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Irving Howe

Book Review

Social-Democracy versus Communism

(November 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 9, November 1946, pp. 284–285.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Social-Democracy versus Communism
byKarl Kautsky
with an introduction by Sidney Hook
The Rand School Press, 142 pages, $2.00

Here is the swan song of Social-Democracy, sung by its most powerful voice, Karl Kautsky. Written in the 1930’s, these essays comprise the last grandiose attempt to present Social-Democracy as a political theory consistent with the Marxian system. And surely Social-Democracy could have found no more competent spokesman! Kautsky writes with the broad historical sweep and assurance which is given only to the most competent of theoreticians and historians; his logic is keen, his argument close. Yet, once tribute has been paid to Kautsky’s competence, one must pass to the content of his work. And how sad that is! Not all of Kautsky’s skill and authority can give sheen to the tarnished goods that are found each week in The New Leader: the same formal preachment of “democracy” to which no content other than constant support of capitalist institutions is ever given; the same hypocrisy with regard to political means: Quaker-like indignation at the idea that the defense of socialism may require extra-parliamentary means coupled with vicariously bloodthirsty support of imperialist war;, the same uncanny ability to embroider the most paltry political practices with the most stirring humanitarian rhetoric. It would be absurd to attempt a review here of the historic quarrel between Marxism and Kautsky’s revision of it; a few points only, of special pertinence, should be made:

1) It is remarkable how an idea can gain currency, despite its invalidity and inaccuracy, if it is repeated often enough. Kautsky tries, with much erudition, to discover the roots of the Bolshevik ideology in the theories of the extremist leader of the French Revolution, Babeuf, and later the 19th century putschist, Blanqui. The theories of Babeuf – he notes correctly enough – were developed at a time when the working class was still incipient in formation and when the extreme left in the chain of French revolutions found itself in the tragic and anomalous position of trying to anticipate history. Lenin, continues Kautsky, developed a similar theory with regard to the also backward Russian proletariat; he made the same error as Babeuf and Blanqui, he tried to substitute the action of a small conspiratorial group for the movement of a social class.

But it needs only to be pointed out, in refutation, that Lenin’s theory was an internationalist one, based on an assessment of the Russian working class in relation to the world proletariat. He took the historical “gamble” – and who dares call himself a revolutionist or a Marxist if unwilling to take such “gambles”? – of seizing upon an extraordinarily favorable conjunction to lead the Russian workers to power in the hope that the workers of the advanced West would soon come to the rescue. That they did not is another matter-a matter, incidentally, for which Kautsky carried a heavy share of responsibility. The point is that even if, by some historical freak the little groups of Babeuf or Blanqui had been able to seize power in France, they could not have counted on the aid from elsewhere for which Lenin was later to hope. For 19th century France had the most advanced revolutionary masses of its time, not the most backward population of Europe, as did 20th century Russia. Rather than relying on small conspiratorial groups, Lenin was able to gain the support of masses of workers, unlike Babeuf and Blanqui, who neither desired to nor were able to appeal to masses. Historical analogy is a powerful weapon, but it is two-edged.

2) Why did the Social-Democracy fail? Why, if it, unlike the “Bolshevik conspirators,” represented the true union of socialism and democracy, did it not succeed in wresting power from capitalism and forestalling the contemporary nightmare? Here is Kautsky’s answer:

“Everything of a truly progressive nature which the Bolsheviks sought at that time to realize was also part of the program of the other Socialist Parties and would have been carried out by them, for the people had empowered them to do so.” (My emphasis – I.H.)

Has there ever been a historical apology at once so tragic and comic? Before the Bolsheviks took power, there was a Menshevik-SR government in Russia, that is, one composed of Kautsky’s friends. What prevented it from beginning to put into effect “everything of a truly progressive nature which the Bolsheviks sought”? And what prevented the German Social-Democrats? If “everything of a truly progressive nature which the Bolsheviks sought” had really been carried out by the Mensheviks, then Lenin would have been politically disarmed; if ...

Sees State Capitalism in 1919

3) Kautsky was one of the first in the labor movement to characterize Russia as a society of state capitalism. Let it be noted, however, before there is even a handclap of misplaced applause for this seeming prescience, that Kautsky applied this label indiscriminately to the varied and rich development of post-revolutionary Russia, all the way from 1919 to the period of Stalin’s consolidation of power in the middle thirties. Such a lumping of infinitely different social phenomena under one generic heading is only a means of escaping the historian’s responsibility rather than facing it. One cannot take seriously any sociological category which is supposed to encompass within its discreet fold both Lenin’s revolutionary and Stalin’s counter-revolutionary Russia. Kautsky’s use of the label, state capitalism, as a means of describing the new, unique phenomenon of a totally statified economy in which no workers control exists, is merely another instance of the common fallacy of believing that an unfamiliar phenomenon is made less so if it is given a familiar label. But if calling Stalinist Russia state capitalism attenuates the shock of novelty in the heart of the observer, it does not in the slightest penetrate into the reality of this new social formation.

* * *

It may be asked how a man of Kautsky’s stature, who in the early part of the century was one of the two or three greatest Marxists, could have degenerated to the point where, in the thirties, he pinned his hope for the future of humanity on ... the League of Nations? Answers to such questions, when confined to individual cases, must skirt the unsteady grounds of personal psychology. In Kautsky’s case, it has been suggested, that his life of comfort as a theoretician of the powerful Social-Democracy – a life of secluded scholarship (for which, let us wryly admit, almost every revolutionary theoretician yearns) – gradually acclimated him to an acceptance of the status quo. Revolutions may be hatched in libraries; they are not led there. But whatever the explanation for Kautsky’s personal development, it cannot be gainsaid that there is an element of genuine tragedy in the decline of this once titanic Marxist.

Tragedy, however, is hardly the appropriate word for the author of the introduction to this book, Sidney Hook, who was also once a Marxist – and a talented one at that. Hook, who has come a long way since he wrote Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, contributes an introduction of unrestrained praise for Kautsky to which he merely appends a critical phrase in polite sotto voce. Hook writes:

“... although Kautsky is perfectly justified in defending the Social-Democratic attempt to preserve the democratic heritage of the Weimar Republic, he minimizes the consequences of its attempt to preserve the capitalistic economic structure of the the Republic as well.”

Notice that deliciously delicate phrase: “minimizes the consequences.”

For Sidney Hook is hardly the person to become raucous about a mere detail such as the preservation of the “capitalistic economic structure.”

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