That Vladimir Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries of 1917 considered the Social-Democratic leader Karl Kautsky a pedant and a philistine is well known. Lenin pinpointed the reason for Kautsky’s post-1914 renegacy in his dilution of Marxian dialectics. “How is this monstrous distortion of Marxism by the pedant Kautsky to be explained…??” the Bolshevik asked rhetorically in a section of his 1918 polemic, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, “How Kautsky Turned Marx into a Common Liberal.” “As far as the philosophical roots of this phenomenon are concerned,” he answered, “it amounts to the substitution of eclecticism and sophistry for dialectics.” In another chapter, Lenin accused Kautsky of “pursuing a characteristically petty-bourgeois, philistine policy [типично мещанскую, филистерскую политику]” by backing the Mensheviks. Needless to say, Lenin’s immense respect for the so-called “Pope of Marxism” before the war had all but evaporated.
What is less well known, however, is that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared this appraisal of Kautsky. But this would only be revealed in 1932, several years after Lenin’s death, in extracts published from their correspondence. Engels confided to Eduard Bernstein in August 1881 that “Kautsky is an exceptionally good chap, but a born pedant and hairsplitter in whose hands complex questions are not made simple, but simple ones complex.” Marx, for his part, suspected that Engels’ fondness of Kautsky was due to his capacity to consume alcohol, as he recorded in a note to his daughter Jenny Longuet from April that same year:
[Johann Most, grandfather of legendary Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most,] has found a kindred spirit in Kautsky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even Engels takes a much more tolerant view of this joker [Kautz, punning on Kautz-ky] since the latter gave proof of his considerable drinking ability. When the charmer — the little joker [Kautz], I mean — first came to see me, the first question that rose to my lips was: Are you like your mother? “Not in the least!” he exclaimed, and silently I congratulated his mother. He’s a mediocrity, narrow in his outlook, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, although hard-working after a fashion, much concerned with statistics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a member of the philistine tribe. For the rest, a decent fellow in his own way; I unload him onto amigo Engels as much as I can.
Leon Trotsky was caught off-guard by the casuistry Kautsky displayed after 1914, remembering the praise he had showered on the Russian workers’ movement a decade or so earlier. “Kautsky’s reactionary-pedantic criticism [педантски-реакционная критика Каутского] must have come the more unexpectedly to those comrades who’d gone through the period of the first Russian revolution with their eyes open and read Kautsky’s articles of 1905-1906,” declared Trotsky in his preface to the 1919 reissue of Results and Prospects (1906). “At that time Kautsky (true, not without the beneficial influence of Rosa Luxemburg) fully understood and acknowledged that the Russian revolution could not terminate in a bourgeois-democratic republic but must inevitably lead to proletarian dictatorship, because of the level attained by the class struggle in the country itself and because of the entire international situation of capitalism… For decades Kautsky developed and upheld the ideas of social revolution. Now that it has become reality, Kautsky retreats before it in terror. He is horrified at Russian Soviet power and thus takes up a hostile attitude towards the mighty movement of the German communist proletariat.”
Trotsky underscored this point again thirteen years later in defending Luxemburg against the calumnies heaped upon her by Stalin. “Lenin considered Kautsky his teacher [when he wrote What is to be Done?] and stressed this everywhere he could. In Lenin’s work of that period and for a number of years following, one doesn’t find even a hit of criticism directed against the Bebel-Kautsky tendency. One rather finds a series of declarations to the effect that Bolshevism is not an independent tendency, merely a translation of the Bebel-Kautsky tendency into the language of Russian conditions. Here is what Lenin wrote in his famous pamphlet, Two Tactics, in the middle of 1905: ‘When and where have there been brought to light differences between me on the one hand and Bebel and Kautsky on the other? Complete unanimity of international revolutionary Social Democracy on all major questions of program and tactics is an incontrovertible fact.’ …But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there was a lapse of thirteen years, during which Luxemburg was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formal, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character.”
Just a decade or so after Trotsky penned these lines, Adorno wrote contemptuously in Minima Moralia of “the so-called heritage of socialism and the philistinism [Banausie] of the Bebels.” Franz Borkenau, a left communist also associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in exile, remarked upon the undue respect accorded to Kautsky and his ilk. Borkenau mentioned in this connection the disparaging statements made by Marx and Engels in private about their disciple. In Borkenau’s 1939 overview of World Communism, he wrote:
Admiration for Western Marxists played more than one trick on Lenin, which is remarkable given that his reverence was spent on men who, without exception, were his inferiors in every respect. Two cases are particularly interesting. One concerns Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov, the man who introduced Marxism in its original form to Russia. Plekhanov had published a number of studies on philosophy which, though one-sided, are probably superior to Lenin’s work [Borkenau is likely referring here to Materialism and Empiriocriticism, since the notebooks on Hegel were not widely known in the West]; as a politician, though, Plekhanov was of no account. He ended as an extreme partisan of Menshevism, openly fighting Lenin. Nevertheless Lenin retained a particular admiration for this man the rest of his life; after all, he had brought Marxism to Russia! But the case of Karl Kautsky, the official theoretical mouthpiece of German Marxism, is far more noteworthy. Anyone who takes the trouble to collect the quotations concerning Kautsky in Lenin’s prewar writings will soon be convinced that Lenin regarded this man as no less than an oracle. Kautsky, it is true, was the delight of that German Marxist left wing that so miserably collapsed in August 1914 and after. This was no reason for Lenin to admire him, yet he did. For Lenin believed as firmly in the German socialists as in Kautsky. The latter was a man timid and slow in politics, wooden and unoriginal in theory, true to the type of philistine who would appear a theoretician. A few mocking remarks about him survive in the correspondence of Marx and Engels. As to the German Socialist Party which Kautsky represented, Lenin trusted it so firmly that when, in 1914, he learned of their voting for the war credits he first believed it to be a forgery of the German Foreign Office.
Unfortunately, the letters Borkenau alludes to here (fully excerpted above) may have been the undoing of the great scholar David Riazanov. Riazanov was arrested on March 6, 1931, accused of conspiring with the Mensheviks against the dictatorship of the proletariat. His brilliant assistant at the Marx-Engels Institute, Isaak Rubin, a first-rate economic theorist, gave him up after enduring several weeks of torture. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Trotsky wrote incredulously about the charges leveled at Riazanov. On May Day, he published an article, “A New Slander against David Riazanov.” You can read it below.
May 1, 1931
The March 12 issue of Pravda published a note entitled “Marx on Karl Kautsky,” signed by the “Marx-Engels Institute.” This note subsequently was reproduced without comment by the world press of the Comintern. On the surface, the center of gravity of this note lay in the remarkable passage from a letter by Marx in 1881 which made a crushing characterization of Kautsky, a characterization which was later fully verified.
The publication of the note formally signed by the whole institute has, however, another aim — to besmirch the person who created and headed the Marx-Engels Institute. This is how the note concludes: “The original letter was turned over to Riazanov by the well-known Menshevik Lydia Zederbaum-Dan as long ago as 1925. Riazanov had carefully concealed the letter.”
During the Menshevik trial, Riazanov was publicly accused by the prosecutor of collaboration in the conspiracy against the dictatorship of the proletariat. A few months after this accusation, the whole world is now told of another crime committed by Riazanov. He had, it seems, into the bargain, concealed the quotation from Marx’s letter of 1881. Their need to advance such circumstances, all out of proportion to the first accusation, in order to strengthen their case against Comrade Riazanov shows that the Messrs. Accusers have an uneasy conscience. These people make their discoveries by adding rudeness to disloyalty, only to betray the fragility of their case.
We gave a hypothetical explanation at the time of how the accusation against Riazanov originated. Everything that has been written to us from Moscow about this fully confirms our suppositions. It is not difficult to reveal the mechanism of the supplementary accusation launched today by the same accusers under the pseudonym of the Marx-Engels Institute.
The “Menshevik Lydia Zederbaum” turned over Marx’s letter to Riazanov back in 1925. Why did she give it to him? As a token of Riazanov’s friendship with the Mensheviks and of their future collaboration in the conspiracy against the dictatorship of the proletariat? Not a word from the “institute” on this. The term “Menshevik” ought to shut the mouth of any who hesitate, especially since Riazanov “carefully concealed” the letter since 1925. Why did he conceal it? Obviously in order to safeguard the interests of Kautsky and world Menshevism. It is true that between 1925, when Riazanov entered into a conspiracy with the Mensheviks to conceal the historic document, and 1931, when he was involved in the conspiracy against the dictatorship of the proletariat, Riazanov published not a few documents and works which caused Menshevism considerable vexation. But to no avail. The readers of the Comintern press must be guided by the ancient formula of the devout: “I believe it no matter how absurd it is.”
Good, the reader will say, but what are the facts about the letter? Is it authentic? Did Riazanov really hide it? And if he did, why? A look at the quotation is enough to prove the authenticity of the letter: Marx cannot be falsified, even by Yaroslavsky in collaboration with Yagoda. On the question of the “concealment” of the letter, we can, again, only propose a hypothesis, whose likelihood, however, is guaranteed a hundred percent by all the circumstances of the case.
Riazanov could receive the letter only from those who had it. The management of the works of Engels had fallen into Bernstein’s hands by virtue of the same historical logic of the epigones which today permits Yaroslavsky to take charge of the works of Lenin. Riazanov displayed exceptional perseverance and ingenuity in gathering together the writings of Marx and Engels. Like the Lenin Institute, the Marx-Engels Institute bought numerous documents from the Mensheviks and through their intermediaries. For example, archives were bought by the Lenin Institute from Potresov. Without a doubt, the “Menshevik Lydia Zederbaum” did not simply turn over the letter to Riazanov but probably sold it to him as an intermediary for Bernstein or someone among the old men who had Marx’s letter. It is quite likely that with the sale of this letter, which draws a devastating picture of Kautsky, Bernstein or some other owner of the document from the same circle attached the condition that the letter not be published while Kautsky or the seller was alive. The rigorous manner in which Bernstein applied this kind of censorship over the correspondence of Marx and Engels is sufficiently well known. Comrade Riazanov had no alternative. In order to get possession of the letter, he was obliged to accept the condition imposed. Anyone else in his place would have done the same. Having accepted this condition, he naturally carried it out. Thanks to his extreme prudence and loyalty in all matters of this kind, Riazanov was able to secure from our adversaries precious material from the heritage of our classics.
We think it is now clear why Riazanov “concealed” the letter. Whoever knows Riazanov knows that he, more than anyone else, must have ached to publish his valuable find. But he waited for the proper moment to do it. By means of a raid, Marx’s letter was discovered in the possession of Riazanov. It was not only made public, thereby violating the agreement made by Riazanov, but it was then converted into proof against Riazanov. What should we call such a procedure? Let us call it by its right name: procedure à la Stalin.