Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

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The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.

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Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)
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The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

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Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading

German socialists assail U-Boat war

New York Times
August 21, 1916

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In view of the revival of activity of German submarines and reports of the renewal of agitation in German for the unlimited use of the submarine, regardless of the attitude of the United States and other neutral countries, interest attaches to the arrival in New York via Switzerland of copies of an anti-submarine and anti-government leaflet that has been secretly circulated by thousands throughout the German Empire.

This pamphlet was put out by a minority group of the Social Democratic Party of Germany [SPD] that has consistently opposed the war from the very beginning, and which is labeled the “International Group.” In this group are Dr. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Dr. Ernst Meyer, editor of the Berliner Vorwärts; Clara Zetkin, editor of Die Gleichheit; Franz Mehring, and Berta Thalheimer. At present Dr. Liebknecht is under sentence of thirty months in prison, and Rosa Luxemburg and Dr. Meyer are both under arrest.

Antiwar German socialists.

The leaflet, which is entitled “Submarine Warfare, ‘International Law,’ and International Murder,” and which started circulating some time ago — when the German press and parliament were clamoring for vengeance upon the British for the alleged murder of the members of a German submarine crew (known as the Baialong case) — reads as follows:

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Submarine warfare, “international law,” and international murder

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The German government has incurred a sharp rebuff and has humbled itself before the United States. But the provocatory agitation continues, and it is necessary that we clearly understand what may still happen.

Submarine warfare was intended to force England to come whimpering and begging for mercy, and thus bring the war to an end with a glorious victory for German imperialism. Because the German people were hungry, the politicians “holding out” persuaded the nation that the people of England should be forced to be still hungrier.

German U-Boats, 1913-1918.

War started by imperialists

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Crazy imperialist agitators in the government and the ruling classes had stupidly provoked the world war, in spite of the fact that this would lead the German masses to run the risk of being starved out. To the crime of international murder they added that of stupidity, for they knew — they must have known — that nowadays a war against France and Russia might last for years, and that if at the same time the neutrality of England were not assured all exports all exports to Germany would be cut off.

And when it really came to that, they began to shout bloody murder and assert that this constituted a violation of international law; that it was a crime against international law to expose a nation of 70,000,000 people to famine.

To this we may say: “In the first place the German government has forfeited every right of appeal to international law.” If [international law] is to be effective, then above all international treaties so solemnly entered upon must be binding. Such treaties guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. Despite this, Germany attacked Belgium and thus gave British imperialism the excuse to incite the British people to war against Germany. In the second place, the blockade carried on by England, the cutting off of all exports to Germany, is not contrary to the law of nations. On the contrary, the halting of exports to an enemy in order to make the struggle harder, or quite impossible, is a method of warfare that has always been recognized.

The sinking and raising of U-Boat 110.

How submarines failed

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In the spring of 1915 our braggarts were cracking jokes. England would not starve us out, but we should starve her out. That was to be done by the submarines. Such talk was foolishness then, and it remains so now. In order to cut off exports to England it would be necessary to watch all the coasts of all her islands, and to do that would require a hundred submarines for every dozen that Germany is able to build. And even then the outcome would be in doubt, for there are means of defense and protection against these boats, too. Continue reading