Kautsky, Karl

(1854–1938)
   Karl Kautsky was for many years the leading theorist of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and of the Second International. He advocated an orthodox interpretation of Marxism that emphasized the scientific, materialist and deterministic character of Karl Marx’s thought. Kautsky was born in Prague in 1854, studied history, economics and philosophy at the University of Vienna, and began his active involvement in organized politics in 1875 when he joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party. After dealings with various leading European Marxists, most notably Eduard Bernstein, and founding and editing the influential journal Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky moved to London where he worked with Friedrich Engels. Moving back to Germany when restrictions on socialist parties were lifted in 1890 he became active in the SPD. He wrote the crucial theory section of the party’s Erfurt Program in 1891, which was virtually the bible of the SPD and a major influence on other European socialist organizations. He briefly left in 1917 to join the German Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) because of his opposition to the increasing collaboration of the SPD in the war effort, but rejoined in 1922. By the 1930s his influence and involvement in politics was dwindling and he died in Amsterdam in 1938.
   Kautsky’s view of Marxism dominated the European Marxist movement for the best part of two decades. It centered on the notion that Marxism was a science that had identified the laws of history. These laws showed that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable, as was its replacement by socialism. Influenced by Darwinian evolution theory, Kautsky saw human history as evolving, and Marxism allowed an objective scientific analysis of the material conditions of society, which showed the inexorable progress toward worker selfemancipation and self-government. The implications of this deterministic view were that history could not be hurried and that politically workers and workers’ parties must wait for the material economic conditions to be ripe before the revolutionary transformation of society could take place. This saw the SPD adopt a gradualist approach, taking advantage of the bourgeois parliamentary democracy to improve workers’ lives until capitalism was brought down by its objective internal contradictions.
   Kautsky’s position led him into disputes with other leading Marxists. He battled with Eduard Bernstein, who favored a more ethically based and openly reformist approach, with Rosa Luxemburg, who advocated worker spontaneity and a mass strike, and with Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who Kautsky believed had initiated the revolution in Russia prematurely and who was leading the country toward tyranny.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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