above: A lithograph of the 'Red Pope' Karl Kautsky
What follows is an essay which attempts to identify the defensible and valuable legacy that the democratic Marxist Karl Kautsky provided for the Left during the pre-1914 period. It is largely based upon a reading of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’. (1909)
The author further attempts to discern what ramifications Kautsky’s works during this period might have also for the current day – around 100 years later.
The following essay also compromises a brief, edited segment (in-progress) of the author (Tristan Ewins’) (as yet uncompleted) PhD thesis on Third Roads and Third Ways on the Left 1848-1948.
Debate is very welcome!!!
Work-in-Progress; Tristan Ewins Feb 2013
There are many themes addressed in Kautsky’s work that provide the basis for a defensible legacy; and others that are perhaps less defensible. This brief essay is mainly derived fro a reading of Kautksy’s 1909 work ‘The Road to Power’, with some consideration of ‘The Erfurt Program’ (The Class Struggle), as well as ‘On the Morrow of the Social Revolution’, and “The Social Revolution’. (1903) However we do not draw here upon Kautksy’s seminal debate with Lenin which occurred following the 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution. (including Kautsky’s ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’; and Lenin’s “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’)
In Kautksy’s favour it is to be noted that Materialism and determinism are still widely considered respectable philosophical positions: and Kautsky is quite radical and unyielding in his adherence to such a perspective. And yet intuitively that position remains problematic – as how could consciousness and will arise out of a purely material (ie: mechanical) process? Herbert Marcuse had dared to posit a ‘great refusal’ of the most marginal and oppressed as creating a new historic agent for revolution. The idea that such minorities could lead a revolution is suggestive of a radical voluntarism. And yet liberal capitalism has – to a significant degree - again ‘adapted’, co-opted and neutralised these elements.
It is probably fair to argue that (from a Marxist perspective) ‘something went wrong’ in the evolution of capitalism - such that the system evolved in a way which neutralised the very critical elements it had given rise to: the enlightened and revolutionary working class who – according to Marx and Kautsky - were supposed to be the system’s ‘gravediggers’. The question, here, is whether Kautskyan determinism and materialism are helps or hindrances under such circumstances. Critical theorist Theodore Adorno would have it that a capitalist ‘culture industry’ lulls and deceives us into passivity; and decades since he made such observations psychological manipulation via mass culture appears more pervasive and powerful than ever. In addition to that, the decline of mass factory labour – the phenomenon of ‘post-industrialism’ – also contributes to the demobilisation of the working class, and the decline of a distinct class consciousness.
A Kautskyan (pure materialist) outlook might hold the position to hopeless. Again: this might begin to look like “a bad totality with no way out”. (Beilharz) And yet again: perhaps the new information technology provides the material basis for ‘levelling the playing field’ somewhat in the contest of ideas. And a moderate voluntarism – which accepts our grounding based on experience, but holds some prospect for the human imagination and for collective free human will, might suppose these provide a ‘potential way out’. Kautsky would reject suppositions of free will and unbound human imagination. But perhaps he would appreciate the new technology as a ‘material grounding’ for hope; and for ‘asymmetrical political struggle’.
And it is also notable that relative abundance creates ‘new’ (ie: relative) needs. While Kautsky foresaw limits to social education in his own time, today there are the material means to provide education not only for the labour market, but for active and critical citizenship, and for well-rounded human beings. The question of whether workers and citizens can be mobilised around the defence of ‘newer’ established rights (pensions, leave, education, health); or even inspired to fight for new social conquests (eg: a standard 32 hour week) is an open one. Perhaps there is no guarantee of success as much as there is no guarantee of failure. Kautsky found it difficult wrestling with the prospect of uncertainty in response to Revisionism. But today radicals face the imperative of fostering hope even without the old teleological certainties of the old Marxism.
In retrospect the very idea of a Marxist theoretical orthodoxy suggests a position which is closed to adaptation in response to evolving circumstances. Though Kautsky himself would probably point to the materialist conception of history: and argue that in that theoretical approach there already existed the framework and means necessary for adaptation. Kautsky’s supposition of ever greater economic crises appeared to have been vindicated with the Great Depression; and yet he also failed to predict the rise of fascism – emerging from the same crises he had presumed would usher in socialism. This raises the question: was there a problem with the materialist conception of history, or was it merely the way it was applied by socialist theorists? Various theorists (Steger, Berman etc) have argued that Kautsky’s materialist determinism was a recipe for passivity with its assumptions of ‘inevitable’ change. As we have already considered, therefore, perhaps a position between radical determinism/materialism and radical voluntarism is most appropriate – recognising limits to the individual will; but holding out hope for human agency, and the motivating assumption that “yes, we can make a difference” Or in other words, following Berman ‘structure and agency condition each other’.
And yet if ‘orthodoxy’ means fidelity to enduring principles and concepts, Kautsky has left a defensible legacy in his own defence of the insights of Karl Marx. Tendencies towards monopoly, intensified exploitation, alienation, crises of overproduction and the correspondingly desperate attempts to expand the world market, class struggle, falling rates of profit,– all remain with us today as by-products of modern capitalism. And the ‘secret’ of surplus value – identified by Marx and popularised by Kautsky – still implies in its functioning a devastating moral critique of capitalism; while also comprising the means of capitalist systemic reproduction.
If ‘revisionism’ takes not the form of necessary adjustment to changing circumstances, but rather abandoning crucial insights for the sake of ‘intellectual fashion’, then perhaps there is something to be said for ‘orthodoxy’. Kautsky’s championing of enduring Marxist concepts and categories therefore remains a defensible legacy even today. Though nonetheless it would be fair to suggest that the Marxists of Kautsky’s time could not possibly predict the future trajectories of modern capitalism’s development. Some basic, vital systemic dynamics – as identified by Marx and promoted by Kautsky – remain. (as we have just observed above) But in other ways capitalism keeps evolving, adapting, mutating – surviving where Marxists assumed socialist transition was necessary, ‘inevitable’; for Kautsky “the only thing possible”..
Writing in opposition to “the violence of Austrian anarchists” (we observe, here, the philosophy of ‘the propaganda of the deed’, the policy of assassinations etc) Kautsky once wrote;
“Social Democracy is a Party of human love, and it must always remain conscious of its character even in the midst of the most frenzied political fights”. (Kautksy in Steenson, p 80)
In his biography of Kautsky, Steenson depicts a man “very sensitive to human suffering”; the kind of man who fought for the rights of unwed mothers and their children and condemned the hypocrisy of those who separated them, institutionalising the children. Kautsky’s concern for human suffering was not merely abstract. Steenson relates that this disposition of Kautsky’s was later to “cause him to baulk in the face of the apparent necessity for revolutionary violence.” (Steenson, p 80)
Kautsky’s position on violence was especially important given the era of ‘War and Revolution’ which was to follow the publication of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’.
But that would involve a deeper assessment - beyond the frame of this short excerpt from my developing PhD thesis. It is enough for now to note a complexity in Kautsky that is often unrecognised in works condemning his “passivity” – stemming from his philosophical materialism. ‘Fatalism’ was sometimes a consequence of Kautsky’s interpretation of historical materialism. But in practice no man did more than Kautsky to popularise Marxism in the pre-1917 period. Rather than ‘writing Kautsky off’, perhaps it is better to let him speak for himself. And while we have not quoted him at length in this excerpt, it is to be hoped I have provided an accurate impression of his work, and that work’s relevance – especially those works of the pre-1917 period. (though his later works were of equal historical imporantance…)
Kautsky, Karl “The Class Struggle” (Erfurt Program), The Norton Library, Toronto, 1971
Kautsky, Karl “On the Morrow of the Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903
Kautksy, Karl, “The Road to Power – Political Reflections on Growing into the Revolution, Humanities Press,
, 1992 New Jersey
Kautsky, Karl “The Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903