Recently, as a result of preparing for this paper, I read for the first time Karl Kautsky’s Bolshevism at a Deadlock, published in German, in September 1930, as Der Bolschewismus in der Sackgasse—which we could better translate perhaps as No Way Through for Bolshevism. I found this an extraordinary book, both because of the nature of its approach to Soviet Communism, and also because of the uncanny topicality of its discussion of the problems that would face the former Soviet Union after the unavoidable collapse of the Communist regime.

Before going further to describe Kautsky’s book, I would like to say a little about Kautsky’s career and reputation, which perhaps does something to explain why it was so long before I read this book and why its contents were so unexpected to me. Karl Kautsky was born in Prague in October 1854, a member of the generation immediately after Marx and Engels, but before Lenin and Luxemburg. His outstanding contemporaries within what is now known as the ‘classical Marxist tradition’ were Labriola, Mehring and Plekhanov. Kautsky joined the Social-Democratic Party in 1875, while a student in Vienna. At that time, Lenin was five, Luxemburg four and Trotsky had not yet been born. In 1883 (Trotsky now four) Kautsky became founding editor of Neue Zeit, the leading Marxist journal in Germany for four decades, finally being forced to resign, significantly enough, in 1917, by which time he was in his early sixties.

During these four decades Kautsky dominated the development of Marxist theory, both in the spd and, because of the leading role of the German workers’ party in the Second International, in the European workers’ movement in general. His major theoretical and scholarly work The Agrarian Question was published in 1899, shortly before Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia. These two works can be seen as the initiators of the pre-1917 efflorescence of classical Marxist theory, attempting to update Marx and Engels with studies of finance capital (Hilferding), the nationalities problem (Bauer), and imperialism, culminating in a series of controversial works on this subject by Bukharin, Luxemburg, Lenin and, again, Kautsky. Contemporary and connected with these theoretical contributions, there were also a series of sharp and extremely polemical political debates. Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Pannekoek and Kautsky all put forward their differing analyses of the Russian Revolution of 1905; Bukharin, Luxemburg, Lenin and Kautsky argued over their response to the First World War and the nature of imperialism; and of course Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Kautsky also took different positions on the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

It was as a result of this last wave of debates that Kautsky was definitively cast in the role of traitor to Marxism and the socialist cause, first by Lenin in his The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, and then by Trotsky in his Terrorism and Communism. The reason, understandably, was Kautsky’s early and outspoken opposition to the path taken by the Bolsheviks, beginning in early 1918, after the dispersal of the elected Constituent National Assembly. From then on the polemics between the Communists and Kautsky, still continuing within the framework of classical Marxism, grew ever more polarized, as the Communist regime became steadily more despotic and Kautsky, ever more insistently, and still on Marxist grounds, gave his moral support to insurrection against it.

His voice, however, also became ever more lonely, as he found himself disagreeing, not only with the Communists themselves, but also with renegades from within the Communist movement, such as Trotsky, and even with old Social-Democrat comrades from among the Mensheviks and the Austro-Marxists (Dan, Bauer) who argued, in effect, for the possibility of a ‘barbaric road’ to socialism. He was prepared, he wrote, to be the Cassandra of Social-Democracy. ‘If I remain isolated, then dixi et salvavi animam meam [I spoke out and I saved my own soul]. Cassandra remained isolated too. But at least she was not gagged.’ Kautsky died the day after his eighty-fourth birthday, in Amsterdam, where he had fled from Vienna, after the German invasion of Austria, before that of Holland.

I should add that Kautsky hardly fared better in his relations with what we now think of as ‘Western Marxists’—indeed, one of the most virulent attacks on him came from the council Communist Karl Korsch, whose work is usually included in the Western Marxist canon. The Western Marxists, of course, wanted to break with the whole ‘classical Marxist’ tradition and, as Martin Jay puts it, ‘in fact, if there was anything on which Western Marxists . . . completely agreed, it is the utter repudiation of the legacy of the Second International’. I shall return to this point later.

In Bolshevism at a Deadlock, written in response to Stalin’s first Five Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture, Kautsky argues that Lenin, in the autumn of 1917, acted ‘mainly’ in pursuit of a high ideal. But, once, he and the Bolshevik party had attained power, they used it as ‘an instrument for conjuring up overnight a fully developed socialistic system of production for a nation, the great majority of which consisted of illiterates and primitive peasant cultivators. . . . This wild experiment can only end in disastrous collapse. . . . While the toiling masses perish on all sides, the schemes devised to pull them out of the slough get steadily more impressive; At the same time, the nervous tension becomes acuter as the situation becomes more desperate. The more gigantic the plan, the shorter the time allotted for its realization, and the more violent the means employed to achieve results which only Aladdin’s magic lamp could make possible.’