Karl Kautsky as a critic of Bolshevism



Some of its echoes in the XNUMXst century

“The task of socialism in relation to communism is to ensure that the moral catastrophe of a certain method of socialism does not become the catastrophe of socialism in general, and that this distinction is clearly present in the consciousness of the masses” (Karl Kautsky, Terrorism et Communism.

Lenin's anathema to the “renegade” Kautsky

Karl Johann Kautsky was born in Prague, on October 8, 1854 and died in Amsterdam, on October 17, 1938. He was the main Marxist theorist of the Second International, an association that brought together socialist parties from all over the world, since its inception. founded in 1889 until 1916, when it did not resist the division between the socialists during the First World War and closed its doors.

With Marx's death in 1883, Kautsky became Engels' main collaborator and his political executor. He was considered the “master” or “pope” of Marxism, even by Lenin, until he got into a disagreement with him over a matter of capital importance: the nature of the Russian Revolution: whether it should have a democratic or socialist content. Kautsky – it should be underlined – supported it from the outset. He disagreed, however, with its socialist character, as he understood that capitalism and the Russian working class, in 1917, were still incipient, and therefore there were no economic, social and political conditions for the installation of a socialist regime in tsarist Russia.

Lenin, from then on, began to consider Kautsky a traitor within the socialist movement, denying his status as a Marxist and ridiculing his analyzes of the Russian Revolution. However, the importance of these considerations forced Lenin himself and also Trostky, his greatest exponents, – even though Russia was in the middle of civil war and at war against imperialist countries – to reserve a part of their precious time to respond to the criticisms of the renowned theorist of the Second International.

Thus, the anathema launched by Lenin against his former master was of such magnitude that it is inscribed in the famous Twenty-one Conditions, imposed, in 1920, at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, on socialist parties of a Marxist nature that wanted to join that organization. . The First of the Twenty-One Conditions already explains that: “in newspaper columns, in public meetings, in trade unions and in cooperatives, where the affiliates of the Third International are present, it is necessary to brand with a red-hot iron, systematically and ruthlessly, not only the bourgeois, but their accomplices, the reformists of all stripes”.

Kautsky became the main target of this text, even deserving a nominal reference in the Seventh Condition, contained in the aforementioned document. The latter, in unconditionally demanding a rupture with theorists and Marxist political leaders of great prominence, who dissented from Lenin, textually states that “it cannot be admitted that notorious reformers such as, for example, Turati, Kautsky, Hilferding, Longuet and others have the right to consider themselves members of the Third International”.

Kautsky continued with the brand of renegade as long as the hegemony of Leninist ideology lasted. This suffered a serious shock, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, with the progressive disappearance of the so-called Soviet communism. It was to his criticism that Kautsky dedicated the best of his energies from the first months of the Russian Revolution until his death, exiled in Holland, in 1938.

Nevertheless, the “master of Marxism” remains in limbo until today, with the largest – and most significant – part of his work practically unknown, notably the part referring to the critique of Bolshevism. His “remarkable books”, to use the expression of the respected scholar of Marxism Ruy Fausto, are indispensable for knowing the most important and comprehensive critique, of a Marxist nature, of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. Indeed, his premonitory analyzes identified, since the 1920s, the causes of the fragility of the Bolshevik regime, pointing to its inexorable failure and consequent disappearance.

As eminent French scholars recall, “despite his extraordinary Marxist culture”, the “Pope of the Second International” was played by the intelligentsia of the left – and not just because of it “in the dustbin of history and thought. But, curiously, the conviction he suffered was based on mere theoretical suspicion. It was not, therefore, under true theoretical criteria that he was judged. It was not so much Lenin's arguments as, above all, the power of the USSR that refuted Kautsky. But such a procedure, however specious it may be, could backfire on its creators, as the State founded by Lenin proved to be a formidable apparatus of dictatorship and many could be enchanted by the clairvoyance of the one who, since 1918, had analyzed and denounced the advent of of this dictatorship” (BERGUNIOUX AND MANIN: 1979:77).

However, the practical confirmation of Kautsky's analyzes related to the inevitable collapse of Soviet communism - in addition to the pertinent revision of some important theses of Marx - were not enough to promote the political rehabilitation of the Second International theorist, nor to remove him from the intellectual limbo to that was confined. Said analyzes remain almost as if they had not existed, when the collapse of the so-called “real socialism” should have given them enormous credibility.

Thus, in order to study Kautsky with some exemption, it is necessary to get rid of the ideological discrimination that, through several generations, associated the name of this important Marxist scholar and politician with the status of renegade. A good antidote against it will be to read what is most relevant in his extensive and multifaceted work. You can agree or disagree with it, but not throw it into the trash can of History, as it happens until the present day.

The study of Kautsky's theses on Soviet communism, which we will briefly present below, will help us to understand the reasons for a presumed conspiracy of silence, undertaken against those who proclaimed, with unbreakable and courageous persistence, the indissociability between the democratic regime and socialism .

The question of method in Marx

In the debate with Kautsky on Soviet communism, Lenin recurrently accuses him of revising Marx's theses. In effect, Kautsky did not stick, in this polemic with Lenin, to what “Marx said”, as did Lenin himself. The updating of Marx's thought by Kautsky was seen by Lenin as a denaturing of Marxian theory, as a betrayal tout court.

In contrast to the dogmatism described above, Kautsky understood that it would not be possible “to swear on the word of the Master since more than once his words are in contradiction with each other. Marxism did not come into the world as a dogma, established once and for all, but as a conception that emerged from reality and developed together with this reality, thanks to the methods of observation. Since Communist Manifesto, in 1848, until the last article by Engels, in 1895, the thought of our Masters underwent many modifications. This simple fact precludes any orthodoxy, which was in no way possible after their death, since various problems had emerged in the world about which Marx and Engels could have known nothing, which we had to solve”.

In short, according to Kautsky, it is the “method” that is the permanent, vital and lasting element, which constituted the “soul of Marxism” and not the “results” – “a historically conditioned and passing element” (SALVADORI, 1982:301). Indeed, Kautsky's “revision” does not focus on questions related to the Marxist method of analysis, nor on the axial points of that doctrine. It focuses on concepts that time has disproved, or made them outdated, in the perspective, outlined by him, of “removing from the thought of Marx and Engels everything that had survived in him of “utopianism” (SALVADORI, 1988:p.164).

Some of the themes object of Kautsky's updating of Marx's thought are of direct interest for understanding the debate between him and Lenin on Soviet communism: the theory relating to the “collapse” of capitalism; the dictatorship of the proletariat and the question of self-government, with the extinction of the State.

On the collapse theory. Kautsky underscores how the communists' attachment to a thesis outdated by Marx – that of the “rotting of capitalism” – which would lead to its collapse, supported the Bolshevik illusion that it would be possible, quickly, to weaken this system, with the installation of regimes Soviet-type in Europe. And, in this wake, to break the isolation of Russia, making viable, from the outside, the regime of the soviets.

The theorist of German social democracy, contrary to what the communists intended, maintained that capitalism was not “on the brink of a precipice”, “putrefied”, or in its last throes. He reviewed his first analyzes on the matter, when he realized that “regulated capitalism” had ways of controlling the crisis and promoting, within relative stability, the growth of the productive forces.

But he considered this evolution positive, since he did not expect “the victory of socialism from the economic decay of capital, but from the moral, intellectual and political rise and consolidation of the proletariat”. (1989:26). This victory could become a reality, despite capitalism controlling its crises, since this productive system could not eliminate the root of the struggle for socialism: the exploitation of the proletariat through surplus value.

While the “Marxist-Leninists” bet on a starving revolution, since capitalism would reduce the proletarian masses to a situation of increasing misery, Kautsky believed the opposite: if the working class had sunk into ever-increasing misery, it would be unable to to break free. On the contrary, because, under capitalism, it improved its living conditions, thus escaping from brutalization, it can now fight for its emancipation: “Socialism, that is, the general well-being of civilization, becomes possible only through the immense development of the productive forces provoked by capitalism, by the enormous wealth created by it, and concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class” (1979: p. 57).

Therefore, in Kautsky's view, the advent of socialism would not be the work of the proletariat in tatters, nor would violence be the instrument of its realization. On the contrary, thanks to political education, made possible by the better standard of living achieved by the working class, the latter will have the strength to undertake peaceful social reforms that will pave the way to socialism.

In short, both developed capitalism, generator of the quantitative growth of the proletariat and a condition for its “maturity”, and the validity of democracy, capable of making reforms feasible, constitute indispensable elements for workers, when they conquer the power to State, assume the management of socialized companies and promote the expansion of democracy, to the point of removing its class limits.

Em The Revolution of the Proletariat, Kautsky reviews Marx's thought on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and on the end of the State. On the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat he expresses himself in the following terms: “it is true that democracy does not guarantee a peaceful transition, but unfailingly this transition is impossible without democracy” (1979:30).

In 1919, he proposed replacing the term “dictatorship” with “dominion”, in such a way that one would not be induced to think that the transitional regime to socialism would be undemocratic. He took the Paris Commune as an example, but understanding that “the Commune did not mean the annihilation of democracy, but was based on its deepest application, on the basis of universal suffrage. The power of government should be subject to universal suffrage” (1979: 30).

In 1921, Kautsky takes a step forward and proposes overcoming the thesis of the extinction of the State, as most Marxists do today. He qualifies this proposal as utopian. The dictatorship exercised by the Bolsheviks demonstrated that it is not possible to conceive the elimination of bureaucracy, since companies, unions and cooperatives and political parties cannot do without specialized employees since the people cannot manage themselves. It has “necessity of its own organs for the carrying out of matters concerning the administration of its organizations. It needs, above all, the most powerful of its organizations: the State. Instead of self-government, it is better to talk about self-decision by the people” ( SALVADORI, 1988: 534).

Thus for Kautsky the state as a regulatory body is necessary under socialism, although expunged of its class content. This is because society would continue to need an organ to contain its particularistic impulses. It is about creating a new State, based on a “classless democracy” (KAUTSKY: 1979, p. 83).

* Rubens Pinto Lyra He holds a PhD in Law (in the area of ​​Politics and the State). He published, among other books, Le Parti Communiste Français et l'intégration européenne (Nancy, CEU, 1974) andSocialism: impasses and prospects (São Paulo, Scritta, 1991).


BERGOUNIOUX, Alain and MANIN, Bernard. La social-democratie ou le compromise. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979. 216 p.

GIRAULT, Jacques and ROBERT, Jean Louis. 1920: Le Congres de Tours. Paris: Messidor/ Éditions Sociales, 1990. 188 p.

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

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

SALVADORI, Massimo. Marxist critique of Stalinism. In: History of Marxism, vol. VII. São Paulo, Peace and Land, 1986.


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