Paul Anderson, review of Karl Kautsky by Dick Geary (Manchester, £16.50), Tribune, 28 August 1987

Karl Kautsky tried to explain almost everything using a crude and mechanistic Marxism. For a long time, he was Marxism, the chief theorist of German Social Democracy in the two decades before the first world war, when it exercised an unparalleled influence on the Left throughout the world. He was known as the “pope of Marxism”, wielding an authority matched since only by Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

In the end, his “democratic-but-revolutionary” political programme was rather marginalised by events: the first world war, the Russian revolution and the German Social Democrats’ eclipse by Nazism. Today, Kautsky is read mainly by Marxist academics (largely for his thoughts on The Agrarian Question).

Otherwise Kautsky is considered as the “renegade” of Lenin’s polemic — though precisely how he “reneged” is generally unknown. Whatever it may be it is enough for most leftists to consider him “bad”.

But Kautsky is worth a look. He is certainly for the most part dry and boring, but some of what he had to say about left political strategy (if not tactics) is accessible and still interesting, in particular his critique of Leninist putschism.

Dick Geary has written a handy critical “history of ideas” introduction to Kautsky’s thought. He concentrates on Kautsky’s period of greatest influence — which means lots on the “revisionism” and “mass strike” controversies (and more on the nineteenth-century positivist, scientistic roots of Kautsky’s worldview), but not so much on his assessment of the Bolshevik revolution.

This is a pity, because Kautsky’s ideas about Bolshevism are fascinating.
Geary nevertheless manages well in his distillation and critique of acres of prose. His book is in many ways just as provocative as Massimo Salvadori’s exhaustive Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, even though it is not really trying to compete. For its type — the Fontana Modern Masters extended essay model — it’s really rather good, a reminder that a lot of current left controversies have been around a long time.

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