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New Left Review I/59, January-February 1970


Presentation of Kautsky 1914

The article by Karl Kautsky printed below is a singular text. It is well-known that Kautsky evolved a theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, a supreme phase of capitalist development which would banish all inter-imperialist wars forever, because Lenin denounced this conception in his own work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). What is not widely known is the extraordinary fact that Kautsky arrived at this theory in the months immediately preceding the First World War. A reading of his article ‘Der Imperialismus’, published in Die Neue Zeit on September 11th 1914, makes it clear that Kautsky was confidently predicting the impossibility of the gigantic conflict in the very weeks in which it was to erupt. His essay was, indeed, designed to provide strategic perspectives for the Congress of the Second International in Paris scheduled for August 1914. Never has a deviation from Marxism been so instantly and overwhelmingly exposed by history. Yet Kautsky blandly went forward with the publication of the article, after the war had started, with a few ‘additions’ to ‘take account’ of an event whose possibility its purpose was to deny. In fact, he only inserted a convoluted attempt to show that Austria, while imperialist in its designs on Serbia, nevertheless endangered its own national existence by doing so, and was therefore not guilty of mere imperialism in declaring war on it! The interest of Kautsky’s article, however, paradoxically lies in its modernity. He begins by sketching a history of the transition from free-trade Manchester capitalism to the competitive imperialism of the late 19th century, stressing the necessity of agrarian zones for capital accumulation in the industrial metropoles (the influence of Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism is evident here). He then goes on, however, to advance two essential reasons for the future evolution of conflictual imperialism into peacefully integrated ultra-imperialism. These are, firstly the threat to capitalism from the national liberation movements of Asia and the Arab World, which would oblige the imperialist powers to close their ranks against the common enemy; and secondly, the economic burden of the arms race on the State budgets of the imperialist powers.

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