The “Best” of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough

Charlie Post cautions against recent defenses of Second-International Marxist Karl Kautsky.

Dresden, Germany, circa 1905. Unknown / Wikimedia

The revival of socialism in the United States and globally in the past few years has two sources. On the one hand, there is the revival of mass struggles, beginning with the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy, and the various “movements of the squares” in Europe to the continuing teachers’ revolt around the world. These movements, which pit tens of thousands of working people against employers and the state in often illegal struggles, challenge the apparent omnipotence of our rulers, build solidarity among working people and show there is an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism.

On the other hand, there are the electoral breakthroughs by self-proclaimed socialists and radicals such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib in the United States. The rising electoral profile of open critics of neoliberalism give the renewed struggles outside the electoral arena a political voice — a voice which could stimulate new and broader struggles. Combined with the election of Trump, both the revival of mass struggle and the rising profile of socialists in the electoral arena have fueled this new radicalization.

It is not surprising that the new socialist left is attracted to strategies that seek to combine mass struggle and electoral politics. These strategies claim to avoid the pitfalls of both social-democratic attempts to regulate capitalism, which have increasingly led to austerity and attacks on working people, and “unrealistic” visions of a ruptural break with capitalism and its state through a workers’ revolution. Vivek Chibber’s “Our Road to Power,” inspired by the work of Andre Gorz and Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, melds together struggles “against” and “in” the capitalist state.

Chibber and others believe, correctly, that workplace and social struggles will build unions and other working-class organizations, creating the basis for new socialist parties. These parties would promote independent workers organizations while contesting elections with the goal of “winning power” within the existing state. Such successful struggles “within” the capitalist state, combined with the power of workers’ organizations to struggle “against” the state, would initiate a series of breaks in the logic of capital and a transition to socialism.

James Muldoon’s vigorous defense of “the best of Karl Kautsky” traces the origins of the strategy of struggle “against” and “in” the state to the work of the foremost theoretician of pre-1914 socialism. Muldoon highlights Kautsky’s program for the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD) in the German Revolution of 1918–1919, which he argues provides a “realistic” and “democratic” alternative to both social-democratic attempts to regulate capitalism and a revolutionary road to power that destroys the existing capitalist state.

In reality, Kautsky’s politics were based on an unrealistic understanding of capitalism, class struggle, and the state. Not only did Kautsky’s strategy for a break with capitalism a failure in 1918–1919, but his strategy led to the derailing of important struggles for immediate reforms before World War I. The political problems with strategies that give equal weight to “winning office” in the existing state and building mass struggles are not merely of historical interest, but are of real relevance today, as we are beginning to rebuild the US socialist movement. They impact both our understanding of the transition to socialism and the strategies we pursue in the movements we are building.

Kautsky’s Alternative

Kautsky’s “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Program” attempted to chart a middle course between the reformism of the mainstream social democrats in the SPD and the revolutionary politics of the German Communist Party (KPD), led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Kautsky, one of the original critics of Eduard Bernstein’s “revisionist” embrace of a regulated capitalism, rejected the SPD’s attempt to limit the German Revolution to the creation of a republic based on a National Assembly elected by universal suffrage. A thorough democratization of regional and local governments, a popular militia to replace the standing army, and the development of democratic control of a socialized economy were required if the revolution was to lead to socialism.

Kautsky also rejected the KPD’s call for a republic based on the democratically elected councils that emerged among rank-and-file soldiers and in workplaces across Germany. Such a council republic, Kautsky argued, would exclude workers not employed in factories (the unemployed, women working in the households, office and store workers) from political power. As a result, a council state would inevitably lead to a dictatorship, like that which purportedly existed in postrevolutionary Russia, that would smother the democratic aspirations of the working class.

As he had argued consistently since at least 1910, it was only through a combination of the slow but steady “accumulation of forces” in the unions and party and the “conquest” of the existing state through legislative elections that the working class could traverse a truly democratic road to socialism.

Muldoon’s defense of “the best” of Kautsky is based on several problematic claims. Kautsky’s argument that a republic based on workers councils would exclude significant groups of workers was demagogic and wrong. The councils organized the unemployed, and clerical and retail workers. The SPD-USPD provisional government that came to power after the Kaiser abdicated in November 1918 systematically purged women — over half of whom were employed during the war — from paid labor.

It is true that the Bolsheviks, especially during the Russian Civil War against attempts by domestic reactionaries and most of the “democratic” capitalist powers to overthrow them, did not consistently defend soviet-council democracy. This “democratic deficit” may have undermined the defense of soviet democracy in the face of the consolidation of Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship in the late 1920s.

However, the roots of the new bureaucratic ruling class were in the political isolation of the Russian Revolution (especially after the failure of a German Revolution) and the economic devastation of the civil war. There is nothing inherently authoritarian about the radical democracy of workers councils.

Fundamentally, Kautsky’s strategy of “combining” the independent working-class organization and winning “power” through elections was based on unrealistic ideas about both working-class consciousness and organization. The notion that the working class would gradually accumulate its forces through the building of larger and larger unions and popular organizations and increasing its vote until it became the majority party ignored the episodic nature of working-class struggle and consciousness.

While social-democratic party and union officials believed that power would come through “slow and steady accumulation of forces,” the reality is that working-class struggle under capitalism takes the form of massive and discontinuous upsurges. It is during these periodic upheavals that working people can win gains and build democratic organizations that cement solidarity and overcome the divisions and fragmentation of the class.

To succeed, such movements always involve rising levels of confrontation with the established political and economic order and tend to radicalize many of their participants.

By contrast, election campaigns whose primary goal is winning office prioritize getting out 50 percent plus one vote on the lowest possible common political basis. Legislative politics involves “coalition building” that leads to continual concessions on policy. Neither require the mass of voters to be active participants in democratically setting program or strategy, and generally discourages confrontation and political radicalism.

The Prussian Voting-Rights Struggle

The contradictions between the logic of successful mass struggles — even for reforms — and electoralism were evident in the struggle over voting reform in pre-World War I Prussia. Prussia, the largest German state, had a “three class” voting system which gave greater weight to the vote of capitalists and professionals than to workers in factories, offices, and stores. The SPD had long called for the abolition of the Prussian voting system and its replacement with universal and equal suffrage.

In 1909–1910, faced with yet another Prussian government refusing to abolish “three class” voting and buoyed by strikes over wages, hours, and working conditions in the mining and construction industries, the Prussian SPD took up Rosa Luxemburg’s strategy of the mass strike to win electoral reform. The late winter and early spring of 1910 saw dozens of mass demonstrations, and one- or two-day “demonstration” strikes for universal suffrage, which were met with brutal police repression.

The Prussian SPD leadership, under the influence of Luxemburg, began to raise the idea of an unlimited political general strike to win electoral reform. The mainstream of the party leadership — the Parliamentary and trade union leaders — rejected the mass strike agitation of early 1910 as “mass insanity.” They were focused on winning gains in the next Prussian and Imperial elections that would cement a legislative alliance with the capitalist Progressive Party to achieve universal suffrage. For the SPD leadership, the disruptive demonstrations and strikes could only hurt the party’s chances at the polls and scuttle their hopes for a legislative reform.

Kautsky, long seen as a stalwart of the SPD left, sought a middle ground between the party and union officialdom, and rank-and-file worker radicals in the SPD. While supporting the notion of political, mass strikes in “principle,” Kautsky argued that even raising the question in the party press was “premature.” Luxemburg’s essay “What Further?” advocating preparation for such strikes was rejected both by the SPD daily, Vorwarts, and the theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, edited by Kautsky.

According to Kautsky, the mass political strike was a premature “war of maneuver” that would preempt the party and union’s gradual “accumulation of forces” in a” war of attrition.” Rather than engage in such “adventures,” Kautsky argued that the SPD needed to focus on increasing its vote in next election.

History would prove Luxemburg and her comrades correct on the suffrage issue. The SPD leadership, with the active support of Kautsky — the spokesperson of the emerging “orthodox Marxist center” — derailed the militant movement for suffrage reform in Prussia. The “three class” voting system remained in place until 1919, when massive strikes and mutinies and the threat of workers’ revolution finally produced universal suffrage in Germany.

Similar strategic choices confront socialists in the US today whenever we see an upsurge in mass struggles. The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 had to choose between extending the occupation and building mass strike actions or support Democrats in the battle to defeat Walker’s anti-union legislation. Unfortunately, those who prioritized electing Democrats prevailed, leading to the movement’s derailing and defeat. The teachers’ uprisings have and will continue to face the choice — build disruptive strikes and mass actions or rely on electing “friends of labor.” Only clarity on where our power comes from — the ability of working people to disrupt “business as usual” — will allow us to win gains, build radicalism, and consolidation new organizations.

The contradictions of Kautsky’s politics were on full display during the First World War. Kautsky’s notion of ultra-imperialism, that capitalism had permanently transcended military conflict in favor of “peaceful, economic competition,” disoriented much of the SPD leadership and ranks when war came in August 1914. Kautsky remained silent in his opposition to the SPD’s pro-war stance until late 1915, in order to preserve the “unity of the party” that was central to his vision of a “democratic”-electoral road to socialism.

In 1916, Kautsky supported those in the SPD’s legislative delegation who abstained rather than voted against funding for the war. When the SPD leadership expelled all who refused to fund the war, Kautsky stood in the right-wing of the newly formed USPD.

Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Zetkin, and others in the USPD left advocated antiwar demonstrations, strikes in war industries, and active resistance in the military in preparation for a revolutionary upsurge. Kautsky and his allies instead advocated lobbying the SPD and other pro-war parties to negotiate a “democratic peace” which would end the war without various capitalist powers annexing new colonies or spheres of influence. Again, it would be mass strikes and a naval mutiny, not the legislative activity of the USPD, that would force the Kaiser from his thrown and end World War I in November 1918.

Muldoon acknowledges that Kautsky’s program for the German Revolution never came to fruition. Kautsky headed the “Socialization Commission,” which was supposed to realize popular demands to place the economy under democratic control. However, the SPD, the de facto ruling party in the SPD-USPD coalition government that took power after the Kaiser’s abdication, prioritized the restoration of economic activity — a renewal of capitalist accumulation — over socialization. SPD and union representatives joined with those speaking for industrial capitalists to ensure that capitalist control of production remained in place.

At the same time, the SPD sought to restore the conditions of capitalist political rule by any means necessary. Using the ill-timed Berlin uprising of January 1919 as a pretext, the SPD unleashed a reign of terror against the workers council movement across Germany. The SPD leadership helped organize the Freikorps, armed bands of right-wing ex-veterans who would become the shock troops for the Nazis in the 1920s, to replace the army which had collapsed. The Freikorps not only murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht, but shot hundreds and jailed thousands of militant and revolutionary workers across Germany.

Kautsky attempted to “blame both sides” for the repression and continued to advocate his “democratic” road to socialism. In the end he accepted the National Assembly and Weimar Republic as politically legitimate, despite socialization of industry remaining a pipe dream. The radical factory councils that survived the repression of the broader based workers councils in 1919, continued to challenge capitalist domination in the economy and state.

However, they were subordinated to the unions in 1924 and survive today as organs of labor-management cooperation. Kautsky and his comrades in the USPD, who would return to the SPD in the early 1920s, bear responsibility for the defeat of the German Revolution, which created the conditions for the rise of fascism — the “punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia.”

Was Kautsky a “Realist”?

Was the failure of Kautsky’s vision for the German Revolution simply a product of the SPD’s ambivalence? Or were there deeper, structural contradictions in the strategy? At the heart of Kautsky’s strategy of combining mass organization and activity with winning power in the capitalist state through elections is the promise of a non-insurrectionary road to socialism.

Struggles “within” and “against” the state promise a break with capitalism without the dangers of an insurrection — repression by the existing state, or a postrevolutionary dictatorship. Unfortunately, this promise is based on a thoroughly unrealistic understanding of the capitalist state.

Kautsky and those who advocate a similar socialist strategy today, including those influenced by the left-Eurocommunist writings of Nicos Poulantzas like the editors of Socialist Register, often overlook how capital’s control over investment is their first line of defense against attempts to use elected office to overturn capitalism. One after another social-democratic government in the last fifty years — from Swedish social-democracy’s Meidner plan proposals in the 1970s, through Mitterrand’s socialist government in France in 1981–1983 to Syriza in Greece in 2016 — have been forced to abandon reforms and embrace austerity in the fact of capitalist investment strikes.

What would happen, however, if a truly radical socialist party of the sort envisioned by Kautsky came to power in the existing state? It is possible that such a party would be prepared to combine nationalization-socialization of capitalist enterprises with working-class mobilizations to restart the economy under the control of workplace committees. However, such a radical socialist government would still face substantial capitalist resistance from two sources within the capitalist state.

First, they would face the passive and active resistance to the implementation of any anticapitalist measures from the permanent, unelected state bureaucracy and civil service. Second, they would face repression of workers’ organizations and a possible coup d’etat from the military/repressive apparatus. The fate of the Allende regime in Chile, which promised a parliamentary road to socialism supported by organs of popular power, should be a constant reminder of the real danger of capitalist state repression of democratically elected governments.

A consistent advocate of Kautsky’s strategy might argue that organs of popular power in workplaces and working-class neighborhoods could “check” such resistance. However, to effectively block resistance from the bureaucracy and military, the organs of popular and working-class power would have to become a substitute state. Workers/community councils would have to displace (and possibly arrest) the permanent civil service and actually implement the anticapitalist measures of the radical/left government. These organs of popular power would also have to disarm, jail, and replace the military with armed workers’ militias While such measures might neutralize opposition especially among the civil service, political authority over the officialdom and military would have to pass into the hands of the organs of working class and popular power.

In other words, any socialist government committed to abolishing capitalism would have to destroy the existing capitalist state and replace it with a workers’ state based on the highest forms of working-class self-organization — workers councils. If such a radical socialist government did not pursue these tactics — which would require an armed confrontation with the existing capitalist state — they would be reduced to administering capitalism and austerity as social democrats have for generations. The refusal of Allende, the leadership of the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party to face this reality left Chilean workers unprepared for the coup of September 11, 1973.

The Struggle Today

The strategic contradictions of Kautsky’s road to socialism are quite relevant today. Contemporary defenders of a strategy that combines struggles “within” and “against” the capitalist state often resolve these contradictions, by claiming that left governments that capitulate to austerity “had no choice.” They go as far as to defend discredited “left” governments as the “lesser evil” or “only alternative” to the far right, whose rise the social-democratic regimes prepared.

The attempt to “combine” mass struggle and electoral campaigns whose primary aim is to “take power in the state” also pose real dilemmas for struggles for reforms under capitalism. We saw how Kautsky ultimately aligned himself with the SPD leadership in derailing the mass struggles for universal suffrage in Prussia in 1910 in the interests of building the party’s electoral support. Today, the same dilemma — whether to prioritize preparing and building mass, disruptive, illegal working-class struggles in and beyond the workplace or winning elections — will haunt the attempts of many to work both “inside” and “outside” the Democratic Party and other institutions of the capitalist state.

The question of strategic priorities — building the democratically self-organized struggles of working people or winning positions in the fundamentally undemocratic capitalist state — remains a key question for the new socialist left in the US and globally.