Why Kautsky Was Wrong (and Why You Should Care)

During his lifetime, Karl Kautsky was such an influential theorist he was called the “Pope of Marxism” — but he was also famously branded “the renegade Kautsky” by Lenin for his betrayals of revolutionary socialism. In recent years there have been efforts to revive Kautskyism in order to justify reformism and electoralism. This approach is as wrong as it always was: Kautskyism remains a renegade socialism that is fundamentally opposed to revolution.

by | May 26, 2024

Karl Kautsky’s grandson John told a very revealing anecdote about attitudes towards his grandfather in the 1960s. He recalled a historian named Georges Haupt, who had many discussions among students about the history of the Second International. During those talks, the students always referred to the “Renegade Kautsky.” It suddenly hit him that they thought “Renegade” was Kautsky’s first name. 

This story accurately reflects how far Karl Kautsky had fallen into oblivion in the decades after his death that even his first name was forgotten. Instead, Kautsky was known by the pejorative moniker given to him by Lenin in his 1918 polemic, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.

This was in marked contrast to Kautsky’s reputation in the early 20th century, when he was the leading theoretician in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Second International. So great was Kautsky’s authority that he was known as the “Pope of Marxism.” Marxists including Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, August Bebel, Eugene Debs, and Lenin viewed him as the main interpreter of scientific socialism. Yet at his death, Kautsky was largely ignored and reviled by the revolutionary left. 

So how did this happen? And why has there been a conscious effort to revive his political ideas by figures such as Lars Lih and Eric Blanc? Why should communists care why Kautsky was wrong?

The life and politics of Kautsky

To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand Karl Kautsky’s life and his main political ideas. Born in 1854 to a Czech-German family in Prague, Kautsky was radicalized during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. Following the Paris Commune of 1871, he identified himself with the forces of socialism. In the 1870s, Kautsky was a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and later with the German SPD.

From the period of 1878–1890, the German SPD was illegal due to the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws. The SPD had a number of members abroad, including Kautsky, who helped keep the party alive. 

While the Erfurt Program championed the socialist cause, it also showcased the underlying problems of Kautsky’s Marxism. His view of socialist revolution was dictated by his positivist and anti-dialectical evolutionary worldview. Kautsky saw revolutions as strictly objective phenomena that socialists should patiently wait for rather than actively organize.

Kautsky lived in Switzerland where he edited the paper Sozialdemokrat, the main theoretical journal for the SPD. Underground party activists risked a great deal smuggling the paper back into the Reich. In 1883, Kautsky founded the paper Die Neue Zeit which soon became the premier socialist journal in the world. 

Kautsky’s reputation as a socialist theoretician was further solidified with The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx (1887), which acted as an accessible guide to Marx’s Capital. This work was translated into multiple languages and became a popular introduction to Marx for a whole generation.

After the SPD was legalized again, they adopted a new political program in 1891 known as the Erfurt Program. So great was Kautsky’s prestige that he (along with Eduard Bernstein) was entrusted with writing the program. In the Erfurt Program, Kautsky said that the iron laws of history condemned capitalism. From the ruins of bourgeois society, the proletariat must lead humanity to a socialist future. To reach socialism, it was necessary to fuse Marxist theory with the working-class movement. To accomplish this merger between scientific socialism and the working class was the task of the SPD.

While the Erfurt Program championed the socialist cause, it also showcased the underlying problems of Kautsky’s Marxism. First, his view of socialist revolution was dictated by his positivist and anti-dialectical evolutionary worldview. Based on this schema, Kautsky saw revolutions as strictly objective phenomena that socialists should patiently wait for rather than actively organize. This led Kautsky to believe that revolutionary activity by the working class was unnecessary to reach socialism. Since capitalism was inevitably fated to transform into socialism, Kautsky advocated a gradualist strategy to build-up social democracy through parliamentary means. As a result, he viewed extra-parliamentary activity as dangerous forms of Blanquism and “ultra-leftism.”

Kautsky’s emphasis on the primacy of parliamentary struggle implied a certain viewpoint of the state. Earlier in the 1880s, he had argued that there was no parliamentary path to socialism and that the revolution would require armed force. By now, his own views on parliament had changed. He saw parliament as a neutral institution that could be used by both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In practice, this meant he rejected the necessity for smashing the bourgeois state.

In the Erfurt Program, Kautsky codified the main tenets of the SPD’s Marxism. In addition, he seemingly reconciled the opposed camps of reform and revolution. On the one hand, the party’s adherence to socialism showed that it was marching with the forces of history. On the other hand, the day-to-day advocacy of reforms and parliamentarism allowed the SPD to steadily accumulate forces while patiently waiting for history to go its way. If party members were able to live with this divorce between theory and practice, then Kautsky’s solution would work. Yet when the time arrived to give clear answers to revolutionary questions, Kautsky found himself unable to do so.

For the time being, Kautsky was seen by both his friends and opponents as a stalwart orthodox Marxist. During debates over the agrarian question, Kautsky defended the party program against attempts to dilute the proletarian character of the party by making concessions to petty-bourgeois interests. In the Millerand Affair — when a French socialist joined a bourgeois cabinet — Kautsky was a major voice rejecting all socialist participation in bourgeois governments. However, he did argue at this time that socialist participation might be deemed permissible in “exceptional circumstances.”

The first major challenge to Kautsky’s orthodoxy occurred in 1898 with the revisionist controversy. Eduard Bernstein, a leading party theoretician, argued that it was necessary for the SPD to “revise” its program by dropping Marxism, proletarian revolution, and the class struggle. Instead, the SPD should become what it already was in practice, a party of social reform. In the ensuing debate with Bernstein, Kautsky stood with anti-revisionists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Georgi Plekhanov, and Alexander Parvus.

Even though Kautsky came out in defense of Marxist orthodoxy, he conceded a great deal to Bernstein in the debates. For one, he did not defend the monistic character of dialectical materialism, and was agnostic on philosophical questions. Secondly, he did not think capitalism was fated to break down. Thirdly, even though he defended the dictatorship of the proletariat, Kautsky said it was not an immediate concern for the SPD. Nor did his conception of revolution call for smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it with a semi-state on the Paris Commune model.

Kautsky’s approach to WWI was consistent with his overall politics. Despite his opposition to imperialism, Kautsky could not envision revolutionary resistance to the German bourgeoisie. In fact, he concluded that the Second International had no role to play in war since it was purely an instrument of peace.

Finally, Kautsky drew no organizational conclusions from the revisionist controversy. Like the revisionists, Kautsky believed that party unity was something to be maintained at all costs. He considered it an article of faith that the unity of social democracy was identical with the unity of the working class. For Kautsky, the SPD was the party of the whole working class — not in the sense of recruiting all workers into the party, but that all tendencies which regarded themselves as socialists should be members of the same party. The SPD believed expulsions would endanger the unity of the working class. This meant that the expulsion of Bernstein and other revisionists was rejected by the SPD and Kautsky. Since no organizational conclusions were drawn from the revisionist controversy, this allowed reformist forces to remain inside the party.

The forces of Marxist orthodoxy seemingly emerged triumphant over the revisionists at various party congresses. Yet nothing fundamentally changed in the SPD, which remained reformist in its day-to-day practice. Over the coming years, Kautsky’s gradualism and identification with the SPD apparatus became more overt. 

In 1905–06, there was an upsurge of the class struggle in Germany, and many cadre members such as Rosa Luxemburg debated employing the mass strike. However, the SPD shrank from using the mass strike since it conflicted with their gradualist strategy. In addition, the unions were more concerned with protecting their apparatus and winning bread-and-butter gains than advancing a revolutionary strategy. The party passed resolutions rhetorically favoring mass strikes, but with so many stipulations that they proved to be empty. Kautsky was aware of the SPD’s bureaucratization, but he viewed leftist-sounding resolutions as a genuine commitment to the mass strike and revolution.

In 1910, the debate on the mass strike flared up again. During a campaign against Germany’s restrictive election system, Rosa Luxemburg advocated mass strikes and raising the demand for a republic. Like most others in the SPD, Kautsky feared a confrontation with the kaiser. Instead, he advocated the “strategy of attrition” that would avoid mass strikes by building up the forces of the SPD. This was simply parliamentarism by another name. By 1912, Kautsky had positioned himself as the “Marxist Center” opposed equally to the revolutionary left and the revisionist right.

When it came to imperialism, Kautsky’s views shifted wildly over his life. In his most radical work, The Road to Power (1908), he saw imperialism as a new stage of capitalism which was leading to war. In this work, he took a pessimistic view of any bourgeois campaigns for disarmament. While Kautsky supported independence for the colonies, he did not back national liberation struggles, believing that history would take care of the colonial question.

Kautsky’s position on imperialism changed abruptly after 1908. Now he considered imperialism to be merely a bad policy and not something intrinsic to the latest stage of capitalism. He argued that most of the bourgeoisie did not have an economic interest in imperialism. Therefore, it was possible for socialists to join with “pro-peace” sections of the bourgeoisie in common opposition to war.

All these debates on imperialism were put to the test in 1914 with the start of World War I. The outbreak of war meant that the German SPD had to decide what position its parliamentary deputies would take toward voting on war credits: should they remain true to their anti-imperialist resolutions, or support the fatherland?

Kautsky was not a parliamentary deputy but he was invited to give advice to the SPD delegation. He argued that the party could not abstain but should vote for funding, provided that the government committed itself to a purely “defensive” war. 

Kautsky’s approach to WWI was consistent with his overall politics. Despite his opposition to imperialism, Kautsky could not envision revolutionary resistance to the German bourgeoisie. In fact, he concluded that the Second International had no role to play in war since it was purely an instrument of peace. 

Just as the war began, Kautsky revealed his theory of “ultra-imperialism.” He admitted that imperialism was behind the war but claimed that the bourgeoisie had a desire to maintain the current system and avoid future wars. Thus, it was possible for capitalists to pursue a different policy of organized capitalism or ultra-imperialism by renouncing militarism and jointly exploiting the world together. Kautsky’s prediction of a peaceful capitalism related to his hopes for the postwar world. Ultra-imperialism would effectively return the world to the status quo ante bellum and would allow the party to return to the “road to power” that had been “only” temporarily derailed in 1914.

As the war dragged on, Kautsky found himself in opposition to the SPD’s uncritical support for the German government. By 1915, he joined with other centrist forces who opposed the war and called for a “peace without annexations or indemnities.” Despite opposition to the war, Kautsky advocated no concrete strategy at all. The centrist position stood in sharp contrast to revolutionary leftists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht who believed that “the main enemy was at home.” Their approach of revolutionary defeatism meant sabotage, mutinies, strikes, and proletarian revolution in every belligerent nation to end the war. 

In November 1918, the kaiser was overthrown and a new republic was declared in Germany. However, it remained an open question of which class ruled Germany. On the one side was the SPD defending the bourgeoisie, and on the other was the newly formed Communist Party standing for the working class. In his typical fashion, Kautsky advanced a program to appease both sides. He championed the supremacy of parliament but also supported workers councils to keep watch on elected representatives. While he advocated socialization of the economy, he emphasized that this did not mean socialism. In the end, Kautsky’s solutions were rejected by everyone across the political spectrum. There was no space for the “Marxist Center” as Germany descended into a state of partial civil war.

Unlike Kautsky, Lenin’s politics were dominated by what Georg Lukács called the “actuality of revolution.” This did not mean a proletarian revolution could be achieved at any moment. Instead, this conception defined a whole epoch where every action was seen as links in a chain leading to the larger goal of revolution.

By now, Kautsky had lost the mantle of revolutionary Marxism to Lenin and Bolshevism. From the moment the Russian workers stormed the Winter Palace, Kautsky was bitterly opposed to them. To him, Lenin and communism represented a betrayal of every principle of Marxist orthodoxy. He considered a socialist revolution in backward Russia to be a historical abomination. Instead of soviet power, Kautsky advocated the Constituent Assembly with its program of bourgeois democracy, which he believed would have avoided the horrors of terror and civil war. Over the final two decades of his life, Kautsky launched a ceaseless ideological crusade against Bolshevism. For Kautsky, the Soviet Union and communism were the greatest dangers to the working class, by far surpassing western imperialism, Mussolini, and Hitler.

During the 1920s, Kautsky believed that the era of revolutionary storms had passed and democracy was now firmly implanted in Germany. When the Great Depression took hold in 1929 and the forces of National Socialism began to grow, he rejected any united front with the Communists. He believed the social-democratic vote would stop Nazism cold. 

Besides that, Kautsky defended the SPD’s support for the “lesser evil” of Paul von Hindenburg as buying precious time to preserve democracy. Somehow, he forgot that Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the position of chancellor. Even after Hitler came to power, Kautsky concluded that the SPD’s only course under Weimar had been a purely parliamentary one since a revolution would have destroyed Germany. 

If nothing else, Kautsky never questioned that the SPD would eventually resume its parliamentary road to power. When Kautsky died in October 1938 in exile, his faith in a democratic-socialist future remained unbroken.

Eurocommunism and neo-reformism

In the following years, Kautsky was ignored by all camps of the revolutionary left. After 1945, as social democrats formally rejected socialism as even a long-term goal, they found little need for Kautsky’s theoretical formulas. Yet his ideas continued to haunt those interested in reformist socialism.

In the 1970s, there was a revival of Kautsky’s political ideas from a seemingly unlikely source: communists. By now, communist parties in the West had dropped their Marxism-Leninism and allegiance to the USSR, replacing it with democratic socialism. This theory of Eurocommunism was not actually new, but simply the communist parties aligning their theory with a decades-long practice of popular-frontism.

The Eurocommunist strategy of a peaceful transition to socialism claimed to be following not Kautsky, but Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position.” Yet this was a distortion of Gramsci who never advocated any form of socialist gradualism. The reason why Kautsky was not invoked by name is quite simple. For parties that still claimed to be nominally communist, Gramsci was considered a more acceptable source of theoretical inspiration than Kautsky. 

The most consistent follower of Kautsky in the latter half of the 20th century was the Chilean socialist Salvador Allende. In 1970, Allende was elected President of Chile on a program of a peaceful and parliamentary road to socialism. Like Kautsky, Allende had an almost religious faith in the institutions of parliament and bourgeois democracy. Yet the Chilean army and the CIA had no such respect for the Chilean constitution, and they overthrew Allende in a bloody military coup on September 11, 1973.

In the early 21st century, there has been an emergence of neo-reformist and broad left parties such as Die Linke in Germany and SYRIZA in Greece. These parties have promised a change from ordinary politics. Yet in power, they have supported imperialism, austerity, and racist attacks on migrants, which have left their supporters dispirited and disoriented. At worst, their record has discredited socialism and opened the door to the fascist right to appear as an alternative to the system. The balance sheet of these reformist parties is capitulation to the power of capitalism, which has proven disastrous to the prospects of socialism.

Lars Lih: Neo-Kautskyism as a distortion of Lenin

The contemporary neo-Kautskyian revival owes a great deal to historiographical debates surrounding the Russian Revolution. For decades, anticommunist scholars dominated discussion on Bolshevism with their claims that Lenin was an elitist who detested the working class and had a lust for totalitarian power. Serious challenges to this anticommunist consensus began to be raised in the 1970s and onward by figures such as Neil Harding, Marcel Liebman, Hal Draper, Moira Donald, and others.

A major element of this new approach to Lenin involved looking at the influence of Kautsky on his thought. The most prominent figure promoting the links between Lenin and Kautsky has been the Canadian academic Lars Lih. His central thesis is that Lenin’s basic ideas were largely set after his adoption of Kautsky’s Marxism in the 1890s. Thereafter, Lenin’s theory and practice remained Kautskyian until the end of his life. 

In his magnum opus, Lenin Rediscovered (2005), Lih states that Lenin did not advocate a “party of a new type” in his classic work What Is to Be Done? Rather, Lih argues that Lenin’s entire conception of the party was drawn from Kautsky and the Erfurt Program. 

It is important to note that Lih does perform a valuable service in clearing up Cold War and anticommunist stereotypes of Lenin as an elitist totalitarian. The Lenin that emerges from Lih is a principled Marxist who fervently believes that the working class can liberate itself.

There is a night-and-day contrast between Kautsky’s SPD functionaries and a Bolshevik vanguard. The Bolsheviks successfully mobilized the working class against capitalism and the tsar. The SPD did not lead the German workers against the kaiser, but had them singing nationalist hymns as they were marched off to be slaughtered in the trenches of France.

It is not possible to discuss Lih’s views on Lenin in detail here, but some points need to be stressed. If all Lih was doing was highlighting the influence of Kautsky on Lenin, then there would be no objection. As Lih correctly notes, Lenin himself recognized his debt to Kautsky. Yet Lih does much more than that. He claims there were few, if any, breaks in Lenin’s political ideas.

In fact, Lih ignores the development in Lenin’s political thought, particularly on the vanguard party. Unlike Kautsky, Lenin’s politics were dominated by what Georg Lukács called the “actuality of revolution.” This did not mean a proletarian revolution could be achieved at any moment. Instead, this conception defined a whole epoch where every action was seen as links in a chain leading to the larger goal of revolution.

This viewpoint had implications for how Lenin envisioned the role of a communist party. For Lenin, a vanguard party was not a vehicle for collecting votes, nor did it passively await the revolution. Even though a revolution is only possible in certain circumstances, this does not mean that communists cannot prepare for it now. It was necessary for communists to carry out revolutionary work in non-revolutionary times to prepare themselves and the working class for when the situation is ripe. To put it succinctly, communists must “hasten and await.”

This means there is a night-and-day contrast between Kautsky’s SPD functionaries and a Bolshevik vanguard. As evidenced by their practice in the Russian underground and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Bolsheviks successfully mobilized the working class against capitalism and the tsar. The SPD did not lead the German workers against the kaiser, but had them singing nationalist hymns as they were marched off to be slaughtered in the trenches of France.

The implications of Lih’s approach to understanding Lenin and Bolshevism are enormous. In judging Lenin as basically a Kautskyian, Lih stresses continuity over any theoretical discontinuity. While Lenin emerged from within the Second International and used its language and formulations, there was something radically new in what he developed from that raw material. By concluding that Lenin was just a follower of Kautsky, Lih erases anything distinctive about Leninism.

Lih’s effort to claim continuity between Lenin and Kautsky rests largely on a textual analysis. Indeed, he is more than capable of unearthing documents and then comparing them to find a common language. While this enables Lih to draw a line of continuity from Lenin to Kautsky, it is a purely surface-level approach. One could just as easily deploy Lih’s method and find that there is direct continuity from Lenin to the present-day Communist Party of China due to their shared Marxist language. Yet does anyone who looks deeper think that is true?

A different picture emerges of Lenin and Kautsky if we look at the material reality they operated in. Once this is done, we can see the different results of the two in practice. Leninism represented a new communist approach to revolution, while Kautskyism ended up as a cover for social-democratic reformism. For Lih, it is sufficient to look at someone’s ideas merely based on how they present them instead of looking at their actual practice and distinctiveness. Lih’s formalism means he sees practice as almost a dirty activity and not worthy of attention. Yet the centrality of revolutionary practice to Lenin’s politics explains both his differences with Kautsky and how he was able to lead in 1917.

Eric Blanc: Neo-Kautskyism and the falsehood of the “dirty break”

When it comes to the development of neo-Kautskyism, Lih performed a pivotal role by discrediting Leninism with his promotion of Kautsky. Yet it was never Lih’s intention to connect these debates to contemporary politics since he is an independent scholar who claims no political affiliation. Rather, he acts as a scholarly incubator for a neo-Kautskyism oriented toward political action found in the work of Eric Blanc and others.

The immediate context for the emergence of neo-Kautskyism in the United States can be traced to the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign with its slogans of “democratic socialism.” The Sanders campaign helped to revitalize the largely moribund Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and spurred the growth of Jacobin Magazine. Between the two, a mass base now exists to discuss democratic-socialist ideas in the United States. 

One of those who joined DSA was Eric Blanc, a Rutgers professor of labor studies. Originally a revolutionary socialist, Blanc is now vocal in DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus. He is using his embrace of Kautsky to develop a political program for the left that sees the Democratic Party as an instrument to advance socialist politics.

According to Blanc, Kautsky’s democratic socialism offers the best approach in advanced capitalist societies such as the USA. He thinks Leninist “insurrectionism” has always been a minority and elitist current among the working class in democratic countries. As a concrete strategy, Blanc argues that socialists must focus on gaining an electoral majority based upon universal suffrage. He states that this strategy was a proven success in the Finnish Revolution of 1917–18.

There are a number of objections to be made to Blanc’s claims. First, his characterization of “Leninist insurrectionism” is a Cold War stereotype that views communists as elitist and indifferent to democracy. Based on the historical record, this is not true. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks built up mass support among workers, peasants, and soldiers. It was also the Bolsheviks — and not their “democratic” opponents — who carried out the will of the people in the most popular revolution in history. 

Secondly, Blanc is correct that Leninists believe the bourgeoisie can only be overthrown by force. However, this strategy is not elitist or undemocratic as he claims. As Lenin noted, communists must utilize every possibility at their disposal to awaken the working class in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. This means communists have very often been at the forefront of struggles for increased democratic rights, opposition to imperialist wars, and unionization. By contrast, democratic socialists have been more frequently found on the other side of the barricades.

Third, Blanc’s claim that working-class support for revolution can only be marginal is also open to question. To be clear, it is true in normal times that only a minority of the population is open to radical politics. Yet there have been revolutionary situations such as Germany 1918–19, Spain 1936–37, and France 1968 where the current social order was called into question. None of those instances blossomed into a successful revolution for a variety of reasons. However, it would be wrong to say that a revolutionary alternative remained marginal in those cases. 

Fourth, Blanc makes a fetish of elections and bourgeois democracy. He seems to overestimate the “democratic” nature of bourgeois democracy, believing that it can facilitate the transition to socialism. The assumption that the existence of a capitalist “democracy” makes insurrection outmoded greatly overstates its democratic credentials and tolerance of socialist organizations. 

There is nothing original to Blanc’s dirty break beyond its dubious historical examples and branding. What is interesting about the dirty break is the role played by Kautsky in its development. His embrace of Kautsky and electoralism meant the disappearance of extra-parliamentary and mass struggles. 

This is borne out not only in Chile but by his own example of Finland in 1917–18. In Finland, the Social Democrats (SDP) were an avowed Kautskyian party who won a parliamentary majority in 1917. Like their German counterparts, the Finns pursued a strategy of passively waiting for a revolution. Rather than prepare the workers for the seizure of power, the Finnish leadership acted as a roadblock. When the social democrats did come to power, they were not ready to fight the counterrevolution. As a result, the Finnish Reds suffered a bitter defeat after a few months. In the aftermath, many SDP leaders reflected on their experience and became communists. One wonders: if the Finnish bloodbath of 1918 is Blanc’s example of “success,” then what would a failure look like?

To achieve his vision of a democratic-socialist majority, Blanc believes it is necessary for the working class to have its own political party. To achieve this, he has developed a strategy known as the “dirty break.” Simply put: Blanc says that democratic socialists must operate on the Democratic Party “ballot line” for the time being before splitting off to form their own party. Instead of working-class self-activity, Blanc argues that “insurgent” Democrats such as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have the power to stimulate mass movements. All the rhetoric aside, its practical results have represented nothing more than backing the Democratic Party. Instead of a “dirty break” we just have a “dirty stay.”

There is nothing original about Blanc’s dirty break beyond its dubious historical examples and branding. What is interesting about the dirty break is the role played by Kautsky in its development. His embrace of Kautsky and electoralism meant the disappearance of extra-parliamentary and mass struggles. The dirty break’s electoralism possesses an elitist fixation on reformist and “insurgent” politicians with supposed abilities to conjure up mass movements. Crediting Sanders or AOC for causing mass struggles is to mix up cause and effect. It is like crediting the rooster’s crowing for causing the sun to rise. They did not create any movements but capitalized on them by siphoning off their energies into the safe channels of bourgeois politics. The track record of Sanders and AOC in office has not amounted to any reforms. Not only are they reformists who can’t reform, but they are indistinguishable from “Establishment” Democrats in their open support for imperialism, Israel, and war. 

Lastly, the dirty break’s logic follows a Kautskyian approach of linear evolution. Whereas Kautsky saw the ever-accumulation of votes leading to socialism, Blanc sees the dirty break eventually ending in the creation of a workers’ party. Yet how that change comes about is left unclear, and the moment of the neo-Kautskyian dirty break never arrives.

Why Kautsky is wrong

So why is Kautsky wrong? If we care about achieving socialism then this question matters. While a revolutionary in theory, Kautsky was never able to provide revolutionary leadership in practice. His political outlook was rooted in gradualism which led him to conclude that socialism was inevitable and revolutionary activity by the working class was unnecessary. When faced with the historical tests of World War I and the German Revolution, he shrank from revolution. In practice, if not in theory, Kautskyism has meant forsaking the struggle for socialism.

The faith of Kautsky and his latter-day followers in the “democratic road to socialism” is premised on blind faith in elections and parliament. They promise a safer and easier road to socialism. However, this fetishistic respect for the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy that Kautsky championed can be judged by its tragic results in Germany, Finland, and Chile. Those who supported a Kautskyian strategy have never achieved socialism anywhere. Rather their road ends everywhere in catastrophe and defeat. That conclusion is more than enough to reject Kautsky in toto.

If we don’t want to be wrong like Kautsky, then we should look to the work of Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. Together, their work forms a three-legged stool that offers the most all-embracing and astute critique of Kautsky’s methods and politics. Whether regarding party organization, philosophy, mass struggle, imperialism, strategy and tactics, the state, and proletarian revolution, their theoretical corpus offers a fundamental challenge to Kautskyism. Instead of resurrecting Kautskyism, if we are truly serious about fighting capitalism, then we should raise high the red banner of revolutionary communism once again.

Photo: Freikorps suppressing the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, January 1919. Colorized.

Doug Enaa Greene
(he/him) is an independent communist historian from the Boston area. He has written biographies of the communist insurgent Louis Auguste Blanqui and DSA founder Michael Harrington, as well as Stalinism and the Dialectics of Saturn and The New Reformism and the Revival of Karl Kautsky.

Related Reading

The Rise of Christian Nationalism in the US

The Rise of Christian Nationalism in the US

The religious right-wing, made up largely of white evangelicals, holds a great deal of political power in the United States. They form a formidable voting bloc, with presidential candidates seeking and depending on their endorsement. As a dominant force among...

Advances, Limits, and Lessons of the Student Intifada

Advances, Limits, and Lessons of the Student Intifada

The eruption of Gaza solidarity encampments on college campuses around the world has been a welcome and unexpected shot in the arm for the Palestine liberation movement. In hindsight, the pot simmered on campuses for months before boiling over. Last fall, universities...