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Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines

Karl Kautsky argued that one could switch from a “strategy of attrition” to a “strategy of overthrow” as the situation changed. In this piece, one of the authors of “Socialist Strategy and Military Art” argues that these two strategies are irreconcilable.

Matías Maiello

June 2, 2019
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In more than one sense, one cannot understand the revolutionary Marxism of the 20th century without studying strategy. It is no coincidence that Carl Schmitt states that Lenin’s notebooks on Clausewitz are “one of the greatest documents in world history and the history of ideas”; or that, according to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the “sin” of all revolutionary Marxism is having been influenced to a great extent by Clausewitz.

Party of Reform or Revolutionary Party

To start with, I would like to quote a statement from the leader of Podemos of the Spanish State, Pablo Iglesias, which I think is illustrative in this discussion. When asked whether the Greek Syriza coalition should have taken “tough” measures against the Troika instead of ultimately applying the austerity measures that it had said it would fight against, Iglesias responded,

The problem is that it has not been proved that someone can pose such a challenge from a state. …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.1

This reflection is interesting because it clearly marks two strategic paths. You can adhere to the framework of the existing institutions, act within their limits and combine this with “left” rhetoric, or you can transcend the limits of the existing institutions, attack capitalist interests and confront the bourgeois state, in which case you would, in fact, need to prepare to face a whole set of material forces that will oppose you.

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In the first case, we could say that there is no strategy in the strict sense of the word, if it is understood—as in Clausewitz—as the use of partial tactical battles to break the enemy’s will or, as Trotsky put it, the art of seizing power. What we have instead is the administration, with “left-wing” discourse, in the interests of capital.

This ultimately leads to policies like those of Syriza, which ended up applying austerity measures, or those of Podemos, which is not in power but participates in local governments in Madrid and Barcelona, fully integrated into the regime, as shown by its response to the Catalan independence process. Not to mention some current debates in Argentina, like the one regarding the Kirchnerists, who promote the unity of “all who oppose Macri” in 2019, a strategy that comes down to choosing one bourgeois sector over another.

The Work of Strategy

Now, if we choose the path of accepting a confrontation with the capitalist class, it is clear that what we need is a material force (and a “moral” force, as posited by Clausewitz). We then arrive at a second fundamental question: What kind of force must be built for those battles, and how can it be done? This is a strategic task that obviously does not start on the day of “storming the Winter Palace.”

This “work of strategy” poses a whole set of problems in itself. There is a very illustrative quote by Clausewitz in this respect: “In strategy everything is very simple, but not on that account very easy.” This means that once the strategic course has been defined, when you go from theory to reality, a certain friction appears, because the sphere of action is one of uncertainty, chance and fear.

Furthermore, the problems posed by the work of revolutionary strategy are even broader than those of military strategy. While the art of war in its strict sense, as defined by Clausewitz, refers only to the use of forces that have already been formed, such as the army, in revolutionary strategy there are no “given means”: The leadership must earn its right to lead, the party must be built and its relationship with the mass movement needs to be constructed. That is to say, the work of strategy involves all stages of constructing a revolutionary force.

“Strategy of Attrition” and “Strategy of Overthrow”

So how can a revolutionary force be formed in this framework? There was a very important discussion that took place in Germany during the 1920s: the debate on the “strategy of attrition” (“Ermattung”) and the “strategy of overthrow” (“Niederwerfung”).

These terms were introduced into the debate by Karl Kautsky, a theoretician of the Second International. He adopted them in a sui generis form from Hans Delbrück, who, based on a series of observations made by Clausewitz for the revision of his own work, developed a conception according to which there are two poles in the art of strategy: the “strategy of attrition,” in which the goal is to conquer a limited territory at the borders, and the “strategy of overthrow,” in which the goal is to vanquish the enemy.

Why did Kautsky adopt these concepts? To construct his argument against Rosa Luxemburg. In 1910, there were significant workers’ struggles and mass mobilizations in Germany for democratic demands. Luxemburg said it was necessary to call for a general strike. Kautsky opposed this idea, maintaining that this would endanger the Social Democratic organization (which at that time had about 700,000 party members, 2 million members in its unions and the support of 3 million voters) and that what needed to be done was to ensure that it did well in the upcoming elections.

Hence, what was needed in Kautsky’s view was a “strategy of attrition.” What did he mean by this?

Modern military science distinguishes between two kinds of strategy: the strategy of overthrow and the strategy of attrition. The former draws its forces rapidly together in order to go to meet the enemy and to deal decisive blows. … In the attrition strategy, the commander-in-chief initially avoids any decisive battle; he aims to keep the opposing army on the move by all sorts of maneuvers, without giving it the opportunity of raising the morale of its troops by gaining victories.2

Luxemburg replied that his developments on the “strategy of attrition” were the basis for an orientation consisting of “nothing but parliamentarism.” Although this later proved to be true, at the time it was not exactly what Kautsky was asserting. He continued to argue that it was necessary to switch to a “strategy of overthrow” at the right time. As for Luxemburg, she was not an antiparliamentarian; she argued, rather, that the Social Democratic Party needed to play a leading role in developing the most progressive tendencies in class struggle at that time and not simply await the elections.

The Class, the Party and the Leadership

This brings us to one of the fundamental problems with Kautsky’s conception of two strategies. The explanation of Kautsky’s approach provided by Lars Lih, an American Marxist academic, is useful in illustrating this point. According to Lih,

Kautsky explained that “attrition” (the standard SPD activity of energetic socialist enlightenment and organisation) was appropriate to a normal, non-revolutionary situation, whereas “overthrow” (mass political strikes and other non-parliamentary means of pressure) was appropriate to a genuinely revolutionary situation.3

Now, is it possible to avoid the main battles during the entire previous stage, as Kautsky proposed, and then suddenly begin a resolute struggle when the situation becomes revolutionary? This idea is not applicable in reality, and, not coincidentally, the right time for the “strategy of overthrow,” in Kautsky’s assessment, never came.

Why? Because reality is much more complex. First of all, because there are not only clearly defined “nonrevolutionary” and “revolutionary” situations; there are also counterrevolutionary situations, and reality is full of transitional situations, a spectrum of intermediate, hybrid situations that are not clearly defined.

Clausewitz faced a similar problem in the sphere of military theory. According to him, war was a chameleon: It included a range of conflicts, from the Napoleonic wars, which he tended to assimilate to the category of “absolute war,” to wars that did not transcend the “armed observation” of the enemy. Given this entire range of wars, how can they be addressed in their complexity?

According to the Prussian general, war may be a chameleon, but behind this heterogeneity there are always three elements in every war (which he referred to as the “trinity”): the elemental impulse or hatred, which he attributes to the people; the calculation of probabilities, which he attributes to the generals and the army; and politics, which he attributes to the government.

From the point of view of Marxism, a very productive analogy can be established between this idea—although with many significant differences—and the interaction between the class, the party and the leadership. From this point of view, a certain situation for an existing revolutionary force is not an external relationship to be described; rather, its action (or inaction) is an integral part of the situation itself to the extent of its forces.

The Active Role of the Revolutionary Party

In this regard, there is a significant convergence between Lenin and Luxemburg. What was Luxemburg’s argument against Kautsky in 1910? That there was a great difference between, on the one hand, waiting for the elections and, on the other, the Social Democratic Party’s raising the issue of a general strike and promoting it by striving to develop the most progressive elements of class struggle. This was so first because if the Social Democratic Party, which was very large, had promoted the revolutionary process by linking the workers’ struggles with the movement that questioned the political regime, the situation as a whole would have changed. And second, the character of the party itself would change, depending on whether it promoted strikes. If it let the situation pass, it would become less revolutionary, even if the strategic choice in theory continued to be the construction of a revolutionary organization.

What was Luxemburg’s answer to Kautsky’s claim that there was no need to push for a general strike because the situation was not revolutionary? That his response was abstract, because one cannot consider whether the revolutionary elements of the situation are advancing without considering the action of the Social Democracy itself. And she was right. The elections finally came in 1912, and the Social Democratic Party did spectacularly well. It received the most votes, more than twice as many as the second-placed party, and it gained 110 seats (fewer than the number it would have gained if the distribution had been proportional). But shortly afterward, World War I broke out, and the enormous strength that the Social Democratic Party had gained in Parliament was of no use, because the party had shifted its center of gravity away from class struggle.

In 1914 the Social Democratic leadership betrayed the working class and voted for the war credits. But in addition, the party was politically unarmed to confront the catastrophic situation of war. This was the result, as Luxemburg maintained, of its development outside the main battles of class struggle. It also demonstrated the impossibility of that sudden shift from the “strategy of attrition” to the “strategy of overthrow” posited by Kautsky years before.

Lenin’s Fundamental Innovation

There is also a significant difference between the theories of Lenin and Luxemburg. The political struggle expressed in the Kautsky-Luxemburg debate was not simply a political-ideological dispute like those that had previously taken place in the revolutionary movement, such as the one between Marx and Engels on one hand and Bakunin and the anarchists of the First International on the other. It was also a struggle of material forces: Enormous political and trade union bureaucracies had arisen in the mass movement, which from that point would become an unavoidable element in the history of the workers’ movement.

The relationship was explicit: Kautsky opposed Luxemburg’s view because he wanted to avoid provoking the Social Democratic union bureaucracy. Why? Because after 1906, the union bureaucracy had succeeded in prohibiting the party from calling for a general strike without the unions’ consent. This was not the government but the union leaders themselves. Luxemburg’s position thus led to a clear confrontation with them. But the Social Democratic Party had also developed a political bureaucracy that had no interest in developing class struggle because this would have affected its good relations with the liberal-bourgeois opposition and their possible collaboration in Parliament.

In this respect, Lenin would provide a fundamental innovation. Luxemburg and Lenin agreed that the purpose of a revolutionary party was to develop the most progressive elements of class struggle at a given time, but Lenin added another factor to this: To do this, there must be revolutionary factions within the mass organizations. Lenin would conclude that a material force of struggle is indispensable against not only the state but also the bureaucracies of the mass organizations (such as unions and political and social organizations) as a condition to effectively develop the most progressive tendencies in the situation.

Two Opposing Strategies

The strategies of attrition and overthrow are not two complementary strategies that one should shift between when the situation changes. Rather, they are two alternative strategies that clash with each other as the class struggle develops. This not only applies to the case of the German Social Democrats, but this debate is a constant, in different ways, to this day.

Among many other examples, we can see it in Chile in the 1970s with Popular Unity and in Spain the 1930s with the Popular Front, as well as in the revolutionary situation in France during the same period. Right now, we see it on a small scale in Greece, where Syriza’s government came to power with the stated objective of confronting austerity measures and ended up applying them, even though 60% of the population declared its support for resistance. This is nothing more than a new chapter that illustrates where the strategic options of reform lead us in times of crisis.

After these defeats, the explanation we constantly hear is that “the masses didn’t fight,” “they didn’t resist enough,” when in reality situations are created not only by the action of the masses, but also by that of their parties and leaderships, which, as conflicts intensify, become increasingly decisive.

Periods of catastrophe, crises and wars are a distinctive mark of capitalism. Currently, the military situation in Syria has had many global consequences. Sooner or later, crises break out, and we have quite a lot of experience with this in Argentina, having gone through the crises of 1989 and 2001, to name just two decisive moments in recent history. Situations change, and at a certain time the conflict intensifies. The problem is whether, by that time, a force has been built that can provide a revolutionary alternative. And this is determined, to a large extent, much earlier.


1. “Fort Apache – ¿Qué pasa con Grecia?,” HispanTV: Nexo Latino, our translation, October 8, 2016.

2. Karl Kautsky, Select Political Writings, ed. and trans. Patrick Goode, (London: MacMillan, 1983), 54.

3. Lars T. Lih, “‘The New Era of War and Revolution’: Lenin, Kautsky, Hegel and the Outbreak of World War I,” in Cataclysm 1914: The First World War and the Making of Modern World Politics, ed. Alexander Anievas (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 376.

This article is an edited version of a presentation Matías Maiello gave at a course at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) on the sociology of war on March 21, 2018. It was first published in Ideas de Izquierda (Buenos Aires), no. 42.

Translation: Marisela Trevin

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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