Same hymn sheet

Ben Lewis introduces another excerpt from his translation of Karl Kautsky's 'Republic and social democracy in France'- published in English for the first time

The following text is the second part of Karl Kautsky’s 1905 work, ‘Republic and social democracy’, which was originally published as a series of seven articles in the theoretical weekly, Die Neue Zeit. As the reader will see, in the second part of his series Kautsky, picking up from where he left off,[1] discusses the French Second Republic of 1848-50. This historical approach is a common feature of Kautsky’s polemics and theoretical articles. He often sets out a problem or dispute and then maps out its development through different time periods and circumstances.

Thus he traces a 1904 dispute over the Marxist attitude towards the republic back in time through an analysis of the USA, the French revolution, the Second Empire in France and the Paris Commune, finally returning to the Third French Republic, which had originally sparked the dispute. In addition to this article, the Weekly Worker will also publish the third part of the series - a discussion of the Paris Commune - as part of our commemoration of the 140th anniversary of that tumultuous event.

This article provides a lot for readers to get their teeth into. Not only does the polemic put forward further arguments for republican democracy and the expansion of democratic self-government in the localities: it moves on to an extremely interesting discussion of the history of French socialism in its various guises.

As a means of asserting some basic Marxist political positions, Kautsky sheds light on the most influential sect projects which struck real roots in 19th century French society and competed for the hearts and minds of the masses. He pithily summarises the strengths and weaknesses of these competing tendencies, while locating their qualities and shortcomings in the conditions of their time. In so doing he frames Marxism’s contribution to the socialist movement in “outgrowing its utopian stage”. Marxism’s strength, argues Kautsky, lies in its emphasis on the need for mass working class organisation on all fronts, intervening in all political questions as a way of boosting its confidence, organisational muscle and ideological clarity.

For Marxism, says Kautsky, forming government coalitions with a section of the bourgeoisie, focusing solely on economic organisation and neglecting the latter in favour of solely political organisation are all dead-ends. His attacks on coalitionism form a core part of the text, setting it in its historical context. While ‘Republic’ was occasioned by a dispute over the French Republic at the Second International’s Amsterdam Congress of 1904, it now becomes clear that the text also represents Kautsky’s parting shot in the ‘revisionist’ controversy.

The ‘revisionists’ claimed that the age of revolutions was now over and that socialism could be enacted through reforms within the existing constitutional order. To counter this, Kautsky constantly stressed the need to win the working class majority to abolish the capitalists’ means of rule, not simply to take them over. Alexandre Millerand may have long been expelled from the Second International for joining Waldeck-Rousseau’s government in 1898, but similar perspectives are clearly still one of Kautsky’s main polemical targets.

By locating the various tendencies of French socialism in the conditions which ultimately gave rise to them, Kautsky sheds light on why similar tendencies do not simply disappear, but constantly reassert themselves in different forms at different times. They keep coming back because of the nature of the proletariat as a subordinate class in capitalist society. As such, as long as we have capitalist society, we are likely to see similar tendencies again and again.

We only need to think back to the recent past to see the profound truth in Kautsky’s argument. The disastrous effects of Rifondazione Comunista joining Romano Prodi’s government in Italy in 2000; leftists seeking the liberation of the working class by clinging to the coat-tails of Hugo Chávez/Muammar Gaddafi/Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Proudhonist localism emerging in the anti-capitalist movement as a way of tackling the apparent omnipotence of ‘multinational’ corporations; the rise of autonomism and the belief in ‘changing the world without taking power’; manifestations of syndicalism/‘pure’ trade unionism on the part of those calling on unions to ‘break with Labour’ and so on. Moreover, the Socialist Workers Party’s ‘Where we stand’ formulation, “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism”, has more to do with Ferdinand Lassalle (the rather quirky, German version of Proudhon) than Karl Marx. But this passage is hardly the result of Alex Callinicos et al making a conscious effort to study Lassalle and reappraise his theoretical contribution as against that of Marx. They are ideas which, to coin a controversial phrase we will discuss below, spontaneously emerge in class society.

The article also makes some excellent points concerning the transmission of revolutionary ideas across generations. This is extremely pertinent: in order to change the present we have no choice but to look to past glories and failures, even tragedies.

For example, Lenin and the Bolsheviks kept the experiences of the French Revolution at the forefront of their minds, often drawing analogies between events unfolding in Russia and the experiences of those heady days. Try as they may, bourgeois historians, journalists and politicians find it very difficult to erase the memory of past revolutionary upheavals. As Kautsky puts it, these memories provide “powerful impulses which continue to have an effect for decades, centuries even”.

Kautsky goes into some detail to explain how the traditions of 1793 had a profound effect on the revolutionaries of 1848. However, some of these effects were negative, in that the traditions prevented the ‘1848ers’ from seeing how the situation in which they were operating had changed quite fundamentally from the end of the 18th century. For those of us who still fight for the revolutionary transformation of society, this is worth keeping in mind, when looking back to the great events in the history of our class - all the more so if a revolutionary party is to play the role of the collective ‘memory of the class’.

Why bother?

Why, some readers might be asking themselves, are comrades in and around the Weekly Worker going through such efforts to publish what might appear to be an esoteric text? Should it not be buried, along with Kautsky himself? Some of our more dogmatic readers will doubtless see in its publication further proof of a ‘creeping Kautskyism’ in the ranks of the CPGB, evidence of our comrades further conflating Labourism with Marxism, social democracy with Bolshevism, or some other such nonsense.

The fact is that, “when he was a Marxist”,[2] Kautsky was an absolutely prolific revolutionary writer, who learnt his trade under the tutelage of Friedrich Engels. Kautsky played an integral role in popularising Marxism and providing the programmatic basis for the formation of enormously influential working class parties of Marxism, especially the Bolsheviks. In fact, before Kautsky abandoned his revolutionary perspectives, Lenin was to Kautsky what Kautsky was to Engels - a talented pupil of a highly venerated ‘master’, keen to pepper polemics and substantiate theoretical tracts with the ‘orthodox’ citations of their respective teachers.[3]

Reading Kautsky’s writings from the 1890s-early 1900s, for example, it is striking how many terms and expressions were common currency for both Kautsky and Lenin, reinforcing the sense of the unity of their thought. One such term, urwüchsig, pops up in this text, and thus requires some explanation.

Most English-speaking Weekly Worker readers will be familiar with the Russian translation of urwüchsig, as it appears in the famous Kautsky passage quoted by VI Lenin in his 1902 pamphlet, What is to be done?: “Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme [of Austrian social democracy written by Victor Adler and endorsed by Kautsky in 1889] quite rightly stated that the task of social democracy is to imbue [literally, saturate] the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task.”[4]

Urwüchsig is often translated as ‘elemental’ or ‘primitive’. This underlines how in this text Kautsky uses it to denote the working class movement in its most elemental form: ie, the immediate conflict between the worker and the boss.

The above passage is as controversial as it is misrepresented. Anarchists, syndicalists and others see in it irrefutable proof of the ‘elitism’ of both Kautsky and Lenin and their distrust of the ‘spontaneous’ working class movement. However, as we see in his discussion of French socialism here, the point Kautsky is making is that the working class must move beyond this to create a rounded world view if it is to emancipate itself. This is something which does not simply emerge from the conflict between boss and worker. It presupposes the proletariat organising itself in an independent political organisation, which aims at capturing state power and has a revolutionary outlook in respect of all classes in society as a whole - something in which all of the tendencies of French socialism were lacking.[5]

‘Fall from grace’

Kautsky’s defection to the camp of the bourgeoisie and his renunciation of Marxism are precisely what make him the “renegade” he is remembered as today. But a “renegade” is precisely somebody who reneged on a previous standpoint, the revolutionary Marxism he had developed and which had been learnt and assimilated by the Bolsheviks.

For those who often invoke the name of Leon Trotsky to cling to the dogma that Kautsky has nothing to say on the formation of revolutionary, Bolshevik methods in today’s world, let us quote comrade Trotsky himself:

“At the time, Kautsky himself fully identified himself with my views. Like Mehring (now deceased), he adopted the viewpoint of ‘permanent revolution’. Today, Kautsky has retrospectively joined the ranks of the Mensheviks. He wants to reduce his past to the level of his present. But this falsification, which satisfies the claims of an unclear theoretical conscience, is encountering obstacles in the form of printed documents. What Kautsky wrote in the earlier - the better! - period of his scientific and literary activity (his reply to the Polish socialist Ljusnia, his studies on Russian and American workers, his reply to Plekhanov’s questionnaire concerning the character of the Russian revolution, etc) was and remains a merciless rejection of Menshevism and a complete theoretical vindication of the subsequent political tactics of the Bolsheviks, whom thickheads and renegades, with Kautsky today at their head, accuse of adventurism, demagogy and Bakuninism.”[6]

As Lars Lih points out in his arguments against leading Socialist Workers Party thinkers John Molyneux and (the now deceased) Chris Harman, today still far too many self-proclaimed ‘Bolsheviks’ attempt to “reduce Kautsky’s past to the level of his [post-1914] present”. But this cosy consensus is also “encountering obstacles in the form of printed documents”.[7] It is hoped that the reader is about to encounter another such “printed document”!

It will require a further, and much longer, article to exactly trace the multifarious ways in which Kautsky desperately attempts to reduce his “past to the level of his present”, how he exploits his past status as the ‘papal’ authority of Marxism to seek to undermine the Bolshevik revolution. Yet one example is worthy of note.

In two of his writings on the German Revolution,[8] Kautsky was of the firm conviction that the German working class had come to power in November 1918. Going back to the preconditions of proletarian power he outlines both in the following article and elsewhere, his absolute collapse as a revolutionary theoretician and politician is clear for all to see. If the Kautsky who had written ‘Republic’ in 1905 was the same person writing in 1919, as opposed to the ‘renegade’ Kautsky who had disavowed what he once wrote, then he would have been in no doubt that the working class had not conquered power. To take just two of the criteria he outlines for the ‘commune ideal’ in the last article, the powerful state bureaucracy of the old order remained intact and the army supreme command remained master of the situation - not the armed people. In response to Kautsky’s musings, Grigory Zinoviev hits the nail on the head: “What should surprise us more: Kautsky’s naivety or his shamelessness?”[9] Clara Zetkin wittily deployed a religious term to describe Kautsky’s ‘fall from grace’ [Sündenfall] - a biblical term associated with the ‘fall of man’.[10]

The above quotes reveal something belittled, forgotten or simply ignored by the consensus on Kautsky that exists among much of the far left: the fact that for the best parts of the Russian movement Kautsky and the Bolsheviks sang from the same hymn sheet on many pivotal questions of class organisation, programme and strategy.

One of these common approaches regarded the need to struggle for republican democracy, which is why we in the CPGB think the text is an important one. We can only echo Rosa Luxemburg in her call to make republican democracy the “password of class identity, the watchword of class struggle”. Contrary to what our opponents claim, our minimum programme and the struggle for the democratic republic is not some Menshevik/‘stagist’ concoction to complete the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ or some other such twaddle. No, the culmination of the demands in our minimum programme (the armed people, annual elections to a single assembly, etc) is the dictatorship of the proletariat, the conscious rule of the majority. As the events of 1871 and 1917 underline, however, this ‘commune ideal’/democratic republic take can varied forms. It is hoped that this series of Kautsky translations can help the far left to break with its narrow economism, its inability to articulate the revolutionary Marxist programme of democracy.

As I am not a native speaker of German, I often rely on the support of comrades and friends to proof my work. For her meticulous attention to detail, I must thank comrade Tina Becker.

Some readers have written into the paper to ask whether I plan to produce the seven-part work in its entirety. I would like to assure them that there are plans to publish it as a pamphlet in the near future. It is absolutely vital that the workers’ movement acquaint itself with Kautsky’s writings, “when he was a Marxist”, as they provide a profound insight into the political perspectives of the Second International in which Bolshevism placed itself: the mass party informed by the minimum-maximum programme; the merger of the workers’ movement and socialism; and, of course, the need to fight for republican democracy.


  1. K Kautsky, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ Weekly Worker April 28.
  2. “Kautsky, when he was a Marxist” was a favourite phrase of Lenin’s. For an exhaustive record of the numerous occasions when Lenin deploys it between 1914 and 1924, see Lars Lih’s “Kautsky as Marxist” database, available to download at www.historicalmaterialism.org/journal/online-articles/kautsky-as-marxist-data-base
  3. The relationship between Kautsky and Engels was obviously more intimate in that they both lived in London. An 1886 Kautsky letter written to Eduard Bernstein provides some insight into the close cooperation between a young Karl Kautsky and an older Friedrich Engels: “I will give [Kautsky’s critic, Kathedersozialist Anton] Menger a proper thrashing - easily done when ‘the general’ [Engels] writes at least half of it”(quoted in T Schelz-Brandenburg Eduard Bernstein und Karl Kautsky: Entstehung und Wandlung des sozialdemokratischen Parteimarxismus im Spiegel ihrer Korrespondenz,1879-1932 Böhlau 1992, p99).
  4. VI Lenin What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm
  5. For a thorough refutation of Lenin’s alleged ‘distrust of the workers’ see LT Lih, ‘Lenin disputed’ Historical Materialism 18, Leiden 2010, pp108-74.
  6. Ibid p168.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The texts are ‘Problems of the German Revolution’ and ‘A programme of socialist reform’, both of which are quoted by Zinoviev in Die Kommunistische Internationale (see footnote 9).
  9. Quoted in G Zinoviev, ‘Die Sozialdemokratie als Werkzeug der Reaktion’ Die Kommunistische Internationale No2, 1919, p70.
  10. C Zetkin Der Weg nach Moskau Hamburg 1920, p10. It is worth reproducing the quote in full because it reinforces the sense of embittered disappointment felt by many leading Bolshevik figures following Kautsky’s capitulation: “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.”