Lenin, Kautsky and the 'new era of revolutions'

Lenin's vision of world revolution at the turn of the 20th century was inspired by Karl Kautsky, writes Canada-based scholar Lars T Lih

 “Today, the battles in the liberation struggle of labouring and exploited humanity are being fought not only at the Spree River and the Seine, but also at the Hudson and Mississippi, at the Neva and the Dardanelles, at the Ganges and the Hoangho” - Karl Kautsky, 1909

In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.” This pungent summation of Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky - an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenin’s life - is often cited. Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”[1]

Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of Kautsky’s Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he inserted into an article entitled ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’. He then commented: “This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.”[2]

In previous publications on the relation between Lenin and Kautsky, I have focused on establishing a central paradox: after the outbreak of war in 1914, Karl Kautsky was at one and the same time Lenin’s greatest enemy and his greatest mentor. I have shown that from 1914 on, there is a constant stream of comments by Lenin praising “Kautsky when he was a Marxist” on a wide range of topics. The widespread opinion that Lenin underwent a process of radical rethinking that led to his rejection of pre-war ‘Second International Marxism’, as personified by Kautsky, is no longer viable.[3]

I now want to move on and ask a more fundamental question: what are the connections between the views of the pre-war Kautsky (more precisely, Kautsky up to the publication of Road to power in 1909) and Lenin’s outlook after 1914? I answer as follows: Lenin’s political outlook and strategy from 1914 on stemmed from a definition of the situation that he took lock, stock and barrel from the writings of “Kautsky when he was a Marxist”.[4] This basic definition of the situation can be given the following one-sentence summary. The entire world has now entered into a global era of revolutions, with intense interaction between revolutionary events at all levels - an era that can only come to an end with the victory of socialism at least in the advanced countries. As a shorthand label for this outlook, I have coined the term, ‘scenario of global revolutionary interaction’ (GRI).

Ultimately, I would like:

“It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to power (which came out in 1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch. He acknowledged the change in immediate tasks, and, along with this, a change in the conditions and forms of the struggle of contemporary democracy - a change that flows out of the shift in objective historical circumstances.”[6]

In other words, by looking at the relevant writings by Kautsky, I am also looking at Lenin’s basic definition of the historical epoch in which he found himself and also at the basic tactical conclusions he drew from that definition.

My source base

I draw my picture of the GRI scenario from Kautsky’s writings from 1902 to 1909. In The social revolution, a book published in 1902, Kautsky first set forth his claim that the world had entered a new era of revolutions. The social revolution focuses primarily on western Europe, but Kautsky’s brief essay, ‘Slavs and revolution’, written for and published by Iskra also in 1902, already announces that revolutionary dynamics must be seen in the context of an intensely interactive and shifting global framework.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 and, perhaps even more, the Japanese victory over Russia led to an even greater insistence of the global dimensions of the new revolutionary era. A series of extensive articles devoted to this topic from 1904-07 are collected in the very valuable anthology, Witnesses to permanent revolution.[7] Debates within the Second International about possible socialist support for colonialism led to Kautsky’s Socialism and colonial policy in 1907. During this year, Kautsky and Lenin, among others, fought at the Stuttgart Congress of the International in favour of a strong socialist rejection of any support for colonialism, ‘ethical’ or otherwise. Finally, a summation of sorts comes in 1909 in Road to power, especially the final chapter, entitled ‘A new age of revolutions’.

These are the main sources for the following discussion, although scattered comments in essays devoted to other topics - particularly on nationality problems - are also revealing. Kautsky’s thoughts on these topics continued to develop after 1909, but Lenin stoutly rejected all of these further explorations.

In the following discussion, we should keep in mind Kautsky’s pre-eminent position within international social democracy during these years. Two points in particular require underlining. First, Kautsky not only had global interests, but global contacts. The following remark by a German philosopher is revealing:

“[Kautsky] left behind a body of journalistic and scholarly work which in quantity exceeds the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and VI Lenin. Kautsky corresponded with personalities all over the world, especially with leading representatives of German and international social democracy. About 13,300 letters and cards exchanged with about 2,300 correspondents … are available in the Kautsky Archive alone of the Institut für Sozialgeschichte [Institute for Social History].”[8]

As an example, in 1908 a group of intellectuals who had formed a social democratic organisation in Iran wrote to Kautsky asking his advice. He wrote back, answering their questions and asking for articles which he subsequently printed in his weekly theoretical journal Die Neue Zeit. (this episode is discussed below).

When assessing the impact of Kautsky’s writings on Lenin, we should also keep in mind that after the 1905 revolution Kautsky acquired a deserved reputation as an honorary Bolshevik. Particularly in his seminal 1906 article, ‘Driving forces and prospects of the Russian Revolution’, Kautsky endorsed the basic Bolshevik strategy of alliance with the peasants and distrust of the liberals.[9] Although Kautsky did not explicitly take sides in the factional dispute, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks understood the import of his thinking.

Furthermore, Kautsky’s writings were the basic educational tool of Russian social democracy. It is fair to say that Kautsky had more impact on the basic world view of Russian social democrats, year in year out, than any single Russian Social Democratic writer. If we ask, ‘Who was the vozhd i uchitel of Bolshevism prior to World War I?’, I would answer: Lenin was indeed the vozhd (leader), but Kautsky was the uchitel (teacher) -and Lenin remained proud of the fact for the rest of his life.[10]

Kautsky’s GRI

Here is a list of the key features of Kautsky’s scenario of global revolutionary interaction:

Types of revolution

All of these points can of course be unpacked at great length. I will confine myself here to a few remarks on the various types of revolution and their role in the GRI scenario.

1. Socialist revolution:

Kautsky believed that western Europe was on the eve of socialist revolution (with America probably following not too long thereafter). He further argued that the fear expressed by some socialists that such a revolution would be “premature” must be rejected. Class antagonisms are not getting milder, but rather more antagonistic. The growth in the organisational prowess of the workers is more than matched by large-scale capitalist organisations, such as the trusts. In western Europe (in contrast to Russia), the proletariat as a class stands alone, since the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie have become conservative and even reactionary (as shown by the anti-Semitic parties). Nevertheless, the petty-bourgeois classes continue to vacillate (the essential class marker of the petty bourgeoisie), so that a massive swing toward the proletariat due to some crisis certainly cannot be ruled out.

Present-day capitalism resorts to three methods to “rub the rouge of health and youth into its wasted cheeks”[13]: cartels, militarism and the arms race, and imperialism. Imperialism is not only a policy, but an ideology, a last final attempt to infuse capitalism with the passion of a great historical task. All these methods are bound to fail and are openly leading to even greater crises in the near future. The old elite is visibly degenerating into pettiness and corruption, as shown by the venality of journalists and parliamentary politicians.

Tactics should be suited to the nature of the situation, and a revolutionary situation required different tactics from non-revolutionary periods. The tried and true tactics of the Social Democratic Party of Germany that aimed for a patient build-up of worker organisation and consciousness are still appropriate, but not for much longer. A revolutionary situation was fast approaching, in which more aggressive tactics such as the mass strike would be needed.

Social democracy must remain true to its revolutionary calling. To dilute its message now, to promote alliances with a compromised elite - the advice of socialist opportunism - is the road to disaster. “In this general vacillation, the social democracy party will stand its ground all the better, the less it itself vacillates, the more firmly it remains true to itself.”[14]

A war in the near future is quite likely. “The experience of the last decades proves, however, that war means revolution, that it results in enormous shifts of political power.”[15] (The role of war is discussed in greater detail below.)

2. Democratic political revolution:

A general point about all types of democratic revolutions: Kautsky affirmed that social democrats should support them. This proposition was by no means uncontroversial either within the larger field of socialists before the world war or even within Marx-based social democracy, as many controversies show. In these controversies and polemics, Kautsky and Lenin are always found in the same camp.

According to Kautsky, social democrats should support democratic revolutions for three sets of reasons: (a) commitment to democratic principles; (b) successful revolutions will clear away obstacles on the path to socialism; (c) democratic revolutions will indirectly weaken worldwide capitalism.

These principles can be illustrated by Kautsky’s answer to the Iranian social democrats who wrote to him in 1908. They told Kautsky that some people in Iran were unsure about the propriety of social democratic participation in the struggle against foreign capitalism. Kautsky replied:

“Socialist fighters cannot adopt an exclusively passive attitude towards the revolution and remain with their arms folded. And if the country is not sufficiently developed to have a modern proletariat, then only a democratic movement provides the possibility for socialists to participate in the revolutionary struggle.”

Kautsky went on to say that the social democrats may have to participate “as simple democrats in the ranks of bourgeois and petty bourgeois democrats”. They nevertheless have a wider perspective, since for them “the victory of democracy is not the end of political struggle; rather, it is the beginning of the new unknown struggle, which was practically impossible under the absolutist regime”. This new struggle required not only political freedom, but national independence.

The social democratic fight against capitalism in these countries may not be able to put socialist revolution on the immediate agenda, but nevertheless such a struggle will “weaken European capitalism and bestow greater strength on the European proletariat … Persia and Turkey, by struggling for their own liberation, also fight for the liberation of the world proletariat.”[16]

The most important case of political revolution in Kautsky’s GRI scenario was the anti-tsarist revolution in Russia. Out of Kautsky’s long and extensive connection to Russian social democracy, the following should be mentioned. Kautsky used Russia almost as a textbook example of what was later called “uneven and combined development”: that is, the presence in the same country of extreme backwardness and highly advanced capitalism, of barbaric repression and a militant proletariat inspired by the latest models of European socialist struggle. In particular, Kautsky argued that the outlook of the Russian peasant was changing rapidly and its future evolution could not be predicted from European experience.

In his writings around the time of the 1905 revolution - in fact, already in ‘Slavs and revolution’ from 1902 - Kautsky expounded the international context of the Russian Revolution. On the one hand, the Russian proletariat had to fight against world capital that was propping up Russian tsarism. On the other hand, the triumph of the anti-tsarist revolution would directly hurt European capital and greatly inspire the workers of western Europe, possibly even sparking off the socialist revolution. (These ideas are commonly associated with Trotsky, but the material collected in Witnesses to permanent revolution show clearly that Kautsky was the initiator of a set of ideas that were generally accepted by Russian social democrats. Trotsky himself gave effuse credit to Kautsky.)

3. Democratic revolution for self-determination:

Kautsky was joined by Lenin (and Stalin too!) in a position on the nationality question that rejected both the overestimation of nationality of Austrian social democracy and the underestimation of nationality by Rosa Luxemburg in Poland. To adapt Kautsky’s own famous witticism, the Kautsky-Lenin position was midway between Luxembourg and Vienna. And if you look at a map of Europe to find out what is actually between the Duchy of Luxembourg and Vienna, you will find (a little south of a direct line between the two) Switzerland, used by these writers as a successful model of bourgeois-democratic treatment of the nationality question.

The basic principles of the Kautsky-Lenin position are: the right of self-determination against national oppression must be respected; social democracy does not necessarily advocate the use of this right in concrete cases; separatism in socialist and other worker organisations must be resisted; great-power chauvinism (Germans v Poles in Kautsky’s case, Russians v various national minorities in Lenin’s case) must be opposed, even at the cost of bending over backwards to avoid offence; the ultimate solution to nationalism is to reassure national minorities that their democratic rights will be respected.[17]

National revolutions also play an important part in global revolutionary interaction as one more source of upheaval and crisis.

4. Democratic anti-colonial revolutions:

In the case of anti-colonial struggle, as with other types of democratic revolution, Kautsky took a stand that was controversial within social democracy. As he wrote in Road to power (in my opinion, magnificently):

“The colonial policy or imperialism is based on the assumption that only the peoples possessed of European civilisation are capable of independent development. The men of other races are considered children, idiots or beasts of burden, according to the degree of unfriendliness with which one treats them; in any case as beings having a lower level of development, who can be directed as one wishes. Even socialists proceed on this assumption as soon as they want to pursue a policy of colonial expansion - an ethical one, of course. But reality soon teaches them that our party’s tenet that all men are equal is no mere figure of speech, but a very real force.”[18]

Anti-colonial revolutions play a very large role in Kautsky’s scenario of global revolutionary interaction. The Japanese victory over Russia represents a major turning point in history because it ends the illusion of the European colonisers as all-powerful. As such, the Japanese victory is inspiring anti-colonial unrest all over Asia and the Muslim world. Payback time has come.

The independence of former colonies will have an immediate and severe impact on Europe’s capitalist powers. The independence of India, to take a crucial example, would end England’s parasitic monopoly position and therefore also end the passivity of the English working class, since this passivity was the result of being bribed by colonial booty.

Kautsky warns that, although the anti-colonial rebels are enemies of the proletariat’s enemies, they nevertheless “oppose to foreign capitalism a domestic, national capitalism. We must not allow ourselves any illusions in this respect … This does not in any way alter the fact that they are weakening European capitalism and its governments and introducing an element of political unrest into the whole world.”[19]

5. The role of war:

The earlier discussion has brought out some of the many ways in which the different types of revolution inspire and intensify each other. The role of war is another factor that Kautsky sees as contributing to the overall global revolutionary crisis. Kautsky’s remarks on war are rather complex and do not reveal one simple attitude. The following paraphrase of his outlook is therefore somewhat provisional.

According to Kautsky, war is a terrible thing that the proletariat fights against with all its might. The most important current struggle of the proletariat is against militarism and imperialism. The proletariat’s militant stance and the elite’s fear of revolution is right now the main bulwark against the outbreak of war.

Nevertheless, of all the classes, the proletariat is the one that can look forward to war with the most confidence. War leads to revolution in a number of ways. An unpopular war or one that leads to crushing defeat will thoroughly discredit the elite classes and make the proletariat the vigorous champion of a national cause. In 1891, Engels still thought that war would bring the socialist proletariat to power prematurely. According to Kautsky, premature socialist revolution was no longer a threat in the Europe of his day, and therefore social democracy could look with confidence toward the revolution that war would bring in its wake.

Any European war today will be caused by imperialism. Thus the population will understand that the war does not represent national interests and that neither side in the war can claim the moral high ground. The necessity of anti-capitalist revolution will be all the more evident.

Social democracy should certainly not choose war as a means to achieve revolution. War imposes terrible costs and it warps and distorts the revolution itself. Nevertheless, social democracy may not have a choice in the matter, since the reckless policies of militarism and imperialism may lead to war, even against the desires of the elites themselves. Already in 1902, Kautsky had concluded that “we must reckon on the possibility of a war within a perceptible time and therewith also the possibility of political convulsions that will end directly in proletarian uprisings or at least in opening the way toward them”.[20]

Kautsky’s point about the dangers of revolutionary degeneration caused by war is one of the very few theses of his that, so far, I have not found reflected in Lenin. To take up the slack, a very similar argument is employed by Martov in his analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Lenin and the GRI scenario

Anyone familiar with Lenin’s post-1914 writings will recognise the enormous debt Lenin owes to Kautsky - one that Lenin had no qualms about acknowledging. I will merely broach this subject by mentioning a few key moments.

1. ‘Turn the imperialist war into civil war’:

Lenin very quickly arrived at his basic political slogan during the years 1914-17. The speed at which he arrived at it is explained by its deep connection to Kautsky’s pre-war GRI scenario. Lenin’s tactical slogan was based on the following propositions: “The present war is imperialist in character.” This characterisation implies cartelisation at home and expansionary policies abroad. This in turn implies that “the objective conditions are perfectly ripe for socialism to be achieved”.

No genuine progressive or national interest is served by these wars, thus discrediting “defence of the fatherland” as a slogan. Although the betrayal by opportunists has hurt proletarian organisations, nevertheless, “a revolutionary crisis is maturing”. Opportunist attitudes in some sections of the working class are explained in large part by “the privileged position of their ‘fatherlands’ in the world market”. A new international must be formed by rejecting not only opportunism, but all those who obscure the undiluted revolutionary message of social democracy (now, ironically, including Kautsky himself).

A democratic peace is not possible without a series of revolutions. Revolutionaries should not worry about revolutionary propaganda causing defeat, since defeat “facilitates civil war against the ruling classes”.[21]

For the time being, I will leave to the reader the task of connecting the dots from Lenin’s position to Kautsky’s GRI scenario.

2. The spread of revolution:

I have emphasised that the spread of revolution though direct intervention and through inspiring example is a central facet of Kautsky’s scenario. I will cite two places where Lenin shows the centrality of this facet in his own global scenario.

In August 1915, Lenin outlined how a socialist revolution that occurred in one country could spread in a variety of ways to other countries: “the victorious proletariat [of one country] will arise against the rest of the world - the capitalist world - attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, stirring uprisings in those countries against the capitalists, and in case of need using even armed force against the exploiting classes and their states”.[22]

In October 1915, Lenin outlined a somewhat similar scenario, but this time he contemplated the way in which a democratic political revolution would inspire revolutions at other levels. This was a wartime version of the scenario that was already part of parcel of old Bolshevism, as inspired by Kautsky. In theses that were published as a semi-official statement, Lenin envisaged the policy of a proletarian party that had come to power as a result of Russia’s democratic revolution. At home, the content of the revolution was still the minimum programme, based on the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. Abroad, however, an aggressive diplomatic policy aimed against national and colonial oppression would probably result in revolutionary war.

The Russian revolutionary government would actively work to inspire uprisings in all colonies. It would also “raise up the socialist proletariat of Europe for an insurrection against their governments”. Thus, “there is no doubt that a victory of the proletariat in Russia would create extraordinarily favourable conditions for the development of the revolution in both Asia and Europe. Even 1905 proved that.”[23]

3. Lenin’s final writings:

In one of his final articles of 1923, Lenin took heart that “Russia, India, China, etc” made up the vast majority of humanity and “this majority has been drawn into the struggle for liberation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome of the world struggle will be. In this sense, the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured.”[24]

This passage indicates that the influence of Kautsky’s GRI scenario was still alive and well in Lenin’s mind, as he tried to take final stock of the position of the Russian Revolution. True, by 1923 he had to make some adjustments, the most important of them resulting from the fact that the Russian Revolution simply had not spread. In the short term, the world was emerging from a revolutionary situation without undergoing socialist revolution. Nevertheless, Lenin still expressed complete confidence that global revolutionary interaction was still the fundamental reality of the day - one that guaranteed the security of Soviet Russia and the eventual triumph of socialism.


1. Letters of October 27 and October 31 1914.

2. VI Lenin, ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’, December 1914.

3. LT Lih, ‘Lenin and Kautsky, the final chapter’ in International Socialist Review No59 (May-June 2008); ‘Lenin’s aggressive unoriginality, 1914-1916’, in Socialist Studies: the Journal of the Society for Socialist Studies 5(2) fall 2009, pp90-112.

4. For the concept of “definition of the situation”, see RC Tucker Politics as leadership Columbia 1981.

5. Looking again at the small book written right after Lenin’s death by Georg Lukács, I was struck by the fact that in the chapter entitled ‘Imperialism; world war and civil war’, Lukács brought out the systematic nature of Lenin’s views in a way that closely matched by own reconstruction of the inner logic of Kautsky’s view of the “new era of revolutions”. Readers can judge for themselves; the Lukács text is available at www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/1924/lenin/ch04.htm. Lukács was writing in the midst of the burgeoning Lenin cult and wanted to make Lenin look as unique and original as possible. Furthermore, his chapter makes clear that he had not read anything by the pre-war Kautsky. From my point of view, therefore, he is something of a hostile witness. If ‘Lukács on Lenin’ closely resembles ‘Lih on Kautsky’, then we can eliminate the middlemen and conclude that Lenin’s view of global revolutionary dynamics closely resembles the view of Kautsky “when he was a Marxist” - the proposition to be proved!

6. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, pp143-44.

7. RB Day and D Gaido (eds) Witnesses to permanent revolution: the documentary record Leiden 2009. The editorial introductions to the Kautsky articles are very useful.

8. From a discussion paper by Hans-Jürgen Mende, a former East German teacher of Marxism-Leninism that was written in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the German Democratic Republic (see www.socialisteducation.org/KKautsky.html).

9. Kautsky’s article, as well as commentaries by Trotsky and Lenin, can be found in Witnesses to permanent revolution; the young Stalin also wrote a commentary on Kautsky’s article.

10. See the relevant comments in his State and revolution (1917) and Leftwing communism (1920).

11. The stereotype, still prevalent in some circles, that Kautsky represented a “fatalistic, mechanistic, deterministic” style of Marxism does not stand up to examination. As Day and Gaido remark, “Disputing the notion of any single pattern of capitalist development, Kautsky simultaneously rejected any idea of unilateral economic determinism” (Witnesses p617).

12. K Kautsky Road to power chapter 9.

13. K Kautsky Socialism and colonial policy (1907).

14. K Kautsky Road to power p89.

15. Ibid p84.

16. This material is taken from a special issue of Revolutionary History entitled ‘The left in Iran, 1905-1940’ (Vol 10, No2 [2010]), pp123-28).

17. A very useful case study that compares Kautsky’s attitude toward the Jews and the Czechs is J Jacobs, ‘Karl Kautsky: between Baden and Luxemburg’, in On socialists and ‘the Jewish question’ after Marx New York 1992, pp5-43.

18. K Kautsky Road to power p80-81.

19. Ibid p83.

20. K Kautsky The social revolution, p96-97.

21. The quoted words are decisions of a Bolshevik conference in spring 1915, as drafted by Lenin (CW Vol 21, pp158-64), although the same basic outlook can be found in Lenin’s writings earlier.

22. V I Lenin CW Vol 21, p342. I therefore do not believe that this passage can be used as an indication of Lenin’s belief in the possibility of constructing full socialism in one country: this is simply not the topic on Lenin’s mind. Following the logic of the GRI scenario, Lenin wanted socialist revolution in one country to rapidly spread to others; he certainly did not envision a long period of socialist construction before entering the world revolutionary maelstrom. (This remark is not meant as a full reading of this contested passage.)

23. VI Lenin CW Vol 21, pp403-04.

24. VI Lenin CW Vol 45, pp401-06.