Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


Kautsky, Marxism and Leninism

John Kautsky
Karl Kautsky: Marxism, Revolution and Democracy
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick NJ 1994, pp. 256, £32.95

John Kautsky
Marxism and Leninism, Not Marxism-Leninism: An Essay in the Sociology of Knowledge
Greenwood Press, Westport, 1994, pp141, £44.95

THESE TWO books by Karl Kautsky’s grandson are an indication of the growing interest in the man who was for several decades the leading Marxist authority in the world, yet who has generally been remembered only through Lenin’s somewhat inaccurate epithet of ‘renegade’. The first book is a sympathetic appraisal of various aspects of Kautsky’s political thought, consisting of a lengthy introductory essay, investigations of the differences between the attitudes of Kautsky and Lenin towards the rôle of intellectuals in the Socialist movement, Kautsky’s theory of imperialism, and the influence of his ideas upon Eurocommunist thinkers, plus introductions to reissues of his The Road to Power and The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The second book is an exposition upon a premise outlined in the first that Lenin was not a Marxist at all, but represented the modernising intelligentsia in a backward country with relatively little industry and a tiny proletariat.

John Kautsky considers that Lenin’s identification with Marxism was based on a misinterpretation, as he did not realise that it was not applicable to Russia (he also says that the Mensheviks were guilty of the same mistake, but they were doomed as they were authentic Marxists, and expected a Western-style development to occur in Russia). His interpretation of Marxism, however, is pedestrian, and makes Plekhanov’s mechanistic Marxism look flexible by comparison. Relying upon a rigid stages theory of development – from feudalism through capitalism and eventually to Socialism – he insists that Marx’s analysis of history did not apply to Tsarist Russia. Yet in their introduction to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels tentatively ventured that Russia might avoid capitalism. Moreover, in 1905 Karl Kautsky, in The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and its Prospects, took a distinctly radical stance, asserting that the working class in Russia, whilst numerically small, was disproportionally powerful, and was leading the revolutionary forces, and that the revolution itself, whilst not Socialist, was not bourgeois either, a position more radical than that of Lenin. John Kautsky is correct to see Lenin’s theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry as incoherent, but this was not due to his attempting to wedge Marxism into his unconscious rôle as a moderniser. Rather, it was due, on the one hand, to his recognition of the leading rôle of the working class in 1905, and, on the other hand, the idea that the revolution was bourgeois in nature. In other words, we had diametrically opposing attractions – his observations versus Second International orthodoxy.

Lenin and Kautsky did not resolve the contradiction until 1917, when the former adopted Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, and the latter backed off. John Kautsky alludes to Lenin’s adoption of Trotsky’s theory, but, just like his grandfather, he ignores its essential international aspects, which emphasised that whilst the proletariat could seize power in Russia, it could not hold onto it unless successful proletarian revolutions occurred in the advanced capitalist countries. Lenin fully concurred with this, and said so on many occasions. Third World industrialisers, Stalinist or not, have never been internationalist in outlook. All have viewed their political strategies and resulting regimes on a purely national level, and have seen their revolutions as a national rejection of imperialism, leading to national development through industrialisation. They took one aspect of Bolshevism – hostility towards imperialism – and combined it with the Stalinist concept of isolated industrial development. They may have sought international sympathy or backing from other countries in order to help withstand the hostility of the imperial powers, but they never predicated the very rationale of their revolutions and the survival of their regimes upon spreading the revolution to those imperial powers.

It is undeniable that the Soviet Union evolved into a society in which a ruling elite put into practice an ambitious scheme of industrialisation within the bounds of a nation state, and that this served as a model for modernising elites in the Third World. What Kautsky sees as the unconscious basis of Bolshevism is in fact the logical consequence of its national isolation, in other words, the consequences of its defeat, not its consummation. In this sense, his whole concept is one of reading history backwards on an epic scale; most members of the continuity school leave it at the organisational question, and don’t try to posit Stalin’s desires for an autarkic industrial state in Bolshevism.

Kautsky also considers that the rôles of intellectuals in the German and Russian Socialist movements were qualitatively different, as befitting the different levels of development in the two countries. Here he is little different from the conservative academics who see Bolshevism as barely more than a plot by members of the radical intelligentsia to seize power, and he even says that for Lenin ‘Socialism meant rule by revolutionary modernising intellectuals’ (Marxism and Leninism ..., p. 68), and that ‘in an underdeveloped country like Russia, revolutions are made not by the industrial proletariat and its organisations, but by intellectuals’ (Karl Kautsky, p. 78). Like them, he is forced firstly to deny the fact that in 1917 the Bolsheviks enjoyed an exceptional relationship with the working class through the soviets, factory committees and trade unions, a symbiotic relationship which developed the demands, tactics and strategy of both the party and the class, and, secondly, to overlook the fact that Lenin was strongly absorbed with the problem of bringing the working class into the running of the Soviet state, something (whatever his shortcomings in this field) that no other Socialist leader, let alone a Third World moderniser, has ever addressed to such a degree, if at all.

John Kautsky correctly insists that Lenin was a Eurocentric, but then adds that with the failure of revolutions in Western Europe he came ‘half-heartedly and hesitatingly’ to see that ‘the Russian Revolution had something in common with revolutions in countries that distinguished it from Western European revolutions’ (Marxism and Leninism ..., p. 107). Lenin was not promoting the Third Worldism to which all too many of his epigones have adhered (it must be added here, however, that Kautsky is correct in pointing to the ambiguous legacy of the early Communist International in this respect), but was looking at the course of class and national struggles in the backward parts of the world, and also at the backwardness of Russia, a factor that constantly haunted him. Lenin was a Eurocentric in that at first he denied that a Socialist revolution could occur in Russia, and he remained one when he adopted the theory of Permanent Revolution, which intimately tied the survival of a proletarian seizure of power in Russia to successful workers’ revolutions in Western Europe. He never considered that Russia or any other backward country could go any distance towards Socialism in isolation.

Although Karl Kautsky’s Marxism represented the better end of the Second International, it was lacking in that vibrancy and vitality that Lenin showed in 1917. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the history of the Socialist movement should not be satisfied with the repetition of the epithet of ‘renegade’. However, the curious theory that John Kautsky puts forward in these two books not only gives a misleading analysis of Lenin that often merely parallels the discredited conservative viewpoint, it also undermines the author’s honourable intention of restoring his grandfather’s name to its proper position.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011