From his home in Vienna in early 1933, Karl Kautsky stood witness to the defeat of the largest workers’ movement in Europe over the border in Germany at the hands of the Nazis. Kautsky was politically isolated but not idle; a new edition of his The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx was off his desk and with the printers. The work was originally published in 1908 in the aftermath of the so-called “Hottentot election” of 1907 where the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) lost 38 of its Reichstag seats despite winning the largest share of the votes nationally. This was a shattering defeat for a party which had enjoyed continued advance since the end of the anti-socialist laws. In a tale familiar to readers today the establishment parties united in an attack on the SPD for their lack of patriotism. The lesson drawn by some of the more conservative leaders of the SPD was that opposing the Kaisserreich’s ruling class on colonialism and nationalism was disastrous for their electoral chances. A fatal conclusion when it came to the outbreak of war in 1914.
Despite this setback Kautsky penned The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx in a period when the growth of the socialist movement looked certain to sweep away old Europe with just a spark from beyond the Rhine. It sets out the continued relevance of the work, ideas and strategic conclusions of Marx and Engels.
The world of 1933 was a less hopeful moment: defeats in Germany, the rise of the party dictatorship in Russia and the collapse of social democracy into national chauvinism were harbingers of a catastrophic new war, the subjugation and disposition of central European nations and the Holocaust. Despite the storm clouds Kautsky defiantly penned a new preface for his The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx where he declared that:
“In these days, as everything shakes, the bourgeois classes and parties doubt everything, not least of themselves, Marxism provides the only secure basis for all of us on which we can and will build the edifice of a better community.
Marx’s historic achievement has in no way lost its importance over the past quarter century. It rules our age more than ever.”
We too live in a moment of darkness, confronted by pandemic, social upheaval, ecological disaster and the rise of an authoritarian mood in many of the capitals of the democratic world. However, understanding and arming ourselves for these struggles rests on how well we understand our world, the forces in motion and the strategic graft required by our side to refound a workers’ movement capable of turning the tide. For this Marx remains the most important light and Kautsky’s short text, translated for the first time into English by Alexander Gallus, has lessons for us today.
Kautsky in Atlanta
Last year the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) met in Atlanta at the high tide of the Bernie Sanders movement. It looked like Sanders could actually win the Democratic Party primaries, a number of socialists had recently won elections in state and federal elections and membership of the DSA had skyrocketed. Beyond the negative press reports a partial yet important political victory was won at the heart of the socialist Left in the United States. Delegates voted to not endorse any other candidate for President running in the Democratic Party primaries if Sanders lost. He did lose and to the ire of many of the old Left the DSA have so far stuck to their guns. They voted to push the Sanders campaign onto a more hostile footing against US foreign policy and, crucially, to use elections to raise the combativity of the working class and to popularise socialist ideas. Lastly there was a fight to establish clear political and organisational independence of the DSA from the Democratic Party machine. The primacy of political independence from the state and bourgeois parties was a central concern of Kautsky in 1908 and the fight for such independence and organisation today is needed more than ever.
This fight is not new. The tension between political independence and, what is seen as, political expediency has been played out since the earliest days of our movement. Later this year we will see Die Linke in Germany wrestle between collaboration and opposition at their congress in Erfurt as the party seeks a new leadership duo. Gallus’ translation is a timely contribution to these debates. His introduction focuses on the dark moment the working class in the United States finds itself in, and the multiple crises facing humanity today. Reading Kautsky’s confidence in the workers’ movement of 1908 appears as “a dream that one struggles to remember” for Gallus; I agree. We are so far from that moment both in the political clarity of communists and the organisations of the working class.
This is not a time for resignation or to simply keep ourselves busy: Gallus following Kautsky argues that “[i]n a time like this, there is a pressing need to articulate the idea that there is and ought to be more to the working class’s struggle than straightforward economic concessions won from employers.” Gallus goes further, noting that “the biggest strength of Karl Kautsky’s thought lies in his oppositional strategy of patience, the commitment to the building of a mass party and the development of a communist program.”
This stands in stark contrast to many on the Left who promote a sort of movementism that sees within every moment of unrest and strike a self-contained momentum towards unity and political realisation. Whilst it is true that lessons are learned in struggle, the conclusions workers draw from the sporadic flashes are by no means guaranteed to be socialist. For Gallus no amount of transitional demands solves this problem “because crises and upticks in labor militancy do not in fact equate by themselves to political unity of the class.”
Class Struggle, Science & Socialism
Getting into the meat of Kautsky’s text we start with the scientific achievements of Marx and Engels. There is something to be gained from Kautsky’s walk through the sciences as he explains the limitations and cautiousness of the contemporary bourgeoisie. But the pronouncement that Marx “established the unity of all human science” certainly looks out of date, if not outright wrong. When we consider the technical advance and deepening specialisation that has occurred in every field of science over the last hundred years we cannot agree with Kautsky when he writes that:
“A conservative class, on the other hand, instinctively shuns any progress not only in the political and social fields, but also in the scientific field, because it feels that any deeper knowledge can no longer be of much use to it, but can harm it infinitely. It is inclined to reduce confidence in science.”
On the contrary Marx in The Communist Manifesto had a farsighted view of capitalist development when he wrote that:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
This exemplifies a long term problem the Marxist Left has inflicted upon itself: seeing catastrophe, technological stagnation and productive limits around every corner. The Trotskyist true believers still tell us that capitalism is in its death agony 80 years after Trotsky foretold its demise. Yet when faced with crisis, falling profits, class struggle, wars and natural disasters, the bourgeoisie have not been entirely conservative as Kautsky contends. Capitalism has continued to revolutionise production and improve the lives of many millions. Undeniably, this has come at great human and ecological cost, but nobody could deny that we live in a time of great material wealth where scarcity, not just in essential goods but in luxury too can be made a thing of the past should humanity break out beyond capitalism.
The real strength of this section of Kautsky’s text is the focus on how and when class struggle can drive history forward. Noting that “Marx came and saw that the history, ideas, and ideals of man, and their successes and failures, are the result of class struggles.” An older, politically isolated, Kautsky remarked in 1929 that “[c]lass struggle by itself does not move society forward, only class struggle under certain technical conditions does.” This remains true today, the generalisation of struggle into a political contest for power is crucial in moving society forward. There are 21 years between the former and the latter text, yet Kautsky shows no less a commitment to a Marxist understanding of social change and the need for class struggle to be purposeful despite his political retreats in the intervening years.
When Friedrich met Karl
Kautsky then looks at the collective work of Marx and Engels discussing each of their intellectual and professional backgrounds. He notes that “Engels arrived at the same time as Marx, yet in a different way, at the threshold of the same materialistic conception of history. One arrived at this via the old humanities, jurisprudence, ethics, and history, the other via the new economy, economic history, ethnologies, and the natural sciences. In the revolution, and in socialism, they met.”
He works through how capitalism arose in France, Germany and England, how the working class moved into the political arena under different circumstances and the lessons Marx and Engels drew from these experiences and intellectual traditions. Kautsky writes that:
“England offered them most of the actual economic material, the philosophy of Germany the best method of deriving from this material the goal of present social development; the revolution of France finally showed them most clearly how we have to gain power, namely political power, to achieve this goal.
Thus, they created modern scientific socialism by uniting into a higher unity all which is great and fruitful in English, French, and German thought.”
This Marx and Engels synthesis, scientific socialism so to speak, didn’t come from nowhere, and Kautsky provides us a whirlwind tour of French, German and English thought. Kautsky writes that Marx and Engels “also recognized that the economy forms the basis of social development, that it contains the laws according to which this development necessarily takes place.” This could be read as determinist; indeed the vulgar Marxists and Stalinists that come after Kautsky certainly did have such a backwards reading of Marx and Engels. Yet, as we have touched on earlier, Kautsky recognised that social development and change is not automatic, the conditions must be right, the technological basis must be developed and the necessity of class struggle “for political power, that the task of every great political party is not limited to one reform or another, but must always bear in mind the conquest of political power”.
The Merger Formula
The final two sections of Kautsky’s The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx forcefully rebut those on the Left in 1908 and today who shy away from talking about socialism as the final goal, who won’t say clearly who or what they are for and wait among the movements and the working class for unrest and chaos to throw up the organisations and politics we need to take power. Kautsky, following Marx and Engels, writes that:
“Without socialist theory, the individual proletarian professions are not able to recognize the commonality of their interests, are foreign to each other, sometimes even hostile to each other.”
Kautsky goes further:
“The workers’ movement and socialism are by no means inherently one. The workers’ movement is necessarily born as resistance against industrial capitalism wherever it occurs; it expropriates and subjugates the working masses, but also crowds and unites them in large enterprises and industrial cities. The most original form of the workers’ movement is the purely economic one, the struggle for wages and working hours, which at first merely takes the form of simple outbursts of despair, of repeatedly unprepared actions, but is soon transformed into higher forms by trade-union organization. Early on, the political struggle arose parallel to this. The bourgeoisie itself needed proletarian help in its struggles against feudalism and called for it. The workers soon learned to appreciate the importance of political freedom and political power for their own ends.”
We need the merger of socialism and the workers’ movement. For Kautsky this was the central lesson of The Communist Manifesto taken up by the SPD and the rising socialist parties in Europe. This does not mean that communists come down from the mountain like Moses proclaiming the way forward for the working masses. On the contrary, it is only through the active participation and political struggle of communists within the workers’ movement that socialism can become “a very practical thing for the struggling proletariat.” It is a political wager requiring a mass party, the active campaigning and educational efforts of socialists within the workers’ movement pushing the day-to-day struggles of the working class, whilst building a movement that is “measured not according to its significance for restricting exploitation, but according to its significance for increasing the power of the proletariat.”
Central to this process is political freedom. The right of assembly, to unionise, freedom of the press and speech along with the freedom to contest free elections based on the universal suffrage of all citizens. Even in Britain some of these freedoms are curtailed or under threat; we have the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. As Gallus points out in his introduction that as the working class has become more politically involved in the United States they have seen “thousands of polling stations in working-class and minority neighborhoods being closed, voters waiting in line for five or more hours to vote, voter purge lists getting rid of millions of cast ballots, mass cancellations of voters’ registrations, rigged computer voting systems, disputed vote counts”. In short, a denial of the most basic electoral freedoms.
Only by obtaining and expanding these freedoms can we freely promote a revolutionary breach with capitalism and the state. With these freedoms communists can and should contest elections, a real test of where our ideas have purchase in society, to promote our programme and gain wider audiences for our arguments. This struggle remains as central today as it did in 1908.
The crowning moment of the Marxist strategy, as laid out by Kautsky, is the coming to power of the working class. This would enable a mass party, representing the majority in society, to set about the dismantling of the state and begin the socialisation of productive forces to be run democratically for needs and wants of all. For my generation the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements were our introduction to the socialist cause. The next big protest, the next big meeting or the next big movement were chased. Like grasshoppers we moved from one thing to the next. Much of the Left still does this, with no real basis in the working class and no real appetite to build one, lurching from one movement to the next with little to show for our efforts. In contrast Kautsky was clear that “only from the class struggle, which has to last for decades, even generations, does the strength arise which can and must seize the state in the form of the democratic republic and finally bring about the breakthrough of socialism in it.” Where on the Left will you find such a hard-headed view today? When will we stop looking for shortcuts and quick fixes and get down to real work?
Kautsky also recognises the “colorful diversity of the various proletarian strata” which have in the past been reduced to figments of the imagination or used to build up barriers between sets of workers because of their sex, ethncity, nationality etc. Recognising the rich tapestry of working class life and communities and their experiences needs to be central to communist thought and strategies. Whereas principles are universal there is no one-size fits all approach to social struggle, no single canon that must be obeyed and we need room for differences, however sharp, within our ranks. The extrapolation of the Bolshevik experience into movements in established democracies, with wide-ranging freedoms and an established electoral system along with rights to unionise, stunted the communist movement and failed to produce a realistic and credible road to power. A critical return to the debates and strategies of the Second International, of which Kautsky was central, can help us build a way forward.
Partyism & Class Unity
Kautsky ends with a summary of how Marx and Engels put their theoretical work to practical application and how the unity of theory and practice remains crucial for revolutionaries. Marx and Engels “had no intention at all of whispering” the results of their work but instead “immediately contacted proletarian organizations in order to propagate their point of view and the tactics corresponding to it. In this way they succeeded in winning over one of the most important of the then-revolutionary proletarian associations”.
This is important as Marx’s detractors, then and now, will regularly say that he spent all of his time in the British Library whilst being kept by Engels’ money, earned on the of back mill workers in Manchester. What do these two bourgeois layabouts know about the working class is a regular charge. Yet the truth is that both were present during the revolutionary wave of 1848/9: Engels fought bravely on the barricades in Baden, Marx kept the democratic press going as editor-in-chief of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. They were central to the organisation efforts of the Communist League and later the International Workingmen’s Association turning the socialist movement towards the emerging working class, the building of trade unions and also hardcoding democratic struggle into the movement. In short, theoretical moves forward were mirrored by a practical political struggle.
Today it is common for some involved in activist movements (Occupy, Extinction Rebellion etc) to repeat this attack not just against Marx and Engels but communists and anyone interested in thinking through what is actually going on. Reading, debating and thinking are too regularly considered frivolous when there is just so much to do, so many protests to go on and meetings to attend. This activist mentality has spilled over into the Left so that we jump from one thing to the next without any real answers, let alone the right questions on how we have arrived back on the margins of political life.
For Marx and Engels our real power is found in mass organisations and parties that fight to conquer political power by the working class armed with a communist programme. It is here we reach more important advice for the Left in Britain today. We need unity; our division and separate existences, duplicating each other’s work, have hamstrung us for too long. Kautsky, repeating Marx from his Critique of the Gotha Programme remarks that:
“A Marxist who would continue a theoretical disagreement to the point of splitting a proletarian fighting organization would not, however, be acting as a Marxist, in the sense of the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, for which every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs.”
What is meant by the real movement is not a victory of this or that strike or protest but the advance of the working class towards political power. Today we rarely have splits on questions of serious analytical difference though more often than not we have bureaucratic contests of power and have at times scrapped the barrel all the way down to absurd splits over pieces of art. Overcoming this in a world, along with a working class, much changed from the one Kautsky lived is a hurdle we need to overcome.
Kautsky’s The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx is above all a defence of the majority trend in social democracy at the beginning of the 20th century. It is an attempt to make clear that this tendency is the inheritor of Marx and Engels, not those seeking gradual change or those lurching towards insurrectionist methods. It is replete with good arguments defending political freedom and democracy, organisation, partyism, working class independence whilst spelling out the foundations of Marx and Engels’ synthesis. Some of Kautsky’s arguments on science and the limits of so-called bourgeois science have proven to be wrong but are in keeping with the hopes and Promethean attitudes of socialists of the time. This is an attitude we could do with recapturing and modernising against Green austerity of the climate change movement and the anti-science mood mobilised by the Right today.
Alexander Gallus has done our movement a real service in translating this text for the first time into English. The only constructive criticism I have is that the text would greatly benefit from a much longer introduction that includes a discussion of the political context in which Kautsky wrote and re-published The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx. Whilst discussion and reading of Kautsky has grown greatly in recent years the history of the disputes that characterised Kautsky’s political career are either unknown or distilled into a single word: renegade. There is no hiding who in the SPD Kautsky is taking aim at in this text when he attacks Eduard Bernstein and his fellow travellers in the party bureaucracy by writing that the unifying communist “goal is of the greatest practical importance. Nothing is more impractical than the apparently realist view that the movement is everything and the goal nothing. Is organization then also nothing and the unorganized movement everything?”
I have often sat in meeting rooms listening to those who say they are Marxists asking for me to vote against socialism for the sake of a broad movement or party. This sleight of hand is always sold as keeping people on board and making a difference – though it never does. Kautsky’s attack in 1908 could easily be aimed at large sections of the revolutionary Left today where even Bernstein, who was at the time committed to political independence and the dissolution of the standing army, would be seen as too extreme.
Kautsky infamously reneged from his own politics at the outbreak of war in 1914, angering Lenin and the militants of the Second International and thus fating his work to be defined as obsolete and inherently counter-revolutionary by much of the Left today. Yet for those of us looking for a way forward Kautsky poses a challenge, not least by balancing the collapse of Bolshevism and social democracy into barbarism with a road not taken and a political strategy for power centred on the expansion of democracy and freedom. The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx deserves to be read as it asks many of the hard questions we need to answer today. It defends the central political programme of communism and provides us with a model view of Marx’s life where sticking the course and fighting on will be worth it for communists. Kautsky concludes:
“The banner of the liberation of the proletariat, and thus of all mankind — which Marx has unfolded, which he carried forward for more than a lifetime, in a constant onslaught, never tiring, never despairing — will be victoriously planted on the ruins of the capitalist stronghold by the fighters he has taught.”
Alexander Gallus’ new translation of Karl Kautsky’s The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx (Cosmonaut Press, 2020) is available now. To order a copy go to Cosmonaut.