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Lenin’s Verdict on Kautsky in State and Revolution

August 5, 2019

It’s Time for a Closer Look

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)

By Lars T. Lih, Summer 2019: After 1914, Lenin and Karl Kautsky became bitter political enemies. No person was denounced by Lenin with so much obsessive fervor as was Kautsky—a reflection of the central role Kautsky had formerly played in the outlook of the Russian Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, despite his monumental anger at the person, Lenin never renounced his admiration for the views set forth by Kautsky in his earlier writings. On the contrary, he explicitly and enthusiastically continued to endorse “Kautsky when he was a Marxist.” Without appreciating this crucial fact, we will never succeed in understanding Lenin’s views in their historical context.[1]

One of the most instructive illustrations of Lenin’s conflicted attitude toward his former mentor is the section in State and Revolution devoted to Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist. For Lenin, the cut-off point for Kautsky’s Marxist period was 1909, as we shall see below. He therefore divides his discussion in State and Revolution into two sections, one for material up to and including 1909, and another devoted to an article published by Kautsky published in 1912. Here we are interested only in the first section that is devoted to Kautsky’s earlier writings.

See also Lars Lih’s “Lenin-Kautsky Post-1914 Database”

Many readers of State and Revolution will be surprised by my description of Lenin’s attack on Kautsky. In their memory, Lenin exposed Kautsky’s errors and critiqued them pitilessly. [See comments by Geoff1954, James Creegan, and Louis Proyect here and here.] And they are right about one thing: Lenin relentlessly pursued Kautsky—as a person, as a political actor. But a careful reading will show that Lenin did not provide a substantive critique of Kautsky’s views on the state—nor did he even claim to do so. Meanwhile, in this very section, Lenin cannot keep himself from expressing his enormous appreciation of these very same writings.

V.I. Lenin (1870-1924)

By 1917, the clash between Lenin’s critique of Kautsky as an individual and his appreciation of Kautsky’s writings had become a familiar one. A paradigmatic expression of this clash can be found in letters to Aleksandr Shliapnikov in fall 1914, that is, immediately after the outbreak of war. He told Shliapnikov that “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy” Why? “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to Power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”[2]

Lenin dealt with the cognitive dissonance caused by this attitude with the help of concepts such as renegatstvo (Kautsky the person has shamefully renounced the views he so eloquently expressed) and kautskianstvo (Kautsky talks the talk, but he won’t walk the walk—he won’t act on his own declared principles). In State and Revolution, Lenin traced the psychological roots of the shameful behavior of Kautsky the political actor back to the distant past:

One fact, however, is almost unknown, one which cannot be ignored if we set out to investigate how Kautsky drifted into the morass of unbelievably disgraceful confusion and defense of social-chauvinism during the supreme crisis of 1914-15. This fact is as follows: shortly before he came out against the most prominent representatives of opportunism in France (Millerand and Jaurès) and in Germany (Bernstein), Kautsky betrayed very considerable vacillation.[3]

On closer examination, we find that Lenin’s entire discussion of Kautsky’s writings in this section deploys this same sort of attack on Kautsky’s “vacillation.” Lenin is not arguing (and in any event he has not shown) that Kautsky has incorrect opportunist views on “the state” (shorthand for an extensive range of interlocked issues). Rather, he argues that Kautsky failed to stand up for correct views at times when he should have.

We can approach State and Revolution, then, with two questions. First, what can we learn about Kautsky’s actual views on the state? The answer is: not much. Second, what can we learn about Lenin’s conflicted attitude toward Kautsky? The answer is: a good deal.

It’s not what you said, it’s what you didn’t say

Suppose you wanted to write a critique of Kautsky’s views on “the state” (parliamentarism, bureaucracy, instruments of power, revolution, democracy present and future, etc. and etc.). Presumably, the first thing to do is to ascertain what these views are, as explicitly set forth by Kautsky in his enormous corpus. Off the top of my head, I can name two substantial works devoted principally to this kind of questions: Parliamentarism and Democracy (published in 1893 and cited by Lenin in What is To be Done?), and Republic and Social Democracy in France (1904-05).[4] Luckily, both works will soon be available in English in Ben Lewis’s excellent collection Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism (forthcoming in the Historical Materialism series in fall 2019).

This straightforward procedure was not available to Lenin when he wrote State and Revolution. He became interested in these issues in late 1916/early 1917, before the outbreak of revolution in Russia. During the summer in Petrograd, when he was in hiding from the Provisional Government, he wrote up his notes into the book we know. He clearly had neither the time nor the bibliographic resources to conduct research into Kautsky’s actual published views. He therefore tried to make an end-run around the problem by using three writings that were devoted mainly to other topics but were easily available (although he had to write to a friend to obtain Social Revolution). He then built his case on the absence in these works of what Lenin considered to be a proper argument. In other words, he sets out to document Kautsky’s evasiveness. The following excerpts illustrate the flavor of Lenin’s argument:

He [Kautsky] refrained from analyzing … Kautsky did not say a word about the fact … the most essential distinction was slurred over by Kautsky … he avoided the question of the state … he does not say a word about what the Commune has already taught the workers … he does not say a word about the new material provided by 1871 … an empty and bombastic phrase about “deep-going” struggles is used to avoid a question of vital importance to the revolutionary proletariat … By avoiding this question, Kautsky in practice made a concession to opportunism … he again completely avoided the question of the state … these evasions of the question, these omissions and equivocations inevitably added up to that complete swing-over to opportunism …

Sometimes Lenin’s drive to expose Kautsky’s evasiveness approaches the limits of coherence: “From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, 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 whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question of the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed.”

All this in the space of 4-5 pages! What is the rationale behind this striking mode of argument? Lenin is not completely explicit, but his reasoning seems to be the following. The title of this section is “Kautsky’s Controversy with the Opportunists.”  And indeed, the three works under review—Bernstein and the Social-Democratic Program (1899), The Social Revolution (1902), and Road to Power (1909)—are all polemics against the opportunists.[5] In fact, they are the most influential, indeed foundational, attacks on opportunism in prewar Social Democracy. Therefore, Lenin reasons, if a crucial argument against opportunism is missing from these works, the only explanation is contemptible evasiveness. (The same style of argument is directed against Georgy Plekhanov and his 1894 pamphlet on anarchism.)

Lenin does present one passage from Social Revolution which, he believed, allowed him to make a more concrete denunciation. In this excerpt, Kautsky opines that complicated “bureaucracies” such as railroad administration will present specific problems for democratic control in the future society, but even here the workers can elect “a sort of parliament which establishes the working regulations and supervises the management of the bureaucratic apparatus.” Lenin tries very hard to wring opportunist blood out of this turnip; he claims that it shows that Kautsky’s “thinking does not go beyond the bounds of bourgeois parliamentarism.”

He seems not to have considered the possibility that “bureaucracy,” for example, can be defined in a more descriptive and analytic way than as “a special caste that sets itself above the people” (he inserts incredulous question marks each time Kautsky uses the word “bureaucracy). Lenin’s visceral hatred of “bureaucracy” as he defined it goes back to his youth and his disgust at the caste-like tsarist chinovniki. The thought that railroad administration might usefully be described as a “bureaucracy” even under full democratic control seems to have escaped him.

About half of the three pages dedicated to Social Revolution is devoted to this one passage. It seems to have been a last-minute addition (everything else in this section is based on notes made prior to the revolution). My personal opinion is that Lenin gives us here an embarrassingly weak argument, explainable only by his desire to catch Kautsky in the opportunist act. In any event, Lenin’s later use of Social Revolution in intra-party debates throws an ironic light on this passage, as discussed in the following section.

Worthy of note is a partial list of some of the things that Kautsky did do and say, according to Lenin himself: he refuted Bernstein in detail; he cited Engels on the impossibility of taking over the state machinery ready-made; he refuted opportunist errors; he stressed the importance of “the idea of revolution”; he characterized the English workers as “little more than petty bourgeois”; he analyzed imperialism and the new revolutionary period in both West and East, and so on.

To conclude: Lenin has not set forth Kautsky’s actual published views on “the state,” much less shown that they were opportunist. For the most part, Lenin implicitly admits this and restricts his argument to Kautsky’s “evasiveness” in his canonical anti-opportunist tracts. Indeed, with the exception of the passage about railway administration, the implication is rather that Kautsky did accept and set forth correct views elsewhere—just not in these particular works, where it counted. At best, then, Lenin has made an argument similar to his exposure of Kautsky’s wobbliness about refuting Bernstein, that is, a critique of Kautsky as a political actor, as an individual who did not live up to his own insights.

A key takeaway point: no one should think they have acquired any kind of grasp on Kautsky’s actual views by reading State and Revolution.

Kautsky as Authority and Mentor

The Kautsky section of State and Revolution is also notable for a feature that is rather striking, when we think about it. Despite Lenin’s immense anger at Kautsky’s actions after the outbreak of the war, despite his announced intention of exposing him as vacillating or opportunist, Lenin also continues to show his appreciation and admiration for Kautsky’s writings. This attitude is expressed directly by remarks in State and Revolution and also by later comments, especially those occasioned by Lenin’s rediscovery of Social Revolution.

I have often quoted Lenin’s overall comment about Kautsky’s influence on the Russian workers and I will continue to do so in the future, because it is extraordinarily revealing:

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).[6]

The two main streams of comment on Lenin in the West—activists and academics—are both at pains to dig a gulf as deep as possible between “Leninism” and prewar international Social Democracy. Of course, one side rebukes Lenin for rejecting the allegedly placid reformism of the West European parties, while the other side applauds him for rejecting the allegedly fatalistic “Marxism of the Second International.” But here Lenin gives us an entirely different view: the Russian workers as enthusiastic participants in the Social Democracy of the Second International, as educated primarily by and about the European parties.

This remark not only testifies to the historical fact of Kautsky’s vast influence on Russian Social Democracy—and, as I documented in my recent Jacobin article, specifically on its Bolshevik wing.[7]  It also makes plain that Lenin was obviously happy and proud that the Russian workers learned from the best. Kautsky’s educational influence is part of his explanation for the revolutionary prowess of the Russian workers.

But wait a minute! If, as we are informed by so many writers, the scales fell from Lenin’s eyes about Kautsky’s views—shouldn’t he have been aghast rather than proud? Shouldn’t he have cried out in anguish: we have let a crypto-opportunist educate our workers! We must take immediate steps to counteract this malign influence. – Yet we see nothing of the kind. On the contrary.

This appreciative description of Kautsky’s influence found in State and Revolution is not a one-off. For example, at a special celebration of his fiftieth birthday in April 1920, Lenin read to the assembly a long passage “of a certain writer, written by him 18 years ago, in 1902.  This writer is Karl Kautsky, from whom at the present time we have had to break away and fight in exceptionally sharp form, but who earlier was one of the vozhdi of the proletarian party in the fight against German opportunism, and with whom we once collaborated.  There were [as yet] no Bolsheviks then, but all future Bolsheviks, collaborating with him, valued him highly.”[8]

Let us now take a look at Lenin’s comments directly on the books under review. The first of the three Kautsky writings is Bernstein and the Social Democratic Program (1899). Lenin tells us that this book had an immense influence in Russia because “Kautsky refutes Bernstein in detail.” Even in 1920, we find him asserting that “the views [now] held by Kautsky and his like are a complete renunciation of the very same revolutionary principles of Marxism which he championed for decades, especially in his struggle against socialist opportunism (Bernstein, Millerand, Hyndman, Gompers, etc.).”[9]

The four paragraphs devoted to Road to Power (1909) are almost all appreciative. The book represents “a big step forward,” due to its concrete analysis of the contemporary world situation. Lenin quotes the book with relish: “It [the proletariat] can no longer talk of premature revolution.” “We have entered a revolutionary period.” The “revolutionary era is beginning”. Lenin concludes with a typical statement of his conflicted attitude: “This pamphlet of Kautsky’s should serve as a measure of comparison of what the German Social-Democrats promised to be before the imperialist war and the depth of degradation to which they, including Kautsky himself, sank when the war broke out.”[10] Criticism comes only with nine words: “he again completely avoided the question of the state.”

Lenin’s reaction to Kautsky’s 1902 work Social Revolution present a particularly instructive case study. Social Revolution was a seminal work for the left, anti-opportunist wing of international Social Democracy, and we can easily understand Lenin’s enthusiastic reception when it was first published in 1902, only a month or two after What Is to Be Done?. Lenin immediately organized a Russian edition.  In 1908, after Kautsky had published a second edition that commented on the experience of the 1905 revolution, Lenin wrote an article that praised Kautsky’s remarks and employed them to support the positive attitude of the Bolsheviks toward the Moscow uprising in December 1905.

In early 1917, Lenin decided to re-read Social Revolution in conjunction with his investigations into Marxism and the state.  He did not find in Social Revolution exactly what he suspected he would not find, namely, a sufficiently energetic use of Marx’s Civil War in France. But he was also obviously reminded of why he liked the book in the first place and positive references begin almost immediately.

In State and Revolution itself, he writes only that the book contains “a great deal that is extraordinarily valuable.” This laconic description becomes more meaningful in the light of Lenin’s comments elsewhere. In January 1917, even before State and Revolution was drafted, Lenin revealed the immediate impact of his re-reading in a lecture to Swiss workers about the significance of the 1905 revolution:

The higher rose the waves of the movement [in 1905], all the more did the reaction arm itself against the revolution with ever greater energy and decisiveness.  The case of the Russian revolution of 1905 confirmed what K. Kautsky wrote in 1902 in his book Social Revolution (by the way, he was then still a revolutionary Marxist, and not a defender of social-patriots and opportunists, as at present).  He wrote the following: “The coming revolution … is less similar to a sudden rising against the government than to a drawn-out civil war.”  And that’s how it happened! Undoubtedly, that’s the way it will be in the coming European revolution![11]

In April 1917, immediately after his return to Russia, Lenin used a formulation taken from Social Revolution in order to defend his views at a party conference: “Kautsky himself writes: ‘not one socialist talks about eliminating private property for peasants’.” After the October revolution, Lenin deployed Social Revolution in a striking way during debates in the newly created Soviet Executive Committee. While attacking the Menshevik Iulii Martov and the Left SR Vladimir Karelin, he stated:

When people such as Karelin and Martov talk here about conciliation with the bourgeoisie, this is nonsense.  I remind you of the authoritative book of Kautsky’s, where he talks about life on the day after the social revolution.  I will tell you approximately what he wrote: It won’t do to have the organizers of trusts sitting around with nothing to do.  This was written by a person who understands that organizing tens of millions of people for the production and distribution of products—that’s something!  We [undergrounders] didn’t learn this and there was no place we could learn it, but the organizers of trusts know that without it there is no socialism.  And we have to know this as well.  And therefore all these phrases [accusing us of] conciliation and agreements with the bourgeoisie are empty chatter.  You will not be able to refute Kautsky’s position, namely, you have to know [how to handle] large-scale production from experience.[12]

Lenin used the same Kautsky reference at a Moscow party conference at the end of 1918.[13] Think of it! Lenin was trying to persuade his fellow Bolsheviks by invoking the authority of Karl Kautsky, known to all as a determined foe of the Soviet regime.

Let us put this compliment to Kautsky next to the critique of Social Revolution in State and Revolution. In this book, he is furious because Kautsky talked about “bureaucracy” as something that would still be around even in socialist society. But now, we find him describing Kautsky in positive terms as “a person who understands that organizing tens of millions of people for the production and distribution of products—that’s something!” The contradiction is softened when we remember that in writings from 1917 such as Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power [vlast], Lenin did not regard the immense mechanism of society-wide economic regulation as a bureaucracy—no, it was an apparat that had already been created by capitalism and was now ready to be taken over by the new, non-bureaucratic proletarian state. Smash the state, yes, but preserve the economic apparat—and please, don’t call it a bureaucracy![14][1]

To round off this list of appreciative comments about Social Revolution, Lenin remarked in 1919 that once upon a time his foe had “preached the necessity of the revolution of the proletariat.  In 1902 Kautsky wrote about the possible link of revolution with war and also that the coming revolution of the proletariat would likely coincide more with civil wars than previous revolutions … But when the war broke out, the ‘revolutionaries’ of the Second International turned out to be lackeys of the bourgeoisie!”[15]

If we are not alive to all this continued appreciation and admiration, we will be surprised by the way Lenin rounds off the section in State and Revolution that is devoted to Kautsky’s writings up to 1909. Instead of a sum-up of his opportunist errors, we get the following: “Kautsky, the spokesman of the German Social-Democrats seems to have declared: I abide by revolutionary views (1899), I recognize, above all, the inevitability of the social revolution of the proletariat (1902), I recognize the advent of a new era of revolutions (1909).”

The Russians have an expression: “as a drop of rain reflects the whole sky”—that is, something small can reveal the pattern of something much bigger. The short section on Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist in State and Revolution similarly reflects Lenin’s whole conflicted attitude toward Kautsky in the years after 1914: wholehearted condemnation of Kautsky the political actor, equally wholehearted appreciation of Kautsky the past spokesman of “revolutionary Social Democracy” and nemesis of opportunism.

A Glance at German Social Democrats and ‘the State’

In passing, State and Revolution flings the accusation of evasiveness at official German Social Democracy in general: due to the fact that “the experience of the Commune has been not only ignored but distorted … the Second International, that is, the overwhelming majority of its official representatives, has completely sunk into opportunism.” Many readers, impressed by Lenin’s passion and not grasping the thrust and therefore limits of Lenin’s argument, have deduced that European Social Democracy as a whole had thoroughly un-Marxist views on the state. It is worth taking a glance at the actual views expressed by official spokesmen of German Social Democracy, if only to open up this subject.

August Bebel (1840-1913)

Without a doubt, the most popular and authoritative exposition of the German Social Democratic outlook was party leader August Bebel’s Women and Socialism, republished in scores of editions and translated into many languages.[16] Bebel’s book was even more foundational than Kautsky’s anti-opportunist pamphlets. Bebel here asserts that, after the revolution, the state will still exist—but a new kind of state that will “work toward its own ruin.”  All officials will be kept under close electoral control, with easily revoked tenure, with no greater income than their constituents. “The incumbents are, accordingly, clothed with no special ‘official qualities’; the feature of continuity of office is absent, likewise a hierarchical order of promotion.” In other words, no bureaucracy as Lenin understood it, that is, as a “special caste that sets itself above the people.” Thus it is hardly surprising that the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès anticipated one of Lenin’s most celebrated bons mots by arguing that when everybody is a fonctionnaire, nobody is.[17]

Jean Jaurès (1859-1914)

Bebel goes on to express his contempt for “petty parliamentary struggles”:

Along with the State, die out its representatives: cabinet ministers, parliaments, standing armies, police and constables, courts, district attorneys, prison officials, tariff and tax collectors, in short, the whole political apparatus. Barracks, and such other military structures, palaces of law and of administration, prisons—all will now await better use … The great and yet so petty parliamentary struggles, with which the men of tongue imagine they rule and guide the world, are no more, they will have made room for administrative colleges and delegations whose attention will be engaged in the best means of production and distribution [and other social problems]. These are all practical matters, visible and tangible, towards which everyone stands objectively, there being no personal interests hostile to society to affect their judgment.

For an entertaining yet thoroughly orthodox picture of a socialist society relying on statistical bureaus as the engine of an impersonal and automatic regulation of society, see Red Star, the science-fiction utopia published in 1912 by Lenin’s Bolshevik rival Alexander Bogdanov.

As noted earlier, Kautsky’s series of articles entitled Republic and Social Democracy in France, along with his earlier Parliamentarism, will very soon be available in an excellent English edition.[18] Kautsky’s articles on France were immediately translated into Russian, and another Russian edition was issued after the October revolution. Thus this book was not just some obscure academic treatment. Let us see if Lenin’s charge of evasiveness applies to this work.

Kautsky analyzes the interaction between class struggles and political forms in France from the time of the eighteenth-century French Revolution up to the present. When he comes to the Paris Commune, he gives a page-and-a-half quotation from Marx’s Civil War in France in which Marx eulogizes the political institutions of the Commune. Among the specific points mentioned by Marx in Kautsky’s citation are suppression of the standing army, short terms for elected officials, local democratic control of the police, workmen’s wages for bureaucrats, and decentralization. The excerpt from Marx ends with this statement: “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”  For Kautsky, the political institutions of the Commune represented the ideal democratic republic that “the Parisian proletariat created as a tool for its emancipation.”

During the rest of his discussion, Kautsky employed these features of the ideal democratic republic as a template for a critique of the institutions of the French Third Republic.  In every way, he finds, the actual republic falls far short of the standard created by the Paris Commune.  After an extensive discussion of the corruption and decadence of actually-existing “parliamentarism,” Kautsky concludes:

Russian bureaucratic corruption or American republican corruption: these are the two extremes between which the life and being of all large capitalist states moves and must move.  Only socialism can put an end to this by means of a [state] organisation such as the one the Paris Commune started to create, that is, by means of the most comprehensive expansion of self-government, the popular election of all officials, and the subordination of all members of representative bodies to the control and discipline of the organised people. Already today, the best way to counter parliamentary corruption is through the formation of a large, strictly disciplined proletarian party … Thanks to its basic constitution, today’s French republic can enjoy all the advantages of uniting parliamentary with bureaucratic corruption.

Thus we must conclude that, contrary to the impression left by State and Revolution, Kautsky subscribed to the Commune ideal, presented it to his readers (including Russian readers), and used it as a foundation of a scathing critique of the existing “bourgeois republic” in France.

In State and Revolution, Lenin is indignant that Kautsky did not use strong non-evasive words like “smash,” as in “smash the state.”  Let us interrogate Kautsky’s essay on this matter as well. He argues here that the “petty-bourgeois” Jacobins of the French Revolution were able to accomplish as much as they did because they “destroyed [zerstört] the means of rule of the ruling classes,” namely, the church, the bureaucracy and the army.  He then draws the lesson for later proletarian revolutionaries:

The proletariat, as well as the petty-bourgeois, will never be able to rule the state through these means of rule.  This is not only because the officer corps, the top of the bureaucracy and the church have always been recruited from the upper classes and tied to them with the most intimate links, but also because the very nature of these bodies as means of rule includes a striving to raise themselves above the mass of the people in order to rule them, instead of serving them.  They will always be for the most part antidemocratic and aristocratic …

The conquest of state power by the proletariat, therefore, does not simply mean the conquest of [the existing] ministries, which then, without further ado, use these previous instruments of rule—an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps—in a socialist sense. Rather, it means the dissolution [Auflösung] of these instruments of rule.

The two key words in Kautsky’s discussion are zerstört and Auflösung.  My German-English dictionary defines zerstören as “wreck, ruin, destroy” and Auflösung as “dissolving, disappearance, dispersal, disbandment.”  So, while Kautsky may not have used the word “smash,” his feelings about these bourgeois “means of rule” are hardly ambiguous.

The bottom line: Kautsky advocated a radical democratization of existing political institutions in all European countries, both monarchies and republics, and he looked forward to full political emancipation as defined by Marx in Civil War in France.

Readers of State and Revolution have usually come away with the strong impression that European Social Democracy rejected Marx’s radical views of the state or, in any event, knew nothing about them. Our brief glance at Kautsky, Bebel, and others reveal how distorted is this impression. What these readers have overlooked, however, is that Lenin himself did not even try to make this case. Lenin’s actual argument was pitched at another level and can be summed up this way: in their polemics with the opportunists, Plekhanov, Kautsky and other self-declared foes of the opportunists did not sufficiently make use of Marx’s insights. In this way, they aided and abetted the opportunist rot in the Social Democratic parties that led to the shameful collapse of 1914.

We may now take up the question: has Lenin made a strongly persuasive case for his actual argument? In my view, he has little more than put forth an intriguing but far from self-evident hypothesis. He certainly has not documented in any empirical way the absence of radical democratism in the political culture of the Second International. In order to do this, we would need to consult newspapers, propaganda circles, party congresses, parliamentary debates, and more. We would also need to take into account the problem of censorship that made certain demands and formulae illegal—in fact, Kautsky had to fight against his own party’s self-censorship in order to publish his Road to Power.[19] Lenin’s exiguous data base—four short works by Plekhanov and Kautsky—does not begin to fulfill these requirements. And even if we managed to establish this point, we must still ask whether or not this particular theme had a significant impact on the fateful decision of the official Social Democratic parties to support the wartime governments.

A Double Standard?

If Lenin had been able to consult Kautsky’s Republic and Social Democracy in France, he would have found the forthrightness whose absence in Social Revolution and Road to Power he so lamented. Kautsky’s stated views are all the more striking because we can find nothing at all like them in Lenin’s own writings. I once delved into the matter of what Lenin had written about the Paris Commune prior to State and Revolution. All I found was a couple of commemorative references applauding the Commune’s heroic struggle, and some discussion of its alleged strategic mistakes. I found nothing at all about “the Commune state” or its radically democratic institutions.

In State and Revolution, Lenin sets up a severe standard for a genuine and effective foe of opportunism and champion of “revolutionary Social Democracy.” Such a person must have thoroughly assimilated Marx’s writings on “the Commune state” and used them effectively as a polemical weapon against the opportunists. According to Lenin, Kautsky fails this test. But what about Lenin? Was he himself not a self-appointed scourge of Russian opportunists? Furthermore, unlike Kautsky, Lenin had experienced a revolution and indeed had played a leadership role in the mighty revolution of 1905-1907. If Kautsky failed to meet Lenin’s test, Lenin himself did much worse. Yet Lenin seems entirely unaware of this glaring double standard.

I will here offer a speculative explanation for this anomaly. It is pure speculation, but it has at least the merit of calling attention to something that needs explaining. Lenin did actually have a double standard for himself and Kautsky, leading him to blame Kautsky much more than he would have blamed himself. Unconsciously, perhaps, he still regarded Kautsky as his teacher and mentor, even in 1917. Kautsky was supposed to know about these things. Lenin did not regard himself as a theorist, but rather as “a praktik on an all-Russian level” (as one Bolshevik put it), as a party leader with great insight into the Russian political situation and the proper application to Russia of the standard principles of international “revolutionary Social Democracy.”[20]

In late 1916/early 1917, Lenin was surprised to come across an important theme in Marx’s writings of which he himself had previously been unaware. He must have asked himself: Why was I not told about this? And this question impelled him to turn to Kautsky’s standard works that played (and continued to play) such a large role in forming his own outlook. Upon consulting these works, he found, no doubt to his own relief, that he had not overlooked this material—rather, Kautsky was to blame for not properly discussing the topic.

On the surface, Lenin accuses Kautsky of misleading the workers. But underneath, the real cri de coeur that infused passion into his critique is that Kautsky had misled him, N. Lenin, Vladimir Ulyanov.

Articles by Lars Lih on This Website


[1] For an overview, see my recent article in Jacobin: “Karl Kautsky, Architect of the October Victory,”

[2] Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 5th ed. (PSS), 49:24.

[3] Lenin here cites a condemnation of Kautsky’s wobbliness first published by his Iskra group of Russian Social Democrats in 1901-02. He does not mention that the condemnation was issued by Plekhanov, whose own opportunism Lenin had condemned in State and Revolution just a few pages earlier.

[4] See the recent comment by Jean-Numa Ducange: “We should recognize that most of Kautsky’s texts have become difficult to read, for they are marked by their time, and some are only historical in interest. But looking at his whole body of work, we also find texts burning with present day relevance, for instance his 1893 text on parliamentarism and socialism, which deals with the combination of parliamentary and direct democracy, or indeed his series of texts of republicanism and democracy — never cited by the critics of ‘Kautskyism’” (

[5] There seems to be no English translation of Bernstein und das Sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik (1899); for the original German text, see For online English texts of Social Revolution (1902) and Road to Power (1909), see and

[6] Lenin PSS, 33:104.

[7] Lih, “Karl Kautsky, Architect of the October Victory.”

[8] Lenin, PSS, 40:325-6.  The same quotation from Kautsky’s Slavs and Revolution, introduced in a similar fashion, can be found in Left-wing Communism: A Symptom of Growing Pains (1920).  After giving the quote, Lenin exclaims: “How well Karl Kautsky wrote eighteen years ago!”  (Lenin, PSS, 41:4-5).

[9] Lenin, Collected Works, 27:306–7.

[10] In “Under a False Flag,” written in early 1915, Lenin gives a very detailed listing of what he liked in Road to Power; see

[11] Lenin, PSS, 30:323

[12] Lenin, PSS, 36:276

[13] Lenin, PSS, 37:230

[14] Lenin, PSS, 34:307-9  “Besides the mainly ‘repressive’ apparat of the standing army, the police, and the chinovichestvo [bureaucratism à la Russe], there exists in the contemporary state an apparat that is connected with special tightness to the banks and the trusts … We must not, and we need not, smash this apparat … This ‘state apparat’ (not yet part of the state under capitalism, but it will be completely so with us, under socialism) we can ‘take’ and ‘put into motion’ at one blow, with a single decree” (emphasis added).

[15] Lenin, PSS, 39:144

[16] August Bebel, Woman under Socialism, trans. Daniel De Leon (New York: New York Labor News Company, 1904).  For full text, see

[17] Marc Angenot, L’utopie collectiviste: Le grand récit socialiste sous la Deuxième Internationale (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), 190 (an indispensable guide to the utopian aspect of Second International thought).

[18] Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Ben Lewis, editor and translator (Brill, forthcoming, fall 2019). As Lewis remarks in his highly useful introduction, “incorporating the arguments in these forgotten articles, and making them available to an English-language audience for the first time, will lead to a more nuanced appreciation of Kautsky’s conception of democracy than the standard focus on his better-known works such as The Social Revolution and The Road to Power is able to” (16).

[19] For details, see my article “The Tasks of Our Times: Kautsky’s Road to Power in Germany and Russia,” Studies in East European Thought, 70:121-140, July 1918.

[20] For example, see his comments on Kautsky’s 1906 article on hegemony, as discussed at

  1. Bernhard permalink

    Read this: „Recycling the Second International – The Neo-Kautskyites”, in: “Spartacist” English edition No. 63, Winter 2012-2013

    Disclaimer: I’m not a member or a representative of

  2. As to the alleged double standard and lack of attention to the “Commune-state” in Lenin, I think this unfortunately repeats the line of Sawer 1977 (‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’), that prior to late 1916/ early 1917 Lenin believed that Kautsky held the orthodox-Marxist view on the state. And Lenin’s alleged hypocrisy would be an even more glaring, since as Lars Lih points out, he ‘played a leadership role in the mighty revolution of 1905-1907’. Let me try to dispel this (or a similar-sounding) thesis by way of a few quotes from Lenin.

    In ‘A Contribution To The History Of The Question Of The Dictatorship’ (1920) Lenin refers to the Bolshevik draft resolution in 1906, that calls for the Soviets to be transformed into Provisional Revolutionary Governments: “it must be pointed out that these institutions are bound to collapse unless they are backed by a revolutionary army and unless the government authorities are overthrown (i.e., unless the Soviets are transformed into provisional revolutionary governments)”.

    By the way, Trotsky in 1906 wrote: “The Soviet is the organized power of the masses themselves over their component parts. This is a true, unadulterated democracy, without a two-chamber system, without a professional bureaucracy, with the right of the voters to recall their deputy any moment and to substitute another for him.”

    In the third ‘Letter from Afar’ Lenin quotes himself from 1915 (ie prior to late 1916), that Soviets should be organs “of revolutionary rule”, and again implies that he held this view for a long time:

    ‘It might be asked: What should be the function of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies? They “must be regarded as organs of insurrection, of revolutionary rule”, we wrote in No. 47 of the Geneva Sotsial-Demokrat, of October 13, 1915.
    This theoretical proposition, deduced from the experience of the Commune of 1871 and of the Russian Revolution of 1905, must be explained and concretely developed on the basis of the practical experience of precisely the present stage of the present revolution in Russia.’

    Furthermore, contra Sawer’s claim, Lenin did already in 1912 read the polemic, which touched on the question of the state, between Kautsky and Pannekoek. He wrote to Kamenev: ‘look up Pannekoek and make closer contact with him: Kautsky replied to him on some cardinal issues in an extremely opportunist way.’ In 1915 Lenin also approvingly published Pannekoek’s article ‘Imperialism and the tasks of the proletariat’, which repeated his claim about the need to destroy the state.

    In case what I’m claiming is true, one could ask: why then didn’t Lenin specifically/publicly intervene against Kautsky on the question of the state by 1912?

    Well, his 1912 letter to Kamenev could I think indicate that it was in any case not due to lack of importance of the issue:

    ‘It is very desirable to make closer contact with the Left (especially Pannekoek […]) and to carry on agitation among them for a principled rebuff to Kautsky. It’ll be disgraceful if they do not revolt against such opportunism! Unfortunately they are short of people: Radek is practically a luminary among them.’

    By the way, prior to writing his Renegade Kautsky, Lenin made the same complaint about the lack of a critique of Kautsky among German communists.

  3. geoff1954 permalink

    I am seeing this post late in the evening and will reserve judgment until I can study it more carefully. However I will say, no disrespect intended to Lars Lih, the introduction is not promising.

    He proposes to consider Lenin’s “State and Revolution,” not as a political whole, but rather by focusing only on what he seems to believe confirms his own views:

    “One of the most instructive illustrations of Lenin’s conflicted attitude toward his former mentor is the section in State and Revolution devoted to Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist. For Lenin, the cut-off point for Kautsky’s Marxist period was 1909, as we shall see below. He therefore divides his discussion in State and Revolution into two sections, one for material up to and including 1909, and another devoted to an article published by Kautsky published in 1912. Here we are interested only in the first section that is devoted to Kautsky’s earlier writings.”

    The “we” that is “interested only in the first section that is devoted to Kautsky’s earlier writings,” is not all of us engaged in this discussion.

    Nor am I impressed with this:

    “Sometimes Lenin’s drive to expose Kautsky’s evasiveness approaches the limits of coherence: ‘From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, 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 whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question of the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed.'”

    I have no academic credentials of my own so perhaps to some this will seem a naive question, but I will pose it nevertheless: “What is less than coherent here?”

    It is one thing to point out, as Lih accurately does, “During the summer in Petrograd, when he [Lenin] was in hiding from the Provisional Government, he wrote up his notes into the book we know. He clearly had neither the time nor the bibliographic resources to conduct research into Kautsky’s actual published views.”

    It is quite another to suggest that Lenin’s brief summary of a perfectly clear thought, “approaches the limits of coherence.” Even with my admittedly modest formal education I do not find it lacking coherence at all.

    “State and Revolution” is over 100 years old. It is subject to review and criticism like any other piece of writing. But can Lih point to any other criticism that questions its “coherence”? Or is this a new discovery? I remain open to further evidence but no evidence is provided here, strictly an assertion.

    Finally for now, we find this:

    “A key takeaway point: no one should think they have acquired any kind of grasp on Kautsky’s actual views by reading State and Revolution.”

    Once again Lih’s certainty outraces the available evidence. He concedes that Kautsky was a “mentor” to Lenin in earlier years when Lenin considered Kautsky a Marxist. We know that Lenin was a careful student of Kautsky’s writings, long before he wrote “State and Revolution,” when — as Lenin explains in his postscript — he was “interrupted” by a genuine revolution.

    Is it too much to concede that Lenin’s earlier study of Kautsky’s writings gave him, at a minimum, SOME grasp of Kautsky’s ideas? Or that he might have communicated SOME grasp of them in his work? I admit, the questions are rhetorical.

  4. Chris Baum permalink

    “Instead of a sum-up of his opportunist errors, we get the following: “Kautsky, the spokesman of the German Social-Democrats seems to have declared: I abide by revolutionary views (1899), I recognize, above all, the inevitability of the social revolution of the proletariat (1902), I recognize the advent of a new era of revolutions (1909).”

    There is something dubious about the way Lih leaves out the *very next sentence* of the paragraph he is quoting. Here is the full paragraph.

    “Kautsky, the spokesman of the German Social-Democrats[,] seems to have declared: I abide by revolutionary views (1899), I recognize, above all, the inevitability of the social revolution of the proletariat (1902), I recognize the advent of a new era of revolutions (1909). Still, I am going back on what Marx said as early as 1852, since the question of the tasks of the proletarian revolution in relation to the state is being raised (1912).”

    By lopping off the final sentence, Lih tries to conceal the fact that this paragraph is, in fact, precisely “a sum-up of [Kautsky’s] opportunist errors”.

    Lih tries to get around this by moving the goal posts so that he need only consider the period ending with The Road to Power in 1909. But this amounts to cutting in half the thread that Lenin is tracing.

    Lih’s argument essentially boils down to the idea that Lenin continued, to the end of his life, to be a fan of Kautksy’s prewar writings. But so what? He continued to admire Plekhanov as well. In neither case does Lenin’s capacity to continue admiring these men’s works do anything whatsoever to undermine his analyses of where they went wrong.

  5. robertmcmaster0955 permalink

    A few other opinions on the subject:

    Two Trends in the American Socialist Movement: Why We Should Throw Kautsky Out With the Bathwater – John Peterson January 31, 2019

    Kautsky and the Parliamentary Road to Socialism – A Reply to Eric Blanc ByRob Rooke – July 18, 2019

    Revolution or the Democratic Road to Socialism? A Reply to Eric Blanc. Donald Parkinson 2019.04.13

    Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky Matías Maiello May 25, 2019

    Steady rightward trajectory Jim Creegan 02.05.2019

    The Lenin-Kautsky Unity-Rivalry Debate John Willoughby December 1, 1979

    The case of the disappearing Lenin Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins 10th October 2014 Note: “This, then, is the context for taking seriously the intellectual debate initiated by the outstanding Canadian Marxist scholar, Lars Lih.”

    Notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered March 9, 2012

    Lars Lih’s trajectory over time is interesting

  6. prianikoff permalink

    Trotsky had Kautsky down to a “T” 100 years ago.

  7. Gil Schaeffer permalink

    About Lih not finding any writings by Lenin on “‘the Commune state’ or its radically democratic institutions,” there is “The Plan of a Lecture on the Commune,” pp. 206-9, vol. 8, CW 4th ed. (Lecture presented March 5, 1905, in Geneva), where the democratic rules of the Commune are listed.

  8. Thanks for the reference, Gil. I was not able to track this down online. Could you add a reference to the online version.

  9. Gil Schaeffer permalink

    I forgot that you can also download the PDF of vol. 8 on and go straight to page 206.

    • Hi Gil, Thanks for your close attention to my blog and your helpful suggestions. In this case, I have lost track of the issue we are discussing. Could you run this by me again? The article (“Lenin’s Verdict”) was posted two years back, but it is important and continues to get significant readership. I’d be pleased to make improvements?
      Best regards, John

      • Gil Schaeffer permalink

        Hi John, In “Lenin’s Verdict on Kautsky in State and Revolution,” Lih makes the claim at the end that Lenin had “a double standard for himself and Kautsky, leading him to blame Kautsky much more than he would have blamed himself” for neglecting Marx’s writings on the lessons of the Paris Commune. Lih’s evidence for Lenin’s own neglect of Marx’s writings on the Commune is that Lih “found nothing at all about ‘the Commune state’ or its radically democratic institutions” in Lenin’s writings other than a few commemorative references applauding the heroism of the Communards. My citation of Lenin’s “Plan of a Lecture on the Commune” from 1905 indicates that Lenin did study Marx’s writings on the Commune soon after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution. Unfortunately, we do not have the full text of the lecture that Lenin gave in Geneva, only the outline for the lecture, but I do think that this outline is proof enough that Lenin was not applying a double standard to Kautsky and himself. Lenin was thoroughly familiar with the radical democratic features of the Commune state years before writing “State and Revolution.” Also, Lenin’s criticism of Kautsky’s changing views on the nature of the state did not begin with State and Revolution but started at least as early as 1912 as a result of Kautsky’s debate with Pannekoek. Bottom line, Lih exaggerates Lenin’s intellectual dependence on Kautsky.

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