Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 14, 2019

Kautsky? No thanks

Filed under: Kautsky — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Karl Kautsky

Jo­hann Most has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker, I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

–A letter from Karl Marx to his daughter Jenny, dated August 1881


Largely the result of a confluence between Lars Lih’s writings and the social democratic (or democratic socialist) renaissance triggered by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Kautsky is becoming kind of trendy nowadays.

In a Jacobin article titled “Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky”, James Muldoon, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in England, rescued Kautsky’s 1919 “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme” from the obscurity it probably deserved and offered it up as a guideline for the sort of “socialism from below” that crops up frequently in Jacobin:

One hundred years ago, socialists strived to democratize politics, the economy, and society. The democratic socialists of today have nothing to fear from embracing this history and proposing a transformative program of overcoming capitalism. Acknowledging this history not only continues to create a positive perception of socialism as compatible with democracy, it also evokes a meaningful alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

Kautsky is seen as a sensible alternative to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on one hand and the Spartacists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on the other. (It should be mentioned that Bhaskar Sunkara is a Kautsky fan himself.)

Kautsky diverged from both the SPD and the Spartacists. He believed that universal suffrage and parliamentary institutions should form the basis of the new republic. But he did not see any compelling justification for restricting suffrage to paid factory workers, which would disenfranchise large elements of the lower classes including many women, peasants, and the unemployed.

The implication here is that Liebknecht and Luxemburg were for disenfranchising women, peasants and the unemployed, right? Those dastardly extremists, tch-tch. However, if you look at the Kautsky article recommended by Muldoon, there is no reference to the Spartacists opposing universal suffrage. It is certainly doubtful that Rosa Luxemburg would have restricted suffrage to the working-class since one of her main complaints about the Bolsheviks was that they were doing exactly that.

So, by process of elimination, you must conclude that it was Lenin who was the butt of Kautsky’s criticism. It turns out that it wasn’t so much over who gets to vote or not but whether Soviet democracy expressed the kind of “democratic socialism” that Muldoon and Kautsky believe in. The difference was over whether the Bolsheviks were wrong to champion the Soviets which were a class-based institution rather than the constituent assembly favored by Kautsky and the Mensheviks. In his 1918 polemic against the Bolsheviks titled “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Kautsky sounded a Muldoonish note:

Even in a country so highly developed economically as Germany, where the proletariat is so numerous, the establishment of a Soviet Republic would disfranchise great masses of the people. In 1907, the number of men, with their families, belonging to occupations which comprised the three great groups of agriculture, industry and trade, that is, wage-earners and salaried persons, amounted to something over 35,000,000, as against 17,000,000 belonging to other sections. A party could therefore very well have the majority of wage-earners behind it and yet form a minority of the population.

By focusing on question of majority rule, Kautsky skirts the real difference with Lenin—namely the wisdom of carrying out a socialist revolution in a country that lacked the material basis for one. In his polemic, Kautsky views the seizure of power as premature:

In fine, the uninterrupted progress of production is essential for the prosperity of all. The destruction of capitalism is not Socialism. Where capitalist production cannot be transformed at once into Socialist production, it must go on as before, otherwise the process of production will be interrupted, and that hardship for the masses will ensue which the modern proletariat so much fears in the shape of general unemployment.

You get the same line of reasoning with Kautsky’s 1919 article that is the apple of Muldoon’s eyes. In a country convulsed by proletarian resistance, he offers these bromides:

The German republic should become a democratic republic. Yet it should be even more than that. It should become a socialist republic – a commonwealth in which there is no longer any place for the exploitation of man by man.

However, the question of production itself is an even more urgent one than that of the mode of production. The war has forcibly interrupted production. Our most urgent task is to revive it again, to get it up and running. That is the precondition of any attempt to socialise production.

Production requires labour and the means of production. The state authority’s next task is to procure from abroad any food that is lacking, in order to make the worker fit for work. The state authority should also supply industry with raw materials. Wherever it is not possible to supply sufficient raw materials to all the factories in a branch of industry, then above all it is the technically superior factories that should be supplied. For this, the state should use existing laws that allowed factories to be closed during the war.

You get the picture, right? Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

The theoretical basis for this kind of reformism is the Marxism of the Second International that understood history as a succession of stages. Kautsky, like Plekhanov, opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power because Russia had not developed a full-fledged capitalist economy. Maybe Kautsky had not read Marx’s letters to the Russian populists who were troubled by Plekhanov’s stagism. His letters advised them that the peasant communes could provide the basis for a revolutionary state inspiring revolutions in the West.

This kind of stagism has a new lease on life partially because there are people with scholarly credentials like Lars Lih trying to rewrite the history of the Russian Revolution. In a September 2018 article in “Studies in East European Thought”, he makes the case that Kautsky’s 1909 “The Road to Power” was a major influence on the Bolsheviks. While it is true that Lenin was favorably disposed to Kautsky up until 1917, there were others far more familiar with German politics who might have helped him read Kautsky more critically.

Of course, I am referring to Rosa Luxemburg who saw him close up enough to see all his ideological warts. In 1906, she wrote one of her major contributions to Marxist strategic thinking—“The Mass Strike”, a work that tries to generalize from the experience of the 1905 revolution in Russia, a dress rehearsal for 1917. As editor of “Die Neue Zeit”, Kautsky had big problems with her submitted article since there was “not one word…about a republic”. He was preoccupied as usual with the need for bourgeois democracy, not all that ultra-left business about working-class insurgency: “Universal, equal direct suffrage for all adults, without distinction of sex, is the immediate goal which ensures us the enthusiastic agreement of the broadest strata at the present moment.” He wrote much more in the rejection letter to Luxemburg that she tears apart in “Theory & Practice: A polemic against Comrade Kautsky’s theory of the Mass Strike”. I rather enjoyed her pithy take on his parliamentary cretinism:

Comrade Kautsky is a more qualified Marxian scholar than I: he should know better, what pointed adjective Marx would have applied to this “dodge” and this sort of republicanism “within the limits of the police-permitted and logically impermissible.”

Thus Comrade Kautsky is in error when he says I “bewail myself” of being “badly handled” by the editors of the Neue Zeit. I find only that Comrade Kautsky has handled himself badly.

Despite Kautsky’s insistence on the need for bourgeois democracy in “The Road to Power”, he betrayed his own principles a year after it was written by refusing to lead a campaign against a struggle for voting rights in Prussia in 1910. Writing for the Marxist Left Review in Australia, Darren Rosso contrasted the approaches taken by Kautsky and Luxemburg:

This became clear when the Prussian suffrage struggle broke out in 1910. Kautsky rejected the call for a democratic republic – cutting the knot that had tied the democratic struggle and social revolution. He repudiated Luxemburg’s call to lead an offensive mass struggle for a republic, because he wanted to “keep the gunpowder dry” for the 1912 Reichstag elections. With the mass strike as a concrete tactic, Luxemburg fought to abolish the semi-absolutist regime, after which “the revolution would be propelled beyond this first turning point towards the conquest of power by the proletariat. Her slogan of a republic…tied together all the great struggles of the day with a final aim”, in a process of permanent revolution in German conditions.

This stubborn attachment to distinct stages of history that unfold as predictably as a pupa turning into a butterfly has to be understood to some extent as a function of the influence that Charles Darwin had on Kautsky as well as many other “stagist” theoreticians. For a fascinating account of his attempt to synthesize Marx and Darwin, I recommend the chapter on Kautsky in Richard Weikart’s “Socialist Darwinism” that begins:

Few contributed as much to the dissemination of Darwinism and evolutionary theory in socialist circles as Kautsky, the leading theorist of the German Social Democratic Party in the pre-World War I period. When Kautsky founded Die neue Zeit in 1883, he intended it not only as a theoretical journal promoting Mandan socialism, but also as a vehicle to disseminate Darwinism. He asked Engels to contribute an article on Darwin to appear in the first issue, since “I cannot think of a better introductory article for a popular monthly magazine than one about Darwin. The name alone is already a program.” Kautsky also invited the Darwinian botanist Arnold Dodel to submit scientific articles to his forthcoming journal, explaining, “We want to devote special attention to natural science and specifically to Darwinism and in each number, if possible, carry a scientific article.”

Could it have been possible that Kautsky veered into Social Darwinism at some point? It is hard to shake that suspicion after reading his 1914 “Are the Jews a Race”, a year that according to Weikart came long after he had abandoned a strict application of evolutionary theory to world history.

In chapter five, Kautsky deals with the “Physical Characteristics of the Jewish Race”. He assures his readers that unlike pure races, the Jews did not have a universal marker despite the common perception that a “hooked nose” is dominant. He dismisses such stereotypes with hard evidence: “We have already quoted Luschan’s observation that the Jewish nose is particularly frequent in the Alpine valleys that are cut off from all outside influences, that it is an earmark of the homo alpinus, the Alpine man. While but thirteen or fourteen per cent, of the Jews have a Jewish nose – as a rule – the conservative Catholic population of Ancient Bavaria  shows thirty-one per cent of Jewish noses.” (I have always viewed mine as a cross between an anteater’s and a dill pickle.)

In the next chapter, he moves on to the “Mental Qualities of the Jewish Race”. After establishing that the Jews were a mixed race, he hones in on their cosmopolitanism:

It is very questionable whether natural selection, in the form of the survival of the fittest, has had much influence on evolution. But there is no doubt that it has had an immense influence on the shaping and maintaining of species by means of the elimination of those unfit for the given environment.

In addition to this unconscious adaption, there is also a conscious adaptation. We have already pointed out that the Jew is far more inclined to consult a physician, and to observe the physician’s orders conscientiously, than is the non-Jew, and also, that the Jew – at least in the ghetto – is far less addicted to alcohol. This difference between Jew and non-Jew is at bottom again merely a difference between city-dweller and country-dweller.

Owing to the conditions of his life the latter is far superior to the city-dweller in strength; he is rarely ill. In the fullness of his strengths he despises disease. Owing to his love of displaying his vigour, and to his fear of appearing to be a weakling, he considers it a disgrace to be sick; besides, he is often too ignorant to have confidence in a physician.

I’m not with Kautsky on this physician stuff. I’m much more like the country-dweller, especially when it comes to making appointments with the urologist. I can’t stand those probes.

This hogwash was not the worst of it. Like most Social Darwinists, Kautsky was into eugenics. Kautsky had a particular affinity for Wilhelm Schallmayer who was considered a founder of the eugenics movement in Germany—and a socialist to boot. According to Wikipedia, his key work, “Concerning the Imminent Physical Degeneration of Civilized Humanity” concluded that modern medicine impeded natural selection by aiding the survival and reproduction of those who are “defectively constituted” or “generally weak.” Also, the increase in mental disorders was due to the unfit among us not being able to adapt to the fast-pace of modern industrial civilization. Finally, he fretted that degeneration often led to insanity, which imposed a high economic cost for maintaining lunatic asylums.

Weikart discusses Kautsky’s review of this masterpiece:

By reviewing Schallmayer’s early book, Ueber die drohende korperliche Entartung der Kulturmenschheit (1891, On the Threatening Physical Degeneration of Civilized Humanity), Kautsky became one of the earliest to introduce eugenical thinking into the socialist press. Kautsky agreed with Schailmayer that modern society was promoting degeneration and that medicine and hygiene were contributing to this by facilitating the propagation of weaker and inferior individuals. The bourgeois Darwinists’ solution of reintroducing the struggle for existence is absurd and hypocritical,. according to Kautsky, since all the accomplishments of modern culture work to enervate the struggle for existence. Do they really want to return to primitive society and forfeit their own pride and glory? Kautsky regarded rational social planning as the most beneficial replacement for natural selection. Degeneration could be obviated by removing deleterious environmental influences and promoting healthy conditions of life.

Kautsky? No thanks.

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