Karl Kautsky

[Autobiographical Sketch]

(1899 or 1900)

Karl Kautsky, The Social Democrat, December 1902.
Transcribed by Adam Buick.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the following pages I have essayed to reproduce, in abbreviated form, an autobiography which our distinguished comrade wrote for Russian Socialists. I have kept to the original as much as possible, but can only regret that the requirements of space rendered a complete reproduction impossible.

J.B. Askew

Russian comrades have requested me to write an autobiography for them. I felt that I could not do this. My personality, alone, is not important enough to make it worth while to follow up my career. Certainly a description of those phases of the party life which I have seen, and the personalities with whom I have come in contact, might afford an instructive appendix to the history of the party. But to gather my memoirs in this sense is a task for which I have neither time nor place. Our strength is too much absorbed by the struggle for the future to leave much over for the description of the past.

But there are recollections of the past which throw light on the struggles of the present, and if a slight sketch of such reminiscences suffices for the Russian comrades, I am ready to give it.

I was born in Prague in 1854, the offspring of an international marriage. My father was Czech, my mother German, and both parents sprang in their turn from similarly mixed marriages.

Though this, from birth, inclined to internationalism, I was in the first place forced into a Nationalist attitude. In 1863 my parents moved to Vienna, the population of which, at that time, were extremely bitter against the Czechs. I was treated with contempt in school as a Czech, and I was only able to assert myself by placing myself in opposition to my surroundings and despising them.

I mention this here because I think that this remark has more than a personal interest. If we examine more closely those elements which come to us out of bourgeois circles, we shall find that an uncommonly large percentage among them are formed from elements which in their proper bourgeois surroundings did not rank on even terms, from one reason or another.

In Germany and Austria, for example, most of the Socialists who come to us from bourgeois circles are Jews.

In those very years, nevertheless, in which my political thinking developed in Austria, not the Jews, but the Czechs were the persecuted people, a people who with all their strength strained at their chains. Treason and hatred of the monarchy were at that time natural to every Czech; the Hussite traditions were cherished. What wonder then that the smashing up of Austria, the founding of a Bohemian Republic, became my ideal!

Then came the war of 1870. My sympathies were on the side of France, as was common among the Czechs. However, as the uprising of the Paris Commune followed, my revolutionary instincts conquered, and I transferred my sympathies to this rising. From that time on I read eagerly everything which I could obtain about Socialism, especially works of or about the French Socialists and the French Revolution. I was also influenced by Heine, Buckle, Mill, Darwin, and the German Darwinists, Haeckel and Buchner.

In 1874 I decided to join the Austrian Social-Democrats, and placed myself at their disposal. As long as I was a University student I contributed anonymously to the Austrian and German party press. At that time the party was undergoing a crisis. In consequence of the depression in industry, the Labour organisations lost all strength. In addition, the party was divided internally. The same divergence of view which to-day affects Socialism everywhere then divided the Austrian Socialists. On the one side was the Oberwinder section, which advocated friendship with the Liberal bourgeoisie, and that we should confine ourselves to the immediately practical; on the other hand, there was the Scheu section, which raised the revolutionary banner, and insisted that Socialist propaganda among the masses was equally important. I never hesitated a moment, but joined Scheu, not from clear perception but from revolutionary impulse.

Then came the period of reconciliation. In Germany, where it was more a question of the form of organisation and of personality, the suppression by the Government of the Lassallean organisation led to unity. In Austria unity came about after the Opportunist leaders had proved their incapacity and disappeared from the party, and after this had itself so utterly sunk in importance, that agitation seemed its only hope. But the differences had not disappeared, and came again to the fore as soon as there was again opportunity for practical work. The new split was brought about by the loosening of the close ties which, up to the time of the Socialist Law, existed between the German and the Austrian Socialists. Up to October, 1878, the German party was our model. Then it disappeared, apparently entirely. We Austrians conceived that it was not equal to the situation, and had succumbed to the rigour of the exceptional law. We were dissatisfied that our German friends did not resist the measures of Bismarck’s Government. We were delighted when at last Johann Most founded the Freiheit in London, which was the first sign of life, where he uncompromisingly denounced German misgovernment, and also criticised our comrades. That I was now among the contributors to the Freiheit is natural.

Even before the Socialist Law I had completed my first big work on the Influences of the Increase of Population on the Progress of Society. This was directed in the most essential points against the Marxian theory. I joined the Party, not as a clear Marxist, but as a sentimental Revolutionary, and my horror was to fall under the influence of an “authority” or a “school”. Very mistrustfully I made a study of Marx and Engels, and the less I understood, the more I felt called on to criticise them. That is a phenomenon which I have since then been able to observe in hundreds of others. It will be understood that I am somewhat callous to that style of refutation of Marx, and that that appears to me a youthful malady of the Socialist student, what to the latter is a result of scientific maturity. To refute Marx is much easier than to understand him. With the first I began. I held that the weakest spot in our theory was its attitude towards the population question, and I wrote my book to correct it in that respect.

However, I took, despite my antipathy to the authority of Marx, the position of Marxism on two very important questions.

One was the conviction that the proletariat must win its own emancipation in fight against all the propertied classes, a view which met my inclinations, as political experience in Austria and elsewhere showed the decay of Liberalism and bourgeois democracy.

The other point was the materialist conception of history. I had applied myself to history at the University, but was also enthusiastic over Darwinism. My ideal was the introduction of Darwinism into history. As student I formed a plan, which was never carried out, to write a Universal History, in which the leading idea should be the struggle for existence of races and classes, my idea resembled Gumplowicz’s race-war theory. But as a Socialist I could not be content to limit myself to the race-struggle as a factor of progress. I could not ignore the factor of economic development, which forms the classes and the class struggle. The more I occupied myself with the economic history the more had, in my view, the purely Darwinian factor of struggle for existence of races given way to the Marxian of the struggle of classes.

Thus I became first, as historian, a Marxist, even while I remained, as a Socialist, entangled in the toils of the eclecticism which then flourished in our midst, with only this difference, that in my Lassalleanism, which formed for us all in Germany the theoretical foundation, were mixed French elements – somewhat antiquated, but filed with the spirit of the French Revolution – from Louis Blanc, Blanqui, and even Rousseau.

My student days came to an end. I must choose a profession. Luckily the chance opened itself for me to devote my attention to the party, and it came from an opponent of Marxism. Hochberg, a well-to-do student who had founded a Socialist review in the seventies, was forced, just before the Socialist Law, to spend the winter in the mild climate of the Italian lakes. He took Edward Bernstein, then a clerk in a bank, as private secretary. In Lugano they met Malon, a semi-Anarchist, semi-State Socialist thinker. I do not know if Hochberg and Bernstein had more influence on Malon than the reverse.

Thanks to Hochberg’s interest for the German Social-Democracy and generous assistance, the party was largely able to withstand the blow dealt on it by the Socialist Law.

In 1879 Hochberg and Bernstein moved to Zurich, in order from there to help the propaganda of the party, and after one or two attempts at scientific reviews, the Sozialdemokrat was founded at Hochberg’s expense, as a set off to Most’s Freiheit, and to give the party an organ of their own.

For this ,however, literary talent was required. That was not easy to find. The Socialist Law had deprived the party editors, &c., of their livelihood, many were gone to America, the weaker ones deserted to the camp of the bourgeoisie, and even many of those who remained true, found it better not to compromise themselves by party work. Those literary people who remained had their hands full.

Hochberg turned to Austria and invited me to come and work on his literary undertaking.

I was delighted with the prospect of working for the great German party.

Certainly Hochberg’s position was diametrically opposed to mine. He hated the revolution and the class war. He hoped to win large sections of the bourgeoisie, therefore did not want to offend them. The historic materialism was his aversion, but he was no fighter, and still more unpleasant to him than the fight with the bourgeoisie was the internal feud. And the times were not suitable for picking and choosing of colleagues. It was a matter of collecting all possible forces for the common struggle. Thus Vollmar, then very revolutionary, was made editor, and I appointed to the staff, although I expressed my sympathy with Most, a sympathy which did not, however, last very long, as Most’s Radicalism soon took most ridiculous forms. In the meantime, the Sozialdemokrat, under Vollmar, expressed my views, and those of the bulk of the party. I owe it to Hochberg that I was emancipated from my Austrian surroundings and given a larger sphere of influence, without any attempt on his part to interfere with the expression of my views.

Hochberg, however, offended the greater part of the party by a highly tactless article which he wrote anonymously, with others, where he told the party that their revolutionary phrases were partly to blame for the promulgation of the Socialist Law, and they must be more conciliatory, &c. ... The storm of indignation caused by this led to Hochberg’s separation from the party with his collaborators, his withdrawal of his subvention from the Sozialdemokrat, which, however, no longer needed it.

In the meantime, however, 1881, I had been sent to London and here I made – the turning point of my life – the acquaintance of Marx and Engels, and also of Bernstein, with the latter of whom I struck up a brotherhood in arms that was almost ideal. Logical Marxism was always much too uncomfortable a theory, too exacting to embrace even all those in our ranks who agreed with the Communist manifesto. The majority were always strongly influenced, but agreed more in the results than in the methods with logical Marxism. Also, we had elements which did not accept Marxism at all. And thus it came that in the Sozialdemokrat, the editorship of which was then taken over by Bernstein, we represented the left wing of the party, and championed those principles. In 1883 I took up the editorship of the Neue Zeit in Stuttgart, which was founded to provide, along with the Sozialdemokrat, a monthly organ of logical Marxism, as it appeared under the regime of the exceptional law.

In 1885 I moved to London to be nearer Engels, and lived till 1890 in almost constant communication with this intellectual giant and studying in the British Museum. It was a blissful period of intellectual enjoyment. During this period I wrote my Thomas More, Class Struggles in France, books which are my favourites among my own productions.

In 1888 Bernstein, with the staff of the Sozialdemokrat, was expelled from Switzerland and came to London, and thus our comradeship-in-arms became apparently more firmly established than ever.

However, an event occurred which was destined to turn our friendship into the sharpest antagonism. In 1890 the Socialist Law came to an end. The consequence was the abandonment of the Sozialdemokrat and the transformation of the Neue Zeit from a monthly to a weekly organ, on which Bernstein and I were to work together. As the editor must be on the spot, I came to Stuttgart. Bernstein was compelled to remain out of Germany. The time of my historical studies was over, my whole energies were now taken up with that practical work which had been impossible to me in England. I had now to deal with living problems of the day. My subsequently published History of Socialism formed only an echo of my London studies. Since then my books have all dealt with controverted questions of the day – my book on Parliamentarism, the Agrarian Question, and, alas! my Anti-Bernstein.

Bernstein’s activity since 1890 has taken quite another character. He had now no more to fight for the German proletariat, but to observe the English. He had, however, taken Marxism rather as a guide in the fight than as a help to observation. Now that he had to study, he had no more confidence. The old eclecticism begun to influence him again.

The English surroundings encouraged these inclinations; among these the indifference of the English worker to all that does not promise immediate results, and the amount of sympathy in English middle-class circles for a kind of philanthropic Socialism. I ascribe the latter to the fact that such a large proportion of English capital is invested abroad, so that the capitalists in question are not so directly interested in the exploitation of English labour.

Anyhow, discouraged by the failure to convert the workers, a number of English Socialists attempted to convert the bourgeoisie. This school, the Fabians, had a policy very similar to Hochberg, and Bernstein could not withstand their influence.

So long as Engels lived, and the old fighting spirit remained alive in him, these influences were counteracted by the charm of his personality. But Engels died in 1895, and at the same time began a period of good trade, which caused, even in sections of the workers, a tendency to contentment.

What influenced Bernstein most I cannot say. Enough! The antagonism is there, and is irreconcilable. It, however, is a very old phenomenon – the difference between the Chartists and the Ownenites, the Labour movement and middle-class philanthropic Socialism. The conflict is certainly generally more or less confused by side issues. To me, and that is the main point, my, to me, painful fight with Bernstein appears as a conflict of principles; to Bernstein as a personal one. Certainly, what I fight today as Bernsteinism, I have always fought since I joined the party. And what I have learnt in the 25 years of my membership has only made me surer of my ground. The way to our ideals is longer and more thorny than I thought, much has turned out different to what I anticipated; but if I regard what we Socialists have achieved, measured not by my pious wishes or by the span of an individual life, but as a historian and not as a fighter, then we can look on this quarter of a century with the satisfaction that we are considerably nearer our goal.

When I joined, the party was still a small band of enthusiasts; to-day it is everywhere a political factor of first importance. And if the general political and social progress does not advance, that is the consequence of the disappearance of middle-class democrats, who have abandoned to us the work of combating and defeating reaction, and that we will do. But, consequently, the present time is a time of preparation for tremendous struggles, political and social.

To see, and as a fellow-fighter, to outlive, these struggles, is my deepest wish.


Last updated on 17.9.2004