Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin in Light of the German Revolution

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What can socialists today learn from Karl Kautsky? To answer this question, we need to see how his theories held up during the German Revolution of 1918. This presentation, part of an ongoing debate with Eric Blanc, Charlie Post, Mike Taber, and other socialists, was given at the Socialism in Our Time conference on April 14 in New York City.

We just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the German Revolution of 1918. I wanted to show you the most iconic photograph of that revolution. In this picture, we see right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, pointing a machine gun at a workers’ demonstration. Behind them is a poster: “Socialization is here!” The government was promising the “socialization of the coal mines.” This juxtaposition shows the policy of the Social Democratic Party in a nutshell: Massacring workers while promising them socialism. Who was the head of the government’s “socialization commission,” carrying out this deception? Karl Kautsky.

The German revolution was fought out between three wings of the old SPD: The right wing around Friedrich Ebert represented the old power: the capitalists, the bureaucracy, the aristocratic officers. The left wing around Rosa Luxemburg, which became the Communist Party, represented the new power: the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. The center around Kautsky was attempting to come up with models to reconcile both sides, combining a parliament with the councils, even as the civil war was in full swing.

You might be interested in 100 Years Ago in Berlin: German Revolutionaries Step on the Grass // Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany // The Bitter Lesson of a Defeat

The only experimental criteria for any revolutionary theory is an actual revolution. And in the German revolution, we can say that Karl Kautsky was ultimately a useful idiot for the counterrevolutionary bourgeois government, aiding their “socialization” deception. What strategic decisions led Kautsky to this position?

I

In 1910, a debate took place within the SPD about strategy. Kautsky, basing himself on the military theoretician Hans Dellbrück, proposed to differentiate between a “strategy of attrition” (Ermattung) and a “strategy of overthrow” (Niederwerfung).

At the time, in 1910, hundreds of thousands of workers were demonstrating for voting rights in Prussia. Rosa Luxemburg demanded that the SPD agitate for a general strike. Kautsky opposed this idea – in fact, he prevented Luxemburg from arguing for a general strike in SPD publications. Kautsky instead advocated focusing on the next elections, less than two years away.

Luxemburg, it is important to emphasize, was in no way against socialist electoral work – in fact, her first job in Germany was as an election campaigner among Polish workers in Silesia. She also did not deny that a general strike could be defeated, and as a result the SPD could be prohibited. But for Luxemburg, this was no reason to hold back the class struggle. She accused Kautsky of “Nothing-but-Parlamentarism.”

Kautsky did not reject the idea of a revolutionary struggle for power in principle, but he argued that the party was in a non-revolutionary situation. According to Kautsky, this demanded a “strategy of attrition.” Only a revolutionary situation would demand a “strategy of overthrow.” Kautsky believed that a socialist party first needed a majority in parliament as a mandate to struggle for power. Some people attempt to divide between a “good Kautsky” before 1910 and a “bad Kautsky” after that, but as Lenin argued at length, Kautsky even in his most revolutionary phase showed a “superstitious deference” to the capitalist state.

In a certain sense, Kautsky was vindicated: In the 1912 elections, the SPD won more than four million votes, becoming the largest party in parliament with 110 deputies. But in a more important sense, Kautsky’s strategy had catastrophic results. The huge bastion in parliament did not accomplish much besides unanimously voting in support of the imperialist war on August 4, 1914. Here, the strength of the SPD as the single party of the entire workers’ movement, uniting revolutionary and reformist currents, became an obstacle: the party bureaucracy was effectively able to contain any opposition to the war.

Get your copy of the latest issue of Left Voice magazine, which includes an article by Matías Maiello: “Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines.”

So what can we say about Kautsky’s ideas regarding “attrition” and “overthrow”? Until his death in exile in 1938, Kautsky never felt the moment for an “overthrow” had arrived: not in 1933 when the German capitalists transferred power to the Nazis, who then smashed the workers’ movement; not even in 1918, when a revolution took place – even then, Kautsky focussed on negotiating with the capitalists and their state.

We can also ask: Was the SPD actually prepared for an “overthrow”? Had the party center, for example, made the necessary preparations for a confrontation with the state?There was a material force opposed to the SPD making any attempt at an “overthrow.” This was the enormous bureaucracy of the trade unions. In 1906, the SPD had consented that it would not call a general strike without the consent of the trade union leaders. The bureaucrats had veto power over any action.

There is also a deeper problem with Kautsky’s theory: Can Marxists diagnose a “revolutionary situation” or a “non-revolutionary situation” like a meteorologist determines whether it is raining or not? As Luxemburg argued, the character of a situation depends to a large degree on whether a mass workers’ party like the SPD is pushing for a general strike or waiting for the next election. And as Trotsky analyzed, revolutionary situations are based on the reciprocal effects of objective and subjective factors. They do not simply fall from the sky. For this reason, capitalism is full of intermediate situations.

II

What is the meaning of the Kautsky debate today? Why, after 80 years, is Kautsky returning from obscurity?

We all remember the experience of the Greek left party SYRIZA. It won the elections in January 2015 on an anti-austerity platform – but within half a year, it ignored the massive OXI vote of the Greek people and began to implement the most brutal austerity measures, including wage cuts, evictions and repression. Many people – I’m thinking of Jacobin particularly – praised SYRIZA at the time, and we haven’t seen much in terms of a balance sheet since then. Most former SYRIZA supporters attributed the betrayal to a lack of personal courage by Alexis Tsipras.

I think Pablo Iglesias, head of the left party Podemos in the Spanish state, had a more profound analysis. He defended Tsipras’ record, saying:

If we took tough measures from the government, we would suddenly have a good part of the army, the police apparatus, all the media and everything against us, absolutely everything. And in a parliamentary system, in which you need to ensure an absolute majority, it’s very difficult. … To begin with, you need to reach an agreement with the Socialist Party.

Here Iglesias is pointing to the real strategic alternatives: If a party wants to oppose austerity, either they need to prepare – in a political, organizational, material, ideological sense – for a confrontation with all the institutions of capitalist society, or, if they want to avoid this kind of confrontation, they need to seek compromises with the parties of the bourgeoisie. There is no middle ground here.

Podemos has so far avoided this kind of decision because they have not been able to enter a national government. But they are in government in Madrid and Barcelona, where they are also responsible for implementing austerity and enforcing racist laws. Furthermore, since they have no intention of a confrontation with “absolutely everything,” they will act no differently than Tsipras if they reach power, regardless of whether Iglesias’ has more personal courage than his Greek colleague.

What does this mean for the U.S.? The last two years have seen the explosive growth of the DSA, and the DSA leadership talks about an “inside / outside” strategy towards the Democratic Party, perhaps leading to a “dirty break.” But in practice, we’ve seen the DSA endorsing candidates over whom they have no control. Any independent political work has not materialized.

In practice, the DSA leadership has a strategy of supporting left-wing Democrats who refer to themselves as socialists, but they don’t want to say that openly. The socialist movement in the US has, for 150 years, consistently opposed both parties of capital. Today it might be difficult to attract radicalizing youth by saying “we’re all joining the Dems!” It is better to conjure up a vision: “One day, in the distant future, when the right moment comes, we will break with the Dems and have a revolution.”

But as Kautsky’s legacy shows, that moment never comes. No one has developed a method from switching from the “strategy of attrition” to the “strategy of overthrow.”

Instead, the very idea of a revolutionary “overthrow” becomes a semi-religious incantation, invoked every Sunday, after a week full of reformist practice. As Trotsky explained, regarding England:

heroic promises to put up lightning resistance in the event the Conservatives should ‘dare’ and so forth are not worth a rotten egg. One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat. To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organizationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and of its turning at a certain stage into a civil war. The political education of the working class and the selection of its leading personnel must be adjusted to such a perspective. The illusions of compromise must be fought day in and day out.

Lenin and Luxemburg shared a fundamental strategic concept: The need for a revolutionary party to push the class struggle forward, uniting the proletariat’s most conscious elements to give leadership to the masses. Lenin’s fundamental innovation was to recognize the material forces at work. The reformist tendency was based on the massive bureaucracies of the trade unions and workers’ parties. The revolutionary tendency required its own material base: revolutionary factions in the mass organizations.

III

I would like to close with some recent contributions to the debate about Kautsky. Eric Blanc has argued that “only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection.” This is patently untrue, and I’m sure Eric doesn’t need me to remind him of the endless counter-examples of the last 150 years. I’ll just mention one: In Berlin, in the last elections in Weimar Germany, the Communist Party won 38 percent of votes.

Blanc further argues that workers’ councils and other Soviet-type bodies have never appeared in capitalist countries with a parliamentary regime. Again, this is clearly not accurate. Let’s take the Cordones Industriales in Chile in the early 1970s, which could have formed an alternative to the Allende government that was leading the working class to a bloody defeat. In every struggle, we see embryonic forms of self-organization. Let’s just look at the Yellow Vests in France – does a parliamentary regime really preclude any council-like formations?

Blanc references the Finnish Revolution of 1917-18. A party led by Kautskyists, the SDP, did in fact win an absolute majority in parliament and then seize political power. I hope to translate a pamphlet I wrote about Finnland soon. Just to summarize: Yes, the social democratic party was able to win a majority – because the Finnish bourgeoisie was totally unaccustomed to rule. It would be naive to assume a modern bourgeoisie would allow socialists to win power democratically. The Finnish Kautskyists could not comprehend why the capitalists refused to accept the election results and instead sabotaged the SDP government – a government which had no intention of abolishing capitalism!

It was only when the Finnish bourgeoisie opened a civil war that the Kautskyists saw themselves “forced” to seize power. Since they had spent decades preparing for a peaceful, parliamentary transition to socialism, they were absolutely terrible at exercising revolutionary power. They couldn’t effectively wage a war against the bourgeoisie if they were convinced that the goal of the struggle could be some kind of class compromise. You can’t fight to win if your theory says it’s historically impossible for the proletariat to rule.

To close, I also want to defend Kautsky somewhat. Kautsky was in favor of an independent socialist workers’ movement fighting for a majority in parliament. The neo-Kautskyists in the US, without exception, are supporting candidates of the Democratic Party of Capital. This is one of two parties of U.S. imperialism, and just recently in the crisis in Venezuela, we’ve seen even how the so-called “socialist” left of the Democratic Party has supported the imperialist offensive. This is sub-Kautskyan. This is 150 years old, when workers still organized together with the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie.

One German historian described Kautsky’s policy as “attentism.” This is a French term which describes the opposite as activism, a policy of patient waiting. Kautsky confirmed this in 1909:

The socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.

Kautsky’s legacy teaches us: A workers’ party cannot instigate a revolution. But it certainly needs to prepare for it.

Many people believe that it is impossible to build a socialist party independent of all wings of the bourgeoisie. But the Workers’ Left Front in Argentina shows that a revolutionary socialist formation can reach millions of working people.

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.