Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on.

Plakat der USPD zur Reichstagswahl am 6. Juni 1920

It is not our intention at this point to write a critique of Kautsky’s theory of revolution, the crowning thesis of which is the notorious notion of the coalition government as a transitional form between capitalism and socialism. We have been concerned only to demonstrate the method with which Kautsky “transcended” Bernstein’s fundamental tendencies — the struggle against dialectics in the theoretical domain and against “Blanquism” in the practice of the working-class movement. On the one hand he seemed to refute them, but on the other he turned their objective content into a permanent element of the theory and practice of the SPD. Bernstein was naïve enough to imagine that it was possible to turn a continental workers’ party quite openly into an ally of the bourgeoisie, that it was possible to talk a continental working class into believing that the age of peaceful democracy had arrived. Where Kautsky scores over Bernstein is in his apparent recognition of the revolutionary moments in the world situation, although, of course, he puts a theoretical construction on this recognition which — unintentionally — leads to the same ultimate consequences in practice as Bernstein’s approach. For instance, Kautsky sees quite clearly that democratic means are useful only within democracy, and that the struggle for democracy has to be waged with other means (op. cit., pg. 82). But since, on the one hand, he does not concretize what these “other” means should be, and since, on the other, he is concerned to attune the proletariat exclusively to the notion of the peaceful “proletarian” revolution, he arrives in practice at the same results as he would have done if he had decided to apply the democratic means exclusively and in all situations. With the difference, however, that he has meanwhile succeeded in diverting workers, who though instinctively revolutionary, do not yet think clearly, from the real problem: the power struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. It is this diversionary strategy: this deliberate attempt to prevent a clear and correct split between revolutionaries and reformists in the workers’ party, or — when a split has already become inevitable — the engineering of a false split. It is this which constitutes the historic mission of Karl Kautsky as the theoretical leader of the Centrists in the Second International. The Serbian, [Zivko] Topalovich, explains in a very characteristic essay the necessity of this sort of diversion for reformism. He agrees with Kautsky that in Western countries “only a modified form of class hegemony, but not a dictatorship, is possible” (Der Kampf, pg. 419). But

in Eastern Europe, in contrast to the West, the power of capitalism has increased, whereas the power and class situation of the proletariat has remained unchanged. Which is why the proletariat in the East does not grasp the new constructive rise to power of the rejuvenated West European proletariat. This blindness to the necessity of such development and its various stages drives it to look towards anarchism as a salvation for revolutionary socialism (ibid.).

He goes on to emit a sigh of nostalgia for “Vienna,” for the late lamented Two-and-a-Half International [or IWUSP].[2] “Those Western comrades who perhaps find these considerations petty should bear in mind that we have to do battle, not merely with our immature bourgeoisie, but also and especially with an immature working class, which is more susceptible than its Western counterpart to those forms of demagogy which appeal to the basest instincts” (ibid., p· 421).

This antithesis between “east” and “west” is by no means a merely geographical distinction (although Kautsky himself also represented it in this way; cf. the remarks in his piece on Liebknecht-Luxemburg-Jogiches about the “English” and “Russian” types of working-class movements). Even in the West it can happen that the proletariat is not sufficiently “schooled” to be able to realize properly the Kautskyan ideal of the pure proletarian revolution, where the struggles to gain political power (as Kautsky sees it!) are waged “by great organizations which have existed for decades, rich in experiences, fully schooled, with carefully thought-out programs and leaders who are as renowned as they are experienced” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, pg. 77). In those cases where a conflict does arise in this respect, Kautsky exploits this self-same antithesis tactically or historically. Tactically, for instance, in the debate with Rosa Luxemburg on the question of the mass strike. Unlike the unsubtle and outspoken trade union leaders he did not directly oppose the mass strike movement, nor did he reject the mass strike out of hand; he merely offered a “strategy of attrition” as an alternative to what he called the “strategy of violent overthrow” propagated by Rosa Luxemburg (Neue Zeit, XXVIII, 2). The most fatal historical consequences of this approach manifested themselves at the decisive moments of the World War, in the theory according to which imperialism is not a necessary stage of capitalist development but a more or less “chance” episode of development as a whole. Consequently, this theory maintains, it is as mistaken to fight  imperialism from a revolutionary position (Luxemburg-Lenin) as it is to support it (Cunow-Lensch). The fight should be for peace, for the establishment of the normal preconditions of the proletarian revolution. Even today, ten years after the outbreak of the war, Helene Bauer — who has learned nothing from history — is still preaching the same gospel according to Kautsky. ‘It is not imperialistic war as a salvation from total collapse, but much rather monopolistic domination of the world by what Kautsky calls international “ultra-imperialism” and Hilferding a “general cartel”, which is latent in the imminent economic tendencies of capital. But of course it can also be forced in the direction of war through the power of the pre-capitalist factors…” (Der Kampf, pg. 389). The inevitable practical consequence of this perspective is that those sections of the proletariat which are instinctively too revolutionary to give their support to Cunow and company but are not able to grasp the situation properly and draw the correct conclusions, turn into an ‘appendage’ of western democracy. The one-sided emphasis on German-Austrian war “guilt” also serves this twofold purpose: diversion from the real central issue for revolutionaries (imperialism and civil war) on the one hand, blind allegiance to “western democracy” on the other (cf. Friedrich Adler’s essay in Der Kampf). No, it is certainly no coincidence that Bernstein and Kautsky came together in the World War and that they have remained “almost invariably at one with each other ever since.”


This is why, in my view, Kautsky is historically important. Lenin’s greatness consisted in consciously shaping the unity of the proletarian movement from a consistently revolutionary standpointremoving those elements antagonistic to the revolution and seeking an alliance with all objectively revolutionary forces. Kautsky, on the other hand, has been utterly consistent in attempting at all times to blur theoretically the decisive problems of revolutionhe was never prepared to sacrifice organizational unity with the reformists for a single moment, and he was always willing to pay any price to preserve that unity. Hence, even as early as the first split in the Russian party he was bound to support Martov against Lenin. The jubilee issue of Der Kampf has published a very typical letter of his on precisely this question. He writes:

Should every party member be forced to join the secret organization? Or, to put it another way, should the scope of the party be limited to match that of the secret organization? German Social Democracy was faced with the same question at the time of the Emergency Law; its answer was no. It does not serve our cause to admit to the party only those elements capable of organizing themselves secretly. Nor does it serve our cause to take all those who support it into the secret organization. A secret organization should not grow beyond certain minimal limits if it is to remain viable and undetected. We have no cause to expand it beyond those limits (at a given place), and they are determined by practical considerations. The expansion of the party, on the other hand, should know no limits (pg. 471).

This passage illustrates Kautsky’s basic idea only too clearly. His prefatory remarks to the effect that he has “never been an organizer in the practical sense” and therefore is “none too competent” in this matter merely reinforces our view; namely, that Kautsky sees the question of organization purely from a technical-cum-mechanical point of view. Just as he conceives of the bourgeois revolution as “purely elemental” and the proletarian revolution as “organized” (in the sense of a rigid organization of big-wigs); just as he never seriously examines the dialectical interrelationship between spontaneity and organization (i.e. in the final analysis: between class and party); so, too, he regards the entire historical process. He, the “orthodox” pupil of Marx, consciously rejects the very crux of the Marxist method: the inner, dialectical connection between all “spheres” or “fields” which, viewed in the reified terms of bourgeois thinking, necessarily appear as separate and independent of one another. The most typical example of this is the rigid separation of economics and politics in The Proletarian Revolution and its ProgramHowever, it is precisely this turning away from dialectics (again, a triumph for Bernstein!) which enables him to fulfill his historic mission. Which is: to cling to the entire vocabulary of the Marxist method and yet to derive conclusions from it which amount objectively to the elimination of the class struggle and to the cooperation between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Objectively, then, it was Bernstein who was victorious in the struggle between Kautsky and himself. But his triumph was possible only in the form of victory for Kautsky. Only Kautsky’s theory could manage to transform the substance of Bernstein’s reformism into the theory of a large part of the working class.

The most valuable thing about these laudatory pieces is that they bring this connection very clearly — albeit unintentionally — into the open. They enable every thinking worker to appreciate how correct Lenin was to see in the Centrists and in their theoretician, Kautsky, the most dangerous enemies of the revolutionary proletariat, and how correct he was to fight them. Apart from that, they consist — with very few exceptions — of more or less diligent examinations of single issues or short articles on Gandhi, Freud, Spann, and other topics of “current interest.”


1 This review appeared in Die Internationale, VII/21-22, 1924 (ed.). The essays in honor of Kautsky appeared as follows: Die Gesellschaft, Special number with contributions by Max Adler, Boudin, Chernov, Bernstein, Stampfer; Der Kampf, XVII, 10-11, Special number with contributions by Ellenbogen, Helene Bauer, Friedrich Adler, Abramovich, Bracke, Hillquit; Der lebendige Marxismus, Jubilee issue in honor of Karl Kautsky’s 70th birthday (Jena); Die Volkswirtschaftslehre der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen [Self-portraits by Economic Theorists of the Present], vol. I, articles by Bernstein, Diehl, Herkner, Kautsky, Liefmann, Pesch, Julius Wolf (Leipzig).
[2] The International Union of Socialist Parties, usually referred to as the Vienna Union or the Two-and-a-half International, was founded at a conference held in Vienna from 22 to 27 February 1921. The impetus leading to its foundation had come from the Swiss Socialist Party and the English Independent Labour Party. It claimed a following of 10 million members and included, in addition to those mentioned, the Austrian and French Socialist Parties, the right wing of the German Independent Socialist Party (the ‘left having merged with the Communist Party), the Russian Mensheviks and a number of smaller groups, who had left the Second International, but were reluctant to join the Third. However, after The Hague conference of December 1922, the Second International and the Vienna Union agreed on fusion. The Tactical Theses of the Third Congress of the Third International claimed that the Two-and-a-half International was “trying to hover between democracy and proletarian dictatorship. In fact it is helping the capitalist class in every country by encouraging a spirit of irresolution among the working class” (Degras, op. cit., pp. 209-10 and 256).

7 thoughts on “Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

    • It doesn’t seem hysterical at all. Vanguardism has led to sectarianism; democratic centralism has led to the belief in all-knowing leader, and both has led to the abandonment of real world political practice which has led many organisations on the left towards theoretical hallucinations . What Is To Be Done, has been abused to the point where it nolonger inspires socialists to do their own thing according to the social conditions they’re dealing with, but to aspire to be a carbon copy, or a franchise of an entity that was specific to Lenin’s time & the social conditions in Russia.

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