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.”