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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Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche

Re­view: Mal­colm Bull,
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche (2011)

Im­age: Pho­to­graph of
Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche (1882)

On the Left’s re­cent anti-Ni­et­z­schean turn


[W]hat makes Ni­et­z­sche’s in­flu­ence so un/canny is that there has nev­er been ad­equate res­ist­ance from a real Left.

— Geoff Waite, Ni­et­z­sche’s Corps/e (1996)

Few thinkers have en­joyed such wide­spread ap­peal over the last forty years as Ni­et­z­sche.

— Peter Thomas, “Over­man and
the Com­mune” (2005)

Op­posed to every­one, Ni­et­z­sche has met with re­mark­ably little op­pos­i­tion.

— Mal­colm Bull, “Where is the
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche?” (2001)

If Ni­et­z­sche’s ar­gu­ments could be said to have gone un­chal­lenged dur­ing the second half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, as the above-cited au­thors sug­gest, the same can­not be said today. Be­gin­ning in the early 1990s, but then with in­creas­ing rapid­ity over the course of the last dec­ade, a dis­tinctly anti-Ni­et­z­schean con­sensus has formed — par­tic­u­larly on the Left. Re­cent years have wit­nessed a fresh spate of texts con­demning both Ni­et­z­sche and his thought as ir­re­deem­ably re­ac­tion­ary, and hence in­com­pat­ible with any sort of eman­cip­at­ory polit­ics. Nu­mer­ous au­thors have con­trib­uted to this shift in schol­arly opin­ion. To wit: Wil­li­am Alt­man, Fre­drick Ap­pel, Mal­colm Bull, Daniel Con­way, Bruce De­twiler, Don Dom­bow­sky, Ishay Landa, Domen­ico Los­urdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on.

Even a curs­ory glance at these writ­ings, however, suf­fices to re­veal some of the deep fis­sures that run between them. A great meth­od­o­lo­gic­al het­ero­gen­eity in­forms their re­spect­ive ap­proaches. Bull, for ex­ample, in­sists that to over­come the se­duct­ive qual­ity of Ni­et­z­sche’s ideas it is vi­tal not to read like him (“read­ing for vic­tory”);1 Alt­man seems to be­lieve, in­versely, that in or­der to un­der­mine his per­vas­ive in­flu­ence, it is ne­ces­sary to write like him.2 The con­tent of their cri­ti­cisms is far from uni­vocal, either. One com­mon thread that unites them is Ni­et­z­sche’s no­tori­ous hos­til­ity to mod­ern demo­crat­ic ideals, but even then the points of em­phas­is are ex­tremely di­ver­gent. While some crit­ics of Ni­et­z­sche prefer to re­main with­in the realm of polit­ics prop­er, oth­ers re­gister his op­pos­i­tion to demo­cracy at the level of eth­ics or aes­thet­ics. Dom­bow­sky falls in­to the former of these camps, seek­ing to trace out — through a series of elab­or­ate and im­pres­sion­ist­ic in­fer­ences re­gard­ing the au­thor’s read­ing habits, a kind of bib­li­o­graph­ic­al “con­nect the dots” — the secret of “Ni­et­z­sche’s Ma­chiavel­lian dis­ciple­ship.”3 Us­ing a more eth­ic­al frame­work, writers like Con­way rather look “to il­lu­min­ate the…mor­al con­tent of his polit­ic­al teach­ings.”4 Con­versely, in his book Ni­et­z­sche Con­tra Demo­cracy, Ap­pel loc­ates Ni­et­z­sche’s anti-demo­crat­ic im­pulse as emer­ging out of his con­cern with artist­ic prac­tices, in the con­stru­al of “polit­ics as aes­thet­ic activ­ity.”5

But whatever dif­fer­ences may ex­ist in their in­ter­pret­a­tion of the man and his thought, one thing is cer­tain: the tide has turned de­cis­ively against Ni­et­z­sche on the Left of late. Not that this is an en­tirely un­wel­come de­vel­op­ment. The vogue of French Ni­et­z­schean­ism, from Ba­taille and Deleuze down through Der­rida and Fou­cault, has been every bit as tire­some as its vul­gar anti-Ni­et­z­schean coun­ter­part. In light of the re­cent re­valu­ation of Ni­et­z­sche’s philo­sophy, however, we find ourselves com­pelled to ask wheth­er the anti-Ni­et­z­schean turn of the last few years truly sig­nals an end to the sway his ideas have held over the Left. Are we to be fi­nally dis­ab­used of his “per­ni­cious” in­flu­ence? Is this per­haps the twi­light of the ido­lo­clast? Continue reading