and the development of the working class. This framework was central to Kautsky’s writings on Erfurt, The Social Revolution and The Road to Power.

The unilinear historical logic had four components. First, the working class would become the majority in the industrialised country. Second, this majority would be reflected in parliament, leading to the capture of power by socialists who faithfully represented the interests of this majority. Third, this power would be used to gradually introduce socialism. Lastly, it was just a matter of time for the growing working class to become class conscious and socialist.[8] But there was a stumbling block. A forceful political revolution against the state was necessary to bring about the rule of parliament before these elements could fall into place. However, as Marek Waldenberg wrote, “neither Bebel nor Kautsky had a clear vision of the party’s function in the period of the revolutionary struggle for power”.[9]

The Road to Power expresses Kautsky’s unilinear worldview, and explains much in the way of his strategic choices. It is nourished by a reassuring faith in the patient accumulation of forces and the growth in electoral returns. So long as the double stumbling block of provocations and the seduction of ministerial posts were avoided, the working class would patiently advance toward power:

The Socialist party 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 opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come. We know that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat cannot end until the latter is in full possession of the political powers and has used them to introduce the Socialist society. We know that this class struggle must grow both extensively and intensively. We know that the proletariat must continue to grow in numbers and to gain in moral and economic strength, and that therefore its victory and the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable. But we can have only the vaguest conjectures as to when and how the last decisive blows in the social war will be struck. All this is nothing new.[10]

Kautsky’s refusal to systematise the “decisive blows in the social war” left things ambiguous but was consistent with his developing centrism. The ambiguity was an expression of Social Democracy’s exclusion from the state apparatus – primarily in Prussia, which was decisive – in the context of mass growth of the party. The idea of a passive accumulation of forces and non-participation in government until Social Democracy had a majority that permitted it to govern alone does not mean that Kautsky left out active parliamentary and educational work and – in certain, well-defined and precise moments – the use of political strikes (even Bernstein’s revisionists favoured general strikes in certain contexts). When the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke out, Kautsky became a theorist of permanent revolution (he was the first Western European Marxist to think about the Russian Revolution in this light). He did not necessarily espouse a unilinear framework for socialists outside Germany. But in German conditions, where prudence was central to the party’s fortunes, he did not consistently fight for permanent revolution that would go beyond a unilinear logic.

This became clear when the Prussian suffrage struggle broke out in 1910. Kautsky rejected the call for a democratic republic – cutting the knot that had tied the democratic struggle and social revolution. He repudiated Luxemburg’s call to lead an offensive mass struggle for a republic, because he wanted to “keep the gunpowder dry” for the 1912 Reichstag elections. With the mass strike as a concrete tactic, Luxemburg fought to abolish the semi-absolutist regime, after which “the revolution would be propelled beyond this first turning point towards the conquest of power by the proletariat. Her slogan of a republic…tied together all the great struggles of the day with a final aim”, in a process of permanent revolution in German conditions.[11]

The time of strategy is “full of peaks and troughs, sudden accelerations and wearisome slowdowns, leaps forward and backward, collapses and setbacks. The needles on its dial do not always turn in the same direction. This time is discontinuous, punctuated by crises and opportunities waiting to be seized”.[12] Political struggle should be seen as an “art of contretemps”, able to exploit the rich possibilities of the discordance of times – tying the different rhythms of electoral cycles, party-building and mass movements into a force able to take the next step in struggle. It is a broken time whose art is to seize opportunities through interventionist politics.

Kautsky’s political vision in Germany lacked this.

The Prussian suffrage struggle was untimely, taking place before Social Democrats had secured a stronger electoral victory in 1912. This posed a number of problems: will the movement be forced into parliamentary channels? Can class consciousness develop outside of parliament? Should the untimely possibilities opened in struggle be seized upon? The focus on parliamentary fortunes subsumed the struggle for democratic rights and social revolution into a linear temporality by forcing class consciousness back into the parliamentary arena. In practice Kautsky “gave theoretical cover to those in the Party and unions who anxiously watched the impetuous mass movement grow, wishing only to put the brakes on it and lead it as quickly as possible back onto the good old parliamentary and trade union routine”.[13]

The prioritisation of parliament over mass struggle forced Kautsky’s social democratic politics into a linear march through electoral institutions, cut off from the possibilities emerging outside that arena. His politics were aligned to unilinear time, not the discordance of times. This was inevitably a poor conception of politics.

Kautsky’s logic was based on a centrist tactic that focused on building up the workers’ political party that became an end in itself, opposed to the right’s coalition policy and the left’s mass strike orientation. The centrist line was to patiently build up forces over the long term, in order to facilitate the seizure of power with majority support. Immediately this raised the question of how centrist logic judged and measured majority support. For Kautsky it was primarily identifiable through election results. These are obviously important, but it resulted in Kautsky’s theory and practice becoming tied to the SPD’s parliamentary project.

The role of theory then was to explain that capitalist development and the sharpening of class antagonisms progressively led to the SPD’s electoral majority. The practical political success of the SPD “generates the evidence by which the theory can be tested: electoral support for the SPD, self-consciously distinguished from all other (bourgeois) parties as the political party of the working class, is plausibly understood as evidence of working class identification and solidarity, willingness to struggle for the common interests of the class”.[14] The great limitation of this view is that it is unable to account for the unevenness and diversity in the development of working class consciousness.

There was nothing beyond parliament for class consciousness. It was a fetter on what struggle outside the institution and the party could teach. Kautsky hardly had a place for the transformation of the masses, the rapid turns of history and mass struggle that throw up new forms of organisation. Like a cautious savant, he had a disdain for the sudden upsurges of the working class, preferring the organised proletariat to go through a pedagogical formation of parliament and science (at the party school). With regard to Germany his vision of class consciousness did not go beyond its “theoretical and latent” moment – the outcome of the party school, parliamentary tit-for-tat, set piece actions and collective bargaining. The moment practical class consciousness became a possibility to fight for, he backed away.

The distinction between a theoretical and practical consciousness is crucial, as his critique of the Austrian Social Democratic draft program shows. It is true that modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of deep scientific knowledge (which does not automatically arise out of the class struggle). But if the practical side of class consciousness gained through mass political struggle (which is not limited to the workplace) is left out, we have a one-sided understanding of class consciousness. As Blanc correctly writes (of Kautsky’s article Sects or Class Parties?) Kautsky had “a serious underestimation of mass action”.[15]

This ambivalence is present in The Road to Power. Kautsky recognises that the working class needs a consciousness of its own strength and that the socialist movement must build this consciousness through “the deed” of delivering successful blows against its opponents. He wrote, “it has been the successful battles for parliament and in parliament that has done most to increase the strength and the feeling of strength on the part of the proletariat”, but the centre of gravity remained parliament. During the Red Wednesday events in Hamburg, when the local SPD leaders initiated a political general strike for universal suffrage, ending in riots in working class districts led by unorganised workers, Kautsky gave a sophisticated defence of the separation between the organised and unorganised workers to justify the party denouncing the rioters.[16] And once the battle for the ballot opened the possibility for a move beyond parliamentary tactics, Kautsky resisted it in favour of elections. This is why he earned the accusation (by Anton Pannekoek) of being a “passive radical”, because he measured and judged the strength of the workers’ movement primarily via parliamentary gains:

[I]t is the fear that the continual electoral victories of the Socialists will give the proletariat such a feeling of strength, and so overawe its opponents that it will be impossible to prevent the seizure of the powers of the state and the transformation of the relation of powers in the government. Consequently we must be prepared to see our next great electoral victory followed by an attack on the present suffrage law for the Reichstag elections – by which I do not by any means say that this attack will be successful.[17]

Though he recognised that individual defeats happened, the “continuous and rapid advance of the whole proletariat” was so “notorious that nothing can destroy our confidence in ultimate victory”. As late as The Road to Power, Kautsky saw no reason to change tactics, because these “are the methods by which Socialism has aroused the volition of the working class up to the present time and this has produced such marvellous results that there is not the slightest reason why these methods should be exchanged for any other”.[18]

To summarise, Kautsky’s revolution was not prepared and it was not made. The revolution happened, after a patient strategy of attrition where the general strike could be used only as a last resort. Kautsky’s road to power was based on the party neither provoking the enemy by mass action, nor collaborating with it in government coalition. As Bensaïd wrote, “Since the victory is inevitable, a result of the electoral expression of the growth of the proletariat, it will come on time: there is no need to compromise oneself in a bourgeois ministerial cabinet”.[19] When the proletariat became a majority and this majority was expressed in votes for Social Democracy, it would have been able to govern alone without need for alliance or compromise.

Kautsky before Erfurt

Kautsky had a radical attitude towards the state during the anti-socialist years. He didn’t think that socialists could win their goals through elections. He denounced the bureaucratic military state. He expected a crisis of bourgeois society to put insurrection and revolution on the agenda. Parliament was only useful for agitation and tactical purposes. In 1881, writing for The Social Democrat he wrote:

The Social Democratic workers’ party has always emphasized that it is a revolutionary party in the sense that it recognises that it is impossible to resolve the social question within the existing society… Even today, we would prefer, if it were possible, to realize the social revolution through the peaceful road… But if we still harbour this hope today, we have nevertheless ceased to emphasize it, for every one of us knows that it is a utopia. The most perceptive of our comrades have never believed in the possibility of a peaceful revolution; they have learned from history that violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one… Today we all know that the popular socialist state can be erected only through a violent overthrow and that it is our duty to uphold consciousness of this among ever broader layers of the people.[20]

In The Social Democrat, Kautsky wrote a three-part series on the state socialists, abolishing the state, and the emancipated society.

He didn’t have illusions that the state could implement socialist demands from on high, as did republican socialists like Louis Blanc and other monarchical socialists like Lorenz von Stein. He historicised the state; using the example of Ancient Egypt, he showed that the government was only an instrument of the ruling class.[21] There is no state without the antagonism between ruler and ruled. Until the modern era, a class rules, and its state oppresses the class under it. Consequently, the main feature of socialism, the abolition of class rule, contained “within it the negation of the state.[22]

But Kautsky didn’t agree with the abstract (anarchist) call to abolish the state immediately. Every revolutionary struggle has its bastions of counter-revolutionary insurgency where the state remains in power:

The loyal Pomeranians, Tyroleans and Vendéans march in compact masses, destroying one “free” group and commune after the other. And at the same time the supporters of the overthrown system rise themselves up and organise the reaction within the zone of the revolution.[23]

To crush the resistance of the counter-revolution necessitated a state with means of coercion. This is why Kautsky spoke of the working class conquering the state. Without the force of the state, the social question couldn’t be solved, class differences couldn’t be abolished and the state couldn’t wither away.

Social Democracy couldn’t achieve its aims through elections and the parliamentary road. Elections, “as everyone knows, have a primarily propagandistic purpose”.[24] In 1881 Kautsky was positively for abolishing class differences by demolishing the bourgeois state and creating the state anew, depending on the revolutionary process itself. This meant suppressing the old ruling class in the interests of workers:

The victory of the proletariat does not yet entail the disappearance of all class contradictions. The coming revolution will first of all raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class… The conflict between the rulers and the ruled will persist, and the proletariat will thus need a government which, as an instrument of the ruling class, will curb the ruled with all the means at its command. All this may sound very undemocratic, but necessity will compel us to act in this way.[25]

The Erfurt years

By the time the anti-socialist laws ended, the party was polling nearly 20 percent of the vote. Repression alone failed to halt the great march, and Bismarck’s fall engendered great optimism. The rapid industrialisation of Germany was bringing an ever more powerful working class into being.

The socialist movement was faced with a new historical situation. The 1891 Erfurt Congress debated the perspectives and tactics of the party in this new situation, and Kautsky played a leading role. He drafted the theoretical section of the Erfurt Program and Bernstein the practical tasks.

To fight capitalist exploitation meant defending political struggle and democratic political rights. It was not possible to transform society and destroy class rule without first winning political power. This was a consistent affirmation of Marx’s argument against the anarchists in the First International. In the name of winning political power, Kautsky challenged syndicalism and the belief that economic development could gradually expropriate the ruling class without political struggle.

The Erfurt Program represented a change in Kautsky’s position. Now, when he spoke of workers’ political power and revolution, he was speaking of a government with a working class party established by universal suffrage based on parliament, his last word of democratic representation. Only where there was freedom of association, assembly and the press could the workers’ movement make progress, by combining the bread and butter struggle of trade unionism with the slow march through bourgeois democratic institutions. Kautsky “posed an indissoluble link between the conquest of the state and the conquest of a majority in parliament”.[26]

Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Program stipulated that the dictatorship of the proletariat was synonymous with a parliamentary majority in a democratic republic. The content matters. In a polemic against the State Socialists, he rejected the idea that nationalisations meant a step towards the co-operative commonwealth. Economic nationalisations, in and by themselves, “without any change in the character of the state” did not lead to a socialist outcome.[27] To think otherwise arose from a misunderstanding of the state itself:

Like all previous systems of government, the modern state is preeminently an instrument intended to guard the interests of the ruling class. This feature is in no wise changed by its assumption of features of general utility which affect the interests not of the ruling class alone, but of the whole body politic. The modern state assumes these functions often simply because otherwise the interests of the ruling class would be endangered with those of society as a whole, but under no circumstances has it assumed, or could it ever assume, these functions in such a manner as to endanger the overlordship of the capitalist class.[28]

The conclusion that Kautsky drew was that Social Democracy had to win power within the state as an institution in order to change the character of the state. His formulations do not unequivocally stipulate the smashing of the state. “The state will not cease to be a capitalist institution until the proletariat, the working class, has become the ruling-class; not until then will it become possible to turn it into a co-operative commonwealth”, he wrote. The state has “never carried on the nationalising of industries further than the interests of the ruling classes demanded”, Kautsky insisted, so long as the bourgeoisie held political power. To seize political power would “change the state into a self-sufficing co-operative commonwealth”. Through parliamentary activity, the working class “must strive to influence the state authorities, to bend them to its purposes”. Where the bosses can influence rulers and legislators directly, “workers can do so only through parliamentary activity. By electing representatives to parliament, therefore, the working class can exercise an influence over the governmental powers”.[29]

The Erfurt Program was clearly a step forward. In a letter to Kautsky, written on 29 June 1891, Engels had argued that he wanted to strike a blow at the growing opportunism in the party. The major political fault of the Erfurt document was that it lacked “precisely what should have been said”, the call for a democratic republic.[30] Engels cut down anyone who thought it wasn’t necessary to smash the semi-absolutist political order in Germany. The old shell had to be burst by force. With a parliamentarist framework, Kautsky held onto Engels’ point. His centre of gravity was parliament, a horizon beyond which was only an abyss; parliament was the necessary instrument for the working class to exercise its own power. Within Kautsky’s Wilhelmine problematic, his arguments do not contradict an endorsement of Bebel’s attack on Vollmar in 1891, when he said “the state and current society are the mortal enemies of Social Democracy and cannot enter into agreement with them”.[31]

The Kautsky-Mehring correspondence

Franz Mehring expressed doubts about the majority opinion in Social Democracy with regard to parliament. In his 1893 article for Neue Zeit, he wrote:

The outlook which has it that once the majority of a bourgeois parliament consists of class-conscious workers the road is open to the socialist society – this outlook is like a knife that lacks both handle and blade. Only when the faith of the masses in bourgeois parliamentarism is entirely dead does the road to the future open up.[32]

Kautsky responded to Mehring in a letter dated 8 July, in which he said he couldn’t think of any other form the dictatorship of the proletariat could take than “a strong parliament on the English model, with a social democratic majority that rests on a strong and conscious proletariat”.[33] Kautsky saw that the struggle for an effective parliament would become a struggle for the social revolution “as the parliamentary regime in Germany means the political victory of the proletariat”.[34] Mehring’s argument against this was clear: if the proletariat was strong enough to influence parliament to be able to decide policies of state, then the military would abolish universal suffrage. He worried that too much emphasis was being placed upon bourgeois parliament within the ranks of the SPD, which would cause a serious internal crisis for the party. Kautsky understood that German militarism would not sit idle “until we have a majority and will vote for a democratic republic… [W]e will have to…engage in a struggle of which parliamentary means alone won’t suffice. But what would be the goal of it? In the end, perhaps only parliament. Only the parliamentary republic…in my opinion, can prepare the terrain in which the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist society can be born”.[35]

Kautsky didn’t rule out extra-parliamentary activity (which presumably could reach revolutionary proportions) to win universal suffrage, but he did affirm that after the passage to a parliamentary regime, a parliamentary road to socialism was open. This is a contradiction.

Parliamentarism and Democracy

Kautsky’s Parliamentarism and Democracy (1893) was a key element of his Erfurtian outlook. It is testament to a vigorous struggle for parliamentary politics within the party against those who saw these representative institutions as nothing but tools of bourgeois rule. In place of parliament, they argued for direct and popular legislation by the people.

Proponents of direct legislation were nostalgic for a bygone age of grass roots democracy. In modern conditions, such nostalgia was utopian and Kautsky thought it would lead to giving up on parliament as a forum of struggle. To move the work of legislation from a parliamentary assembly to many different, local, grass roots assemblies would result in “chaos”. His answer was two-fold: use parliament in a principled way as a platform, but also as a means towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. Keep in mind that Kautsky wrote this at a time when universal suffrage had not produced a socialist majority anywhere in the world.

Kautsky’s historical material is rich and pedagogical. His argument rested upon the idea that representative institutions took diverse historical forms. In a capitalist epoch there was no royal road to power by getting around the representative state. Workers’ parties had to take on representative assemblies with the hope that they could control the centre of state power and the official posts of the state. Even in Prussia’s parliament, toothless and servile as it was, socialist deputies could act as a barrier to the coarse brutality of the authorities.

But parliament was the battlefield that socialists should principally use. Kautsky upheld his Erfurtian polemic against proponents of grass roots direct democracy:

Direct legislation by the people cannot, at least in a large modern state…render parliament superfluous, at best it can operate alongside parliament in order to correct it in individual cases. It is absolutely impossible for direct legislation to take care of the whole of the state’s legislation and it is just as impossible for it to oversee the state administration or, if necessary, to guide it. For as long as the modern state exists, the focus of political activity will always lie in its parliament.[36]

Kautsky ruled out that parliament was indissolubly linked with bourgeois class rule; in the process he confused parliamentarism with a representative system as such.[37] He saw it as a political form that could be used as an instrument of diverse classes – aristocracy, industrial capitalist and working class. England was his prime example:

We have seen how, depending on the level of economic development and the nature of the suffrage, the representative system has served the most diverse class interests and assumed the most diverse character forms. After having been a tool of the dictatorship of the aristocracy for over 150 years, for half a century it became a tool of the dictatorship of the industrial capitalists. But this class has already lost its sole rule. The proletariat is already capable of influencing domestic politics in its favour in and through parliament, and, with giant steps, the day is approaching when the almighty English parliament will be a tool of the dictatorship of the proletariat.[38]

Working class deputies in parliament meant the propertied classes no longer dominated the institution. Politically conscious workers were to hold these deputies to account. He thought that once an independent political party of the working class was formed, then at some point in the indeterminate future it would become a revolutionary formation. After the traumatic twentieth century and its bureaucratic monsters, such fatalistic optimism is difficult to handle. But it was a necessary moment in the formation of European socialism. And Kautsky was aware that whatever means of struggle the working class was to deploy to improve its standing and win more power in society, “capital and the state will confront it on that path and deploy everything within its superior power in order to inhibit the progress of the proletariat”.[39]

The success of German Social Democracy was confirmation that if the socialists confronted these obstacles and fought, they could make serious gains. It was sincerely believed that the German bourgeoisie could no longer rely on parliament and thought that its rule wasn’t secure with greater suffrage. It had to stifle parliament with particularism and leave the structures of militarism intact.

In Prussia, this meant maintaining the three-class suffrage system. “Only somebody who is politically blind can claim that the representative system ensures the rule of the bourgeoisie…and that in order to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie, first of all the representative system must be eliminated”. The condition for utilising the representative system for winning political power, according to Kautsky, was to break the power of the military-bureaucratic apparatus with respect to parliament. This was seen as necessary because “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 it is an instrument for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.[40]

Kautsky’s Wilhelmine problematic is clearly manifest here. It was a fight for parliament against the executive powers: the bourgeois-democratic state was where the decisive battle between exploiters and exploited would take place. Kautsky believed that parliament could become subservient to the working class and that it should be used to bring the clash between labour and capital to workers’ consciousness. This was only possible on the condition that parliament was not under the thumb of the Kaiser’s bureaucratic-military state. So the democratic republican state was the ideal to fight for. Throughout Europe it was still the case that parliament was weakened in the bureaucratic military states. It is in this way that the road was open for a struggle against absolutism to turn into one against capitalism.

Social Democracy had to spearhead the fight for democratic aspirations. However rights won can become a weapon for Social Democracy’s adversaries. Democratic gains can even be more useful to these enemies. But Kautsky, with a discernible faith in the inexorable march of history, claimed that “eventually, of course, the introduction of democratic institutions in the state must turn out in favour of Social Democracy, must facilitate the struggle of Social Democracy and lead it to victory”.[41]

Here we can see both progress for the labour movement and its potential fetter. It was a step forward for class consciousness to witness and participate in electoral campaigns when Social Democracy showed itself to be in irreconcilable antagonism to the existing state and the parties of property, drawing out these oppositions as much as possible, evoking a clash of entire worldviews. Kautsky explained:

Whenever they involve class struggles, parliamentary battles and election campaigns in particular stimulate the separation of the individual classes. On the other hand, they also promote the fusion of the individual elements within each of the fighting classes. They are a powerful means of awakening and strengthening class consciousness, a powerful means of uniting the proletarians under one banner, of generating enthusiasm and excitement for far-reaching goals amongst the workers and of having them enter into the struggle for them as a united phalanx.[42]

Independent demands like the eight-hour day were not seen as ends in themselves, but as part of the broader struggle for socialism. But Kautsky’s exclusive emphasis upon the role of parliament in the formation of class consciousness had an inbuilt potential fetter. The very notion of class consciousness was epistemologically tied to parliamentary struggle and advance. It is no surprise that Parliamentarism and Democracy was re-released in 1911 “to rekindle an interest in, and understanding of, parliamentarism”. In it the logic of his attack on direct legislation was used to neutralise the lefts in the mass strike debate, meaning he inevitably backed the trade union bureaucracy.[43] A neutral and functional instrument, parliament could be just as much an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as of the proletariat.

Kautsky didn’t rule out ruling class violence to suppress the workers’ movement, but he thought that modern capitalist development would make things much easier and more peaceful. This would be jeopardised by overly revolutionary rhetoric and action.

Prudence was Kautsky’s slogan in German conditions. He did not rule out mass action, demonstrations and agitation, but parliament was the training ground for the working class’s development and the barometer indicating when a socialist revolution was ready. Kautsky knew no untimely kind of revolution.

The very idea of “revolution-making” was filled with Blanquist connotations if one didn’t pay attention to the Communist Manifesto’s pleas for a movement in the interests of the immense majority. European socialists almost universally shared the idea that the ideal form of government before the introduction of socialism was a democratic republic. Kautsky found support in Engels’ political testament for his perspective. At different concrete moments he used it to challenge the revisionist right, and then the radical left. Engels had written, “the mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect”.[44] This for Kautsky was doctrinal proof that the party’s sole focus upon parliamentary tactics was correct.

Engels had argued that in Germany, “the conditions of struggle had changed fundamentally. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated”. It was a specific form of struggle that had become obsolete:

All revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another; all ruling classes up till now have been only minorities as against the ruled mass of the people. A ruling minority was thus overthrown; another minority seized the helm of state and remodelled the state apparatus in accordance with its own interests.[45]

During the 1848 uprisings that swept Paris, Vienna, Milan and Berlin, the Great French Revolution loomed large. The French Revolution “dominated the whole of European history since 1789, and from [it] now once again the signal had gone forth for general revolutionary change”. Marx and Engels’ vision of the “nature and path of the ‘social’ revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, were strongly coloured by memories of the models of 1789-1830”.[46]

In reality all of these uprisings were acts of minorities in which the ruled majority either participated alongside the minorities or passively acquiesced. In many case the uprisings were executed as surprise attacks. “It is according to the very process of a surprise-attack carried out by a revolutionary minority that one hoped, in 1848, to introduce socialism.”[47] Even where the majority took part, it did so only in the service of a minority, “but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people”. The class struggles in France had shown Marx and Engels “how impossible it was in 1848 to win social reconstruction by a simple surprise attack”.[48] Now, to win a mass majority, long and persistent political labour was a prerequisite.

Engels’ political testament should be seen as a clear attack on the utopian politics of the League of the Just before Marx and Engels had won it over. Against utopian attitudes, Engels argued for the daily activity of modern Social Democracy and its use of representative institutions. “The irony of world history turns everything upside down,” because “[w]e, the ‘revolutionaries,’ the ‘rebels’ – we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt”.[49] This was a clear warning against falling prey to ruling class manoeuvres that aim to bring a minority of socialists onto the streets, fighting on barricades in old-school style, and doomed to certain defeat. German Social Democracy had broken with the tactics of an unprepared onslaught because no lasting victory was possible unless they won the great mass of people to their cause.

Kautsky used Engels’ statements to give himself an air of orthodoxy. Faced with the revisionists (between the 1890s and 1908) he argued for a violent break with the existing order, and against the radical lefts (1910 onwards) he neutralised debate over the mass strike. He had turned Engels’ testament into an abstraction, so as not to have to change the weapons of working class struggle when the concrete situation demanded.

The Bernstein and Dreyfus affairs

In the years 1890-1904 Kautsky’s main challenges came from the right. In 1898 came the Bernstein revisionist challenge. Internationally, the fallout of the Dreyfus affair posed the problem of socialists entering into bourgeois government.

A tendency sympathetic to Bernstein’s ideas had been growing within the party throughout the 1890s. Every class prior to the working class had achieved economic power before it took political power. Revisionist thought applied this schema to working class struggle for socialism, forming a foundation for gradualism. Its adherents rejected the idea that workers had to take political power into their own hands to inaugurate socialism. The battle was fought out at party congresses at Stuttgart (1898) and Hanover (1899).

Bernstein’s slogan was: “The final goal…is nothing to me: the movement is everything”. This was a disavowal of the necessity of seizing political power and for breaking the umbilical cord between the movement and the end goal. The lefts responded that without the final goal the movement itself was nothing.[50]

Bernstein’s attack on the party’s Marxist program was an attack on its opposition to the Wilhelmine state and a clear argument for class collaboration. It was a threat to Kautsky’s opposition to forming coalitions with bourgeois parties. And it was a theoretical threat to Kautsky’s understanding of capitalist development.

This was no mere intellectual squabble. Kautsky played a contradictory and equivocal role, which strained his relations with the founder of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, who demanded that Bernstein be annihilated. Kautsky did not lead the challenge against Bernstein and to the extent he intervened, it was under pressure from Bebel, Parvus and Luxemburg. He printed Bernstein’s articles in his paper, tolerated him and insisted that the party should be grateful for Bernstein’s rethinking.

Parvus was the first to denounce Bernstein in his Sächsische Arbeiterzeitung and then Luxemburg did likewise in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. With the Stuttgart Congress in view, the lefts scrambled to get a hold of a proof copy of Bernstein’s book. Parvus fought for a resolution that condemned Bernstein, but the party executive didn’t support it. Kautsky distanced himself from Parvus, while maintaining his theoretical disagreements with Bernstein. But if Kautsky had not wavered in the first place, tolerating Bernstein’s arguments, “there would never have been a Bernstein case”.[51]

Kautsky’s belated response to revisionism, in his Bernstein und das Sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik, became the official party response to Bernstein. Kautsky argued for a Marxist dialectical method, programmatic questions and tactics. He defended seizing state power as an end goal. Kautsky highlighted the perspective of sharpening class contradictions and social “revolution”, but he did not propose a tactic that would differentiate the orthodox Marxists from the revisionists. The crux of his attack on Bernstein was the relevance of Marx in theoretical and empirical terms: “nothing is left of the good old Marx, no, even taken in his most robust form he is discarded; the direction of real development, Bernstein explains, is the exact opposite of what Marx had asserted”.[52]

Kautsky pleaded for unity and the end goal. “We must be enthused to achieve great things…only great goals can inspire.” Uniformity of tactics was uniformity in action. This didn’t stop differences in thought or in theoretical conception. Complete unity of thought existed only in a religious sect and was hardly compatible with fierce independence of thought. But that didn’t mean that theoretical views in the party didn’t matter. Party program was essential to draw a line, “not only between ourselves and not only our determined adversaries, but also those that are uncertain…who are not disposed to fight our struggle to the end in all circumstances”.[53]

Faithful to his centrist logic, Kautsky gave lip service to revolution, but his commitment was passive. The political side of Marxism was decapitated. The dictatorship of the proletariat was put it off to an indiscernible point in time and left in abeyance.

The Dreyfus affair and the Millerand case raised debates in the Second International over entering bourgeois governments. The International met in Paris in September 1900. Before the congress, Kautsky’s main line of argument was against participation in a bourgeois government, though he did not rule it out. In Paris, he refused to denounce ministerialism on grounds of principle, and most delegates rejected banning governmental participation. In normal circumstances it would be suicidal to enter a government dominated by the bourgeoisie. It would mean giving up ideological and organisational independence. The government would change the socialist, not the other way around. Millerand’s participation in a government of the Third Republic was a lost cause, because he was a minister thanks to the bourgeoisie and its Président du Conseil and would remain there only so long as he didn’t thwart the bourgeois goals of the government.

In this debate Kautsky rejected the argument that socialists could win power by gradually winning ministerial posts one by one. He rejected blocking with bourgeois parties in grand coalitions. Entering into electoral coalition with bourgeois liberal parties was a sure path toward failure and compromise. This was a point against Bernstein’s camp. It was Kautsky’s polemic against organic gradualism. But during the course of this debate Kautsky – rejecting a proposal by Enrico Ferri and Jules Guesde which banned the entry of socialists into bourgeois ministries in all cases – moved into the centre between reformism and revolutionaries by conceding to reformism in principle. Ferri pointed out that Kautsky’s resolution combined socialist principles with bourgeois tactics, and French and German reformists supported the resolution. Henryk Grossman called this “the first great defeat of the revolutionary wing of the International”.[54] After the 1903 electoral victories in Germany the Dresden Congress of that year condemned revisionism in general, rejected the tactic of aligning with bourgeois parties and accepted a harder line version of Kautsky’s 1900 Paris resolution against government participation. However, so long as organisational conclusions weren’t drawn from the condemnation of revisionism, the reformists could undermine Social Democracy from within – radical opinions were always easier to deal with than organised radical forces within the party (or a rival party in the working class movement).

The Social Revolution

The Social Revolution was a collection of lectures delivered after the Belgian general strike (1902), aimed at electoral reform, and before the 1903 Reichstag electoral success, when the SPD won over a quarter of the vote. Kautsky’s arguments should also be seen in the context of the 1903 Dresden Congress that formally condemned the revisionists. It challenged their attempt to “replace the policy of conquering power through victory by a policy which accommodates itself to the existing order”.[55]

Conquering power needs form and content explained. A theme developed in The Social Revolution was that the whole state machine could be taken over and wielded for socialist purposes. Kautsky’s formulation of the “winning of state power” was ambiguous. He did not mention the Paris Commune or Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme and their applicability to the German situation. Neither did he envisage another form of democracy. Instead:

Every important political change in a great modern State influences at once with a single stroke and in the profoundest manner an enormous social sphere. The conquest of political power by a previously subject class must, on this account, from now on, have wholly different social results than previously… If, however, the insight into social relations was never so extensive as to-day, it is equally true that the governmental power was never so strong as now, nor the military, bureaucratic and economic forces so powerfully developed. It follows from this that the proletariat, when it shall have conquered the governmental powers, will have thereby attained the power to at once bring about most extensive social changes.[56]

The state was growing in economic, bureaucratic and military strength. So long as it was being “misused” for “the purposes of exploitation and oppression” then workers’ class hatred would grow, “and the effort to conquer the machinery of State increase in intensity”.[57] The ambiguity lay with just how the conquering of state machinery could take place.

Kautsky spoke of the revolutionary conquest of political power by the proletariat against the proponents of gradualism, who wanted an “imperceptible transformation of capitalism into Socialism without any violent break with existing things”.[58] But there is a distinction between what one reads in Kautsky’s texts and how he actually responded to events. The existence of parliament and the modern state made this “violent break” very prudent. Parliament was the vehicle to educate the masses, to count the balance of forces, to prevent premature outbreaks of struggle. Kautsky did entertain the political mass strike as a weapon of struggle at “a certain height of economic development”, at which point it was “but natural that that there should arise the idea of using the strike as a political weapon”.[59] It turned out that the mass strike didn’t emerge from natural economic development – which would make it a “timely” event – but from an untimely political battle.

But in a show of disdain for extra-parliamentary outbursts of struggle, Kautsky saw a modern revolution as “a battle of organised, intelligent masses, full of stability and prudence, that do not follow every impulse or explode over every insult, or collapse under every misfortune”.[60] A modern revolution “will be much less of a sudden uprising against the authorities than a long drawn out civil war, if one does not necessarily join to these last words the idea of actual slaughter and battles”.[61] Kautsky’s revolution would unfold in unilinear political time, without peaks and troughs of mass struggles, educated by the monotonous time of parliament.

Kautsky and the Paris Commune

It is often assumed that Kautsky left the Paris Commune out of his work as a whole. Things are not so simple, as his 1904 work on the Third Republic demonstrates. It is true he left the lessons of the Commune out of his German tactics for the workers’ movement, the patient labour of attrition, endowed with a unilinear historical logic. It is necessary to emphasise Kautsky’s positioning vis-à-vis each national context, because “he was always willing to draw revolutionary conclusions if they concerned other countries, the past, or the distant future”.[62] But this slow movement shouldn’t be conflated with proponents of revisionist gradualism who believed that there were enough democratic arrangements for the proletariat to win power gradually, without social revolution. Kautsky critiqued this framework in his polemic against the French socialists who sought ministries step by step under the Third Republic. They in fact strengthened the oppressive republican state. To cut down his opponents, Kautsky relied on the revolutionary traditions of 1793, 1848 and 1871.

This intervention shows us how Kautsky’s faith in progress worked. Don’t fall for the gradualist trap when a bellicose, bureaucratic and militaristic state apparatus stifles democracy; but once these institutions are dismantled, then parliamentary democracy can be used as a vehicle for socialist change. This strategy involved denouncing “republican superstition” (a faith in and reverence for the bourgeois state form) which applied to the American republic and the French Third Republic, where democracy was a tool of class rule. Democracy could only become a means to break class rule when the workers’ movement had overcome its republican superstitions. The consequences for socialists operating in the Third Republic were clear:

[C]riticising republican superstitions by no means leads to indifference towards the state form. Rather, precisely because we attribute great importance to the state form for the class struggle of the proletariat, we have to fight against a state form such as the Third Republic, in which the class currently ruling is armed with all the centralised monarchy’s instruments of rule. Smashing these to bits, not strengthening them, is one of the most important tasks of French Social Democracy. The Third Republic, as presently constituted, offers no ground for the emancipation of the proletariat, but only for its oppression. It is only when the French state is transformed along the lines of the constitution of the First Republic and the Commune that it can become that form of the republic, that form of government, for which the French proletariat has been working, fighting and shedding blood for over one hundred and ten years.[63]

The Third Republic was the creation of the reactionaries responsible for butchering the Paris Commune. The constitution received its form as a result of the most reactionary chamber France had ever had. The Senate and the Presidency – as well as the grip of militarism and bureaucracy – stifled universal suffrage. The President wasn’t elected by equal and direct suffrage, but by the National Assembly, made up of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. As a pro-monarchist wrote, “the President of the new republic held the very healthy position occupied by every territorial Prince in every country with a constitution”.[64] The Senate itself was elected by electoral colleges, which acted as a bulwark against the industrial and revolutionary départements, to the benefit of the rural and reactionary ones.

Faced with the bureaucratic apparatus, an individual socialist minister could only be transformed from a workers’ representative into a representative of capitalist bureaucratic parasitism. This would involve resurrecting the old state socialism of Louis Blanc, which relied on blunting class antagonisms by asking benevolence from the existing Third Republic:

The conquest of state power by the proletariat therefore does not simply mean the conquest of the government ministries [individual ministries, one by one – D.R.], which then, without further ado, administers the previous means of rule – an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps – in a socialist manner. Rather, it means the dissolution of these institutions. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of power, then taking over individual government departments and entire governments will be to no avail. A socialist ministry can at best exist temporarily. It will be worn down in the futile struggle against these institutions of power, without being able to create anything permanent.[65]

This is consistent with Kautsky’s faith in progress. He wanted to ensure that it would be impossible to identify socialists with the bourgeois republicans who rule the Republic. Social Democracy should reject alliances with the republican bourgeoisie, which would simply mean the socialists becoming an appendage of the bourgeoisie. It was the task of socialists to fight for a politically independent working class shorn of its republican superstitions. Once this was achieved, he thought it possible that the capitalist parliamentary republic could be transformed into a truly social republic, and that “only through self-government and the arming of the people can the republic be secured against coup attempts”.[66]

Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune were quoted extensively as a past example of proletarian rule. But Kautsky saw the Commune as the work of a coup, which ultimately failed politically because of the lack of slow and patient parliamentary and trade union work beforehand. “[E]xtensive participation in parliamentary work provides the best school for the political struggles against the bourgeoisie, but neither the Proudhonists nor Blanquists had participated in the parliamentary struggle” – so consequently class consciousness was severely stifled.[67]

This is a critical point. Every time socialists have studied the Commune, it has been seen from a new angle, in the light of subsequent revolutionary experiences. But the experience of parliamentarism does the same, hence Kautsky’s argument that the key downfall of the Parisian proletariat was that it was theoretically fragmented and ignorant, damaged by its lack of organisation due to the absence of the right to association and assembly.

But even without this patient attrition Kautsky thought that Paris, as administered under the Commune, was an example of the de-bureaucratisation of political life, the most comprehensive expansion of self-government, with the popular election of all officials and the subordination of all members of representative bodies to the control and discipline of the organised people:

We may hold up this example to those faint-hearted in our ranks, who fear nothing more than our victory… If a generation ago the proletariat of Paris – completely undeveloped and operating under the most trying circumstances – proved up to its social tasks, then today we may look forward to our victory with the most joyous expectation![68]

The one-way street to the Promised Land was straight ahead, as seen from German Social Democratic conditions.

The Road to Power

The Road to Power was Kautsky’s mature pre-war statement on the fight for political power. It announced the actuality of revolution. Though published before his official turn to centrism, it should be seen as an expression of centrism on two counts.

First, the text remained at the level of pure theory and abstract opinion cut off from developing “an organisational arm…if it really [intended] to point the way to its own fulfilment in practice”.[69]

Second, he remained glued to his unilinear historical logic: industrialisation and concentration are working in our favour; our rise is inevitable so long as the party doesn’t compromise with the bourgeois parties. He did see a combination of extra-parliamentary activity and action in the Reichstag as necessary: trade union struggles, May Day demonstrations and his version of the mass strike were all features of this combination. But these factors remained within his unilinear historical logic.

The party executive requested the text be published as the opinion of the author, not officially sanctioned by the party. According to Clara Zektin, this was a “capitulation pure and simple…the basic idea…that we must seize political power through the course of revolutionary struggle is presented by the author as his personal opinion, exiled from the party”.[70]

This is a very significant point in light of recent debates over the broad party – the illusions and debacles of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, Italy’s Communist Refoundation and Syriza in Greece. Kautsky couldn’t respond to the fact that, no matter how radical the Marxist program of a mass party, bureaucracy would stifle the radicalism; and he erroneously thought parties like British Labour could be transformed from within, becoming “a powerful and trustworthy organ, in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat” if only revolutionaries fought for this transformation by means of education and propaganda.[71] Kautsky articulated a propagandist centrism. In fact he thought that “the present form of the English Labour Party is only a transition stage which will sooner or later develop into a class conscious Social Democratic Labour Party, with a definite socialist programme”.[72] This argument has a long history in the Australian socialist movement – those who believed they could turn the ALP and its parliamentary leaders into revolutionary Marxists were eaten up by the party or vomited out. Because it is the politicians and union officials with power in the Labor Party who drive it, digested radicals just become part of the problem.

Zetkin’s criticism of Kautsky’s capitulation highlights the limitations of his propagandist centrism. Steenson writes, “though Kautsky started out in opposition to the party leadership…he emerged as the major architect of the theory that has variously been called centrism, fatalism, or integration ideology…his rather naïve faith that all would come out right in the end reflects his lack of sensitivity to the implications of the antirevolutionary organizational structure of the SPD”.[73] Kautsky could identify problems in the party (like bureaucracy) but he was incapable of doing anything about them. As time wore on he fell back on the traditional tactics of the party, with his faith in the continual growth of the movement. This failure means that he bears part of the responsibility for the traumatic outcomes of 1914 and 1918 – the party’s acceptance of war and stifling of revolution. It should be the prism through which to view the radical arguments in The Road to Power.

In a final chapter, “A New Period of Revolution”, Kautsky foresaw an epoch of revolutionary struggle on the near horizon. In the East he saw constant social upheaval, starting in East Asia and the Muslim world: “Everywhere in Asia and Africa, the spirit of rebellion is spreading”. The West wouldn’t be too far behind, as “the political unrest of the East cannot but affect the West”. The outbreak of war, which could lead to revolution, meant that “We can no longer speak of a PREMATURE revolution, for it has already drawn so great strength from the present legal basis as to expect that a transformation of this basis would create the conditions for its further upward progress”. As imperialist war drags innocents to be slaughtered, “the more the Socialists become the only party that is fighting for a great ideal…capable of arousing all the energy and devotion that flows to such an object”. The “more the Socialist party maintains an indestructible power in the midst of the destruction of all authority, the more the Socialists will increase their authority… The more immovable, logical and irreconcilable the Socialists remain, the sooner will they conquer their opponents”. He sketched out his perspective:

[T]he present situation leads me to the conclusion that the situation which existed at the beginning of the ’90s has fundamentally changed, and that today we have every reason to believe that we are entering upon a period of fighting for governmental institutions and governmental power; that these battles under manifold conditions and changes of fortune may continue for a decade, and that the form and duration of these battles cannot now be foretold, but which it is highly probable will within a comparatively short time bring about important changes in relative power in favour of the proletariat, if they do not bring its complete domination in Western Europe.[74]

Kautsky saw the breakdown of confidence, power and stability in the army and bureaucracy as central to a revolution and a favourable shift in power relations. He echoed Engels’ introduction to The Civil War in France: in the age of industrial centres and magazine rifles, it is impossible for a minority to cripple the military.

To make a political revolution, four elements were required: the majority of the population are hostile to the regime; there is a party in opposition to this regime; the party must represent the interests of the majority of the population and win their trust; and lastly: “Confidence in the ruling regime, both in its power and in its stability, must have been destroyed by its own tools, by the bureaucracy and the army”.[75] It is noticeable that Kautsky – unlike Lenin in The Collapse of the Second International – does not emphasise the increase in mass activity as an element of a revolutionary situation. As Ernest Mandel correctly wrote, “Political initiative, the subjective factor, the active element – these go completely by the board”.[76] Nevertheless, Kautsky looked toward an epoch where revolutionary tactics would become necessary. But for The Road to Power mass action “can operate effectively only as an AUXILIARY and REINFORCEMENT TO and not as a SUBSTITUTE FOR parliamentary action” – for the centre of gravity of the proletarian movement remained parliament.[77]

The targets of Kautsky’s polemic were clear: opportunists who thought a peaceful movement from a military and absolutist state to a democracy was possible. Changes were required in the relations of political powers and institutions, which compelled the proletariat to engage in political struggle, transfers of power and institutional transformations. Concretely this meant constitutional changes: winning suffrage by abolishing the three-class system in Prussia and Saxony and the equalisation of electoral districts for Reichstag elections. The working class could only win democracy and the abolition of militarism if it won a dominant position within the state. This is a coherent argument with respect to his Wilhelmine problematic:

Of what avail is the increase in our influence, and our power in the Reichstag, when the Reichstag itself is without influence and power? Power must first be conquered for it. A genuine parliamentary regime must be established. The imperial government must be a committee of the Reichstag.[78]

This left a gap as to the role of workers’ rule within a parliamentary framework and was absolutely silent on forms of workers’ democratic representation beyond parliament. Kautsky’s position would subsequently fork out in two directions once dual power arose in the November Revolution: either take the logic of power beyond parliament, or stop short of it. Winning a dominant position in the state could, in theory, mean a democratic republic along the lines of the Commune. It could also mean winning a majority in the Reichstag and challenging the executive powers of the state. Either way it meant an armed population to fight a slaveholders’ rebellion and the use of the mass strike. Workers’ rule meant “purely proletarian political domination”: since the social democratic party represented the working class, purely political domination would involve the party winning a majority in parliament. Not much more was said or prepared for, aside from a negative argument against gradualism:

Anxious friends fear that the Socialists may prematurely gain control of the government THROUGH a revolution. But if there is ever to be such a thing as a premature attainment of governmental power, it will come from the gaining of the appearance of governmental power BEFORE the revolution; that is, before the proletariat has actually gained political power. So long as it has not gained this, the Socialists can obtain a share in governmental power only by SELLING its political strength.[79]

The proletariat couldn’t share political power with the bourgeoisie in coalitions without losing strength, the revolution was needed first, but none knew what the proletariat gaining political power could actually look like. Kautsky made himself clear:

The possessing class will always demand, and its interests will force it to demand, that the power of the state shall be used to hold the proletariat down. On the other hand the proletariat will always demand that any government in which their own party possesses power, shall use the power of the state to assist it in its battle against capital. Consequently every government based upon a coalition of capitalist and working class parties is foredoomed to disruption.[80]

Kautsky knew “nothing” of what the decisive battles of social war would look like. He was “manifestly unable to say whether they will be bloody or not, whether physical force will play a decisive part, or whether the will be fought exclusively by means of economic, legislative and moral pressure. We are, however, quite safe in saying that in all probability the revolutionary battles of the proletariat will see a much greater predominance of these latter methods over physical, which means military force, than was the case in the revolutionary battles of the bourgeoisie”.[81] This was Kautsky’s political revolution: the “achievement of political power by the proletariat…by the Social Democratic Party”.[82]


Kautsky’s core pre-war writings show that, within his worldview, the state was “the strategic nodal point of class struggle”.[83] Short of the ambiguities, “the logic of Kautsky’s Marxism carried the imperative of a decisive shift of power in the state…the theoretical axis around which this strategy is conceived is the working class seizure of state power, a Social Democratic majority in a parliament that has become the effective master of the state apparatus. This is what Kautsky meant by the decisive battle, the revolution – and it is revolution in this sense which he counterposes to Bernstein’s ‘organic evolutionism’”.[84]

Eric Blanc correctly argued that the dominant feature of pre-war Social Democracy from 1906 onwards – Kautsky was outmanoeuvred by Bebel at the Mannheim Congress, in the aftermath of the secret pact between the trade union officials and the Party Executive – was made up of a growing and conservatising bureaucracy that trashed theory. But Kautsky’s centrist framework did not permit him to confront this rightward drag in the party. There were breaks and continuities in his thought. Theoretical reasons, and material, bureaucratic pressures all played a part in his rightward drift. The left in the twenty-first century should learn from this. Today, interest in Kautsky coincides with the uneven retreat the left has experienced in recent years, with the failure of efforts to reconstruct left social democratic political approaches. Given the poor shape revolutionary Marxist groups are in, the key problem we face is: how can small, isolated groups of revolutionaries build substantial organisations capable of intervening to achieve victories when workers move into radical action? There is a need to build a core of revolutionaries around clear revolutionary Marxist ideas. Kautsky’s unilinear framework does not fit with this project.

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[1] Quoted in Geary 1987, p118.

[2] Blanc 2016a, 2016b.

[3] Many thanks to Charles Post, Eric Blanc, Sandra Bloodworth, Omar Hassan and Rick Kuhn for their comments on an earlier draft, and to Sebastian Budgen and Ben Lewis for the new translations of Kautsky’s writings, forthcoming 2017. See also Eric Blanc 2016a, 2016b.

[4] Trotsky 1919.

[5] Trotsky 1938.

[6] Day and Gaido 2011, p40.

[7] Benjamin 1982, pp260-262.

[8] Kautsky J.H.1994, p5, p27.

[9] Waldenberg 1980, p49. (All translations from Waldenberg are mine. D.R.)

[10] Kautsky 1909, p50.

[11] Frölich 2010, p171.

[12] Bensaïd quoted in Riddell 2011, p116.

[13] Luxemburg 1983, p123.

[14] Shandro 2014, p70.

[15] Blanc 2016a.

[16] See Shandro 2014, pp73-74.

[17] Kautsky 1909, p47.

[18] ibid., p48.

[19] Bensaïd 2016, p66-67.

[20] Quoted in Salvadori 1979, p20.

[21] Kautsky 1881a.

[22] ibid.

[23] Kautsky 1881b.

[24] Quoted in Salvadori 1979, p22.

[25] ibid.

[26] Salvadori 1979, p35.

[27] Kautsky 1910, p109.

[28] ibid., pp109-110.

[29] ibid., pp109-186.

[30] Engels 2010, p225.

[31] Waldenberg 1980, p79.

[32] Quoted in Basso 1975, p50.

[33] Quoted in Waldenberg 1980, p86.

[34] Quoted in Waldenberg 1980, p86.

[35] Kautsky 15 July, 1893, quoted in Waldenberg 1980, p87.

[36] Kautsky 2017, p51.

[37] See Draper 1987, p54.

[38] Kautsky 2017, pp143-144.

[39] ibid., p151.

[40] ibid., pp154-155.

[41] ibid., p158.

[42] ibid., p162.

[43] ibid., p53.

[44] Engels 1969, p3.

[45] ibid., pp3-4.

[46] ibid., pp3-4.

[47] Luxemburg 1983, p104.

[48] Engels 1969, pp4-5.

[49] ibid., p10.

[50] See Luxemburg 1898.

[51] Liebknecht, quoted in Nettl 1969, p101.

[52] Kautsky 1899, pp7-8.

[53] ibid., p4.

[54] Grossman 2018, p7.

[55] Quoted in Schorske 1955, pp23-24.

[56] Kautsky 1916, p28.

[57] ibid., pp36-37.

[58] ibid., p65.

[59] ibid., p44.

[60] ibid., p80.

[61] ibid., p88.

[62] Frölich 2010, p132.

[63] Kautsky 2017, p286.

[64] Quoted in Kautsky 2017, p217.

[65] Kautsky 2017, p192.

[66] ibid., p273.

[67] ibid., p211.

[68] ibid., p210.

[69] Lukács 1971, p299.

[70] Badia 1975, p144.

[71] Kautsky 2016.

[72] ibid.

[73] Steenson 1978, pp140-141.

[74] Kautsky 1909, p62.

[75] ibid., p64.

[76] Mandel 1971.

[77] Kautsky 1909, p95.

[78] ibid., p98.

[79] ibid., p125.

[80] ibid., p12.

[81] ibid., p50.

[82] Kautsky J.H. 1994, p107.

[83] Shandro 2014, p55.

[84] Shandro 2014, p56.

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