Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Karl Kautsky, The Materialist Conception of History, translated by Raymond Meyer and John H. Kautsky, annotated and introduced by John Kautsky, Yale University Press, New Haven 1988, pp.558, £35.00

John Kautsky, the grandson of Karl Kautsky, the ‘Pope of Marxism’, has rendered an immense service in presenting this book in a form that English readers can use. The measure of his achievement (and even more so, that of his grandfather, the author) can be gauged from the fact that this version is smaller than either of the volumes of the German text, but by judicious editing none of the coherence of the original is lost.

The book’s value can hardly be overestimated. Kautsky was the literary legatee of Marx and Engels, and the great systematiser of their work. This volume is thus a synthesis, if not an encyclopaedia of the world view of the German Social Democratic Party, and indeed of the Second International as a whole.

It also represents, of course, the background against which Lenin and Trotsky developed their ideas. Kautsky’s negative attitude to Freud, for example (pp.58, 93, 106-7, 511), stands in marked contrast to Trotsky in Culture and Socialism, and readers of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism will be interested to learn that Kautsky placed far more value on Mach’s work than Lenin did (p.31). Those who are fond of holding forth on the superiority of Lenin’s dialectics over Kautsky’s alleged ‘mechanical materialism’ will be surprised to find out that he is very critical of Engels’ concept of the ‘dialectics of nature’, holding that “like Hegel, we assume that the dialectic in which the thesis itself generates its own antithesis holds good only for human development in society” (p.218).

Coming to the broad sweep of history, students of the Marxist theory of historical development will note that Kautsky identifies and describes the Asiatic Mode, in which he includes Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and especially Chinese society (pp.140, 278), whose basic mechanism he accepts as hydraulic works (pp.214, 307-10), and delineates the causes of its limitation and stagnation (pp.317-8, 331, 337-8, 543). He even anticipates the theories of Umberto Melotti’s Marx and the Third World when he explains the state form of the Soviet Union as a reversion to “a new despotism, a bureaucratic military despotism under the leadership of a dictatorship of intellectuals’ (p.414). He has none of the reservations of our modern quasi-Marxists at describing Classical society as slave-based (pp.346-7) and ascribes the ultimate failure of the city state to the inbuilt tendency of the slave mode of production to stagnation and decline (p.352).

There is, of course, a weaker side to the book. Kautsky’s Olympian detachment deserts him when he goes over once again his polemic with Bolshevism, which he accuses of holding “that every antagonism among peoples and classes can only be fought out by bloody war” (p.320), and it is inevitably over the question of revolution and the class theory of the state that he appears most limp. He assures us that “there is no longer room for armed struggle as a way of carrying on class conflicts” in a democratic state, in which even the mass strike “hardly seems applicable” (p.376). Industrial capital, we are told, “cannot simply be expropriated without economic damage to society and to the workers themselves” (p.377). Considerable exegetical violence is done both to Marx, whose concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is identified with a democratic republic (p.390), and to Engels, whose forecast of the state taking possession of production as “an act” is put down to an inability to understand that “this transition can only be a more or less slowly advancing process” (p.446).

Kautsky’s book was published in 1927, in the middle of the palmy days of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Stresemann Era, and its trouble-free, evolutionary, unproblematic conception of gradual upward human progress seemed to be a reasonable assumption at the time. Hegelian discontinuities and dialectical leaps are noticeably absent from it. As he admits in several places (pp.6, 66, etc.) he came to his theory of historical change through Darwin rather than Hegel or Marx, and in the end his work is really no more than an immense Darwinian evolutionary rationalisation. History was shortly to deal it a series of rapid and cruel blows. Two years later came the Wall Street crash and another two more years were to see Hitler in power and Kautsky in exile in Prague, where he died in 1938 witnessing the massive wreck of the German workers’ movement.

For there were others who also took their inspiration from Darwin, and developed his insights in unforeseen ways. As opposed to Kautsky, who took over the theory of evolution, others were more interested in natural selection and the survival of the fittest. In several places Kautsky has to argue against racial theories erected on just these Darwinian premises (pp.12,4-5, 137, 149). For the moment Hitler’s movement was no larger than a cloud, the size of a man’s hand, in an otherwise clear sky. “If the expression ‘intensification of class antagonisms’ means that the class struggles assume increasingly violent forms“, Kautsky notes, “then the view implicit in that expression would certainly not be correct” (p.428). He writes his political epitaph, and unfortunately that of the German proletariat as well, with massive if unconscious irony:

The question of whether the capitalists will undertake an armed attack on democracy comes down ... to the question of whether they will be able to find an adequate armed force that is available to them for this purpose ... Today it is the Fascists who have become the paid executioners of the people’s freedom. They are certainly dangerous, but fortunately only under certain conditions that the capitalists cannot conjure up as they choose. In order to be politically effective, the Fascists must appear in large numbers ... In Germany, they will have to be almost one million strong in order to attain this proportion. In an industrialised country, it is impossible to get hold of such a large number of scoundrels in the prime of life for capitalistic purposes (p.394).

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003