Karl Kautsky is best-known as a turncoat to the 19th century communist cause, but a new collection of documents sheds light on Kautsky’s ideas before he went astray. In this review, rs21 member Andreas Chari argues for a reappraisal of the value of Kautsky’s thinking.

Karl Kautsky, Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, edited and translated by Ben Lewis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2020), 352 pp £30.00

This new collection of Kautsky’s writings provides an opportunity to rekindle interest in the ideas of a man who held the titles of ‘Pope of Marxism’ and ‘Renegade’ within the Marxist tradition. The book contains an introduction by Lewis offering an overview of Kautsky’s life and a summary of the development of our understanding of Kautsky’s thought throughout the years. The rest of the book consists of three of Kautsky’s texts: Parliamentarism and Democracy (1911), The Republic and Social Democracy in France (1905), The Development of a Marxist (1924) and an appendix containing an overview of the drafts of the Erfurt Programme (1891). Ben Lewis attempts to highlight that Kautsky’s thought was against the advocates of ‘ministerial socialism’ who wanted socialists to join bourgeois governments and push for reforms, and also against the ‘direct democratism’ of his contemporaries: arguments which feel particularly relevant in our present conjuncture. Instead, Kautsky was in favour of a radical republican break from the existing state machinery in continuity with the revolutionary thought of Marx and Engels.

The book is an important contribution to the re-evaluation of a thinker who was forgotten by history due to his later opportunism and the political developments of the 20th century.  Most people today are familiar with Kautsky through Lenin’s polemic The Proletariat Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky which rightfully criticised Kautsky’s stances on WWI, the 1917 October Revolution and the 1918 German Revolution. Be that as it may, Lenin would continue to recommend to comrades even after the beginning of World War I to read Kautsky: Make sure of getting and rereading (or get someone to translate to you) Kautsky’s Wegzur Macht [Road to Power] —what he wrote there about the revolution of our times!! And what a scoundrel he has become now, renouncing all this! [1]

Karl Kautsky was one of the most important Marxist thinkers of his time and his legacy and influence on Lenin and the Russian Revolution shouldn’t be ignored due to his own practical failures but critically re-examined.

Kautsky when he was a Marxist

Karl Kautsky was the leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party and after the death of Friedrich Engels, helped popularise Marxist ideas. Kautsky was born in Prague in 1854 and met with Marx and Engels in London in 1881. Which began a long friendship with Engels that would last until the latter’s death. In 1883 Kautsky founded Die Neue Zeit (The New Times), a newspaper focused on developing Marxist analysis on topics from colonialism to alcohol and gender. The newspaper had an immense impact even outside the German Empire becoming the ‘intellectual centre of German socialism and international Marxism’ and a formative influence and political platform to the then underground Russian Marxists [2], reaching countries as far as Iran. [3] Kautsky became known in Marxist circles for drafting the influential Erfurt Programme of the SPD. Engels initially criticised the Erfurt draft for not making an explicit call for the creation of a democratic republic. However, he later praised the Erfurt programme for differing from the Gotha Programme. The latter made too many concessions to the supporters of Lassalle, who flirted with an alliance with the Imperial Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, and whose ideas were thus incompatible with working-class independence.

Just like the 1870 programme of the French Parti Ouvrier (Worker’s Party) drafted by Marx, Engels and Paul Lafargue, the Erfurt Programme was divided into two sections of demands: the maximum and the minimum. The maximum demands described the basic principles of Marxism and its aim to abolish class society based on the self-emancipation of the working class through a political struggle, in other words, the goals to reconstruct society by and for the conscious majority. The minimum demands of the programme were to achieve the basis for working class power: universal suffrage, representatives paid a worker’s wage, freedom to bear arms and the abolition of the standing army in favour of a people’s militia, secular schools, free legal defence and electable judges. These political demands are then followed by economic demands: an eight-hour day, a ban on child labour and the right for workers to organise freely. The role of the minimum demands was to emphasize what should be demanded of the existing state through political struggle and not whether such demands could be conceded within the present society, i.e. a bourgeois state could theoretically concede some of the demands but in their totality, they can only be achieved by working-class rule and the seizure of the bourgeois state apparatus.

The programme therefore, far from viewing a successful socialist revolution as an inevitable development, offered a framework that the working class could use to organise to attain political power. This ensured an opposition to ‘socialist ministerialism’, the idea that the minimum demands were reforms to be conceded within the framework of bourgeois rule. A mutual relationship existed then between both parts of the programme, the minimum ensuring the party will lead a political struggle for demands in the present and not offer utopian aspirations, and the maximum ensuring the minimum demands were grounded within a fight for the self-emancipation of the proletariat, therefore, distinguishing itself from liberal and reformist parties. His commentary on the programme was also a major influence on the development of Russian Social Democracy [4]. As V.I. Lenin put it: ‘Not in the slightest are we afraid to say that we wish to imitate the Erfurt Programme. There is nothing bad about imitating something good. Precisely because one so often hears opportunist and half-hearted criticism of this programme, we consider it our duty to speak up for it openly.’ [5]

Kautsky was central to the dispute with Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and polemicising with Rosa Luxemburg over the importance of the mass strike. Kautsky was central to the controversy over the SPD’s response to the outbreak of World War I urging his comrades to abstain from the infamous vote on war credits, a vote that would allow the German Empire to finance their war effort. After the parliamentary fraction voted for the war credits he went along with the party’s decision, but his opposition to the pro-war majority in the party led him to be removed as editor of Die Neue Zeit in 1917, after which he joined the anti-war USPD. While he greeted the 1905 Russian Revolution with enthusiasm, his criticism of the October Revolution led to several polemics by Lenin and Trotsky. Kautsky died in 1938 after two decades of a negligible impact on mass politics leaving behind him a wealth of contributions to Marxist thought.

Parliamentarism and Democracy

This piece was originally written in 1893 as Parliamentarism, Direct Legislation by the People and Social Democracy and reprinted in 1991 as Parliamentarism and Democracy, due to the growing influence of the SPD in the Reichstag. Kautsky in his commentary on the Erfurt Programme was explicit that ‘Direct legislation by the people cannot, at least in a large modern state … render parliament superfluous, at best it can operate alongside parliament in order to correct it in individual cases’. In this piece, Kautsky argued that the German working class must pioneer the struggle for representative democracy and that, even if referenda and direct legislation could replace representative institutions, this would represent a step backwards. For Kautsky, it was more important to extend representative democracy based on the Erfurt demands. While I do find Kautsky tracing the history of direct and representative democracy interesting I do not find these arguments against direct democracy that convincing. Still, there are contemporary uses for this piece.

Kautsky’s criticism of referendums has contemporary relevance for the forthcoming general election in Scotland. Kautsky believed referendums on single issues only help to depoliticize the working class and create incentives for class collaboration which rarely advances our struggle for communism. Referendums manifest not as a more democratic form of decision-making but as a way of weakening the process of struggle via class-independent mass socialist parties. They are used to simplify political decisions under the auspices of it being more empowering to go to ‘the membership’ directly than via representatives. Posing political decisions as a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is only used by bureaucratic committees to affirm their policies. In the end, the people who decide on the wording of the referendum are the ones who are empowered, as comrades in the UCU will probably remember from the fiasco with e-ballots earlier this year. [6]

The Republic and Social Democracy in France

The Republic and Social Democracy in France was defending a Marxist republican tradition inherited from the Paris Commune and Marx’s commentary in The Civil War in France. Echoing comments by Engels that the democratic republic is the ‘specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ [7] and not an ‘Empire without an Emperor’ like the Third Republic, Kautsky identified two types of republicanism: bourgeois and proletariat. Kautsky showed that what the Marxist tradition understood as a republic: the seizure and smashing of the existing state machinery under working-class rule.

In Kautsky’s words: 

The conquest of state power by the proletariat, therefore, does not simply mean the conquest of the government ministries, which then, without further ado, administers the previous means of rule – an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps – in a socialist manner. Rather, it means the dissolution of these institutions. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of power, then taking over individual government departments and entire governments will be to no avail. A socialist ministry can at best exist temporarily. It will be worn down in the futile struggle against these institutions of power, without being able to create anything permanent..

Kautsky’s argument for how the working class can rule is the same as the conclusion Marx drew from the experiences of 1871, the existing state machinery cannot be given a socialist gloss but smashed. This very point Lenin would later raise in State and Revolution … against Kautsky.

Many Marxists claim that Kautsky’s political thought ignored Marx and Engels’ assessment of the Paris Commune of 1871 and over-relied on bourgeois parliamentarism. The Republic and Social Democracy in France (1905) shows that this argument is mistaken, how the radical republicanism of Marx and Engels directly influenced Karl Kautsky and underscores how he viewed the political demands of the Erfurt programme: a democratic republic placed over the ruins and not within the ministerial seats of a bourgeois state as the necessary basis for working-class emancipation. I think this piece is also great at tracing how Marx and Engels understood the question of republicanism and the state in their attempts to offer class-independent mass political organising in contrast to other tendencies such as the Blanquists, Proudhonists and the followers of Louis Blanc. Kautsky —when he was a Marxist– remained in continuity with them and their lessons and in this piece provided an analysis of the bourgeois state and offered a way out of it not much different than Lenin’s State and Revolution: a democratic republic of the Commune type.

Chto Delat (What is to be done)?

One might quite reasonably ask, why the interest in a man mostly known for Lenin’s rightful accusations of being a renegade? To start with, for someone to be a renegade is to assert that the person reneged or turned away from something that was working or that that person thought it was important – in this case the revolutionary strategy of the Marxist ‘centre’ of the SPD. The rising interest in Kautsky and the ‘neo-‘Kautskyist’ interpretation of Lenin is not done to resurrect ‘Kautskyism’ as a revolutionary strategy to be simply copied in the 21st century. There are positive aspects: a rejection both of the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ of the modern social democrats and ‘official communists’ and of the Bakuninist ‘direct actionism’ of much of the modern communist movement: and also negatives, in particular the SPD scabbing on the international working class in favour of their own nation’s foreign policy over an inter-imperialist war.

In my view, what socialists miss by refusing to re-engage with the Second International is the opportunity to understand the past of the Communist movement and how the Bolshevik strategy was a product of the centre of the Second International. Their political strategy was not a betrayal of Marxist principles or a rejection of Marxist orthodoxy but a continuation of the legacy of the SPD centre tendency, for whom Kautsky was one of the most prominent thinkers. ‘Leninism’ nowadays is a reinterpretation of Lenin’s thought in light of how the Russian Revolution developed up until his death. We cannot assume that the Bolshevik strategy as explained after 1921 is either an alternative to capitalism or an accurate reflection of their actual practice but an over-theorisation. An over-theorisation which sterilised both the Comintern and the international Communist movement and produced a dogma that we should reject in favour of investigating the actual political strategy. This means being willing to interrogate the ideas we usually associate with Lenin and the Bolsheviks: ‘revolutionary defeatism’, ‘party of a new type’, ‘vanguardism’, and ‘democratic centralism’ amongst others, understanding what these concepts meant at the time and what was the strategy around them.

Lewis’s book and his continuing work on translating texts of the Second International are of crucial help in rediscovering the continuity between Marx and Engels, the Second International and the Bolsheviks. Only if we go back and understand what these ‘old’ thinkers were saying and doing can we put the revolutionary strategy of actually practised ‘Leninism’ to the test and investigate what went wrong, what went right, and how we can use it as socialist revolutionaries.


[1] V.I. Lenin. Collected Works Volume 35. Progress Publishers, 1977.

[2] Moira Donald. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. Yale University Press, 1993. https://cir.nii.ac.jp/crid/1130000798076393600

[3] Georges Haupt. Aspects of International Socialism 1871–1941. Cambridge

University Press, 1986

[4] Lars T. Lih. Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context. Haymarket, 2008.

[5] V.I. Lenin. Collected Works Volume 4. Progress Publishers, 1977.

[6]  Royal Holloway Early Career Academics,  UCU Democracy. Notes from Below, 2023, https://notesfrombelow.org/article/ucu-democracy

[7] Frederick Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of

1891. https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm

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