Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the 'April theses'

Could Karl Kautsky - the 'pope' turned 'renegade' of orthodox Marxism - have influenced Vladimir Ilych's 'April theses'? Here we print a Karl Kautsky article from April 1917, translated into English for the first time by Ben Lewis. It is introduced by Lars T Lih, a historian based in Canada, who has been at the forefront of re-examining the complex relationship between these two widely misunderstood figures of the 20th century workers' movement

The fall of the Russian tsar in March 1917 electrified public opinion everywhere, including socialist circles. In April 1917, Karl Kautsky published an article in his monthly journal Die Neue Zeit[1] that assessed the prospects of the Russian Revolution and its possible paths of development. Lenin read the article just prior to leaving Switzerland for Russia.

We are here publishing a full translation of this article, for two reasons. First, the immediate reaction to the Russian Revolution by the most prominent Marxist of his generation cannot fail to be of great historical interest. Kautsky had always been close to the Bolsheviks in his general assessment of revolutionary strategy in Russia, and his 1917 analysis of the Russian situation overlaps with the Bolshevik one to a large extent.

The second reason is that Kautsky’s article may provide an answer to a long-standing historical mystery. In April 1917, Lenin made certain ideological innovations that seemed to come out of the blue. Historians have proposed various explanations, but none have been generally convincing. I believe that the key to the mystery lies in the impact of Kautsky’s article on Lenin’s outlook just at the crucial point in time when he needed to come up with a concrete political programme that could orient the activities of the Bolshevik Party in the new circumstances of 1917. I will outline the case for this assertion here, leaving the necessary full presentation to another time.

First, what exactly was new in Lenin’s famous April theses? The following planks in Lenin’s 1917 platform are not new: all power to the soviets, no support for the provisional government and the imperialist war, the necessity of a second stage of the revolution, in which the proletariat would take state power. These themes can all be found earlier - in particular, in theses published in October 1915. What is new is Lenin’s insistence on taking ‘steps toward socialism’ in Russia, prior to and independent of socialist revolution in western Europe. This theme occurs for the first time in remarks jotted down in April 1917 - immediately after reading Kautsky’s article. Of course, we cannot simply argue post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this”). Nevertheless, this coincidence in time opens up a possibility that should be seriously examined.

A couple of preliminary remarks. The theme of ‘steps toward socialism’ is not equivalent to ‘socialism in one country’, as this slogan was understood in the mid-20s. Lenin is not making any assertion about the possibility of building full socialism in the absence of an international revolution. The metaphor of ‘steps toward socialism’ was meant to be modest: Russia can begin the long journey toward socialist transformation. Lenin undoubtedly still counted on European socialist revolution as the only way out of the global crisis of imperialist war.

Some readers might feel that the idea of Kautsky influencing Lenin in any way, especially after 1914, is inherently implausible - even paradoxical. The standard story about Lenin and Kautsky goes something like this: Lenin did indeed regard Kautsky as a Marxist authority prior to 1914, although this was probably due to a misunderstanding. But Kautsky’s actions and articles after the outbreak of the war made the scales fall from Lenin’s eyes, and he renounced Kautsky and ‘Kautskyism’.

This standard story is wrong on one essential point: Lenin never renounced “Kautsky, when he was a Marxist” - the phrase used constantly by Lenin after the outbreak of war to refer to the pre-war Kautsky. On the contrary, Lenin continued to energetically affirm the Marxist credentials and insights of Kautsky’s writings, especially up to and including 1909. Lenin ferociously attacked what he called Kautskianstvo, a term that he coined to sum up Kautsky’s behaviour after 1914. But Kautskianstvo most explicitly did not mean ‘the system of views set forth by Kautsky in his pre-war writings’ - in fact, the most glaring feature of Kautskianstvo was precisely Kautsky’s failure to live up to those views.

I have documented this point elsewhere. Here I will just assert that there is nothing paradoxical about Lenin being influenced by Kautsky, even in 1917, on issues other than such wartime controversies as the nature of imperialism and the need for a purified third international.

Let us now turn to Lenin’s ideological scenarios prior to April 1917. Up to this point, Lenin had one revolutionary scenario for Russia and another for Europe: democratic revolution in Russia and socialist revolution in Europe. These two scenarios could be linked externally: democratic revolution in Russia might spark off socialist revolution in Europe, which in turn might open up socialist possibilities even in backward Russia. This kind of linkage can be seen in the theses of October 1915: “The task of the proletariat in Russia is to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia to the end, in order to ignite the socialist revolution in Europe” (Lenin’s emphasis).

But, as the theses of October 1915 show, Lenin did not envision the possibility of Russia itself moving toward socialism prior to and independent of socialist revolution in Europe. True, a democratic revolution in Russia required proletarian state power - nevertheless, this proletarian state power would set itself only democratic tasks. Why? The reasons can be found in an article Kautsky wrote in 1906 that had a title similar to that of his 1917 article: ‘Prospects and driving forces of the Russian Revolution’ (1906), as compared to ‘Prospects of the Russian Revolution’ (1917).

Kautsky’s 1906 article was greatly valued by Lenin as an authoritative endorsement of basic Bolshevik strategy. Kautsky argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a thorough-going democratic revolution because it was too fearful of the inevitable result: namely, the growing power of the socialist proletariat. The workers were therefore the only class capable of leading a democratic revolution to the end - precisely because their ultimate goal was not democracy, but socialism. But in order to carry out this gigantic task of overthrowing the tsar the workers needed to win the loyalty of the revolutionary peasants away from the bourgeoisie.

Therefore, concluded Kautsky, the upcoming Russian Revolution had moved beyond the standard model of the bourgeois revolution in one important aspect: namely, the bourgeoisie itself would not - could not - be the leading class. But in another sense the Russian Revolution was still bourgeois: it would usher in an essentially bourgeois system, albeit a democratic one, because Russia was not ready for socialism. Kautsky proved this last point by applying two Marxist axioms to Russia in 1906. The first axiom was that socialism was impossible without an appropriate level of productive forces: “Socialism can only be built on the basis of large-scale enterprises, and it stands too much in contradiction to the conditions of small-scale enterprises for it to arise and maintain itself in a country with a overwhelming peasant majority.”

The second axiom might be called the axiom of the class ally: “It will be impossible for social democracy to achieve victory solely based on the proletariat, without the support of another class, and therefore, as a victorious party, it cannot carry out its programme further than permitted by the interests of the class that supports the proletariat.” This supportive class ally was the peasantry and, since the peasants were not ready to support socialism and since, furthermore, the workers could only carry out socialist transformation in a fully democratic system, then it followed that socialism was not on the agenda in Russia in 1906 or for the foreseeable future. “The mutuality of interest between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry is the source of the revolutionary strength of Russian social democracy and of the possibility of its victory, but at the same time it is also the limit to the possible utilisation of that victory.”

Lenin saw the Russian democratic revolution as a grandiose historical task that required heroic efforts from the proletariat and the revolutionary narod. But he also accepted without demur the argument that socialist tasks were out of the question for the time being. Kautsky’s words in 1906 only repeat what Lenin already said in 1905 when he pointed to “the existence of that immense peasant and petty bourgeois population that is capable of supporting the democratic revolution, but is at present incapable of supporting the socialist revolution” (Lenin’s famous comment from autumn 1905 that “we will not stop halfway”, taken in context, is not evidence of any wavering on the issue of socialist transformation in Russia in the foreseeable future).

In his 1917 article, Kautsky took the same two axioms (forces of production, class ally) and applied them to Russia in 1917 - and came up this time with much more open-ended answers. Kautsky does not make definite predictions, but he warns against any automatic pessimism, against setting a priori limits to socialist development, given the new empirical realities of Russia in 1917. He thus opened the gateway for Lenin to come up with his own, more assertively optimistic applications of the same axioms. In a word, he gave Lenin permission to consider the possibility of steps toward socialism in Russia.

We are now ready to turn to Kautsky’s article and note the passages that Lenin might have found to be significant. On two levels, Kautsky affirms the key propositions of what might be called the outlook of old Bolshevism. On the international level, he hints strongly that the Russian Revolution could lead to socialist revolution in Europe. His language is somewhat guarded and Aesopian in order to get past the censor, but the meaning is clear. He writes that “the international interdependence of state life for the peoples of Europe has already made too much progress for such a tremendous event as the transformation of the tsarist empire into a democratic republic to occur without repercussions for the other states”. Among these repercussions is “a tremendous upswing in the political power of the working classes in the entire capitalist realm”. This is coded language for ‘socialist revolution’. Kautsky also brings out the responsibility of the German SPD to prevent German militarists from crushing the new revolution.

Kautsky then reaffirms the key propositions of the long-standing Bolshevik analysis of the domestic Russian situation. The Russian bourgeoisie would like to see tsarism removed, but it is so paralysed by fear of revolution that “tsarism had to first bring Russia to the brink of the abyss before the bourgeoisie could oppose it more energetically - obeying necessity, not their own inner drive”.

Thus the Russian Revolution was to be a proletarian one from the very beginning, and Kautsky lists all the reasons why the Russian workers could play this leadership role: the advanced class-consciousness of the Russian workers, the “20th century knowledge” of their leaders, the preponderant social weight of the cities and the “decisive role” that the proletariat already enjoyed within them. Furthermore, the peasants were the natural ally of the socialist workers, since only the workers were prepared to satisfy the peasant demand for land. Once the peasants received the land, they will “oppose any counterrevolution that threatens them with the loss of their newly won soil”. Furthermore, the peasants were much more likely than previously to support democratic political reforms on the state level. Kautsky’s 1917 article thus contains a concise précis of old Bolshevik strategy.

But Kautsky goes on to open up new perspectives. How far can the Russian Revolution go in a socialist direction, even prior to and independent of any European revolution? To answer this question, Kautsky applies the same two Marxist axioms that he did in 1906, but comes up with different results.

The first axiom states that socialist transformation is possible only with the appropriate objective productive forces. Applying this axiom to Russia in 1917, Kautsky admits that “Russian capitalism [still] offers very little in terms of starting points [Ansatzpunkte] for socialist development”. Nevertheless, there is much that could be done, including nationalisation of large firms, railroads and mines; extensive economic regulation to protect workers; progressive taxation, and so on. But the significance of Kautsky’s remarks does not consist in his list of possible reforms, but rather the open-ended logic of his scenario, as set forth in the following crucial passage:

“One might call this a bourgeois programme of reform and not a workers’ programme of revolution. Whether it is one or the other depends on quantity. Here too, when quantity is increased accordingly, it must transform into a new quality. It is in the nature of things that the proletariat will strive to use its revolutionary power in the direction I have outlined here as soon as it feels solid ground under its feet, and that in so doing it will meet the resistance of the capitalists and the large landowners. How much it will achieve depends on its relative power.”

The other axiom states that the proletariat cannot go further toward socialism than its main class ally - in this case, the peasantry. The question becomes: will the peasantry support the socialist proletariat, not only when it is carrying out democratic tasks, but when it moves on to socialist tasks? There is no definite answer to this question (continues Kautsky). Certainly “we must reckon on the possibility that they will become a conservative element as soon as their hunger for land is sated and their freedom of movement secured: enemies of any counterrevolution, but also of any further revolution”.

In 1906, this possibility was the only realistic one. But, as with socialist economic measures, Kautsky insists that we should now avoid taking a too narrow and pessimistic view of peasant support. Already in 1906, Kautsky wrote eloquently of the transformation of the Russian peasant “from a good-natured, sleepy, unreflective creature of habit into an energetic, restless and untiring fighter who strives toward something new and better”. In his 1917 article, Kautsky insists that the intervening decade has seen such sweeping further changes in peasant life that prediction of peasant behaviour is impossible:

“If one is able to roughly, if not exactly, place the tendencies and needs of the other classes in Russia in parallel with the phenomena of western Europe, this way of looking at the situation breaks down with the Russian peasant. His material circumstances and historical traditions are quite unique, and at the same time have been in the process of colossal change for three decades. The peasant is the ‘x’, the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a figure for it. And yet we know that this figure is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.”

Thus, for both fundamental questions, Kautsky refuses to set limits and tells us to be prepared for tremendous surprises. Over the course of 1917, Lenin proceeded to ask himself the same two questions and gradually came up with his own definite answers. Just for illustrative purposes, we will limit ourselves here to some striking verbal echoes that indicate the direct impact of Kautsky’s article. Both come from Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?, written in early October 1917.

For Lenin in 1917, the main Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, for socialist development for Russia was the “economic apparatus” of the banks and trusts. “This apparatus must not, and should not, be smashed.” In expanding on this point, Lenin uses the same Hegelian tag as Kautsky did in a very similar context:

“The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single state bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus.”

In another part of the same pamphlet, Lenin responds to the charge that the workers are “isolated from the petty bourgeoisie”: in other words, that they will not have mass support if they move against the bourgeoisie. He points to peasant revolts then taking place and asserts that “it is difficult to imagine that in a capitalist country the proletariat should be so little isolated from the petty bourgeoisie - and, mark you, in a revolution against the bourgeoisie - as the proletariat now is in Russia.”

In other words: Kautsky, we now have the answer to your question. The peasants will support the workers in a revolution against the bourgeoisie. Full speed ahead!

Of course, these verbal echoes are hardly direct proof that Kautsky’s article had a large impact on Lenin. Nevertheless, they add weight to the strong circumstantial case for seeing Kautsky’s article as the catalyst for Lenin’s great innovations in his ideological outlook. The innovations are not at the level of the Marxist axioms themselves - Lenin as well as Kautsky continued to take these for granted. The innovations reveal themselves at the level of the empirical application of these axioms to Russia.

Kautsky’s April article also foreshadows the later clash between Lenin and himself. Kautsky insists that socialism is impossible without democracy, by which he means political freedoms such as right of assembly, of press, and so on. Of course, Lenin also emphasised the relation between democracy and socialism, but on a different plane. Lenin’s entire emphasis in 1917 is on mass participation in administration rather than on political freedoms. This emphasis stands in contrast to earlier old Bolshevism, for which political freedom was a central goal.

Many other candidates have been proposed for the catalyst for Lenin’s ideological innovations in 1917. Among those put forward are Hegel, Bukharin, the political writings of Marx and Engels, JA Hobson and, of course, Trotsky, but there are difficulties with each of these. Some observers have dispensed with specific catalysts and spoken either of Lenin’s cynicism or of an existential ‘rejection of Big Brother’. I have now put forth a new explanation: the role of catalyst was played by Kautsky’s article of April 1917, which showed Lenin how he could both remain loyal to central Marxist axioms and move forward to a socialist revolution in Russia without waiting for the international revolution.

To the end of his life, Lenin continued to ask these two questions: ‘What are the starting points for socialist development in Russia?’; and ‘Will the peasants follow the workers even when the workers move toward socialism?’ He never did find answers that completely satisfied him.