Karl Kautsky

The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

Alexander Gallus

Translator’s Introduction

Karl Kautsky lived and wrote in a world and time when the growing organizational strength of the proletariat seemed to point inevitably towards communist society. In 1908, at the time that Kautsky wrote The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx, German revolutionary Social-Democracy was at the height of its power, having in the year prior won almost a third of all votes in the German federal election; and by all accounts, so was Kautsky himself at 53 years of age. As the foremost theoretician of Social-Democracy, he would go on to write three of his most memorable and influential books within that and the following year. German Social-Democracy, as the country’s largest party, seemed inevitably poised to take power, not only in the dreams of its hundreds of thousands of dedicated Marxist members but in the nightmares and diaries of the ruling classes. The growing and entrenched socialist opposition parties in the more or less advanced industrial nations, including Germany and the 25 other parties that made up the Second International, were a living testament to the prophecy and promise of Marxism.

The demonstrative vigor and organizational strength of the working class at that moment can understandably appear to many today as a distant memory, like a dream that one struggles to remember. In the midst of a historic pandemic and global health crisis, and after decades of decline for the power of organized labor, millions of workers feel isolated and powerless to change the hazardous and cruel conditions of work forced upon them, not to speak of radically transforming society itself. Due to the impotent nature of our thoroughly debt-burdened capitalist economy and the developing economic depression, it appears unlikely that there will be relief anytime soon for most of the millions of Americans who have been laid off. But while the forced closure of most non-essential businesses, undertaken (far too late) in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, has left an unprecedented number of Americans unemployed, countless workers in essential economic sectors have realized their ability and the desperate need to fight for better conditions of work. The crisis is so blatantly a disaster exacerbated by the greedy callousness of big business that many workers are now protesting and organizing to preserve their health, and indeed their lives.

In a time like this, there is a pressing need to articulate the idea that there is and ought to be more to the working class’s struggle than straightforward economic concessions won from employers. It is certainly true that the most direct and palpable struggle of the individual worker resisting exploitation in the hospital, factory, shipping and fulfillment center, or grocery store is the arena from which the most elementary class awareness springs. However, this most reliable and elementary class awareness attained by the millions through organizing in the economic struggle must be developed and brought to higher forms of awareness through agitation, education and other forms of organization. As Marxists, we believe that the short-sighted system of capitalism is governed by laws which in effect doom it to repeat the catastrophes of economic and social crisis, with the ensuing senseless human suffering, year after year, decade after decade. Only a historic “catastrophe” in the form of a consciously political-social revolution, the takeover of all levels of society by the proletariat, can win against the true catastrophes flung by capitalism against life itself.

With the fall of the USSR and actually-existing socialism, capitalism with its American militarism has engulfed the world in its cynical debt-fueled logic and threatens to fully incinerate it in more ways than one – economic collapse, climate change, disease, war, etc. Imperialism, the subjugation of the world’s weaker economies and peoples by the wealthier ones, is unfortunately (contrary to deep-rooted bourgeois and chauvinist sentiment) as powerful a world force as ever. Predatory business plans and loans to the third world, demanding steep interest payments, incessantly threaten to extinguish human development and the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings. When workers of the first world suffer with economic collapse, workers of the third world die. As a consequence of this unfolding global system, with nothing but negligent contempt for the human being, we have seen a resurgence of working-class resistance and rebellion that could be called historic in its size and tenacity. From the Andes mountains of Latin America to the Western Ghats of India, militant resistance of hundreds of millions of workers in the global south to the violations of their political rights and economic interests has rekindled the flames of class struggle many had thought extinguished. Within the “core” countries of Western Europe and North America, there are now also hopeful signs of a comeback of a militant and courageous working class.

In the wake of the turmoil of the Great Recession and perpetually rising inequality, Karl Marx became a figure that appeared not only on the radical left as an admirable or at least valuable thinker. To the extent that Marxism has so far made a comeback in western societies, the truth of the matter is that it has made it only on the outskirts of the organized working class; it has made it on the fringes of bourgeois academia, among isolated intellectuals, and has found attraction once more in a section of the petty-bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the majority of organized union members in the United States are often seen on the radical left as undesirable targets of socialist agitation, education, and organization. While America’s union membership rate may still be at historic lows, levels almost not seen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s, income inequality has been perpetually on the rise while hazardous conditions of work are now being faced by many workers with few benefits. The economic and political future of this country is, by almost all accounts and commentaries, troublesome. If the left and a project for the liberation of humanity is to prevail over the bourgeois alternatives akin to one sort or another of exploitative authoritarianism or fascism, it will require a large and unprecedented effort certain of its scientific outlook.

Karl Kautsky’s summation and lessons in this book, vital not only to a historical understanding of Marxism but to the actual project of changing the world, give us an example of this outlook. Born to a German mother and Czech father in Prague, Kautsky went on to study in Vienna, where he became a member of the Social-Democratic Party. Moving to Zurich in 1880 during the time of the German Empire’s anti-socialist laws, Kautsky helped smuggle propaganda over the border and met Eduard Bernstein. Soon after becoming friends with Friedrich Engels and visiting him and Marx in England, Kautsky started the journal Die Neue Zeit in 1883. As the man whom Lenin called “the Pope of Marxism,” Kautsky rose to prominence when the German Social-Democratic Party asked him to draft the party’s groundbreaking Erfurt Program in 1891. It was this revolutionary and Marxist minimum–maximum program which demanded and upheld the loyalties of the broad spectrum of Social-Democratic Party members for decades.

It is something of an understatement to say that it is not enough to simply have faith that history is on our side and that the contradictions of capitalism will do our work for us. This is hopefully becoming more and more clear, not only because of the obvious fact that the working class needs to be prepared in a myriad ways to effectively govern, but because crises and upticks in labor militancy do not in fact equate by themselves to political unity of the class. Nor do unreachable demands by socialist radicals in the labor movement, through transitional demands or calls for an immediate general strike, help to develop a common goal for the class. Such demands and proposals to the working class are unfortunately attractive to many because of their expedient substitution for the patient work of Marxist agitation, education, and political organization. Beside their evidentiary historical unviability as means for the working class to actually win power (without the necessary prerequisites at the very least), calls for transitional demands and other such measures function as shortcuts and are more often than not excuses for a lack of willingness to enter into often unpopular contradiction with popular desires and impulses.

It is as well hard to fathom in what world the entrenched oppositional politics to be found throughout most of Karl Kautsky’s life can be used to justify a politics today which passes as “Kautskyist” while openly celebrating class collaboration and advancing the concept of winning “hegemony” within the existing bourgeois state. If anything, the biggest strength of Karl Kautsky’s thought lies in his oppositional strategy of patience, the commitment to the building of a mass party and the development of a communist program. For comrades today to, on the one hand, sing Kautsky’s praises and claim to “uphold” his legacy while on the other encouraging socialists to tail bourgeois campaigns and aspire to positions in bourgeois government is problematic to say the least. Surely what has been lacking so far has not been a rudimentary socialist sympathy among the people, of which there is plenty, even though organized labor has yet to benefit from this impressively growing sympathy.

America’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, currently has a reported annual revenue of $113 million. As released reports have shown, the presidency of Richard Trumpka has seen the union spend less than ten percent of its revenue on actual organizing last year. At the same time, millions upon millions of members’ dollars were spent on venal political contributions and lavish salaries for bureaucrats. If organized labor wants to reawaken from its slumber, it needs to reorient itself towards class struggle, and this means class unity. As Kautsky makes clear, it is socialist theory which is vital in building a mass conception and reality of class unity. Marxists today who reject industrial organizing and coordinated revolutionary activity within unions demonstrate narrow theoretical obsessions at best, or cynical treason to the fate and promise of our working people at worst. While there are still real differences among Marxists on issues that can and must not be glossed over, we should take steps towards being exemplars for the class that we must organize through developing a ready unity of action. Regardless of comrades’ abundant sectarian impulses or doubts, the fact remains that while Karl Marx was clear about politics being the highest expression of class struggle, he was equally explicit that communists should not see themselves as separate from the movements of proletarians.

In the United States, the long-standing decline of organized labor along with our increasingly corrupt politics has seen Democrats cater almost exclusively to the interests of capital at the cost of working-class voters and their objective interests. While the traditional two-party system of American politics has successfully branded itself as an insurmountable part of how politics here are done, there are many curious facets to this system which expose its vulnerability. American political parties function like ad hoc fundraising committees, formed by rival swarms of established politicians and public figures, and less so like traditional parties that charge dues to members, build up party infrastructure and have well-developed full-time organizational capacity.

The populist and social-democratic campaign of Bernie Sanders had twenty-three organizing offices in California (compared to Joe Biden’s three) and won that presidential primary state contest. Funded by an unprecedented number of overwhelmingly working-class donors giving small amounts, the campaign built up a sizable infrastructure. The question of course is this: what happens to all that energy, experience, and infrastructure now that Sanders has been elbowed out of the Democratic primary once again? This is a question we need to be ready to answer if we do not want the movement to lose out to feelings of defeat and despair. Even though the Sanders campaign unified and mobilized millions of people to fight for a society based on the working class’s principle of solidarity, there are only so many defeats and dead ends people will be able to tolerate without losing morale.

While voter turn-out among young and poor people in fact rose, albeit not as much as desired, there is a great deal of justified apathy towards voting in this country. Despite an undeniable resurgence of the working class as an actor in the electoral arena, widespread political corruption abounds, with thousands of polling stations in working-class and minority neighborhoods being closed, voters waiting in line for five or more hours to vote, voter purge lists getting rid of millions of cast ballots, mass cancellations of voters’ registrations, rigged computer voting systems, disputed vote counts, the caucus recount debacle in the Iowa Democratic Party, and so on. And this is not to mention the coordinated campaign by the corporate media and the Democratic establishment to stop the “socialist Sanders.” All these are examples of why there has been good reason for socialists to not share the unbounded electoral enthusiasm some comrades have had. As the Electoral Integrity Project from Harvard reported three years ago, out of the 28 states that had exit polling in the 2016 election, a whopping 25 of them had exit-poll differences outside of the margin of error from the final result in the primary, and 19 of them in the general election. Thus, according to the US government’s own standards for evaluating other countries’ electoral integrity, 89% of our primary and 68% of our general elections were fraudulent. Reports of voter suppression in, as well as exit poll data from the 2020 elections definitely suggest that this trend has increased. As the investigative reporter Greg Palast has put it, in the United States of America you have the right to vote, just not the right to have it counted.

All this is not to say that the political situation is hopeless; quite the contrary. Independent leftist media is steadily growing. Bernie Sanders and his campaign have helped to embolden millions of workers and borrowed admirably from the moral legacy of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. With the “democratic road to socialism” barred once more through blatantly undemocratic means, one can hope that campaigns of civil disobedience to fight for electoral and other reforms will eventually take root. This was, incidentally, one of Kautsky’s conceptions of what shape a proletarian revolution would take. But politics and democracy, however much the American ruling class would have us believe the contrary, are not simply played out on the electoral front. For revolutionary parties, electoral politics serves primarily as a tool of propaganda and an indicator of relative strength. While the Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden nominally have widespread support, the status quo and decrepit system they champion is built on a marshy foundation; their support is a very superficial one, not based on a programmatic, close, and collaborative relationship between a committed mass membership and elected representatives of a party, but rather on the support of hypocritical individualists and those public figures that the corporate media tell us “matter.”

In opposition to this dreary morass of decadence and overwhelming corruption there must develop not only a movement that expresses the righteous anger of the untold billions of oppressed from all around the world, but a mass socialist party-movement. Besides organizing the working class, we should as well strive to inspire the diverse movements for justice with the certainty of scientific socialism and clarify the historical conditions under and for which humanity is struggling. Whereas some socialists today advocate for a third type of party that aims to govern effectively (over the bourgeois state), gaining trust from the working class is not done by electing esteemed senators, honorable judges of our own, nor by sowing further illusions in bourgeois politics, but by throwing off the cloak of bourgeois society, organizing and fighting side by side with the working class, shop floor by shop floor, community by community. We must be honest with the people whom we seek to bring into the movement for the future, honest and clear about our ultimate aims and the sacrifices entailed if we are to win the struggle against barbarism. The isolated struggles of all workers must become our own, and the struggle of humanity consciously become the cause of all workers. Most importantly, and most difficult for many, we must not bend or kowtow to reactionary attitudes we face in the working class, but face its diverse and sometimes hostile attitudes to socialism with an open mind, yet unshakeable faith in the righteousness of the cause of labor and in its ultimate triumph over ignorance and division. We have to struggle assuredly for the unity of the class, readying it for collective action and international solidarity.
In order for the working class to effectively build such solidarity, it cannot be restrained or corrupted by the always extant yellow or right-wing trade unionist bureaucrats, as it more often than not is. The working class’s most advanced leaders and organizers should, however, also not fall prey to shortcuts to winning the working class to its objective class interest: socialism. Nice-sounding slogans, radical demands, and demonstrative actions of activist “grassroots campaigns,” regardless of the amount of individual activist labor invested in them, historically do little to challenge the most common power relations within unions or actually advance the communist program within them. What is in fact effective and needed is the development of left programmatic unity and consequently a conscious and concerted effort by the left in large numbers to enter the labor movement, fight for the program in the working class, and attain the financial means to build a mass-media apparatus.

As Kautsky explains in an important explication of his Erfurt Program, it is the duty of Marxists not only to labor to bring about the political unity of socialism with the workers’ movement as outlined in The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx, but furthermore to advance the struggle for democratic rights in broader society and to “build a state within a state.” While he elaborates on the social democratic demand to replace the bourgeoisie’s standing armies with a people’s militia, it is true that Kautsky throughout does not explicitly point towards a violent confrontation between this rising socialist party-movement and the state; yet this does not make him less radical today. Kautsky’s strategy of patiently building a proletarian opposition and his revolutionary writings are of lasting importance because they are altogether much more resolute, congruent, and informed by a lucid wisdom than one usually sees on the left today. Under the conditions of “civilized” bourgeois democracy, it is clearly much more productive, far-sighted, and actually revolutionary to build a principled, civil, mass opposition – one that exploits all possible legal means to grow its power, which seeks to challenge bourgeois authority and culture in all corners of society – than it is to dream of theoretical communist utopias and spontaneous revolutions to bring them about. This political struggle to challenge bourgeois authority must not only be a challenge to the legitimacy of the institutions of capitalism and its servants, but a challenge for the legitimacy of our own democratic institutions and party, our state within the state. It goes without saying that if the narrow confines of bourgeois law continue to not only demonstrate their inability to address the growing injustices of capitalism, but actually enhance them and criminalize the inevitable and necessary proletarian rebellions against this order, a socialist adherence to strict legality will meet its limits.

The acutely predictable catastrophic possibilities of our world today, of an apparently unstoppable climate change spurring on the development of ever more diseases, a deep economic depression, and the collection of social crises that are on display in the “advanced” capitalist societies – from income inequality, corruption, racism, the brutal carceral state, to sexism and more – nonetheless hang like a dark, stifling cloud over the heads of all who possess even an ounce of critical thought. The collection of crises needing to be fixed will not disappear any time soon. It appears to many that we live in a time when the world is in fact rushing towards mass extinction and humanity is lost. Every once in a while, however, history’s unusual circumstances bring forward movements and individuals who redeem confidence in humanity’s ability to acclaim a better and more egalitarian future. To Kautsky, it is clear that Karl Marx was such an individual.

Sharing this previously untranslated work with the English-speaking world has, to the translator, much more purpose than just another simple academic exercise. The leftist “common wisdom” on Karl Kautsky is one that overlooks Kautsky’s insight and revolutionary work quite unanimously, to our detriment, as in part IV, the Summary of German, French, and English Thought, where Kautsky gives a glimpse of his opinion on what should be socialists’ attitude towards the armies of the bourgeoisie: sabotage. Quite in contrast to pacifism, he goes on to speak positively of the historical “combativeness” of the Parisians, who repeatedly won concessions from the ruling classes through armed insurrection. Without a doubt, Kautsky read and understood Marx’s lessons from the defeated Paris Commune and, despite the stranglehold of the German censors, must have understood the pinnacle of proletarian organization as necessarily being a centralized government and a fighting force, an army.

While the political situation in the United States was until recently far from one that could be described as a national or revolutionary crisis, the powers that be are not as short-sighted as they often appear. US intelligence services and the Pentagon, for instance, are very aware of the mortal danger that primarily climate change (with its induction of more disease, weather volatility, and indeed famine) can and might spell for US society and its state. If Kautsky was pointing out the French and German armies’ vulnerability to sabotage in 1908, what word would one use to characterize the armies of today? Endangered? Military scholars are more than concerned about the defenselessness of expensive modern armies in wars against relatively low budget combatants. The Houthis have claimed that their drone attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2019, which caused 5% of the world’s oil supply to fall for almost a month, amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for the Saudi royal family, damages caused by drones which likely only cost a few tens of thousands of dollars. The reliance on electricity by modern countries and armies for almost everything is the biggest vulnerability, as it is nearly impossible to adequately protect an electrical grid or store the amount of electricity necessary to power a nation with today’s batteries.

What is clear in these times is that if we want to save humanity from the depths of chaos and a total collapse of civilization, we have to strive for the most rigorous theory that can hold up against our urgent need for practice and build the seeds of a mass proletarian democracy in the shell of class society. Early German Social-Democracy, although it had organizational flaws of its own, stands as a prime example of building a mass Marxist opposition party and proletarian alternative culture. Whereas Kautsky tirelessly defended Marxist orthodoxy, his systematization of the doctrine and “orthodoxy” was not one which betrayed his own intellect nor denied freedom of debate; quite the opposite. Despite widespread accusations of dogmatism, fanaticism, and every other possible absurdity, orthodox Marxism found in its stride many fellow travelers and flourished. A wide variety of socialists regularly published their thoughts in Die Neue Zeit and were allowed to express theoretical challenges, from Austria’s Otto Bauer, Russia’s Alexander Bogdanov and Leon Trotsky, to even Kautsky’s rival Eduard Bernstein. In his own right, Kautsky possessed a lively intellectual interest and continuously analyzed new scientific findings and social developments through the lens of historical materialism.

Clearly recognizable throughout this work and others is the foundational influence of Kautsky’s thought and defense of Marxist orthodoxy against revisionism. Specific words, concepts, and idiosyncrasies that he formulated in his lifelong fight to clarify and defend Marxism breached through history into the future and were picked up by official Communism. The central use of his locutions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by a slew of subsequent Marxist tendencies must be seen in the light of the origins of Marxism as a developing mass phenomenon; without Karl Kautsky’s founding and editorship of the SPD’s legendary weekly Die Neue Zeit, it would be difficult to speculate on this phenomenon. As a number of historians such as Moira Donald and Lars Lih have demonstrated, Kautsky’s thought and tremendous work was vital in the formation of Marxism and the greatest Marxist revolution of human history as of yet: October 1917.


Last updated on 5 November 2020