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.”

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MEGA [Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe] on MEGA

Back in the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist scholar David Riazanov began to compile a new, more complete edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He was, unfortunately, purged during the 1930s for supposed involvement in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Riazanov was thus unable to see this project through to the end. Nevertheless, he set the wheels in motion for future Marxologists and exegetes like Maximilien Rubel, Roman Rosdolski, and Michael Heinrich. Work on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] continues today.

Anyway, I recently happened across a trove of full-text PDFs of the MEGA stored on the New Zealand cloud service known as MEGA, appropriately enough. You can download the files as a .zip file by clicking here. Quietly amused that this arrived to me indirectly via a certain oversharing Francophile lefty editor type. Makes me wonder what all his posturing over “pirate scab PDFs” was really about.


Speaking of which, Budgen — Lars Ulrich of the online left — is apparently upset with me yet again. Class act that he is, Sebastian associated me with the disgusting rape advocate Roosh V. (an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and extreme misogynist) and the disgusting pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shrkeli (who jacked up the price of vital medicines once he’d secured exclusive rights over the drugs). If anyone resembles a douchebag who sells stuff he didn’t develop himself for obscenely inflated prices while monopolizing said product… you would think it was Budgen. Especially considering the company he keeps: people who make fun of others with physical deformities or who have a darker complexion on account of their ethnic background. Roosh V. and Simon Weston are reactionaries, to be sure, but that should hardly be seen as giving one license to make racist or ableist comments about them. Continue reading

Bolshevik antireligious propaganda, part II: Trotsky and the Red Army prepare to storm Heaven

Almost two years ago, I posted a fairly extensive collection of early Soviet antireligious propaganda from the 1920s and 1930s, along with some excerpts from Engels and Lenin on the necessity of atheist agitprop. Recently a comrade, Amber Frost (who is always brilliant), reblogged it for Dangerous Minds. This post today will serve to expand on the subject. It features some more rare images, part of a 1923 essay by Trotsky, as well as a few more of my own thoughts.

Obviously, there is very little original to say. So we begin, as ever, with the classics. Marx’s essential views on religion can be summed up in the following famous lines from the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

As Marx began to turn his studies away from the critique of German classical philosophy toward the critique of British political economy, he no longer concerned himself with lengthy diatribes against religion. This is not at all because he changed his mind about it; rather, he considered the issue more or less settled. In an 1879 interview he granted to the Chicago Tribune, Marx once again affirmed: “We know that violent measures against religion are nonsense. But this is an opinion: as socialism grows, religion will disappear. Its disappearance must be achieved by social development, in which education must play a part.” (Socialists today evidently do not share Marx’s conviction. With respect to the lengthier passage cited above, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin has stated in an interview: “Everyone completely misinterprets that Marx quote. It’s the conditions that, in Marx’s formulation, force people to turn to religion for solace in the first place that need to be combated. But even that is patronizing! I believe religion will always exist in some form. People are drawn to it for existential reasons.”)

For the leaders and theoreticians of the Second International, religious faith was rightly considered a private matter to be left up to personal conscience. One’s political conduct must of course be thoroughly atheistic, however, as this occurs within the broader realm of public affairs, where men are answerable to each other (and cannot be seen taking orders from on high). Sometimes socialists grant membership in the party to believers, sometimes for tactical reasons, but as a rule they preferred devout unbelievers. Countering the philistine notion that Marxism was in any way “compatible” with religion, Trotsky wrote in June 1923: “We will admit into our ranks those comrades who have yet to break with religion not in order to reconcile Marxism with Islam, but rather tactfully but persistently to free the backward members’ consciousnesses of superstition, which in its very essence is the mortal enemy of communism.”

Generally, however, Marxists prefer devout unbelievers. The goal is not always to “meet them where they’re at,” as the vulgar expression goes. Pannekoek explained in a 1907 text on “Socialism and Religion”: “In declaring that religion is a private matter, we do not mean to say that it is immaterial to us, what general conceptions our members hold. We prefer a thorough scientific understanding to an unscientific religious faith, but are convinced that the new conditions will of themselves alter the religious conceptions, and that religious or anti-religious propaganda by itself is unable to accomplish or prevent this.”

Rationalism does indeed tend to fall flat in the face of the objective irrationality of society. Science and education can pierce the enchanted circle of religious mysticism and superstition only to a point. Deeper desiderata remain undispelled because reality itself lies fractured. God is dead, as Nietzsche said, but something of Its shadow survives, much as the shadow of the Buddha livcd on, cast in a cave for centuries after the Siddhartha died. While Lenin would later call for a program of “militant atheism” in 1922, as part of a broader materialist initiative, he understood by this both direct propaganda against religious teachings and institutions as well as the indirect alleviation (or, better yet, annihilation) of those miserable social and economic conditions which give rise to religious ideology in the first place.

Trotsky’s piece, reproduced below, highlights precisely this “dialectical” character of Marxism’s struggle against religion. Enjoy!

Soviet antireligious poster

Antireligious propaganda

Leon Trotsky
Pravda [Truth]
July 22, 1924

Let us pause once again on the question of antireligious propaganda, as one of the most important tasks in the sphere of everyday life. Here too I quote from the thirteenth congress resolution. It is brief: “Considerable attention should be paid to propaganda promoting the natural sciences (antireligious propaganda).” I don’t remember whether this kind of formulation has been used before, putting antireligious propaganda in parenthesis after “propaganda promoting the natural sciences.” Even if it was, it has now been authoritatively confirmed. This constitutes a demand for a new and different approach to an old problem.

Under the beneficial influence of the impetus generated by your congress, by the very fact of its being called, I have been forced to look through a great deal of published material which ordinarily I would not have had time to review, in particular the satirical journal Bezbozhnik [Godless], where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists, a magazine which surely has its positive role to play within certain, primarily urban, circles, but which nevertheless is hardly following the right track in the struggle against religious superstitions. Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor[11] and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely. But if this was all we were doing, or if this was our main work, then I am afraid the duel would end up as a draw…

At any rate, it is perfectly evident and beyond dispute at the present time that we cannot place our antireligious propaganda on the level of a straightforward fight against God. That would not be sufficient for us. We supplant mysticism by materialism, broadening first of all the collective experience of the masses, heightening their active influence on society, widening the horizon of their positive knowledge, and  with this as our basis, we also deal blows at religious prejudice (wherever necessary).

The problem of religion has colossal significance and is most closely bound up with cultural work and with socialist construction. In his youth, Marx said: ” The criticism of religion is the basis of all other criticism. ” In what sense? In the sense that religion is a kind of fictitious knowledge of the universe. This fiction has two sources: the weakness of man before nature, and the incoherence of social relations. Fearing nature or ignoring it, being able to analyze social relations or ignoring them, man in society endeavored to meet his needs by creating fantastic images, endowing them with imaginary reality, and kneeling before his own creations. The basis of this creation lies in the practical need of man to orient himself, which in turn springs from the conditions of the struggle for existence.

Religion is an attempted adaptation to the surrounding environment in order successfully to meet the struggle for existence. In this adaptation there are practical and appropriate rules. But all this is bound up with myths, fantasies, superstitions, unreal knowledge.


Just as all development of culture is the accumulation of knowledge and skill, so is the criticism of religion the foundation for all other criticism. In order to pave the way for correct and real knowledge, it is necessary to remove fictitious knowledge. This is true, however, only when one considers the question as a whole. Historically, not only in individual cases, but also in the development of whole classes, real knowledge is bound up, in different forms and proportions, with religious prejudices. The struggle against a given religion or against religion in general, and against all forms of mythology and superstition, is usually successful only when the religious ideology conflicts with the needs of a given class in a new social environment. In other words, when the accumulation of knowledge and the need for knowledge do not fit into the frame of the unreal truths of religion, then one blow with a critical knife sometimes suffices, and the shell of religion drops off. Continue reading