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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reflections on the democratic Marxism of Karl Kautsky

above:  A lithograph of the 'Red Pope' Karl Kautsky
What follows is an essay which attempts to identify the defensible and valuable legacy that the democratic Marxist Karl Kautsky provided for the Left during the pre-1914 period.  It is largely based upon a reading of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’. (1909)

The author further attempts to discern what ramifications Kautsky’s works during this period might have also for the current day – around 100 years later.

The following essay also compromises a brief, edited segment (in-progress) of the author (Tristan Ewins’)  (as yet uncompleted) PhD thesis on Third Roads and Third Ways on the Left 1848-1948.  

Debate is very welcome!!!

Tristan Ewins
work-in-progress; Feb 2013

There are many themes addressed in Karl Kautsky’s work that provide the basis for a defensible legacy; and others that are perhaps less defensible.  This brief essay is mainly derived fro a reading of Kautksy’s  1909 work ‘The Road to Power’, with some consideration of ‘The Erfurt Program’ (The Class Struggle), as well as ‘On the Morrow of the Social Revolution’, and “The Social Revolution’. (1903)  However we do not draw here upon Kautksy’s seminal debate with Lenin which occurred following the 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution.  (including Kautsky’s ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’; and Lenin’s “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’)

In Kautksy’s favour it is to be noted that Materialism and determinism are still widely considered respectable philosophical positions: and Kautsky is quite radical and unyielding in his adherence to such a perspective.  And yet intuitively that position remains problematic – as how could consciousness and will arise out of a purely material (ie: mechanical) process?  Herbert Marcuse had dared to posit a ‘great refusal’ of the most marginal and oppressed as creating a new historic agent for revolution.  The idea that such minorities could lead a revolution is suggestive of a radical voluntarism. And yet liberal capitalism has – to a significant degree - again ‘adapted’, co-opted and neutralised these elements.

It is probably fair to argue that (from a Marxist perspective) ‘something went wrong’  in the evolution of capitalism -  such that the system evolved in a way which neutralised the very critical elements it had given rise to: the enlightened and revolutionary working class who – according to Marx and Kautsky - were supposed to be the system’s ‘gravediggers’.  The question, here, is whether Kautskyan determinism and materialism are helps or hindrances under such circumstances.  Critical theorist Theodore Adorno would have it that a capitalist ‘culture industry’ lulls and deceives us into passivity; and decades since he made such observations psychological manipulation via mass culture appears more pervasive and powerful than ever.  In addition to that, the decline of mass factory labour – the phenomenon of ‘post-industrialism’ – also contributes to the demobilisation of the working class, and the decline of a distinct class consciousness.

A Kautskyan (pure materialist) outlook might hold the position to hopeless.  Again: this might begin to look like “a bad totality with no way out”. (Adorno/Beilharz)  And yet again: perhaps the new information technology provides the material basis for ‘levelling the playing field’ somewhat in the contest of ideas.  And a moderate voluntarism – which accepts our grounding based on experience, but holds some prospect for the human imagination and for collective free human will, might suppose these provide a ‘potential way out’.  Kautsky would reject suppositions of free will and unbound human imagination. But perhaps he would appreciate the new technology as a ‘material grounding’ for hope; and for ‘asymmetrical political struggle’. 

And it is also notable that relative abundance creates ‘new’ (ie: relative) needs.  While Kautsky foresaw limits to social education in his own time, today there are the material means to provide education not only for the labour market, but for active and critical citizenship, and for well-rounded human beings.  The question of whether workers and citizens can be mobilised around the defence of ‘newer’ established rights (pensions, leave, education, health); or even inspired to fight for new social conquests (eg: a standard 32 hour week) is an open one.  Perhaps there is no guarantee of success as much as there is no guarantee of failure.  Kautsky found it difficult wrestling with the prospect of uncertainty in response to Revisionism.  But today radicals face the imperative of fostering hope even without the old teleological certainties of the old Marxism.

The question of ‘economism’ versus ‘political socialism’ is also interesting to approach in light of Kautsky’s work. Kautsky is often accused of ‘economism’ for his insistence – following Engels – that the ‘economic base’ determines the cultural and political ‘superstructure’ ‘in the last instance’ – but with ‘relative autonomy’ during the interim.  Indeed, Marxism itself is often more broadly accused of ‘economism’ by comparison with ‘political socialism’.  Perhaps it is this important qualification (re: relative autonomy) which makes the Kautskyan position more nuanced than is commonly supposed.  Interestingly, Kautsky maintains the distinction between trade union and social democratic consciousness precisely because the struggle over wages and conditions alone is not enough to resolve capitalist contradictions.  Insofar as the State provides an obstacle, the precondition for transforming the economy is the political transformation of the State – and hence the economic and the political struggle are necessarily intertwined.   But undoubtedly Kautsky does underplay the importance of political, religious and cultural motives driving great struggles, and largely reduces those struggles to the context of the class struggle and evolving mode of production.

In a world today where the very idea of class struggle faces stigmatisation Kautsky is adamant that not only that the working class must struggle; but that the antagonisms between it and the bourgeoisie cannot be resolved except for revolution.  Antagonism is a recurring theme for Kautsky in the context of a presumption of class struggle: placing him in stark relief as against modern social democratic ideologies that seek social peace based upon social amelioration.  Again: here revolution for Kautsky did not mean ‘violence’, ‘chaos’, ‘insurrection’ – But simply qualitative change; the achievement of a new constitution one way of another (preferably through non-violent class struggle) with the consequence of a democratic state, and a democratic economy.  Kautsky allows for the possibility of gradualism in the social revolution as also supposed by the reformists, but stands firm on the qualitative nature of the change he is pursuing for the State and the economy.  And given his assumption of the State’s class nature, he sees political revolution (ie: the proletariat achieving a dominant position within the State) as the necessary prerequisite for such qualitative change.  Though we might suppose that the very process of the working class ‘achieving a dominant position in the State’ could also comprise a struggle lasting decades.  (or in a fashion contrary to Kautsky’s optimism, indeed we may now question whether we will ever reach that goal)

Modern ‘Third Ways’ dispute the need for ‘revolution’; indeed the bulk of third way theorists and practitioners today would consider the very idea ‘absurd.’  Indeed they largely abandon any radical redistributive agenda – arguing for social and economic ‘inclusion’ as the means of conciliation.  In practice this means amelioration for the most marginal and oppressed.  And indeed the corresponding policies matter a great deal to the excluded, the impoverished, and the marginalised themselves.

But the logic of capitalism is generally towards greater intensity of exploitation, and conciliation must also mean lasting peace (ie: an end to Imperialist war) if it is to be substantial.  Rather Kautsky looks towards a socialist future where there is universal conciliation and social peace – not on the basis of a compromise settlement – but on the grounds of the elimination of the antagonisms caused by exploitation, capitalist contradictions and Imperialism. 

But Kautsky’s confidence  for the future seems to have been misplaced in retrospect.  And Bernstein’s endeavour for partial conciliation based on universal citizenship, and social as well as liberal rights - could form a bulwark against violent ideologies.  (eg: fascism)  Yet citizenship does not end the class struggle.  Rather it establishes a framework and a foothold for that struggle – which can prevent an escalation into ever greater violence and repression – and hence the corruption of the very emancipatory ambitions which drive socialist movements. 

But this does not exclude great struggles between great social forces.  It has been argued that the corporatist structures that ultimately developed in Sweden are notable as they effectively transposed the class struggle to a different (institutional) level.  This has been theorised at length by Swedish sociologist, Walter Korpi in his ‘Power Resources’ approach. 

Here, though, Kautsky’s vision of such great struggles seems well adaptable to a Gramscian vision of ‘wars of position’ – waged over the course of decades through the various strongholds of civil society.  Although the promise of social peace has great appeal for many; and can provide the vehicle for reform agendas – albeit agendas which do not involve the definitive resolution of capitalist contradictions.  Provisional ‘settlements’, here, are important in the context of such organised class struggle spanning decades.  But in a world where the ‘teleological guarantees’ of the old Marxism appear discredited a ‘historic compromise’ which provides dignity and security, and environmental sustainability – would certainly be a step forwards.

But this brings us to the theme of imiseration and class bifurcation.  Here Bernstein appears to have been largely vindicated.  Exploitation – in the sense of surplus extraction - has become more and more intense – but technological and productive advances have created relative abundance even amidst gross and unnecessary waste.  The issue of environmental sustainability throws this state of affairs into question, but nonetheless there is now the scenario of relative prosperity even amidst more and more intense exploitation.  (although shifts in the world economic order may change this so far as the West is concerned) Yet class bifurcation does remain a  tendency; a tendency which operates alongside different tendencies towards social differentiation, and the re-emergence of ‘middle’ or ‘intermediatory’ classes in different forms as capitalism revolutionises and modernises itself constantly.

In retrospect the very idea of a Marxist theoretical orthodoxy suggests a position which is closed to adaptation in response to evolving circumstances.  Though Kautsky himself would probably point to the materialist conception of history: and argue that in that theoretical approach there already existed the framework and means necessary for adaptation.  Kautsky’s supposition of ever greater economic crises appeared to have been vindicated with the Great Depression; and yet he also failed to predict the rise of fascism – emerging from the same crises he had presumed would usher in socialism.  This raises the question:  was there a problem with the materialist conception of history, or was it merely the way it was applied by socialist theorists?   Various theorists (Steger, Berman etc) have argued that Kautsky’s materialist determinism was a recipe for passivity with its assumptions of ‘inevitable’ change.  As we have already considered, therefore, perhaps a position between radical determinism/materialism and radical voluntarism is most appropriate – recognising limits to the individual will; but holding out hope for human agency, and the motivating assumption that “yes, we can make a difference”  Or in other words, following Berman - ‘structure and agency condition each other’.

And yet if ‘orthodoxy’ means fidelity to enduring principles and concepts, Kautsky has left a defensible legacy in his own defence of the insights of Karl Marx.   Tendencies towards monopoly, intensified exploitation, alienation, crises of overproduction and the correspondingly desperate attempts to expand the world market, class struggle, falling rates of profit,– all remain with us today as by-products of modern capitalism.  And the ‘secret’ of surplus value – identified by Marx and popularised by Kautsky – still implies in its functioning a devastating moral critique of capitalism; while also comprising the means of capitalist systemic reproduction. 

If ‘revisionism’ takes not the form of necessary adjustment to changing circumstances, but rather abandoning crucial insights for the sake of ‘intellectual fashion’, then perhaps there is something to be said for ‘orthodoxy’.  Kautsky’s championing of enduring Marxist concepts and categories therefore remains a defensible legacy even today.  Though nonetheless it would be fair to suggest that the Marxists of Kautsky’s time could not possibly predict the future trajectories of modern capitalism’s development.  Some basic, vital systemic dynamics – as identified by Marx and promoted by Kautsky – remain. (as we have just observed above) But in other ways capitalism keeps evolving, adapting, mutating – surviving where Marxists assumed socialist transition was necessary, ‘inevitable’; for Kautsky “the only thing possible”..

Writing in opposition to “the violence of Austrian anarchists” (we observe, here, the philosophy of ‘the propaganda of the deed’, the policy of assassinations etc)  Kautsky once wrote;

“Social Democracy is a Party of human love, and it must always remain conscious of its character even in the midst of the most frenzied political fights”. (Kautksy in Steenson, p 80)

In his biography of Kautsky, Steenson depicts a man “very sensitive to human suffering”; the kind of man who fought for the rights of unwed mothers and their children and condemned the hypocrisy of those who separated them, institutionalising the children. Kautsky’s concern for human suffering was not merely abstract.  Steenson relates that this disposition of Kautsky’s was later to “cause him to baulk in the face of  the apparent necessity for revolutionary violence.”  (Steenson, p 80)

Kautsky’s position on violence was especially important given  the era of ‘War and Revolution’ which was to follow the publication of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’.

But that would involve a deeper assessment - beyond the frame of this short excerpt from my developing PhD thesis. It is enough for now to note a complexity in Kautsky that is often unrecognised in works condemning his “passivity” – stemming from his philosophical materialism. ‘Fatalism’ was sometimes a consequence of Kautsky’s interpretation of historical materialism.  But in practice no man did more than Kautsky to popularise Marxism in the pre-1917 period.  Rather than ‘writing Kautsky off’, perhaps it is better to let  him speak for himself.   And while we have not quoted him at length in this excerpt, it is to be hoped I have provided an accurate impression of his work, and that work’s relevance – especially those works of the pre-1917 period.   (though his later works were of equal historical imporantance…)


Kautsky, Karl  “The Class Struggle” (Erfurt Program),  The Norton Library, Toronto, 1971

Kautsky, Karl “On the Morrow of the Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903

Kautksy, Karl, “The Road to Power – Political Reflections on Growing into the Revolution,  Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1992

Kautsky, Karl  “The Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903


  1. Kautsky and Lenin posed different problems and offereddifferent answers to their problems. We can agree that the answers they offered are no longer plausible. The vanguard party (and then the authoritarian state) did not deliver communism. The workers' party and the democratic state havebarely tamed capitalism, let alone bring it to an end.

    But Lenin's question: "What is to be done?" remains very important. It still needs to be asked today.

    Kautsky's question poses more questions than it resolves. If his question can be paraphrased as: "How can we acquire power"?, then who are "we"? Was Kautsky right (and Michels's Iron Law of Oligarchy wrong) about democratic organisations being capable of democratising the context of power? What actually is 'power'?

    Kautsky has left a legacy of many interesting debatingpoints in his writings but they are of only historical interest. They have no immediate importance for politics today.

  2. I think lots of Kautsky's elaborations on Marx's works are still good to read today - and so far as Marx's ideas maintain relevance, KK's explanations of them retain relevance as well. For philosophical materialists KK's works also have relevance - although I personally disagree with pure philosophical materialism. Kautsky's critique of the Bolhseviks is also important - as the Russian Revolution ended badly - and Kautksy's 'liberal Marxism' might have had the effect that some came to Marxism through him who otherwise wouldn't have done so. KK was wrong that the revolution could not succeed in the sense of consolidating state power and developing the economy. But he was right that extreme measures - militarisation of labour, extensive Terror - were seen by so many as discrediting the socialist cause. It could also be argued that an ongoing strategy of dual power might have served the Bolsheviks better - so perhaps KK was right that dissolving the Constituent Assembly was also a mistake. Many people on the Left still look the 1917 just like the Bolsheviks looked to the Jacobins. So 'historical lessons' still matter for the radical Left.

    But Andrew is right that Leninism - and later Stalinism - did not deliver communism. And neither did the old Marxist orthodoxy. Lenin and Kautksy have insights - but alone neither of them are sufficient to guide us today.

    Personally I tend towards a liberal democratic socialism which borrows from the Marxist tradition. But if change is to come today it will probably do so on the grounds of a number of movements - and hopefully some platform for international co-ordination of strategy. Sweden shows that a lot is possible in the way of social democratic reform. But the bourgeois response to the Meidner wage earner funds shows how fierce bourgeois resistance can be even with saturation unionisation - and radical unions. Kautksy hoped for one stronghold to be secured after another - with gradual socialisation - and perhaps 'tipping points' for political and social revolution...

    Perhaps we need to think in terms of decades today as well... Gradually building a democratic mixed economy as a foothold for liberal democratic socialism... Rebuilding a mixed economy; Extending the welfare state and social wage; supporting and promoting co-operative and mutualist enterprise; resocialising infrastructure; promoting social investment in strategic industries (eg: mining); Strong unions promoting co-determination; And perhaps democratic collective capital mobilisation - something like Meidner - though perhaps more modest to begin - and perhaps aiming to include all citizens - not just workers.

    But without a way of getting there that is just a Utopia...So I am interested in how to get there as well. Tax reform and social wage extension is possible; Meaningful economic democracy would meet much more resistance.... So again - how DO we get there? Any ideas?