Kautsky, Lenin and Trotsky

What were the differences, strengths and similarities? Jack Conrad investigates

All that our Trotskyite comrades think they know about the minimum-maximum programmes written, sponsored and inspired by the team of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels is the 'fact' that the Erfurt programme (1891) of the German Social Democratic Party led directly, inexorably, to the great betrayal of August 1914, when its parliamentary fraction voted for war credits. That and the 'fact' that the Bolsheviks were forced to abandon their minimum-maximum programme in 1917. I think these 'facts' are not facts at all. They are myths.

We have already shown that the SDP's Erfurt programme fully accorded with the approach taken by Marx and Engels. They not only authored the Communist manifesto and the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, Marx himself played the leading role in drafting the minimum-maximum programme of the French Workers' Party and Engels greeted the finalised Erfurt programme as a victory for Marxism. And no one seriously disputes that Vladimir Lenin openly sought to "imitate" the Erfurt programme when it came to writing the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Despite that history, we still read self-appointed guardians of the Trotskyite flame fatuously dismissing the Erfurt programme. Eg, Gerry Downing writes against the fifth demand in the section dealing with 'the protection of the working classes'. It reads as follows: "Taking over by the imperial government of the whole system of working people's insurance through giving the working people a controlling share in the administration." We are sneeringly asked: "how could we possibly pose such a demand in a modern form today without sowing illusions in parliamentary democracy".

But this is a demand for the nationalisation of the social insurance system under workers' control that came from the German workers' movement itself "¦ and Engels certainly raised no objection. Why should he? Today, for example, when it comes to tackling the growing pension fund crisis, it would be perfectly legitimate to demand nationalisation of the private pension industry by the United Kingdom state and workers' control over the entire system.

Such an approach sows illusions in parliamentary democracy only for those who believe that they have a sacred mission to succeed where Guy Fawkes failed. Frankly, we do not share that view; one that does nothing more than repeat the childish ravings of 19th century anarchism. Remember that the famed Paris Commune began as an appointed city council. Under present circumstances what we must demand is the radical transformation of parliament. In short, abolition of the House of Lords; abolition of the presidential prime minister; proportional representation; recallability of MPs; elected representatives to receive no more in wages than the average skilled worker; a systematic rollback of bureaucracy; and reconstituting parliament on the basis of republican and democratic principles.

That has nothing to do with 'completing the bourgeois revolution' or some such rot. For us the democratic republic is the highest immediate expression of the class struggle against Tony Blair's warmongering in Iraq and Afghanistan, his neoliberal privatisation programme in the NHS, the anti-trade union laws inherited from the Tories and the whole United Kingdom state: Whitehall mandarins, MI5, MI6, the renewal of Trident, the professional armed forces, the officer caste, etc.

As we have highlighted, Engels was not without his criticisms of the Erfurt programme. But this was not because it was arranged into two logical parts: the immediate demands of the party and the aim of a global communist society.

Engels strongly recommended, and went to some lengths in pushing the point, that the demand for a democratic republic should be included in the SDP's minimum programme. Like us, he was a radical republican. Sympathetically he recognised attendant dangers and difficulties. Bismarck's anti-socialist laws had only recently been repealed. At any moment they could be reimposed; especially if the party came out with crude or intemperate formulations. Nonetheless, Engels was convinced that this was a matter of prime importance "¦ so it is hardly without significance that the demand for the democratic republic was not included in the final version agreed by the Erfurt congress in October 1891. Nor, I suppose, is it without significance that Trotskyite comrades nowadays likewise downplay or dismiss altogether the demand for the democratic republic: eg, better call "for the abolition of wage-slavery than the abolition of the British monarchy".

In reply to this, it is only right to emphasise that the Bolsheviks did not omit the overthrow of tsarism from the programme. Indeed they stressed it, fittingly, alongside the demand for the democratic republic. The democratic republic was the necessary instrument which could alone complete and then stand guard over the minimum programme and see off counterrevolutionary threats.

The absence of republicanism, no matter how important, should not, though, lead us to dismiss the Erfurt programme as structurally flawed in terms of having separate minimum and maximum sections. Looking back, it is quite right to excoriate the timidity, the nervous unwillingness to include the democratic republic. However, we should neither forget nor belittle the defence of the Erfurt programme mounted by August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and others. The programme was well worth defending.

The right of German social democracy - especially trade union officialdom - shrank from the maximum section of the programme. They came to eye the maximum programme with a mix of hostility and embarrassment. It had nothing to do with their daily practice and brought them thunderous attacks from the popular press - which helped mould the common sense of the German population, crucially the backward section of the working class. So, bit by bit, they decided to treat the maximum programme as christians treat the kingdom of god. Human freedom was not a matter for this world. It was for the equivalent of Sundays only.

Needless to say, few dared say that openly. Clause four and Labour leaders prior to Tony Blair come to mind. Once in a while these gentlemen found it useful to pose left and throw a socialist reference or two into their conference speeches or newspaper articles. Socialism had, though, no operative value when it came to the realistic business of trade union wheeling and dealing, let alone parliamentary legislation.

Not Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). He publicly expressed what the right thought in private. An 'honest opportunist' (hardly a stable one though - taking an anti-war position during World War I and joining the Independent SDP in 1917). Bernstein is often thought of as synonymous with revisionism. Eg, the minimum section of the Erfurt programme is roundly condemned, simply because he had a hand in the drafting. However Bernstein did not begin on the SDP's right. As a young man he served as Engels's secretary in London, authoring a number of worthwhile articles and books, some involving close cooperation with Engels. Not surprisingly Bernstein struck up a "brotherhood in arms" with Kautsky. Effectively, at least for a time, the two formed the intellectual leftwing of the SDP.

Bernstein's Marxism was, however, superficial. In the 1890s he became intoxicated with what he saw as capitalism's newly acquired stability and the seeming absence of wars and revolutions. He concluded that capitalism was destined to be reformed into socialism along the piecemeal lines recommended by Britain's Fabians. In a concerted assault on the maximum programme, he therefore unashamedly declared that the "ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything".

Bernstein unconsciously articulated the interests of the conservative labour bureaucracy in his most famous, most infamous, book Evolutionary socialism (1899). After the repeal of the anti-socialist laws this layer grew and flourished at the top of German social democracy. For them the extensive party machine, one million members, 15,000 full timers and 90 daily papers, its growing parliamentary fraction and the powerful trade unions were ends in themselves.

It was not only the maximum section of the programme that bothered them. Increasingly the minimum was treated as the maximum, to be replaced in terms of agitation and campaigning with gaining crumbs such as increased wages and social welfare spending. The priority for our modern-day Trotskyites too. Suffice to say, with or without Bernstein, German social democracy was steadily drifting to the right.

Kautsky hit back with a series of corrective polemics and a heavy-weight book, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm (1899). Sadly, there is still no English translation. Kautsky charged Bernstein with substituting Kantian ethics for the historical materialist foundations of socialism. This, he said, opened the door to alliances with 'progressive' sections of the bourgeoisie - popular fronts such as today's Respect spring to mind.

Rosa Luxemburg also joined the fray with her Reform or revolution (1900). As did Lenin and many other comrades in the Second International. Bernstein's revisionism was denounced in a resolution agreed by the 1904 (Amsterdam) congress. Essentially this resolution was a vote of confidence in the Erfurt programme.

Luxemburg, to her credit, was not content with merely defending existing othrodoxy. In a rightly celebrated article, What next?, she outlined a pro-active strategy - including, note it,  prioritising the demand to transform Germany into a democratic republic. Republicanism was, in her own words, the "password of class identity, the watchword of class struggle". Yes, Luxemburg too was a radical republican.

Explaining socialism made good propaganda. But Luxemburg rightly chose to stress the immediate demand for the democratic republic: "The slogan of a republic in Germany today represents something infinitely more than a beautiful dream of a democratic 'people's state', something infinitely more than a demand of doctrinaires with their heads in the clouds. On the contrary, it is a practical war cry against militarism, navalism, colonialism, world politics, Junker domination, and the Prussianism of Germany; it is the consequence and drastic summary of our daily struggle against all those various phenomena of the ruling reaction".

Luxemburg, however, adhered to a theory of spontaneity which gave a central role to the general strike. That would release proletarian energy and creativity. The working class therefore makes the democratic republic in the last analysis through the general strike. The general strike would also, through its own momentum, pose socialist questions. Or so she thought. Because she tended to downplay organisation and over emphaise spontaneity, Luxemburg was reluctant to establish a serious, disciplined, leftwing faction in the SDP before 1914. Unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, of course.

For his part, Kautsky opted for a "strategy of attrition", involving a defence of existing rights in society and in the party congress votes, to defend the Erfurt programme. Tragically, he put his faith into bringing the right into line by imposing upon them collective discipline. Echoed in our times by bankrupt slogans such as: 'TUC off your knees and call the general strike'; 'Make the lefts fight'; 'Labour take the power', etc. The obvious problem being that the right is organically tied, through the state, through trading in the commodity labour power, to the capitalist system, and is therefore more than willing to flout any programme, any congress, any central committee resolution.

Hence Kautsky's forlorn response to the vote for war credits. He had persuaded himself that capitalist development was leading to a peaceful ultra-imperialism and thus finally leaving behind the 'pre-capitalist' curse of endemic warfare. So the outbreak of World War I came like a thunderbolt. So did the Reichstag vote by the SDP faction.

Reportedly he had hoped to "persuade the SDP delegation in the Reichstag to follow the example of Bebel and Liebknecht during the Franco-Prussian war and abstain in the vote for war credits". The two leaders were charged with high treason.

In mitigation, Kaustky might well have thought that the conflict would be fast moving and over quickly. Eg, by Christmas. Politicians, like generals, often begin by fighting the last military conflict. In Germany that was, of course, the Franco-Prussian war which had lasted from July 19 1870 to May 10 1871 and saw the decisive defeat of France. In other words the SDP's social chauvinist madness would prove fleeting. Once the war was over the malady could be corrected. Certainly, with hindsight, an obvious illusion.

And frankly, he had already been warned. Hence there can be no Marxist defence for Kaustky in 1914. In his last writings Engels had urged preparations to prevent a terrible European slaughter that he thought would involve millions of deaths. Something he desperately wanted to avoid. Kautsky had, though, become the king Lear of the German revolution. From now on he would be hopelessly carried along by events; he could no longer command them.

In the hallowed name of preserving party unity he refused to risk a split with what had become the pro-war, social-chauvinist apparatus. Instead of fearlessly denouncing the right, accusing them of high treason against socialism, he concocted excuses. Internationalism was only for times of peace, defence of the fatherland was legitimate, Marx and Engels advocated war against Russia, etc. Kautsky only broke ranks with the right in 1916  - after the world war had already dragged on for two years and looked like dragging on indefinitely. Meanwhile millions lay dead. Put another way, Kautsky had collapsed as a Marxist. He had become a centrist renegade.

However, to conclude from August 1914 that the minimum-maximum programme was the cause of this debacle is a mistake, to say the least. Though, admittedly, a mistake made by Luxemburg herself. Eg, her speech to the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany, which met over December 30 1918-January 1 1919. The "separation" between the minimum and maximum sections of the programme was described as being one of the bulwarks of opportunism in the SDP. She demanded socialism as a "minimum", putting her trust, it should be emphasised, in the spontaneity of strikes and economic demands that pit worker against the capitalist boss. Wrong, though understandable in the tumultuous days of 1918-19. Politically incoherent in 2006.


According to the bog-standard 'Trotskyite' account, in April 1917 Lenin saved himself by apparently undergoing a road-to-Damascus conversion from Kautskyism. Eg, Lenin's 'Letters from afar' and the documents now widely known as the April theses "marked a complete break" with the antiquated notion of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, claims the SWP's founder-leader Tony Cliff. Conditions of dual power which proceeded from the fall of Nicholas II exposed the "bankruptcy" of the 'old Bolshevik' formula.10 

Cliff compounds the nonsense. Before 1917 Trotsky "differed fundamentally from Lenin in his view of the nature of the coming Russian revolution", he says, without the least blush of shame.11 

Trotsky misjudged the Bolsheviks. Cliff has to admit that much. He supposedly failed to realise that Bolshevism would have to push through the "bourgeois democratic crust" of their programme - because they based themselves on the dynamic of the struggle.12  Here we find Cliff combining his own theory of spontaneity with Trotsky's revolutionary fatalism - the latter was tested to exhaustion and wisely abandoned by Trotsky (he thought that both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks would take the working class to power propelled simply by the logic of events).

At this point in our discussion we can usefully turn to Trotsky himself. In essence Trotsky took a centrist, "conciliationist", position from 1903 until May 1917, when he returned from the USA and finally placed himself "at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party". Until then his "revolutionary ideas or proposals amounted to nothing but 'phrases'". Lenin, on the other hand, carried out "the only truly revolutionary work". That was, a contrite Trotsky argues, "work that helped the party take shape and grow stronger".13  Was Trotsky right in this assessment? In my opinion there can be no doubt about it.

Leave that aside for the moment (and the fact that Trotsky went on to play a truly outstanding role as a Bolshevik leader). We shall for the moment focus upon the alleged "fundamental" programmatic difference between Trotsky and Lenin. Here we shall continue our investigation once again with Trotsky himself at our side. He will prove beyond reasonable doubt that the story told by Cliff and the whole school of so-called Trotskyism criminally misrepresents Trotsky in order to discredit the Marxist programme pre- and post-1917.

Tony Cliff, in the first volume of his study of Lenin, supplies us with extensive quotes from Trotsky's Results and prospects published in 1906 - which is used as ammunition against the subject title of his biography. Trotsky outlines his application of permanent revolution to Russia. Like Lenin he dismisses any revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie. The working class has to form a revolutionary government "as the leading force". They would do so in "alliance with the peasantry". But given such necessary circumstances in Russia, the fact of proletarian state power would then destroy the "borderline between the minimum and maximum programme; that is to say, it places collectivism on the order of the day".

One should not interpret such a formulation to mean Trotsky imagined that a backward and isolated Russia could 'build' socialism in splendid isolation. No communist then believed any such thing. Trotsky, of course, remained implacably hostile to "national socialism" till his murder in 1940.14  On the contrary, Trotsky understood that the revolution would have to be made universal if the working class in Russia was not to be "crushed". European revolution was vital.

All in all, to any objective observer, the differences with Lenin's theory are insubstantial. True in Results and prospects and in Lenin's so-called replies there was a very unrewarding polemic between the two men. Factional interests produced more heat than light in both cases. Trotsky blinkeredly disparaged any suggestion of a "special form of the proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution". He was intent on rubbishing and equating both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Lenin in his turn savaged Trotsky for "underestimating" the importance of the peasantry by raising the slogan 'Not a tsar's government but a workers' government'.

On the basis of such evidence Trotsky is doubtless right when he concludes that Lenin had "never read my basic work". The above slogan was proclaimed not by Trotsky but his then friend and collaborator Parvus (Alexander Helpland, 1869-1924) in his introduction to Trotsky's Before the 9th of January. Parvus envisaged the workers coming to power but not going beyond the parameters of democratic tasks - his model was Australia! Like Lenin, Trotsky had a much more dynamic and earth shattering perspective.

Anyway, let us push ahead with the argument. "Never did Lenin anywhere analyse or quote", says Trotsky, "even in passing, Results and prospects".15  True, there was a second hand quote polemically fired against Jules Martov, leader of the Menshevik leftwing, in 1909. But Trotsky believes that in all probability Lenin only became acquainted with Results and prospects first hand in 1919 when the state publishing house reissued it.

Equally to the point, Trotsky is eager to detail the "solidarity" that existed between himself and the Bolsheviks during and immediately after the 1905 revolution. And for those who ignorantly demonise the term 'stage' in order to Menshevise Lenin, Trotsky's boast that he "formulated the tasks of the successive stages of the revolution in exactly the same manner as Lenin" should once again provide food for thought for today's Trotskyites.16  The same can be said for Trotsky's proud affirmation about how "Lenin's formula" closely "approximated" to his own "formula of permanent revolution".17 

Cliff can claim that Trotsky's theory was far superior to Lenin's democratic dictatorship. Needless to say, that only shows he was pursuing a dishonest agenda designed to blacken, bury and ban the Bolshevik's minimum-maximum programme. Cliff wanted to legitimise programophobia.

It was perfectly understandable that in 1905 or 1912 Lenin and Trotsky exchanged polemical cannonades based on nothing more than a few snatched lines or a disembodied phrase - they fought on behalf of rival factional centres or outposts and were star combatants. There was also the material factor of tsarist censorship, police raids and therefore fragmentary information. However, from the elevated heights of the 21st century, Marxists - of all schools - should at least try to discover and come to terms with the true content of the Bolshevik programme and the famous 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' formulation.

How did the Bolsheviks view this formulation and how did they apply it in practice? Eg, what tactics were used in December 1905? Surely that should be given more weight than the fact that in 1917 Zinoviev and Kamenev, as an isolated Bolshevik minority, sought a cosy peace with those supporting the provisional government, using the 'democratic dictatorship' slogan as a flimsy orthodox cover. Ditto, that during the 1920s the Stalin-Bukharin duumvirate grossly misused the same 'democratic dictatorship' formulation to legitimise their bloc of four classes in China - this time uniting proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie!

What is notable about the years before 1917 for me is the consanguinity, the essential brotherhood of the Bolsheviks and Trotsky. Not strategic difference. Though it does not suit those present-day left economists who huddle behind a caricatured mask of Trotsky, the fact of the matter is that his theory of permanent revolution did not imply jumping-over or ignoring the democratic tasks of the Russian revolution.


Within the realm of the Second International Trotsky and Lenin found themselves a common champion in the almost 'papal' authority of Karl Kautsky. He displayed a keen interest in Russian politics and would frequently intervene in factional disputes. Hence in reply to Plekhanov's either-or question: Is the Russian revolution bourgeois or socialist? Kautsky answered the Menshevik leader in the pamphlet The driving forces and prospects of the Russian revolution in a way that benefited Lenin and Trotsky alike.

The Russian revolution was no longer bourgeois, but was not yet socialist. It was a transitional form from one to the other. Put another way, Kautsky supported the programme of permanent or uninterrupted revolution.

Lenin expressed his fulsome agreement with Kautsky's pamphlet in a December 1906 introduction. Independently, Trotsky did the same from his prison cell. His foreword to The driving forces was included in the book In defence of the Party. In that sense Trotsky too was a Kautskyite. Many years later, in 1928, Trotsky was able to justifiably proclaim that both "Lenin and I expressed our thorough accord with Kautsky's analysis".18 

The reader will therefore not be surprised to find that in 1905 - when Trotsky was at the forefront of events in Russia - he found himself closely aligned with the Bolsheviks. Not a few of the appeals to the peasants, issued by the central press of the Bolsheviks, were actually penned by Trotsky. Nor should it surprise us that during this period Lenin on occasion found the need to defend Trotsky. In Nachalo Lenin, as editor, sided with Trotsky in forthright terms against his Menshevik critics. The Bolsheviks also chose to publish one of Trotsky's pamphlets. Furthermore, we can cite Lenin's frequent support for the resolutions of the St Petersburg soviet which were, nine times out of ten, written by its chair, Lev Bronstein.

At the 5th Congress of the RSDLP - held in London in 1907 - Lenin spoke of the affinity of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky's recognition of the unity of interests between the proletariat and peasantry in the anti-tsarist revolution and his opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie prompted Lenin to acknowledge that "Trotsky has come close to our views. Quite apart from the question of 'uninterrupted revolution', we have here solidarity on fundamental points in the question of the attitude towards bourgeois parties".19 

This, remember, was at a time when Trotsky was not a member of the Bolshevik faction and Lenin was quite rightly mercilessly attacking him for his conciliationism towards the Mensheviks. Naturally what primarily concerned Lenin, as the leader of a serious faction, was raining down blows on Trotsky's conciliationism and thereby steeling his Bolshevik cadre. He was certainly not overconcerned with fairness towards Trotsky the political theorist. Praise was therefore faint and grudging.

Trotsky represented a particular danger. Unlike most conciliators, he was consistent. Worse, he managed to give conciliationism definite theoretical foundations, ie, revolutionary fatalism. Under the melting heat of the class struggle, the glacial factions - the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks - would, he thought, flood into one party in the fight for permanent revolution.

Lenin used fair means and foul to discredit and defeat Trotsky's conciliationism with Menshevik, Bundist, boycottist and other forms of liquidationism. That included exaggeration, ridicule, parody, seizing upon stray remarks and shocking appellations. And, of course, likewise being a 'hard', Trotsky hit back in kind, using not dissimilar polemical weapons. That way molehills sometimes grew to resemble mountains.

Nowadays it is a common place to condemn Stalin and his lie machine for its invention of Trotskyism. Eg, Trotsky's supposed inherent programmatic hostility to Lenin: "'Permanent revolution' is an underestimation of the peasant movement which leads to the repudiation of Lenin's theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat" - or so pronounced the first high priest of the timeless Lenin quote.20  Given this wretched tradition, it is sad to find Trotsky's self-appointed heirs have their own system of falsification. Almost a mirror image of Stalinism; as we have said, it habitually misuses Trotsky to denigrate pre- and post-1917 Bolshevism and the minimum-maximum programme.

But this 'Trotskyism' totally contradicts the real Trotsky. His theory of permanent revolution did not diverge from Bolshevism, did not stand as an alternative to it. Nor did it triumph over it. On the contrary, despite all the factional fog and flack "the basic strategic line was one and the same".21 

That explains why Trotsky worked hand in glove with the Bolsheviks in the first, 1905, revolution and why he later defended this work in the international press against Menshevik criticisms. And, of course, under Lenin's sponsorship Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party as a top leader in 1917 (I shall explore the programmatic tests of that revolutionary year in my next article).

Trotsky experienced few qualms in finally throwing in his lot with the Bolsheviks because of the long established nearness of strategic lines; and that, by the way, included the peasant question; deployed as an anti-Trotsky hammer by Stalinite propagandists. When the Bolshevik's 'stole' the agrarian programme of the socialist revolutionaries Trotsky recognised that, while it was a contradictory measure, it was unavoidable. No peasant masses, no second revolution. He therefore stood foursquare behind Lenin's audacious act of grand larceny.

Conciliationism, not permanent revolution, separated Trotsky from Bolshevism before 1917. As soon as the scales dropped from Trotsky's eyes about the possibility of winning Menshevism over to making a working class led revolution, he drew closer and closer to Lenin and Bolshevism.