Ellis Hillman: Karl Kautsky, Heir of Marx and Engles?

Right up to the outbreak of the Great War Karl Kautsky was held generally to be the most prominent disciple and continuator of the ideas, theories and ‘method’ of Marx and Engels. Dick Geary, in a mini-biography of Kautsky (1854-1938) in a series entitled Lives of the Left published by Manchester University Press in 1987, has rendered a service in placing Karl Kautsky back in perspective. As editor of the internationally established journal Die Neue Zeit he became not only the most acclaimed of the popularisers of Marxist theory after the death of Engels in 1895, but its foremost theoretician. He combatted both the non-socialist (Max Weber) and ‘revisionist’ (Eduard Bernstein) critics of Marx on the right of German Social Democracy, and the libertarian critics on the left (such as Rosa Luxemburg).

With the outbreak of the Great War and his failure to live up to the expectations, hopes and fervently internationalist convictions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, his position as chief theoretician of Marxism was challenged. The outbreak of the October Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky further alienated Kautsky from the mass anti-war Left movement not only in Russia but in Germany itself.

Kautsky the ‘Renegade’
Lenin and Trotsky bitterly denounced Kautsky as a “renegade,” and the two wings of social democracy became increasingly irreconcilable. Dick Geary’s useful little work argues that Kautsky’s weakness has to be understood in the light of the special position which German Social Democracy had attained in Imperial Germany, and the powerful Darwinian influences both on Kautsky and the party’s leading theoreticians. It was this weakness which left Kautskyite theory ill-prepared for the revolutionary upheaval at the end of the First World War. His output was prodigious, ranging from The Social Revolution in 1909 – circulated by the SPGB before the First World War – to The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx (London 1925). Other substantial works such as Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Chicago 1918), The Foundations of Christianity (published in England in 1925) and Labour Revolution (1925), Thomas More and his Utopia (1927, reprinted New York 1959), The Class Struggle (New York 1971), and his Selected Political Writings, (edited by Patrick Goole, London, 1983), testify to the range of his output. It is quite conceivable that his total literary output was greater than that of Marx and Engels! It is indeed a pity that the main canon of his works is not readily or easily available, as are those of Marx and Engels in the never-ending series of their Collected Writings that seems to eclipse the Talmud in size, scale and width of subject-matter!

To this end a letter [*] has been sent, with the agreement of IC, to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow to see if it is possible to interest the guardians of the Marxist canon in publishing Kautsky’s works – or at least his pre-1914 works – on a scale which would,enable scholars to assess and re-examine his contribution to the development and evolution of Marxist ideology – both in its theoreticalā£ and its practical applications.

[*] We recently had the opportunity of speaking to Tatiana Pavlova, Soviet scholar of the English Revolution, at a reception to launch John Bellers: his Life, Times and Writings, edited by George Clarke. (Bellers is regarded as an important pre-Marxist thinker after the model of Gerrard Winstanley). We were able to ensure that a copy of our letter was taken directly to Moscow.

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J. M. Winter has written The Great War and the British People and Patrick Renshaw, reviewing it in the TLS (15 May 87) reports his finding that the figures given for British military casualties in the First World War are not reliable. Working backwards from an estimate of male mortality rates in peacetime Winter comes up with the figure of 722,785 military deaths against the official figure of 548,749.

We have long nursed a project for setting numbers of researchers to work on past forecasts – forecasts of population, traffic density, business activity, the standard of living, and so on – checking them against the events. It had not occurred to us that the authorities might be substantially wrong not only about the future but about something as factual as the number of deaths that actually occurred in a fairly recent war.

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.