Dispelling the Kautsky-Lewis myths


08/03/2020 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

Ben Lewis’s 15 years’ long attempted relative rehabilitation of Karl Kautsky in alliance with Lars T Lih, Jack Conrad et all continues apace (WW March 5, Ben, Lewis, Dispelling the Kautsky myths and WW Feb 12, Mike McNair Democracy and republic). The approach can be summed up in Lewis’s paragraph:

“For Lenin and Zetkin, then, it was Kautsky who fell from grace, who failed to achieve the heights to which he had once pointed. It was Kautsky who broke with Kautsky, who broke with the revolutionary Marxism that inspired the fundamental views of Lenin and Zetkin on the revolution of their time.”

However, anyone who has seriously studied the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks of the time know that this is untrue. Lenin was dumbstruck when told of the August 4, 1914 vote of the German Social Democrats to grant the war credits to the Kaiser to wage WWI. And he reassessed his past illusions in Kautsky, conceding that Rosa Luxemburg had been right on Kautsky in that debate over the revisionism of Bernstein. Trotsky explains:

“The capitulation of German Social Democracy on August 4, 1914, was entirely unexpected by Lenin. It is well known that the issue of the Vorwärts with the patriotic declaration of the Social Democratic faction was taken by Lenin to be a forgery by the German general staff. Only after he was absolutely convinced of the awful truth did he subject to revision his evaluation of the basic tendencies of the German Social Democracy, and while so doing he performed that task in the Leninist manner, i.e., he finished it off once for all.” (Trotsky, Hands off Rosa Luxemburg!)

 His letter to A.G. Shliapnikov in October 1914 is an attack on his own illusions, and we could  add Trotsky’s illusions:

“I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty self-satisfied hypocrisy. Nothing has happened, so he says, principles have not been abandoned, everyone was entitled to defend his fatherland. It is internationalism, if you please, for the workers of all countries to shoot one another “in order to defend their fatherland”.

“Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago (1898?), that Kautsky has the “subservience of a theoretician”— servility, in plainer language, servility to the majority of the Party, to opportunism. Just now there is nothing in the world more harmful and dangerous for the ideological independence of the proletariat than this rotten self– satisfaction and disgusting hypocrisy of Kautsky, who wants to smother and cover up everything, to tranquillise the awakened conscience of the workers by sophistries and pseudo-scientific chatter. If Kautsky succeeds in this, he will become the main representative of bourgeois corruption in the working-class movement.”

In State and Revolution Lenin is clearly ideologically construction a party of a new type, a party that I have argued he began to construct after he learned the lessons of the defeat of the 1905 revolution:
Trotsky continually asserted that the Bolsheviks led the revolution in 1917 because they learned the lessons of 1905. We would assert that what the Bolsheviks learned from 1905 was:

  1. The need for the UF and transitional politics. In seeking to develop these the realisation developed this was the application of the dialectic and a new approach to the UF was needed.
  2. The need to study and develop the dialectic itself to defend and develop dialectical and historical materialism against Mach and Bogdanov. Lenin began this work as early as 1906.

Lenin’s aspiration in 1902 was to recruit the entire vanguard and his schema equated the revolutionary leadership with the vanguard and denied the existence of other forces and the necessity to relate to them in struggle—Kautsky’s ‘party of the whole class’ approach. The Bolsheviks were devastated by the fact that Trotsky and the Mensheviks had led much of the failed revolution of 1905 and they were marginalised. They had to reassess their attitude to the masses, and other groups claiming to be revolutionary and to re-arm themselves theoretically for 1917. Lenin even railed against soviets for a few weeks in 1905, unable to see the content behind the form.

It was not simply that the Mensheviks turned left after 1905 but the Bolsheviks, in a sense, had to turn right. They knew that they were correct about the working class having to lead the revolution, but the task was to convince the workers to accept their leadership. Hence the reunification moves with the Mensheviks and consequent intensified political struggles.”

(From In Defence of Trotskyism No 3, Winter 2011-2012, Chapter 2: What is to be Done? and Democratic Centralism, https://socialistfight.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/in-defence-of-trotskyism-no-3.pdf)

On point 2 Lenin in in State and Revolution is scathing on the “toy rattle” Plekhanov and Kautsky made of the dialectic:

“For Marx, however, revolutionary dialectics was never the empty fashionable phrase, the toy rattle, which Plekhanov, Kautsky and others have made of it. Marx knew how to break with anarchism ruthlessly for its inability to make use even of the “pigsty” of bourgeois parliamentarism, especially when the situation was obviously not revolutionary; but at the same time, he knew how to subject parliamentarism to genuinely revolutionary proletarian criticism.2

So much for Ben Lewis’s contempt for Lenin’s study of Hegel and the whole history of philosophy which we can read about in Vol. 38 of his collected works. The period of intense study in Zurich enabled Lenin to write Imperialism, the Highest Stager of Capitalism, State and Revolution and the April Theses against those leading Bolsheviks like of Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev without which the February revolution would have led to a massacre of the revolutionaries and October would never have happened.

But running through the accounts of Macnair and Lewis is parliamentarism itself, a rejection of mass workers’ democracy in the soviets and the belief that socialism can be accomplished through parliamentary democracy, there is no difference between bourgeois democracy and workers’ democracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat is so much ultra-left nonsense and there is no need to contemplate revolutionary overturn of the capitalist state with the defensive violence of the opposed in opposition to the counter-revolutionary violence of the oppressor in civil war. The Marxist theory of the state is seriously distorted in their account

Lewis paraphrased Marx thus: ‘the working class not simply laying hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wielding it for its own purposes’ and:

“In other words, in Kautsky’s work there is a clear reference to Marx’s criteria for working class government and the conclusion Marx drew from the experience of 1871 – that the existing state machinery must be completely overhauled, not given a socialist gloss (the very points that Lenin raised in 1917 … against Kautsky). In ‘Republic’, Kautsky is quite explicit on this matter and, paraphrasing Marx, pinpoints the central pillars of the state machinery that must be overhauled by a working class government:

“The conquest of state power by the proletariat therefore does not simply mean the conquest of the government ministries, which then, without further ado, administers the previous means of rule – an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps – in a ‘socialist’ manner. Rather, it means the dissolution of these institutions. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of power, then taking over individual government departments and entire governments will be to no avail. A socialist ministry can at best exist temporarily. It will be worn down in the futile struggle against these institutions of power, without being able to create anything permanent.

It is often claimed – most famously by Lenin in State and revolution – that Kautsky’s political thought was unaffected by the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Engels in their assessment the Paris Commune of 1871. But this, as we will now see, is misleading. Let us now take a closer look at the ‘Republic’ series to see why this is the case.”

Lenin in State and revolution sets the matter right:

The only “correction” Marx thought it necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto he made on the basis of the revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune.

The last preface to the new German edition of the Communist Manifesto, signed by both its authors, is dated June 24, 1872. In this preface the authors, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, say that the programme of the Communist Manifesto “has in some details become out-of-date”, and the go on to say: “… One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’….”[1]

The authors took the words that are in single quotation marks in this passage from Marx’s book, The Civil War in France. Thus, Marx and Engels regarded one principal and fundamental lesson of the Paris Commune as being of such enormous importance that they introduced it as an important correction into the Communist Manifesto.

Most characteristically, it is this important correction that has been distorted by the opportunists, and its meaning probably is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine-hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto. We shall deal with this distortion more fully farther on, in a chapter devoted specially to distortions. Here it will be sufficient to note that the current, vulgar “interpretation” of Marx’s famous statement just quoted is that Marx here allegedly emphasizes the idea of slow development in contradistinction to the seizure of power, and so on.

As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is the case. Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the “ready-made state machinery”, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.

On April 12, 1871, i.e., just at the time of the Commune, Marx wrote to Kugelmann:

“If you look up the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx’s italics–the original is zerbrechen], and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.” (Neue Zeit, Vol.XX, 1, 1901-02, p. 709.)

As we can see from this Ben Lewis’s formulation is a half-way-house between Marx and Kautsky. Marx does not say the state must be “completely overhauled, not given a socialist gloss” but it must be SMASHED and replaced by a new, workers state along the line first tried in the Paris Commune:

The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine “only” by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this “only” signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of “quantity being transformed into quality”: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.

It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination. The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom, and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force” for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.

Lenin here defending the dictatorship of the proletariat and identifying the Commune as the prototype of the Russian soviets that first appeared in 1905 and which he immediately identified as the vehicle of the socialist  revolution when they again appeared in February 1917. He set his course against those in the ‘museum of old Bolsheviks’ mentioned above and towards, ‘all power to the Soviets, down with the government of landlords and capitalists, for the October revolution as the first stage of the world revolution’. This is the real meaning of the popular uprising that imposed the dictatorship of the proletariat via the soviets, whatever Hal Draper may say to the contrary.

Trotsky’ wrote his Terrorism and Communism in May 1920 in the carriage of his famous train as he led the Red Army to victory over the Whites. His book, like Lenin’s The Renegade Kautsky, strongly defends the violence of the oppressed against the violence of the oppressor:

“The chief theme of Kautsky’s book is terrorism. The view that terrorism is of the essence of revolution Kautsky proclaims to be a widespread delusion. It is untrue that he who desires revolution must put up with terrorism. As far as he, Kautsky, is concerned, he is, generally speaking, for revolution, but decidedly against terrorism. From there, however, complications begin.

“The revolution brings us,” Kautsky complains, “a bloody terrorism carried out by Socialist governments. The Bolsheviks in Russia first stepped on to this path, and were, consequently, sternly condemned by all Socialists who had not adopted the Bolshevik point of view, including the Socialists of the German Majority.”

But this ‘German Majority’, alas resorted to terrorism itself and murdered the leaders of the revolutionary left of their own party in the start of 2019, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches. He goes on to point out that in the history of all revolutions on the ‘terrorism’ of the oppressed produced any real results: in England of the 1640s Cromwell’s “Great Rebellion” finished off the semi-feudal absolutist state; whereas the “Glorious Revolution” of the 1680s made little difference.

“He (Karl Liebknecht) opposed Germany’s participation in World War I, but in order not to infringe the party’s unity he abstained from the vote on war loans on 4 August 1914.[7] On 2 December 1914, he was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against further loans, the supporters of which included 110 of his own party members. He continued to be a major critic of the Social-Democratic leadership under Karl Kautsky and its decision to acquiesce in going to war.”  [7] Luxemburg und Liebknecht, Dauerfehde um einen Doppelmord, https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/luxemburg-und-liebknecht-a-948107.html

Karl and Rosa

Trotsky tells us that:

“In the first English revolution, in the “Great Rebellion,” the active force was the people; while in the second it was almost “silent.” Hence, it follows that, in surroundings of class slavery, it is difficult to teach the oppressed masses good manners. When provoked to fury they use clubs, stones, fire, and the rope. The court historians of the exploiters are offended at this. But the great event in modern “bourgeois” history is, none the less, not the “Glorious Revolution,” but the “Great Rebellion.”

The greatest event in modern history after the Reformation and the “Great Rebellion,” and far surpassing its two predecessors in significance, was the great French Revolution of the eighteenth century. To this classical revolution there was a corresponding classical terrorism. Kautsky is ready to forgive the terrorism of the Jacobins, acknowledging that they had no other way of saving the republic. But by this justification after the event no one is either helped or hindered. The Kautskies of the end of the eighteenth century (the leaders of the French Girondists) saw in the Jacobins the personification of evil.”

What serious Marxist now doubts that the great magic moments in history were ‘terrorist’ events; Cromwell’s lopping of the head of Charles I in Whitehall on 30 January 1649, Robespierre’s  Reign of Terror from September 5, 1793, to July 27, 1794, and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s storming of the Winter Palace on 26 October (8 November) 1917? Kautsky was absolutely repelled by all talk of revolution that involved terror. In other words, he conceded the right of terrorism to the capitalist state. The wage slaves had no right to use force to break their chains.

5 thoughts on “Dispelling the Kautsky-Lewis myths

  1. Noa says:

    I repost my earlier question from last summer about this claim, which seems wrong to me, but which you haven’t answered: “The Bolsheviks were devastated by the fact that Trotsky and the Mensheviks had led much of the failed revolution of 1905 and they were marginalised. They had to reassess their attitude to the masses, and other groups claiming to be revolutionary and to re-arm themselves theoretically for 1917. Lenin even railed against soviets for a few weeks in 1905, unable to see the content behind the form.”

    Where does one get the idea that Lenin ralied against the soviets? I know that Cliff wrote: “It needed Lenin’s intervention to call the Bolshevik leadership in Petersburg to order – to pull them back from the abyss of a completely sectarian attitude toward the soviet.” But even with regard to the initial attitude of the Bolsheviks (excepting Lenin) I have some doubt, since Cliff apparently had to base himself largely on Schwarz’s ‘The Russian Revolution of 1905’ (ie a Menshevik author). It’d say it’s necessary also to consult Nevsky’s ‘The Soviets and the armed uprising in 1905’ (1931, can be found online). Trotsky said that the Mensheviks in late 1905 briefly, swept up in the enthusiasm, ‘became Bolsheviks’.
    And Trotsky responded (in his 1907 ‘Defense of the Party’ – a German translation exists) to Prokopovich’s accusation that the Bolshevik faction agitated against the Soviet, that in reality the Bolsheviks (and Lenin himself) “energetically” participated in the Petersburg soviet (eg the Bolsheviks A.A. Bogdanov and D.S. Postolobsky were two of the five members of its Executive Committee, in addition to Radin), and so I don’t think you can say that they were marginalised.


  2. When the 1905 Petrograd Soviet emerged in October Trotsky and the Mensheviks were in the majority. The Bolsheviks were a minority. The reason was that the Mensheviks were opportunist tailenders, which, like the SWP today, worked temporarily for the time. However, Lenin and the Bolsheviks still followed the mechanical Marxism of Kautsky and Bebel. As he wrote in What is to be Done? in 1903 the Social Democrats (Marxism then) had to bring class consciousness to the working class:
    This was correct as far as it went but it was one-sided. He had bent the stick, as he later admitted. Hence, they were in a minority in the 1905 Soviet. The revolutionary party had to learn from the working class in struggle also. It was not enough to recruit the vanguard to the party and then substitute the party for the class, as Kautsky and Bebel imagined. No, there had to be a dialectical relationship between party and class and that was how Lenin began to reconstruct the revolutionary party after that, increasingly ignoring Kautsky and Plekhanov and going back to Marx and Engels and then in Zurich in 1914 to Hegel to re-establish the dialect anew.

    The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats
    V.I. Lenin
    “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.”
    “The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group but had already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.

    Leon Trotsky 1905 CHAPTER 22
    Summing Up
    * * *
    The history of the Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is the history of fifty days. The constituent meeting of the Soviet was held on October 13. On December 3 a meeting of the Soviet was closed down by government troops.

    The first meeting was attended by a few dozen persons; by the second half of November the number of deputies had grown to 562, including 6 women. These persons represented 147 factories and plants, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. The main mass of the deputies – 351 persons – belonged to the metalworkers; these played the decisive role in the Soviet. There were deputies from the textile industry, 32 from the printing and paper industries, 12 from the shop-workers and from office workers and the pharmaceutical trade. The Executive Committee acted as the Soviet’s ministry. It was formed on October 17 and consisted of 31 persons – 22 deputies and 9 representatives of parties (6 from the two social-democrat factions and 3 from the socialist revolutionaries).

    What was the essential nature of this institution which within a short time assumed such an important place within the revolution and marked the period of its maximum power?
    The Soviet organized the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. Similar work was also done by other revolutionary organizations before the Soviet came into existence, concurrently with it, and after it. Yet this did not endow them with the influence that was concentrated in the hands of the Soviet. The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the Soviet grew as the natural organ of the proletariat in its immediate struggle for power as determined by the actual course of events. The name of “workers’ government” which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the Soviet was an expression of the fact that the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo. The Soviet represented power insofar as power was assured by the revolutionary strength of the working-class districts; it struggled for power insofar as power still remained in the hands of the military-political monarchy.


  3. It is true I do nor remember where I got “Lenin even railed against soviets for a few weeks in 1905, unable to see the content behind the form” and cannot find the article online now. I have supplied above a reason why this might be so but not a reference from the extract.


  4. Noa says:

    On the point of (dis)continuity in Lenin’s thought (with regard to Kautsky) and its dating, I think both Trotsky and the CPGB (et al.) are wrong. They (and you yourself, following Trotsky) are wrong to claim, that Lenin before the War entirely supported Kautsky. Lenin followed the debate between Kautsky and Pannekoek in 1910-11, and called for criticism of Kautsky on several questions. Furthermore, as early as 1905 Lenin expressed doubt in the following proposal in event of war: ” ‘At the same time the parties of other countries would be invited by the I.S.B. to a meeting to be held at the earliest possible date in order to determine what action on the part of the entire International and the organised workers is most suitable to avert and prevent war.[…]’

    I for my part should like to add that, in my view, this proposal is somewhat naïve, since the only thing that can have an effect in the event of a conflict between governments is the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

    ^ Lenin to me here sounds already like advocating the slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war.

    I also criticise what I call the Cohen-Sawer thesis (which also Lih flirts with), that Lenin supposedly only in 1917 (due to Bukharin) discovered or reinvented the meaning of the slogan of smashing the state, as outlined in Marx’s book on the Commune. Lenin of course way before the War, and independently of Kautsky, held lectures on the Paris Commune and was thoroughly familiar with all its demands (abolishing standing army, etc.): Lenin had edited the Russian edition of Marx’s book in early 1905 (before the 1905 uprising). Lenin himself claims (see his 1920, A Contribution To The History Of The Question Of The Dictatorship) the continuity in his own position, and that there was a break with the Mensheviks as regards the question of the soviets as new state:

    ‘The Mensheviks took a negative stand with regard to the “dictatorship” slogan; the Bolsheviks emphasised that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies were “actually an embryo of a new revolutionary power ”, as was literally said in the draft of the Bolshevik resolution (p. 92 of my Report, 1906). The Mensheviks acknowledged the importance of the Soviets; they were in favour of “helping to organise” them, etc., but they did not regard them as embryos of revolutionary power, did not in general say anything about a “new revolutionary power” of this or some similar type, and flatly rejected the slogan of dictatorship. It will easily be seen that this attitude to the question already contained the seeds of all the present disagreements with the Mensheviks.’

    All power to the soviets, of soviets as state organs, means that they are given control of armed forces (red guards), and indeed the real lesson of 1905 is the need to prepare for armed insurrection. Here one can at least give Kautsky some credit (as Lenin indeed did), for due to the Moscow 1905 uprising, he came to doubt the universal validity of Engels’ dictum about the impossibility of the success of barricade fighting. But of course Lenin put into practice what Kautsky perhaps only hesitantly had to recognise.


  5. I agree with this analysis. In fact I am in the process of critiquing Hal Draper, the chief ideologue of Third Campists. His The Dicttatorshio of they Proletariat, from Marx to Lenin has a Chapter 4 ‘Lenin and the ‘Dictatorship’ where he sets out to prove, and does to his own satisfaction, that Lenin was an idiot who made appalling blunders, he completely misunderstood Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat, Kautsky wa sfar better than him on ‘democracy’ and the practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks produced Stalinism as a direct and logical outcome, i.e there was no counterrevolution or rather Lenin carried out the counterrevolution against himself and the overthrow of capitalism. No proves for who I identify as the idiot in this chapter. This is the standard attack on the Russian Revolution by imperialism itself, of which he is a defender.

    BTW can you email me. I remember the questioning of my comment on Lenin but do not remember who made it at the 2019 Communist University.


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