Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky

16 October 1854
Died17 October 1938(1938-10-17) (aged 84)
Alma materUniversity of Vienna
(m. 1890)
SchoolOrthodox Marxism
Main interests
Political philosophy, politics, economics, history
Notable ideas
Evolutionary epistemology, social instinct, active adaption, hyperimperialism

Karl Johann Kautsky (/ˈktski/; German: [ˈkaʊtski]; 16 October 1854 – 17 October 1938) was a Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theorist. A leading theorist of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Second International, Kautsky advocated orthodox Marxism, which emphasized the scientific, materialist, and determinist character of Karl Marx's work. This interpretation dominated European Marxism for two decades, from the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Born in Prague, Kautsky studied at the University of Vienna. In 1875, he joined the Social Democratic Party of Austria, and from 1883 founded and edited the influential socialist journal Die Neue Zeit. From 1885 to 1890, he lived in London, where he worked with Engels. In Germany, he became active in the SPD and wrote the theory section of the party's Erfurt Program (1891), which became a major influence on other European socialist parties. He briefly left in 1917 to join the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) because of his opposition to the increasing collaboration of the SPD with the war effort, but rejoined in 1922. By the 1930s, his influence and involvement in politics was dwindling, and he died in Amsterdam in 1938.

Kautsky's interpretation of Marxism held that history could not be "hurried", and that politically workers and workers' parties must wait for the material economic conditions for a socialist revolution to be met. Under his influence, the SPD adopted a gradualist approach, taking advantage of bourgeois parliamentary democracy to improve the lives of workers until capitalism was brought down by its internal contradictions. His positions led to disputes with other leading Marxists, including Eduard Bernstein, who favored a reformist approach; Rosa Luxemburg, who advocated revolutionary spontaneity; and Vladimir Lenin, who Kautsky believed had initiated a premature socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and led the Soviet Union toward a dictatorship.

Life and career

Early years

Karl Kautsky was born in Prague of an artistic and middle class family – his parents were Johann Kautsky, a Czech scenic designer, and Wilhelmine “Minna” Kautsky (née Jaich), an Austrian actress and writer of Czech descent. The family moved to Vienna when Kautsky was the age of seven. He studied history, philosophy and economics at the University of Vienna from 1874, and became a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) in 1875. Shortly afterwards he published his first contributions in the German socialist journals Der Volksstaat and Vorwärts and to the Austrian journals Gleichheit and Der Sozialist.[1]

In 1880 he joined a group of German socialists in Zürich who were supported financially by Karl Höchberg, and who smuggled socialist material into Germany at the time of the Anti-Socialist Laws (1878–1890).

Political career

In 1883, Kautsky founded the monthly Die Neue Zeit ("The New Times") in Stuttgart, which became a weekly in 1890. He edited the magazine until September 1917: this gave him a steady income and allowed him to propagate Marxism.[2] From 1885 to 1890 he spent time in London, where he became a close friend of Friedrich Engels. His position as a prominent Marxist theorist was assured in 1888, when Engels put him to the task of editing Marx's three-volume work Theories of Surplus Value.[3] In 1891 he co-authored the Erfurt Program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) together with August Bebel and Eduard Bernstein.

Following the death of Engels in 1895, Kautsky became one of the most important and influential theoreticians of Marxism, representing the mainstream of the party together with August Bebel, and outlining a Marxist theory of imperialism. When Bernstein attacked the traditional Marxist position of the necessity for revolution in the late 1890s, 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.

Wartime years

In 1914, when the German Social-Democrat deputies in the Reichstag voted for war credits, Kautsky (who was not a deputy but attended their meetings) suggested abstaining. Kautsky claimed that Germany was waging a defensive war against the threat of Czarist Russia. However, in June 1915, about ten months after the war had begun and when it had become obvious that this was going to be a sustained, appallingly brutal and costly struggle, he issued an appeal with Eduard Bernstein and Hugo Haase against the pro-war leaders of the SPD and denounced the German government's annexationist aims. In 1917 he left the SPD for the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) with united socialists who opposed the war.

After the November Revolution in Germany, Kautsky served as under-secretary of State in the Foreign Office in the short-lived SPD-USPD revolutionary government and worked at finding documents which disproved the alleged war guilt of Imperial Germany.

Post-war years

Kautsky with the Georgian Social-Democrats, Tbilisi, 1920.
In the first row: S. Devdariani, Noe Ramishvili, Noe Zhordania, Kautsky and his wife Luise, Silibistro Jibladze, Razhden Arsenidze;
in the second row: Kautsky's secretary Paul Olberg, Victor Tevzaia, K. Gvarjaladze, Konstantine Sabakhtarashvili, S. Tevzadze, Avtandil Urushadze, R. Tsintsabadze
Kautsky's opening broadside against the revolutionary violence of the Russian Revolution, Die Diktatur des Proletariats (The Dictatorship of the Proletariat), first published in Vienna in 1918.

In 1920, when the USPD split, he went with a minority of that party back into the SPD. He visited Georgia in 1920 and wrote a book on the Democratic Republic of Georgia that at that moment was still independent of Bolshevist Russia. By the time it was published in 1921, Georgia had been thoroughly influenced by the Russian Civil War, the Red Army had invaded Georgia, and the Bolsheviks had imposed the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. By that point, Kautsky considered the Soviet Union to have become an imperialist state, due to the destructiveness of the invasion of Georgia, and the minimal political role that the actual proletariat had in Soviet Russia.[4]

Kautsky assisted in the creation of the party program adopted in Heidelberg (1925) by the German Social Democratic Party. In 1924, at the age of 70, he moved back to Vienna with his family, and remained there until 1938. At the time of Hitler's Anschluss, he fled to Czechoslovakia and thence by plane to Amsterdam, where he died in the same year.

Karl Kautsky lived in Berlin-Friedenau for many years; his wife, Luise Kautsky, became a close friend of Rosa Luxemburg, who also lived in Friedenau. A commemorative plaque marks where Kautsky lived at Saarstraße 14.

Vladimir Lenin described Kautsky as a "renegade" in his pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky; Kautsky in turn castigated Lenin in his 1934 work Marxism and Bolshevism: Democracy and Dictatorship:

The Bolsheviki 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 Czarist dictatorship.[5]

A collection of excerpts of Kautsky's writings, Social Democracy vs. Communism, discussed Bolshevist rule in Russia. He saw the Bolsheviks (or Communists) as a conspiratorial organization that had gained power by a coup and initiated revolutionary changes for which there was no economic rationale in Russia. Instead, a bureaucracy-dominated society developed, the miseries of which outweighed the problems of Western capitalism, he argued. He stated:

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 Piatiletka, people rapidly perished. Soviet films, of course, did not show this.[6]

Death and legacy

Kautsky died on 17 October 1938, in Amsterdam. His son, Benedikt Kautsky [de], spent seven years in concentration camps; his wife, Luise Kautsky, was murdered in Auschwitz.[7]

Kautsky is notable for, in addition to his anti-Bolshevik polemics, his editing and publication of Marx's Capital, Volume IV (usually published as Theories of Surplus Value).

Works in English

See also


  1. ^ Steenson 1991, pp. 30–31; Blumenberg 1960, pp. 19–20
  2. ^ Gary P Steenson. ""Not One Man! Not One Penny!" German Social Democracy, 1863-1914". Archived from the original on 18 May 2008. Retrieved 2007-07-27.
  3. ^ Blackledge, Paul (July 2006). "Karl Kautsky and Marxist Historiography". Science & Society. 70 (3): 338. doi:10.1521/siso.70.3.337. JSTOR 40404839.
  4. ^ Kautsky, Karl (1921). "XIII The Moscow Bonapartism". Georgia. Archived from the original on 2021-06-10. Retrieved 2021-06-10 – via Marxists Internet Archive.
  5. ^ Kautsky, Karl (1934). "Marxism and Bolshevism". Marxists. Archived from the original on 2021-08-13. Retrieved 2020-04-15.
  6. ^ Kautsky, Karl. "Is Soviet Russia A Socialist State?". Social Democracy vs. Communism. Archived from the original on 2014-04-26. Retrieved 2015-11-07.
  7. ^ Callinicos, A. Social Theory: a historical introduction.


Further reading

Primary sources