Lars T. Lih- Lenin and Kautsky: The Final Chapter

This is a talk given by Lars T Lih which has been taken from the Socialist Democracy website. In a previous interview with CS back in December Lih stated that ” [Karl]Kautsky’s positive influence on Lenin does not end even in 1914″. This speech explains why he thinks so.

Lenin and Kautsky: The final chapter


TODAY I would like to bring to your attention the results of some recent research I have carried out on the topic of Lenin’s relation to Karl Kautsky in the last decade of Lenin’s life, that is, from 1914 to 1924. I will first explain the question I wanted to answer, then describe the way I set out to answer it, and finally summarize the answer I came up with.

Who was Karl Kautsky? From Engels’ death in 1895 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was the most influential Marxist theorist in the world. He was not the official theoretician of the Second International or even the German Social Democratic Party, and he often took a critical or even oppositional attitude to official decisions. He was rather the spokesman of the German party’s Marxist wing and the most influential voice of the party “radicals” until around 1910, when a split developed among the radicals.

Karl Kautsky, Pope of Marxism, Renegade, or both?

Karl Kautsky: "Pope of Marxism", "Renegade", or both?

What was Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky? Up to 1909, it was extremely admiring and intense.(1) From 1910 to 1914, Lenin’s attitude became much more wary. After 1914, when Kautsky took a centrist position on the war and refused to split with the majority leadership, Lenin’s attitude became extremely negative, and remained so until the end.

The question arises, how did Lenin after 1914 regard his own earlier admiration for Kautsky? When you change your mind radically about some person or thing, you enter into a period of cognitive dissonance between your present beliefs and your earlier beliefs. There are two different ways to reduce the tension that arises from having two very divergent opinions about the same object. In the case before us, Lenin could decide:

a. Kautsky has changed, that is: Kautsky is now acting a way totally different from the way he acted before. In other words, Kautsky is a renegade.

b. I have changed, that is: I, Lenin, now realize that I was wrong, that my earlier admiration was a mistake. In other words, the scale has fallen from Lenin’s eyes.

These are the two possibilities. Which description of Lenin’s post-1914 attitude is supported by the evidence? Before telling you, I would like to respond to two questions that might have occurred to you. Why is this issue of any interest? Why isn’t the answer obvious?

Why is this issue of any interest?

The main reason for seeking to resolve this issue is that Lenin’s post-1914 attitude toward Kautsky throws some needed light on the larger question of Lenin’s relation to earlier Marxism and to the Second International. Was Lenin an original Marxist theorist who broke with the earlier orthodoxy represented by “Kautskyism”? Or (a somewhat different question) did he ever present himself as such? More specifically, is there a profound gulf between the “mechanistic,” “passive,” and “fatalist” Marxism of Kautsky and the dialectical, activist, revolutionary Marxism of Lenin? The existence of such a gulf is a central assertion of a very influential school of thought that goes back at least to Georg Lukács in 1924.(2)

Lenin: Still influenced by Kautsky after 1914?

Lenin: Still influenced by Kautsky after 1914?

Adherents of this line of thought have criticized my recent study of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, and I confess this criticism was one motive for undertaking the necessary research. My book shows the very strong connections between Lenin’s outlook in 1894–1904 and Kautsky’s authoritative statements (connections which go way beyond the Kautsky citation in What Is to Be Done? so often discussed). Critics who see a gulf between Kautsky and Lenin claim that Lenin’s outlook had already started to diverge fundamentally from “Kautskyism” by 1902. Faced with the abundant evidence that, before the war, Lenin himself insisted on the complete compatibility of his outlook and that of Kautsky, they argue that the break between them was an “unconscious” or “semi-conscious” one. In other words, the break existed, but Lenin himself was not yet aware of it. I responded by posing a dilemma: if this divergence actually existed, either Lenin (one of Kautsky’s most diligent readers) did not understand what he was reading, or Lenin did not understand his own thought.(3)

Several critics responded somewhat as follows: “Look, we all know that Lenin broke decisively with Kautsky in 1914 and we all know that this break led to a root-and-branch rejection of Kautskyism in general. So why is Lih making such heavy weather about the alleged logical difficulties of the earlier situation, when the paths of the two men began to diverge even though Lenin was not yet fully aware of the fact? Lih’s exclusive focus on this earlier period has caused him to ‘bend the stick’ too far in his emphasis on the similarity of the two men’s outlook. By overlooking the later break, he fundamentally distorts the Lenin-Kautsky relationship.”(4)

These critics are justified in challenging me on this point, since I said nothing in my book about Lenin’s later relation to Kautsky. It remains to be seen whether I can meet this challenge.

Why isn’t the answer obvious?

But why is special research needed to dig out the evidence on this question? Lenin’s post-1914 corpus is easily available. Besides, a quick look at the material seems to decide the question, for three reasons:

a. Lenin wrote a lot about Kautsky after 1914. One whole book, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, is specifically devoted to Kautsky-bashing, with the effect, I am told, that some on the hereditary Left grew up thinking Kautsky’s first name was Renegade. Almost all of what Lenin has to say on the subject is an obsessively negative attack on “the most outstanding authority in the Second International, [who] has revealed himself as a first-class hypocrite and a virtuoso in the art of prostituting Marxism.”(5)

b. Lenin denounces not only Kautsky, but something he calls “Kautskyism.” For example, in 1920 he writes, “It is therefore no accident that, throughout the world, Kautskyists [kautskiantsy] are in practical political terms now united with extreme opportunists (through the Second or the yellow International) and with bourgeois governments (through coalition bourgeois governments with participation by socialists).”(6)

c. In State and Revolution (1917), Lenin specifically criticizes some prewar writings by Kautsky that he, Lenin, had previously admired greatly (Social Revolution of 1902 and Road to Power of 1909).

For most readers, these observations settle the question. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, all three observations, while true, are misleading:

a. If we sift out, from the general mass of Lenin’s post-1914 references to Kautsky, the ones that specifically mention Kautsky’s prewar writings, a very different picture emerges.

b. Lenin’s post-1914 coinage “Kautskyism” has a very specific meaning. It does not mean “the system of thought or outlook associated with Kautsky”—that is, it does not refer to an “ism” (the Russian term is kautskianstvo). It means something like: “the waffling and compromising typified by Kautsky’s conduct after the outbreak of war.” The label could therefore be applied to many people who did not share Kautsky’s views (for example, Trotsky!).(7) Thus Lenin’s condemnation of “Kautskyism” does not tell us anything about his attitude toward Kautsky’s prewar thought. For example, immediately before the sentence condemning “Kautskyism” that I have just quoted, Lenin says: “In the case of Kautsky and those like him, views like this are a complete renunciation precisely of those revolutionary foundations of Marxism that this writer defended for decades, and, among other subjects, especially in the struggle with socialist opportunism.”(8)

c. The discussion of Kautsky in State and Revolution also contains many strong statements that show Lenin’s continued appreciation of the very writings he criticizes.(9) In any event, the writing of State and Revolution in 1917 causes no appreciable blip in the flow of positive references to Kautsky’s prewar writings.

How well Kautsky wrote, when he was still a Marxist!

To answer the question of interest to us—what was Lenin’s postwar attitude to Kautsky’s prewar writings?—I created the “Kautsky-as-Marxist database,” which seeks to include every citation that reveals Lenin’s attitude toward anything Kautsky wrote, said or did, up to and including 1909. The reason 1909 was chosen as a cutoff date is that Lenin himself made it very explicit that Kautsky’s book Road to Power, published in that year, was his last solid production as a Marxist.(10) The database also includes material on various topics that provide relevant context for the questions that concern us. With these topics, the aim is to be accurately representative rather than comprehensive.(11) The central conclusions that arise out of this material are:

a. There is a lot of material that fits our requirements. Lenin spoke on the matter many times across the whole period. Most items are just passing remarks, but there are more extensive and revealing discussions in 1914, 1917, and 1920.(12) Furthermore, Lenin’s discussions are most often based on a recent re-reading of the Kautsky material in question. The topic was obviously quite important to Lenin.

b. Almost all the references are positive. The central trope used by Lenin is: how well Kautsky wrote back in the old days, when he was still a Marxist. Merely the fact that he labels the Kautsky-of-yore as a Marxist is a strong compliment when compared to what Lenin was calling the contemporary Kautsky. It is abundantly clear that Lenin thinks Kautsky back then was not just a Marxist, but an excellent one.

To give the flavor of Lenin’s remarks, I have chosen representative citations, one from each year from 1914 to 1920:

1914: Lenin gives a detailed exposition of the main arguments of Kautsky’s Road to Power (1909) and comments: “This book, written by the most authoritative writer of the Second International, contains the most complete exposition of the tasks of our times.… This is what German Social Democracy was—or rather, promised to be. This is the Social Democracy that one could and had to respect.”(13)

1915: In an article written in 1915, Kautsky had referred to his own earlier article from 1904. In this article from 1904, Kautsky asserted (in Lenin’s paraphrase): “‘democratic Russia’ will set afire the aspirations of the nations in the east of Europe for freedom.” Lenin says that this original premise is “indisputable,” although the conclusions that Kautsky draws in 1915 from this true premise are indefensible.(14)

1916: Lenin’s group within European socialism during the war was called “Left Zimmerwald” (after a conference held in that town). Lenin brought out the continuity between the ideas of this group and Kautsky: “All of us Left Zimmerwaldians are convinced of what Kautsky also, for example, was convinced of prior to his turnaround in 1914 from Marxism to the defense of chauvinism, namely, that socialist revolution is entirely possible in the very nearest future, ‘any day now,’ as the same Kautsky once expressed it.”(15)

1917: In 1917, only days before the outbreak of the revolution in Russia, Lenin gave a lecture to a Swiss audience about the Russian revolution of 1905, in which he made the following statement: “The higher rose the waves of the movement [in 1905], all the more did the reaction arm itself against the revolution with ever greater energy and decisiveness. The case of the Russian revolution of 1905 confirmed what K. Kautsky wrote in 1902 in his book Social Revolution (by the way, he was then still a revolutionary Marxist, and not a defender of social-patriots and opportunists, as at present). He wrote the following: ‘The coming revolution…is less similar to a sudden rising against the government than to a drawn-out civil war.’ And that’s how it happened! Undoubtedly, that’s the way it will be in the coming European revolution!”(16)

1918: “All that Kautsky the Marxist wrote in Agrarian Question in 1899 on the issue of the means at the disposal of the proletarian state for the gradual transition of small-scale peasants to socialism—all this is forgotten by the renegade Kautsky in 1918.”(17)

1919: When trying to convince an audience of revolutionary Bolsheviks at the Eighth Party Congress of the necessity of a shift in peasant policy, Lenin found it helpful to invoke Kautsky as an authority. He prefaced his remarks by referring to “Kautsky’s book about the agrarian question, written back in the time when Kautsky correctly set forth the teachings of Marx and was acknowledged to be the undisputed authority in this area.”(18)

1920: In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin introduces an extensive passage from Kautsky with these words: “In the days long past, so long ago, when Kautsky was still a Marxist and not a renegade, he approached this question as a historian and foresaw the possibility of the coming of a situation in which the revolutionary nature of the Russian proletariat would become a model for Western Europe. This was in 1902, when Kautsky wrote an article for the revolutionary Iskra entitled ‘Slavs and Revolution.’” After giving the passage, Lenin exclaims: “How well Karl Kautsky wrote eighteen years ago!”(19)

Let me end with a description of Kautsky-as-Marxist based entirely on Lenin’s pronouncements after 1914. All I have removed is the angry irony of “and look at him now!”:

Karl Kautsky was an outstanding Marxist who was the most authoritative theoretician of the Second International and a teacher to a generation of Marxists. His popularization of Das Kapital has canonic status. He was one of the first to refute opportunism in detail (although he hesitated somewhat before launching his attack) and continued to fight energetically against it, asserting that a split would be necessary if opportunism ever became the official tendency of the German party. Marxists of Lenin’s generation learned a dialectical approach to tactics from him. Only vis-à-vis the state do we observe a tendency to restrict himself to general truths and to evade a concrete discussion.

Kautsky was also a reliable guide to the revolutionary developments of the early twentieth century. His magisterial work on the agrarian question is still valid. He correctly diagnosed the national problem (as opposed to Rosa Luxemburg). He insisted that Western Europe was ripe for socialist revolution, and foretold the connection between war and revolution.

Kautsky had a special relation to Russia and to Bolshevism. On the one hand, he himself took great interest in Russian developments, and endorsed the basic Bolshevik view of the 1905 revolution. On the other hand, the Russian revolutionary workers read him eagerly and his writings had greater influence in Russia than anywhere else. This enthusiastic interest in the “latest word” of European Marxism is one of the main reasons for Bolshevism’s later revolutionary prowess.

I emphasize that the description I have just given of Kautsky is Lenin’s post-1914 view of him, as shown by references throughout the period.

c. Many writers argue that there is a major breakthrough or turning point in Lenin’s thought after 1914. The database shows that Lenin himself adopted a rhetorical stance of aggressive unoriginality. Again and again, he asks his readers to listen to what Kautsky—and not only him, but all respected Marxist writers and politicians—were saying before 1914, and to see how shamefully they failed to live up to their own words and actions.(20) Lenin presents himself as remaining staunch for the old truths, as keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs. This means that the dilemma that I set out for those who see an “unconscious” divergence between Lenin and Kautsky in 1902 still stands. Those who stress the fundamental nature of Lenin’s break with the Second International—those who believe that after 1914 Lenin rejected earlier Marxist orthodoxy root and branch—will have to deal with the fact that Lenin himself strongly disagreed.(21)

d. Finally, the most surprising and exciting implication of the database is that ideas that Lenin explicitly associates with Kautsky continue to inform Lenin’s whole definition of the revolutionary situation in which he found himself. We find ourselves confronting the following paradoxical and hard-to-credit conclusion: not only did Lenin fail to repudiate the many ideas he shared with Kautsky, but in many ways these ideas actually became more important to him after 1914. In this talk, I can only point to this possibility, which for many will be literally unbelievable. Yet statements such as the following typical one are hard to interpret otherwise. In January 1915, Lenin wrote the following:

It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to Power (which came out in 1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch. He acknowledged the change in immediate tasks, and, along with this, a change in the conditions and forms of the struggle of contemporary democracy—a change that flows out of the shift in objective historical circumstances.(22)

I began my talk with the question: did Lenin solve his inevitable cognitive dissonance by seeing the post-1914 Kautsky as a renegade (Kautsky changed) or by admitting that the scales fell from his own eyes (Lenin changed). The answer given to us by the database is unambiguous: Lenin felt that Kautsky had changed, not himself. He saw no reason to abandon the outlook he had shared with Kautsky just at the time when, in his eyes, events had justified it completely.
In this short talk, I can only scratch the surface of the database and its implications. The citations I have collected are no doubt more suggestive than conclusive. I look forward to discussion and debate on the implications of this material and on the larger questions of Lenin’s relation to his Marxist forebears.


1 Two books that go beyond the observation that Lenin admired Kautsky and examine the content of this relationship are Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered (Brill 2006), especially for the decade 1894–1904, and Moira Donald, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists,1900–1924 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), especially for the decade 1904–14.
2 Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought (Cambridge, MS: MIT Press, 1971), written in 1924 immediately after Lenin’s death. An excellent recent statement of this line of thought is John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1978).
3 Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 25.
4 This criticism surfaces in a number of responses that will be published in an upcoming issue of Historical Materialism. John Molyneux’s response, which states this argument very well, can be found on, November 10, 2006.
5 Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (PSS) (Moscow, 1958–65), 26:263.
6 Lenin, PSS 27:306-7. Foreword to French and German editions of Imperialism.
7 Lenin, PSS 26:323-4.
8 Lenin, PSS 27:306-7.
9 See also Lenin’s 1917 statement about Kautsky’s Social Revolution quoted below.
10 For example, in 1916 Lenin writes: “We ask the reader not to forget that Kautsky up to 1909, up to his excellent book Road to Power, was a foe of opportunism, to whose defense he turned only in 1910–11, and completely decisively only in 1914–16,” (PSS 25:259).
11 The database will be sent to anyone who requests it; my contact address is
12 For more extended discussions, see the 1914 article “Dead chauvinism and living socialism,” State and Revolution (1917) and Left-Wing Communism (1920).
13 Lenin, PSS 26:98:105
14 Lenin, PSS 26:239-40.
15 Lenin, PSS 30:51.
16 Lenin, PSS 30:323. Lenin had just re-read Kautsky’s Social Revolution as part of the research that later resulted in State and Revolution. Despite the critical remarks about this book in State and Revolution, Lenin obviously still greatly admired many of its arguments.
17 Lenin, PSS 37:325, 327.
18 Lenin, PSS 38:193-4.
19 Lenin, PSS 41:4-5. After the summer of 1920, there are very few references to Kautsky, either positive or negative.
20 For example, in 1915, after stating his concept of a revolutionary situation, Lenin comments: “Such are the Marxist views on revolution, views that have been developed many, many times [and] have been accepted as indisputable by all Marxists …” (Lenin, PSS, 26:219).
21 This statement is to be qualified only in the following way: starting in 1919, Lenin began to emphasize the surprises and unexpected turns that world history had in store. A principal reason for this shift was the delay in the international revolution. But the stance of aggressive unoriginality is still evident in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in late 1918.
22 Lenin, PSS, 26:143-44 (first published in 1917).

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