Kautsky: From Erfurt to Charlottenburg

Ben Lewis introduces Karl Kautsky's 'Guidelines for a socialist action programme'. This is the first published English translation

Karl Kautsky wrote the Guidelines for a socialist action programme at his home in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin at the beginning of January 1919. Street battles were being waged across the city in what have come to be known as the ‘January days’ of the German Revolution. Within a week of the publication of Guidelines, two of the German workers’ movement’s most brave and selfless leaders - Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht - were murdered in cold blood by the order of the ruling Social Democrat Party (SPD). Only two years previously, both had been active members of that very same party.

As part of the revolutionary wave unleashed across Europe by the Russian Revolution of 1917, the German working class turned to the left, organised workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Räte), and sought to radically restructure German society following the military defeat and subsequent collapse of the kaiser state.

The SPD - whose capitulation to that state had become evident when its Reichstag deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914 - was quick to seize the initiative following the German defeat on November 9 1918. With initial success, it sold itself to the population as a kind of caretaker government upholding ‘order’ before elections to a national assembly. This was conceived as the sole legitimate form of government, resting on the pillars of the old bureaucracy and the army supreme command. In order to do this the SPD required left cover and it sought to form a provisional government with the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), a left-centrist split from the SPD the previous year.

The USPD contained a veritable melange of trends, ranging from Luxemburg and Liebknecht, through Kautsky, to the arch-revisionist, Eduard Bernstein himself. As such, the SPD had little difficulty in drawing the USPD leadership into what was a self-styled ‘socialist government’. Three representatives from each party headed the new provisional administration, known as the Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of People’s Commissars), which was to run things until the national assembly elections in January 1919.

Yet none of these commissars was a departmental minister. Trusted socialists may have been assigned to keep an eye on the old state bureaucrats, but the results were farcical. At a time when the new government was colluding with the imperialist states of the Entente to keep German troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia so as to contain the Russian Revolution, Kautsky - sent as a USPD representative to watch over foreign policy - was packed off to investigate historical documents on the origins of World War I!

This, and much more besides, alienated the mass of the USPD membership from its three commissars. The final straw came on December 24 when the SPD commissars ordered general Lequis - a man well-known for his role in the suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904 in South West Africa - to launch an attack on an armed section of the revolutionary movement in the capital without the knowledge, let alone the consent, of their fellow USPD commissars. The latter had no choice but to resign.

These tumultuous events, as well as the so-called ‘Spartacist uprising’ of 1919 against the SPD government, form the backdrop to this pamphlet. Kautsky was still a member of the USPD at this point, but the opening lines of his text indicate that he was aiming his proposals at the SPD and its members: “The settlement of all truly social democratically-minded workers on such a programme has become an urgent necessity” (my emphasis).

This phrasing, along with the fact that Kautsky does not openly state his membership of the USPD, is revealing. His appeal for unity around a programme is not addressed to the left[1] - ie, to the newly-formed Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Spartakus), the KPD(S) - but to the right. He wishes to heal the wounds opened up by the 1914 split in the workers’ movement,[2] stating the need to expand the SPD’s Erfurt programme of 1891 - the SPD opposition had correctly accused the party’s deputies of abandoning this through its actions of 1914.

In its own particular manner, Guidelines sets out to tackle some of the many ideas that were being debated at all levels of German society at that time. What was the nature of the new state formation in Germany? What was the role of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils? Was the proposed national assembly now irrelevant? How best to socialise industry following the havoc wreaked by World War I? How to deal with soldiers returning from the front? The debate was not confined to Germany’s borders. The Russian Bolsheviks were taking the first steps in forming the Third, or Communist, International, and were therefore particularly keen to influence events in Germany.

Guidelines raises several questions about Kautsky’s understanding of the German Revolution. What exactly was he saying, and what lay behind it? What does it tell us about his transformation from a principled Marxist and prolific revolutionary writer to the “renegade” he later became - ie, when he reneged on some of the fundamental strategic ideas he had previously defended and developed?

Zinoviev v Kautsky

I tracked down the Guidelines pamphlet after translating and researching a series of Kautsky articles from 1905 entitled Republic and social democracy in France.[3]

In my introduction to that series, I pointed out that Republic and social democracy in France revealed something long forgotten, ignored or overlooked by far too many on the left today: Kautsky’s original commitment to ‘smashing the state’ and replacing it with something along the lines of the Paris Commune of 1871. For Kautsky - as for Marx, Engels and Lenin - this was summed up in the phrase, the “democratic republic” - the form of working class rule.

Kautsky explains that the democratic republic is “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”.[4] He also quoted Marx’s Civil war in France: what was needed was the suppression of the standing army, short terms for elected officials, local democratic control of the police, workers’ wages for bureaucrats and officials, and so on.

The more I familiarise myself with Kautsky’s writings, the more I am convinced of the truth of Leon Trotsky’s assertion that, following the Russian Revolution, Kautsky was at pains to reduce his (Bolshevik) past to the level of his (Menshevik) present.[5] He was exploiting the respect and high standing he had rightfully earned in the workers’ movement to seek unprincipled unity with the SPD, which by the end of January formed a bourgeois coalition government on the basis of 38% of the popular vote.[6]

Kautsky’s manoeuvres are partly revealed in Guidelines. In my introduction to his 1905 series, for example, I quoted an early 1919 article by the Bolshevik leader, Grigory Zinoviev.[7] It mocked Kautsky for claiming that the German working class had come to power in November 1918! This is quite clearly false. To take just two of the criteria he outlined for the ‘commune ideal’ in 1905, in November 1918 the powerful German state bureaucracy of the old order remained intact and the army supreme command remained master of the situation - not the armed people.

Moreover, Kautsky actually recognises this state of affairs. Just a few lines later, he admits that a socialist action programme must bring about “the speediest dissolution of the standing army and the complete abolition of the dominant position hitherto assumed by the officer corps both in the army and in the state”. And further: “the power of the centralised government bureaucracy must be broken”.

Think about his arguments from 1905 on the Paris Commune: just how would it be possible for the working class of 1871 to have conquered political power if there had remained a standing army with a dominant position in state and society, or a centralised government bureaucracy that had not been broken by the measures of extreme democracy outlined in Marx’s Civil war in France? As Zinoviev cuttingly puts it, “Is it possible to imagine a greater lie than that contained in these words? ... At the beginning of January 1919, only a blind person could not see that it was actually the bourgeoisie at the helm of the state, propped up by their agents: social democracy.”[8]

Had not Kautsky previously warned his ‘revisionist’ opponents like Alexandre Millerand that “the conquest of state power by the proletariat ... 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”? Did he not say that working class power necessitated “the dissolution [Auflösung] of these means of rule”?[9] As such, the USPD’s decision to go into joint government with the SPD in 1918 was a betrayal similar to that of Millerand.

Zinoviev quotes from some other Kautsky texts of this period[10] to make his point of departure appear even more ridiculous. In an article from December 1918, Kautsky writes: “The war aristocracy, who up until now have stood in the way of all progress, have been overthrown. But the old administrative and governmental apparatus continues to function nationally and in the army”!

Zinoviev twists the knife even further with another quote from the same December 1918 text: “We were given the choice of either destroying the apparatus with one blow, and with this rendering the country’s administrative functions and the whole of public life [Zinoviev inserts an exclamation mark here!] impossible, or to maintain this apparatus, and at the same time maintain the basis of the old regime ...”

This rather desperate argumentation seems to reflect Kautsky’s laboured attempts to defend the USPD-SPD administration of 1918. “You can’t go any further to serve the bourgeoisie,”[11] Zinoviev concludes.

Evasion and dishonesty

Another reason for the SPD-USPD government being viewed with contempt by wide sections of the working class was its inability to achieve any real results in the field of socialisation. The much-vaunted ‘socialisation commission’ was nothing but a fig-leaf to buy time for the re-establishment of ‘business as usual’. For leading SPD members, since it was impossible to “socialise need”, socialisation had to be delayed further and further into the future.

Zinoviev is not sure what he is more surprised by: the “naivety or the shamelessness” of Kautsky’s idea that “confiscation would only hit a few of the capitalists, not the majority of them - and it would not only hit capitalists, but smaller business people too”. For Zinoviev, “every simple worker understands that confiscation affects the capitalist class as a whole”, and that “the state will provide for the small business people, whose existence is crucial to the state.”

But Zinoviev’s polemic really begins to get heated when he refers to how syndicates are to be organised: “Will they be run by the workers?” he asks. No. Depending on the particular industry, up to three-quarters of the representatives are to be made up by non-working class elements. If, like Kautsky, one is of the opinion that the workers actually hold state power, then this is perhaps not too much of a problem ...

Finally, Zinoviev mocks Kautsky’s “scientific” and “ethical” arguments for the repayment of war loans, as well as his talk of “upholding the imperturbability of bourgeois credit ... in a workers’ state” (!)

Telling conclusions can also be drawn from some of the things Kautsky does not say in Guidelines. For example, his rhetoric about standing “shoulder to shoulder with our brothers abroad” - under a foreign policy where “openness and truth must prevail”, and where the aim is not “gaining the alliance of this or that government”. Given that Kautsky was the official USPD ‘observer’ sent to keep an eye on the foreign ministry run by the reactionary, Wilhelm Solf, in 1918, he should know more than most about “gaining the alliance of this or that government” (the forces of the Entente against the Soviet republic in this particular case).

And Kautsky’s silence on the Russian Revolution speaks volumes. In the face of imperialist hostility, the Bolsheviks were doing their best to spread “democracy and socialisation” across the world. Yet Kautsky does not even deign to mention them, apart from in a veiled side-swipe against secret state funding of the “world revolution”. He viewed the Soviet republic with increasing hostility. And, as the minutes of the November 19 Rat der Volksbeauftragten prove, both he and USPD leader Hugo Haase were keen to delay the adoption of diplomatic relations with the young Soviet republic. They were convinced that it would be “finished in a few weeks”.

These are just some of the points where Kautsky’s betrayal is clear to see. Zinoviev concludes that “on every possible question, Kautsky puts forward the programme of the bourgeoisie, not the working class”.

Minimum programme

However, to many of our readers - far too many, unfortunately - the very fact that Kautsky even mentions the “democratic republic” or the need for a minimum programme of immediate demands is evidence enough of his advancing the programme of the bourgeoisie, of attempting to ‘complete the bourgeois revolution’ or other such nonsense.[12]

It seems to pass our comrades by that the failure of the original Erfurt programme to openly proclaim the goal of the “democratic republic” was seen as its “one great fault” by none other than Engels himself. For him, the Erfurt programme’s political demands lacked “precisely what should have been said. If all the demands were granted, we should indeed have more diverse aims of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself [the democratic republic] would in no wise have been achieved.”[13]

Perhaps the opposite could be said of Kautsky’s Charlottenburg programme. The aim is proclaimed, but the demands are insufficient to achieve it.

In addition to some of the supportable demands Kautsky proposes in this text (land nationalisation, extension of self-government), a viable minimum programme would do well to draw from some of the ‘state of a commune type’ measures put forward by the Kautsky of 1905: the abolition of the presidency in the new Weimar state, the election of judges and military officers, the strict separation of church and state, the arming of the people, a national assembly based on annual elections, recallable delegates on a workers’ wage, and so on.

Indeed, the great strength of Kautsky’s 1905 Republic and social democracy in France is that it goes to great lengths to explain why, for Marxists, republican agitation does not cease with the formal removal or abdication of a monarch and his or her hangers-on (as in November 1918 or February 1917), but continues until the conditions have been created for the working class to take power. This is the culmination of the political demands of the minimum programme.

There is a long list of theoreticians, historians and activists who deny this basic tenet of Marxist political strategy. Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué speaks for many when he states: “Kautsky did not renounce the maximum programme, the socialist revolution, which the expansion of capitalism had made a distant prospect, but laid down that the party could and must fight for the demands of a minimum programme, the partial aims, and political, economic and social reforms, and must work to consolidate the political and economic power of the workers’ movement, whilst raising the consciousness of the working class. In this way, the dichotomy was created ... This separation was to dominate the theory and practice of social democracy for decades” (my emphasis).[14]

Broué certainly points to how there was a gradual move away from the real content of the SPD programme, with many minimum demands being deemed “too advanced” for the day-to-day work of the party. Yet it cannot be denied: the minimum-maximum approach characterised all programmes from the Communist manifesto (1848) through the Erfurt programme, to the programme of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1919. For those who believe it to have become redundant in 1914, April 1917 or whenever else, it is worth noting Lenin’s response to Nikolai Bukharin’s ‘maximalist’ proposal to dump the so-called ‘outdated’ minimum-maximum programme just before the revolution, in October 1917.

Lenin could hardly be any clearer: “It is ... ridiculous to discard the minimum programme, which is indispensable while we still live within the framework of bourgeois society, while we have not yet destroyed that framework, not yet realised the basic prerequisites for a transition to socialism, not yet smashed the enemy (the bourgeoisie), and even if we have smashed them we have not yet annihilated them ... Discarding the minimum programme would be equivalent to declaring, to announcing (to bragging, in simple language) that we have already won.”[15]

Indeed, looking at the situation in Germany in 1918, it is evident just how indispensable such a programme was. The German working class had not yet won, had not yet smashed the enemy. This is why it is so risible for Kautsky to claim that Germany had become a “democratic republic” in 1918. This was simply parroting the majority SPD mantra that the revolution had essentially been completed because peace had been restored, the right to vote for all men and women over 20 guaranteed, pre-war labour regulations reintroduced and an eight-hour day enforced. As with some of our contemporary comrades like those in the Socialist Party in England and Wales or on the left of the Labour Party, the SPD’s ‘socialism’ was framed firmly within the existing capitalist constitutional order.

A minimum programme was necessary to break through this order, to chart an independent working class course from the destruction of the old to the creation of the new.

There were, however, problems with some of the other proposals stemming from the more radical trends in the German workers’ movement of 1919 too. Just two weeks before Kautsky wrote this pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg declared that the division between the minimum and maximum programme had become historically redundant with the 1914 vote for war credits. For her, the time had come when “the entire Social Democratic programme of the proletariat has to be placed on a new foundation ... For us there is no minimal and no maximal programme; socialism is one and the same thing: this is the minimum we have to realise today.”[16] The KPD(S) programme had some excellent demands, but - beyond the call for a “socialist republic” - it did not provide the necessary constitutional alternative to deepen the revolution, extend working class influence at all levels of society, win a majority and thus facilitate working class political power.

In the heat of the situation, and in understandable disgust at the experience at SPD betrayal, Luxemburg unfortunately threw the baby out with the bathwater and, like Bukharin, rejected the minimum-maximum programme in toto. But, unlike some of her comrades, Luxemburg did see the crying need to win the majority of the class to the Spartacus programme before power was possible. This explains her well-known outrage when, against the decision of the KPD(S) in Berlin just the day before, KPD(S) members Wilhelm Pieck and Karl Liebknecht met with the USPD in Berlin and decided to set up a ‘revolutionary committee’ to take power in the capital. “Is that our programme, Karl?” she famously said.[17] It should be remembered that in November 1918, a time when his supporters could perhaps be counted in the hundreds, Liebknecht was declaring the “socialist republic”.

The efforts that have gone into this translation[18] are informed not only by a desire to provide new insight into the German Revolution (this text is hardly cited in any of the major accounts), but also to help re-equip our class with the programme it needs in order to win. It is a small contribution to grasping how, in the hands of the renegade Kautsky, key planks of Marxist political strategy such as the minimum programme and the democratic republic became pretexts for class-collaboration.


  1. Initially, Kautsky and Bernstein considered not joining the USPD due to the presence of Rosa Luxemburg and her supporters. However, after private discussions at its founding congress, they both agreed that the struggle for peace was paramount, even if this meant working with the Spartacists.
  2. He did not go as far as Eduard Bernstein though, who set up the ‘Centre for socialist reunification’, and was back in the SPD by May 1919.
  3. The three articles are reproduced in Weekly Worker April 28, May 19 and May 26 respectively. All being well, the entire seven-article series will be published as a book in 2012.
  4. K Kautsky, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ Weekly Worker April 28.
  5. “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.” Quoted in LT Lih, ‘Lenin disputed’ Historical Materialism No18, Leiden 2010, pp10874.
  6. It seems that Kautsky was not exactly unaware of this himself. In his 1918 work, The dictatorship of the proletariat, for example, he is at pains to stress the continuity between his current position and that of his earlier writings.
  7. G Zinoviev, ‘Die Sozialdemokratie als Werkzeug der Reaktion’ in Die Kommunistische Internationale No2, 1919. Zinoviev seems to be quoting from a Kautsky pamphlet entitled ‘A programme of socialist reform’. However, the German quotes he bases himself on are the same as those in the pamphlet translated here.
  8. Ibid p69.
  9. K Kautsky, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ Weekly Worker April 28.
  10. One major obstacle to further research is actually accessing the original texts. I am still unable to get hold of Vertiefung der Revolution (1918) and Ein Programm sozialistischer Reform (1919), both of which were written for the USPD press. Any help readers could offer in tracking them down would be much appreciated.
  11. G Zinoviev, ‘Die Sozialdemokratie als Werkzeug der Reaktion’ in Die Kommunistische Internationale No2, 1919, p70.
  12. However much many of our opponents on the left today may vent their spleen about ‘centrism’, it is clear that this centrist programme of Kautsky’s is far to the left of many of their own operative programmes.
  13. K Marx and F Engels CW  Vol 27, London 1990, p225.
  14. P Broué The German Revolution 19171923 Chicago 2006, p17.
  15. Quotes from VI Lenin Revision of the party programme (marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/06.htm). It is worth noting that, in 1918, Lenin once more defended the need for the minimum programme. Although the Bolsheviks were in power by this point, they could actually lose it again. The minimum programme had to be maintained.
  16. R Luxemburg Our programme and the political situation, speech to the founding congress of the KPD(S): www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm
  17. P Fröhlich Rosa Luxemburg New York 1972, p290.
  18. Again, I must thank my comrade, Tina Becker, for her scrupulous proofing of my translation.