The book that didn't bark

Independent scholar Lars T Lih introduces excerpts from Karl Kautsky's 'Republic and social democracy in France', published in English for the first time

At the end of 1904, Karl Kautsky began a series of articles under the general title of Republic and social democracy in France. Kautsky’s reflections on the proper Marxist attitude toward the republic arose out of a dispute among European socialists about the propriety of socialist participation in a bourgeois government, as exemplified by the case of Alexandre Millerand in France. Orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky opposed Millerand’s presence in the French cabinet. Their criticism of the “bourgeois” Third Republic in France was so vehement that some German Social Democrats concluded that the Marxists were prejudiced against the republic as a political form. Perhaps the Marxists were politically indifferent - perhaps they even preferred a monarchy, such as Germany.

Kautsky took pen in hand to reject these suspicions and to clarify the somewhat complicated Marxist attitude toward the republic. The Marxists were far from politically indifferent, Kautsky asserted: they strongly supported the republic, and in particular saw the democratic republic as the only possible form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the bourgeois Third Republic was not particularly democratic - in fact, it was accurately described as a “monarchy without a monarch”.[1]

One of the tasks of Social Democrats in countries like France and the USA was to struggle against “republican superstitions” that led workers to underestimate the fierceness of the class struggle even in a parliamentary republic. At the same time, French workers could and should look back with pride at certain episodes in the republican tradition: the First Republic (1792-1804) and the Paris Commune (1871).

To make his case, Kautsky first went through the history of the class struggle in France, starting from the 1789 revolution and going on to the Third Republic that had arisen from the smoking ruins of the Paris Commune in the 1870s. Then, in the second half of his series, he mounted a full-scale critique of the institutions and policies of the “bourgeois” Third Republic from the point of view of proletarian socialism. The resulting 90-page treatise made an impact at the time. In Russia, for example, a translation was issued shortly after the original German publication. In the early years of Soviet Russia, when works by Kautsky continued to be published in large editions, Republic and social democracy in France was again made available.

Today, Kautsky’s treatise is forgotten except for brief discussions by Kautsky specialists, but there are good reasons to bring it back into circulation. Extended treatments by leading Marxists on strictly political questions are not so common that we can afford to neglect one of this calibre. Kautsky’s Marxist approach to French revolutionary history and his analyses of French political institutions retain their value, both for content and method. Ben Lewis is therefore much to be commended for undertaking the task of rendering Kautsky’s treatise into English. The first fruits of his labours are published here. The finished result, I am sure, will quickly be seen as the major Marxist statement on the republic as a political form.

There is one more reason why I find Kautsky’s treatise to be a fascinating historical document: it was not cited by Lenin in State and revolution (1917). The rest of my introductory remarks will be devoted to explaining the significance of this absence.

Lenin’s critique of Kautsky

Lenin had a life-long love/hate relationship with Kautsky. Most of us are familiar with the hate side - one that found expression after 1914 in Lenin’s almost obsessive denunciations of Kautsky as a “renegade” who betrayed socialism. Current research is steadily revealing the other side of the relationship.

For Lenin, as for almost all Russian Social Democrats, Kautsky’s writings were the gold standard of Marxist orthodoxy. All Russian Social Democrats constantly invoked Kautsky as an almost unimpeachable authority during ideological disputes within Russian Social Democracy. But the intensity of Lenin’s relationship to Kautsky’s writings goes way beyond this. Indeed, Kautsky was an ideological mentor for Lenin at all stages of his career, at least up to 1917. Paradoxically, even Lenin’s programme in 1914-1917, when he was loudly denouncing Kautsky’s current position, was explicitly based on Kautsky’s pre-war writings. Lenin made no secret of this fact and indeed continually emphasised the merits of “Kautsky, when he was a Marxist”: that is, before 1914.

Only once did Lenin make a public criticism of anything written by “Kautsky, when he was a Marxist”. This criticism came in the concluding section of Lenin’s State and revolution. Yet this section also shows Lenin’s ambivalence about Kautsky in all its glory. The section opens with an effusive (and historically accurate) compliment to Kautsky’s role as a mentor to Russian Social Democracy. Although Lenin goes on to attack Kautsky’s Social revolution (1902) and Road to power (1909) for their “evasions” about the state, Lenin still cannot help remarking that the books contain “a great deal of valuable material” and reveal “the high promise of German Social Democracy before the war”.

For the most part, Lenin’s critique in State and revolution is aimed not at what Kautsky said, but at what he did not say. Lenin’s case is that Kautsky avoided any discussion of the state in certain influential works written specifically to refute “opportunism”. In particular, Kautsky did not talk about the radical democratic institutions of the Paris Commune nor about the necessity of “smashing the state”, although these topics formed a prominent part of the legacy of Marx and Engels.

Proving a negative - in this case, that Kautsky did not talk about certain topics - is always a difficult undertaking. Lenin wrote State and revolution in 1917 while in exile in Switzerland and after his return to Russia. He had neither access nor time to do a search of Kautsky’s writings. He therefore entitled the relevant section of his critique ‘Kautsky’s polemics against the opportunists’: that is, he restricted his case to a few major works. But this self-limitation is never noted, and most readers came away from State and revolution with the idea that Kautsky explicitly repudiated the democratic ideals of the Commune and that he was opposed to any form of “smashing the state”.

So the question arises: did Kautsky ever address these questions in other works, and, if so, what were his views? Trying to answer this question is what led me in the first place to dig up Kautsky’s long-forgotten treatise on the French Republic. I am sure that Lenin read Kautsky’s work back in 1904-05 when it was first published, although there are no specific references to it in his writings. Nevertheless, he seems to have forgotten about it when he wrote State and revolution in 1917. What does Kautsky’s text tell us about his attitudes toward the political institutions of the Paris Commune or about the need to “smash the state”?

The ‘Commune ideal’

In the excerpts translated on the following pages, we find Kautsky’s account of the Second Republic (1848-50) and the Paris Commune (1871). At the end of this section, Kautsky writes: “to set out the political ideal of the Commune is not so easy, since various different tendencies clashed within it. But fundamentally all the practical demands and organisational efforts of the Commune arose from the same type of democratic republic that had already been established by the Great Revolution [of 1789].” Kautsky then gives a page-and-a-half quotation from Marx’s Civil war in France, in which Marx eulogises the political institutions of the Commune.

Among the specific points mentioned by Marx in this citation are suppression of the standing army, short terms for elected officials, local democratic control of the police, workmen’s wages for bureaucrats, and decentralisation. Marx ends by saying: “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.” For Kautsky, these political institutions were the ideal democratic republic that “the Parisian proletariat created as a tool for its emancipation”.

During for the rest of his discussion, Kautsky uses these features of the ideal democratic republic as a template for a critique of the institutions of the French Third Republic. In every way, he finds, the actual republic fell far short of the standard created by the Paris Commune. After an extensive discussion of the corruption and decadence of actually-existing “parliamentarianism”, Kautsky concludes:

“Russian bureaucratic corruption or American republican corruption: these are the two extremes between which the life and being of all large capitalist states moves and must move. Only socialism can put an end to this by means of a [state] organisation such as the one the Paris Commune started to create: that is, by means of the most comprehensive expansion of self-government, the popular election of all officials and the subordination of all members of representative bodies to the control and discipline of the organised people. Already today, the best way to counter parliamentary corruption is through the formation of a large, strictly disciplined proletarian party ... Thanks to its basic constitution, today’s French republic can enjoy all the advantages of uniting parliamentary with bureaucratic corruption.”

Thus we must conclude that, contrary to the impression left by State and revolution, Kautsky subscribed to the Commune ideal, presented it to his readers (including Russian readers), and used it as a foundation of a scathing critique of the existing “bourgeois republic” in France.

Before moving on, a conceptual clarification will be helpful. In 1917, Lenin called for a “soviet republic”, but this political ideal should not be set in opposition to the democratic republic. Soviet-style democracy is an institutional form of the democratic republic. Whether or not it is the most expedient form is, of course, a matter of debate. Lenin contrasted soviet-style democracy to “bourgeois democracy” and to “bourgeois parliamentarianism”, but he was certainly not rejecting the ideal of representative democracy.

Similarly, although Kautsky stoutly defended the “democratic republic” as a goal and defended representative democracy, he was explicitly not endorsing current republics and current parliaments. For obvious reasons, Kautsky does not use the vocabulary of “soviet democracy” in 1904. Nevertheless, Kautsky is calling for a radical democratisation of existing political institutions in all European countries, both monarchies and republics. We should not let conceptual sloppiness obscure the large overlap in the political ideals of Lenin and Kautsky, however significant the remaining differences.

‘Smash the state’

Before embarking on the topic of ‘smash the state’, some preliminary clarification will again be helpful.

This resonant phrase has at least three principal meanings. Making these distinctions is not just a matter of logic-chopping. Each meaning represents a separate scenario of revolution, and these scenarios can be advocated by people with strongly conflicting agendas. There is no logical contradiction between advocating one or more of these scenarios and rejecting the rest. These possible meanings of ‘smash the state’ need to be clear in our minds before turning to the texts.

There is another important meaning of ‘smash the state’ that I call the “breakdown and reconstitution” scenario, but this meaning is irrelevant to our present discussion. The very brief descriptions of different scenarios given here are meant primarily to show that ‘smash the state’ can be understood in sharply distinct ways.

What was Lenin’s position on these various scenarios as of 1917? If we put State and revolution alongside everything else Lenin was saying in 1917 (a necessary procedure not always followed), we find that Lenin energetically rejected the anarchist scenario about the immediate destruction of the state. One writer on Lenin, Neil Harding, equates ‘smash the state’ with anarchism and says that, in 1917, Lenin inscribed the war cry of the anarchist icon, Mikhail Bakunin, on his banner. This assertion is utterly misleading. Rather, when Lenin talked about ‘smashing the state’, he had in mind both of the other two scenarios: the democratisation and the ‘art of revolution’ scenarios - although he did not always take sufficient care to separate these two meanings.

We turn now to Kautsky. No-one will dispute that Kautsky rejected the anarchist scenario. In previous sections, we have seen that he also strongly advocated a programme of a wide-ranging and radical democratisation of existing political structures. What about the ‘art of revolution’ scenario about breaking up the state repressive apparatus? Kautsky’s 1904 article provides documentation of his views on this issue as well.

Kautsky argues that the “petty bourgeois” Jacobins of the French Revolution were able to accomplish as much as they did because they “destroyed [zerstört] the means of rule of the ruling classes”: namely, the church, the bureaucracy and the army. He then draws the lesson for later proletarian revolutionaries:

“The proletariat, as well as the petty bourgeoisie, will never be able to rule the state through these means of rule. This is not only because the officer corps, the top of the bureaucracy and the church have always been recruited from the upper classes and tied to them with the most intimate links, but also because the very nature of these bodies as means of rule includes a striving to raise themselves above the mass of the people in order to rule them, instead of serving them. They will always be for the most part anti-democratic and aristocratic ...

“The conquest of state power by the proletariat, therefore, does not simply mean the conquest of [the existing] ministries, which then, without further ado, use these previous means of rule - an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps - in a socialist sense. Rather, it means the dissolution [Auflösung] of these means of rule.”

The two key words in Kautsky’s discussion are zerstört and Auflösung. My German-English dictionary defines zerstoren as “wreck, ruin, destroy” and Auflösung as “dissolving, disappearance, dispersal, disbandment”. So, while Kautsky may not have used the word ‘smash’, his feelings about these bourgeois “means of rule” are hardly ambiguous.

Once we are aware of the positions staked out by Kautsky in his 1904 treatise on class struggles and the French republic, Lenin’s 1917 critique of “Kautsky, when he was a Marxist” loses a good deal of its sting. The political positions of the two men overlapped to a much greater extent than any reader of State and revolution would expect. No doubt very substantive differences remain. But, as Great Britain celebrates (if that’s the word) a “royal wedding”, perhaps we should focus on the political programme common to the Marxist left during the early years of the previous century: a republic with radically democratic institutions of the Commune type.


  1. Very similar points are made by Kautsky’s mentor, Friedrich Engels, in his influential Critique of the Erfurt programme (1891). He writes: “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.” Further: “So, then, [we should support - LTL] a unified republic. But not in the sense of the present French republic, which is nothing but the empire established in 1799 without the emperor” (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm).