As G. D. H. Cole rightly said in his History of Socialist Thought, after the Russian Revolution Kautsky became the ‘principal theoretical antagonist of Bolshevism’.footnote1 The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, published in September 1918, and Terrorism and Communism, which appeared about a year later, are the two basic texts of the Kautskyan assault on Bolshevism. Moreover, this was not confined to the theoretical plane: Kautsky also played a leading role in the concrete political action carried out by the social democrats in Germany to prevent the proletariat of that country from following the revolutionary road opened up by the Russian working class. The Bolsheviks returned this assault blow for blow. Though still convalescing from the attack of 30 August 1918 which nearly cost him his life,footnote2 Lenin replied at once to the first of these texts with The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Trotsky assumed the task of replying to the second, with a work published in the spring of 1920, bearing the same title as Kautsky’s: Terrorism and Communism, and written in the famous armoured train which Trotsky used to visit the front in the Civil War. The fact that the two principal Bolshevik leaders should have taken time off—amid all the urgent responsibilities which beset them—to reply so quickly to Kautsky’s criticisms was an index of the importance of the issues at stake.footnote

Kautsky enjoyed great authority among socialists of all countries. After the death of Engels, he was regarded as the most faithful interpreter of Marx’s theory. His contribution to the theoretical critique of Bernstein’s revisionism, and his other works up until 1910—in particular The Social Revolution, which appeared in 1902, and The Road to Power of 1910—placed him clearly on the left of German and international social democracy. The young Russian social democracy was particularly appreciative of his article ‘The Slavs and the Revolution’, published in Iskra in 1902, in which he predicted that the Russian proletariat could provide a model for the proletariat of Western Europe. In 1906 he analysed the first Russian Revolution in ‘The Motive Forces of the First Russian Revolution’, essentially supporting the tactical conceptions of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks. In The Road to Power, he formulated three very important theses: 1. that the era of proletarian revolutions had begun; 2. that capitalism had already matured sufficiently for socialism and, in this respect, one could not talk of a premature revolution; and 3. that war was coming and ‘the war is the revolution’.footnote3

From 1910, however, there began a revolution in Kautsky himself towards centrist positions, marked by a sharp polemic with Rosa Luxemburg. Only a small group of the left German social democracy (Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Clara Zetkin and others) perceived the growing contradiction between Kautsky’s Marxist words and his opportunist political practice prior to 1914. Lenin, who was probably favourably disposed towards Kautsky because of his positions on Russian questions, continued to believe in his Marxist and revolutionary credentials until the capitulation of German social democracy to German imperialism in August 1914 made him sharply conscious of the reality. As he indicated in the preface to The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, his criticisms of the ‘renegade’ did not begin until after the start of the war. Moreover, these criticisms, like those of the few other revolutionary Marxists, only reached small circles of dispersed and clandestine social democrats in the belligerent countries.

Meanwhile, it must be borne in mind that Kautsky—to use Lenin’s terminology—did not take a ‘social-chauvinist’ but a ‘social-pacifist’ position. That is, unlike other prominent socialist leaders, he did not collaborate with the government in a ‘sacred union’ but opted for a pacifist internationalism, arguing for a negotiated peace without annexations. His ‘renegacy’, therefore, was only apparent to the tiny Marxist minority which, like Lenin, struggled for the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. This meant that in October, and in the summer of 1918 when his first fundamental critique of the Bolsheviks appeared, Kautsky’s prestige as a Marxist was still intact in the eyes of the great majority of European socialists. Thus it was the leading Marxist authority who attacked the Bolsheviks’ claim that their revolution was socialist and their ideas and actions a faithful expression of Marxism. No—Kautsky told the Bolsheviks in a rather paternalistic and superior tone—your revolution has a peasant base and can only be bourgeois; to try and take it further is pure Blanquism and adventurism which has nothing to do with Marxism. The proletariat cannot really take power unless it is a majority of the population and respects democratic legality and universal suffrage. All other roads necessarily lead to civil war, to the dictatorship of a party or a Bonaparte. You have got yourself into a blind alley. To get out of it you can only trust in the European revolution. And do not say that the European proletariat has left you in the lurch and betrayed you; you are the ones who have gone off the rails.

The whole affair was particularly serious—and this explains the pressure on Lenin to reply—since the Bolsheviks’ excommunication by the ‘Pope of orthodoxy’ (the expression is Lenin’s) came at a time of extreme difficulty and near disaster for the Soviet régime. Six months previously it had been forced to sign the draconian peace of Brest-Litovsk with German imperialism. The Kaiser’s troops were occupying the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Finland and part of Byelorussia. Japanese troops had landed in Vladivostok and threatened Siberia. The Turks occupied a large part of the Caucusus and the first English and French detachments were disembarking in the north, at Murmansk and Archangel. In Siberia and the Volga and Don regions, the armed counter-revolution was organizing its forces. The young workers’ and peasants’ republic found itself in the situation of a besieged fortress. It was deprived of its principal supplies of coal, wheat and oil. Hunger was creating havoc, and the kulaks were organizing subversion in the rural areas. Lenin did not hide the seriousness of the situation. In his speech of 22 May 1918 at a Congress of Labour Delegates, he described ‘disruption, chaos and disorganization’, ‘hunger and unemployment’, ‘shortage of fuel’ and ‘the catastrophic condition of the railways’. On 27 June, he argued in the Moscow conference of trade unions and factory committees that the country is ‘particularly affected by the disaster of famine’. And on 23 July he said to the factory committees of Moscow province that ‘These past few days have been marked by an extreme aggravation of the affairs of the Soviet Republic, caused both by the country’s position internationally and by the counter-revolutionary plots and the food crisis which is closely connected with them.’footnote4

Moreover, it was not only the foreign imperialists, and the internal bourgeois and landlord counter-revolution with its parties and military agents, which had risen against the Bolsheviks. It was also parties which considered themselves socialist, like the left Social Revolutionaries. Although the latter had collaborated in the Soviet government until July 1918, they had then risen against the Bolsheviks.footnote5 From inside the ‘besieged fortress’, the activities of the other socialist parties seemed part of a single enemy front, which threatened the very existence of the revolutionary régime. The attempt on Lenin’s life—which was part of a series of terrorist attacks on Bolshevik leaders and organizations—brutally highlighted the gravity of the situation. The Bolsheviks answered the white terror with red terror. Until August 1918, Bolshevik policy had rather been characterized by its moderation in the repression of counter-revolution, and especially of the socialist opposition. It was at this very moment that the Kautsky attack appeared. Lenin’s indignation is well reflected in the tone of his reply, going beyond all previous bounds in the excess of language which was so characteristic of his polemical style (and which was not, incidentally, one of his strong points).

What was most serious for Lenin was not the repercussions of Kautsky’s attack on political forces within Russia—there the lines of battle were already clearly drawn—but its effect on German socialism. ‘The Russian Revolution’, Lenin said in his speech of 23 July, repeating something he had regularly asserted since the February revolution, was ‘only one of the contingents of the international socialist army, on the action of which the success and triumph of our revolution depends’.footnote6 And for Lenin the most powerful detachment of the world socialist army, which could tilt the balance of forces decisively in favour of the world revolution, was the German. The main danger of Kautsky’s position was that it weighed heavily on the other side of the balance. In his study of the German revolution, Pierre Broué is correct to emphasize that The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky was mainly written with German revolutionaries in mind.footnote7 Besides, at this time Lenin thought that the German revolution was imminent and there was no time to lose in clarifying the questions which were raised. He did not just set about elaborating a reply, but posed the necessity for the leaders of the German socialist left to polemicize against Kautsky on the theoretical level.footnote8 Reckoning that the confrontation in Germany could explode at any time, at the beginning of October Lenin decided to write an article containing the essential elements of his reply to Kautsky; this was published in Pravda on 11 October, with an identical title.footnote9 He entrusted Chicherin, at that time Commissar for External Affairs, with its rapid publication and diffusion in Germany.