In defense of Karl Kautsky

The ‘’pope of Marxism’’ and his reputation was unfairly tarnished because of a single Leninist fluff piece.

Was Karl Kautsky really a renegade and was he lying, as Vladimir Lenin said? I think not. I also believe that Kautsky’s social democracy had significantly more success than any ‘’communist’’ experiment that went according to Lenin’s doctrines.

In 1918, Karl Kautsky published Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was meant to argue that the dictatorship of the proletariat was a flexible concept, that its ideal form was opposed to events in Russia and that social democrats could accomplish the dictatorship of the proletariat through parliamentary avenues.

That same year, Vladimir Lenin published The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky. It was a response to Kautsky, declaring that he had ‘’turned Marx into a common liberal’’ and even more famously Kautsky has since been branded with the term ‘’renegade’’ ever since Lenin wrote this response.

I should also be noted that I am writing this with the hindsight that the passage of history provides, so the disingenuousness of Lenin can be better presented.

Kautsky opened that work by stating:

‘’The present Russian Revolution has, for the first time in the history of the world, made a Socialist Party the rulers of a great Empire. A far more powerful event than the seizing of control of the town of Paris by the proletariat in 1871. Yet, in one important aspect, the Paris Commune was superior to the Soviet Republic. The former was the work of the entire proletariat. All shades of the Socialist movement took part in it, none drew back from it, none was excluded

The antagonism of the two Socialist movements is not based on small personal jealousies: it is the clashing of two fundamentally distinct methods, that of democracy and that of dictatorship…

We will, therefore, examine the significance which democracy has for the proletariat — what we understand by the dictatorship of the proletariat — and what conditions dictatorship, as a form of government, creates in the struggle for freedom of the proletariat.’’

The concern of Kautsky was the authoritarianism of the Russian Revolution, or more specifically of some sections of the Bolsheviks. The main idea proposed by Kautsky through-out the book is a conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a Marxist concept that proposes the working-class political and economic power) that minimizes violence and insurrection to the bare minimum and prioritizes class struggle within democratic or parliamentary contexts.

Kautsky’s immediate second chapter, Democracy and the Conquest of Political Power, proposes a route to the acquiring of political power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Perhaps a little cliche for today’s progressives, Kautsky asserts the inseparability of socialism and democracy. This is because the goal of socialism is to eliminate exploitation and oppression. If socialism is to accomplish this goal faithfully, social ownership of the means of production and political democracy are the twins:

‘’The distinction is sometimes drawn between democracy and Socialism, that is, the socialisation of the means of production and of production, by saying that the latter is our goal, the object of our movement, while democracy is merely the means to this end, which occasionally might become unsuitable, or even a hindrance.

To be exact, however, Socialism as such is not our goal, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race.’’

The policies of socialism are a means to an end. He also states:

‘’For us, therefore, Socialism without democracy is unthinkable. We understand by Modern Socialism not merely social organisation of production, but democratic organisation of society as well. Accordingly, Socialism is for us inseparably connected with democracy. No Socialism without democracy. But this proposition is not equally true if reversed. Democracy is quite possible without Socialism. A pure democracy is even conceivable apart from Socialism, for example, in small peasant communities, where complete equality of economic conditions for everybody exists on the basis of participating in privately owned means of production.

In any case, it may be said that democracy is possible without Socialism, and precedes it. It is this pre-Socialist democracy which is apparently in the minds of those who consider that democracy and Socialism are related to each other as the means to an end, although they mostly hasten to add that, strictly speaking, it is really no means to an end. This interpretation must be most emphatically repudiated, because, should it win general acceptance, it would lead our movement into most dangerous tracks.’’

Democracy is not just a means to an end, but it essential for the organization of socialism if it also to be understood as ‘’democratic organisation of society.’’ Democracy is also a threat to the bourgeoisie. The hatred of the upper classes for democratic principles when they empower egalitarian movements is not proof of democracy’s failure, but rather proof that the working-class must confront these upper classes and especially their privileges:

‘’Why would democracy be an unsuitable meant for the achievement of Socialism?

It is a question of the conquest of political power.

It is said that if in a hitherto bourgeois democratic State the possibility exists of the Social Democrats becoming the majority at an election, the ruling classes would make use of all the forces at their command in order to prevent democracy asserting itself. Therefore, it is not by democracy, but only by a political revolution that the proletariat can conquer the political power.

Doubtless, in cases where the proletariat of a democratic State attains to power, one must reckon with attempts of the ruling classes to nullify by violence the realisation of democracy by the rising class. This, however, does not prove the worthlessness of democracy for the proletariat. Should a ruling class, under the suppositions here discussed, resort to force, it would do so precisely because it feared the consequences of democracy.’’

This does not mean that under so-called ‘’bourgeois democracy’’ there are no barriers to the ascendancy of the working-class or truly institutionalized class or state power. This is a nuanced part of Kautsky’s analysis that Lenin ignores and therewith attempts to erect a strawman fallacy. Kautsky writes:

‘’On the other hand, it must not be thought that the forebodings above mentioned will everywhere be realised. We need not be so fainthearted. The more democratic the State is, the more dependent are the forces exerted by the Executive, even the military ones, on public opinion. These forces may become, even in a democracy, a means of holding down the proletarian movement, if the proletariat is still weak in numbers…’’

But these institutions are yet again not proof that these systems cannot be worked through. If anything, these institutions represent the fact the ‘’bourgeois’’ democracies are not even democratic enough by their own standards. Kautsky is not suggesting that the state apparatus is completely fine, just that it is sufficiently open for socialists to make headway and progressively change society. This is why Kautsky refers to these then-existing democracies as ‘’pre-socialist democracy,’’ another fine detail that Lenin fails to entirely grasp in his blathering. The point is not that these systems are socialist democracy completed, but rather that dictatorship of the proletariat can be built upon them. Socialist democracy will spring forth from pre-socialist democracy as the existing state is reformed, curtailed or transformed and the means of production are democratized, also eliminating the bourgeois power base to influence the state. This is also where I suggest the read of another work from Kautsky, as this is precisely the point where he elucidates it. This was also written in 1918, although to be fair, it was published somewhat after The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Here is quote from Driving the Revolution Froward.

‘’Yet this situation could only be temporary. The state mechanism that has existed until now must be completely refashioned. The bureaucracy must be stripped of its power and many of its functions, and must be placed under the supervision/control of the democratic representatives of the people in the municipality, the provinces, the states and the nation.’’

In other words, Kautsky was not asking for the total preservation of all the state and its machinery. That notion is Lenin’s strawman fallacy. He was proposing that existing parliamentary democracies would evolve or be reformed into different democracies based upon social-democratic principles, and having a different power base that surrounds them and a different power structure as well. This, therefore, is dictatorship of the proletariat and a viable path towards it while avoiding an autocracy that nullifies the intended goal.

This was in the context of the German Revolution of 1918, when the Spartacists were accusing the SPD and USPD of being anti-revolutionary. By ‘’participating in the government,’’ Kautsky was referring to the Council of People’s Deputies, which was jointly led by Hugo Hasse and Friedrich Ebert:

‘’According to the Spartacus people, they differ from the other socialist tendencies in that they want to drive the revolution forward, whereas the majority Socialists are paying homage to the counter-revolution and the Independent Socialists are, whether out of weakness or out of ignorance against their will, supporting the counter-revolution by participating in the government. According to such a view, the revolution has no secure basis out outside of the Spartacus League.’’

On the issue of the SPD, Kautsky (himself a USPD member) said this:

‘’In this understanding of driving the revolution forward, we agree with the Majority Socialists (SPD).

Of course, many majority socialists proceed more cautiously than we Independents would like, and more cautiously than we think is required by the situation. But it would be ridiculous to seek to pass off the difference in revolutionary tempo as the difference between revolution and counter-revolution.’’

Further, as Kautsky observes near the end of this chapter, Karl Marx expected socialism and the proletariat to come into power (or at least have a chance of doing so) peacefully in countries with sufficiently liberal political regimes, especially the United States:

‘’As a matter of fact, Marx thought it possible, and even probable, that in England and America the proletariat might peacefully conquer political power. On the conclusion of the Congress of the International at the Hague in 1872. Marx spoke at a meeting, and among other things said:

The worker must one day capture political power in order to found the new organisation of labour. He must reverse the old policy, which the old institutions maintain, if he will not, like the Christians of old who despised and neglected such things, renounce the things of this world.

But we do not assert that the way to reach this goal is the same everywhere.

We know that the institutions, the manners and the customs of the various countries must be considered, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and, if I understood your arrangements better, I might even add Holland, where the worker may attain his object by peaceful means. But not in all countries is this the case.

It remains to be seen whether Marx’s expectations will be realised.’’

Kautsky wanted the social-democratic movement to not only make progress through a democratic republic, but also then ensure a renewed class-basis of the state through public ownership of major industries. In other words, he did not believe creating a dictatorship of a proletariat was an entirely fixed system of government, but rather the class nature of the state was influenced by the production that lay underneath it.

Whereas Lenin was viewing this issue in black-and-white, Kautsky was seeing the socialist mission as being a dynamic process. This is a very efficient idea of advocacy too: instead of agonizing over the exact state and wether it is entirely ‘’bourgeois’’ or ‘’proletarian,’’ curtail the power base of the wealthy first. There is no need for the left to confound themselves in unimportant debates.

Kautsky writes in the Democratisation section:

‘’On November 9 the German people conquered the democratic republic. The democratic republic is the indispensable political basis of the new commonwealth we wish to construct. We must hold steadfastly to the democratic republic; we must consistently develop it in all directions.

In a letter on the Paris Commune dated April 12 1871, Marx declared: “I say that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the continent.”

‘’The power of the centralised government bureaucracy must be broken by subordinating it to a national assembly elected by free and democratic suffrage.’’

In the Socialisation section:

‘’This is the most important, the actual, task of the democratic republic, which is dominated by the proletariat. Socialisation will transform it into a social republic, instigating a new era in the history of humanity. But precisely because of the importance of this task, it cannot be carried out in the blink of an eye, but only gradually, following a careful examination of actual relations and preparation of the new order.’’

Now that Kautsky’s main points have been established and we have a better understanding of his view of the state, it is time to observe the famous response that Lenin wrote and wether these arguments are well-reasoned. In my opinion, they are not.

The initial parts of Lenin’s response to Kautsky are filled with emotional appeals and ad hominem attacks. This should indicate who really has the better argument — hint, it is not quite the one mudslinging! Lenin does very little for half of the response but refer to Kautsky with belittling names before he finally gets to a substantive point. Among Lenin’s brightest contributions:

‘’But Kautsky, like a schoolmaster who has become as dry as dust from quoting the same old textbooks on history’’

‘’It sounds just like he were chewing rags in his sleep!’’

‘’This windbag devotes almost one-third of his pamphlet, twenty pages out of sixty-three, to this twaddle’’

Regardless, Lenin starts in earnest here:

‘’Let us point out, in passing, that when calling the non-Bolsheviks in Russia, i.e., the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, socialists, Kautsky was guided by their name, that is, by a word, and not by the actual place they occupy in the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. What a wonderful understanding and application of Marxism!’’

Kautsky criticizes Lenin for excising the other socialist movements in Russia, and Lenin here responds here by saying that it is justified because in theory they represent a different place in the class struggle, which by extension, is also a proxy for how socialist they are. This simply is not true.

The Mensheviks were responsible for organizing a significant number of the workers’ councils, and although the Social-Revolutionaries did not represent the industrial proletariat on the whole, they did represent workers in rural areas, peasants and tenant farmers in the fight against the landowners. Is Lenin here asserting that class struggle does not matter, so long as such a movement is primarily opposed to the land-owning gentry and not the factory-owning bourgeoisie?

Lenin continues:

‘’It must not be forgotten that Kautsky knows Marx almost by heart, and, judging by all he has written, he has in his desk, or in his head, a number of pigeon-holes in which all that was ever written by Marx is most carefully filed so as to be ready at hand for quotation. Kautsky must know that both Marx and Engels, in their letters as well as in their published works, repeatedly spoke about the dictatorship of the proletariat, before and especially after the Paris Commune. Kautsky must know that the formula “dictatorship of the proletariat” is merely a more historically concrete and scientifically exact formulation of the proletariat’s task of “smashing” the bourgeois state machine…’’

As I have shown earlier, Kautsky did not stay silent on this issue altogether. Here, it depends what is meant by the ‘’state machinery’’ and ‘’smashing’’ it. Can it be considered an absolute concept, or does it mean at least significant changes in how the state operates so that it is no longer the same machinery and ruled by the same interests? Lenin overlooks this question, but Kautsky shows here that dictatorship of the proletariat is not a fixed system of government:

‘’He speaks here not of a form of government, but of a condition, which must necessarily arise wherever the proletariat has gained political power. That Marx in this case did not have in mind a form of government is proved by the fact that he was of the opinion that in Britain and America the transition might take place peacefully, i.e., in a democratic way.’’

Kautsky also shows the Paris Commune, and the core components that made it up:

‘’However, to find out what Marx thought about the dictatorship of the proletariat, we need not have recourse to speculation…the Paris Commune was, as Engels expressly declared in his introduction to the third edition of Marx’s book, “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.’’

It was, however, at the same time not the suspension of democracy, but was founded on its most thoroughgoing use, on the basis of universal suffrage. The power of the Government was subjected to universal suffrage.

The Commune was composed of town councillors, chosen by general suffrage in the various departments of Paris.

Universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business.

Marx constantly speaks here of the general suffrage of the whole people, and not of the votes of a specially privileged class. The dictatorship of the proletariat was for him a condition which necessarily arose in a real democracy, because of the overwhelming numbers of the proletariat.’’

Not once in this passage does Lenin cite any evidence or proper theory for the dictatorship of the proletariat being a precise system of government. Lenin does not dispute the content Kautsky’s quote or writings, but simply cites Marx again in another context of the Critique of the Gotha Program about the ‘’revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’’ Again, the problem is, how are these terms actually defined?

However, as Kautsky’s original citation about America and Britain demonstrated, Marx adjusted his views on the necessary manner of achieving socialism depending on the social and political contexts. The question then becomes more about the merits of each approach, which Lenin fails to ascertain for his. Lenin’s response amounts to a ‘’he said, she said’’ argument.

Lenin responds to Kautsky by saying:

‘’It is patently absurd to draw a distinction between a “condition” and a “form of government”. To speak of forms of government in this connection is trebly stupid, for every schoolboy knows that monarchy and republic are two different forms of government. It must be explained to Mr. Kautsky that both these forms of government, like all transitional “forms of government” under capitalism, are only variations of the bourgeois state, that is, of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’’

But why is it absurd to call the dictatorship of the proletariat a condition to be met? A form of government is a particular structure and organization for the state, as Lenin invokes monarchies and republics. The class structure refers not just to these particular policies per se, but also a reality of how the state functions. Lenin is correct to say that both these ‘’forms of government’’ were (to varying extents) weapons for domination. So then what distinguishes them? Is it that they are conditions of power, or systems of government, that is relevant to their class-basis? As such, Lenin seemingly contradicts himself:

The form of government has absolutely nothing to do with it, for there are monarchies which are not typical of the bourgeois state, such, for instance, as have no military clique, and there are republics which are quite typical in this respect, such, for instance, as have a military clique and a bureaucracy. This is a universally known historical and political fact, and Kautsky cannot falsify it.

And this is precisely why Kautsky has repeatedly made the argument that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not simply a system of government, but rather a means of holding or maintaining power. The means of holding and maintaining power combine both a structure of the state and the necessary material conditions in which these changes occur. Lenin does not refute Kautsky, but underhandedly concedes his point.

Another thing to address is that Lenin keeps accusing Kautsky of fetishizing parliaments and procedural liberalism throughout the Proletarian Revolution, what he calls in this paragraph the ‘’bourgeois state machine.’’ Monarchies and republics alike are allegedly nothing but dictatorships of the bourgeoisie, emphasis placed on this by Lenin. But by Lenin’s reasoning, Engels himself was also advocating bourgeois democracy! Engels’s personal conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was the first French republic from 1792–1799 (established by the ‘’bourgeois’’ French Revolution) as well as the existing American republic of 1891. According to the Marxist history, its almost as if the transformations of the past provide the basis for modern socialism!

‘’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.’’

‘’So, then, 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. From 1792 to 1799 each French department, each commune, enjoyed complete self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organised and how we can manage without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America and the First French Republic, and is being shown even today by Australia, Canada and the other English colonies.’’

The unashamedly bourgeois Friedrich Engels! Worshipping the false gods of liberal democracy in Australia, Canada, France and the United States! Now its still important to realize that I am not making Lenin’s claim in the opposite direction — the dictatorship of the proletariat doesn’t have to be a republic of a certain type. It can also be Luxemburg’s workers’ councils, if one desires that. But that was Engels’s personal opinion about what was ideal, and it was shared by social democrats.

One might respond to this by saying that Engels still viewed America as one of the bourgeois states. Perhaps, but this would just confirm Kautsky’s assertions that existing states have openings in them and that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a social condition, not just a form of government.

Lenin then responds to Kautsky’s point about the Paris Commune being democratic with an non-sequitur fallacy and a vulgar citation of On Authority, a short piece of writing by Friedrich Engels:

‘’Secondly, the Paris Commune waged war against Versailles as the workers’ government of France against the bourgeois government. What have “pure democracy” and “universal suffrage” to do with it, when Paris was deciding the fate of France?’’

Thirdly, I would respectfully remind Mr. Kautsky, who has Marx and Engels off pat, of the following appraisal of the Paris Commune given by Engels from the point of view of…“pure democracy:’’

“Have these gentlemen” (the anti-authoritarians) “ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is an act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — all of which are highly authoritarian means.’’

Lenin’s retort here does not make much sense. Lenin conflates Engels’s call for a military defense of the revolution (which is simply a means of political transition) with democracy itself, and uses this concept to justify banning other socialist parties in his own circumstance, Russia. Engels was talking about ‘’authoritarianism’’ as in a military / armed defensive, not a political system. In no way does a state defending itself from its enemies inherently contradict that this state is democratic and that its goals are democratic in principle. All states defend themselves with force and maintain police forces and armies precisely for this reason. When Marx and Engels talked about the ‘’dictatorship of the proletariat,’’ Kautsky was well aware that this is the corollary of the ‘’dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,’’ which are typified as modern liberal societies. But the implicit observation in Kautsky’s work is that these liberal societies are not uniquely violent or in a constant state of urgency, and do have legitimate and useful democratic principles in them. So why would the dictatorship of the proletariat be any different if it is just the corollary? Such does not imply a uniquely extensive use of force compared to anything that exists currently. Engels’s choice of words encompasses existing liberal societies as well.

The essential characteristic of proletarian power is that power is held by the masses, and democratically! If not, then what? The fact that the Commune allegedly ‘’waged war’’ on the bourgeois government is not relevant. What made the Commune a project of the working classes of France was that it was led and controlled by them, not that it contained hostility towards its rivals per se.

And as Kautsky dutifully pointed out just earlier, the violence of past revolutions (to the extent that it existed), was because they were liberal revolutions, overthrowing autocratic and centralized states controlled by conservatives. So Kautsky does not ignore this issue at all, but this careful nuance goes over Lenin’s head. Kautsky shows how the circumstances of 1918 are different from those of 1789. The Paris Commune was more chaotic than what many Marxists in Kautsky’s day were imagining because it was a micro-state carving itself out of a centralized state, and in the middle of an actual war (Franco-German War of 1871). But, again, the environment circumscribing the Commune is not the essential characteristic of a ‘’dictatorship of the proletariat.’’ The environment is proportional to the circumstances in which a type of social transformation takes place. The Commune was a tiny experiment and perhaps an inspiration to many, but Lenin and Kautsky alike were both dealing in the matter of modern nation states. Lenin wanted revolution in Russia, not a few districts in Paris. There was also an inherent fragility to the Commune which made Engels speak of ‘’rifles, bayonets and cannon.’’ But this informal vigilantism is not necessary all the same in modern states with hardened institutions. Think of it in scientific terms: when more total coercive force can be applied by a state on society (state power is applied horizontally), less pressure can be applied at each individual meeting point. When you have a professional military, executions in the street (state power applied vertically) aren’t needed or wanted. Regardless, Kautsky explains the social democratic view:

‘’Many people confuse civil war with the social revolution, considering this to be its form, and are therefore prepared to excuse the acts of force inevitable in a civil war. This has always been the case in revolutions, they say, and ever will be.

We Social Democrats are decidedly not of the opinion that that which has been must always be. Such ideas of the revolution are formed on the examples of previous bourgeois revolutions. The proletarian revolution will be accomplished under quite different conditions from these.

The bourgeois revolutions broke out in States in which a despotism, supported by an army separated from the people, suppressed all free movements, in which freedom of the Press, of public meeting, of organisation, and general suffrage did not exist, and in which there was no real representation of the people. There the struggle against the Government necessarily took the form of a civil war. The proletariat of to-day will, as regards Western Europe at least, attain to power in States in which a certain measure of democracy, if not “pure” democracy, has been deeply rooted for decades, and also in which the military are not so cut off from the people as formerly. It remains to be seen how the conquest of political power by the proletariat is achieved under these conditions, where it represents the majority of the people. In no case need we anticipate that in Western Europe the course of the great French Revolution will be repeated. If present-day Russia exhibits so much likeness to the France of 1793, that only shows how near it stands to the stage of bourgeois revolution.

The social revolution, the political revolution, and civil war must be distinguished from each other.’’

Kautsky is imagining the dictatorship of the proletariat itself in the form most ideal for society, and he also specifies that he didn’t believe the status quo was ‘’pure democracy,’’ just sufficiently open to achieve socialist goals. Neither violence nor peace are the end goals themselves, these are simply desired means depending on the preferences of who is speaking. Lenin thoughtlessly conflates the two.

The history that informs Kautsky is best summarized here:

‘’Since then the working classes of the whole of Europe, in numerous — often bloody — struggles, have conquered one installment of democracy after the other, and by their endeavours to win, maintain and extend democracy, and by constantly making use of each installment for organisation, for propaganda, and for resting social reforms, have they grown in maturity from year to year, and from the lowest have become the highest placed section of the masses of the people.’’

In short, Kautsky does the smart thing by focusing on the ideals and goals of socialists themselves, and not so much the non-existent procedural orthodoxy that Lenin screams about upholding.

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Tristam Pratorius the Social Democrat🌹

Social democrat. Socialist. I like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Eduard Bernstein. Social democracy as a theory is aimed at achieving socialism democratically