A forgotten strategist

Ben Lewis introduces Karl Kautsky’s article of April 1917

Karl Kautsky: a Marxist before he reneged

As part of our ongoing commemoration of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we felt that it would be useful to reprint an article by Karl Kautsky - the ‘pope of Marxism’ later turned ‘renegade’ - which was first published in English translation by the Weekly Worker eight years ago.

Originally it appeared in the journal of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Die Neue Zeit. The article, ‘Prospects of the Russian Revolution’, sheds important light on the undercurrents of the Russian revolutionary process and offers both analysis and predictions regarding its next stage: ie, following the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of the provisional government. What is striking is that, despite the fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had long broken with Kautsky, there is an obvious overlap between Kautsky’s thinking and that of the Bolsheviks.

It is impossible to say with certainty whether, and to what extent, the article may have influenced Lenin’s approach in 1917. But it is undeniably the case that Lenin, whose study (now a museum) still boasts a complete collection of Die Neue Zeit, would have read the piece. Moreover, Kautsky had been something of an authority on Russian politics and the nature of the coming revolution for some time. His ideas were keenly read in Russian Marxist circles from at least the turn of the 20th century.1

Recently, the Weekly Worker ran a translation of an article of his from 1906, which bears a similar title: ‘The driving forces and prospects of the Russian Revolution’. This article had an enormous impact and was described by Lenin as no less than “a brilliant vindication of the fundamental principles of Bolshevik tactics”.2 Much water passed under the bridge between 1906 and 1917, of course, but even a cursory glance at the two pieces reveals an underlying similarity in their arguments regarding the forces and dynamics behind revolution in Russia: the importance of democracy, the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie (thus discounting it as any kind of a reliable ally), and the possibility of a worker-peasant regime. What is novel about the 1917 article is the prospect of taking “considerable steps” towards “socialist development” through the nationalisation of large firms, the railways, church estates, etc. Lenin too comes out with a similar formulation in his ‘April thesis’ ... though it did not feature in the political battles leading to the October rising. Of course, moving towards socialism was contingent upon events in Europe, crucially Germany. And Europe, Kautsky argues, will be shaken up beyond recognition by the remarkable and rapidly changing events happening in Russia.

We hope that by making these texts available we are able to convey how the October revolution of 1917 was not merely the outcome of an outpouring of anger and defiance on the part of a brutalised, war-torn Russian population, but resulted from a clear programme of revolution, mass organisations and deeply-rooted Marxist consciousness. All of these, after all, were patiently built, and expanded upon, in the course of decades, not days. Bolshevik strategy is thus inseparable from the achievements of the Second International (1889-1914), of which Kautsky was, of course, a pioneering thinker.


In the introduction to the reprint of this piece, I do not wish to outline in any more detail the content of Kautsky’s 1917 article: those who are reading the piece for the first time would be well-advised to read Lars T Lih’s original introduction3 or his recent piece on Kautsky and the “axiom of the class ally” in this paper.4 Instead, I wish to take a step back from and briefly explore an apparent paradox at the heart of Kautsky’s legacy: why is it the case that a thinker who was so patently pivotal to the development of Russian revolutionary Marxism has come to be understood by the contemporary left as somebody who represents everything that the Bolsheviks supposedly had to overcome in order to carry out a successful revolution?

Today, after all, Kautsky is mainly remembered for his polemics against the young Bolshevik regime or as the ‘renegade’ in Lenin’s The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky (1918), which pillories him for his wavering stance in opposing World War I and his (later) outright hostility to the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Understandably, therefore, Kautsky’s authority as a Marxist theoretician was seriously called into question ever since Lenin’s polemic. Indeed, anecdote has it that not only Lenin’s critique of Kautsky, but also the very title of his anti-Kautsky pamphlet, has moulded historical consciousness. The Kautsky scholar, Hans-Josef Steinberg, for instance, recalls - or claims to recall - hearing from his colleague, Georges Haupt, that at various history conferences across the globe in the 1970s and 1980s students and academics actually thought that Kautsky’s forename was ‘Renegade’!5

Be that as it may, Lenin’s choice of the term is worth bearing in mind when considering Kautsky’s legacy today. For to call somebody a renegade is to assert that this somebody, for whatever reason, has reneged on, or turned away from, what he once held dear - not that what he believed in was useless from the outset. Seen in this light, Lenin’s charge against Kautsky is not that the latter had always been a traitor to the cause of socialism, but that at a certain point he had flinched back from the perspectives he had formulated earlier. Indeed, following the outbreak of World War I, Lenin recommended to a comrade that he should “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that.”6 Lenin tried to explain Kautsky’s renegacy in the realm of politics. Clara Zetkin, the leading German revolutionary who was a close friend of the Kautsky family in Stuttgart, adopted a similar approach. In 1920, she wrote:

Nobody disputes Kautsky’s great and enduring service of teaching the most advanced workers the ABC of scientific socialism, of historical materialism. Nor does anybody dispute that he fought to shed further light on Marx’s world of thought, to develop this thought and to make a cadre of advanced proletarian fighters feel at home within it. But it is precisely this which makes his ‘fall from grace’ all the more inexcusable.7

Later on in the 1920s, however, many of those writing in defence of the Russian Revolution and against Kautsky, such as Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, sought to locate Lenin’s split with Kautsky philosophically, not in the realm of particular political choices. Jules Townshend has helpfully coined the term, “neo-Hegelian interpretation”, for this approach, which has exerted a huge - albeit often unconscious - influence on the left’s understanding of Kautsky through to this day.8 For Korsch and Lukács, Kautsky’s errors lay in his philosophical development and his articulation of a purportedly positivistic, Darwinist vulgar Marxism,9 which reduced human consciousness to an expression of economic interests and downplayed the role of active human agency in bringing about socialist revolution, with Kautsky assuring his followers that they could sit by and wait for the revolution to ripen almost like a natural process.10

The real break between Lenin and Kautsky, according to this view, occurred when Lenin, angry at Kautsky and the political capitulation of the Second International in the face of war, reread Hegel in Swiss exile11 and abandoned the non-dialectical, Kautsky-inspired world outlook he had once held dear. This view became influential in German academia following the publication of Kautsky und der Kautskyanismus in 1928 by the prominent historian, Erich Matthias. For Matthias, Kautsky’s verbal radicalism was a mere façade for the SPD’s political passivity and quietism, which paved the way for that party’s gradual integration into the structures of the German empire, as expressed most clearly in the Burgfrieden [civil peace] policies of August 1914.12


The gulf between Kautsky and Lenin, between ‘revolutionary social democracy’ and Bolshevism, was widened even further with the rise of Stalinism in Russia. Basing itself on an ahistorical and quasi-religious cult of Lenin, Stalinist historical output contended that the views of Kautsky and those of Bolshevism were worlds apart. As Stalin himself put it in his notoriously fabricating Short course of 1939, “The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements - that is one of the maxims of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the Social Democratic parties of the Second International.”13

The corollary of this approach was the marginalisation of Kautsky’s ideas in the eastern bloc. In the early Soviet Union, however, plans were afoot to produce a multi-volume collection of Kautsky’s pre-1914 works in Russian translation. In 1923, the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow decided to publish a series of the most important works of the ‘early Kautsky’, for which Lenin had such praise. Fourteen volumes were planned, but by 1930 only four had actually been published. With the removal of David Ryazanov from the institute, the project collapsed altogether.14 In his short obituary of Kautsky, written in 1938, Trotsky’s criticism of the Stalinist marginalisation of Kautsky is essentially correct (and almost universally ignored by those who invoke Trotsky’s name today):

The attempts of the present historiography of the Comintern to present things as if Lenin, almost in his youth, had seen in Kautsky an opportunist and had declared war against him, are radically false. Almost up to the time of the world war, Lenin considered Kautsky as the genuine continuator of the cause of Marx and Engels.15

In the west meanwhile, and alongside the neo-Hegelian interpretation of the left, a bourgeois school of thought came into existence, which was essentially a mirror image of the Stalinist interpretative framework. The only major difference was that this school of thought placed minus signs where the Stalinist school placed plus signs and vice versa. A huge literature emerged which basically agreed with the Stalinist approach: social democracy and Bolshevism, Kautsky and Lenin - it concluded - had little in common. To the extent that this literature engaged with Kautsky, its conclusion was the same as that of the Stalinists: the Czech-German thinker and the Russian revolutionary were worlds apart. The later Kautsky in particular thus came to symbolise decent, civilised, ‘western’ thought, whereas the semi-Asiatic despotic hordes of Russian Bolshevism had never had anything to do with such ‘western’ Marxist views.

During the cold war, a peculiar consensus thus emerged. From different angles, and for different reasons, the three main schools outlined above tend to suggest that Kautsky’s views of democracy, organisation and revolutionary change had little or nothing to do with the political practice of Russian Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The cold war is long gone, but this consensus continues to exert a profound influence on the contemporary left’s (mis)understanding of the underlying political ideas of the Russian Revolution.

Needless to say, bad history begets bad politics - and vice versa. It is hoped that, by making available to a contemporary audience this and other similar texts, we can provide a more rounded appreciation of the Russian Revolution and its underlying programmatic DNA. Rereading ‘Prospects of the Russian Revolution’, one hundred years on, it is striking just how wrong the consensus on Kautsky is: he is no passive fatalist, but a profoundly political writer with a keen strategic eye and - as his musings on France and England in this piece underline - a rigorously historical approach to working class self-liberation.

Of course, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, a whole host of criticisms can be levelled at Kautsky for his tendency to smooth over disputes in the name of unity and so on,16 but this should not blind us to his impact - warts and all17 - on Bolshevism. He may have eventually come to despise the revolution he had once predicted in some detail, but this was due to his own ‘fall from grace’ politically, not a preordained result of inherent flaws in his appropriation of the Hegelian dialectic.

If we are to begin to grasp the genuine legacy of Bolshevism, free from all the ideological baggage of the 20th century, then this necessitates breaking with the dominant consensus outlined above. In short, we must avoid throwing out the Second International’s Marxist baby with the renegade bathwater.


1. Cf M Donald Marxism and revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists 1900-24 New Haven 1993.

2. Quoted in LT Lih, ‘All power to the soviets’ Weekly Worker May 4 2017.

3. Cf LT Lih, ‘Lenin, Kautsky and the April thesis’ Weekly Worker January 14 2010.

4. Quoted in LT Lih, ‘All power to the soviets’ Weekly Worker May 4 2017.

5. J Rojahn, T Schelz-Brandenburg and H-J Steinberg (eds) Marxismus und Demokratie: Karl Kautskys Bedeutung in der sozialistischen Arbeiterbewegung Frankfurt am Main 1992, p19.

6. Cf LT Lih, ‘“The new era of war and revolution”: Lenin, Kautsky, Hegel and the outbreak of World War I’, in A Anievas (ed) Cataclysm 1914: the first world war and the making of modern world politics Leiden 2014, p372.

7. C Zetkin Der Weg nach Moskau Hamburg 1920, pp9-10.

8. J Townshend, ‘Reassessing Kautsky’s Marxism’ Political Studies Vol 27 (1989), pp659-64.

9. Kautsky’s response to Korsch, which focuses on what he sees as some of the latter’s brash exaggerations and crudities, appears to have been consigned to historical oblivion. I translated this response into English in 2012, almost 90 years after it was first published. See Karl Kautsky, ‘A destroyer of vulgar Marxism’ Platypus Review 43: 2-4.

10. This reading of Kautsky dovetailed with the notion, prevalent in academic circles, that Engels himself was responsible for the flattening and simplification of Marxism, removing its dialectical edge. The classic account of this is in Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume history of Marxism. His chapters on Kautsky and what he terms the ‘golden age’ of Marxism in the Second International also make claims along these lines (L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism: its origin, growth and dissolution Oxford 1978, pp1-57).

11. Writing in 1924, Grigory Zinoviev provides a slightly different take on Lenin’s purported Damascene conversion. Zinoviev recalls how utterly bored Lenin was in Swiss exile: “Vladimir Ilyich … had been particularly agonised by the past few months. It was almost as if he lacked the air to breathe. He was drawn to work, to struggle, but in the Swiss ‘hole’ he had no other option [my emphasis] but to sit around in the libraries.” Cf G Zinoviev, ‘Lenin’s arrival in Russia’ Weekly Worker April 6 2017.

12. E Matthias Kautsky und der Kautskyanismus: die Funktion der Ideologie in der deutschen Sozialdemokratie vor dem Ersten Weltkriege Tübingen 1957 [1928].

13. JV Stalin History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): short course Moscow 1939, p142. The Lenin cult is expressed in these comments: “However, these brilliant ideas of Marx [on the necessity of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry] were not developed subsequently in the works of Marx and Engels, while the theoreticians of the Second International did their utmost to bury them and consign them to oblivion. To Lenin fell the task of bringing these forgotten ideas of Marx to light and restoring them to their full rights” (ibid p75).

14. Werner Blumenberg suggests that the plan for the publication of these works may have even contributed to Ryazanov’s removal (W Blumenberg Karl Kautskys literarisches Werk: eine bibliographische Übersicht The Hague 1960, p9).

15. L Trotsky, ‘Karl Kautsky’ New International 5, 2: 50-1, pp50-1. Nonetheless, in this article and elsewhere, Trotsky also contributes to a different kind of marginalisation along the lines of ‘Lenin was fooled by Kautsky; his influence was a mistake of his youth’ (something which also underplays Trotsky’s own devoted remarks about Kautsky at various points in his early career). Following a speech by Lenin in Zurich in October 1914, for instance, Trotsky found it absurd that Lenin repeatedly called Kautsky a traitor in the light of the latter’s behaviour regarding German social democracy’s approval of war credits; cf LT Lih, ‘The new era of war and revolution’ op cit.

16. Such as in the resolution on government participation drawn up by Kautsky for the Paris Congress of the Second International in 1900. The Iskra editorial board mockingly referred to this as the ‘rubber resolution’ on account of its political malleability.

17. In this respect, it should be recalled that Rosa Luxemburg, irrespective of the conclusions she drew, was pointing out some of these very flaws from around 1910 onwards. Probably because of her underlying differences with thinkers such as Lenin, her protests largely fell on deaf ears in the Russian movement.