WeeklyWorker

09.05.2019
German soldiers streamed home from the front and joined revolutionary workers

Commitment to orderly progress

Jim Creegan argues, in his second and concluding article, that while Karl Kautsky’s writings contained insights, his entire political career can only serve as a negative example. We intend to carry a rejoinder in the near future

We have seen in my previous article how the Prussian suffrage crisis of 1910 marked the beginning of a rift between Karl Kautsky and the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).1 A series of polemics followed between Luxemburg and the Dutch socialist, Anton Pannekoek, on the left, and Karl Kautsky in the now rightward-moving SPD centre. This article traces Kautsky’s evolution from that point onward.

In a 1912 essay, ‘Massenaktion und Revolution’, Pannekoek argued in essence that capitalism - or at least its German version - had entered a new period, in which the steady, gradual progress of the working class was no longer possible. Such advancement, he held, was tolerated by the ruling class only when the workers’ movement had been weak. But growing proletarian strength, combined with intensified competition among imperialist powers, made the bourgeoisie much more prone to militarism and repression. German parliamentary democracy - truncated to begin with in the constitutional monarchy that then existed - was becoming even more impotent. The enemy of the workers did not consist of particular political parties, but the armed power of the state as a whole, to which the workers could counterpose nothing but their own concentrated force.

Under these conditions, the workers would be compelled to rely chiefly upon extra-parliamentary struggle, the major weapon of which was the mass strike. Contrary to Kautsky, Pannekoek asserted the mass strike could not be understood as a discretely employed tactic or single event, but rather as a recurring - and sometimes spontaneous - inflection point in an ongoing mass struggle. Moreover, he asserted that such a struggle could not be confined to the existing organisations of the proletariat - unions and party - as in what Pannekoek decried as Kautsky’s “cult of formal structures”.

He viewed revolution as a profound social paroxysm that would inevitably overflow established organisational bounds and draw in new layers, which were not mainly the marginal lumpen elements of times past, but part of a larger, proletarianised mass. The revolutionary process would consist of both organised efforts and spontaneous improvisations. Following Marx in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, Pannekoek argued that one of the most important things to emerge from revolutionary struggle would be alternative, more radically democratic forms of political power, distinct from, and destined to replace, bourgeois parliaments and state structures.

He also took exception to a view of imperialist war Kautsky had expressed earlier: that a socialist party too weak to prevent a war could do little to stop it once begun. On the contrary, Pannekoek declared, wars create social crises by straining the resources of the nation to the limit, and imposing heavy burdens upon the working class. Its sons comprise most of imperialism’s mass armies, and could therefore not necessarily be relied upon to repress the revolts that war could trigger.

It was in answer to Pannekoek that Kautsky clarified his own contrasting views on the transition to socialism, as they evolved since he had taken up the cudgels against Bernstein and the revisionists in 1909. Kautsky reaffirmed his belief in the slow, but unstoppable advance of the working class. The SPD and the unions were far too big and powerful ever to be annihilated by the state or rightwing forces - reactionary thrusts aimed at breaking their power could be nothing more than transient episodes. The vehicles of proletarian progress were, and could only be, the party and the trade unions. In championing the ‘new tactic’ of mass action, Pannekoek and Luxemburg were indulging in romantic pipe dreams. Spontaneous initiatives on the part of unorganised elements - being both unpredictable and beyond party and union control - were highly suspect, and potentially damaging to the planned and methodical efforts of workers’ organisations. The attempts of the left to import the methods of a backward and undemocratic country like Russia into an advanced semi-democracy like Germany ignored all the obvious differences between the two countries. Germany had a stronger state, and to confront it directly would spell certain defeat:

To direct the workers’ movement toward mass actions is merely to replace the old one-sidedness, for which Marx coined the expression ‘parliamentary cretinism’, with a new cretinism, which we may define, continuing the metaphor, as a cretinism of mass actions.2

Equally wild-eyed, according to Kautsky, was all talk of ‘smashing’ or replacing the existing state. It was utopian, he said, to imagine that the modern state, with all its complex functions and intricate division of labour, could be replaced by ordinary citizens, who would run the state in their spare time (although it is not clear that Pannekoek or Luxemburg ever argued this position: Pannekoek said only that new, more democratic state forms would grow up in the course of mass struggle). Under a socialist regime, parliament, as well as all the old ministries, would remain intact, although more decentralised and responsive to the people. What socialists should aim at was not a new state, but a shift of power within the state, ie, not new state forms, but a new government, which would direct the old apparatus in working class interests. He wrote:

The objective of our political struggle remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state [as opposed to the then commanding position of the kaiser - JC]. Certainly not the destruction of state power.3

‘Ultra-imperialism’

If Kautsky’s polemic with Luxemburg and Pannekoek made explicit certain tendencies in his thinking that were implicit even in 1909, his writings on war and imperialism between 1912 and 1913 represent a complete abandonment of earlier views. At the Second Congress of the Second International in 1910, Kautsky reaffirmed his position that militarism and an armaments race were necessary parts of the foreign policies of all major capitalist powers:

… It is utopian to believe that bourgeois pacifist conferences or visits by friends of peace to foreign governments can abolish the danger of war and introduce disarmament and submission to international courts … national conflicts, like social conflicts, cannot be overcome in the bourgeois world of competition.4

Yet, in an article titled ‘Ultra-imperialism’ - published after the outbreak of the war, but completed beforehand - Kautsky argues that imperialism, while it arises for economic reasons, is not an economic necessity for capitalism. Just as competition within advanced countries leads to the formation of cartels, by which competition is restrained, so the calamities brought about by inter-imperialist rivalries can jolt the rival states into recognising the necessity of restraining themselves in order to promote free trade, and come to international agreements to respect each other’s spheres of influence.

Such an arrangement Kautsky dubs “ultra-imperialism” - reprising a term coined by the German socialist and economic theorist, Rudolf Hilferding. Kautsky further avers that, while imperialist nationalism is in the interest of finance capital, it is contrary to the interests of industrial capital, and socialists should therefore encourage the pacific sections of capital against the more bellicose ones.

Kautsky had written in 1907 that, in the event of war,

The German government could convince the workers that they were under attack, the French government could likewise convince the French workers, and we would then find ourselves confronted with a war in which the German and French proletariats would march with equal enthusiasm behind their own governments, and massacre and slaughter each other. This must be averted, and it will be averted if we reject the criterion of a war of aggression and instead adopt the criterion of the interests of the proletariat, which are international interests.5

But also around this time, Kautsky had discovered the distinction between offensive and defensive wars. He wrote that, while the working class might be persuaded to oppose a war of aggression on its government’s part, attempting to turn it against a war for the defence of its own soil against invaders was a fool’s errand. It was this distinction that Kautsky invoked when he advised the SPD Reichstag deputies to vote for war credits in 1914. One cannot but suspect that, beneath his resignation to the proletariat’s sympathy for a supposedly defensive war, lay a sneaking sympathy of his own.

Thus, by August 1914, all the theoretical arguments used to justify Kautsky’s capitulation had already been elaborated. Their guiding thread - from a reverence of parliamentary forms to ultra-imperialism - is a worship of order, methodical action and incremental progress, combined with a correlative abhorrence of spontaneity and confrontation. Kautsky even goes so far as to impute his faith in peaceful, reason-governed progress to the imperialist powers, or factions thereof, at the very time when inter-imperialist rivalries were exploding in salvoes of machine gun and cannon fire, and the class struggle in many European countries was overflowing parliamentary sluice gates.

In the crucible

Kautsky’s post-World War I political thought cannot be usefully approached as an abstract debate over governmental forms - class dictatorship versus universal suffrage - as it is by James Muldoon in Jacobin.6 It must rather be understood concretely, amid the political cross-currents of the time.

As German soldiers streamed home in defeat from the front in 1918, they joined forces with rebellious sailors and workers to follow the Russian example by setting up democratically elected councils and overthrowing the kaiser. The more radical of these insurgents were also inspired by the October revolution to attempt to replace the kaiser with a government based upon the active, participatory democracy of the councils. The majority Social Democrats adamantly rejected such efforts, insisting upon limiting the mass movement to the goal of establishing a conventional parliamentary republic.

But more was at stake here than a political preference. Behind the mask of parliamentary democracy, the ruling strata of German society - Junkers, capitalists and the army general staff - scrambled desperately to preserve their dominion. The more astute among them knew that the official representatives of the status quo were now too thoroughly discredited to intervene effectively. They were forced to rely upon a party that wielded some influence amongst the masses. The leaders of the SPD, who were only too willing to lend themselves to these counterrevolutionary designs, were therefore allowed to form a government and proclaim a republic.

But, unknown to the people, the new president, Friedrich Ebert, was colluding with the German commander of internal troops, Wilhelm Groener, to suppress the growing revolt, which much of the SPD rank and file had joined. The SPD placed itself at the head of many workers’ and soldiers’ councils, with the concealed aim of disempowering them. Military detachments were moved into Berlin to suppress the workers. Ebert’s minister of defence, the rightwing social democrat, Gustav Noske, engaged and trained a proto-Nazi elite military unit called the Freikorps, which, in the sanguinary finale to the first phase of the German revolution in January 1919, slaughtered Berlin red guards and smashed in the skulls of the two principal leaders of the Spartakusbund, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

During these events, and for some time after, Kautsky still adhered to the centrist USPD, or Independent Social Democrats, and realised that the repressions of the so-called Spartakus Week represented a victory for reactionary forces in the country. Yet he assigned the principal blame for this reversal to the Spartakusbund, which he claimed had provoked the right by misreading the temper of German workers, and leading a minority into a confrontation in which they were bound to be defeated.

While it was true that the rising of January 1919 was premature, in that the majority of workers had not been won to the revolutionary cause, it was not the work of a small band of revolutionary conspirators in the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD - still widely called Spartacists), which was still far too small to wield any mass influence. The rising rather took place on the initiative of the more militant sections of the workers, centred in Berlin, who were intent on making a bid for state power despite Luxemburg’s warning that the German revolution was still in an early phase. The other principal leader of the KPD, Karl Liebknecht, although he had displayed exemplary courage in opposing the war, was not a level-headed leader, and, much to Luxemburg’s reproof, allowed himself to be carried along by the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that enveloped his Berlin precincts.

Yet, once the die had been cast, Luxemburg put aside all reservations to voice her complete solidarity with the revolutionary workers. Kautsky, on the other hand, moved rapidly in the opposite direction. From this time forth, his major efforts were directed at denouncing the German revolutionary left and the ‘Bolshevik menace’.

Mending fences

Kautsky attempted to justify his rightward motion in theoretical terms. In the early 20s, when socialist revolution seemed to many a more immediate prospect than ever before, Kautsky argued that the socialist goal had to be put on indefinite hold. Socialism, he wrote, required a high level of economic development, which in turn strengthened the proletariat and democracy. The war, however, had set back the economies of the belligerent powers, and temporarily strengthened the forces of militarism and rightwing reaction. Socialists should therefore seek to restore the preconditions of socialism by helping to revive capitalist economies, and align themselves with more democratic capitalist forces to achieve this end.

We have already seen how, even when arguing against Bernstein in 1909, Kautsky revered bourgeois parliaments, and, even before 1914, abandoned his belief that imperialism was endemic to capitalism. Now, with this endorsement of coalition politics, the last remnant of his earlier, more radical thinking - his assertion, in The road to power, that the working class and its party alone could begin the transition to socialism - had gone by the board. In a 1932 obituary for Bernstein, Kautsky admitted that, since 1914, he and his erstwhile revisionist adversary “have always adopted the same point of view”.7

Kautsky’s theoretical mending of fences with Bernstein was accompanied by a political rapprochement with German social democracy. The centrist party to which Kautsky adhered since 1917, the USPD, represented an alliance of all those tendencies in German socialism - some revolutionary and others decidedly reformist - that criticised the SPD from the left. Such a combination, however, could not withstand the polarisation that took place in the aftermath of the war and the October revolution.

The Spartakusbund, which had joined the USPD for want of a better alternative, split off to form the Communist Party in 1918. In 1920, a majority of the USPD voted at its Halle Congress to join the Communist International. Kautsky was one of the leaders of the rightwing faction that voted against the merger and advocated re-entering the SPD. The latter party’s role in saving the day for the ruling class and decapitating the incipient revolution did not deter him in the least.

According to Kautsky, the major threat facing the working class was not the rearmed German bourgeois state, but Bolshevism, which divided the working class and threatened to interrupt its peaceful parliamentary ascent by damaging the economy and provoking civil war. His denunciations of the left matched those of any reactionary in terms of vehemence and class abuse: he wrote that Bolshevism represented the “rule of the unorganised over the organised, of the ignorant over the educated, of the selfish over the disinterested”.8

Kautsky’s opposition toward the Russian Bolshevik regime at this time was also more implacable than that of many a Menshevik and right social democrat. He wrote that Bolshevism aimed to impose a dictatorship of a militant working class minority over the rest of the proletariat and other classes. The threat it posed to parliamentary democracy, which Kautsky regarded as the main institutional vehicle for worker advance - combined with the danger it presented of civil war, which would undermine the economic progress he viewed as a prerequisite for socialism - made Bolshevism the most deadly enemy of the working class: even more so than Benito Mussolini or the Hungarian fascist dictator, Miklós Horthy.

There was, according to Kautsky, nothing defensible in the Soviet regime. Unlike western capitalist states, it could not be reformed, but could only be overthrown. Against the Menshevik, Fyodor Dan, he argued that state ownership of the means of production was nothing more than the power base of a Bonapartist dictatorship, and was not worth preserving by the working class; he even favoured a partial restoration of private property. In a polemic with the Austrian centrist, Friedrich Adler, Kautsky categorically rejected the idea of any united-front effort with the Communists against the National Socialists.

As for the Nazis themselves, Kautsky initially maintained that they were impotent against the steady democratic advance of the working class; they would prove to be nothing more than a passing episode. When, contrary to his predictions, the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kautsky blamed the Communists for having created the brown scourge by inflaming the class struggle to begin with. Thus did the “pope of Marxism” end his days, in Amsterdam in 1938, with a political analysis which in certain respects anticipates the arguments of the 1980s German historians, Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest, to the effect that the rise of Nazism can be traced to the original “totalitarian” sin of the October revolution.

Kautsky as guide?

If Marxists in the western countries during the 1950s and 60s faced the dilemma of maintaining a revolutionary outlook amidst relative peace and prosperity, Kautsky’s thinking suffered from the opposite incongruity: a deepening commitment to orderly progress and comity among nations during a period in which the imperialists were bent on war, and (in Trotsky’s phrase) the voltages of class struggle in many European countries were far too high for parliamentary circuits.

Heightened class struggle and revolution involve the unleashing of explosive social passions and hatreds, and are by their very nature disorderly affairs, for which there was little room in Kautsky’s tidy schema for the transition to socialism. As far removed as this writer is from the formulaic thinking of the Chinese revolution’s ‘Great Helmsman’, Mao’s famous quotation about revolution not being a tea party or a card game, etc, seems appropriate in this context, if to these instances we add a parliamentary debate.

Some have argued that Kautsky became suddenly transformed from revolutionary to reformist in 1910. However, we have seen that his evolution involved no abrupt turns, but rather an unfolding of tendencies implicit in his thinking from at least as early as 1909. On each occasion when his schema ran up against the realities of class war, Kautsky moved further to the right. The end result was his adherence, despite centrist misgivings, to Social Democracy in its role as mobiliser of workers for imperialist war and saviour of last resort of German capitalism. His aversion to ‘anarchy’, when all is said and done, amounted to a renunciation of revolution itself. His partiality to ‘order’ ultimately led to an embrace of the (temporarily) reconsolidated bourgeois order of Germany under the Weimar constitution.

Certain contemporary left currents are rediscovering Kautsky under circumstances very different from those of his time. His role as a centrist - seemingly poised equally between a reformist right and a revolutionary left, but veering ever rightward - may be difficult to grasp today, because there is no revolutionary left of any consequence. In this political void - and in the absence of sustained and militant industrial struggle - growing numbers of people discontented with the manifest inequalities of neoliberal capitalism have nowhere to turn but to the electoral arena and left-reformist politicians.

These left bulges in the Democratic and Labour Parties are highly significant indicators of shifting sentiments, which only hidebound sectarians can dismiss. Some on the left, however, seem determined to make a virtue of a deficiency. They can conceive of no way forward but the electoral path, and regard Kautsky’s apotheosis of parliaments and elections as a long-forgotten trove of theoretical support for what they call ‘democratic socialism’.

The meaning of the ‘democratic socialism’ now espoused by major currents of the rebounding left is as ambiguous as this reborn left itself in relation to ‘reform versus revolution’. If ‘democratic socialism’ means a socialism founded upon institutions of popular participation, as opposed to some kind of state-bureaucratic dictatorship, few would disagree. But if it means, following Kautsky, that elections and parliaments are sacrosanct, there is much to argue with.

Parliamentary democracy is the western bourgeoisie’s major source of ideological legitimacy. For this reason, the capitalist class is willing to put up with this form of government, even though parliaments may pass legislation it dislikes, and there is always the risk that legislative bodies may pass out of the control of carefully vetted politicians and political parties. When this happens despite the multiple levers for influencing politics that enormous capital sums place in their hands, the ruling classes resort to economic sabotage and/or deploying the non-elected components of the state - bureaucracy, police and military - to overthrow governments and reassert their domination.

This is not to say that socialists should not fight for the broadest electoral democracy, and use elections and parliaments to disseminate ideas and win beneficial reforms. But they must also be aware of democracy’s limits, and attempt to combat widespread popular illusions about its possibilities. Left politicians who fail to do this - from Salvador Allende to François Mitterrand, to Alexis Tsipras - and lead their followers to believe that fundamental changes can be achieved simply by electing leftwing parties and heads of government - find themselves and their supporters defenceless when the final reckoning comes: they are either overthrown (Allende) or succumb to pressures to betray their electoral promises and do the bidding of the bourgeoisie (Mitterrand and Tsipras). Nothing in the experience of the past hundred years supports the conclusion that socialism can be attained by voting.

The above points to the conclusion that, simultaneously with electoral efforts, socialists should seek to build organisations of working class power, and encourage extra-parliamentary mobilisations able to confront the capitalist state. These alone can constitute the core of the dual-power institutions capable of mobilising subaltern classes for combat, when even the most successful electoral efforts prove unequal to the task.

Electoral and extra-parliamentary efforts can complement one another. But they can also come into conflict. Bureaucrats and elected officials typically shudder at any hint of confrontation; they counsel moderation to avoid damaging electoral prospects. Bourgeois politicians portray extra-parliamentary positions of power as a danger to democracy, and demand their dissolution. This is what happened in the Prussian suffrage crisis of 1910, and again in Germany in 1918-19 - Luxemburg and Liebknecht chose one course, Kautsky another. Such situations will arise again if the current leftward momentum continues. Thinking in exclusively electoral terms leads inevitably to defeat, and socialists must - like Luxemburg and unlike Kautsky - place their emphasis on initiating and advancing struggles that take place outside the electoral frame.

Whatever the political forms of extra-parliamentary power that may arise today, they will no doubt be quite different from those of a century ago. The masses of industrial workers, soldiers and sailors who made up soviets no longer exist in western countries. Developing new forms of popular democracy is a major challenge for socialists today. In meeting it, while the writings of Karl Kautsky may have insights to offer, the overall curve of his political career can only serve as a negative example.

Jim Creegan can be contacted at egyptianarch@gmail.com.


  1. J Creegan ‘Steady rightward trajectory’ Weekly Worker May 2 2019.

  2. K Kautsky, ‘Die neue Taktik’ - quoted in M Salvadori Karl Kautsky and the socialist revolution London 1990, p163.

  3. Ibid - quoted in Salvadori, p162.

  4. Quoted in Salvadori, p171.

  5. K Kautsky Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der SPD, quoted in Salvadori, p123.

  6. www.jacobinmag.com/2019/01/karl-kautsky-german-revolution-democracy-socialism.

  7. Quoted in Salvadori, p324.

  8. Quoted in Salvadori, p241.