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Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’?

May 24, 2016

By Eric Blanc. (Eric Blanc is an activist and historian based in Oakland, California. For the text of the Kautsky article discussed here, see “Karl Kautsky: Sects or class parties”. A Spanish translation of Eric’s article has appear in Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.)

Karl Kautsky

Karl Kautsky

The question of broad parties has been heatedly debated by socialists in recent years. Many have argued that “Leninism” should be discarded in favor of wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc. Others have rejected participating in such structures, on the “Leninist” grounds that building independent revolutionary Marxist parties remains the strategic organizational task for socialists.

Intertwined with this debate has been a serious reassessment of “Leninism” itself. Particularly following the publication of Lars Lih’s monumental Lenin Rediscovered, big questions are being asked: Did Lenin break in theory and/or practice with the “orthodox” strategy articulated by Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky? Were the Bolsheviks, in other words, a “party of a new type”?

Unfortunately, the debate up until now has overlooked one of Kautsky’s most revealing works on revolutionary party-building, his 1909 “Sects or Class Parties?” An English translation of this remarkable (and remarkably forgotten) piece can be found here. The article deserves a wide audience, as it clarifies the strategy of the early revolutionary Kautsky (i.e. before his post-1909 capitulation to the German party bureaucracy) and because it insightfully challenges problematic political orientations that have become hegemonic among socialists today.

Kautsky polemicizes against what he considers to be two false strategies manifest in the debate concerning the 1908 affiliation of the British Labour Party to the Second International. On the one hand, various reformists painted the broadly amorphous Labour Party as a positive alternative to explicitly Marxist parties. No less mistaken, in Kautsky’s view, was the sectarian attempt by the British Social Democratic Party (SDP) to directly build a Marxist party in Britain outside of the Labour Party. Kautsky’s piece set out to show why there was no need to counterpose the project of building independent mass workers’ parties and strictly Marxist parties. The first, he argued, should be seen as step towards the latter.

One of the most significant aspects of “Sects or Class Parties?” is that it shatters the often-repeated myth that Kautsky sought to build (as a recent article by Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins in International Socialism asserts) a “party of the whole class” founded upon “unity in the sense of breadth rather than unity in the sense of ideological cohesiveness.” If ever there was an example of such a party it was British Labour – yet Kautsky emphatically argues that attempts to export this model to countries with mass Marxist parties would be “merely an attempt to crush out an already existing higher form, by a more reactionary party.”

Kautsky clearly advocates a party based on “definite Marxian Socialism, the theory of the proletarian class struggle as deduced from the study of capitalist society.” According to Kautsky’s conception, workers needed an independent party; this party should be committed in theory and practice to revolutionary Marxism; and if it wasn’t yet a firmly Marxist party then the role of revolutionaries was to push to transform it into one.

(Lenin, it should be noted, shared this “orthodox” orientation both in regards to Russia and Britain. Agreeing with the 1908 decision to admit British Labour into the Second International, the Bolshevik leader argued that the Labour Party “represents the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.”)

Given that British Labour was headed by parliamentary and union leaders tied to the Liberals and bourgeois ideology, Kautsky made the very “Leninist” case that a distinct revolutionary organization was needed:

The peculiarity of England consists in the fact that the conditions there render it necessary for the Marxists to form a separate, solid organisation, which in countries where mass parties, with a Social-Democratic – i.e., Marxist – programme exist, would be superfluous. … Only by means of the most energetic Marxist propaganda amongst the masses, and the most determined criticism of the errors and entanglements of the leaders, can the [Labour] party be made into a powerful and trustworthy organ, in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

Kautsky criticized British revolutionaries not because they sought to build a strictly Marxist party, but rather because their abstentionist refusal to participate in the British Labour Party precluded them from achieving this goal in practice. Self-proclaiming a Marxist party was insufficient, as the distinct conditions in different countries obliged flexible tactics towards effectively building mass revolutionary parties.

In hindsight, the problem with Kautsky’s approach was not that he advocated a mistaken party model (“the party of the whole class”), but that he, like Lenin, underestimated the extent to which the bureaucratization of programmatically Marxist parties such as the German SPD made them in practice analogous to British Labour. One could argue that the tragedy of the Second International’s revolutionary left was that the “Leninist” strategy Kautsky advocated for Britain – i.e. the organization of a distinct revolutionary Marxist current aiming to overcome reformism within the mass socialist parties – was not replicated on the Continent as well. Only after the labor bureaucracies’ historic betrayals in 1914 did Lenin and (eventually) Rosa Luxemburg accordingly adjust their organizational strategies for the West.

Notwithstanding this and other weaknesses in Kautsky’s text – not least of which was a serious underestimation of mass action – it seems to me that the general strategic orientation put forward remains if anything more relevant today than it was in 1909. While the absence of a mass Marxist party in Britain was exceptional at the time, today it has become the norm.

Unfortunately, the two orientations criticized by Kautsky – both of which counterposed the building of broad parties and Marxist parties – have become hegemonic. In fact, the positions against which Kautsky polemicized in 1909 in some ways were more advanced than their current articulations. Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party). In turn, the sectarian British S.D.P. – against which Kautsky polemicized for believing it could transform itself directly into a mass party – had roughly 13,000 members, whereas today’s advocates of its same approach often number in the dozens or hundreds.

Experience over the past decades would seem to demonstrate that while non-Marxist broad parties cannot effectively transcend capitalism, projects of building Marxist parties will likely flounder if they are divorced from wider efforts to promote a mass political representation of and for the working-class majority. Socialists today might do well to rediscover Kautsky’s forgotten 1909 contribution and to reconsider its strategic conclusion:

It is not a question as to whether we prefer a small resolute Social-Democratic Party to a big class party with no definite programme … A Socialist organisation of the S.D.P. type is as insufficient by itself as the Labour Party. We must encourage both.

Kautsky’s article “Sects or mass parties,” posted on this website, is republished with thanks from Marxists Internet Archive. — JR

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  1. Todd Chretien permalink

    Many thanks to Eric for translating this very useful piece by Kautsky and providing a provocative introduction. I find myself agreeing with his broadest generalizations; namely, that

    “Experience over the past decades would seem to demonstrate that while non-Marxist broad parties cannot effectively transcend capitalism, projects of building Marxist parties will likely flounder if they are divorced from wider efforts to promote a mass political representation of and for the working-class majority.”

    This is a useful starting point even if “seem to demonstrate” and “will likely flounder” leave a lot of wiggle room.

    Be that as it may, there is little doubt that he is right to say that the counterposition between “small resolute” and “big class party,” as Kautsky put it, is indeed today “hegemonic;” even if, as Eric notes, it’s a particularly impoverished hegemony in terms of the scale of forces involved. Yet, accounting for all of our global left’s weaknesses, hegemonic is not the same as universal. And it seems to me that we are beginning to see the broad outlines of a “return to organization” question (with a nod to Bensaïd’s “return of strategy” challenge).

    The experiences of revolutionaries in formations and movements as diverse as (in Europe) Syriza, Podemos, the Left Bloc, Die Linke, the NPA (and others in France) and (in Latin America) the FIT and the PT/PSOL/PSTU spectrum (not to mention Venezuela) and perhaps (in North America) the Quebecois left (even if the U.S. class struggle remains in arrears) and (let’s not forget) Egypt all demonstrate that we can begin to move beyond the sterile broad/narrow contrast that Eric rightly criticizes here.

    (I’ve offered a few initial thoughts here among other places:

    With respect to this, one of the more interesting aspects of Kautsky’s article is his insistence that the devil is in the details, from timing, to the balance of forces, to the experiences of national working classes, to the level of political education attained by the vanguard (in the broad social sense).

    If that’s right, then history can inform our perspectives and practices, but not provide a simple formula for success, a truism with which I have no doubt Eric agrees wholeheartedly. This then should lead us to finding ways to pair our historical studies with a special focus on sharing translations of contemporary events (of which there is both already a lot and not enough) and a commitment to building up a useful base of knowledge that precedes sharp political judgment.

    Finally, although I am not certain that Eric has reached this conclusion, his scare quotes around “Leninist” imply a rejection. Certainly there is much to reject in what many have described as “Leninism,” but I continue to believe, as a good Oaklander, that there is, in fact, “a there there.” Moreover, this “there” clearly distinguished Lenin from Kautsky, and not only on the question of mass action.

    Todd Chretien

  2. When Eric stated that “Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party),” I should note the following:

    Working-class organization in their understanding and in the revolutionary understanding meant that the party-movements should have a working-class voting membership policy. That is, only working-class members can vote on public policymaking, party rules, staffing, etc.

    Unfortunately, there’s no such return to this basic principle of the IWMA and original Socialist International by most of the rather middle-class left.

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