Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)


Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)

Karl Kautsky (16 October 1854-17 October 1938), was one of the best-known theoreticians of the Second International and until 1914 he was thought by many socialists to be the veritable “Pope of Marxism.”

Karl Kautsky was born in 1854 in Prague, the son of an Austrian mother and a Czech father. His father, Johann Kautsky, was a painter and his mother, Minna Jaich Kautsky, a novelist and actress whose novels were admired by Engels. The family moved to Vienna when he was seven years old and after the elite Vienna Gymnasium (Grammar School) he attended the University of Vienna in 1874, joining the Austrian Social Democratic party in 1875 and working as a journalist for them. In 1880 he joined a group of German socialists in Zurich who were supported financially by Karl Höchberg and who smuggled socialist material into the Reich at the time of the Anti-Socialist Laws. Influenced by Eduard Bernstein, Höchberg’s secretary, he became a Marxist and in 1881 visited Marx and Engels in England.

In 1883 he founded the monthly Die Neue Zeit in Stuttgart which became a weekly in 1890 and was its editor until 1917. The journal became immensely influential intellectually in socialist circles both in Germany and internationally. From 1885 to 1890 he worked with Engels in London and while there he published Karl Marx’ ökonomische Lehren, later translated in 1925 as The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx which was probably the most widely read Marxist work on economics among SDP activists. It was so influential that long after Lenin had denounced him as a renegade it was still being used at the Moscow Lenin School in 1931 as by far the best treatment of the subject. Unfortunately, his work on the French Revolution, Die Klassengegensätze von 1789 (1889, 2nd ed. 1908), written at the same time, has never been translated into English.

He went back to Vienna in 1890 where he married his second wife Luise Ronsperger (1864-1944) who was later to die in Auschwitz and, after the repeal of the German Anti-Socialist Law, they went to live in Stuttgart. His draft of the SPD programme, approved by Engels, was accepted at the Erfurt Congress in 1891 and became another of his highly influential publications and at least three different translations into English were made of it. He started to develop a Socialist agrarian programme. His main work on this, The Agrarian Question, has only been recently translated (1998) and is still in copyright so not available here on the MIA. After the death of Engels, to whom he was closer than he had been to Marx, he wrote a warm tribute to him.

In 1896 he polemicized with Belfort Bax on the Marxist conception of history and in 1897 moved with his family to Berlin and in a series of articles in his paper called for the participation of the SPD in the Prussian elections despite the disgracefully undemocratic constitution. The electoral process could be used a tribune to raise the consciousness of the workers and recruit them to socialism. In 1898 he took up the question of colonialism and the nationalities question in Austria. On colonialism, he was one of the first Marxists to see its importance and to take an intransigent stand against it. When Bernstein attacked the traditional Marxist position in the later 1890s, later translated as Evolutionary Socialism (1908) Kautsky denounced him in articles and in an important book, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, Stuttgart, 1899. Again there is no English translation of this very important work though there is a French one, Le Marxisme et son critique Bernstein. Kautsky correctly perceived that Bernstein’s emphasis on the ethical foundations of Socialism opened the road to a call for an alliance with the “progressive” bourgoisie and a non-class approach though in fact Bernstein’s approach to colonial questions would not strike many people today as excessively ethical. Kautsky thus appeared as the intellectual leader of the revolutionary left wing of the SPD though the growth of the Trade Union fraction was making the party more and more inclined to reformism. However it takes two to tango and the Imperial and Prussian governments showed not the slightest inclination to yield to democratic pressure from an opposition with the mildest of demands. In that situation it was possible for Kautsky to maintain his revolutionary credentials since there was little prospect of a viable reformist current in Wilhemine Germany. Above all Kautsky was opposed to non-working class alliances in the Imperial German situation.

In 1901 he handed over his ownership of Die Neue Zeit to the SPD while remaining editor. As an internationalist he opposed Socialist support for foreign tariffs and protection which he felt was at the expense of working class living standards. The SPD was less successful in influencing the Catholic than the Protestant working class and so he analysed the reactionary policies of the Catholic Church. In 1904 and 1905, under the influence of Russian events, Kautsky, although far more cautious than Rosa Luxemburg, argued against the SPD right wing that the whole question of the mass strike should be studied and not dismissed. However he never advocated such a mass strike in any specific situation – his demand that it should be considered as an option remained quite abstract though in theory he advocated a joint parliamentary and direct action approach in the Imperial German state to press for democratic reforms with the proviso that such action should have a good chance of success. At the Congress of the Second International at Stuttgart in 1907 he successfully attacked the pro-colonialist faction. The Foundations of Christianity was written in 1908. Der Weg zur Macht, (1909) translated as The Road To Power, and praised by Lenin, is sometimes thought to be his most “revolutionary” work. There is a poorer older version but an excellent new translation by Meyer (1996) exists which it is still in copyright and is available in many libraries.

Up to the outbreak of World War One, in addition to writing on themes already mentioned, he dealt with new questions such as anti-Semitism and inflation as well as articles on Finance Capital, Imperialism and national rivalries together with improved scholarly editions of Marx. His theories on imperialism, for over time his position changed, differed somewhat from that of Lenin. In particular he did not seem to believe that imperialism would drive to war, rather he saw it as a reactionary social phenomenon which appealed to the decaying class of the aristocracy and some marginal capitalist ones and was doomed. Only a fraction of the great mass of articles that he had written up to this point were translated into English and since many of the analyses were brilliant, even if he had much less to say on tactics, they deserve to be made available to a larger international audience as only through the medium of English can the largest number of people be reached today.

In 1914 the crisis struck and war was declared. At the meeting of the Reichstag caucus on 3 August 1914 which decided to vote for the war credits next day, Kautsky, not a member of the Reichstag himself, stated that the character of the war could not be determined, and therefore the right to defence of the fatherland had to apply to all countries involved in the war. He wanted the Party to demand from the government an assurance that it wanted no conquests, and if the government agreed the war credits should be approved, if not, not. This course of action was clearly utopian. He was utterly unprepared for the horror as he had increasingly tended to believe, as his pre-war theories of “Ultra Imperialism” suggest, that capitalism was sufficiently rational not to go to war. In June 1915, about ten months the war had began and when it had become obvious that this was going to be long sustained and appallingly costly struggle, he issued an appeal with Bernstein and Haase against the right and denounced the government’s annexationist aims. The SPD was dominated by its pro-war and Trade Union wing and tried to muzzle him so eventually Kautsky reluctantly split in 1917 and, together with Bernstein and Haase, joined the USPD as its right wing. In June 1917, after the first revolution in Russia he stated that this should lead to democracy but not to socialism since Russia was too undeveloped economically so Socialism would have to wait. In September 1917 the SPD dismissed him as editor of Die Neue Zeit. By this time he was becoming a more marginal figure as the “storm of the world” was crushing the SPD “centre” and strengthening the left of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The collapse of the Imperial state in 1918 through military defeat and immense working class privation threw up a real revolutionary situation for which he was quite unprepared theoretically.

Soon after the Bolshevik revolution he denounced, in the The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918), all attempts to bring socialism forcibly to backward societies like Russia but he served as under-secretary of State in the Foreign Office in the short lived SPD-USPD government revolutionary government and worked at finding documents which proved the war guilt of Imperial Germany (Die Deutschen dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch …, 1919, The Guilt of Wilhelm Hohenzollern, also 1919). In response to Lenin’s accusations of being a renegade he wrote Terrorism and Communism in 1919.

After 1919 he became steadily less important. He visited Georgia in 1920 and wrote a book in 1921 on this Social Democratic country still independent of Soviet Russia and in 1920, when the USPD split, with a minority of that party he went back into the SPD. At the age of 70 he moved back to Vienna with his family in 1924 where he remained until 1938. In that period he continued his scholarship on the letters of Engels and his criticisms of Soviet Russia seeing that country as doomed by its inherent backwardness. He wrote something on Fascism after 1933 but he was also critical of the workers rising against Dollfuss in Vienna in 1934 but published his views anonymously and thus wrote about the Nazis in 1934 that “we should guard against overestimating the superiority of Hitler’s power” and that when capitalist democracy is threatened “we do not in any way regard ourselves as driven to the necessity of answering the destruction of democracy by an armed insurrection.”

In 1938 he fled to Czechoslovakia at the time of Hitler’s Anschluss, and thence by plane to Amsterdam where he died in the same year. His memoirs, on which he was working were only completed up to 1883 and were published posthumously in 1960.


1881: State Socialism

1881: The Abolition of the State

1882: The Free Society

1887/1903: The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx

1888: Thomas More and his Utopia

1892: The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program)

1895: Our American Reports by F.A. Sorge

1896: Exchange on Historical Materialism – Debate with E. Belfort Bax

1897: Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

1899: The Hanover Congress

1899: Frederick Engels: His Life, His Work and His Writings

1899/1900: Autobiographical Sketch

1900: Germany, England and the World Policy

1900: Class War and Ethics

1901: Trade Unions and Socialism

1901: Bernstein’s old articles and new afflictions

1902: The Two Tendencies

1902: Socialist Agitation Among Farmers in America

1902: The Aims and Limitations of the Materialist Conception of History
        Part I. The Critics of the Theory
        Part II. The Historical Theory
        Part III. The Application of the Theory

1902: The Social Revolution and on the day After the Social Revolution

1902: Karl Kautsky. Autobiography

1903: The Aims and Limitations of the Materialist Conception of History

1903: The Intellectuals and the Workers

1903/04: Clericalism and the Socialist Attitude Thereto: A Symposium

1904: On the Problems of the Jewish Proletariat in England

1904: Saint Francis of Assisi – Revisionist of Medieval Communism

1904: To What Extent is the Communist Manifesto Obsolete?

1904: Wardour Street Economics (letter)

1905: Differences Among the Russian Socialists

1906: Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History

1906: Revolutions, Past and Present

1906: On socialism and trade unionism

1907: Anglo-German Relations

1907: Socialism and Colonial Policy

1908: Foundations of Christianity

1908: The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

1908: Practical Work in Parliament

1909: Must the Proletariat Degenerate?

1909: The Road to Power

1909: Sects or Class Parties

1909: Letter to Upton Sinclair, September 1909

1909: Letter to Upton Sinclair, December 1909

1910: England and Germany

1911: The Capitalist Class

1911: Finance-Capital and Crises

1911: Letters to Luttes des Classes

1911: War and Peace: Thoughts for the May Day Festival

1912: The Struggle of the Masses

1912: Capitalism in the Ancient World

1912: The First of May and the Struggle against Militarism

1912: Disarmament and Colonial Policy

1912: Victor Adler

1912: War And Revolution

1912: The “Intellectuals” and Party Principles

1912: Review of Algie Martin Simons’ Social Forces in American History

1912: Gold, Paper Currency and Commodity

1913: High Cost of Living: Changes in gold-production and the rise in prices

1914: Are the Jews A Race?

1914: Imperialism and the War

1914: Preparations for Peace

1914: Ultra-Imperialism

1917: The Russian Revolution

1918: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

1918: The Bolsheviki Rising

1918: Driving the Revolution Forward

1919: Terrorism and Communism

1919: Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme

1919: The National Constituent Assembly

1921: Georgia

1922: Ireland

1922: The Moscow Trial and the Bolsheviki

1922: War Guilt (letter)

1923: Methods of Peace-Making

1924: Epitaph of Lenin

1924: The League of Nations

1924: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany

1925: The Labour Revolution

1925: The Lessons of the October Experiment

1927: The Materialist Conception of History – Section Five: The Dialectic

1928: My Book on the Materialist Conception of History

1928: Nature and Society

1932: Communism and Socialism

1934: Hitlerism and Social-Democracy

1934: Marxism and Bolshevism – Democracy and Dictatorship

1946: Social Democracy versus Communism

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)