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Kautsky when he was a Marxist

Contributors: Karl Kautsky

A collection of comments by Lenin compiled by Lars Lih


The Kautsky-as-Marxist database is a collection that I have compiled of all comments by Lenin in his final decade, 1914-1924, that bear on the issue on his attitude during those years toward Kautsky’s prewar writings—or rather, his writings up to and including 1909.  The original aim of the database was to provide empirical material on a dispute about Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky after 1914.  Both sides acknowledge that Lenin admired Kautsky strongly before 1914 and that he reacted in strongly negative terms to everything that Kautsky wrote starting in 1914.  The question is: did Lenin’s post-1914 negative attitude spill over into a reevaluation of writings by Kautsky earlier endorsed by Lenin?  According to one side of the dispute, Lenin regarded Kautsky as a renegade who failed to live up to his earlier, still valid, positions.  According to the other side, the scale fell from Lenin’s eyes about Kautsky in general, leading to a root-and-branch reevaluation not only of Kautsky but of “Second International Marxism” in general.  The two sides of the debate are set forth in the Symposium on Lenin Rediscovered in Historical Materialism, 18:3 (2010), pp. 25-174.

The aim of the database is to collect and arrange all evidence in Lenin’s collected works relevant to deciding this dispute.  The database is divided into two categories.  The first is a comprehensive collection of all references in Lenin’s post-1914 works to anything Kautsky did or wrote up to and including 1909.  The cutoff date of 1909 is imposed by unambiguous statements by Lenin himself that Kautsky’s Road to Power, published in 1909, was his last production as a consistent Marxist.  The main tool for locating these references is the bibliographies provided in each volume of the 5th Russian edition of Lenin’s collected works.  These bibliographies provide full information on every work mentioned or even alluded to by Lenin.  Added to the systematic search based on these bibliographies are the results of a less systematic hunt for any relevant item.  The aim in this category is to include every relevant item.

The second category in the database is material on various topics that provide relevant context for the questions that concern us.  The aim here is to be accurately representative rather than comprehensive.  The topics included are: the meaning of Lenin’s coinage kautskianstvo (translated in the English-language Collected Works as “Kautskyism”); Lenin’s view of the Second International as a whole; Lenin’s view of Kautsky as a person after 1909; Lenin’s view of other “renegades” such as Jules Guesde.  The most important of these topics is the meaning of kautskianstvo.  Lenin’s post-1914 polemics will be thoroughly misunderstood if this term is thought of as an “ism,” that is, an ideology or system of ideas similar to those of Karl Kautsky.

The evidence gathered here show beyond doubt Lenin’s own view of the matter: Kautsky was a renegade who had betrayed the truths for which he earlier had been such an eloquent spokesman.  Furthermore, the database unexpectedly turns out to be a powerful and insightful portrait of Lenin’s major concerns during these years.  We should be astonished at the sheer quantity, range and variety of the topics about which Lenin felt it necessary to refer to “Kautsky when he was a Marxist.”  These include the fundamental features of the new era of revolutions, the state, nationalism, opportunism, foreign policy, peasant policy and dialectics.  In many cases, Lenin had recently reread the Kautsky texts in question.  On more than one occasion, Lenin went out of his way to pay tribute to the special role Kautsky played as ideological mentor to Russian Social Democracy.  Kautsky past and present was clearly a major obsession for Lenin during these years.

The database has served me as a starting point for research into a whole range of issues concerning Lenin’s outlook and its roots in international Social Democracy.  But I believe that anyone interested in Lenin will also be fascinated by the partial but hugely revealing portrait that emerges from this mosaic of his comments throughout the most dramatic decade of his life.

Lars Lih
February 2011


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