Review: Ben Lewis, “Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism”

Rida Vaquas

So I will die as I have lived, an incorrigible Marxist’

This is what Kautsky concludes in his overview of his life’s work, in 1924. In these new translations by Ben Lewis, a reader begins to see just what exactly was incorrigibly Marxist about Kautsky, free from the scorn cast on him as a renegade and traitor. At a moment when there is an increasing interest in Kautsky across some parts of the Left, this volume is a welcome addition to our understanding of his democratic and republican thought, as well as his divergence from Bolshevism in his own words.

Lewis has chosen to present three texts: Parliamentarism and Democracy, The Republic and Social Democracy in France and The Development of a Marxist. This selection has the benefit of presenting a clear analysis of party, state and class, his criticisms of ministerial socialism as represented by Jean Jaurès, and his own perspective on his political development after the declaration of World War One. It also reminds us of the sheer thrill that socialists must have had in reading him – the moments of ‘yes, that’s exactly it!’ After all, it was none other than Anton Pannekoek, later council communist, who claimed that nobody had demonstrated the significance of Marxist theory as well as Kautsky in his historical writings. And it was Leon Trotsky who described him, in 1938, as ‘the teacher who instructed the international proletarian vanguard’. Kautsky’s pupils, in the variety of directions they went, forged the histories of twentieth-century communism and social democracy. It is now time to return to the master himself. These texts demonstrate he still has much to teach us.

Parliamentarism and Democracy was a text first published in 1893 and reissued in 1911. Mike Macnair has covered its historical context and in Second International debates and the veracity of its historical claims extensively here, hence I will restrict myself to some more general comments.

For a socialist involved in the Labour Party, what jumps out is Kautsky’s conception of Social Democratic party and how incongruous it is with the Labour Party. For Kautsky, in a party ‘class antagonisms must not be allowed to assert themselves.’ Furthermore, while the party may have the ‘most varied differences of opinion’ on immediate tasks, the final goal and the methods of achieving them must be points of unity, otherwise it would be ‘an absurdity’ to unite the various elements into a party.

One may easily dismiss the absence of class antagonisms as over-optimism on Kautsky’s part, even the SPD had effectively pro-capitalist functionaries in its ranks. But his belief in unity in a final goal bears closer examination – if simply because I would be hard-pressed to assert what the final goal of the Labour Party is, let alone build any unity around such a goal. The Labour Party is an absurdity. What are socialists doing in it?

As Corbynism is marginalised and normal service resumes, it becomes more pressing to provide a clear answer to this question that doesn’t depend upon the power that various figures of the left may hold in it. We are in it to create a cadre who are the mortal enemies of bourgeois society. To echo R. H. Tawney, we will not make the Labour Party a socialist party until we realise it is not one. What this means is that socialists in the Labour Party must act as a militant animating principle of party life: developing a unified programme and pushing for it at all levels in the party. But to do this, we need a precise analysis of the levers of power, the (un)democratic structures.

What Kautsky grasps in Parliamentarism and Democracy is something that may seem simple: an organism as complex as a capitalist state to the extent that it is democratic necessarily delegates its decision-making to a smaller group of people, parliamentarians. State power is the only way to accomplish control over the ever-increasing officialdom that manages various affairs of the state. Democracy must be representative, and not direct. Referenda on single-issue topics only affect society in a piecemeal way. They divide the party and create cross-class alliances.

How strangely current this seems in light of the disastrous legacy of the 2016 EU referendum! Referenda emerge not as a gift of democracy – but as a way of weakening the process of politics via parties. For a party that represents class interests, they are unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.

His theory of representative democracy is extended to the party itself. As he points out, none of his contemporary advocates of direct legislation have done away with party congresses. Kautsky elaborates: ‘The representative system is the only form in which the party as a whole can convene, come to an understanding and make its decisions.’ When parts of the left are experimenting with horizontalism, online democracy via e-referenda, and other democratic forms, it is worth dwelling on why Kautsky holds representative democracy as crucial.

On a surface level, representative democracy is disempowering – why can only a committee, or a few thousand delegates vote, instead of the entire membership? But Kautsky understood that posing questions to an entire membership did not necessarily mean that the membership would determine the outcome. If a single piece of legislation cannot be evaluated except in relation to how it affects the management of the capitalist state as a whole, how can a single policy point be evaluated except in how it relates to the party programme as a whole? Simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions are simply used by ruling committees as affirmation for their own policies – the true people who decide are those who set the question.

A segment of advocates of more representative democracy on the Left these days often raise the criticism that having more democratic processes, direct or otherwise, is exclusionary, as many people do not have the time to go to meetings and hence most power must be devolved to a small group of representatives. This is a bad argument for representative democracy. Representative democracy only functions democratically if it has a high level of member participation behind it – i.e. branch meetings, district meetings, regional meetings, the lot. After all, it was at a party meeting that Karl Liebknecht realized his initial error of conforming to party discipline and voting for war credits on 4 August 1914 in the Reichstag – despite his opposition to the war.

At the time, Kautsky could afford not to elaborate on the exact shape of representative democracy within a party precisely because a set of democratic norms were taken for granted, even as the party apparatus expanded. Socialists today have no such luxury, beleaguered by large committees, chosen in backroom deals, with very few real accountability mechanisms. Moreover, the internal party life of the Labour Party is moribund. The self-evident sovereignty of the party congress to Kautsky is something we still need to fight for. It’s for this reason re-examining the democratic thought of the Second International is a worthwhile endeavour.

For socialists who have witnessed the disappointments of ministerialism firsthand, The Republic and Social Democracy in France sheds light on the question of entering bourgeois governments. The central question it concerns is the Millerand affair, in which Alexandre Millerand, a socialist, entered the government of Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, the butcher of the Paris Commune. Kautsky takes the opportunity to elaborate bourgeois and proletarian concepts of the republic. The sharp excellence of this polemic only emphasises the tragedy of his U-turn after the German Revolution: how could a man who penned such a decisive take-down of ministerialism later collaborate in it?

In Republic and Social Democracy, he decisively demolishes socialists in government but not in power, observing that the deployment of troops against striking workers increased since they took power! Republican France remained behind the Kaiser’s Germany in its restrictions on child labour. The underlying worldview of ministerialism seems impossible to maintain. Yet the questions it raises about when to enter a government, about when one can collaborate with bourgeois politicians, are questions that are unresolved in a Left – particularly in a British context where many have been swept up in a ministerialism of their own.

Kautsky demands that we ‘ensure it is impossible to identify us with the ‘cartel’ of bourgeois business republicans that governs and exploits the republic.’ The only class that can secure a republic in the true sense is the proletariat and the fight for the republic involves elevating the political independence of the class. The French socialists had no justification for entering a bourgeois government because the ‘republic’ was under threat. In all manner of parallel ‘emergency’ situations from the EU referendum to the climate crisis, it is precisely this clarity that is missing in the modern-day Left.

After seeing Kautsky at his sharpest, one is inevitably left with a question: at what point did Kautsky renege his Marxist commitments? The final text, his own account of his life, fails to provide an answer to this question – in Kautsky’s view, he never left. Historical writing nonetheless tends to assess his break with revolutionary politics as occurring in around 1910, as his splits with the radical left over mass action and mass strikes became more evident.

In this period immediately before the First World War, as his former allies on the radical Left debated him in the pages of Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky charted out his own standpoint of revolutionary centrism ‘between Baden and Luxemburg’ – Baden being the stronghold of German revisionism.

Kautsky does not present a new theory in his articles – bemoaning misrepresentations by both Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek – he simply acknowledges the limitations of theory. In ‘Between Baden and Luxemburg’, he argues ‘When the right moment for a mass strike arrives… cannot be determined by theory beforehand.’ In his response to Pannekoek, he insists that spontaneous mass actions would bring ‘a completely unpredictable element into our political life’ and that the class character of the masses could not be determined according to the Marxist method. On this note, his contemporaries were kinder to him than later historians, who identify Kautsky after 1910 with the gradualist and revisionist tendencies – Pannekoek clearly states that Kautsky’s position needs to be assessed because ‘Kautsky is not a revisionist.’

For his interlocutors on the radical left, Kautsky’s problem was not so much an abandonment of Marxism so much as a refusal to apply it to the political problems that really mattered. After all, Karl Kautsky wrote that precisely because a mass strike had to be unpredictable to be effective, it was all the more necessary to be constantly prepared for one. In his own words from 1905 ‘Nothing is more ridiculous than a war administration which wants to start testing its weapons and drilling its troops […] only when the war has first been declared.’

So why then did Kautsky lack confidence in the theory to which he devoted his life at a crucial moment? Quite simply, while he may have earnestly committed to revolutionary centrism – this was not, as he wanted to believe, the strategy of Social Democracy as a whole. In his own words, at the declaration of war, he was ‘almost entirely alone’ in his middle position of neither unconditionally accepting nor unconditionally rejecting war credits, if it was not possible to abstain. During the war, he was even ejected from his position as the editor of Die Neue Zeit by the party leadership.

The so-called Pope of Marxism found no base that was willing to apply his theories. As Kautsky applauded Social Democracy for raising the working class for the revolution, it had in fact raised a working class for the trenches. This brings out the fundamental problem of Kautsky’s politics prior to 1914 – a problem of practice, not of theory. He correctly assessed that unity of the working class party was a necessity for it to accomplish the tasks of social revolution. The party needed debate, but prolonged internal strife was to be avoided.

But he misjudged what that unity was founded upon – and its ultimately brittle nature. The revisionist wing of Social Democracy were tireless propagandists for their perspective – in Lenin’s assessment in April 1914, ‘the most prominent and responsible people, members of parliament and trade union leaders who write for Sozialistische Monatshefte, constantly and undeviatingly propagate their views among the masses.’ The orthodox centre that Kautsky represented clung to the official resolutions of the party, whilst ignoring that to the officialdom these resolutions might as well have meant nothing. As the Second International painfully learned, the victories of orthodox Marxism at every congress were hollow because there was no base capable of enforcing them as programme and strategy. Kautsky’s failure at the eve of the First World War was not the same as his rightward turn at the point of the German Revolution – the former was a failure of practice, not theory.

Is there anything to be salvaged from Kautskyism after 1914? There is one point in his favour – a bar that much of the contemporary Left fails to clear – his conviction in building up the capacity of the working class to take power. While The Development of a Marxist was penned in 1924, Kautsky had another fourteen years of political activity in front of him, up until his death in 1938.

A speech he gave shortly before his death, as Nazism and Stalinist terror were at their height, reveals an underlying continuity in his priorities.

He said: ‘One of the most important tasks of socialists today is therefore to lift the proletariat as high as possible, morally, physically, economically, intellectually so that it is able to lift the new modes of production over the former immediately, from the beginning. This is carried out by class struggle in democracy.’

Dictatorship, even if socialist, stultified the proletariat’s capacity to exercise rule as a class and hence could not be accepted. In a fortunate irony, this brings him somewhat closer to his former friends on the radical left, even if strategy diverged considerably.

Pannekoek, who abandoned the party form itself as an instrument of domination over the proletariat wrote in 1948: ‘The goal of the working class is liberation from exploitation. This goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting the bourgeoisie. It can only be realised by the workers themselves being master over production.’

Both men, whose political trajectories permanently diverged after 1912, nonetheless understood their tasks as increasing the capacity of the working class to act as the liberators of history. This might seem like Marxism 101. But as the Left around the world enters alliances with bourgeois reformists or retreats into the comfort zones of sects, Kautsky’s life is a vital reminder that there is no substitute for the patient and difficult work of building a socialist, working class party that is capable of action. As we enter into the post-Covid era, in which millions of our class are facing unprecedented attacks, it will be all the more tempting to look for shortcuts and quick fixes. Unrest does not lead to victories – purposeful class struggle does.

A review would not be complete without noting the profound debt the communist movement owes to its translators, who, quietly and unassumingly, have made a corpus of knowledge and insight available to us across the centuries, often under very difficult conditions. With this new edition of Kautsky’s writings, Ben Lewis has continued this tradition admirably.

Ben Lewis’ Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism (Brill, 2019) is available now. To order a copy go to Amazon or Brill.