Karl Kautsky

From New World Encyclopedia

Karl Kautsky (October 16, 1854 - October 17, 1938) was a leading theoretician of German Social Democracy before World War I and a principal figure in the history of the Internationalist Socialist movement. He became a significant figure in Marxist history as the editor of the fourth volume of Karl Marx's economic critique of capitalism, Das Kapital, and was the leading promulgator of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels.

He became an important critic of the anti-democratic tendencies of the Russian Revolution of 1917, drawing the ire of Vladimir Lenin, who dubbed him the "renegade Kautsky" in his famous political tract, "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky."

In 1908, Kautsky published Foundations of Christianity, in which he argued that Christianity emerged from a group of proletarian revolutionaries battling the imperial policies of Rome.


Karl Kautsky was born in Prague of artistic, middle class Jewish parents. His father, Johann Kautsky, was a painter and his mother, Minna Jaich Kautsky, a successful novelist and actress. The family moved to Vienna when he was seven years old where he attended the elite Vienna Gymnasium (Grammar School.) While studying history and philosophy at the University of Vienna, Kautsky became a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) in 1875. His first marriage with Louise Strasser ended in 1889 with a divorce. Louise became Friedrich Engels' housekeeper, which led to a temporary distance between Kautsky and Engels. In 1890 he went back to Vienna 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. Louise became his collaborator, publicist, translator, editor, and archivist and the mother of their three sons. The Kautskys were genuinely internationalist in their lifestyle and orientation. At home and in their correspondence they led a "salon" receiving visitors from all over the world.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Kautsky was regarded as an authority on the strategy and tactics of social democracy. The Kautskys lived much of their life in Berlin-Friedenau. Louise Kautsky was a close friend of Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who also lived in Friedenau, and today there is a commemorative plaque where Kautsky lived at Saarstraße 14.


In 1880, Kautsky moved to Zurich, where he joined a group of German socialists who smuggled socialist material into the Reich at the time of the Anti-Socialist Laws. This group was supported financially by millionaire Karl Höchberg. Influenced by Höchberg's secretary, Eduard Bernstein, Kautsky became a Marxist and Hochberg subsidized Kautsky's study of socialist scholarship. In 1881, Kautsky visited Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in England.

In 1883, Kautsky founded the monthly Die Neue Zeit ("The New Time") in Stuttgart, which became a weekly in 1890; he was its editor until September 1917—which gave him a steady income and allowed him to propagate Marxism.[1] From 1885-1888, Kautsky lived in London, where he established a close personal relationship with Engels and furthered his theoretical studies by visiting the British Museum library.

The German Social Democratic Party was an illegal party for many years until 1890, when Kaiser William II dropped the anti-socialist laws. In 1891, the Social Democrats set forth their program at a congress at Erfurt, Germany. Kautsky co-authored the Erfurt Program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) together with August Bebel and Eduard Bernstein.[2] The Erfurt program was strongly Marxist and revolutionary in tone, but encouraged its members to work through existing political institutions. The Erfurt program remained the official program of the party throughout the imperial period.

Following the death of Engels in 1895, Kautsky became one of the most important and influential theoreticians of Marxism, representing the center of the party together with August Bebel. The radical left wing of the party held strictly to Marx's economic teachings but rejected orthodox political tactics in favor of more immediately revolutionary doctrines. In the later 1890s, when Bernstein attacked the traditional Marxist position on the necessity for revolution, Kautsky denounced him, arguing that Bernstein's emphasis on the ethical foundations of socialism opened the road to a call for an alliance with the "progressive" bourgeoisie and a non-class approach.

Break with the Social Democrats

Kautsky broke with the majority of the Social Democrats during World War I. Bebel's death in 1913 severely undermined Kautsky's influence in the party, while his opposition to the war eventually brought an end to his affiliation with the SPD. In 1914, when the German Social-Democrat deputies in the Reichstag voted for the war credits, Kautsky, who was not a deputy but attended their meetings, had suggested abstaining. In June 1915, about ten months after the war had begun, Kautsky issued an appeal with Eduard Bernstein and Hugo Haase against the pro-war leaders of the SPD and denounced the government's annexationist aims. In 1917, convinced of the war guilt of Germany and Austria, he left the SPD for the pacifist Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which united Socialists who opposed the war. This move cost Kautsky the editorship of Die neue Zeit.

Upon the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kautsky hailed the rise of the proletariat to power. He soon became skeptical, however, that the circumstances in Russia were truly amenable to establishing a Marxist state, particularly since three-fourths of the nation lived in the backward countryside while the urban areas were undergoing rapid industrialization, giving the ruling class a substantial advantage in resources and skill. Kautsky believed that in a society dominated by large-scale modern industry the existing bourgeoisie structures should be "corrected" by coming under the control of the parliament and consumers—but not a super-centralized state authority. Kautsky also believed that nationalization of the means of production was not equal to socialism. He saw the Russian revolution as creating a third form of society, distinct from capitalism or socialism, in which a "new class" minority would impose a rule over the majority even more oppressive than the bourgeois.

When the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly and abolished universal suffrage, Kautsky accused the new Russian government of being a dictatorship. Kautsky argued to replace the "dictatorship of the proletariat" with the "domination" of the working class in a regime founded on three elements: a consensus in favor of socialism; maintenance of political democracy; and the use of parliament for socialist purposes and the construction of a system of organs of rank-and-file democracy capable of lending the state and the central power a popular foundation.[3] Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin regarded Kautksy as a "renegade" who had made a complete break with Marxism, as he outlined in his pamphlet titled "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky," which he wrote in October and November 1918.

After 1919, Kautsky's prominence steadily diminished. He visited Georgia in 1920 and wrote a book in 1921 on this Social Democratic country still independent of Bolshevist Russia. In 1920, when the USPD split, he went with a minority of that party back into the SPD. At the age of 70 in 1924, he moved back to Vienna with his family where he remained until 1938. At the time of Hitler's Anschluss, he fled to Czechoslovakia and then by plane to Amsterdam where he died in the same year.


Kautsky played a major role in German Social Democracy and the Second International, and was one of the leading exponents of Marxism from its state of germination with Marx and Engels until its fulfillment in the Russian revolution (a revolution of which Kautsky nevertheless did not approve). Despite his prominence and influence, he has been considered a lesser figure to his contemporaries in the Marxist pantheon. This is due in no small part to the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the success of which contrasted with Kautsky's long-held view that the domination of the proletariat would be accomplished via free elections, respect for civil and political liberty, and achieve socialist objectives through a parliamentary system of a centrally administered bureaucratic government. Kautsky saw the Soviet state as a tyrannical political system of an unrestrained centralized bureaucracy. Subsequent revisionists viewed Kautsky as an "evolutionist" rather than a true Marxist. Despite Lenin's disparaging tract, Kautsky's work, The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, was so influential that it was still used at the Moscow Lenin School in 1931 as by far the best treatment of the subject.

The "renegade" Kautsky would later have the opportunity to castigate Lenin in his 1934 work, Marxism and Bolshevism: Democracy and Dictatorship:

The Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership, however, succeeded in capturing control of the armed forces in Petrograd and later in Moscow and thus laid the foundation for a new dictatorship in place of the old Tsarist dictatorship.[4]

His work, Social Democracy vs. Communism[5] treated Bolshevik rule in Russia. In Kautsky's view, the Bolsheviks (or, Communists) had been a conspiratorial organization, which gained power by a coup d'etat and initiated revolutionary changes for which there were no economic preconditions in Russia. Instead, a bureaucratic society developed, the misery of which eclipsed the problems of Western capitalism. The attempts (undertaken first by Lenin and then by Stalin) to build a working and affluent socialist society failed. He became one of the few Marxists willing to speak out against the Soviet regime in the name of the working class.

Foreign tourists in Russia stand in silent amazement before the gigantic enterprises created there, as they stand before the pyramids, for example. Only seldom does the thought occur to them what enslavement, what lowering of human self-esteem was connected with the construction of those gigantic establishments.

They extracted the means for the creation of material productive forces by destroying the most essential productive force of all–the laboring man. In the terrible conditions created by the Piataletka [five year plan], people rapidly perished. Soviet films, of course, did not show this (ch. 6, Is Soviet Russia A Socialist State?).

In 1938, Kautsky and his wife Louise deposited their enormous written archives at the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands.

Major works

  • Frederick Engels: His Life, His Work and His Writings (1887)
  • The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx (1887/1903)
  • Thomas More and his Utopia (1888)
  • The Class Struggle (1892)
  • On The Agrarian Question (1899)
  • The Social Revolution and on the day After the Social Revolution (1902)
  • Foundations of Christianity (1908)
  • The Road to Power (1909)
  • Are the Jews a Race? (1914)
  • The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918)
  • Terrorism and Communism (1919)
  • The Labour Revolution (1924)


  1. Goucher, Gary P Steenson.
  2. William E Bohn (trans.), The Class Struggle (erfurt program), by Karl Kautsky, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 20.
  3. Massimo Salvadore, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution (Verso Modern Classic Series, 1990, ISBN 086091528X).
  4. Marxists.org, Marxism and Bolshevism: Democracy and Dictatorship. Retrieved December 20, 2008.
  5. Marxists.org, Social Democracy versus Communism Retrieved December 20, 2008.

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External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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