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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The “truth” of Kautsky: Comments on “Kautsky in the 21st century”

The “truth” of Kautsky: Comments on “Kautsky in the 21st century”

Jules Townshend

Platypus Review 139 | September 2021

The following is a response to a virtual panel hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on September 5, 2020, the transcript of which was published in Platypus Review 136 (2021). The panelists were Adam J. Sacks, Ben Lewis, Jason Wright, and Chris Cutrone.

KAUTSKY’S MARXISM COULD BE attractive for some of today’s open-minded radical egalitarians. No whiff of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet experiment that went so badly wrong, or the economically successful totalitarian, state-capitalist Chinese version. And no hint of the fossilized, denunciatory vanguardism of Trotskyite sects. This attraction also signifies a move away from the “horizontalism” of the Occupy movement, the early version of Podemos and other grassroots radical currents towards a more “realistic” politics involving some embrace of liberal representative (capitalist) democracy in promoting fundamental social change, all in the name of “democratic socialism.” (We should perhaps note at the outset that there have been many discussions within Marxism about the efficacy of such institutions in achieving this objective, notably among Eurocommunists such as Carrillo and Poulantzas in the 1970s.)

The recent lively and highly informative roundtable discussion on Kautsky’s legacy in the Platypus Review[1] is also a valuable reminder that a practice-oriented “Western Marxism” existed before Perry Anderson famously associated this term with various practice-absent continental Marxist philosophers in his Considerations on Western Marxism (1976).[2] The Marxism of Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party before the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was Western Marxism. Additionally, this discussion reaffirms just how rich in situational analysis Marxist thought is and how democratic it can be at its core.

Yet this debate raises larger questions about how today’s Marxist-inclined thinkers should “receive” yesterday’s “golden (or not-so-golden!) oldies” or consider what constitutes their contemporary “legacy.” Given the political and emotional investment involved in these debates, there tends to be an oscillation between two distinct but interrelated issues. One relates to the “truth” about a thinker, involving interpretation of what they said and meant, their theoretical/political consistency and the like. The other issue has to do with implicitly or explicitly seeing the texts of a thinker as “truth” or “untruth,” entailing issues of coherence or empirical veracity, agreeable or unfavorable ethical, methodological, strategic and political stances, or fidelity to an approved key thinker — in this case, Marx — often based on assumed or explicit shared understandings of truth. In short, what should be their legacy for “us?” Perhaps the most obvious examples of this oscillating agenda are G. A. Cohen’s interpretation of Marx’s theory of history (faithful to Marx and “true”) and Althusser’s account of Marx (the “old” Marx in contrast to the “young” Hegelian Marx as a proto-structuralist, and which is “true”). Again, looking to the more overtly politically charged debates in the 1970s, there was the issue of “the newly-discovered” Antonio Gramsci and whether the “true” Gramsci was a proto-Eurocommunist or a creative Leninist — the “truth” criterion again depending on the potentially shared understandings of different commentators. Germane to this discussion on Kautsky is whether he was, for example, a “renegade” after 1914, and therefore in his later years should no longer be a member of the Marxist club, so to speak, and no longer “our truth.”

This “as-truth” dimension flows into the wider question of how to live with and without Marx(ism). Contexts in all their kaleidoscopic dimensions change, as do theoretical paradigms, prompting constant re-evaluation of perhaps our most treasured thoughts and beliefs, of what to reaffirm, of what to reject, and of what to combine with other perspectives in order to achieve emancipatory goals. And such reasoning leads us on to a post-Marxist terrain. Indeed, in this discussion, when exploring Kautsky’s legacy and contemporary relevance, there are signs of this way of thinking, of “living” with and without Kautsky, of living with one of his “spirits” (or “ghosts,” to use a Derridean formulation).

Jason Wright, in contrast to the other panelists, prefers not to live with any of Kautsky’s “spirits” — although Lenin’s “ghost” seems not too far away! To remain with Kautsky, Wright argues, would be anachronistic, as Kautsky’s Marxism was too much a product of its time, and the “truth” about Kautsky suggests that he was not a “true” Marxist, as he showed no explicit commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat and had little faith in the working class’ potential as a revolutionary class. The proletariat was an “immovable object” in contrast to Luxemburg’s depiction of it as an “irresistible force,” and was an expression of Kautsky’s political passivity in general that stemmed from a one-sided determinism. Although Wright does retreat from the “dictatorship of the proletariat” charge in the light of subsequent discussion, he still maintains that Kautsky had “illusions in the bourgeois state, implicitly preferring Lenin’s state-smashing dual-power formulation.

An alternative portrayal of Kautsky can be offered, suggesting that he was faithful to the “spirit” of Marxism, that his position rested upon Marxist fundamentals, meaning, above all, that working-class self-emancipation, requiring a multifaceted democratic practice, should be at the center of the socialist project, and that political action was always condition-dependent. Strategy and tactics involved not merely an analysis of economic and social formation but “superstructural” or “cultural” considerations. An allowance had to be made for the “institutions, manners, and traditions of different countries,” as Marx stated at the 1872 Hague Congress of the First International. There could be no strategic fetishization. Yet in contrast to the anarchist and Blanquist perspective, strategy and tactics could involve working “within” and “against” the bourgeois state without illusions. The effect would be to increase the space for workers’ political and economic mobilization and the sense of political efficacy necessary to become a ruling class, to become capitalism’s “grave-diggers.” With all these considerations in mind, Marx hoped to avoid the “will” principle of politics that had either come to nothing or led to a left-wing authoritarianism implicitly modelled on the French Jacobins. There is little evidence that Kautsky thought any differently. Indeed, in strategic terms, Kautsky’s focus on working-class political efficacy has interesting parallels with the late Eric Olin Wright’s advocacy of “eroding” capitalism.

This brings us to the larger question of the relationship of theory and practice in Marxism. Theory can only take us so far. The contingent world in which Marxists operate is full of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, of events, external pressures demanding an active and immediate response for which there is no ready-made script, that can derail even the most perfect theory/practice relationship. Marxists, as Marx himself said, do not make history in circumstances of their own choosing. What Kautsky actually did in 1914 and during the rupturing events that followed cannot be logically derived from his prior strategic formulations. Likewise, Lenin’s actions after 1917 in outlawing even sympathetic opposition parties and setting up the Cheka in 1918 cannot be judged in this light. And once the Bolsheviks were installed, the soviets, for all sorts of reasons, were hardly crucibles of workers’ self-emancipation as implied in his The State and Revolution (1917). There was little of the dialogical vanguardism between party and soviet as suggested in his immediate, pre-revolutionary writings. An analysis of their various texts to see what is dead and living is far more useful today than the “bad” ad hominem accusations of a practice that does not necessarily follow from one’s theory.

Wright suggests that there is little to be learned from Kautsky’s determinism, passivity, and pessimistic view of working-class revolutionary capacities and political efficacy. Much of the recent literature on Kautsky offers a more nuanced view of the determinism/passivity couplet and his relationship to Darwin. In any case, Kautsky’s Marxism can be seen as an updating elaboration of the Communist Manifesto (1848), which drips with dialectical thought, notwithstanding any explicit reference to “the dialectic.” Indeed, the working through of the dialectic in its objective form in Marx’s and Kautsky’s hands points to a necessary resolution in a classless society. It is this notion of a teleological, historical necessity that has often led to charges of determinism, of historical inevitability, not merely in Marx’s case, but in Kautsky’s too. Furthermore, estimation of the revolutionary capabilities of the proletariat could have sprung just as easily from what Kautsky saw and what were the necessary conditions for its self-emancipation. Its liberation entailed far more than the overthrow of the bourgeois state. It had to possess the political and administrative skills and the organizational capacity to become a new ruling class. True, Kautsky could be seen as someone who wanted to get all his ducks in a row, so to speak, through democratic practice well established before a revolution, but his dilemma points to a problem that all egalitarian radicals have to face in one way or another of having to make judgements not in conditions of their own choosing.

The other panelists are far less dismissive of Kautsky, whether of his historical reputation (the “truth” about him) or of his contemporary relevance (as “truth”). In Ben Lewis’s case, this is true at least up to a point. For Lewis, Kautsky’s significance as the unwitting “architect” of the October 1917 revolution has never been stressed enough. Yet, Kautsky “collapsed” as a thinker during the First World War and after. Lewis’s striking assertion about Kautsky’s influence would require much more solid argumentation than is offered. As it stands, to use a Leninist phrase, too much stick bending seems to be involved. Prima facie, Lenin, to be clear in his own mind about what had to be done, had to break with Kautsky, who seemed to have abandoned the Marxist notion of proletarian dictatorship and the attendant need to “smash” the state, and whose theory of imperialism failed to acknowledge that the World War that constituted the final crisis of capitalism. If Lenin still agreed with Kautsky on, for example, the need for a worker/peasant alliance, this hardly suggests that Kautsky was the revolution’s “architect.” Of course, if Lewis is correct about Kautsky’s crypto-Bolshevism or Lenin’s crypto-Kautskyianism, then many on the U.S. Left who are attracted to Kautsky might have second thoughts.

Further, if Lewis is correct on this, then Kautsky’s attack on Lenin’s revolutionary strategy — of which Kautsky was the “architect” — implies that in rejecting his own principles, his Marxist apostasy was even greater than has so far been acknowledged. This proposition could also give greater force to the suggestion that Kautsky “collapsed” as a thinker. Again, this line of argument would require some elaboration, especially an engagement with his writings on the Soviet Union (something flagged by fellow panelist, Chris Cutrone), such as Bolshevism at a Deadlock (1931). Such texts suggest that Kautsky was ploughing a rather lonely Marxist furrow, remaining true to the central Marxist vision of proletarian self-emancipation through democracy, amid all the leftist adulation of the Soviet Union (excepting, for example, Trotsky’s followers and the council communists). True, Lewis proposes that this self-emancipatory vision was also at the core of Bolshevism and needs to be “rediscovered.” Perhaps that was at least by implication the later Kautsky’s point. This vision had been lost in the revolution’s aftermath, the result of having to respond to many unforeseen contingencies, paving the way, incrementally, for a left-wing authoritarianism, something that Kautsky, following Marx, was determined to oppose.

We have to return to another element that was key to Kautsky’s Marxism: the condition-dependency principle that determined the material, institutional, and cultural possibilities for and limits of political action. From the start, he was skeptical about the possibility that the Soviet Union could go for socialism alone, and asserted that Lenin was taking a huge gamble in adopting a socialist agenda in 1917 without the immediate and necessary support of successful proletarian revolutions in advanced capitalist countries. Thus, for various reasons, the question of whether there were really “two” fundamentally contrasting Kautskys, the pre-revolutionary and the post-revolutionary, remains an open one. Of course thinkers change their mind on various issues and develop over time, but we need some detail in Kautsky’s case to show that he “collapsed” as a thinker, or to indicate what is meant by this term. True, he didn’t have any answers that could resolve the crisis of the SPD during and after the World War, and Lenin’s thinking had far greater historical purchase, but insofar as he analyzed the world through a Marxist optic, he was still able to offer fresh insights into the nature of Soviet Russia, and his critique of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath was not that far from many, more left-wing critiques.

Leaving this question aside, apart from Wright, the panelists affirm the “spirit” of Kautsky as our contemporary in terms of his ideal of a mass democratic and revolutionary workers’ party, representing the “unfinished work and task of history” (Cutrone and Lewis) — a reminder that egalitarian radicals ought to see the bigger picture beyond the struggle for piecemeal reforms (Lewis) and to move beyond identity politics to something more universalistic (Sacks). It would seem then that for the panelists, Kautsky is more of an inspiration than a practical guide. His value lies more in what he represented than in providing a comprehensive set of theoretical tools for revolution. Yet in concluding this, aren’t we merely reaffirming Marx’s relevance? Isn’t Kautsky’s “spirit” in reality that of Marx and the later Engels, a partial fulfilment of the promise of the Communist Manifesto, with its optimism, its commitment to workers’ self-emancipation, its opposition to sectarianism, its historical teleology, its concrete economic, social and political analysis, and so forth? For the uninitiated, Kautsky’s writings might, however, have certain “gateway” properties!

And if we want to go beyond Marx, doesn’t the fecundity of Gramsci’s thought offer deep reflections on both the failure of Marxism to become working-class “common sense” in the West while offering hope through a refashioning of Marxism’s theoretical tools, especially in the notion of “hegemony”? From this it might be possible to see that the distinction between “class” and “identity” politics is potentially a false one, that Marx through his class-in-itself / class-for-itself distinction was constructing a hegemonic revolutionary identity for the working class. In other words, can we not see the question of identity as at the heart of fundamental political mobilization? Of course the task of creating a mobilizing intersectional narrative which should be at the heart of a democratic socialism is not easy. Kautsky’s thought, however, is a valuable reminder that such a narrative needs Marx’s values and insights.

[1] “Kautsky in the 21st century,” Platypus Review 136 (2021), <>.

[2] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1979).