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Lars Lih responds to: ‘Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’’?

May 28, 2016

I’m glad that Eric Blanc was inspired to make Kautsky’s article “Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’” better known. Eric’s introductory comments are certainly cogent – I especially liked the bit at the end about not condescending to these people. My comments below are some rather random musings on the issues brought up by the article, especially when put in the longer historical context that Eric brings out.

Is Kautsky’s article something innovative, something unexpected, or is it just an entirely predictable application of Kautsky’s basic view of the party expressed in earlier, more foundational writings? My answer is definitely: a predictable application.

Although he doesn’t present it explicitly in this particular article, the whole framework of this discussion is what I call the merger formula: “Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement” – from which we deduce, in the case analyzed by Kautsky: the small group with Marxist principles should merge with the large class-based worker party to form a single unit that features both the militancy of the fighting unions and the clear insight of the Marxists. And thus Kautsky sets up a whole series of binaries that arise out of this basic contrast.

For example, here’s one that I hadn’t quite realized before. I’ve often quoted Marx about combining “combination” (organization) and enlightenment, but I don’t think I took in that these two fundamental activities can each represent a branch of the fundamental dichotomy, as Kautsky says at one point here.

I read Kautsky’s document, historically, in a somewhat different, perhaps simply more ironic way than Eric. Up to about this time – 1909-1910 – people like Kautsky and Lenin assumed that the merger was a natural thing that had already occurred in some places, was occurring in other places, and would occur eventually in all places. But just at this time, doubt began to be thrown on the reality and perhaps even the possibility of the merger, even in those places where it seems most secure, i.e., Germany. “Revolutionary Social Democrats” (i.e., the non-“opportunist” left wing of Social Democracy) had always been rather good about what happened to the two parts outside the merger: reformism here, sectarianism there. But now, these outcomes began to seem like inevitable fate. Anyway, in Western Europe and the U.S., this separation became the long-term reality.

So, as Kautsky shows, Marx expected “revolutionary Social Democracy” (Marxist and mass) to arise in UK from the trade unions. He then comments: well, for a while, it looked like Marx’s hopes were falsified in the country that he based his whole analysis on – but now, as I write in 1909, we see that the prediction is coming true.

But what must we today think when we read this? The prediction never did come true! And today, people are faced with the task of advocating it, indeed, explaining why it’s desirable. Well and good, but can you, as Kautsky and Lenin did, have their confidence that this will happen?

In my view, the end of the era of classical Marxism – an era that included Marx, Kautsky and Lenin – came when one side gave up on revolution and the other side gave up on “bourgeois democracy,” loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham, but pointing out no other way to the desired merger.

Of course, Eric is aware of the breakdown of the merger at this period, but he frames it in a different way: he chides Kautsky and Lenin for their underestimation of “opportunism.”  Well, yes, they overlooked the extent of the cancer – but certainly they were aware that opportunism was a powerful presence, potentially fatal, they had analyzed its roots, etc. To put it another way, Lenin continued to operate with the prewar concept of opportunism found in Kautsky’s writings. When Eric talks as if it were simply a mistake on Lenin and Kautsky’s part, he seems to imply that if everything would have been much different, if only they had known!

Lenin’s solution, post-1914, was to kick out the opportunists, to create an opportunist-free party. His assumption was that in an era of war and revolution, there would be a mass impulse from below that would lead to the desired merger. But the era of war and revolution ebbed away, and Lenin was stuck with the same basic reality as everybody else: the merger wasn’t taking place in Europe and USA, and no one really knew how to make it take place – maybe, just maybe, because it couldn’t take place, and the original analysis was wrong.  Well, that is heresy, but I don’t think one can automatically assume, as Eric seems to here, that Lenin found the solution by demanding opportunist-free parties – the same problem just emerged in a different form.

Along this line, I think one should compare Kautsky’s advice here with Lenin’s rather similar advice – at least on the surface – to the UK communists in Left Wing Communism. I haven’t looked at what Lenin said in 1920 recently, but on reflection, I first decided that while Kautsky was talking about a friendly takeover, Lenin was talking about a hostile one.

But then I thought: well, just how friendly was Kautsky’s takeover? He says “we can imbue the British trade-union leaders with Marxist principles easier if we are seen as loyal to the organization” – but he also gives the Marxists the mission of removing bourgeois prejudices from the union leaders (that is, attacking opportunism!). Isn’t it likely – didn’t it indeed turn out this way – that at a certain point the leaders would indeed feel attacked (“you must become someone you’re not, or leave!”), or that the Marxists would have to choose between ideological principle or organizational loyalty—either sectarianism or what Eric calls “capitulation to the party bureaucracy”?

To sum up: can we really blame Kautsky for not solving a profound dilemma that ultimately Lenin did not solve and that we still face today?

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One Comment
  1. I appreciate this response on Kautsky’s article from someone who has shed a lot of light on German Social Democracy’s merger formula. I would like to throw a wind of caution, however, about the value of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism pamphlet.

    I would argue that the “Comintern Lenin” was a different political beast from the “Old Bolshevik Lenin,” the latter being the one most relevant about doubling down on the SPD model to particular conditions. When he stated “merging with the masses” or something to that effect, “Comintern Lenin” had a woefully corrupted version of the original merger formula in mind.

    The independent party-movement of the working class, if with an adequate socialist program, would already be the merger of socialism and the worker-class movement.

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