Karl Kautsky Wrote Some Classic Works of Marxist History

The German Marxist thinker Karl Kautsky uncovered the radical history of Christianity, from the early years of the Church to the Reformation and the German Peasant War. His pioneering work in Marxist historiography deserves to be remembered today.

German Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky (second from left) walking with contemporaries in Germany, 1922. (Ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Karl Kautsky’s works of history have been unjustly forgotten by the Left. In the wake of Vladimir Lenin’s fierce polemic, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, the intellectual who had once been described as the “Pope of Marxism” very quickly became yesterday’s man.

This was a regrettable turn of events. Not because Lenin was wrong in what he said about Kautsky, but rather because he was right. In order to defend his political actions during and after World War I, Kautsky retreated from the strongest elements of the version of Marxism he had helped develop in the decade or so following the death of Friedrich Engels.

At the turn of the last century, Kautsky made an important contribution to historical materialism that had a positive influence on the works of Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Lenin himself. Alongside his seminal study of the agrarian question and his key essays on American and Russian social development, the best works of Kautsky include his books on the history of Christianity, from the early Church of the Roman Empire to the radical proto-communist sects of the Reformation. It is those writings I will discuss in this article.

From Pope to Pariah

Unfortunately, Kautsky’s critics have tended to dismiss him as the author of a sterile theory of history that reduced Marxism to a blend of mechanical materialism and political fatalism. According to this caricature, in the decades leading up to World War I, Kautsky used his position of authority within the international socialist movement to propagate a one-dimensional understanding of Marxism that did great harm to the Left.

While Kautsky did later develop a mechanical and fatalistic interpretation of Marxism, this critique applies most strongly to writings toward the end of his career that were an attempt to justify the bad decisions that had led him into the political wilderness. Kautsky’s earlier works displayed a far more subtle and sophisticated approach to Marxism. Without forgetting the limits set by material conditions, Kautsky stressed in these writings the importance of ideas and human agency in making history.

In the decade after the death of Engels, Kautsky occupied a preeminent position amongst Marxists. He was initially one of the most important voices to challenge the burgeoning reformism of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)’s bureaucracy. However, he subsequently retreated from this position to perfect the skill of talking left while leaving the movement’s real leadership in the hands of the increasingly right-wing party and union officials.

Kautsky’s first breach with the Left occurred around 1910 when he aligned himself with the SPD’s right in a debate over the question of the mass strike. When Europe subsequently plunged into war, he contended that the SPD’s parliamentary group should abstain rather than vote against war credits. After losing this argument to the SPD’s increasingly belligerent right, he decided to justify the decision of the SPD’s Reichstag fraction to support the war.

This act proved fatal for his reputation on the Marxist left in Germany and elsewhere. Later, he hammered nails into the coffin of his earlier radicalism when he stood against both the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the revolutionary movement in Germany.

After the collapse of the German monarchy in 1918, right-wing SPD leaders formed a new government. Despite its own provenance in a revolution, this administration was profoundly hostile to revolutionary change and did everything it could to ensure that the old German ruling class retained control of the state apparatus. To this end, the SPD even organized the proto-Nazi Freikorps paramilitaries to crush the revolutionary left.

Kautsky’s Marxism wasn’t equipped to cope with the challenges of this period. His politics had been forged at an earlier historical moment, after the defeat of the Paris Commune and before the polarization caused by war. In the eyes of many, social democracy seemed to have embarked on a gradual, peaceful, and inexorable path to power.

In the new, bitterly polarized context, Kautsky’s attempt to foster unity between the right-wing bureaucratic layer and the revolutionary left was doomed to failure. Indeed, he ended up a figure of contempt for both sides: the Marxists came to hate him for giving a left cover to the Right, while the Right despised him because he still used the language of the Marxist left.

Kautsky as Historian

Nonetheless, despite these political failings, Kautsky’s studies of history continue to be a valuable resource. In his best work, published when he was closest to the left wing of international social democracy, Kautsky helped make sense of the dialectical relationship between revolutionary agency and the material conditions of its existence. In effect, his historical writings extend Marx and Engels’s critique of left-wing moralism.

Marx and Engels had learned from Charles Fourier that, for all its sound and fury, moralism is best understood as a form of “impotence in action.” Historical materialism was intended to extricate the Left from this hopeless position through a conception of real revolutionary agency that transcended the dichotomy between impotent moralism on the one hand and passive materialism on the other.

Kautsky’s most powerful attempts to extend this framework to the history of religion came in his books Forerunners of Modern Socialism (1895) and Foundations of Christianity (1908). The first of these works was partially translated into English in 1897 with the title Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. In these texts, Kautsky set out to show that communism was not an abstract moral theory to be imposed upon people from above. In fact, it was a real social force that had emerged from below — and could do so again.

David McLellan has described Foundations of Christianity as “one of the most important Marxist contributions to the history of religion,” while Roland Boer highlighted Kautsky’s attempt to understand the Bible as “a cultural product of a distinct socio-economic context and history.” A diverse range of Marxist scholars, from Chris Harman and Neil Davidson to Victor Kiernan and Michael Löwy, have also urged us to look again at his work as a historian.

Kautsky argued that communist movements of the past had often taken religious forms, and that Marxism, in spite of its secular character, is the theoretical system best able to make sense of the rise and fall of these movements. In so doing, Marxism could challenge the idea that alternatives to the capitalist status quo were necessarily authoritarian and utopian.

In Foundations of Christianity, Kautsky argued that academic analyses of movements of the oppressed were compromised by the contemplative and “objective” approach that mainstream historians favored. In contrast to this method, he followed Jean-Jacques Rousseau in affirming that social practices inform our interpretations of the past.

Kautsky suggested that because early Christianity was a movement of ancient proletarians, a historian closely acquainted with “the modern movement of the proletariat” should be able “to penetrate into the beginnings of Christianity more easily, in many respects, than men of learning that see the proletariat only from afar.”

That said, Kautsky avoided the error of imposing contemporary categories onto the past. He insisted that historians should be careful to emphasize the “peculiar characteristics” of past actions and events, since human history exhibited a continual process of development. For Kautsky, Marxism itself was a safeguard against such anachronism: “The Marxist conception of history guards us against the danger of measuring the past with the yardstick of the present.”

Christian Communism

According to Kautsky, the history of the Christian churches showed that communism, far from being merely a nineteenth-century utopian dream, had been a recurrent rallying cry of the oppressed throughout history. In Foundations of Christianity, he cited a famous line from the Gospel of Luke, which stated that it was “easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” This, Kautsky argued, reflected “a fierce class hatred” on the part of the early Christians towards the rich.

Kautsky also discusses the spread of Christianity after the death of Jesus. Acts of the Apostles informs us that “what a man needed was then taken from the treasure of the community.” For Kautsky, this statement symbolized the tendency “towards a communistic form of organization” on the part of the early Church.

Although this early Christian communism had some features in common with modern communism, there were in Kautsky’s view qualitative differences between these two forms. In particular, he stressed that the communism of the early Christian communities was based on consumption rather than production. Goods were still produced individually but consumed collectively.

This form of communism appealed strongly to ancient proletarians who could not be sure of their “daily bread.” Yet it was less attractive to slaves who were normally guaranteed some sustenance from their master’s table. In opposition to the view of Engels, Kautsky argued that slaves did not constitute the original social basis of Christianity, and that early Christians themselves did not reject slavery.

Christianity and Class

While the earliest Christian communities may have exhibited communist characteristics, so long as these communities had to reproduce themselves within the framework of the Roman Empire, they tended to replicate its class divisions. This tendency was reinforced when, after the defeat of the Jewish uprising and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christians increasingly began to moderate the communist nature of their community.

Consequently, as Christians worked — or employed others to work for them — with the aim of fulfilling their duties toward the community, some would flourish while others would fail, as Kautsky argued: “It was precisely out of the performance of these mutual aids that a motive would arise that weakened and broke up the original communistic drive.”

To maintain the community once it ceased to be a “fighting organization,” it became increasingly important for the Christians to “attract prosperous comrades” into their fold. To win such people to the community, it was necessary to tone down the original denunciations of the rich. The Church thus came to adopt an ever more conciliatory approach to the rich, which led eventually to qualitative changes in the community itself.

For example, the common meal, which had played a central role in the early Church, was markedly less important to the richer than it was to the poorer members of the community. As the richer members of the congregation came to exercise increasing hegemony within the Church, the significance of this meal gradually declined:

In the second century the actual common meals for the poorer members were separated from the merely symbolical meals for the whole community, and in the fourth century, after the church had become the dominant power in the state, the first kind of meals were crowded out of the assembly houses of the community, the churches. The common meals decayed further and in the next century were abolished completely.

The hegemony of wealthy Christians within the community also took institutional form through the transformation of the Church hierarchy into a new “ruling class” of bishops. One recent product of that class, the late Pope Benedict XVI, cynically attempted in his writings to reimagine biblical comments on poverty and the poor as referring to spiritual rather than material deprivation.

Radical Reformation

Foundations of Christianity identified a process of regression in the social structure of the early Christian communities. This shows us that it is a mistake to assume that Kautsky’s best works are based upon a linear model of historical progress. His account of proto-communist radical movements during the Reformation also explained an experience of decline.

After a general overview of the communist character of radical thought in the Middle Ages, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation went on to examine the Taborite movement of fifteenth-century Bohemia that emerged as part of the Hussite revolt against the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. The Taborites, who called for property to be held in common, developed a formidable military force that inflicted several major defeats on the Catholic armies before the Battle of Lipany in 1434 broke the back of the Taborite army.

After the elimination of the Taborites, religious radicalism flared up again during the sixteenth-century German Reformation when it became most associated with the Anabaptists and their leaders such as the preacher Thomas Müntzer. Discussing Müntzer’s ideas, Kautsky insisted that his preaching showed that “nothing can be more erroneous than the widespread idea that communism is antagonistic to the existence of man — antagonistic to human nature itself.” Not only did the communism of the Anabaptists reflect the real needs of those German peasants who rose against the princes in 1525 — the communist idea could itself be traced back to the Gospels.

Kautsky thus stressed the importance both of the history of ideas and of ideas in history in a way that contradicts attempts to dismiss him as a mechanical materialist. He explicitly stated that the ideas available to people in different historical periods could help shape the course of events:

The transmission by tradition of ideas originating in earlier conditions of society has an important influence on the march of events. It often retards the progress of new social tendencies, by increasing the difficulty of arriving at an apprehension of their true nature and requirements. At the close of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it favored their development.

According to Kautsky, the emerging bourgeoisie of early modern Europe drew upon the tradition of Roman law “because it appeared to them well adapted to the needs of simple production, trade, and the despotic power of the State.” The laboring class, on the other hand, had to look elsewhere for inspiration:

Neither the Roman law nor classic literature could please the proletariat and its sympathizers; they found what they were seeking in another product of Roman society — the Gospels. The traditional communism of primitive Christianity was well suited to their own necessities. As the foundations of a higher order of communistic production were not yet laid, theirs could only be an equalizing communism; which meant the division and distribution of the rich man’s superfluity among the poor who were destitute of the necessaries of life. The communistic doctrines of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles did not create the analogous tendencies of the Middle Ages, but they favoured the growth and dissemination of the latter quite as much as the Roman law aided the development of absolutism and the bourgeoisie.

Structure and Agency

Of course, Kautsky did not ignore the role of material forces in his history of sixteenth-century communism. He put forward an analysis of the development of the productive forces in early modern Europe and the way in which those forces clashed with the existing relations of production. For Kautsky, this could explain the broad timing of the peasant wars, the emergence of sixteenth-century communism, and its eventual defeat.

However, placing the movement in its historical context was not the same as reducing it to that context. Kautsky sought the roots of Reformation-era popular radicalism in the growth of capital and a decline in the economic position of the peasantry in Germany and Bohemia:

The period of the Hussite Wars may be fairly considered as approximately the line of demarcation at which the decline of the peasantry began, not only at different periods and in isolated localities, but universally.

While these economic conditions set the scene in which the peasant wars were played out, Kautsky insisted that it was real human beings who picked up the idea of communism from the Gospels to spread the seeds of revolt.

In another book, Thomas More and His Utopia (1888), Kautsky argued that More’s vision of a communist society could be understood as a sympathetic response from a member of the ruling class to the deteriorating status of English peasants in this period. However, although economic conditions in England were similar to those that had existed in Germany at the time of the 1525 revolt, More’s book “frightened nobody” because “no communist party existed” to embody those ideas as a real challenge to the status quo.

In other words, ideas had to become a material force if they were to affect the course of history. The idea of communism had become such a force in the early Church and amongst the Taborites, Anabaptists, and other religious and nonreligious groups at various moments in history. This was a concrete application of a remark by Marx and Engels, who insisted that communism was not an abstract ideal in the style of More’s Utopia, but rather the real movement that tends to abolish the present state of things.

Nevertheless, Kautsky was convinced that defeat for these early-modern revolutionaries was inevitable in one form or another, because the development of the productive forces meant that communism was unfeasible as a mode of production in this period:

It now became evident . . . how little military victories avail, if the aims of the conquerors are in contradiction to those of economic development.

From this perspective, the level of economic development is best understood as setting limits to what is politically possible at particular moments in history without mechanically imposing a strict logic on events.

The Better Side of Kautsky

Kautsky’s works on the early Church and the Anabaptists show that, at his best, he was neither a political fatalist nor a vulgar materialist, and he certainly didn’t believe in a simple, unilinear model of historical progress. In fact, these works repay rereading by anyone interested in understanding the material, ideological, and political context for revolutionary agency.

Kautsky may ultimately have been a political failure, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. His historical works are now obviously dated, with more than a century of new scholarship having been published on the events he discussed. Yet they deserve to be read and reread by anyone interested in understanding both the historical process and the reality of communism as a recurring, and increasingly practical, alternative to the present state of things.