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Spartacist English edition No. 63

Winter 2012-2013

Recycling the Second International

The Neo-Kautskyites

Karl Kautsky’s political bankruptcy was shown definitively at the onset of World War I, when he supported the vote of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for war credits, and in his later role as “left” ideologist for imperialist-backed counterrevolution against the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. His anti-Communist views and parliamentary reformist practice were thoroughly exposed and demolished in such works as Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918) and Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism (1920), to name only the most comprehensive.

Today Kautsky is the new hero of an array of reformist left groups, notably those associated with the Historical Materialism journal and its various conferences and book projects. A prime example is the effusive response to Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), a compilation of documents written around the time of the 1905 Russian Revolution and published as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series. The editors, Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, express the hope that their work in publishing material by Kautsky hitherto unavailable in English will “help to overcome the stereotypical and mistaken view of Kautsky as an apostle of quietism and a reformist cloaked in revolutionary phraseology,” which they claim is a longstanding “over-generalisation drawn from Kautky’s [sic] anti-Bolshevik polemics after 1917.”

Having made common cause with “democratic” imperialism against the Soviet Union, much of the (barely) nominally Marxist left is today even more deeply ensconced in bourgeois parliamentary democracy. These opponents of the revolutionary-internationalist workers movement are hostile, in deed and increasingly in word, to the Bolshevik Revolution and its world-historic significance as the model for socialist revolution. Bolshevism was fortified by the rich experience not only of the revolutionary movement in Russia but of the best practices of the workers movement throughout pre-World War I Europe. The contemporary neo-Kautskyites dismiss this legacy in order to applaud the opportunist practices of the German Social Democracy. To this end, they seek to deny the vast gulf that separated the Third International from the Second.

A review by Paul LeBlanc of the U.S. International Socialist Organization (ISO) claims that “it is Karl Kautsky who emerges as the theoretical revolutionary hero” of the book, adding: “The quality of his Marxist analyses—as represented in these pages—is of high caliber” (International Socialist Review, March-April 2012). Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) lauds the book especially for refuting “the all too common dismissal” of “the legacy of Karl Kautsky and ‘Second International Marxism’ more generally” (“Permanent Revolution and the Battle for Democracy,” Weekly Worker, 9 August 2012).

Supporters of the ISO, the United Secretariat (USec) and the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are prominent among the Historical Materialism crowd. The CPGB and others promote the views of Montreal-based academic Lars T. Lih, who has made a career out of denying that Lenin broke fundamentally with the Kautskyan/Second International conception of the “party of the whole class,” i.e., one party representing the entire working class.

While sometimes using more leftist phraseology with regard to Russia in 1904-06, at home Kautsky continued his characteristic role of placating leftist forces within the SPD in order to ease the way for the right wing to run its affairs. As Paul Frölich noted wryly in his 1939 biography of Rosa Luxemburg, in this period “Kautsky was always willing to draw revolutionary conclusions if they concerned other countries, the past, or the distant future” (Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work [London: Pluto Press, 1972]).

Day and Gaido rely on omissions, half-truths and distortions to beef up Kautsky’s revolutionary credentials in the pre-1914 period. For example, in the introduction to their book, they claim that Trotsky concluded in his 1938 obituary of Kautsky “that in the final analysis he was only ‘half a renegade’.” In fact, Trotsky’s point was to underline the continuity of Kautsky’s opportunism:

“But as for himself, he was only half a renegade from his past, so to speak: when the problems of the class struggle were posed in all their acuteness, Kautsky found himself constrained to draw the final conclusions of his organic opportunism.” [emphasis added]

— “Karl Kautsky” (November 1938)

In a similar manner, Day and Gaido cite the condemnation of the 1899 entry of French Socialist Alexandre Millerand into the bourgeois government by the 1904 Amsterdam Congress of the Second International. But they do not say that Kautsky authored a resolution adopted at the 1900 Paris Congress, where the question was posed acutely, that did not condemn Millerand but rather allowed that such class treason might be warranted as an “exceptional makeshift” (see “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009). Day and Gaido also assert that Kautsky joined Luxemburg, leader of the SPD’s left wing, in “contend[ing] with theoretical and trade-union revisionists in Germany.” But they do not say that Kautsky abandoned Luxemburg in the fight over the mass strike in 1906, acquiescing to a deal with the opportunist trade-union leadership that buried a party conference decision in favor of the tactic (see Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1955]).

Before 1914, the leaders of Russian revolutionary social democracy regarded Kautsky as the leading Marxist theorist since Engels, and Kautsky’s historical works did indeed help educate a generation of Marxists. But afterward, Lenin (and Trotsky slightly later) began to trace the roots of Kautsky’s treachery to his prior political history. Lenin noted in 1919 that under the Second International the proletarian movement grew in breadth, but “at the cost of a temporary drop in the revolutionary level, a temporary strengthening of opportunism, which in the end led to the disgraceful collapse of this International” (“The Third International and Its Place in History,” April 1919). He continued: “The Third International has gathered the fruits of the work of the Second International, discarded its opportunist, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois dross, and has begun to implement the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Such dross is what defines various post-Soviet reformists as they promote unity on the basis of liberal democracy, or worse—with groups such as the USec, SWP and ISO embracing Syriza in Greece, Québec Solidaire in Canada and more (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). CPGB spokesman Lewis spells it out rather bluntly: “The contemporary left’s particularly crude interpretation of the Third International, combined with its disdain for the revolutionary traditions of the Second International, have in part led us to where we are now—ie, organised in a swathe of competing sect projects with next to no immediate prospects of revolutionary party unity” (“Debating the Republic and Extreme Democracy,” Weekly Worker, 17 November 2011). Lewis hopes to breathe new life into a “stinking corpse,” as Rosa Luxemburg rightly called the Second International.

Trotsky, Kautsky and Permanent Revolution

Mistaking parliamentary cretinism for permanent revolution, Day and Gaido claim that Kautsky “was the first West-European Marxist to employ the theory of permanent revolution in connection with events in the Russian Empire.” This conclusion is not borne out at all in the eight articles by Kautsky included in the book. While he periodically used the phrase “permanent revolution,” citing Marx and Engels’ 1850 writings, Kautsky at no time transcended the concept of a radical bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia.

By the end of 1905, Trotsky asserted categorically: “The Russian revolution, as we have already said, does not allow for establishment of any kind of bourgeois-constitutional order that might resolve even the most elementary tasks of democracy,” adding that “by the very logic of its position” the proletariat in power “will be compelled to move directly towards collectivist practices” (“Foreword to Karl Marx, Parizhskaya Kommuna [The Paris Commune],” December 1905). In contrast, even Kautsky’s most radical-sounding article, “The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects” (November 1906), was based on “deliberate ambiguity,” as Day and Gaido admit. While warning against illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie, Kautsky wrote that it “seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”

Though Lenin forged the party that confirmed the perspective of permanent revolution in practice, he is not among Day and Gaido’s “witnesses.” Prior to 1917, Lenin had an algebraic understanding of the necessary relationship of the workers to the peasants in the course of the Russian Revolution, expressed in his formula for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” But the Bolshevik Party had been steeped in thoroughgoing opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie and in the understanding that the workers must arm themselves for an insurrectionary rising against the class enemy. Thus, for Lenin, the high point of the 1905 Revolution was the Moscow insurrection at the end of the year.

This is a far cry from Kautsky, whose writings, going back to the early 1890s, were suffused with parliamentary illusions and glorification of peaceful revolution. In “Parliamentarism, Referendums and Social Democracy” (1893), Kautsky wrote explicitly: “Even today it is beginning to become clear that a genuine parliamentary regime can be as much an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” (cited in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938 [London: NLB, 1979]). In one of the writings included in Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, Kautsky argued: “The revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war” (“To What Extent Is the Communist Manifesto Obsolete?” 1903).

The following year, Kautsky’s “Revolutionary Questions” ruled out the prospect of armed insurrection in a reply to Michal Lu´snia’s polemic “Unarmed Revolution?” As authority, Kautsky shamelessly cited the SPD’s falsified version of Engels’ 1895 introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Engels had strenuously objected to the unauthorized changes to his introduction, including in a 1 April 1895 letter to Kautsky that denounced the SPD leaders’ attempt to “present me as a peace-loving proponent of legality quand même [come what may].”

Kautsky’s views stood in sharp contrast to the understanding developed by Marx and Engels after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, when they concluded that the proletariat could not simply lay hold of the existing machinery of the capitalist state but must destroy it through socialist revolution. Beginning with Marx’s critique of the 1875 Gotha program and its call for a “free state,” the German party leadership, with Kautsky’s agreement or acquiescence, suppressed or bowdlerized a number of writings by Marx and Engels that were critical of the SPD’s softness toward the bourgeois state.

This is one of the “traditions of the Second International” embraced by today’s neo-Kautskyites. Describing the Paris Commune as “the democratic republic of 1871,” the CPGB’s Lewis argues: “The question of republicanism matters because for Kautsky ‘when he was a Marxist’—as for Lenin, Marx and Engels—the democratic republic (annual elections of officials, recallability, workers’ wages for bureaucrats, the armed people, etc) was the culmination of the demands of the minimum programme: ie, the rule of the working class. This is why the soviets are merely a form of the democratic republic. It is the content that is paramount” (“Debating the Republic and Extreme Democracy”).

The content here is 100 percent (bourgeois) democracy—not a hint of the political and economic expropriation of the bourgeoisie! Lewis cites Engels’ March 1891 introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France in a footnote, only to bury what Engels said. Explaining that the “superstitious belief in the state” still evident among many German workers made it necessary to stress Marx’s point that the Commune had to shatter the former state power, Engels writes:

“And people think they have taken quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.”

Party and Program

While falsely portraying Kautsky as an avatar of the permanent revolution and covering up his role in catering to SPD opportunism, Day and Gaido sneer at Lenin’s struggle for a disciplined Marxist party. Their introduction attacks “Lenin’s high-handed view of centralised party control.” They quote without criticism fulminations against Lenin’s “organisational fetishism,” “sectarianism” and “personality cult” by David Ryazanov, who in 1901-03 led the tiny, opportunist Borba (Struggle) group and opposed the Bolsheviks until 1917. Similar attacks were leveled against Lenin by Trotsky in those years, notwithstanding the wide gulf between Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution and the Mensheviks’ opportunist tailing of the liberal bourgeoisie.

For his part, Lars Lih tries to weave a fictitious continuity between Kautsky and Lenin on the party question through an arid textual analysis of a handful of Lenin’s writings. Lih dismisses the significance of the 1912 Prague conference at which the Bolsheviks, joined by a few of Georgi Plekhanov’s “pro-party Mensheviks,” carried out a definitive organizational split with Menshevik liquidationism. Ignoring the whole prior history of Bolshevism going back to 1903, Lih argues: “Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not set out to organise their faction as a separate party; they vehemently denied they had done so after the conference, and they were justified in making this denial” (Lih, “Falling Out Over a Cliff,” Weekly Worker, 16 February 2012).

In an earlier article, Lih takes a similar stance toward Lenin’s call for a new, Third International after the onset of World War I, asserting: “If you pick up and read Lenin’s writings after 1914, you get the impression of a wholehearted rejection of the Second International and in particular of its main theoretical representative, Karl Kautsky” (Lih, “Lenin’s Aggressive Unoriginality, 1914-1916,” Socialist Studies, Fall 2009). Lih argues that this is a “misleading impression” and claims that “central aspects of Lenin’s outlook are shared with Kautsky and others”: “Even the project of splitting Social Democracy if opportunism becomes too powerful is buttressed by Kautsky’s authority.”

This is a bad joke. What Kautsky raised as a distant, hypothetical possibility in addressing the revisionist current in the SPD personified by Eduard Bernstein (from whom Kautsky never split) was flatly counterposed to Kautsky’s practice, both before and after the October Revolution.

To say that Lih’s approach to the development of Bolshevism is undialectical would be to cast pearls before swine. As we note in Lenin and the Vanguard Party (Spartacist pamphlet, 1978; second edition 1997), an extensive account of the evolution of Bolshevism, in 1912 Lenin did not grasp the world-historic significance of the split with the Mensheviks. He “merely” understood that the Russian party could not move toward its goal of socialist revolution without a thorough and decisive break with opportunism. In 1914 Lenin generalized this understanding on the international plane. As we wrote: “Within a few weeks after the outbreak of war, Lenin determined to split with the social-chauvinists and to work for a new, revolutionary international. But he did not immediately present a theoretical (i.e., historical and sociological) explanation as to why and how the mass parties of the West European proletariat had succumbed to opportunism” (ibid.).

What is utterly missing from Lih’s articles cited here is that the “unoriginal” Lenin developed a theoretical understanding of why a split with opportunist tendencies was absolutely essential in forging a revolutionary international. By early 1915, Lenin had begun to analyze the material basis for opportunism and social-chauvinism in the imperialist countries: “Certain strata of the working class (the bureaucracy of the labour movement and the labour aristocracy, who get a fraction of the profits from the exploitation of the colonies and from the privileged position of their ‘fatherlands’ in the world market), as well as petty-bourgeois sympathisers within the socialist parties, have proved the social mainstay of these tendencies, and channels of bourgeois influence over the proletariat” (“The Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. Groups Abroad,” March 1915).

Lih gives his game away when he solidarizes with Menshevik leader Julius Martov (and Kautsky) against the Communist International (CI) and its spokesman Gregory Zinoviev at the 1920 Halle conference of the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD), which voted heavily in favor of affiliation to the CI. Lih’s introduction to Martov’s speech amounts to an endorsement of his views, including his assertion that “the Russian revolution is sick and cannot be cured by its own means” (Martov and Zinoviev: Head to Head in Halle [London: November Publications, 2011]). Paraphrasing Zinoviev, Lih also tacitly condemns the argument that “the ‘centre’ represented by the German Independents was at best terminally wishy-washy and at worst crypto-opportunist.”

David North Joins the Chorus

Bringing up the rear of the Kautsky-loving, anti-Lenin cabal are the political bandits of David North’s World Socialist Web Site. While managing a few criticisms of Day/Gaido’s views, North’s laudatory review salutes their rehabilitation of Kautsky:

“If Kautsky’s vital contribution to Trotsky’s elaboration of the theory of permanent revolution needs to be stressed, it is because so much ink has been wasted by the petty-bourgeois anti-Marxist left on behalf of its efforts to completely discredit the theoretical heritage of socialism, in whose development Kautsky played a major role.”

— “A Significant Contribution to an Understanding of Permanent Revolution” (, 19 April 2010)

North’s article is full of paeans to Kautsky’s “long revolutionary career” and “revolutionary writings,” which North calls “remarkably perceptive, far-sighted and tough-minded.” He makes the outlandish claim that the “denunciations of the whole corpus of Kautsky’s work,” including by “diverse varieties of petty-bourgeois radicalism, have been from the right, directed not at explaining the nature and objective source of the weaknesses of the pre-1914 Social Democracy, but rather against its greatest strength—that it was based on and sought to educate, politically and culturally, the working class.”

Only the twisted mindset of the Northites could conjure up the fiction that the “whole corpus” of Kautsky’s work is under siege by diverse “petty-bourgeois radicals.” The fact is that North himself prays at the altar of Kautskyan social democracy (see “Bourgeois Liberalism vs. the October Revolution,” page 4).

It is thus telling that North makes light of Lenin’s uncompromising struggle to build the Bolshevik Party against all manner of opportunists and conciliators, Trotsky among them, in the years from 1905 to 1917, a period in which the Mensheviks were clearly revealed as tailists of the liberal bourgeoisie. In his book In Defense of Leon Trotsky (Oak Park, Michigan: Mehring Books, 2010), North indeed comes to Trotsky’s defense—against Lenin: “At that point in the history of the Russian Social-Democratic movement, factional identities were far more fluid than they were to become by 1917. Indeed, Trotsky’s political position was actually strengthened by his relative independence from the main political factions.”

Let Trotsky himself take the stand against this nonsense. Speaking of the 1912 August Bloc, the acme of his conciliationist efforts, he wrote:

“In the general tendency of politics I stood far more closely to the Bolsheviks. But I was against the Leninist ‘regime’ because I had not yet learned to understand that in order to realize the revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralized party is indispensable....

“Notwithstanding the conception of permanent revolution which undoubtedly disclosed the correct perspective, I had not freed myself at that period, especially in the organizational sphere, from the traits of a petty-bourgeois revolutionist. I was sick with the disease of conciliationism toward menshevism and with a distrustful attitude toward Leninist centralism.”

— “From a Scratch—To the Danger of Gangrene,” In Defense of Marxism (1940)

Lenin was able to transcend his inadequate theoretical framework and map out a course to workers revolution in 1917, while Trotsky ended his centrist wavering on the party question and became a key Bolshevik leader. The struggle for authentic communism must crucially draw on the lessons of Lenin’s fight to forge a vanguard party of the proletariat. In contrast, the revival of Kautsky’s legacy can only lead the workers into yet another “democratic” cul-de-sac. Acknowledging that “Kautsky was undoubtedly the foremost theoretician of the Second International,” Trotsky summed up his historical role in 1919:

“He accepted Marxism as a ready-made system and popularized it like a schoolmaster of scientific socialism. The heyday of his activity came in the middle of the deep trough between the crushing of the Paris Commune and the first Russian revolution. Capitalism expanded with invincible might. The working class organizations grew almost automatically, but the final goal, i.e., the social revolutionary task of the proletariat, became separated from the movement itself and led a purely academic existence....

“At the same time the tension in international relations between the major capitalist countries kept mounting. The denouement grew nearer. And each socialist party was obliged to make its position completely clear: Was it with its own national state or against it? It was necessary either to draw the appropriate conclusion from revolutionary theory or to carry practical opportunism to its logical end. Yet all of Kautsky’s authority rested on the reconciliation of opportunism in politics with Marxism in theory....

“The war brought things to a head, exposing the utter falsity and rottenness of Kautskyism from its very first day.”

— “Karl Kautsky,” March 1919, Portraits, Political and Personal (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977) 


English Spartacist No. 63

ESp 63

Winter 2012-2013


Fake-Trotskyist Poseurs Promote Anti-Bolshevik Tract

Bourgeois Liberalism vs. the October Revolution

A Review of The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd, by Alexander Rabinowitch


Marxism and Bourgeois Parliamentarism

Why We Reject the “Constituent Assembly” Demand


Letter by Fyodor Dingelstedt


Recycling the Second International

The Neo-Kautskyites


Larissa Reissner on Trotsky’s Red Army

The Battle of Svyazhsk, a Revolutionary Legend

(Women and Revolution pages)


Fred Zierenberg, 1949–2012