Karl Kautsky

Epitaph of Lenin

(January 1924)

Written: Vienna, 28 January 1924.
First Published: Izvestia, 1924. [1]
Transcription/Markup: Revolutionary History/Brian Baggins.
Online Version: Kautsky Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2000.

DEAR COMRADE Solski! As you see, at present I am not in Berlin but in Vienna. I did not receive your letter until today, so I was not in a position to respond in time to your invitation. I deeply regret this, as I would very much have liked to join in honouring the dead leader of the proletarian revolution. I may have had grave reservations about the political and economic methods he pursued in his last years; I may personally have been profoundly disparaged by him because of the existing differences between us, and I found even more painful the persecution of elements, socialists included, in Lenin’s sphere of influence who disagreed with his views. But in the moment of death one has to evaluate the whole man, not just a few years of his life, nor just a few aspects of his work, and must put aside all personal grudges. Our differences should not blind us to the importance of his passing.

He was a colossal figure, of only a few whom are to be found in world history. Among the rulers of the great states of our time, there is only one who to some extent comes close to him in impact, and that is Bismarck – and the two have much in common. Their aims were of course diametrically opposed: in the one case, the domination of the Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany; in the other, the proletarian revolution. That is a contrast between water and fire. And Bismarck’s aim was small, that of Lenin tremendously great.

But like the iron chancellor, Lenin too was a man of the most tenacious, unshakeable and daring will. Like him, he grasped very well the significance of armed force in politics and could apply it ruthlessly at the decisive moment. When Bismarck stated that the great problems of the time must be resolved by blood and iron, this was also Lenin’s view.

Of course, neither of them believed that blood and iron were enough on their own. Like Bismarck, Lenin also was a master of diplomacy, the art of deceiving his opponents, of surprising them and discovering their weak points, in order to overturn them. And just like Bismarck if he believed that the road he was on would not to lead to his goal, Lenin was ready, without any reservations, to immediately reverse his course and set out on another road. With the same ease with which Bismarck in 1878 went over from free trade to protectionism, Lenin turned from pure [probably a reference to War CommunismRH] to the ‘NEP’ (New Economic Policy).

But of course, as is self-evident and has already been noted, in addition to similarities between the two there were also differences, and certainly not minor ones, in their aims. Lenin far surpassed Bismarck in his understanding of theory, which he studied enthusiastically, and in his absence of self-interest. Bismarck had no time for theory, and he used the possession of state power for personal gain.

However, Lenin lagged behind Bismarck in his knowledge of foreign countries. Bismarck carefully studied the states, their power and the class relations in them, with which his foreign policy had to deal. Lenin, by contrast, although he lived for decades as an emigrant in Western Europe, still never achieved a full understanding of its political and social peculiarities. His politics, which was completely adapted to the peculiarities within Russia, was with regard to foreign countries based on the expectation of a world revolution, which to anyone who knew Western Europe must have appeared from the start as an illusion. Here we find the profoundest difference between Bismarck and Lenin. The former established his power through the success of his foreign policy, the latter through his domestic policy. The cause of that lies not only in a difference in the type of talents of the two men, but also in a difference in the environments in which they worked.

Bismarck came to power in a country where the masses had already woken to intense political life through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War, and then through the 1848 Revolution. To impose his complete authority over them and to abolish their independent thought and action proved impossible. In that he failed utterly. Lenin by contrast came to power amidst masses who were agitated to an extreme extent because of the war, but who had not yet had the experience of independent political thought and aspirations over further generations, and thus after the waning of the agitation were subordinated without difficulty to the power of Lenin’s superior personality and his comrades.

Here lies the deepest root of Lenin’s great success, but here also the beginnings of my greatest reservations concerning his system. Because the liberation of the proletariat means above all the fullest independence of its thought and activity. Considerable, promising beginnings in that direction already existed in the Russian proletariat before the revolution of 1917. Lenin thus began by granting the proletariat the fullest freedom. But the political and economic consequences of his methods forced him increasingly to restrict it. I will not dwell on this, for here I overstep the bounds of an obituary and turn it into a polemic.

It should also be noted that despite my reservations concerning Lenin’s methods I do not despair of the situation of the Russian revolution. From my standpoint it appears that Lenin may have led the proletarian revolution to victory in Russia, but he was unable to make it bear fruit. In this respect the Russian revolution is not yet finished. It will not be taken to the grave with Lenin.

In Russia, too, the aspirations of the working masses for independence will finally gain acceptance. And then all the fruits, which the Russian revolution contained within it in the greatest abundance, will ripen.

Then will all the working people of Russia, and all the working people of the world, without divisions in the movement, remember with gratitude all their great pioneers, who over decades full of struggle and tribulations prepared the Russian revolution and then led it to victory. And also for those who today stand in opposition to the Communist Party, the name of Lenin will not be missing from this pantheon.

This situation of the unity of the working masses of the world in jointly honouring their fallen hero, in freely working together to build the socialist society, is one I may not yet see, before I follow Lenin into the land from which no traveller ever returns.

Vienna, 28 January 1924



Footnote by Revolutionary History

1. After Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, Karl Kautsky was contacted by Panski-Solski, the Berlin correspondent of the Soviet government’s newspaper Izvestia, and invited to contribute a commemorative article on Lenin. As a vociferous opponent of the Bolshevik regime, who had been memorably denounced by Lenin in the pamphlet Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, the theoretician of German social democracy was no doubt astonished to receive such a request. However, Kautsky accepted Solski’s invitation, and wrote the letter/article which is reprinted below. It was indeed published in Izvestia, accompanied by an editorial introduction commenting that even “an open enemy of Leninism” like Kautsky recognised “the greatness of the genius of the proletarian revolution”. The article was later published in the Austro-Marxist theoretical journal Der Kampf (Vol.17, No.5, May 1924, pp.176-9), as Ein Brief über Lenin, from which the translation that appears here is taken.


Last updated on 20.1.2004