Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

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.

A new slander against David Riazan­ov

Le­on Trot­sky
The Militant
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.

4 thoughts on “Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

  1. In an article recalling his visits to Marx, Kautsky mentioned the publication of that Marx-letter to Jenny (written after his first visit):

    Considering the circumstances, the first visit went well and in any case Kautsky visited Marx several times more after that.

    My latest translation of Kautsky: a review of Bebel’s book on Islam:

    btw, it seems that some of the Kautsky photos are again viewable online at the IISH, eg:

  2. “The moment of formal split with the open and disguised Kautskians, or the moment of their expulsion from the ranks of the working-class party, is, of course, to be determined by considerations of usefulness from the point of view of circumstances; but all the policy of real Communists must turn in that direction. That is why it seems to me that this book is still not out of date, to my great regret, if not as an author, at any rate as a Communist.
    June 17, 1920”
    The above, the penultimate sentence from Trotsky’s vicious polemic against Kautsky in “A Reply to Karl Kautsky on Terrorism and Communism”

    Here Trotsky refers to “considerations of usefulness from the point of view of circumstances” when discussing the split from and expulsion of the Kautskians from the ranks of the working-class party. Replace “Kautskians” with the “left opposition” and can we not then honestly consider whether or not the polemical grounds for Stalin’s rise to power and the terrorism he carried out can be found in Trotsky’s own words – insofar as they were later directed by Stalin at the masses of a country and party exhausted by their revolutionary struggles with many of the best and brightest of the party cadre having fought and died while serving in the Red Army? And all this as cause and effect, effect and cause through the actions of the Comintern of the failure of further revolutions in the West as admitted by Trotsky himself, but which possibility he refused to fully entertain.

  3. A (partial) translation of the article by Kautsky that I mentioned (on his visits to Marx), can be found (pp. 153–6) in ‘Karl Marx, interviews and recollections’, David McLellan (ed.) 1981.

    On Kautsky’s ‘Terrorism and Communism’, it’s interesting that still just a few months before (in early 1919) there was a plan to send a study commission to Russia, of which Kautsky was to be a part.

    “In the midst of the preparations for the [first Comintern] conference, a rumour spread that a delegation of Western Socialists, led by Karl Kautsky was coming to Russia. This created a sensation. Lenin had just completed his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, and had handed me the manuscript for translation into German.” […]

    footnote: “When asked by the author of these lines why this trip was cancelled, Kautsky replied: ‘I can’t exactly recall the pretext, but the real reason was that a Western Socialist did not want to know the truth about the events in Russia.’”

  4. >his fel­low re­volu­tion­ar­ies of 1917

    Nice term for his buch of “Communist-State”-terrorists and terror regime.
    Who murdered in the following years and decade ca. 25% of the russian population.

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