Karl Kautsky

Marxism and Bolshevism:
Democracy and Dictatorship

I. The Beginnings Of Marxism

On March 14, 1933, we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. Simultaneously with this anniversary we might also have commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Marxism, if it were practicable to assign an exact date to the founding of a school of thinkers and fighters.

In 1881 Eduard Bernstein took over the editorship of the Sozialdemokrat in Zurich in order to fashion it into a Marxist fighting organ. Together we had struggled our way through to Marxism.

In 1883 there appeared in Stuttgart the first issue of the Neue Zeit, founded by me, the first scientific organ of Marxism, excepting those, of course, published by Marx himself.

Both the Sozialdemokrat and the Neue Zeit were German periodicals. But the growth of Marxist thought was not limited to the German-speaking circles of international Socialism. The shift from Bakuninism and revolutionary Popularism to Marxism in Russia began at the same time. Plekhanov, Axelrod and Vera Zasulitch were then the first to attain to the Marxist conception. At about the same time, in France, Jules Guesde, an erstwhile Bakuninist, became the leader of Marxist thought, along with Paul Lafargue, who even before Guesde had found his way to Marxism from Proudhonism. At the Congress of St. Etienne (September 1882) Lafargue and Guesde broke away from the other Socialists, and at the Congress of Roanne (September 27) formed a party of their own, Le Parti Ouvrier.

In England Marxism, too, dates from the early eighties. There the first to take up the Marxist ideas and present them before the public were H.M. Hyndman and E. Belfort Bax. This was done through the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881, which under the influence of the Marxists, among them Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, assumed in 1883 the name of The Social-Democratic Federation.

Thus the year in which Marx succumbed to great physical sufferings saw everywhere the victorious advance of the ideas which he had sown. It was a tragic fate that he who throughout his life had to combat not only his bourgeois opponents, but also misunderstanding in the ranks of his own comrades and friends, closed his weary eyes precisely at the time when his first sympathetic disciples and continuators appeared on the scene.

Since then these, too, have left us one by one. Only last year we accompanied, personally or in spirit, our unforgettable comrade and friend, Eduard Bernstein, to his place of eternal rest. At the time of his death he had completed sixty years of indefatigable, devoted activity in the Social-Democratic Party and a half-century of labor as a Marxist thinker and fighter.

The others mentioned above had departed long before him. I alone remain as the last of the Mohicans of the family – alas, so small in number – of “original” Marxists, if one may designate by the name those Marxists who were privileged to receive instruction and enlightenment from the lips of the teacher himself.

In our efforts to expound and apply the Marxist ideas we I often encounter the reproach that we are fanatics of a dogma, incapable of anything but swearing by the words of their teacher.

The reproach is invalidated by the fact that the Marxists are not a uniform school, but are divided into different groups and varieties with individual and national distinctions. Not only are there German Marxists with a separate Austrian Marxism, but there is also a French Marxism, a British Marxism and a Russian Marxism, in its turn divided into a Menshevik and a Bolshevik Marxism.

Every form of doctrinaire fanaticism, every attempt to turn Marxism into an unalterable dogma is contrary to Marxist thought, which recognizes no absolute truth but only relative truth. This is not scepticism, which denies the very possibility of absolute perception of the world, but only a recognition of the limitations of our perception. All the truths which we recognize are not truths in themselves, independent of time and place, but truths only as far as we are concerned, valid only for us, for our time, for the space in which we live. Every such truth must govern our actions until more advanced perception has exposed and removed the bit of error residing in the previously accepted truth.

There was nothing that Marx feared so much as the degeneration of his school into a rigid sect. The same fear was entertained by Engels, whose scientific work is indissolubly linked with that of his friend Marx, so that we always keep in mind both Marx and Engels whenever we speak of the Marxist theory.

The worst reproach that Engels could make against the first English Marxists was that they were applying Marxism in a sectarian spirit. What would he have said, had he lived to see it, about a school of Marxists who after succeeding in capturing the state power proceeded to make a state religion of Marxism, a religion whose articles of faith and their interpretation are watched over by the government, a religion, the criticism of which, nay, the slightest deviation from which, is sternly punished by the State; a Marxism ruling by the methods of the Spanish Inquisition, propagated with fire and sword, practicing a theatrical ritual, as illustrated by the embalmed body of Lenin: a Marxism reduced to the status not only of a state religion but of a medieval or oriental faith? Such a Marxism may indeed be called a doctrinaire fanaticism.

To Marx there was no ultimate knowledge, only an infinite process of learning. Therefore, his own theory is not to be conceived as a collection of tenets which we must accept on faith. Marxism itself is nothing but a definite process of learning, founded upon a definite method, a process introduced by Marx and Engels which we, Marxists must continue and which is to be called Marxist so long as the method of inquiry and reasoning which our teachers discovered has not been either superceded or improved upon by another method. This method itself, which Marx and Engels called the materialist conception of history, is not unalterable. It is being constantly improved, like a machine, through continued gain in experience accumulated in its application. The principles underlying a given method of intellectual activity often do not change as rapidly as do the results of that activity. The views of people under the influence of constantly changing experiences tend to change more easily than do the methods and forms of thought by which they are attained. Both, however, are regarded as in constant process of development. Even the materialist conception of history did not like Minerva spring fully armed from the head of its procreator; as a matter of fact it had two such procreators. These two were constantly developing it through their lives and to the Marxists bequeathed the task of continuing the process.

To know and understand the line of this development is of the highest importance to every Marxist as well as to any one who wishes to make a critical study of Marx, prompted by a sincere desire for knowledge, and not by the motives of the trickster lawyer who seeks to obtain a conviction of his opponent’s client at any cost.

Remarkable as it may seem, there are a number of Marxists who see the highest point of the development of Marxism at its very inception, from which point it is supposed to be constantly declining.

It is clear that as a philosopher and economist as well as a Socialist and revolutionary Marx was able to advance beyond the ideas of his time only after he had assimilated them in their highest forms. The new I Marxist method had been attained already in 1844, but it still bore the traces of its Hegelian, Feuerbachian, Ricardian origin as well as those of utopian Socialism and Jacobin-Blanquist conceptions. To some of our present-day Socialists these traces seem to be the most important and beautiful thing about Marxism.

Yet not every one of these traces is of equal attractiveness to each of these Socialists.

We may distinguish two large groups among these pre-Raphaelite Marxists. One of them seeks to establish Socialism in a backward community immediately. To these people it is the Jacobin-Blanquist elements that are especially attractive as expressions of the Marxist spirit. The other group, on the contrary, is favorably impressed with the fact that Marx at the beginning had no economic views of his own, that he accepted the economics of Ricardo just as he found it and that once in a while he still justified his Socialist bias on ethical grounds.

The existence of a strong social ethos is no doubt the pre-requisite for any kind of Socialism. But that is something quite self-evident about which Marx later did not think it even necessary to speak. But with ethos alone, without a deeper economic and historical perception, one can not get very far.

Without this perception one may, by starting from the same moral considerations, arrive at Christian charity or at liberal philanthropy. And even where it does lead to the idea of Socialism, we still do not know what kind of Socialism it is to be, whether that of Owen, or of St. Simon, of Proudhon or of Marx. No one is more ambiguous, more unreliable than the purely ethical Socialist, even when he remains true to his ethical ideal. Yet this kind of Socialism possesses one great advantage. By affecting a proud contempt for the “low” and “vulgar” economic theories of Marxist Socialism one is spared the need of studying the difficult theory of Marxist economics. This study is, indeed, a hard task, but it is also a mental exploit without equal. Great gain in social knowledge beckons to the one who masters it. Today, as it was true fifty years ago, Marx’s “Capital” is studied much too little. I regard its study as one of the most urgent tasks of Socialist education. It is more important than the study of the beginnings of Marxism. Of course, this too is of great significance to any one who wishes to understand the development of Marxist thought. But it does not facilitate but rather makes more difficult the understanding of Marxism when it is undertaken for its own sake and not in conjunction with the study of Marx’s later works.

These later works constitute his more perfect achievements. Marx and Engels always regarded them as such. This is proved by the fact that most of their writings belonging to the early period Marx and Engels left lying in their desks in manuscript form, without ever making any attempt to publish them.

Naturally, the lion’s claw was evident even in those beginnings. They already surpassed the most mature works of the other Socialists of that time. But these beginnings, in part, were quite imperfect as compared with the later works which Marx and Engels brought to light with so much broader practical experience, so much more extensive knowledge and so much greater precision of method.

The last four decades of his life during which Marx developed his ideas constituted an epoch of the greatest advance in all natural sciences as well as in the humanities. Thus for example, up to the forties of the last century, there had been practically no systematic study of economic history and of prehistoric epochs. How tremendous has been their subsequent development! And no less tremendous has been the development of the forms and the extension of capitalist production. Marxism has stood the test as a doctrine of development in that it proved able not only to adapt itself to all the changes, but also to assume a more perfect form as the changes occurred.

The evolution not only of its philosophy of history and its theory of capitalist production but also of the political principles of the proletarian class struggle was furthered thereby. This came about principally through the progress of democracy. We shall now examine this more closely.


Last updated on 19.1.2004