|Cover of Russian first edition (1918)|
In this short book, Lenin deals directly, in polemic, against Karl Kautsky. Kautsky had been a leading Marxist for several decades, heading up the German SPD and Lenin had looked to him for most of his life as a revolutionary. Kautsky's conversion to supporting the German capitalism was a great shock to Lenin. This polemic though is a response, not to Kautsky's initial betrayals, but to his later attacks and criticisms of the Russian Revolution.
There is too little time for me to rehearse the history of the Russian Revolution here. Suffice to say this book will remain mostly incomprehensible if you haven't read some history of that momentous point in working class history. Amongst the things that Lenin takes Kautsky to task for is the belief from Kautsky that the revolution in Russia was premature. Like many of the pre-war Marxists, Kautsky (and indeed Lenin) had argued that the coming revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois one. One that would create a capitalist state like those in Western Europe. Russia's economy, and in particular its working class were too immature to lead a successful revolution. Kautsky's criticism is based on this mechanical interpretation of events.
Lenin and Trotsky had argued two things. That the revolution against the capitalists and their government in Russia could lead to the workers taking control, so long as the peasantry was on their side. Secondly, they argued that a successful Russian Revolution could only survive if followed by a European wide insurrection. Kautsky criticises this, asking "what if it did not happen?" To this Lenin points out, that the "expectation of a revolutionary situation in Europe was not an infatuation of the Bolsheviks, but the general opinion of all Marxists". To betray the revolutionary opportunity would have been a betrayal of revolutionary principles.
Kautsky supports his argument with what Lenin refers to as many "liberal" arguments. The declaration of the dictatorship of the Proletariat is undemocratic, that with a majority of support and vote of the population there should be no need for the new workers state to protect itself against the capitalists. These were hollow words for Lenin, who was in a country assailed by the forces of the capitalists. Lenin rehearses the basic Marxist arguments of the role of the state - an instrument for the oppression of one class by another. The nascent workers state, Lenin says was as much in need of defending itself against external threats as the capitalists needed to protect their interests from the workers and the mass of the population.
Lenin argues that Kautsky's position on this is the crux of his abandonment of Marxism.
"Infatuated with the 'purity' pf democracy, blind to its bourgeois character, he 'consistently' urges that the majority, since it is the majority, need not 'break down the resistance' of the minority... Kautsky inadvertently commits the same little error that all bourgeois democrats always commit, namely he takes formal equality... for actual equality. Quite a trifle."
As Lenin then points out this trifle is a failure to understand the most basic of Marxist ideas, namely that "the exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal." As a result of this abandonment of his politics, Lenin explains that Kautsky spent the war years, trying to "extinguish the revolutionary spirit, instead of fostering and fanning it."
Kautsky's betrayal of Marxism was an enormous shock to the workers movement. In this book Lenin argues against Kautsky's new positions, and defends the revolution, in particular challenging Kautsky's criticisms of the disolution of the Constituent Assembly and the agrarian policies carried out by the Soviets. His defence of soviet power as a higher form of democracy is based on a re-reading and reassertion of many of Karl Marx's core ideas. In particular Marx and Engels' writings on the Paris Commune, and specifically, Marx's book The Civil War in France. This reassertion of Marx and the defence of the revolution, in the midst of the revolution itself is what makes this book so powerful and interesting.
The only thing that is lacking in the book is an attempt at an explanation of why so many great Marxists and their organisations capitulated to capitalism. In his excellent book The Comintern Duncan Hallas argues that the parties like the SPD in Germany that Kautsky led, had managed to gain a foothold inside the system. Their bureaucracies, their MPs, their organisations gave them a significant inertia and interest in maintaining the status quo. For them to break with Marxism in practice, meant, Hallas says a return to illegal, under-ground work. For many of the leaders, whose Marxism was limited to speeches on May Day, there was much more "to lose than their chains". This stake in the system, combined with a bastardisation of revolutionary politics, began to undermine the desire for genuine revolutionary change. Rosa Luxemburg in particular had before the war broke out, fought a hard fight against such reformism from one of the SPD's leading members.
The book itself has no conclusion. Lenin notes at the end of the last chapter, that his last few lines were written on the same night that news reached Russia of the seizure of power in numerous German towns, including the capital by Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. For Lenin this in itself was the final rebuttal of Kautsky's politics and offered new hope for the Russia Revolution itself. Sadly this was a false dawn, but this neglected book of Lenin's remains a powerful declaration of the hopes of the revolution and a defence of the revolution itself.
Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky - full text from the Lenin Public Archive here.
Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1
Cliff - Revolution Besieged
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Marx - The Civil War in France