Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’?

 

 

Karl Kautsky

 

By Eric Blanc

 

May 25, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from JohnRiddell.wordpress.com -- The question of broad parties has been heatedly debated by socialists in recent years. Many have argued that “Leninism” should be discarded in favor of wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc. Others have rejected participating in such structures, on the “Leninist” grounds that building independent revolutionary Marxist parties remains the strategic organizational task for socialists.

 

Intertwined with this debate has been a serious reassessment of “Leninism” itself. Particularly following the publication of Lars Lih’s monumental Lenin Rediscovered, big questions are being asked: Did Lenin break in theory and/or practice with the “orthodox” strategy articulated by Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky? Were the Bolsheviks, in other words, a “party of a new type”?

 

Unfortunately, the debate up until now has overlooked one of Kautsky’s most revealing works on revolutionary party-building, his 1909 “Sects or class parties”. The article deserves a wide audience, as it clarifies the strategy of the early revolutionary Kautsky (i.e. before his post-1909 capitulation to the German party bureaucracy) and because it insightfully challenges problematic political orientations that have become hegemonic among socialists today.

 

Kautsky polemicizes against what he considers to be two false strategies manifest in the debate concerning the 1908 affiliation of the British Labour Party to the Second International. On the one hand, various reformists painted the broadly amorphous Labour Party as a positive alternative to explicitly Marxist parties. No less mistaken, in Kautsky’s view, was the sectarian attempt by the British Social Democratic Party (SDP) to directly build a Marxist party in Britain outside of the Labour Party. Kautsky’s piece set out to show why there was no need to counterpose the project of building independent mass workers’ parties and strictly Marxist parties. The first, he argued, should be seen as step towards the latter.

 

One of the most significant aspects of “Sects or Class Parties?” is that it shatters the often-repeated myth that Kautsky sought to build (as a recent article by Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins in International Socialism asserts) a “party of the whole class” founded upon “unity in the sense of breadth rather than unity in the sense of ideological cohesiveness.” If ever there was an example of such a party it was British Labour – yet Kautsky emphatically argues that attempts to export this model to countries with mass Marxist parties would be “merely an attempt to crush out an already existing higher form, by a more reactionary party.” Kautsky clearly advocates a party based on “definite Marxian Socialism, the theory of the proletarian class struggle as deduced from the study of capitalist society.” According to Kautsky’s conception, workers needed an independent party; this party should be committed in theory and practice to revolutionary Marxism; and if it wasn’t yet a firmly Marxist party then the role of revolutionaries was to push to transform it into one.

 

(Lenin, it should be noted, shared this “orthodox” orientation both in regards to Russia and Britain. Agreeing with the 1908 decision to admit British Labour into the Second International, the Bolshevik leader argued that the Labour Party “represents the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.”)

 

Given that British Labour was headed by parliamentary and union leaders tied to the Liberals and bourgeois ideology, Kautsky made the very “Leninist” case that a distinct revolutionary organization was needed:

 

The peculiarity of England consists in the fact that the conditions there render it necessary for the Marxists to form a separate, solid organisation, which in countries where mass parties, with a Social-Democratic – i.e., Marxist – programme exist, would be superfluous. … Only by means of the most energetic Marxist propaganda amongst the masses, and the most determined criticism of the errors and entanglements of the leaders, can the [Labour] party be made into a powerful and trustworthy organ, in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

 

Kautsky criticized British revolutionaries not because they sought to build a strictly Marxist party, but rather because their abstentionist refusal to participate in the British Labour Party precluded them from achieving this goal in practice. Self-proclaiming a Marxist party was insufficient, as the distinct conditions in different countries obliged flexible tactics towards effectively building mass revolutionary parties.

 

In hindsight, the problem with Kautsky’s approach was not that he advocated a mistaken party model (“the party of the whole class”), but that he, like Lenin, underestimated the extent to which the bureaucratization of programmatically Marxist parties such as the German SPD made them in practice analogous to British Labour. One could argue that the tragedy of the Second International’s revolutionary left was that the “Leninist” strategy Kautsky advocated for Britain – i.e. the organization of a distinct revolutionary Marxist current aiming to overcome reformism within the mass socialist parties – was not replicated on the Continent as well. Only after the labor bureaucracies’ historic betrayals in 1914 did Lenin and (eventually) Rosa Luxemburg accordingly adjust their organizational strategies for the West.

 

Notwithstanding this and other weaknesses in Kautsky’s text – not least of which was a serious underestimation of mass action – it seems to me that the general strategic orientation put forward remains if anything more relevant today than it was in 1909. While the absence of a mass Marxist party in Britain was exceptional at the time, today it has become the norm.

 

Unfortunately, the two orientations criticized by Kautsky – both of which counterposed the building of broad parties and Marxist parties – have become hegemonic. In fact, the positions against which Kautsky polemicized in 1909 in some ways were more advanced than their current articulations. Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party). In turn, the sectarian British S.D.P. – against which Kautsky polemicized for believing it could transform itself directly into a mass party – had roughly 13,000 members, whereas today’s advocates of its same approach often number in the dozens or hundreds.

 

Experience over the past decades would seem to demonstrate that while non-Marxist broad parties cannot effectively transcend capitalism, projects of building Marxist parties will likely flounder if they are divorced from wider efforts to promote a mass political representation of and for the working-class majority. Socialists today might do well to rediscover Kautsky’s forgotten 1909 contribution and to reconsider its strategic conclusion:

 

It is not a question as to whether we prefer a small resolute Social-Democratic Party to a big class party with no definite programme … A Socialist organisation of the S.D.P. type is as insufficient by itself as the Labour Party. We must encourage both.

 

Eric Blanc is an activist and historian based in Oakland, California. For the text of the Kautsky article discussed here, seeKarl Kautsky: Sects or class parties”.

Comments

Lars Lih responds to: ‘Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’’?

https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/lars-lih-responds-to-did-ka...

I’m glad that Eric Blanc was inspired to make Kautsky’s article “Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’” better known. Eric’s introductory comments are certainly cogent – I especially liked the bit at the end about not condescending to these people. My comments below are some rather random musings on the issues brought up by the article, especially when put in the longer historical context that Eric brings out.

Is Kautsky’s article something innovative, something unexpected, or is it just an entirely predictable application of Kautsky’s basic view of the party expressed in earlier, more foundational writings? My answer is definitely: a predictable application.

Although he doesn’t present it explicitly in this particular article, the whole framework of this discussion is what I call the merger formula: “Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement” – from which we deduce, in the case analyzed by Kautsky: the small group with Marxist principles should merge with the large class-based worker party to form a single unit that features both the militancy of the fighting unions and the clear insight of the Marxists. And thus Kautsky sets up a whole series of binaries that arise out of this basic contrast.

For example, here’s one that I hadn’t quite realized before. I’ve often quoted Marx about combining “combination” (organization) and enlightenment, but I don’t think I took in that these two fundamental activities can each represent a branch of the fundamental dichotomy, as Kautsky says at one point here.

I read Kautsky’s document, historically, in a somewhat different, perhaps simply more ironic way than Eric. Up to about this time – 1909-1910 – people like Kautsky and Lenin assumed that the merger was a natural thing that had already occurred in some places, was occurring in other places, and would occur eventually in all places. But just at this time, doubt began to be thrown on the reality and perhaps even the possibility of the merger, even in those places where it seems most secure, i.e., Germany. “Revolutionary Social Democrats” (i.e., the non-“opportunist” left wing of Social Democracy) had always been rather good about what happened to the two parts outside the merger: reformism here, sectarianism there. But now, these outcomes began to seem like inevitable fate. Anyway, in Western Europe and the U.S., this separation became the long-term reality.

So, as Kautsky shows, Marx expected “revolutionary Social Democracy” (Marxist and mass) to arise in UK from the trade unions. He then comments: well, for a while, it looked like Marx’s hopes were falsified in the country that he based his whole analysis on – but now, as I write in 1909, we see that the prediction is coming true.

But what must we today think when we read this? The prediction never did come true! And today, people are faced with the task of advocating it, indeed, explaining why it’s desirable. Well and good, but can you, as Kautsky and Lenin did, have their confidence that this will happen?

In my view, the end of the era of classical Marxism – an era that included Marx, Kautsky and Lenin – came when one side gave up on revolution and the other side gave up on “bourgeois democracy,” loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham, but pointing out no other way to the desired merger.

Of course, Eric is aware of the breakdown of the merger at this period, but he frames it in a different way: he chides Kautsky and Lenin for their underestimation of “opportunism.” Well, yes, they overlooked the extent of the cancer – but certainly they were aware that opportunism was a powerful presence, potentially fatal, they had analyzed its roots, etc. To put it another way, Lenin continued to operate with the prewar concept of opportunism found in Kautsky’s writings. When Eric talks as if it were simply a mistake on Lenin and Kautsky’s part, he seems to imply that if everything would have been much different, if only they had known!

Lenin’s solution, post-1914, was to kick out the opportunists, to create an opportunist-free party. His assumption was that in an era of war and revolution, there would be a mass impulse from below that would lead to the desired merger. But the era of war and revolution ebbed away, and Lenin was stuck with the same basic reality as everybody else: the merger wasn’t taking place in Europe and USA, and no one really knew how to make it take place – maybe, just maybe, because it couldn’t take place, and the original analysis was wrong. Well, that is heresy, but I don’t think one can automatically assume, as Eric seems to here, that Lenin found the solution by demanding opportunist-free parties – the same problem just emerged in a different form.

Along this line, I think one should compare Kautsky’s advice here with Lenin’s rather similar advice – at least on the surface – to the UK communists in Left Wing Communism. I haven’t looked at what Lenin said in 1920 recently, but on reflection, I first decided that while Kautsky was talking about a friendly takeover, Lenin was talking about a hostile one.

But then I thought: well, just how friendly was Kautsky’s takeover? He says “we can imbue the British trade-union leaders with Marxist principles easier if we are seen as loyal to the organization” – but he also gives the Marxists the mission of removing bourgeois prejudices from the union leaders (that is, attacking opportunism!). Isn’t it likely – didn’t it indeed turn out this way – that at a certain point the leaders would indeed feel attacked (“you must become someone you’re not, or leave!”), or that the Marxists would have to choose between ideological principle or organizational loyalty—either sectarianism or what Eric calls “capitulation to the party bureaucracy”?

To sum up: can we really blame Kautsky for not solving a profound dilemma that ultimately Lenin did not solve and that we still face today?

Wider formations and broad parties

Eric Blanc’s opposition of ‘Leninism’ to “wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc.” indicates that, whatever the merits of the article to follow, he may be misunderstanding the whole decade-or-more strategic debate. On the one hand the characterisation – albeit with quotation marks – of one side as “Leninism”, when many on both sides consider themselves to be students of the authentic Lenin. A minor quibble. But then he categorises the other side within the same bracket as "wider formations" which were never radical to begin with: the British Labour Party, the Greens (in Ireland anyway). Or which have left, or threaten to leave, the radical ground they once stood on (Syriza and Podemos). A glance at the literature of the ‘broad party’ protagonists (for instance ‘New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe’ – Bensaid etc., Resistance Books, London 2011) will show the parties of interest to the ‘broad party’ side to be, or to have been, radical left formations, or pluralist parties with radical left currents, such as New Anti-capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) and the Parti de Gauche in France, the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) in Denmark, Respect in Britain, The Left (Die Linke) in Germany, the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) in Portugal, Izquierda Unida (Spain), the Socialist Alliance (Australia),the Scottish Socialist Party and RISE (Scotland)and the United Left Alliance (Ireland). And, yes and especially, the pre-capitulation Syriza (and earlier the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in Italy). Podemos still, of course, with reservations.

Kautsky, Blanc and Lih: my contribution to a disc on “Leninism"

Karl Kautsky, Eric Blanc and Lars Lih: my contribution to a discussion on “Leninism”

by Louis Proyect

https://louisproyect.org/2016/06/05/karl-kautsky-eric-blanc-and-lars-lih...

Exchanges between Eric Blanc and Lars Lih on John Riddell’s blog over Kautsky’s 1909 article ‘Sects or class parties’ leave me a bit perplexed since they seem to be somewhat removed from the problems we face today in building an effective revolutionary movement.

In recommending Kautsky’s article, Eric writes:

The question of broad parties has been heatedly debated by socialists in recent years. Many have argued that “Leninism” should be discarded in favor of wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc. Others have rejected participating in such structures, on the “Leninist” grounds that building independent revolutionary Marxist parties remains the strategic organizational task for socialists.

I imagine that Eric is not referring to the Labour Party per se but to the Corbyn campaign that has reawakened interest in a party that was widely despised by the left during the Tony Blair reign as New Labour.

In terms of “Leninist” opposition to Syriza, Podemos and the Greens—formations that the North Star website and I personally have endorsed—my view is that revolutionary parties based on Marxism are still necessary but attempts to construct them have failed because their “program” has been so narrowly defined. This was especially true of those that were affiliated with the various Fourth Internationals but Maoism of the 60s and 70s as well.

Despite the massive disaffection that the Marxist left experienced with Syriza over Alexis Tsipras’s capitulation to the German bankers, I doubt that a self-declared revolutionary party can be built in Greece that is based on the “lessons of Greece”. Trotsky’s movement had plenty of failures to “learn” from in the 1930s but that never translated into effective revolutionary parties. The negative critique can only go so far. At a certain point, Marxists have to develop an aptitude for uniting broad layers of both workers and the social movements to make a revolution. As such, I find the Cuban July 26th movement or the FSLN and FMLN in Central America more immediately applicable. For those who write off the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan experience because they too became Syriza type failures, I can only invite them to reach the point where they are capable of betrayal themselves. To reach such a level takes considerable mastery of strategy and tactics. Writing a communique in the style of Coyoacan does not require much mastery. The Spartacist League comes up with them like clockwork, after all.

When Eric tries to connect Kautsky’s article to our contemporary situation, I have some problems understanding the relevance:

Unfortunately, the two orientations criticized by Kautsky – both of which counterposed the building of broad parties and Marxist parties – have become hegemonic. In fact, the positions against which Kautsky polemicized in 1909 in some ways were more advanced than their current articulations. Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party).

There is a fundamental methodological problem with this statement. Socialists do not “promote” cross-class populist formations, as far as I know. Assuming that Eric is referring to the American Green Party, Syriza, or Podemos, I am simply not aware of any significant bourgeois constituency in any of them nor does the term populist do them justice. I would call them radical parties even if they are not organized around a specifically socialist program. A strict class analysis would certainly identify Jill Stein’s party as made up predominantly of wage earners such as Howie Hawkins, who works in a warehouse. Jill Stein is a physician, hardly what I’d call a member of the bourgeoisie.

I am not familiar enough with the class composition of Syriza or Podemos to resist arguments to the contrary, but I am fairly confident that at the upper levels of the party you will find university professors, lawyers and shopkeepers et al. Like I say, I am open to an alternative class analysis but facile descriptions of such parties as “cross-class” trouble me.

Some critics, of course, fault Syriza for being top-heavy with university professors and there is no doubt that its class composition would have corresponded more to Marxist guidelines if the KKE had at least formed a united electoral front with it. Given the KKE’s super-sectarian stance, however, that possibility was precluded at the outset. Furthermore, it is not clear if having a purer class composition would have made much difference given the alignment of class forces facing Tsipras. Sometimes the objective conditions trump the “subjective factor”.

Turning to Kautsky’s article itself, it draws a distinction between his own party and a small Marxist group in Britain called the Social Democratic Federation that sought to emulate his, just as Lenin aspired to in Russia. In 1909 the German social democracy was the gold standard even if in 5 years it would prove to be a victim of the reformism that swamped every other party in Europe. Kautsky believed the British Labour Party was the kernel of the future revolutionary party and considered the attempt to build a pure Marxist party to be a sectarian mistake.

If it was a sectarian mistake, it was a very honorable one. Its membership included Belfort Bax, William Morris, Edward Aveling and his partner Eleanor Marx. Not too shabby. Bax in particular was an exemplary anti-imperialist whose critique of Eduard Bernstein’s “Marxist” defense of colonialism was as important as Rosa Luxemburg's in defending revolutionary politics.

Kautsky faulted the SDF for abstaining from the trade union movement and considered the Labour Party to be the future of the revolutionary movement even if its program did not specify socialist goals. He did give credit to the SDF for promoting socialist ideas that undoubtedly seeped into the ranks of the Labour Party:

The striving, therefore, for the organisation of an independent mass and class party is not sufficient. No less important is the socialist enlightenment. If the SDF failed in the former task, it achieved all the more in the domain of the latter. By its socialist agitation it prepared the soil upon which the Labour Party could arise, and the socialist criticism and propaganda which it still pursues is indispensable even now, when the Labour Party already exists, in order to imbue that party with a socialist spirit and to bring its actions for occasional and partial ends into accord with the lasting aims of the struggle of the proletariat for its complete emancipation.

Lih’s contribution to the discussion is a bit sketchy on the details, something that bothers me about much of his analysis especially when it falls outside his usual scholarly concentration on early Bolshevik history. The further he moves forward in history, the less focused it gets. For example, he writes:

Lenin’s solution, post-1914, was to kick out the opportunists, to create an opportunist-free party. His assumption was that in an era of war and revolution, there would be a mass impulse from below that would lead to the desired merger [between socialism and the mass workers movement]. But the era of war and revolution ebbed away, and Lenin was stuck with the same basic reality as everybody else: the merger wasn’t taking place in Europe and USA, and no one really knew how to make it take place – maybe, just maybe, because it couldn’t take place, and the original analysis was wrong. Well, that is heresy, but I don’t think one can automatically assume, as Eric seems to here, that Lenin found the solution by demanding opportunist-free parties – the same problem just emerged in a different form.

Did the era of war and revolution ebb away? Certainly World War One came to an end but Germany was roiled by revolutionary struggles for much of the 1920s, with their termination was not so much a function of class peace but the failure of the “subjective factor” across the board starting with Comintern meddling in the early 20s and crashing to earth with the CP’s “third period” madness.

When Hitler seized power in 1932, the revolutionary wave continued in France, Spain and elsewhere. Opportunities were squandered when the CP lurched 180 degrees away from the “third period” and toward the Popular Front that sought partnership with reformist capitalist parties. When revolutionary movements failed because of ineptitude, it opened the doors to WWII and a new round of barbarism.

Lih writes:

In my view, the end of the era of classical Marxism – an era that included Marx, Kautsky and Lenin – came when one side gave up on revolution and the other side gave up on “bourgeois democracy,” loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham, but pointing out no other way to the desired merger.

This is an interesting formulation but one that unfortunately errs badly in the information-disclosing department. Classical Marxism means nothing but applying a class analysis to bourgeois society--at least to me. For example, Jacobin, Socialist Register, Monthly Review and Historical Materialism all dispense classical Marxism to one extent or another.

Perhaps Lars has a different definition—I only wish he could furnish it when convenient. I have no idea what side “gave up on revolution” unless Lih was referring to Eduard Bernstein and his disciples, especially in the Scandinavian countries. If so, that seems problematic since Bernstein would have been the first to admit that he had no use of classical Marxism to begin with.

As for “loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham”, that would also exclude Karl Marx and Frederick Engels since they were partisans of the 1848 democratic revolutions—so much so that the Neue Rheinische Zeitung edited by Marx was one of its major voices. For more on their belief in the importance of political freedom under bourgeois conditions, I refer you to the scholarship of August Nimtz. Now there are self-described Marxists who sneer at the demands for political freedom under bourgeois conditions as a plot hatched by George Soros but I am not one of them. In fact, most of them would be willing to tell you that I am a secret operative for Soros even though my bank account would falsify that claim.

To conclude, I am not sure how much we can glean from Kautsky’s 1909 article about what is to be done today. I can tell you that a North Star editorial board member has been deeply involved in a debate in the Green Party for the need for an anti-capitalist program but I doubt that Kautsky’s article would be of much use to him.

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