Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975

Chapter VI: The First Seeds are Sown

With the SPD’s triumphant emergence from illegality in 1890, the leaders of German Social Democracy faced a series of political and theoretical problems which were in many ways similar to those which confronted Marx and Engels after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. In a superficial sense, the historical situations were diametrically opposed. The authors of the Communist Manifesto, which predicted for Germany an immediate proletarian revolution, now had to deepen and ground in political economy the brilliant generalisations and insights of their earlier writings. This essential theoretical work, undertaken in the great political trough which lay between the decline of the movements of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, was of necessity divorced to a great degree from the day-to-day struggle of the international working class. The central task which Marx and Engels set themselves in this period was to lay bare the basic laws of motion of capitalist production, thereby providing the essential theoretical key to understanding and intervening in the struggle of classes. In 1890, the SPD leaders – and here we can include Engels among their number – stood at the head of a movement numbering more than a million members and supporters. The proletariat was very much in the ascendant, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. Yet precisely this upwards movement tended to obscure the enormous theoretical tasks, and indeed immense political dangers, which this new situation contained. Complacency, passivity, even smugness – these were characteristics which steadily gained the upper hand over the pugnacity and political sharpness that, despite occasional backslidings and waverings, set the tone for the party’s 12-year fight against the anti-socialist laws. In both cases, the main task was to accomplish the transition to a qualitatively new economic and political situation. Marx, principally with his Capital, did precisely this. He recognised that far from standing on the verge of a socialist revolution, Germany was experiencing the birth pangs of modern industrial capitalism. His studies of English capitalism, then the most advanced in the world, convinced him that ‘the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future’. [1] This conclusion, which in 1848 he would probably have dismissed as the prediction of an incurable pessimist, necessitated a wholesale reorientation of revolutionary programme, strategy and tactics. Perspectives were no longer to be reckoned in months or even years, but decades, as he and Engels warned those in the leadership of the German movement who in 1850 were still blithely proclaiming the imminent arrival of a new revolutionary wave:

The minority replaces critical observation with dogmatism, a materialist attitude with an idealist one. It regards its own wishes as the driving force of the revolution instead of the real facts of the situation. Whilst we tell the workers that they must go through 15, 20, perhaps even 50 years of war and civil war, not only in order to alter existing conditions, but even to make themselves fit to take over political power, you tell them, on the contrary, that they must seize political power at once or abandon all hope. [2]

Yet now, when new developments within German and international capitalism foreshadowed these very struggles, almost without exception the SPD leadership remained trapped by its past thinking and experiences, unable to detect what was emerging out of the old laisser faire capitalism and then to draw the necessary political conclusions. All around the party, signs were visible of a qualitative shift in ruling-class circles and among the middle ranks of the bourgeoisie towards an imperialist orientation, expressing itself as much in the language of subjectivist, anti-rational philosophy as in the soaring output of Krupp’s gun shops and the North Sea shipyards. Almost mesmerised by the party’s spectacular election successes, and the equally impressive growth of members and party resources, the SPD leadership tended to see only the movement’s strengths, and allowed these to cloud over its very real – and growing – theoretical deficiencies. And although Engels for one was well aware of this problem, he too allowed himself to be carried away by the post-Bismarckian euphoria which had virtually engulfed the entire leadership. Thus after noting how:

... too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism... only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge... constructed into as neat a system as possible... [he then concludes]... all this will right itself. We are strong enough in Germany to stand a lot. One of the greatest services which the Anti-Socialist Law did us was to free us from the obtrusiveness of the German intellectual who had got himself tinged with socialism. We are new strong enough to digest the German intellectual too, who is giving himself great airs again. [3]

But it was not a simple question of ‘digestion’, but an active and unrelenting struggle against the revision of Marxism by these alien elements, such as had been earlier undertaken by Engels himself in his famous polemic against Dühring, the anti-Semitic and idealist university professor who was unaccountably permitted to remain within the SPD for a period of several years. Judged by the evidence of his writings, the old Engels did not measure up to this task, which, like that of the post-1848 period, was in essence one of transition, of preparing the party for a leap in its development from a movement geared to quantitative growth and peaceful, if periodically sharp, political campaigns, to a mass revolutionary party capable of fighting for state power in an epoch of profound national and international turmoil, revolutionary upheaval and war. In the period of the anti-socialist laws, Engels had warned on more than one occasion that the party could find itself propelled by such events into political situations where it could completely lose its bearings. In 1884, he wrote to Bebel pointing out the dangers implicit in limiting the party’s demands to that of bourgeois democracy, ending with this truly remarkable anticipation of the German bourgeoisie’s political tactics in the revolution of November 1918:

... our sole adversary on the day of the crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole of the reaction which will group around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of. [4]

Yet lost sight of it was, with even Engels suffering in his last years from blurred vision. We saw how in the criticism of the Gotha unity programme of 1875, Marx and Engels directed their most pungent polemics against the newly-formed party’s attitude towards proletarian internationalism and the state. Beginning with the last writings of Engels, there was after 1890 a slow but nevertheless steady retreat from the positions established in 1875, and it was one which met with firm opposition only from a tiny section of the German movement headed by Rosa Luxemburg and, though not on the same plane of theoretical profundity, Karl Liebknecht. The nature and tempo of this decline is well brought out in the international sphere by the party’s attitude towards national defence. Here it was simply not enough for the SPD to rehash and embellish everything written by Marx and Engels on this question, if only because without exception these writings pertained to an epoch that knew no imperialism in the sense that Lenin and Bukharin understood it. Marx died in 1883, when the problem facing socialists was nowhere one of directly preparing to take power, but rather of pursuing policies which while favouring the most rapid development of capitalist social relations, would also defend the interests of the working class and preserve its political independence from all other classes. It was this realistic, as opposed to utopian, conception which governed Engels’ approach to the problems of the workers’ movement in Germany, where he constantly cautioned against any tendency to ignore potential or actual conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the Junker agrarians. For while the working class remained incapable, for objective historical reasons, of taking power into its own hands, it had no other alternative than to husband and expand its forces until the objective contradictions of a fully-developed capitalist system placed revolution on the order of the day. (This was also the position of the first Russian Marxists in their struggle against the utopian and terroristic Populists, who held that Russia would bypass the capitalist stage of development and proceed directly from feudalism to socialism.) The same conceptions necessarily applied to relations between states. The Leninist tactic of defeatism, of desiring the military defeat of one’s ‘own’ bourgeoisie in an imperialist war both as a lesser evil than its victory, and as a means of accelerating the onset of revolution, simply could not have arisen in Marx’s day, any more than could have Bolshevism, being the theory and practice of proletarian revolution in the imperialist epoch. Marx had instead to lend his critical support to whichever warring nation he considered to be serving, however unconsciously, feebly, reluctantly or inconsistently, as the vehicle of historical progress. So in the Crimean war, Marx ‘supported’ capitalist England against Tsarist Russia, for despite his loathing of the English bourgeoisie, with its unmerciful exploitation of child and female labour, Marx desired the defeat of Russian despotism, the counter-revolutionary gendarme of continental Europe. [5] Marx and Engels adopted an identical line in relation to Germany, supporting that country in all its wars which facilitated the achievement of national unification (1864 against Denmark, 1866 against Austria, and 1870 against France). Only when Bismarck began to transgress the limits of the nation state did Marx and Engels raise their voices in protest, as they did following Prussia’s annexation of Alsace and Lorraine after the French defeat at Sedan. From this point onwards, they saw as the main danger in Europe a war between Russia, acting as an agent of a revenge-seeking French bourgeoisie, and Germany. And in the event of such a war, Marx and Engels declared they would be unequivocally on the side of Germany, despite its vehemently anti-socialist, Junker-based government. Preoccupation with this threat from Russia led Engels in particular to employ phrases and formulations which were, to put it mildly, insensitive to the national rights of the Balkan Slavs, whom he tended to regard as mere pawns and tools of Tsarist foreign policy. ‘The principle of nationalities’, Engels wrote in 1866, ‘is nothing but a Russian invention to destroy Poland. Russia has absorbed the greater part of Poland on the plea of the principle of nationalities.’ [6] But because the principle had been exploited and perverted by reaction, that did not necessitate its repudiation by revolutionaries, rather its consistent application. The same must be said of Engels’ disparaging comments on Slavic peoples incorporated against their will in the Austro-Hungarian empire:

The so-called democrats among the Austrian Slavs are either scoundrels or visionaries, and the visionaries are constantly being led by the nose by the scoundrels. To the sentimental slogans offered in the name of the counter-revolutionary peoples of Europe we reply that the hatred of Russia was, and still is, the first revolutionary passion of the Germans; and that since the revolution [of 1848] a hatred of the Czechs and Croats has been added... We and the Poles and the Magyars [Hungarians] will only be able to safeguard the revolution through the most determined terror against these Slavic peoples. [7]

This tendency to view German foreign – and sometimes even domestic – policy from the standpoint of relations with Russia remained with Engels until his death in 1895. It was, without doubt, responsible for the articles the SPD leadership cynically exploited in 1914 to justify their support for the Kaiser’s imperialist war against France and Russia. They were, they claimed, merely carving out Engels’ policy to its logical, if bloody, conclusion. No blame attaches to Engels for this perversion of his work. Where he did certainly err was in failing to detect the first manifestations of imperialism in German economic politics and philosophy. In 1891, at a time when German finance capital had already embarked on a series of colonial adventures in Africa and the Pacific, and when chauvinist writers and anti-Semitic demagogues were proclaiming Germany’s racial supremacy and god-given right to rule Europe and even the world, Engels still continued to discuss German-Russian relations in the old way, identifying the military defeat of Imperial Germany with the destruction of the SPD. He considered that if in a war with Russia, Germany is beaten, ‘we will be beaten with her...’. [8] That same year, Engels wrote to Bebel just prior to the SPD congress at Erfurt on the same question, once again making the connection – this time far more explicitly – between the fate of Imperial Germany and German Social Democracy:

A war against Germany... would be, above all, a war against the strongest socialist party in Europe. And there would be nothing left for us but to fight with all our might any aggressor who helped Russia. For either we would be defeated, and then the socialist movement in Europe would be done for for 20 years, or we ourselves must aim to take the helm. [9]

Now what Engels had in mind when he wrote these words of advice was a national uprising against the invader after the example of the Jacobin levée en masse of 1793, when revolutionary France took to arms against the coalition of powers seeking to restore the Bourbon monarchy. But Engels was transposing this policy into a considerably changed situation, into a country which had not only completed the ‘national’ aspects of its bourgeois revolution, but was already actively engaged in repressing the democratic rights of other peoples, from Poland and Alsace-Lorraine to Africa and Oceana. The cloudiness of Engels’ formulation, while militant in spirit, left itself open to widely differing interpretations, ranging from unconditional defence of the Kaiser’s empire against any invasion, whether from east or west, to a revolutionary bid to seize power and wage a ‘plebeian’ war against Germany’s enemies. As far as most of the party leadership were concerned, there was no doubt whatsoever. Bebel roundly declared at the Erfurt Congress:

... if Russia, that bulwark of savagery and barbarism, that enemy of all human culture, were to attack Germany in order to dismember and destroy her – then we are as much, and indeed more concerned than those who lead Germany, and we shall oppose it.

No question then of overthrowing the Kaiser and ‘taking the helm’ in order better to defend the fatherland. The job of the SPD was to prove itself more patriotic than its class enemies! There is evidence suggesting that Engels disapproved of such excesses, and not only in the German party. Some two years later he had cause to chide Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue for employing the term ‘true patriot’ to distinguish the French Socialist Party’s national loyalties from those of bourgeois chauvinists. Engels said that the term ‘patriot’ had ‘a limited meaning – or else such a vague one, depending on circumstances – that for my part I should never dare to apply that title to myself’. Further on in the same letter, he made the revealing admission that the French party was not the only one to have ‘overshot the mark a little’ in this respect, for ‘our worthy Germans have not always been correct, either, in their expressions’. [10] His unease was certainly justified, and would have multiplied greatly had he lived to witness the nationalist utterances of the SPD leadership not only at party congresses, but in the Reichstag itself. Only a few weeks before his death in 1913, Bebel informed the German parliament that ‘there is not a single person in Germany who would surrender the fatherland to an enemy without a fight. This is particularly true of the Social Democrats.’ Bebel, who must certainly be numbered amongst the very finest leaders of the German proletariat, never explained how his unashamedly patriotic stand could be reconciled with his justly famed slogan: ‘Not a man, not a farthing for this system.’ (This can only mean that had Bebel lived another year, he would have thrown his enormous political influence and prestige behind a policy of support for German imperialism in its war against Russia, France and Britain.) Bebel was particularly sensitive to charges that the party leadership were failing to combat militarism amongst the youth, and when challenged on this issue at the 1906 Party Congress by Karl Liebknecht, who praised the Belgian Socialist Party for its work in this field, Bebel replied:

It is incomprehensible to me how he can hold up to us as the example of Belgium, a country which signifies nothing, and whose army cannot be compared to Prussian military organisation.

And this was a debate on anti-militarist propaganda! [11] Bebel’s militantly nationalist tone was grist to the mill of opportunist elements in the French Socialist Party, who eagerly cited such speeches as proof of the need to adopt a line of national defence in France against an SPD-backed invasion by Germany. At the party congress in 1907, held at a time when strenuous attempts were being made in the Second International to achieve a united front of all its sections against a possible European war, Bebel again declared himself unconditionally for national defence:

If we really have to defend our fatherland, then we shall defend it because it is our fatherland, the soil on which we live, whose language we speak, whose customs are our own: because we want to transform this, our fatherland, into a country which has no equal in perfection and beauty anywhere on earth.

The goal of a socialist Germany in the indefinite future was therefore employed – seven years before the actual outbreak of war – to justify defence of the Kaiser’s Germany of the present. It was as if Bebel and his fellow SPD leaders made a mental distinction between the material Germany exploited and ruled by the Junkers and bourgeoisie, and an ideal, almost mystical Germany which existed outside of space and time, and believed that by defending the former they were also protecting the latter. Bebel’s exposition of this notion was certainly eloquent, but it had nothing in common with that celebrated dictum of the Communist Manifesto:The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.’

It would, however, be quite wrong simply to single out Bebel for criticism. [12] Eduard Bernstein, the pioneer of revisionism, was well to the fore in justifying and embellishing the foreign and even colonial policy of Imperial Germany. In his first broadside against Marxism, published in 1899, he wrote that ‘only a conditional right of savages to the land can be recognised, the higher civilisation ultimately can claim higher right’. [13] The same Bernstein supported the SPD right wing in its demands for a ‘realistic’ colonial policy at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International with the most cynical sophistries:

All the earth has been taken for colonies, and with the increasing power of the socialist fractions in the different parliaments socialist responsibility has increased. They must oppose the bourgeois colonial policy, but they cannot wash their hands like Pilate and say, ‘We will have none of the colonies.’ To do that would be to deliver the natives over to their exploiters.

Bernstein was more honest when he stated, later in the same speech, that ‘however much damage the colonies might have caused, our economic life largely depends on them’. Equally reactionary views on the military and colonial questions appeared regularly in the SPD press, especially that right-wing preserve, the Sozialistische Monatshefte, where in November 1905 Richard Calver wrote:

Today, when Germany is the equal, economically, of England and the United States, and is compelled to take up an attitude towards all questions of world politics in the interest of its industry, the naval policy of modern industrial states may indeed be severely condemned, but it cannot be expected of one’s own country that it should take up an exceptional position which might be fatal. As matters are today the prestige of a state abroad depends on its readiness for war both on sea and land.

Elsewhere Calver recommended – in language utterly alien to the Marxist tradition – that:

German socialists should not ignore the fact that our capitalists and employers are compelled to colonise if Germany’s economic future is to be secured against competing countries abroad... We see how the enterprise of all other powerful industrial lands... appropriates the globe. Social Democrats cannot expect German enterprise to stay quietly at home and renounce the aims of a world policy. Should not and must not capitalism first bring the world under subjection before a socialistic organisation of economics will be possible? ... it follows that capital – including German capital as well – must go forth and subdue the world with the means and weapons which are at its disposal. There will still be ample room for criticism of capitalistic colonial policy.

These amazing lines, justifying to the hilt the rapacious policies and actions of German imperialism, were written at a time when Bernsteinian revisionism had been formally ostracised from the SPD, when it was official party policy and practice solemnly to affirm the revolutionary and internationalist principles of German Social Democracy. What a wretched farce, when out-and-out chauvinists like Calver could sully the columns of the official party press month after month with propaganda which did not merely justify imperialist war, but actually demanded it on behalf of ‘German capital’. And presiding over this disgusting spectacle was none other than Karl Kautsky, regarded not only in Germany but throughout Europe as the foremost theoretician of the Second International! But before turning to Kautsky’s responsibility for the degeneration of the SPD, we must examine the party’s attitude to the question of the state, an issue which bedevilled relations between Marx and Engels and the German movement from its very inception in 1863.

Again we must return to Engels, this time to his introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. This essay has a history all of its own. Engels makes a sober analysis of the prospects for a successful street insurrection against the best-equipped armies of the day, and comes to the realistic conclusion that the old-style barricade fighting of 1848 can no longer be conducted with reasonable hope of victory. These lines were eagerly seized on by the SPD leadership when the article was published in Vorwärts in March 1895 as Engels’ endorsement of the party’s rejection of all violent means to achieve its goal. But that was not at all the intention of the author who also appended to this judgement the opinion:

Does that mean that in future street fighting will no longer play any role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavourable for civilian fighting and far more favourable for the military. In future, street fighting can, therefore, be victorious only if this disadvantageous situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. [14]

Precisely these lines, which spoke of future, better organised and wider supported insurrections, were deleted from the article by the Vorwärts editor, Wilhelm Liebknecht. Engels was naturally furious, and wrote to Kautsky asking that the whole introduction be published in the SPD theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, lest he appear as a ‘peaceful worshipper of legality at any price!’. [15] Engels was never this, and yet there are other sections of this same essay which convey the impression that he had been carried away by the electoral successes of the SPD – to such an extent that Engels saw in them not only evidence of the party’s growing support in the working class, but a political factor in its own right:

Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process. All government intervention has proved powerless against it... If it continues in this fashion, by the end of the century we shall conquer the greater part of the middle strata of society, petit-bourgeois and small peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not. To keep this growth going without interruption until it of itself gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system... to keep it intact until the decisive day, that is our main task. [16]

Again, as was the case with his letter to Bebel on a possible Russo-German war, Engels combines semi-reformist concepts with revolutionary ones, the idea of peaceful, gradual and irresistible progress towards an unchallengeable parliamentary majority interwoven with the notion of a ‘decisive day’, which, in the discreet language imposed on Engels by the German censors, can only mean revolution. Then there is the formulation concerning the winning of the petit-bourgeoisie to socialism, which is conceived of as an inevitable outcome of the SPD’s triumphal parliamentary march, and not as the result of a combative anti-capitalist policy which detaches, by virtue of its resoluteness, the middle-class masses from their allegiance to the main bourgeois parties. Finally there are the less well known but equally ambiguous statements made by Engels in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1893, where he predicted: ‘The time is drawing near when our party will be called upon to take over government... Perhaps towards the end of the century you will see this event occur.’ Since there was ‘a constant increase at each election’, it would soon lead to at least ‘half the army’ being on the side of the SPD: [17] ‘On the day when we shall be in the majority, what the French army did by instinct by not firing on the people will be done by our people in a conscious way.’ [18]

A rationalist, as distinct from a dialectical materialist, approach can also be detected in remarks made to the English Daily Chronicle about the ease with which the notoriously reactionary German petit-bourgeoisie could be won to the side of the proletariat:

The small tradesman, crushed out by the big store, the clerk, the artisan... are beginning to feel the pinch of our present capitalist system. And we place a scientific remedy before them, and as they can all read and think for themselves, they soon come round and join our ranks. [19]

In fact, the SPD never made any real headway amongst these layers under the German Empire. Its steadily mounting vote came from new generations and sections of workers freshly won to the socialist cause, and not from a petit-bourgeoisie converted by the ‘scientific remedies’ of Marxism. Here too, the old Engels departs from ideas which he himself developed in an earlier period, for he was, with Marx, the most trenchant critic of the German petit-bourgeoisie, with its inbred philistinism and distaste for even the most modest democratic reforms. Also at variance with the younger Engels is his reply when asked if the SPD hoped to form a government in the near future: ‘Why not? If the growth of our party continues at its normal rate we shall have a majority between the years 1900 and 1910.’ [20] Here the formation of an SPD government is predicated quite unambiguously on the achievement of a parliamentary majority, [21] which in its turn devolved on a ‘normal’ growth of the party’s vote. Although Engels’ predictions went sadly astray – the SPD won only 34.8 per cent of the total poll in the 1912 Reichstag elections, with 4.25 million votes and 110 deputies – this is not really the point. As in questions of German foreign policy, Engels erred in his method, which while capable of illuminating a whole range of political, economic and philosophical problems as few other Marxists could, failed to penetrate to the very depths of the new relations evolving between classes and nations in Europe. The burning necessity of ‘rearming’ the party theoretically to enable its members to make the transition from the old situation under illegality, to one where the movement was becoming a serious contender for state power, was simply not appreciated either by Engels or the established leaders of the SPD in Germany. And here too we see the same process of combined and uneven development, now working itself out in a highly original – and ironic – way. Germany – the land of Hegel, Marx and Engels and the SPD, the historical inheritors of the revolutionary legacy of German idealist philosophy – began to lose its place as the theoretical fountainhead of the international workers’ movement. Just as the nation’s political backwardness had thrust the young German proletariat forward as the sole protagonist of democracy and national unification, the theoretical ‘leap’ that this development involved was in its turn transformed into its opposite. The movement rested on its laurels – Engels included – and gradually began to adapt to the political status quo. Of course, this process was based upon the rapid growth of a conservative, nationalist party and trade union bureaucracy – ideas must be nourished and sustained by the sap of material conditions – but in saying this we must not delude ourselves that the degeneration of the SPD has therefore been fully explained.

There exist tendencies towards conservative thinking and bureaucratic practices in the healthiest of revolutionary workers’ parties. And it could not be otherwise, because such parties comprise both a unity and a struggle of opposites where the entire membership, at widely differing levels of consciousness, participates to one degree or another in the fight to combat these political and theoretical weaknesses. However, in Germany the party used its strengths to conceal its growing weaknesses, while in Russia, principally under the leadership of Lenin, but also in its early period under Plekhanov, the movement employed its strong points to expose, combat and overcome its deficiencies. Compelled to wage the sharpest philosophical and political battles against the Populists, ‘Legal Marxists’, Economists and after 1903, Mensheviks, ultra-lefts and ‘conciliators’, Lenin and the pioneers of Russian Marxism raised the theoretical level of the Russian revolutionary movement from an abyss of backwardness born of centuries of ignorance and oppression to a peak which even the most clear-sighted German Marxists never attained. And they did this by absorbing all that was finest in the international workers’ movement:

Russia achieved Marxism... through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by Tsarism, revolutionary Russia in the second half of the last century acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed. [22]

By contrast, the days of agony for German Social Democracy were receding into the past. Its leadership, while paying lip service to the heroic traditions of that era, were steadily adapting themselves both theoretically and politically to the peaceful expansion of German capitalism, a growth which permitted sizeable layers of the proletariat to win living standards unthinkable in the early years of the Empire. Instead of waging war against the illusions of these ‘labour aristocrats’ in the viability – or even desirability – of German capitalism, as Lenin had combated the Economist protagonists of the possibility of spontaneous working-class development into socialist consciousness, the SPD bureaucracy was allowed by the top party leadership to adapt to these tendencies. Fearing a conflict with the entrenched trade union apparatus, Kautsky delegated the handling of all tactical and political questions to Bebel, who in his turn sought to balance himself between the SPD right and left wings. Thus there evolved a series of unprincipled combinations at almost every level of party activity. Until his death in 1895, Engels was seen as the interpreter of Marxist ‘cannon’ especially in philosophy and economics, while within Germany, ‘theory’ was handled by Kautsky, and the practical questions by Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Yet even while Engels lived, this ‘division of labour’ contained dangers which both Trotsky and Lenin later came to recognise, for the main theoretical burden was carried by an exile who in his last years was unable to grasp the transition already well under way from pre-monopoly capitalism to imperialism, foreshadowed in Germany by the growth of the cartel system and the seizure of colonies. Both these processes were, as we have noted, initiated 10 full years before the death of Engels, yet they seem to have made little, if any, impact on his thinking. Trotsky was fully justified in taking Engels to task for having:

... visualised the future course of revolutionary development too much along the straight line. Above all he did not foresee the mighty capitalist boom which set in immediately after his death and which lasted up to the eve of the imperialist war. It was precisely in the course of these 15 years of economic full-bloodedness that the complete degeneration of the leading circles of the labour movement took place. This degeneration was fully revealed during the war and, in the last analysis, it led to the infamous capitulation to National Socialism. [23]

So we are completely justified in concerning ourselves with the problems of German Social Democracy prior to 1914, for it was in this period that the traitors of 1933 experienced their formative years and underwent their political training. And we are equally justified in seeking to contrast this process of degeneration, whose hallmark was theoretical compromise, with the struggle for revolutionary leadership – firmly grounded in revolutionary theory – waged by Lenin in the Russian workers’ movement. Lenin, like Trotsky, was not uncritical of Engels’ last writings, especially on the question of war. Although more guarded than Trotsky (he never voiced these differences publicly) his private correspondence and notebooks contain remarks which are either direct or implied criticisms of Engels. Beginning in the autumn of 1916, Lenin conducted a lengthy correspondence with his old friend Inessa Armand on the seemingly abstruse question of the periodisation of imperialism. Seemingly, because Armand claimed that imperialism had already become a predominant trend in world capitalism before the death of Engels, and that consequently, he shared, to however small an extent, the blame of the SPD leadership for failing to reorient the German working class on the question of national defence. Looking only at Lenin’s replies – Armand’s letters are reputedly under lock and key in some Moscow vault – it becomes clear that Lenin was hard pressed to defend Engels against this charge. He nevertheless upheld him on the question of a possible war between Russia and Germany:

In 1891, the German Social Democrats’ really should have defended their fatherland in a war against Boulanger and Alexander III. This would have been a peculiar variety of a national war. [24]

This reply clearly did not satisfy the insistent Inessa, for we find Lenin still trying to convince her a month later with the bold assertion that ‘in 1891 no imperialism, existed at all’, and that therefore, ‘there was no imperialist war, therefore could not be, on the part of Germany’. [25] Finally, Lenin concedes, after several more exchanges, that Engels had possibly failed to detect the new political forms which were emerging in the last years of his life. Further than this Lenin would not go. But in his Notebooks on Imperialism compiled mainly in the First World War, we find him making critical remarks in the margin of Engels’ pamphlet Can Europe Disarm?, published in 1893. Despite his almost reverential attitude towards the lifelong comrade and friend of Marx, Lenin could not refrain from quizzical annotations in passages where Engels revealed a truly rationalist belief in the possibility of ‘a gradual reduction of the term of service by international agreement’, when he stated ‘I maintain disarmament, and thereby the guarantee of peace, is possible’ and that Germany had the ‘power and vocation’ to achieve it. [26] An uncritical and unthinking acceptance of the Marxist heritage was utterly alien to Trotsky, Lenin, Plekhanov and Luxemburg. How different with Kautsky, who in seeking to defend Marxism from its opponents, degenerated into a custodian of ‘orthodoxy’, a populariser of Marxism who was, in the words of Trotsky, ‘never a man of action, never a revolutionist, or an heir to the spirit of Marx and Engels’. [27] We can see the truth of this judgement in Kautsky’s role in two great theoretical controversies which burst upon the international movement in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The first, and far more well known, concerned Bernstein’s attempt to adjust the SPD’s formally revolutionary theory and programme to its increasingly reformist practice. Kautsky, the recognised leading theoretician of German Social Democracy, was at first extremely reluctant to cross swords with Engels’ literary executor, even when Bernstein was quite openly departing from and challenging both Engels and Marx on every basic question of Marxist political strategy, tactics, programme and philosophy. In 1898, Die Neue Zeit published an article by Bernstein pointing out – with some justification – that the SPD was concealing its reformist activity beneath a façade of revolutionary phrases, and it was high time the party acknowledged this publicly. Excluding the younger generation of lefts personified by Rosa Luxemburg, Bernstein’s onslaught on revolutionary Marxism aroused genuine anger and concern only in the Russian movement. Plekhanov, not Kautsky or Bebel, was the first to hit back in print, and even then Kautsky submitted him to the same indignity as the older Liebknecht had inflicted on Engels – that of censoring those sections of his article which were sharpest in their criticisms of Bernstein. Plekhanov had originally hoped to persuade Kautsky to spearhead the counter-attack, and to this purpose wrote to him on 20 May 1898:

If Bernstein is right in his critical endeavours, one may ask what remains of the philosophical and socialist ideas of our teachers? What remains of socialism? And in truth, one would have to reply: not very much!

Unable to understand Kautsky’s aloofness from what Plekhanov rightly saw as a life and death battle for the future of the revolutionary movement, he bluntly asked him:

Can you be in agreement with Bernstein? It would be too painful for me to believe that. If not, why do you not answer? It is you who are attacked... yes, we are going through a crisis, and this crisis is making me suffer very much.

In fact, Plekhanov’s half-rhetorical question was far nearer the mark than he would have suspected, for once combat with the revisionists had been joined it emerged that Kautsky did indeed share much common ground with those whom he had been reluctantly compelled to do battle. Kautsky felt himself on firm ground when rebutting Bernstein’s reformist perspectives, which the latter summed up in his well-known aphorism: ‘To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.’ [28] Crushing majorities were amassed at a succession of SPD congresses in support of resolutions declaring Bernstein’s theories incompatible with Social Democracy, yet when the dust had settled, revisionism emerged stronger and more entrenched than ever. The answer lies only partly in the immense preponderance of the conservative party and trade union machine in determining day-to-day policies and activities of the movement. It undoubtedly both nourished and responded to Bernstein’s revision of Marxism, as did the growing band of bourgeois intellectuals who flocked to the party’s banner once it became a major force in German political and cultural life. Neither was it a simple matter of Kautsky being able, single-handed or with the support of the party’s left wing, to stem the rising flood of opportunism. This was a product of deep-going, objective processes in both the German and international economy, an ideological refraction of the material privileges which a relatively broad layer of the most skilled workers had secured for themselves in the period of pre-1914 capitalist expansion. Only the most profound and violent convulsions could – and in fact did – undermine the reactionary role of the Social Democratic bureaucracy and the social stratum upon which it rested. The great political treason committed by Kautsky was his utter failure to penetrate to the core the methodological roots of Bernstein’s revisionism, to show how his political programme of capitulation to German imperialism flowed from his philosophical rejection of dialectical materialism and his reversion to the subjective idealism of the neo-Kantians.

Bernstein ended his Evolutionary Socialism with the recommendation that the socialist movement should no longer base itself on the materialistic world outlook of Marxism, but the morality of Kant:

A class which is aspiring needs a sound morale and must suffer no deterioration. Whether it sets out for itself an ideal ultimate aim is of secondary importance if it pursues with energy its proximate aims... And this in mind, I... resorted to the spirit of the great Königsberg philosopher, the critic of pure reason, against the cant [29] which sought to get a hold of the working-class movement and to which the Hegelian dialectic offers a comfortable refuge. I did this in the conviction that Social Democracy required a Kant who should judge the received opinion, and examine it critically with deep acuteness, who should show where its apparent materialism is the highest – and is therefore the most easily misleading – ideology, and warn it that contempt of the ideal, the magnifying of material factors until they become omnipotent forces of evolution, is a self-deception... [30]

All Bernstein’s previous – and subsequent – attacks on Marxism paled before this bid to drag the German workers’ movement back, not only to a pre-Marxist but even pre-Hegelian philosophical foundation. In doing so, he acted in concert with all those ideologues of German reaction from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche who recoiled from the revolutionary implications of the Hegelian dialectic and constructed out of Kant’s subjective theory of knowledge a series of apologias for mysticism and in the last analysis, political reaction. But amazingly, Kautsky regarded Bernstein’s Kantianism as the least objectionable feature of his revisionist system. Evidently Kautsky saw nothing revolting in this humbug preaching a higher morality to the German working class while at the same time denying the right of land ownership to ‘savages’. Plekhanov, whose knowledge of German philosophy dwarfed that of any leading German Social Democrat save Franz Mehring, wrote once more to Kautsky imploring him to open the pages of the SPD theoretical journal to a discussion on philosophy. And when the editor of Die Neue Zeit lamely replied that only a handful of readers could hope to follow what Kautsky regarded as an esoteric debate, Plekhanov made the admirable retort: ‘It is essential to force the readers to interest themselves in philosophy... it is the science of sciences.’ Such an aggressive approach was utterly alien to the increasingly complacent Kautsky. The idea of actually disturbing, provoking and even angering one’s readers in order to raise their level of political consciousness shocked him deeply. Undismayed by Kautsky’s coolness, Plekhanov directly addressed the SPD Die Neue Zeit in the same querulous tones:

I am always and always will defend the outlook of Marx and Engels with passion and conviction, and if some readers shrug their shoulders over the fact that I am so heated in a polemic, which concerns the most important questions of human knowledge and at the same time touches upon the most essential interests of the working class... then I say, shrugging my shoulders in turn: so much the worse for such readers.

The great tragedy was that, ultimately, it was not the slothful readers of Die Neue Zeit who paid the supreme penalty for their disinterest in philosophy, but the entire German proletariat. As Kautsky sowed, so the Weimar leaders of German Social Democracy – Müller, Wels, Severing, Braun and Leipart – reaped. Their harvest was a bitter and bloody one. Kautsky’s apologetic reply to the demand by Plekhanov that he wage war on Bernstein’s philosophical idealism was not merely a confession of theoretical bankruptcy but downright treachery to both the German and international working class:

I must openly declare that neo-Kantianism disturbs me least of all. I have never been strong on philosophy, and although I stand entirely on the point of view of dialectical materialism still I think that the economic and historical viewpoint of Marx and Engels is in the last resort compatible with neo-Kantianism. If Bernstein was moulting only in this respect, it would not disturb me in the least.

Kautsky, the great populariser, was also the great vulgariser. He broke down what he took to be Marxism into a series of propositions on different fields of human activity and natural processes – much in the way now done by sociologists specialising in ‘Marxism’, overlooking their unified origin in a materialist world outlook. So it was quite possible on this eclectic basis, to find what appeared to be common ground between certain views of idealists and the practical sides of the socialist movement. The divergences deepen precisely when the ground is shifted from ‘concrete political tasks’ [31] to the seemingly rarefied atmosphere of method, theory of knowledge, and philosophy. So it was with Marx and Engels in their rupture from the young Hegelians, Trotsky in his fight against Stalin’s metaphysical theory of ‘socialism in one country’, and so it should have been, but was not, in Kautsky’s polemic with Bernsteinian revisionism.

Only in the Russian movement was the theoretical battle fought with the gloves off, first by Plekhanov, and then, following his decline into Menshevism and eventual support for the First World War, by Lenin. And it was a struggle which transcended national frontiers and rode rough-shod over smugness, prestige and backwardness. The fighting was at its most intense, and the knives at their sharpest, precisely in the domain of the highest abstractions. In Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, compiled during the war, we see why this was so:

Hegel is completely right as opposed to Kant. Through proceeding from the concrete to the abstract – provided it is correct... does not get away from the truth; but comes closer to it... all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. [32]

The first salvoes of the October Revolution were not fired by the cruiser Aurora at the Winter Palace, but by Plekhanov and Lenin at the traducers of dialectical materialism! And Lenin did not suddenly come to the conclusion in 1914 that philosophy was all-important for the political struggle, nor even in the days of the struggle against Bernstein, when in his classic pamphlet on the trade union question What Is To Be Done? he made his famous declaration that ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’. We find him, at the very outset of his political career as a professional revolutionary, seeking to probe political problems and differences to their philosophical roots, as in his long article, written in 1894 at the age of 24, ‘What the “Friends of the People” Are, And How They Fight the Social Democrats’. In this youthful tour de force, Lenin already reveals a deep understanding of the Marxist classics, and employs it to counter the attack on the dialectical method then being launched by a section of the liberal Russian intelligentsia.

But he was far from being the Lenin of the Philosophical Notebooks. In the initial phase of the struggle against Bernstein, Lenin was content to lend his uncritical support to Kautsky, as can be seen from his review of the latter’s Bernstein and the Social Democratic Programme, which Lenin drafted, but never published, in 1899. However, he soon struck a different note from Kautsky, who was concerned simply to restate, and not enrich, the theory and principles pioneered by Marx and Engels. For Lenin, this was not enough:

To defend such a theory, which to the best of your knowledge you consider to be true, against unfounded attacks and attempts to corrupt it is not to imply that you are an enemy of all criticism. We do not regard Marx’s theory as something completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life... [33]

So much for Lenin the ‘dogmatist'! From the turn of the century, Lenin increasingly saw and combated opportunism in the Russian movement as an integral part of a wider offensive against revolutionary Marxism. The Russian Economists, Bernstein’s revisionism and the openly reformist practices of English trade union leaders were all reflections and expressions of an international tendency which arose in response to the pressure, mediated through the radical petit-bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy, exerted by imperialism on the workers’ movement. The struggle against revisionism was therefore the theoretical expression of the struggle between classes, a fight not simply for correct formulations, important though these were, but for the destiny of the workers’ movement and an integral part of the preparation for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This urgency, this sense of the life-and-death nature of the theoretical struggle, was precisely that element in Kautsky’s political make-up which was lacking: ‘His character, like his thought, lacked audacity and sweep, without which revolutionary politics is impossible...’ [34] Lenin, who for nearly two decades regarded himself as a pupil of Kautsky, was in this respect his polar opposite. He entered the fray bent on determining the inner forces of a problem, process or controversy, all the time gathering the forces in and around the Bolshevik Party for one single purpose – revolution. It was on this basis that he fought out his prolonged philosophical struggle within the Bolshevik faction against a tendency which, under the leadership of Alexander Bogdanov, sought to update Marxism by importing into it concepts derived mainly from modern physics, but also from the writings of various neo-Kantian philosophers. This new attempt to revise the dialectical materialist foundations of the Marxist world outlook, to replace it with a subjectivist theory of knowledge which harked back to the solipsism of Bishop Berkeley, arose in the conditions of pessimism created by the crushing of the 1905 Revolution. Mysticism in its various guises gripped wide sections of intellectuals who had either been sympathetic towards or committed supporters of Marxism in the previous period when the workers’ movement had been in the ascendant. In the Bolshevik Party, they eclectically combined the general propositions of Marxism about the class struggle and economics with a theory of knowledge which denied, after the manner of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, the possibility of cognising the world outside human consciousness; and even in extreme cases, in the tradition of the English sceptic David Hume, whether one could say with certainty that there was anything which lay beyond the data recorded by our senses. And here we find ourselves on familiar philosophical territory, that of the German subjectivist school which after rejecting Hegel, returned to Kant and eventually degenerated into the mystical power-worship and anti-socialist pathology of Nietzsche. The same Kantianism also succeeded – albeit in another guise – its penetrating into the very heart of the German workers’ movement, and in Russia, Lenin found himself fighting the same philosophical opponents, this time dressed up in the garb of Empirio-Criticism. [35] The result – after several years of intensive study – was his Materialism and Empirio Criticism, published in 1909 as a broadside against all those who were bending to the most reactionary philosophical theories yet evolved – namely the schools of subjectivism and mysticism. And for this very reason – not for its style and fierceness of polemic – the book has been more abused than almost any other in Marxist literature. Most of all its critics baulk at Lenin’s concluding statement that:

... one must not fail to see in the struggle of parties in philosophy a struggle which in the last analysis reflects the tendencies and ideology of the antagonistic classes in modern society... the contending parties are essentially... materialism and idealism. The latter is merely a subtle, refined form of idealism, which stands fully armed, commands vast organisations and steadily continues to exercise influence on the masses, turning the slightest vacillation in philosophical thought to its own advantage. [36]

Lenin could have been writing about the SPD! For here, reluctance to combat revisionism philosophically led in the first great historical test of the party to its utter capitulation to precisely those forces which had been seeking the movement’s annihilation for more than half a century. Neither was this confined to the struggle against Bernstein. Kautsky also revealed a profound reluctance to become involved in the Russian party controversy between Lenin and Plekhanov as partisans of dialectical materialism and the Bolshevik ‘Machists’. [37] (Not that Lenin denigrated the work of non-Marxist or even idealist scientists in their own specialised fields. In his last article on philosophical questions, written in 1922, he stressed the importance of following every trend in modern science and philosophy, pointing out:

... that the sharp upheaval which modern natural science is undergoing very often gives rise to reactionary philosophical schools... Unless, therefore, the problems raised by the recent revolution in natural science are followed, and natural sciences are enlisted in the work of a philosophical journal, militant materialism can be neither militant nor materialism. [38]

Ignoring this work – work that Kautsky considered irrelevant to the prosecution of the class struggle – necessarily led to reactionary ideologists and philosophers interpreting the findings of modern science in an idealist fashion, what Lenin called ‘clutching at the skirts of Einstein’, even though the pioneer of relativity theory was ‘not making any active attack on the foundations of materialism’.)

Asked to comment on the dispute currently raging inside the Russian Marxist movement, Kautsky stated – for the record – the he was himself a dialectical materialist, adding that ‘Marx proclaimed no philosophy, but the end of philosophy’. As in the debate with Bernstein, Kautsky went out of his way to emphasise that philosophical differences, however profound, could coexist with complete agreement on programme and indeed on Marx’s proposition that social consciousness is determined by social being. Marxism was thus debased from a general world outlook and theory of knowledge into a theory concerned solely with society; in other words, historical ‘materialism’ without dialectical materialism: [39]

Whether this conception (that of the social determinants of consciousness) is based on eighteenth-century materialism, or on Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism, is not at all the same for the clarity of our thought; but it is a question that is entirely inconsequential for the clarity and unity of our party. Individual comrades may study this as private people, as they may the question of electrons or Weissmann’s law of heredity; the party should be spared this. [40]

Kautsky not only spoke for himself when he wrote these truly philistine lines, but an entire layer within the party and trade union bureaucracy who feared thoroughgoing theoretical and philosophical conflicts as much as an elemental movement of the masses which they could not control and guide into constitutional channels. Theoretical and organisational ossification went hand in hand, producing the reformist adaptation to German imperialism which was revealed for the whole world to see on 4 August 1914, when the entire SPD Reichstag fraction voted for the Kaiser’s war credits. So great was the class hatred of the overwhelming majority of bourgeois political commentators that they were blinded to this process at work within German Social Democracy. But it did not escape the most astute minds among the enemies of Marxism, notably the sociologist Max Weber. In some ways, he saw even more clearly than Lenin and Trotsky how far the SPD had deviated in practice from the revolutionary principles to which it subscribed, and what attitude the majority of its leaders would adopt when faced with a great political crisis. [41] Although a founder member of the Pan-German League – he later resigned in protest against its tendency to favour agrarian interests in preference to those of the industrial and banking bourgeoisie – Weber never allowed his partisan class position to prevent him from making a serious study of Marxism and the activities of those who claimed to be Marxists. In this sense, he was far ahead of his time in Germany, where only in 1914 did significant (and then by no means all) sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia reluctantly concede that the SPD had discarded at least some of its revolutionary rhetoric and was on the road to becoming ‘national’. Weber was saying this as early as 1906, when in commenting on the SPD’s Mannheim Congress of that year, he wrote:

I should like to invite our German princes on to the platform at the Mannheim party conference, just to show them how Russian socialists, sitting there as spectators, were horrified at the spectacle of this party! They had really believed it to be revolutionary... but now only the smug innkeeper face, the physiognomy of the petit-bourgeois, caught the eye... I think that no prince would continue to fear this party which has no real source of power, whose political impotence is manifest even today for all to see who choose to see.

But few at that early date chose to see. In vain, Weber addressed the liberal ‘Society for Social Politics’ the following year, imploring bourgeoisie and government to adopt a new policy of encouraging the ‘realistic’ and ‘national’ wing of the party to play an active, if subordinate, role in the various institutions of political life:

If the contradictions between the material interests of the professional politicians on the one hand and the revolutionary ideology on the other could develop freely, if one would no longer throw the Social Democrats out of the veterans’ associations, if one admits them into church administrations, from which one expels them nowadays, then for the first time serious internal problems would arise for the party. Then it would be shown not that Social Democracy is conquering city and state, but, on the contrary, that the state is conquering Social Democracy.

And it is evident from these amazingly astute observations that Weber was working towards a policy of splitting the SPD, of winning its ‘professional politicians’ or, more accurately, bureaucrats to a programme of open reformism and defence of the nation state, at the same time isolating as far as possible those who still clung to the party’s ‘revolutionary ideology’. Presumably embarrassed by this all too accurate characterisation of the party’s leadership Kautsky never replied to Weber’s critique of German Social Democracy, any more than he took seriously the political implications of those philosophical tendencies hostile to dialectical materialism. Neither did he nor any other SPD theoretician make a serious analysis of Weber’s sociology, which originated and evolved as an alternative theory of social development and theory of knowledge to that of historical and dialectical materialism. And because Kautsky’s indifference towards the reactionary nature and role of Kantianism led him to turn a blind eye to its advocates within the SPD, he was utterly unprepared to combat its influence in the various branches of bourgeois thought and natural sciences. For while singing the praises of a supposed rationality in modern bourgeois politics (a rationality mediated through a rigidly organised bureaucracy), Weber nevertheless, like the neo-Kantian Schopenhauer and also Nietzsche, allowed the forces of irrationality, or intuition and instinct, to invade the world of morality:

Here we reach the frontiers of human reason, and we enter a totally new world, where quite a different part of our mind pronounces judgement about things, and everyone knows that its judgements, though not based on reasons, are as certain and clear as any logical conclusion at which reason may arrive. [42]

However much the devotees of Weber [43] may be outraged by the idea, this dichotomy between the rigidly rational functioning of the machinery of government and industry, which Weber saw as the heritage of what he called the ‘Protestant ethic’, and the highly subjective and irrational basis of ‘moral’ actions, is perfectly compatible with the SS bureaucrats, equipped with horse-whips, gas chambers, card indexes and ledgers, systematically organising the destruction of an entire people and then converting its human remains and material possessions into lampshades, fertilisers, soap and a credit account with the Reichsbank amounting to RM 178 745 960.59. Weber saw as one of his main political tasks the weaning of the German proletariat from internationalism, without at the same time openly challenging its adherence to socialism. Once again, the SPD leadership seemed, on all the available evidence, to be blind to the dangers implicit in this policy. One of Weber’s most enthusiastic and far-sighted supporters in this undertaking was Friedrich Naumann. Both bemoaned the political immaturity of the German bourgeoisie, yet shrank before the alternative of a Germany ruled by the proletariat. Neither did they relish Germany’s continued domination by the Junker caste, which they saw as the surest means of alienating the worker and peasant masses from a policy of national defence. The only possible alternative, they both contended, was a ‘power state’ pursuing social policies which while defending the existing system of property relations, created a wider popular basis for the regime. In short, it was a combination of the old Bismarckian Bonapartism with elements of something new – a ‘social’ nationalism, with the emphasis strongly on the latter. This is how Naumann, one of the moving spirits behind the ‘Society for Social Politics’, described it in an article written in 1895:

Is he [Weber] not right? Of what use is the best social policy if the Cossacks are coming? Whoever wants to concern himself with internal policy must first secure people, fatherland and frontiers, he must first consolidate national power. Here is the weakest point of the SPD; we need a socialism which is administrable, capable of making a better policy than hitherto. Such a socialism still does not exist. Such a socialism must be national.

We are not condemning the SPD leadership, and principally Kautsky, for their failing to be political clairvoyants, for failing to detect in the ideas of those who were wooing the right wing of their party the embryo of a counter-revolutionary movement which arose several decades later. That would be an unjust and absurd charge. Kautsky’s great betrayal, one that led to his support for the Kaiser’s armies, was his neglect of the ideological struggle against those who, whether from seemingly ‘liberal’ positions, or from the extreme chauvinist and anti-Semitic right, were working towards the destruction of the workers’ movement in Germany. All Kautsky’s great erudition in historical and economic questions, and his defence of the SPD programme against its reformist critics, were undermined and in the end reduced to zero by this major weakness, which in its turn, became the Achilles heel of the entire party. He never mastered the art and science, so essential for a great theoretician and workers’ leader, of making the transition from one form of activity to another, of raising, in line with the requirements of a new epoch, the ceiling of his own theoretical work and with it that of the entire party. It was a passive acceptance of Marxism, an acceptance which while even recognising that all change is the product of the conflict of opposites, remained on the level of what Hegel termed ‘intelligent reflection’, which ‘consists in the understanding and enunciating of contradictions’, but ‘does not express the concept of things and their relations, and has only determinations of imagination for material and content’. This method of cognition and analysis Hegel contrasted with ‘thinking reason’ which:

... sharpens the blunt difference of variety, the mere manifold of imagination, into essential differences, that is, opposition. The manifold entities acquire activity and liveliness in relation to one another only when driven on the sharp point of contradiction: thence they draw negativity, which is the inherent pulsation of self-movement and liveliness. [44]

Lenin, in a notation on this passage, observed: ‘Ordinary imagination grasps difference and contradiction, but not the transition from one to the other, this however is the most important...’ [45] Had Kautsky pursued his revisionist quarry with the passion that must be the basis of all revolutionary activity he would not only have unearthed the manifold and complex relations which had evolved between opportunism within the SPD and the major ideological trends outside it, but in so doing, to use Hegel’s expression, would have driven the entire party to ‘the sharp point of contradiction’, the point at which the transition begins from ‘intelligent reflection’ to where ‘thinking reason’ grasps reality in all its ‘activity and liveliness’, ‘pulsation and self-movement’. Such a struggle does not of course take place in a vacuum, it develops not only on the basis of the experiences of leaders but of millions, and cannot provide advance guarantees of revolutionary success. The driving force for the theoretical struggle must be the objective movement of class forces, but in turn it can play a vital part in their future development, as witnessed in a positive sense by the October Revolution, which without Lenin’s 20 years of unremitting struggle for theoretical clarity would have been impossible; and in a negative fashion, by the tragic experience of Germany, not merely in 1914 and again in 1918, but 1933. The revenge exacted by history for theoretical negligence is savage indeed.


1. K Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1959), pp 8-9.

2. K Marx, Neue Rheinische Revue, November 1850.

3. F Engels, Letter to C Schmidt, London, 27 October 1890, Marx – Engels Selected Correspondence (Moscow, nd), p 497.

4. F Engels, letter to A Bebel, London, 11 December 1884, Marx – Engels Selected Correspondence, p 457.

5. Marx was also a life-long supporter of Ireland’s right to independence from England.

6. Article serialised in the English radical journal Commonwealth, whose editors included Marx, Eccarius and Odger. [F Engels, ‘What Have the Working Classes To Do With Poland?’, K Marx, The First International and After (Harmondsworth, 1974), p 384 – MIA]

7. F Engels, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 16-17 February 1849. [F Engels, ‘Democratic Pan-Slavism’, K Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p 240 – MIA]

8. F Engels to F Sorge, 24 October 1891.

9. F Engels to A Bebel, 29 September 1891.

10. F Engels to P Lafargue, London, 27 June 1893, Frederick Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue: Correspondence, Volume 3 (Moscow, nd), pp 269-73.

11. Bebel’s contemptuous opinion of Belgium and its armed forces were shared by the German High Command, as the first days of the war revealed.

12. Since this book is concerned chiefly with Germany, it obviously cannot examine similar and equally reactionary nationalist deviations in the other parties of the International.

13. E Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism (New York, 1963), pp 178-79.

14. F Engels, ‘Introduction’ to K Marx, The Class Struggles in France, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1962), p 133.

15. F Engels to K Kautsky, London, 1 April 1895, Marx – Engels Selected Correspondence, p 568.

16. F Engels, ‘Introduction’ to K Marx, The Class Struggles in France, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 1, p 135.

17. Here Engels was mistaken. It was government policy to recruit their standing army from non-proletarian, preferably peasant, strata of the population, where socialist sympathies were weakest. On the eve of war only 6.14 per cent of army servicemen came from the large towns, whereas 19.1 per cent of the total German population lived in them. On the other hand, rural-born soldiers made up nearly 65 per cent of the army, while only 42.5 per cent of the population lived in the countryside. Thus even a sizeable SPD election majority would not necessarily have resulted in a socialist majority in the army.

18. F Engels, ‘Conversations with Friedrich Engels’, Frederick Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue: Correspondence, Volume 3, p 393.

19. ‘The German Elections’, Frederick Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue: Correspondence, Volume 3, p 399.

20. ‘The German Elections’, Frederick Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue: Correspondence, Volume 3, p 400.

21. Yet in 1889 – one year before the fall of the anti-socialist legislation (an event which undoubtedly coloured Engels’ strategic and tactical conceptions in the last years of his life) – Engels bluntly declared: ‘The proletariat cannot conquer its political domination... without violent revolution.’ (Letter to G Trier, London, 18 December 1889, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, p 492)

22. VI Lenin, ‘"Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder’ (April-May 1920), Collected Works, Volume 31, pp 25-26.

23. LD Trotsky, ‘Engels’ Letters to Kautsky’ (October 1935), Leon Trotsky on Engels and Kautsky (New York, 1969), p 18. Trotsky is of course in no sense implying that Engels was responsible for this degeneration, simply that he failed to detect its beginnings, which is another question.

24. VI Lenin to I Armand, Zurich, 30 November 1916, Collected Works, Volume 35, p 251. Boulanger was a military contender for the Presidency of France. His plebeian-based, intensely nationalist movement had collapsed a full year before Engels wrote the article under discussion. Thus Lenin’s argument in this respect does not stand up, hinging as it does on the existence of an anti-German alliance of two ultra-right-wing dictatorships.

25. VI Lenin to I Armand, 25 December 1916, Collected Works, Volume 35, p 268.

26. Quoted in VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 39, pp 499-500.

27. LD Trotsky, ‘Engels’ Letters to Kautsky’, Leon Trotsky on Engels and Kautsky, p 5.

28. Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, p 202.

29. A deliberate play on words.

30. Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, pp 222-23.

31. Max Shachtman, co-leader with James Burnham of the middle-class-based opposition in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40, used this formulation to blur over their profound differences with dialectical materialism. They argued against Trotsky that agreement on ‘concrete’ questions transcended such differences. Both subsequently left the SWP, Burnham joining the extreme right wing of anti-Communist publicists, Shachtman becoming a ‘State Department socialist’. Shortly before his clash with Trotsky, Shachtman wrote an article for the SWP journal New International where he used a formulation whose spirit, if not wording, had much in common with Kautsky’s reply to Plekhanov: ‘... nor has anyone yet demonstrated that agreement or disagreement on the more abstract doctrines of dialectical materialism necessarily affects today’s and tomorrow’s concrete political issues and political parties, programmes and struggles are based on such concrete issues.’ And Burnham, who later advocated ‘preventative’ nuclear war on the Soviet Union, shared with Bernstein both his aversion to Hegel, whom he once described as ‘the century-dead arch-muddler of human thought’, and, before his final defection to the far-right, the belief that ‘socialism is a moral ideal, which reflective men choose deliberately by a moral act’.

32. VI Lenin, ‘Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic’, Collected Works, Volume 38, p 171.

33. VI Lenin, ‘Our Programme’ (1899), Collected Works, Volume 4, pp 211-12.

34. LD Trotsky, ‘Karl Kautsky’ (1938), Leon Trotsky on Engels and Kautsky, p 26.

35. The name given to his philosophy by the German follower of Spinoza, Richard Avenarius, who unwittingly provided the Bogdanov group with many of its anti-Marxist notions.

36. VI Lenin, ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’ (1908), Collected Works, Volume 14, p 358.

37. After Ernst Mach, the physicist whose neo-Kantian interpretations of discoveries made by modern science were used by the Bogdanov group to bolster their own subjectivist theory of knowledge.

38. VI Lenin, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ (12 March 1922), Collected Works, Volume 33, pp 232-33.

39. The same position is now held by the French phenomenologist Jean-Paul Sartre, and was, before his recent death, by the Hungarian Stalinist Georg Lukács.

40. K Kautsky, Der Kampf, no 10, 1909, p 452.

41. As early as 1905, the year when the first Russian Revolution drove the entire SPD leadership to the left, compelling it to adopt resolutions endorsing the mass political strike as a means of achieving reforms in the Prussian electoral system (it was still based on the ‘three-tier’ class franchise of Bismarck’s day), a prominent trade union leader defiantly wrote: ‘What a change in our judgement of tactical questions has been produced by the continued practical and economic activity of the labouring masses... No negotiations with the employer, no contact with the bourgeois! That was the old slogan and the old tactic, meanwhile we have got away from it. The steadily increasing responsibility of the trade union leaders has forced a new tactic. One negotiates with the employer, utilises the state conciliation apparatus and – horror – tries to awaken understanding in the ministries for the demands of the workers.’

42. M Weber, letter to Emmy Baumgarten, 5 July 1887.

43. Who included, during the period of EP Thompson’s editorship, a group of sociologists around the journal New Left Review.

44. GWF Hegel, Science of Logic, Volume 2 (London, 1961), pp 61-69.

45. VI Lenin, ‘Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic’, Collected Works, Volume 38, p 143.