The enigma of Kautsky

Karl Kautsky saw the wage-earning working class as the social power that would bring about the end of capitalism, writes Marc Mulholland. But he refused to romanticise the proletariat

Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky in the 1920s

Karl Kautsky, as is well known,was recognised as the most imperative interpreter of Second International Marxism. Jokingly, he was referred to as the ‘pope of Marxism’. Kautsky to some extent simplified and systematised the Marxist corpus, but he was also an original thinker, and in his life work he developed the system he had inherited.

In relation to his work I am particularly interested in socialist attitudes towards the proletariat. Socialists write a lot about capitalism, but surprisingly little about the proletariat - the modern, wage-earning working class - and this includes Marx himself, as well as his successors. In some respects Kautsky is in this tradition: he does not write directly about the proletariat as such, but you can find in his work rather more connected consideration of the proletariat as a social class than you can find in the work of Marx.

Probably the most useful is his substantial work, The agrarian question, published in 1899, which was part of a debate within German social democracy about revisionism. Also his Anti-Kritik - unfortunately still untranslated - which was his specific response to Bernstein in the debate on revisionism. I have tried to extract out of these what Kautsky said of the proletariat and its relationship to socialism.

Candidate classes

I want to start off by looking at what Kautsky says about those other, non-proletarian classes that might be regarded as candidates for playing a progressive role. He does not say very much about the benign, philanthropic rich - he himself was from a bourgeois background - but he agreed with Marx that such people are always going to be in a small minority.

He concentrates more on the wider labouring population, pointing out that it is only the wage-earning proletariat that is a social agent with spontaneous socialist references. This is not because they are the poorest in society - Kautsky is quite clear that the modern proletariat is not characterised by poverty. In fact, classes other than the proletariat were more exploited (in the non-technical sense). Peasants and artisans, for example, worked incessantly to preserve their small property and for this reason tended to accept lower standards of living than those expected by wage-labourers. Even when semi-proletarianised, however, peasants and handicraft workers were too attached to their residual private property to develop any widespread sympathy for socialism. Indeed, Kautsky believed that, so long as workers believe that they can become independent, possessing their own productive property, they would resist socialism. To quote:

Although individuals live in the present, they work for the future… The industrial wage-labourer who still believes that handicrafts have a future, or the journeyman who fancies himself as a future master, is different to one who has abandoned any hope of ever becoming independent within the present-day mode of production.1

If you believe you can be an independent producer in the present-day mode of production, you will not be a socialist. The implication here is that petty proprietorship is more naturally attractive than collective ownership, which is rather a second best, so far as workers are concerned. Peasants and handicraft workers, moreover, are accustomed to working on their own and so they lack the common feeling and discipline of industrial workers - those individuals schooled in socialised labour by capitalist enterprise, and for whom organised resistance against capitalist exploitation has fostered the virtues of cooperation, trust in their comrades and voluntary submission to the collective. Again, for Kautsky, the socialist instinct arises only for workers deprived of any hope of individual agency.

The proletarian is in a position of antagonism with the employer, but as a consumer she is also in conflict with all those who own their means of production, including peasants and small shopkeepers. Socialism therefore cannot be built upon a common interest with small property-owners, no matter how exploited they may be. Now, it is certainly the case that the small property-owning class had its own heroic revolutionary tradition. Historically it had been the very foundation stone of the democratic movement - Kautsky very freely acknowledges this. By the late 19th century this had changed:

A hundred years ago the small tradesman far surpassed all other classes of the people in intelligence, self-reliance and courage; today, the proletariat vigorously develops these virtues, while the small tradesman has become the prototype of narrowness, servility and cowardice.2

Continuously under pressure from both big capitalists and wage-earners, the small tradesman inclines towards political hysteria and is prey to demagogues. As a class they tend towards what Kautsky called a “reactionary democracy” - the collapse of the petty bourgeois democratic movement into rabid hostility towards the organised proletariat. This tendency, Kautsky argued in 1909, was even more advanced in France, Austria and Switzerland than it was in Germany - this was well before the rise of German fascism, of course. International social democracy had no more bitter enemy than the ‘reactionary democracy’.

There is also the famous ‘new middle class’. The capitalist mode of production also produces this new middle class of intellectuals, professionals, scholars, artists, engineers and so on. Might they be a progressive agency? No. They lack a coherent consciousness of their own, the interests of each section being too particular. This growing class, despite its lack of property, is not at all a promising recruiting ground for the socialist movement.

And what about those living in the marginalised grey economy in urban areas (probably the majority of the so-called working class in our present ‘global south’)? Kautsky says that this slum proletariat, or the lumpenproletariat - the unemployable or criminal - is superfluous to production, although it accounted for a growing proportion of the population in industrial areas. It is generally servile to the powerful, and it cannot take the lead in the revolutionary movement, although it may well fish in the troubled waters of revolutionary unrest.

This is what the 20th century socialist historian, Raymond Postgate, wrote:

It may, as in Bavaria in 1919, momentarily support a revolution, only to desert it quickly at the first check. It may, as when Cavaignac armed it in Paris in 1848, take arms for a few pence to crush the very revolutionaries who are fighting in its defence.3


For Kautsky the true proletarian was the worker without prospect of ever becoming independent. This is important: the proletariat is not just an objective class position: it is a class psychology. The proletarian has the same will to live as any other class, but this will to live works out under conditions appropriate to their class-defined means of life. Proletarians do not strive for profit, but instead sell their labour-power, and they naturally look for higher prices for labour-power and lower prices for food, etc. This is the elemental foundation of proletarian class-consciousness.

Kautsky acknowledged that initially, with the beginning of modern industry, the term ‘proletariat’ implied absolute degeneracy. Historically, during early industrialisation, the proletariat was recruited out of the shiftless, semi-criminal, slum classes, such as could be found, whether in ancient Rome or indeed the slums of modern Turkey or London. Kautsky said that the proletariat emerged as a rabble with little political consciousness. However, the modern industrial proletariat was also an absolutely unprecedented phenomenon. For the first time they emerged as a hereditary class, radically distinct from their employers. Some of this line of argument comes from Marx, and some, I think, comes from 1830s French socialist thinkers, particularly the notion of a hereditary class, and perhaps from Lorenz von Stein.

In marked contrast to the industry of the Middle Ages, in modern industry the economic establishment is completely separated from the household. During the guild period workers in a craft workshop belonged to the household, to the family of the master. Workers could not establish their own household - they could not marry and raise a family without first establishing themselves as an independent economic unit: that is, without becoming apprentices on their way to becoming masters. In very practical terms, the pre-modern proletariat could not reproduce itself as a class, because it was almost impossible to have a family without escaping from the proletarian condition. Contrast this to modern industry, as it emerged in the late 18th and 19th century, where household and factory are separate. Workers can now set up their own homes and families without first having to become independent artisans. Wage workers multiply and become a distinct, self-reproducing class. (Marx himself made the point that capitalists can leave the reproduction of the proletariat to the proletarians themselves. There is a surprising amount in Marx, which reads oddly to us now, alluding to the sexual life of the wage worker).

Kautsky argues that the proletariat is a hereditary, self-reproducing class in a way that traditionally the wage-earner had not been. The separation of household and factory was crucial in allowing the proletariat to develop a cohesive class-consciousness. This is because it allowed the wage-earner to become a free individual outside work, and to develop the qualities that make it possible for the proletariat to conquer state power.

Unlike the proletarians of the ancient and medieval world, the modern proletariat supplies the wants of the ruling class rather than being supplied by it. They do not envy and imitate the rich, but despise them as idlers. It was this changing consciousness that made the modern working class. The sense of power that goes with class-consciousness means the regeneration of the working class. Large-scale industry inevitably leads to the progressive concentration of the mass of the population and of economic life in large cities. This concentration and urbanisation is crucial to the development of proletarian class-consciousness. Workers can communicate and organise themselves more easily in urban centres, and they are more difficult to control and to discipline. The multiplicity of opportunities for employment means that if necessary they can usually expect to find a new job elsewhere. The town stimulates intellectual exchange through innumerable associations, meetings, exhibitions, museums, theatres and pubs. It is here that the proletariat attains class-consciousness, organises itself and achieves political maturity. In Kautsky’s view, the proletariat is more or less necessarily an urban class.

Two contrary tendencies, Kautsky argued, act on the proletariat under capitalism. On the one hand, they are degraded by demoralising work and poverty. Early industrialisation produced absolute degeneration, both physical and moral, but this was only a transitional stage. Generally speaking, industrialisation improves the living standards of workers, leading on average to shorter working hours, higher wages and more hygienic conditions. Workers, moreover, strive to regenerate themselves - in the first instance by limiting the working day. Kautsky disagreed with the common idea that social revolution arises out of proletarian misery and degradation. Over time, he said, the elevating tendency of the proletariat inevitably gains the upper hand.

Nonetheless even in the best circumstances the proletariat is deprived of culture, having little leisure time to acquire it and being intellectually deadened by mindlessly tending machines. However, the worker is anxious to escape the workplace so as to develop their potential. The very process of modern production, bringing workers together in urban areas, breaks down the limited confines of rural life, mingles cultures and requires literacy. This reacts upon the proletarian’s intellectual life and awakens in her a thirst for knowledge. The proletarian has a craving to exercise his mind outside his hours of work. Unlike the bourgeois intellectual, increasingly limited to esoteric specialisms, the worker tries to embrace all domains of knowledge: “It is among the despised and ignorant proletariat that the philosophical spirit of the brilliant members of the Athenian aristocracy is revived.”4

The importance of the wage worker’s desire for cultural self-improvement grew in Kautsky’s thinking. By 1916 the desire of the proletarians to educate themselves and the increasing capacity of society to educate them had become, for Kautsky, crucial to their historical role. He said:

If we expect better results from the class struggle of the modern proletariat than from the struggles of the working classes of previous times, the essential reason is the greater thirst for knowledge and the greater educational opportunities of the modern worker.5

The struggle of the working class over wages could not of its own overcome the degradation of capitalism or reverse its increasing tendency towards crisis. The elevation of the working class brought about by the class struggle, therefore, is more moral than economic. However, the moral elevation of the working class generates increasing discontent with the constraints imposed by the capitalist order.

Kautsky, at least by the 1890s, admitted that the living standards of the working class were improving. Initially he argued this was because of a decline in agricultural prices, making food and other such commodities cheaper. By the turn of the century he was ascribing it more to social and economic reform. Following the advice of Engels, Kautsky in his gloss on the German Social Democratic programme concentrated not on the poverty of the working class, but on the uncertainty of their means of existence as the most potent radicalising factor:

Of all the ills which attend the present system of production, the most trying - that which harrows men’s souls deepest and pulls up by the roots every instinct of conservatism - is the permanent uncertainty of a livelihood.6

This uncertainty was aggravated by international labour migration - a subject much in our minds now. Kautsky remarked ironically that in the constant stream of immigration engendered by international transport, “Steamships and railroads, these much vaunted pillars of civilisation, not only carry guns, liquor and syphilis to barbarians, they also bring the barbarians and their barbarism to us.”7

The swarms of unemployed were a social danger, merging into “that stupendous mass of humanity of all degrees that may be designated as ‘the slums’”.8 Within this group he included cheats and swindlers, criminals and prostitutes, and sundry social parasites with no useful function. He also included middle-men, saloon keepers, commercial agents, personal servants, most soldiers and, oddly enough, drummers.

In the first instance, workers are likely to resent the influx of foreigners undermining wages. They learn, however, that the only sure counter to this is international solidarity, opposing capitalist oppression across borders. The modern proletarian - often forced to migrate for work themselves - is less likely to suffer from narrow national chauvinism than the small property-owner attached to his land, market and locale.

Workers’ movement

As the unskilled worker can easily be replaced, workers’ self-organisation tends first to develop among the skilled working class. The proletariat therefore differentiates into two sections. The best organised and most skilled workers come to look upon themselves as an ‘aristocracy of labour’. They exclude unskilled workers from the craft unions and act in effect as “the worst enemies of the working class”.9

This division is overcome with ever increasing mechanisation, which tumbles various crafts into the abyss of common labour. Section by section, the unskilled workers emulate the best organised sections of the labour movement, and emerge from their moral apathy. By this process of emergence and sorting there develops a labour vanguard - “the church militant”, as Kautsky called it - of the working class, which develops at a faster pace than the class as a whole.

From this militant proletariat is recruited the bulk of the socialist movement. Indeed, “socialism and the militant proletariat tended constantly to become identical”.10 The first weapons of the modern proletariat are the strike and the boycott - the strike in particular is the weapon of warfare peculiar to the proletariat. Though it is likely to play an important part in the revolutionary process, the strike was markedly inadequate for the struggle of a large-scale working class. Workers must inevitably seek political liberties to organise on a mass scale. Civil and political liberties are to the proletariat “the prerequisites of life”; they are “the light and air of the labour movement”.11 For Kautsky, the highest form of proletarian class struggle is not the strike, but the democratic political process and the winning and utilisation of civil liberties. The Bolsheviks, incidentally, were to definitively reject Kautsky on this point: in their view, democratic action by the working class was a sign of proletarian weakness, not maturity. “The proletariat needed democracy in the past because it was as yet unable to think about dictatorship in real terms,” wrote Nikolai Bukharin.12 We do not get very far if we elide the real political and temperamental differences between Bolshevism and Kautskyism.

While rich capitalists can influence governments directly, the working class can only do so, according to Kautsky, through parliamentary activity. The struggle to influence parliament is for the working class “the most powerful lever that can be utilised to raise the proletariat out of its economic, social and moral degradation”.13 The working class is particularly well adapted to this form of parliamentary organisation, because it is trained through regular forms of activity at work, which accustoms workers to rigid discipline. Working class participation in politics inevitably leads to a specifically class party: “Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labour party.”14

Kautsky was of the opinion that a class party of workers must sooner or later exhibit socialist tendencies. He was sure, therefore, that the proletarian class struggle takes a socialist direction by its very nature. This is in contrast to the traditional views of Lenin, with socialism being brought to the proletariat from the outside. That is not how Kautsky thought. Kautsky did not believe, in fact, that proletarians inclined towards socialism because it was in the objective interest of the working class. In fact Kautsky thought that the rural population had a greater object of interest in socialism than even the urban working class.

The spontaneous development of socialist consciousness in the proletariat has a double aspect. Firstly, as the proletariat is propertyless, it has no specific attachment to private property in the means of production, and it is therefore possible to win it over to the overthrow of private property and the capitalist mode of production. Secondly, as the proletariat is exploited, it will strive to put an end to this exploitation.

Kautsky had to admit that exploitation of the working class is a somewhat abstract notion. If, as Marx argued, labour-power is sold at its market value, it can hardly be immediately obvious to workers that they are being robbed. This is particularly the case if technical exploitation, by Marxist standards, coexists with rising wages, as Kautsky believed it did. The ‘science’ of Marxism was not much help here. Kautsky conceded that the mass of workers neither conduct statistical research nor ponder over the theories of value and surplus value. However, workers can and do perceive their exploitation, as they contemplate the rise of profits and the improved mode of living of the bourgeoisie: for “the classes are not divided by Chinese walls … That the standard of life in the bourgeoisie rises faster than among the workers can be seen at every step.”15 In terms of psychology, therefore, class exploitation is a relativist, comparative point of view.

Here I may add some comments to what Kautsky had to say. It is evident that workers often find inequalities of wealth to be perfectly justifiable. In general, they only take umbrage if they see wealth as being unearned. Ordinary people do not usually object to football players, for example, being very well paid, so long as they play well. They often like to think of the royal family as doing a challenging job for the country and paying their way by generating tourist income. People do, however, object to incomes which they perceived as being unearned. There was always much worker opposition, for example, to the owners of coal mines, because they made vast sums of money simply from the lucky chance that they had coal in the ground they happened to own. This helps to explain the extraordinary proletarian solidarity of the 1926 general strike. Today, asset strippers like Sir Philip Green are despised because they do not appear to do anything to actually ‘create wealth’. Similarly, and unfortunately, there is much base hostility to ‘benefit cheats’, ‘economic migrants’ and other such oppressed groups who are seen as not earning their way. There is a large and instructive literature on the social psychology of how this ‘justice motive’ works, building upon the insights of Melvin J Lerner.

Let us get back to Kautsky and his view of proletarian psychology. Workers are more likely to see themselves as exploited if the entrepreneurs are foreign, and for Kautsky this partly explained the intense class antagonisms that were evident in tsarist Russia. If, on the other hand, it was the working class that was divided by nationality, or deluged by immigrants (as was the case in the United States), class-consciousness had great difficulty in emerging. This is because immigrants are not spontaneously and immediately seen as part of the ‘hereditary’ proletarian class, as they come from outside.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

It is worth bearing in mind that for Kautsky the dictatorship of the proletariat is not the same thing as the socialist party coming to power. In fact, the dictatorship of the proletariat need not be socialist at all. At times, for example, Kautsky referred to a dictatorship of the proletariat in the period of the French revolutionary terror of the 1790s. This seems odd to us. We are used in the Leninist idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a tool for constructing socialism. In fact, it emerged as a description of the proletariat ruling society, it is not a description of its immediate programme and ideology. It needs to be remembered that Marx and Engels referred to the Paris Commune as the dictatorship of the proletariat, but they did not think it was socialist.

In Kautsky’s thinking the dictatorship of the proletariat is a workers’ party coming to power, regardless of whether it has a socialist programme or not. Working class government is the dictatorship of the proletariat - nothing less and nothing more. Kautsky interpreted this as meaning the exclusive political rule of the proletariat, not in alliance with any other class.

For Kautsky it is inevitable, once a proletariat is in existence, that a politically organised workers’ party will contend for state power. Such a workers’ party can organise itself and even form a government without first developing a socialist programme. However, the proletarian party, once in power, must inevitably move in a socialist direction. It cannot use the first great victory of the working class over capital, which puts political power into its hands, otherwise than by abolishing the capitalist nexus.

What would a workers’ government seek to do? It would in the first instance achieve the transformation of the militaristic state into a “culture state” (a term Kautsky took from Wilhelm Liebknecht). The “culture state” assumes responsibility for education, healthcare and transport. But it will move on from there. For Kautsky, such a government takes a socialist direction by its very nature.

When a working class government comes to power it will, by force of economic circumstances, strive for full employment as the first requirement for those who live only by selling their labour-power. This would be the case even if, as in England, the Labour Party thinks “in liberal rather than socialist terms”.16 A workers’ government seriously striving to secure full employment would inevitably clash with capitalist logic. Kautsky hypothesised that in such circumstances capitalists would see their profitability threatened and would therefore seek to sell up to worker cooperatives and the state. This seems rather unlikely, but an analogous example of this did actually take place through the Land War in Ireland. This was a campaign of peasants and small farmers against landlordism, which led to a kind of stalemate - but a stalemate in which landlords could no longer extract sufficient rents from their tenant farmers. Ultimately what the landlords decided to do was to sell out, to let the peasants have the land, because they could not get satisfactory levels of rent out of them any more. Under pressure from the tenant farmers, landlordism self-liquidated. Kautsky expected capitalism to do the same, once a solid workers’ government, reliant upon no other class, came to power.

Kautsky’s hypothesis drew upon the Irish experience. A workers’ government destroys the integrity of capitalism. There comes to power a workers’ government which essentially improves the situation of the working class to such an extent that the profit margins of the capitalist class is virtually destroyed, and the capitalists then seek to sell out to the state or cooperatives. He believed that the property-owners would seek compensation rather than try to struggle along as capitalists, once they had lost all their weapons of coercion against the working class. So, even in the absence of a workers’ movement explicitly motivated by socialist theories, the political supremacy of the proletariat and the continuation of the capitalist mode of production are mutually incompatible.

So this is what Kautsky meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat. In fact, he did not much like the term. In his reply to Bernstein in his Anti-Kritik he said: “I do not swear that the supremacy of the proletariat must inevitably take the form of a class dictatorship. Here there is no need to tie our hands.”17 After the experience of the Bolshevik and central European revolutions in the period 1919-21, Kautsky abandoned the idea of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat altogether. Instead in the period of transition the government for him would generally assume the form of a coalition with other class parties - at least when the conquest of power by the workers’ party was effected by democratic means. In this he was influenced by Otto Bauer in Austria.

I will come now to Kautsky’s famous formula regarding the historic development of a mass socialist movement - the merger of the workers’ movement and the socialist intellectuals - because I want to emphasise that the dictatorship of the proletariat is distinct from a conscious socialist government. The class party of labour finds socialist doctrine already developed to a greater or lesser extent by elements of the intelligentsia. Socialism developed as an ideology in the beginning of the 19th century as the “deepest and most splendid expression of bourgeois philanthropy”.18 Early socialists wished to rescue the working class, but did not see the proletariat as an agent in its own emancipation. Indeed, since it desired a harmonious society, it positively opposed class struggle.

The fledgling labour movement was naturally suspicious of such socialist intellectuals. It was, according to Kautsky, the great contribution of Marx and Engels to link socialism to the day-to-day proletarian class struggle. To quote:

Marx and Engels achieved in [theory] the unification of the workers’ movement and socialism. They replaced empirical trial and error and sentimental yearnings with the clear perception that the highest form of the workers’ movement is the socialist movement, and that socialism can only be realised through the workers’ movement; that the workers’ movement must, of necessity, strive to advance beyond capitalist society, and that the only class which has the power to struggle for a higher social stage beyond that of capitalism is the class of wage labourers.19

The unification of socialism and the workers’ movement was Kautsky’s definition of ‘scientific socialism’. Interestingly he ascribed its origins not to any work by Marx, but to The condition of the working class in England (1844) by Friedrich Engels. Engels invented scientific socialism, not Marx! By degrees what Engels predicted comes to pass: the workers’ movement and socialism are amalgamated. Kautsky’s party, the German SPD, was not a popular democratic party in the bourgeois sense of the term, but a party of class struggle. Its role was to recruit and to organise the proletariat:

Once social democracy has ‘landed’ the entire mass of the proletariat … no power will be able to withstand it. The main task of Social Democracy is, and remains: to win over this mass, to organise it politically and economically, to elevate its intellectual and moral level and bring it to the point where it can assume its inheritance - the capitalist mode of production.20

However, social democracy was not simply there to represent the interests of the proletariat: rather it was the harnessing of socialist ideas generated by intellectuals to the agency of working class power and dynamism. Social democracy is the party of the proletariat in class struggle, but it is not just this. It is also a party of social development.

Bernstein famously said that “the movement is everything, the end nothing”. Kautsky inverted this:

The aim and the movement belong together with social democracy. They are inseparable, but, should they ever come into conflict, it will be the workers’ movement that will have to give way.21

In other words, social development takes precedence over the interests of the proletariat. In particular, certain sections of the working class - those working in trades involving significant skill - have a tendency to coalesce as labour aristocracies which oppose progressive technical improvement in order to protect their jobs. Social democracy could not support such sectionalism. (One would be tempted to suggest that, in the view of Kautsky, socialists should not support London tube workers campaigning against driverless trains).

Social democracy, plainly, was not committed to supporting every sectional industrial action. Even the left socialist, Anton Pannekoek, in 1912 said as much:

Socialists should not support, for example, dock labourers struggling against the introduction of corn elevators, even if it meant the destruction of thousands of jobs … The idea would spring up, ‘Couldn’t we fight against it with trade union power?’ But social democracy would answer, ‘That is impossible; we cannot fight against progress. Make sure that the machines fall into your own hands.22

Its aims were to “remove obstacles to the free activity and organisation of the proletariat” and to agitate for state measures “to protect the physical, intellectual and moral capacities of the proletariat … wherever the activity of individuals and the organised mass of the proletariat is unable to do so”.23 Social democracy aims to raise the proletariat intellectually and morally in order to attain control of the economic mechanism. Kautsky put a great deal of emphasis upon legislation in support of a legally limited working day - or the ‘normal working day’, as it was known. It was the main issue, when it came to the protection of the workers. The socialist movement could not promise workers protection of their occupational positions - only their capacity for work and for life. The socialist movement protects the humanity of the workers, not their particular jobs.

The proletariat under socialism

I will now move on to what Kautsky thought about the position of workers within the socialist order. Socialist revolution would involve the transition to a new system of property, which is already latent in the old.

When productive property was worked by individuals, individual ownership had been necessary. Large-scale production, on the other hand, requires cooperation and social production. Work becomes necessarily collective. It becomes wholly impossible for every single worker to own her own means of production. The substitution of common for private ownership, production for use rather than for sale, was inherent in the evolution of property. Separate capitalist establishments would be transformed into social institutions and these institutions in turn would be united into one large concern: a socialist commonwealth. Rather disconcertingly, socialist society would be “nothing more than a single, gigantic industrial concern”.24

There was little sign in Kautsky’s writing that he believed the division of labour between manual and mental labour could be overcome. Indeed Kautsky followed Marx in thinking that science increasingly determined the productivity of labour - but he went further than Marx in saying that training in manual skills and training in science are two strictly separate activities. Productivity would rely upon scientists, and manual workers could not have anything to do with this.

He was also deeply sceptical about the viability of worker-cooperative enterprises. The single entrepreneur - independent, ruthless, highly motivated - was much better at taking advantage of market opportunities. Individual cooperatives almost invariably turned into capitalist enterprises. Capitalist exploitation could only be overcome by large-scale - and it seems hierarchical - socialist enterprises.

“It is true the worker demands freedom as well as good conditions of labour,” Kautsky conceded, when discussing guild socialism. “He desires democracy to be introduced into industry.” Clearly though, Kautsky had a limited view of what industrial democracy might mean: “Democracy signifies not anarchy, but submission of the individual to the decisions of the majority, and to those of the managers that the majority appoints.”25 For Kautsky the economic activity of the modern state was the natural starting point leading to the cooperative commonwealth. The size of this commonwealth could not be predicted in advance, but as a minimum it would likely be coterminous with the modern state.

Kautsky predicted that trade between largely self-sufficient socialist commonwealths would be much less than the trade that characterised international capitalism: “A cooperative commonwealth, co-extensive with the nation, could produce all that it requires for its own preservation.”26 So Kautsky envisaged a kind of autarky. He obviously considered socialism in one country to be viable - and indeed he thought it necessary, if the imperialist instinct to expansion was to be avoided.

The aim of the socialist movement, therefore, was to democratise the existing state as a first stage to transforming it into a self-sufficient, cooperative commonwealth. The details of how a socialist commonwealth would be organised, however, could not be predicted in advance. Intellectuals could do no more than indicate the general trend: “Sketching plans for the future social state is about as rational as planning in advance the history of the next war.”27

The only certainty was that large-scale means of production and instruments of labour would be subjected to social ownership and operation. Kautsky did admit that under present conditions the state is more expensive and less competent in its economic activities than the private capitalist. Socialisation would be distinct from nationalisation, in that the various forms of association other than the state, such as municipalities and cooperatives, would play a role. Nonetheless, as mentioned earlier, he did not really have a concept of industrial democracy. Rather, efficiency would derive from the maintenance of certain capitalistic techniques. At least for the foreseeable future, wage differentials and productivity bonuses could be expected to continue - they were entirely reconcilable with the spirit of socialist society. The competitive spirit would have to be preserved, because “a certain degree of rivalry between the members of society, and the selection of the fittest, does seem to be an indispensable prerequisite both for the social progress of society and for maintaining the level already attained”.

But this would not require market mechanisms. Already within capitalist enterprises talent was rewarded and organisational hierarchies arranged without recourse to market competition. Indeed the capitalist market was in some respects uncompetitive, because it tended to reward those with inherited, unearned advantages. To quote Kautsky,

A race between horses who begin at different starting points along the racetrack is a nonsense. The same is true of rivalry between people who are unequal to begin with. The selection of the fittest can only take place among equals.28

The idea being that, no matter how clever or hard-working you might be, you are not likely to end up with more money than a massive property-owner like the Duke of Westminster.

Employment for all seeking work would be secured under socialism, but there would be no full freedom of labour. In a socialist society there would in essence be only one employer and so workers would obviously not be able to move between employers. Kautsky admitted this was a limitation to freedom, but he believed it was one that the proletariat would willingly acquiesce to: “It can easily be understood why a liberal-minded lawyer or author may consider such a dependence unbearable, but it is not unbearable for the modern proletariat.”29 He believed the proletariat had rather limited horizons when it came to work and would be content with secure jobs.

The anarchist ideal of individual independence outside the collective work process was impossible for the manual worker, but it would be applicable in the socialist future to the process of intellectual production, art and scholarship, which has laws of its own and cannot submit to central management: “The type of socialist production, therefore, would be communism in material production, anarchy in the intellectual30 - not an entirely agreeable utopia for the worker in material production. There was to be no liberation of work itself: socialism promised to satisfy the intellectual strivings of the worker fundamentally by shortening the working day. For the worker it would not be the freedom of labour, but freedom from labour.

Freedom from labour, which already develops under capitalism with the shortening of the working day, was for Kautsky always fundamental to what socialism was about - it was all part of the raising of the moral and intellectual level of the proletariat. This would require socialism for its fullness of development, but it would also develop to a considerable extent in order to attain socialism. In his Anti-Kritik Kautsky ends by saying (I paraphrase): ‘Look, Bernstein, have more faith in the proletariat and in their intellectual and spiritual level, because if you don’t have such faith you may as well give up on democracy, never mind socialism.’ In the end it is a wager - we hope that when the day comes the working class will prove itself adequate to the tasks that are presented before it.

In many respects Kautsky’s partial disillusionment, his polemics against Bolshevism and his antagonism to the majority leadership of the SPD after World War I arose from a view that in central and eastern Europe the proletariat did not have the adequate intellectual and cultural level to achieve socialism. The war meant that the proletariat had gone backwards, directed and disorganised by a mass influx of unskilled rural labourers brought in to work in war industries. “As a result, the minority with superior education and skill, who had hitherto led the proletariat, gradually lost its power of leading, and in its stead there arose the blind passion of ignorance.”31 This new proletariat, driven only by misery, demanded immediate and untimely radical change - socialism in the blink of an eye and by the means of terror.

In Russia the proletariat had been brutalised, in central Europe the workers’ movement had split disastrously. Ideology and revolutionary passion was not enough.


1. K Kautsky The agrarian question (1899), Vol 2, p323.

2. K Kautsky, ‘To what extent is the Communist manifesto obsolete?’ (1903, 1906), in R Day and D Gaido Witnesses to the permanent revolution: the documentary record Chicago 2009, p173.

3. R Postgate How to make a revolution London 1934, p45.

4. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

5. K Kautsky, ‘National state, imperialist state and confederation’ (February 1915), in R Day and D Gaido Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Leiden 2012, p808.

6. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. N Bukharin, ‘The theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (1919) in O Field (trans) The politics and economics of the transition period London 1979, p46.

13. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

14. Ibid.

15. K Kautsky The social revolution (1902) London 1909, pp20-21.

16. K Kautsky On the morrow of the social revolution (1902) London 1909, pp5-6.

17. Karl Kautsky Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm: eine Anti-Kritik:

18. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

19. K Kautsky The agrarian question (1899) London 1988, Vol 2, p325.

20. Ibid Vol 2, p320.

21. Ibid Vol 2, p325.

22. SPD Congress at Chemnitz, ‘Debate and resolution on imperialism’, in R Day and D Gaido Witnesses to the permanent revolution: the documentary record Chicago 2009, p655.

23. K Kautsky The agrarian question (1899) London 1988, Vol 2, p346.

24. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

25. K Kautsky The labour revolution (1924):

26. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

27. Ibid.

28. K Kautsky The agrarian question (1899) London 1988, Vol 2, p208.

29. K Kautsky The class struggle (Erfurt programme) (1892):

30. K Kautsky On the morrow of the social revolution (1902) London 1909, p40.

31. K Kautsky Terrorism and communism (1919):