An Introduction to the Kautsky Debate

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All of a sudden, socialists in the U.S. have started talking about Karl Kautsky. Why? We provide an overview of the debate for comrades who haven’t been following it.

Kautsky's Obituary in the New York Times.

At two recent socialist conferences in New York and Chicago, I overheard comrades wondering what was going on in the Kautsky Debate. Why is everyone talking about Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) all of a sudden? I have been a historian of the socialist movement in Germany for over a decade, and I never imagined that Kautsky would experience a revival. Kautsky’s writing is generally unknown—in Germany, in his native Austria, and particularly in the English-speaking world. His work is most notable for being quoted in polemics by Lenin and Trotsky.

The debate that has taken place in the last six months reflects dramatic shifts in the U.S. socialist movement. For comrades who are wondering why so much ink is being spilled, we provide a short overview:

Karl Kautsky

First: Who was Karl Kautsky? Kautsky was the chief theoretician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the largest party in the Second International. After the deaths of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Kautsky’s theoretical journal “Die Neue Zeit” became so influential that it won him the moniker the “Pope of Marxism.”

There were three wings within the SPD. The reformist or “revisionist” wing, which started developing in the 1890s and was represented by Eduard Bernstein, was in favor of transforming capitalism via parliamentary reforms. The left wing, represented by Rosa Luxemburg and others, stuck to the party’s Marxist roots: They wanted a party that would push workers’ struggles forward toward revolution.

The third wing, Kautsky’s “Marxist Center,” tried to reconcile these two irreconcilable positions in the name of party unity. Kautsky’s vision of revolution, as explained in his book “The Road to Power,” postulated that a socialist party would first need to win a majority in parliament, as a mandate for radical changes. In opposition to Luxemburg, Kautsky saw revolutions as objective phenomena that socialists should patiently wait for, rather than actively preparing for it.

War and Revolution

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the SPD effectively split. The right wing, now in control of the party, supported the imperialist war. The left wing, driven underground, tried to organize anti-war resistance. Kautsky, representing the center, essentially threw up his hands and said that he was against the war but socialists could do nothing to stop it.

This was proven untrue just four years later, when a revolution toppled the German Kaiser. In the ensuing revolutionary turbulence, the right-wing social democrats tried to save capitalism, while the left attempted to complete the socialist revolution. In the 1918-19 revolution, Kautsky again tried to find a “middle ground”—and ended up being nothing more than the useful idiot of the right.

Kautsky spent the rest of his life attacking the successful socialist revolution in Russia with ever-increasing spite. With fascism on the rise, Kautsky’s hope that the SPD might steadily accumulate power (as it did in its pre-war days) proved unfounded. He died in exile in 1938 and was generally forgotten.

The strategic debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky is presented by Matías Maiello in the current issue of Left Voice magazine:

Eric Blanc

The current Kautsky Debate in the U.S. got rolling when the young historian Eric Blanc published a piece in Jacobin. Blanc comes from a Trotskyist background, first as a member of Socialist Organizer and then the International Socialist Organization, but he has recently decamped for the Democratic Socialists of America and the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Blanc argues that revolutionary politics has never won a majority in a developed capitalist country with a parliamentary system. Therefore, socialists must win a parliamentary majority before socialist transformation can be put on the agenda. Blanc has been calling for socialists to join the Democrats—comforting themselves that they will someday carry out a “dirty break” from the party.

But what does all this have to do with Kautsky? Kautsky, for all his weaknesses, was uncompromising about the need for an independent party  of the working class—he specifically argued that workers in the U.S. should form their own party, instead of joining the Democrats or the Republicans.

The real accord between Kautsky and Blanc lies in their shared commitment to a reformist politics in the here and now, which they promise will turn into a politics of radical transformation sometime in the distant future. Marxists call this kind of politics “centrism” (named after Kautsky’s “Marxist Center” in the old SPD), which is “revolutionary in words, but reformist in deeds.”

Blanc’s piece has received a number of rebuttals.

Finland and Chile

Blanc cites the Finnish Revolution as a model for his theory  of revolution. In 1917, the Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP) won a majority in parliament, and this was the prelude to a socialist revolution. However, the SDP’s reformist policy (patiently waiting for revolution, without preparing it) led the revolution to defeat. You don’t have to take our word for it: Many SDP leaders themselves determined that reformism had failed, and became communists. Inexplicably, their failure is supposed to be a model for socialists today.

Jacobin Magazine also praises another bloody defeat: that of the reformist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. But again, Allende’s defeat demonstrates that an electoral reformist strategy does not prepare socialists for a revolutionary struggle against a the bourgeois state. Nathan Moore has shown how the experience of Chile makes Leninism more relevant than ever.

Lars Lih

Lars Lih has been arguing for more than a decade that Kautsky’s centrist politics and Lenin’s revolutionary politics were more or less identical. This has been his theme since he published his book: “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context.” Lih reiterated the argument recently in an article for Jacobin. (He has also written many similar articles for the British newspaper the “Weekly Worker”.)

As Christopher Baum points out in Left Voice, however, this argument willfully ignores the ruptures in Lenin’s thought. Particularly on the question of the state, Lenin changed his view over the course of the First World War, rejecting Kautsky’s reformist ideas. Jim Creegan has made the same argument forcefully in an article for the “Weekly Worker.”

It is interesting to note that Blanc and Lih defend almost exactly opposite positions: Blanc defends Kautsky on the grounds that he was opposed to Lenin; Lih defends Kautsky on the grounds that he agreed with Lenin. Political opportunism is always accompanied by muddled theoritizations. Lih presents himself as an apolitical academic, but he has actually, like Blanc, had a political career as a “socialist” in the Democratic Party. This is where he and Blanc agree; as Louis Proyect convincingly argues, they both subordinate theory and history to their opportunistic political ends.

Imperialism

In the only contribution so far from the Global South, Matías Maiello—who writes for the sister site of Left Voice in Argentina, La Izquierda Diario—addresses the question of the relationship between imperialism and social democratic reformism. It was ultimately the SPD’s capitulation to German imperialism that led to its (and Kautsky’s) historic betrayal. It is therefore essential for socialists—especially in the U.S., the most destructive imperialist power in history—to place  anti-imperialism at the center of their theoretical and political work.

This led to a debate with Charlie Post on Left Voice about the concept of the “labor aristocracy.” Lenin used this term to refer to the top layer of the proletariat in the imperialist countries, which can often be ‘bribed” into complacency with a share of the spoils from imperialist plunder. Lenin argues that such bribes form the material basis for reformism. Charlie Post countered that there was no empirical evidence for the existence of a “labor aristocracy,” and that reformism is the natural product of working-class struggle under capitalism. Maiello replied that the “bribes” provided to the labor aristocracy encompass far more than higher wages.

Further Reading

We hope we have provided some help for readers seeking to understand the Kautsky Debate. There are almost certainly important contributions that we are missing. Please let us know on social media or by contacting us here.

The important thing to remember is that the Kautsky Debate is not really about Kautsky. It is just a theoretical proxy for the big debate taking place within the U.S. left: Should socialists join the Democratic Party of U.S. imperialism?

It would be much easier, of course, if today’s reformists—centered around Jacobin Magazine—would call themselves reformists. But reformism has always been theoretically obscure. The good thing is that it is precisely by studying the history of the socialist movement that we will understand what kind of strategy we need to beat capitalism.

The best contributions to the Kautsky Debate came from classical Marxists. We would recommend Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,” as well as Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism” and Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike.”

Additional Pieces

Update on July 29: Here are some additional contributions to the Kautsky Debate that were missing from our original list.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and will be published in English by Pluto Press in October 2019. He is on the autism spectrum.