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Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky

The ongoing debate about the legacy of Karl Kautsky has touched on many issues of socialist strategy today. In this article, originally published in the magazine Ideas de Izquierda from Argentina, the author focuses on a central question: imperialism.

Matías Maiello

May 25, 2019
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Kautsky in New York. Graphic: Juan Atacho

The ideological climate around the world is changing. For years there has been a progressive polarization. The elements of “organic crisis” are creating new forms of thought. One of the epicenters of this change is in the heart of imperialism, the United States. On the right, there is Trumpism. On the left, there is what The Economist has called “millennial socialism,” with more than half of young people between 18 and 29 having a positive view of the word “socialism.”

A new generation of young people is searching for alternatives to capitalism. But their representatives, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have a vision of “socialism” that does not go beyond plans for progressive tax reform or the “Green New Deal,” with which they want to peacefully humanize a capitalism in decline.

New tendencies toward political activism have so far been expressed through the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has rapidly grown to 50,000 members. But after Sanders began his campaign for president, the majority of the DSA leadership prepared to mobilize for Bernie 2020, acting “inside and outside,” as they put it, one of the most important and oldest bourgeois parties in the world, the Democratic Party.

In this context there is an unusual phenomenon within the debate on socialist strategy: a renewed interest in the figure of Karl Kautsky and the vision of re-creating a “pre-1914 social democracy.” It is no coincidence that this is coming from a country like the United States, where that tradition historically remained marginal. Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher of Jacobin magazine, has proposed returning to the social democracy before the First World War.

We argued against this idea in the book Estrategia Socialista y Arte Militar (Socialist Strategy and Military Art, by Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, published 2018 in Buenos Aires, currently being translated into English). Some ideas from this book were published in an article in the latest issue of Left Voice magazine, “Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines.”

In the ongoing debate, Vivek Chibber, James Muldoon and Eric Blanc have taken Kautsky as a model. Critical responses have come from Charlie Post, Louis Proyect, Mike Taber, Nathaniel Flakin, Nathan Moore and others.

Here we want to take up some aspects of the debate regarding the relationship between strategy and program, and particularly the question of anti-imperialism as a fundamental problem.

Strategy: De Te Fabula Narratur (About You the Story Is Told)

Among Kautsky’s defenders, Eric Blanc is one of the most determined. His thesis is that Kautsky’s theory serves as a foundation for the strategy of Jacobin’s editors, the “inside-outside” strategy toward the Democratic Party, which he summarizes as follows:

Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other newly elected radicals have raised working people’s expectations and changed national politics. Socialists should participate in this electoral upsurge to promote mass movements and to organize hundreds of thousands of people into independent working-class organizations.

The expectations of broad sectors are indeed rising, which is more than promising. But it is contradictory to propose that these young workers raise money and campaign for candidates who run for one of the main capitalist parties of the planet—with the supposed goal of developing an independent organization of the working class. It really is. To do justice to Kautsky, as Nathaniel Flakin points out, it must be said that he did not propose supporting candidates of bourgeois parties. At the very least, he recognized the need for the working class to have its own parties and candidates.

Beyond this, it is interesting to examine the balance sheet that Blanc draws up about Kautsky, when he points out the following:

What caused the SPD’s degeneration was not a theoretical mistake, but the unexpected rise of a caste of party and union bureaucrats. … Kautsky’s greatest pre-war political limitation was that he, like all other Marxists of the era, failed to fully predict, or prepare for, the rise of this bureaucracy. As was the case with Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, he incorrectly assumed that an upsurge in class struggle would either sweep the “opportunist leaders” aside or force them to return to a class struggle stance.

Although his assertion about Luxemburg and Lenin is inaccurate (see the article by Matías Maiello in the latest issue of Left Voice magazine), Blanc is right to draw attention to the role of the bureaucracy in the degeneration of the SPD. But if Kautsky could not oppose the political and trade union bureaucracy inside a young workers’ party, why does Blanc feel so confident that he can outwit the political (and trade union) bureaucracy of one of the world’s oldest bourgeois parties? How does he intend to convince it that certain candidates are Democrats when in fact they “actually” intend to build an independent workers’ party?

Blanc could answer that they plan to counter these pressures by “promoting mass movements,” but he has just told us that—supposedly—Luxemburg and Lenin had “incorrectly assumed that an upsurge in class struggle” would, by itself, remove those obstacles. Moreover, if there is one thing with which the Democratic Party has a lot of experience, it is co-opting sectors of the left that emerge from social movements, as it did with the CIO trade union federation in the 1930s, or with the immigrant rights movement of the 2000s.

The development of a well-oiled apparatus of co-option and coercion—what Gramsci described using the concept of the “integral state”—especially by the imperialist states, their regimes and their parties as a form of neutralizing left-wing movements, might have been a novelty for Kautsky, Lenin or Luxemburg at the beginning of the 20th century. For us, living in the 21st century, it is well established.

Program: That Thing Called Imperialism

The whole strategic hypothesis of “inside outside” seems based on the condition that the concrete content of socialism’s political program is relegated to a secondary question. That is, answering the question of “how” is detached from the question of “what” we are trying to conquer. Here we want to deal with one aspect of program that is of key importance.

In his contribution, Blanc correctly highlights the emergence of the (political and trade union) bureaucracy as a fundamental element in the degeneration of German social democracy. But this argument stops short of investigating the material bases of the strength of those bureaucracies. In fact, there is an element that has been peculiarly undervalued in this entire debate, namely the imperialist character of the state and the “democracy” with which Kautsky attempted to reconcile the socialist movement.

The profits from plundering colonies had resulted in a growth of per capita income. Growth was very strong until 1902, then somewhat slower, accompanied by the expansion of social legislation in the epoch of Bismarck (including pensions, insurance for sickness, insurance for workplace accidents, etc.), which some believe was a precursor of the so-called “welfare state.” This was the context of the continuous growth of the trade unions and the SPD, creating a strong pressure on the party to integrate itself into the regime.

Lenin later conceptualized this phenomenon by pointing out how the massive superprofits of imperialist capital, far superior to those obtained by squeezing its own working class, make it possible to corrupt the workers’ leaders and co-opt the upper layer of the working class in the central countries, either directly or indirectly, openly or covertly. Since then, imperialism has undergone many transformations, but without a doubt this mechanism continues to function.

If one wants to find the secret of the Democratic Party’s incredible ability to co-opt progressive mass movements, the answer is undoubtedly to be found here: It is one of the two pillars of the greatest imperialist power on earth for the last three quarters of a century.

In debates like this one, the problem of imperialism seems pushed into the background. It is easy to remember the old debates about Obama. Just 10 years ago, for example, David Harvey, at a conference in Buenos Aires (in Spanish), informed us that Obama could be pressured to make a New Deal and cut the military budget. This was the same president who earned the nickname “Lord of the Drones” with wars and interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, and is also remembered in Latin America for supporting coups in Honduras and Paraguay.

Kautsky’s Legacy

When the SPD’s members of parliament voted in favor of war credits so that the German state could participate in the imperialist massacre of 1914, this marked a turning point in the history of the international workers’ movement. But the pressure to adapt to German imperialism had developed during the entire previous stage.

An important turning point was the elections of 1907, when all parties of the regime concentrated their election campaigns on defending German imperialism against the “danger” of social democracy. Despite tremendous pressure, the SPD maintained its votes in absolute terms (going from 3,010,800 votes in 1903 to 3,259,000 in 1907), although it lost a bit in relative terms (from 31.7% to 29%). Because the country’s political system was so anti-democratic, it lost 38 seats. Even though its electoral base remained steady, the SPD leadership interpreted the results as a defeat that demanded a “correction” of the party’s position against German imperialism.

From 1908 to 1909, they started proclaiming their acceptance of “national defense” and colonialism in the Reichstag. In the “Agadir Crisis” of 1911 (after a German warship was sent to Morocco, which was controlled by France), almost three years before the world war, the SPD—despite having 1 million members—had shown itself powerless to stop German militarism. Anti-imperialism was successively pushed into the background, first for the election campaign of 1912, and later in the name of possible agreements with liberal sectors in parliament. By 1914, the SPD leadership agreed to retain its legality in exchange for supporting the war and guaranteeing civil peace (including the prohibition of strikes, for example). As Lenin stated: “The proletariat’s right to revolution was sold for a mess of pottage.”

Is it worth considering the experience of German social democracy at the beginning of the 20th century in order to think about current political problems? Of course it is, because of all the lessons we can gain for the present. But conclusions such as those drawn by Blanc would appear to go in the opposite direction, when he tells us:

Some leftists believe that we should not support Bernie because he is running on the Democratic Party ballot line and/or because of his political limitations (e.g. on foreign policy issues or his definition of socialism). This criticism is hardly a serious reason to withhold endorsement.

Can the fact that Sanders is running not just for any old imperialist party, but perhaps “the” main imperialist party in the world, be a secondary question? We do not believe that this question is central just because we are writing from Latin America, where it certainly cannot be considered a minor question. Blanc speaks of “political limitations” “on foreign policy issues” without considering it necessary to pause for a second.

Without a doubt, it is necessary to take up this question. If we take Jeffrey St. Clair’s analysis of “Bernie and the Sanderistas,” we see that although Sanders voted against the authorization of the Iraq War in 2002, he voted in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for removing “the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power,” and he supported CIA operations, economic sanctions and bombing. He also voted several times in favor of the war in Serbia, as well as George W. Bush’s Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF). And the list goes on and on. More recently, in the context of an open coup attempt on February 23 by the Venezuelan (and regional) right under the leadership of Bolton, Pence, Abrams and company, who hypocritically attempted to camouflage their intervention with “humanitarian aid” (while brutal economic sanctions were in place), Sanders demanded that Maduro “allow humanitarian aid in the country,” which in practice served to legitimize the coup attempt.

There Is No Struggle for Socialism Without Anti-Imperialism

One of the most promising phenomena at present is the ideological turn to the left, particularly among the youth, which is taking place in the United States (and also in other imperialist countries such as Great Britain). Elements of a new “common sense” are beginning to emerge within the framework of tendencies to organic crises: These might anticipate more radicalized class struggle and political processes. This is great news for people who are fighting for socialism around the world. The 20th century shows that it is imperative that these energies not be wasted.

A few years ago, in an interview with New Left Review, Bhaskar Sunkara defined his objectives for Jacobin to contribute to the emergence of

an opposition current in the U.S. of 5 to 7 per cent that identifies as socialist or would support a socialist candidate. If that happened in the core of the imperialist world, it would create a lot of space for others, and allow the weak link in capitalism to be broken somewhere else.

Indeed an event of this magnitude would have far-reaching consequences for the entire world. At present, however, Jacobin is devoted to a very different objective, namely convincing young people who are just entering political life and see the word “socialism” positively to go into the Democratic Party and support Sanders’ campaign, treating questions that are so important to the workers’ movement like anti-imperialism as secondary. This policy is in direct opposition to a policy of taking steps toward constructing a truly independent party of the working class, one that is anti-imperialist and socialist.

In this respect, it is always good to bear in mind the words of Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses on the Concept of History,” about the social democracy: “There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide.” If there is a fundamental lesson from the development of German social democracy, it is that there is not and there cannot be a socialist policy without a consistent struggle against imperialism. Kautsky, despite the claims of Eric Blanc and others, was not right. The sooner we take note of this, the better prepared we will be for current and future battles.

First published in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda on May 19, 2019.

Translation: Nathaniel Flakin

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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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