Karl Kautsky as Critic of Bolshevism – II



Confrontation of theses on socialism and democracy by Lenin and Kautsky

“Socialism is indissolubly linked to democracy. There is no socialism without democracy” (Karl Kautsty, in The dictatorship of the proletariat)

The Apple of Discord

Despite the existing antagonism between Kautsky's and Lenin's theses regarding the nature of socialism and its relations with democracy, both socialist theorists had Marxism as their method of analysis and guide for action.

Indeed, both Lenin and Kautsky based their theories and praxis on the materialist conception of history whose basic nucleus, as Engels recalls in his introduction to the Communist Manifesto, considers that

“in each historical epoch, the predominant mode of economic production and the social structure that it conditions, form the material basis on which political history in said epoch and the history of its intellectual development rests (…); that from this fact it follows that the whole of human history has been the history of the class struggle, of the struggle between the exploiting and exploited classes; that the history of this class struggle reaches a stage where the exploited class – the proletariat – can no longer free itself from the yoke of the class that exploits and oppresses it – the bourgeoisie – without at the same time freeing itself, once and for all , the whole society from all exploitation, oppression, class division and class struggle” (MARX E ENGELS,1967:21).

These basic postulates of Marxism guided the doctrine and action of most European political associations, created in the second half of the last century, with the common denomination of social-democratic party. They therefore devoted all their energies to building, through class struggle, a socialist society.

According to Bottomore, they also had in common “a clear and often reiterated commitment to democracy, not only as the process through which the working class would come to power, but also with the substance of socialist society” (BOTTOMORE, 1988:338).

However, the dispute over this issue acquired, over time, increasing importance, until it became a point of contention between Lenin's followers and the other currents of greater expression in the socialist movement. The discussion about the character of the revolutionary party (which included antagonistic views on democracy) served as a trigger for the process of rupture between the Leninists and the other members of the Second International, supporters of the so-called “democratic socialism”.

Next, we will study the main divergences between these two trends, contrasting, in particular, in a systematic way, the theses of Kautsky – the main theorist of social democracy – hegemonic within the Second International, and those of Lenin, who cemented Bolshevism and boosted the creation of the Third International, also known as the Communist International.

Differences over the “party form”

This divergence originated at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party held in 1903. At this Congress, delegates divided into two groups. The first, led by Lenin, who wanted a party of cadres, made up of dedicated militants, and who, therefore, demanded “the active and politically engaged participation of those affiliated to the organization”. The second, headed by Martov, who considered less rigid forms of participation sufficient, such as the simple exercise of union activities or mere collaboration with the party (LANE, 1988:34-35).

However, as Lisa Foa explains, “this divergence actually hid two very different conceptions of what the structure of the revolutionary party should be: an organization formed by full-time militants and, therefore, limited in number, but compact and disciplined, or a party with more elastic and flexible ties, also open to sympathizers and collaborators” (FOA, 1985: 115).

The antagonism on this issue was irreducibly manifested with the creation, on the initiative of the Bolsheviks, of the Third International, which would, according to them, separate the wheat from the chaff. On the one hand, those who supported the method of conquering power, the type of government and the model of society installed by the Bolshevik Party in the Soviet Union; on the other, his social-democratic opponents. Indeed, affiliation to the Third International was conditional on the acceptance, by each candidate party for its affiliation, of the Twenty-One Conditions, truly draconian, imposed by the Third International. The Third and Twelfth, for example, relating to party organization, stipulated that affiliated parties should form themselves on the basis of democratic centralism.

That is to say, such parties would be subjected to “iron discipline”, in the model of “military discipline”, with their leadership “endowed with full powers and the broadest competences”. More: the Fifteenth Condition states that “the programs of all parties affiliated to the Communist International must be approved by the Extraordinary Congress of the Communist International, or by its executive committee”. The Third Condition further determines that "since the Communists cannot have any confidence in bourgeois law (...) they should everywhere create an illegal apparatus". Finally: the Twenty-first determined that, among its members, those who rejected the conditions and theses of the Communist International should be “excluded from the Party” (In: GIRAUD and ROBERT: 124 and 126).

This conception of party organization was energetically refuted by the Social Democrats. In his libel against the discretionary power exercised by the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia, entitled The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Kautsky, in a premonitory assessment, foresaw the relationship between the characteristics of the revolutionary party, as Lenin conceived it, and the annihilation of democracy, both in the both party and Russian society.

According to Kautsky, “you cannot organize the masses illegally and, moreover, an illegal organization cannot be democratic. This type of organization always leads to the dictatorship of one or more leaders, and the common members are transformed into mere executors. Such a situation becomes necessary only where the oppressed strata are entirely deprived of democracy. And this situation, far from favoring the autonomy and independence of the masses, only reinforces the belief that the leaders have in being messiahs, as well as their tendency towards dictatorship” (KAUTSKY, 1979: 15).

Disagreements about the conquest of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition to socialism

Lenin carried out, in Tsarist Russia, a revolution of an insurrectionary type, with the overthrow, in one blow, of the capitalist State, through a minority of activists. Furthermore, he considered this form of conquest of power as a universal model, applicable to all countries dominated by capitalism.

The leader of the Russian Revolution openly defended – with regard to the transitional regime towards socialism – the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, understood as the “use of terror” against the opponents of Soviet power. In his conception “the proletariat cannot triumph without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie and crushing its opponents”. In short, the dictatorship of the proletariat must function as a power that “rests directly on force and is not subject to any law, and therefore the “exploiters” must be “crushed” by the oppressed class and “excluded from democracy” ( 1970:31 and 110).

Unlike Lenin, social democrats reject the use of force as a means of gaining power. They only admit it exceptionally, when a country has been dominated by a tyrannical government. As a general rule, the revolution must be achieved “by the so-called peaceful method, of class struggle, which is limited to the use of non-military means, such as parliamentarism, strikes, demonstrations, newspapers and other similar means of pressure”, as well as by “ economic, legislative and moral measures” (KAUTSKY, 1979, p. 28).

It is, therefore, a revolutionary process that requires long and patient preparation, based on political struggle and demands and hard work to convince the masses, until they “are ripe for the revolution”. “So that the victory gained is not lost and is maintained”, says Kautsky, “it will be necessary to enlighten and convince the masses through intensive propaganda, before we begin to undertake the execution of socialism” (1979, p. 24). In this respect, the approximation of Gramsci's thought to Kautsky's is clear.

Kautsky considers that democracy is necessary, not only to promote the overthrow of capitalism, but also constitutes “the indispensable basis for the construction of the socialist mode of production”. And it is only thanks to the effects of democracy that he emphasizes “that the proletariat acquires the necessary maturity for the realization of socialism” (1979, p. 24).

And concludes Kautsky: “a regime that counts on the support of the masses will only use force to defend democracy, and not to annihilate it. He would commit real suicide if he wanted to destroy his most secure foundation: universal suffrage, the profound source of powerful moral authority” (KAUTSKY, 1979: 32).

Differences about the value and reach of democratic institutions in the capitalist regime

According to the leader of the Bolsheviks, democracy “remains and cannot cease to be, under capitalist domination, a shy, lying, hypocritical regime, a paradise for the rich, a trap, a decoy for exploiters and the poor. Thus, it would be a mistake to bet on this type of democracy, because “the more developed it is”, assures Lenin, “the more the masses move away from participation in government, freedom of assembly, the press, etc. (LENIN, 1979: 106).

With regard to Parliament, no matter how many illusions the reformists cultivate about it, the truth is that “they are more dependent on the Stock Exchange and bankers the more developed the democracy is” (1979:109). Such parliaments are, in effect, “a body foreign to its (the proletariat’s) interests, an instrument of oppression by the bourgeoisie against the proletarians, the institution of a hostile class, of a minority of exploiters” (LENIN, 1979: 110).

Under these conditions, participation in bourgeois institutions cannot be strategic, effectively accepting them, since, in fact, they are viscerally anti-democratic. It is, as Lenin leaves no doubt, a mere tactical, instrumental presence, which does not despise any opportunity to use the loopholes of capitalist “democracy”, but without ever losing sight of the “narrowness and relativity of bourgeois parliamentarism” (LENIN, 1979:109).

While Lenin highlights the weaknesses, in his view, intrinsic, of what he calls bourgeois democracy, necessarily “miserable, a farce, a democracy exclusively for the rich” (1970: 111). Kautsky demonstrates that its existence is essential for the proletariat to “gain maturity from year to year” since democratic praxis gives rise to “organization, propaganda and the conquest of social reforms”. “On the other hand, the democratic regime in capitalism provides workers with the opportunity to discuss and deliberate on the most appropriate forms of struggle for bringing about changes. Thus, through the conquests obtained – such as the reduction of the working day – the “mass of the people” extends their free time, acquires experience in the daily practice of self-management and is therefore able to fight, itself, for self-management. Revolution” (KAUTSKY, 1979: 24).

The conquest of hegemony, made possible by the exercise of democracy in capitalism, requires, in order to consolidate itself politically, “independent organizations, composed of citizens, instituting self-administration in collectivities and provinces”. According to Kautsky, socialism is condemned to remain a utopia as long as the proletariat does not acquire the capacity for self-management of all the organizations it seizes, including the State (KAUTSKY, 1979, 24).

“In this way, the working class, which grows incessantly in numbers, strength and intelligence, will become, thanks to the practices referred to above, “the most important class of the population”. At this moment “it will be qualified to conquer political power, through universal and equal suffrage, as the only rational way of choosing today's society and, consequently, to install, with the acquiescence of the population, a socialist society” (Kautsky, 1979: 21).

* Rubens Pinto Lyra Professor Emeritus at UFPB and author, among other books, of La Gauche en France et la construction europeenne (Paris, 1978) and Socialism: impasses and perspectives (ed.) (Scritta).

To read the first part click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/karl-kautsky-como-critico-do-bolchevismo/



BOTTOMORE, Tom. Social Democracy. In: Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1968.

FAUSTO, Ruy. The controversy over Bolshevik power. In: New Moon Magazine, nº 53, p. 29-67. São Paulo, 2001.

FOA, Lisa. Bolshevism. In: Bobio, Norberto. Politics Dictionary. Brasilia: UNB, 1985.

KAUTSKY, Karl. The dictatorship of the proletariat. São Paulo: Livraria Editora Ciências Humanas, 1979, p.1-90.

KAUTSKY, Karl. Le bolshevisme dans l'impasse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982.

KAUTSKY, Karl. Terrorism and Communism. Paris: Ed. Jacques Povolovsky, 1919.

QUINIOU, Yvon. Lenin's death, Marx's life. In: LYRA, Rubens Pinto (org). Socialism: impasses and prospects. São Paulo: Scritta, 1992. 203 p.

MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. Communist Manifesto. Sao Paulo: Ed. Clarity, 1967.

ALVADORI, Massimo. Kautsky between orthodoxy and revisionism. In: History of Marxism. Vol. II. Rio de Janeiro/Sao Paulo: Ed. Peace and Earth, 1982.


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