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Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution: Part 1

July 4, 2019

Before the War: The Bolsheviks Applaud Kautsky’s Tactics

Lenin remained true to the tactical ideas of Karl Kautsky after the latter had abandoned them.

By Lars T. Lih

Karl Kautsky

In recent months, Jacobin has seen an exchange of views on the theme of Kautsky vs Lenin. Many good points were made, but on the subject of the October Revolution, we are presented with a stark choice: either Kautsky is right and Lenin is wrong, or Lenin is right and Kautsky wrong.

But this is a strange and unhelpful debate, because — as Bolsheviks of Lenin’s generation knew very well and current research reaffirms — Kautsky and Lenin were on the same page over a whole range of fundamental issues. Indeed, Kautsky served as mentor to the Bolsheviks precisely on the issues that defined them and divided them from their Menshevik rivals.

Karl Kautsky even deserves to be called the architect of the Bolshevik victory in October. Of course, I am not saying that Kautsky was necessarily the first to come up with these ideas or that the Bolsheviks did not arrive at them independently. But Kautsky gave authoritative endorsement to the key tactical ideas of Bolshevism, giving clarity and confidence to the group with an impact that is hard to overestimate.

These ideas were set forth in specific writings much lauded by the Bolsheviks and used by them in polemics against the Menshevik “opportunists.” The same ideas led to their party’s victory in October and the ensuing civil war. Lenin and the Bolsheviks never rejected these ideas nor the writings in which Kautsky expressed them.

Getting the Kautsky-Bolshevik relation right is not just an academic exercise, a “fun fact” about the Marxists of yore. As the current debate shows, the Russian and the Bolshevik victory are crucially distorted if we go along with the folklore that the Bolsheviks succeeded because they relied on “insurrection” rather than “electoralism” — folklore perpetuated by friends of October as well as by its foes. Nor did the revolution in 1917 have anything to do with Lenin’s argument that “soviet democracy” was a higher type than “parliamentary democracy,” as incarnated in the Constituent Assembly that was shut down in January 1918 by the Soviet government (at the time, a coalition of Bolsheviks and Left SRs). During 1917, “soviet power” was not understood in these terms either by the Bolsheviks or the mass soviet constituency.

Therefore, if we want to appreciate the centrality of Kautsky’s tactical advice to the October victory, we must first document the concrete links between him and the Bolsheviks. We will then examine what the revolution was not and refute the standard account just mentioned. After looking at the actual political dynamics of 1917, I conclude using Lenin’s own account to present a much better idea of what the “Leninists” learned from their victory.

The Love/Hate Relationship Between Kautsky and Lenin

I first began to appreciate the strength of the Kautsky-Lenin link almost two decades ago when writing a long study of Lenin’s famous 1902 book What Is to Be Done? (Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 2006). The young Ulianov (not yet Lenin) paid Kautsky an extravagant compliment when he remarked that his famous formula — “Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement” —  “reproduced the foundational ideas of the Communist Manifesto.[1]  This remark is only a symbol for Kautsky’s immense impact on Russian Social Democracy and the Bolsheviks in particular. Indeed, his seminal 1892 book, The Erfurt Program, taught young Russian Social Democrats such as Lenin what it meant to be a social democrat.

The Kautsky theme prominent in Lenin Rediscovered upset many otherwise favorable critics. Sure (they argued), the young Lenin had a lot of complimentary things to say about the prestigious popularizer Kautsky. But doesn’t Lih realize that, in 1914, when Kautsky failed to call for a revolutionary response to the declaration of war, the scales fell from Lenin’s eyes, he rethought Marxism, and denounced “Kautskyism” root and branch?

V.I. Lenin

But did Lenin actually ever reject Kautskyism, if by this term we mean the ideas that he, Lenin, had earlier praised so enthusiastically? What, in fact, did the post-1914 Lenin have to say about the pre-1914 Kautsky? Luckily, Soviet scholars created a research tool that allowed me to answer this question definitively: exhaustive bibliographic references to any literary production mentioned by Lenin in any way. Soviet censors did not allow any really useful commentary on the context of Lenin’s works, so scholars compensated by providing the fifth edition of Lenin’s complete works that came out in the 1960s with these amazing bibliographies.

What I found stunned me. First of all was the sheer volume of references — not just to the post-1914 Kautsky who became a more and more virulent critic of Bolshevism — but rather to long-ago Kautsky publications from before the war. Lenin’s remarks start immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914 and continue right up to the end (Lenin’s last article contains one). Clearly Lenin had a Kautsky fixation, even while Kautsky was becoming yesterday’s man in the West.

The references are also remarkable for the wide range of Kautsky’s pre-1914 writings that Lenin felt called upon to discuss. Indeed, Lenin once answered a party questionnaire by affirming that he had read just about everything by Kautsky. And finally, these references are striking because they are overwhelmingly positive. Taken all in all, they constitute a strong endorsement of Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist (as Lenin expressed it). I have put together a sort of database of these references that I hope to put online soon.[2]

But if the scales — much to the chagrin of many socialists today — refused to fall from Lenin’s eyes, why did he attack Kautsky so relentlessly after 1914? Precisely because he saw Kautsky as a renegade, that is, as someone who renounced or refused to act on his own correct views. This term is prominently displayed in the title of a once-famous book Lenin wrote in late 1918 when recovering from an assassination attempt: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Legend has it that red-diaper babies in the thirties and forties grew up thinking “Renegade” was Kautsky’s first name — thus showing a better sense of Lenin’s attitude than many Marxist intellectuals today.

Lev Trotsky

The word translated as “Kautskyism” in Soviet-era editions of Lenin’s works is kautskianstvo — that is, not an ism, but a type of political behavior that can be summed up as “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.” As such, Lenin hurls the terms at a wide range of opponents who had nothing to do with Kautsky’s ideas — for example, before 1917, Lev Trotsky. In the case of Kautsky himself, the accusation of kautskianstvo was an affirmation of Kautskyism, that is, the ideas found in Kautsky’s prewar writings that had so thrilled Lenin back in the day.

Lenin’s personal relationship to Kautsky and his ideas is not the half of it. Kautsky was an essential mentor to the Bolsheviks as a whole. Lenin’s longtime lieutenant, Lev Kamenev, when sitting down to the task of preparing the first edition of Lenin’s complete works, lamented the difficulties faced by Lenin before 1917 in getting his ideas to the Russian worker: the short-lived and small-circulation underground newspapers, the censored “Aesopian” language, the need for deceptive pseudonyms, the books pulled off the press by the authorities. In contrast, Bolshevik reading groups had a steady supply of legal and illegal Russian translations of Kautsky’s works (some prepared by Lenin himself). I have looked at enough reading lists of such groups to assert that Kautsky was by far the most important author, more so than any Russian Social Democrat. In State and Revolution, Lenin himself made the point:

Undoubtedly, an immeasurably larger number of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian than into any other language. It is not without justification that German Social Democrats sometimes say jokingly that Kautsky is more read in Russia than in Germany (we may say, in parentheses, that there is deeper historical significance in this joke than those who first made it suspected; for the Russian workers, by making in 1905 an unusually great and unprecedented demand for the best works of the best Social Democratic literature and editions of these works in quantities unheard of in other countries, rapidly transplanted, so to speak, the enormous experience of a neighboring, more advanced country to the young soil of our proletarian movement).[3]

To convince yourself of Kautsky’s centrality, take down your copy of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s 1918 textbook of Bolshevism, The ABC of Communism, and peruse the reading lists recommended for earnest new recruits to Bolshevism. The pre-revolutionary entries from Lenin are mainly about agricultural statistics (What is To be Done? is not included), and they are vastly outnumbered by Kautsky material, with writings covering a wide range of essential topics, from Karl Marx’s economic doctrines to anti-Semitism (including Road to Power discussed below).

Kautsky’s Tactical Advice for the Upcoming Revolution

I continue to be amazed at the list of crucial topics about which Kautsky served as a Bolshevik mentor. But I’ll concentrate on two items of tactical advice that were undoubtedly crucial to the party’s victory in October and beyond. I will first look at the specific writings where Kautsky put forth these ideas as well as the immediate Bolshevik reaction to them.

The first crucial piece of Kautsky advice is what I call — in order to distinguish it from so many other meanings of the word —  “Bolshevik hegemony.” According to the Bolsheviks themselves, if there was one word that summed up specifically Bolshevik tactics, it was hegemony. In 1906, Lenin summed up “the fundamental principles of Bolshevik tactics” in this way: “A bourgeois revolution, brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry despite the instability of the bourgeoisie.” He then claimed that Kautsky had provided “a brilliant vindication … the essence of this tactic [is] totally affirmed by Kautsky … Kautsky’s analysis satisfies us completely.”

Lenin was referring to an article entitled “Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution.” Kautsky’s title poised the following questions: what class forces in Russian society are capable of pushing the upcoming revolution “to the end,” that is, as far as it can go? What can this revolution maximally hope to accomplish under present social conditions? Kautsky answered both questions by pointing to the Russian peasantry: on the one hand, its unsatisfied needs made it an essential ally for the socialist proletariat, and on the other, this ally set up a barrier to full socialist transformation.

The Bolsheviks were ecstatic about this article. Lenin arranged a translation and wrote detailed commentaries. Down in the Caucasus, the young Bolshevik Iosif Stalin produced his own commentary, using Kautsky’s arguments to expose Menshevik errors. Indeed, Kautsky’s 1906 article can truly be called a charter document of Bolshevism.

If there was anyone who was even more enthusiastic about this article than the Bolsheviks, it was Lev Trotsky. He asserted in this connection that anyone who had read works such as his own Results and Prospects “will see that I have no reason to reject even a single one of the positions formulated in the article I have translated by Kautsky, because the development of our thinking in these two articles is identical.”[4] And, it should be added, Trotsky was if anything more insistent than the Bolsheviks that the Russian peasants were an insuperable barrier to socialist transformation. He argued that immediately after a democratic revolution, conflicts would begin to emerge between socialist workers and the peasant majority, and that these conflicts would likely lead to an armed clash. Barring a successful European revolution, this clash would end in proletarian defeat.

Aha, some will say, Bolshevik hegemony is tied to the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and thus irrelevant to the proletarian-socialist revolution in October. What this objection overlooks is that for all parties to the discussion — Trotsky as well as Lenin and Kautsky — a fully socialist revolution was incompatible with an alliance with a peasantry that itself was not consciously and voluntarily in favor of socialism. And yet, both before and after October, the Bolsheviks were committed to respecting basic peasant interests. During the civil war, the Bolsheviks placed heavy burdens on the peasantry (though hardly more than on workers) in pursuit of common interests as perceived by the peasants, namely, preventing victory of a landowner/capitalist counterrevolution. Bolshevik leaders stressed many times that victory in 1917, victory in the civil war, and (hopefully) victory via New Economic Policy (NEP) was based on proletarian leadership of the peasants in pursuit of common interests — that is, on Bolshevik hegemony.

In other words, after October the Bolsheviks surprised themselves by deciding that socialist revolution was compatible with proletarian leadership of the peasants. Thus there was continuity in the actual policy of Bolshevik hegemony and there was discontinuity in ideological assumptions about socialist revolution.

In articles written in 1909, Kautsky affirmed the continuing relevance of his analysis — and, as usual, his remarks were energetically circulated by Russian Bolsheviks:

The industrial proletariat of Russia is the bearer of the [democratic] Russian revolution, and this is precisely why it cannot count on the support of the bourgeoisie for the revolution. Only in the peasantry does the Russian proletariat find a class whose economic interests do not contradict its own and who cannot achieve a satisfactory position in society without revolution. … At present the tsarist government itself [because of the Stolypin reforms] is energetically working at broadening the outlook of the Russian peasant beyond the narrow boundaries of his native village … And this in the final analysis will lead to even further intensification of his dissatisfaction.

After the October revolution, both Lenin and Trotsky endorsed the argument of Kautsky’s 1906 article and called Kautsky out for abandoning it himself. As Lenin wrote in Renegade Kautsky:

But now Kautsky does not say a single word about the controversies of that time (for fear of being exposed by his own statements!), and thereby makes it utterly impossible for the German reader to understand the essence of the matter. Mr. Kautsky could not tell the German workers in 1918 that in 1905 he had been in favor of an alliance of the workers with the peasants and not with the liberal bourgeoisie, and on what conditions he had advocated this alliance, and what program he had outlined for it. [5]

Bolshevik hegemony was not the only piece of tactical advice by Kautsky that proved crucial in 1917. In 1909, Kautsky published a small book entitled Road to Power. The Bolshevik reacted with by now typical enthusiasm. In a glowing book review, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, brought out the book’s wide range of topics as well as its significance as a weapon of the “orthodox” against the “revisionists” — or, in Russia, the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks:

Kautsky’s work, along with its great significance for general politics, has also, of course, large implications specifically for Social Democracy. His book sums up the events of the last five years: revolution in Russia, the awakening of the East, the regrouping of social forces in Germany, the successes of the proletariat in Austria, the sharpening of the class struggle in England, and so forth … This new work of Kautsky’s has already sparked off a battle between the orthodox and the revisionists, and this battle is still expanding, providing us with the opportunity once more to judge the respective positions of the two camps as applied to the vital questions of today.

Only a few years later, this 1909 publication came to be viewed as the swan song of the good “Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist.” In early 1915, in the first throes of his indignation against Kautsky the sell-out, Lenin wrote:

It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to Power (which came out in 1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch … But Kautsky now commits to the flame what he once worshipped and he is changing front in the most incredible, most indecent, most shameless fashion.[6]

Of particular interest to the Bolsheviks was Kautsky’s condemnation of any kind of political “agreements” (Russian: soglasheniia) with liberal or democrat reformers. I give the Russian translation of “agreement,” because in 1917 the rejection of “agreementism” (soglashatelstvo) became central to the Bolshevik message, as we shall see. Zinoviev (undoubtedly speaking for Lenin in this instance) cited Kautsky as an authority on this issue:

The issue of the relation of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie (both liberal and democratic), of possible blocs and agreements [soglasheniia] with it, of the growth or the blunting of contradictions between it and the proletariat, and so forth, has for a long time been the central point of dispute between Marxists and revisionists in all countries … Social Democracy, in Kautsky’s opinion, must conduct a purge of its own ranks, it must free itself from petty-bourgeois elements, it must stand out more sharply than ever before against the politics of blocs and agreements with the bourgeoisie.

Kautsky’s case for anti-agreementism rested on his perception that the world was entering a new era of revolutionary upheaval. He argued that in this new age of revolutions, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) must not compromise, or go soft on imperialism or even join a coalition government — rather, it must remain true to its heritage of irreconcilable opposition. In Kautsky’s words:

The more imperturbable, consistent, and irreconcilable the Social Democratic Party remains, all the more readily will it get the better of its opponents. To demand that the Social Democratic Party participate in a policy of coalition or alliance now … at the very time when those parties have prostituted and utterly compromised themselves; to want the Party to link itself with them in order to further that very prostitution—is to demand that it commit moral suicide.

If the party stands uncompromisingly for a “great idea, a great goal,” it will be able to “unleash all the energy and devotion” that lie below the surface in non-revolutionary periods:

When times of revolutionary ferment come, the tempo of progress all at once becomes rapid. It is quite incredible how swiftly the masses of the population learn in such times and achieve clarity about their class interests. Not only their courage and their desire to fight, but also their political interest is spurred on in the most powerful way by the consciousness that the moment has arrived for them to rise by their efforts out of the darkest night into the bright glory of the sun. Even the most sluggish become industrious; even the most cowardly, bold; even the most intellectually limited acquire a wider mental grasp. In such times, political education of the masses takes place in years, that otherwise would require generations.

Sounds like 1917!

In particular, the tactic of militant anti-agreementism gave the revolutionary Social Democrats a chance to win over the wavering “petty bourgeoisie” (in Russia, this term referred primarily to the peasant majority). The party, Kautsky argued, should not write off the peasant or the member of the urban lower classes because of his present hostility, since an outbreak of war or some other catastrophe might enrage him. “One day, under intolerable pressure from taxation and shaken by a sudden moral collapse of those in power, he might swing over to us en masse and perhaps thereby sweep away our opponents and decide the struggle in our favor.”

The description “present hostility” refers to the situation in Germany, but, as we have seen, Kautsky urged the Russian Social Democrats to look upon the Russian peasantry as a revolutionary ally. In 1915, looking ahead to the imminent Russian revolution, Lenin was quick to make the connection between the two prongs of Kautsky’s tactical advice:

To the question of whether it is possible for the proletariat to assume the leadership [rukovodstvo] in the bourgeois Russian revolution, our answer is: yes, it is possible, if the petty bourgeoisie swings to the left at the decisive moment; it is being pushed to the left, not only by our propaganda, but by a number of objective factors, economic, financial (the burden of war), military, political, and others.[7]

For Part 2 of this article, see “1917: The Bolsheviks Apply Kautsky’s Tactics 

Related Articles on Kautsky, Lenin, and the Road to Socialism


[1] Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 5th ed., (PSS), 4:189 (1899).

[2] Forthcoming on John Riddell’s blog.

[3] Lenin PSS, 33:104.

[4] Richard Day and Daniel Gaido, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution (Brill 2009), 580.

[5] Lenin, CW, 28: 295; for a similar comment by Trotsky, see the 1922 preface to his book 1905 (

[6] Lenin, PSS, 26:143-44.

[7] Lenin, Collected Works, 21:403.

  1. geoff1954 permalink

    This article includes some unquestionably correct ideas but I will reserve judgement on its fundamental argument until I read the second part.

    As I argued on John Riddell’s blog when he opened it to contributions from Eric Blanc and Mike Taber, Blanc (and Lih in this first article — unless I missed it) does not take up one of Lenin’s most fundamental works, that discusses his differences with Kautsky and their roots. That work is State and Revolution, which I recommend to others who are interested in this debate.

  2. James Creegan permalink

    Chapter VI of Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, “The Vulgarisation of Marxism by the Opportunists”, contains an extensive criticism of the pre-1914 Kautsky. A couple excerpts:

    “…shortly before he came out against the most prominent representatives of opportunism in France… and in Germany… Kautsky betrayed very considerable vacillation. The Marxist “Zarya” … was forced to enter into a controversy with Kautsky and describe as ‘elastic’ the half-hearted, evasive resolution, conciliatory toward the opportunists, that he proposed at the International Socialist Congress in Paris in 1900. Kautsky’s letters published in Germany reveal no less hesitancy on his part before he took the field against Bernstein.” (CW, 1964, p. 482)

    And further:

    “From 1852 to 1891… Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently Substituted for the question of whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question of the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sought refuge behind the ‘indisputable’ (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!” (ibid., p. 484)

  3. robertmcmaster0955 permalink

    ‘Words, words, words. Just words’ as Hilary Mantel ascribes to Thomas More. No body that counts gives a fig for Kautsky apologias. His conduct over-wrote all else. After all, it wan’t ‘Luxemburg, Liebkneckt and Kautsky was it? And Kautsky wasn’t present at the founding of the International. Or anywhere else he might have made a contribution thereto.

    So, for regular folk, Kautsky was another crap out. Lost his revolutionary MoJo. Nowadays, Bob Rae, Tony Blair, Tsiprias, and hundred more.

    The sell outs. The Sunday socialists who govern from the right. Dress it up however it’s still putting lipstick on a pig. People see this so the social democracy folds back into the liberal universe. Guilty, they try to drag their constituency with them. Some sort of new left is bound to congeal. There is a place, a political vacuum. So John, there may be a place for us old farts yet.

    You can’t inspire people with the Kautsky’s. He demobilizes, disheartens. Better advance a Tecumseh, Micheal Collins, Wat Tyler. People who went beyond ‘words, words, words, just words’.

    Look at Lenin: ‘Peace, Land, and Bread’. Words and deeds in direct harmony. That is brilliance.

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