Lenin, Kautsky, and 1914

In the second of his talks to the CPGB’s Communist University, Lars T Lih takes a closer look at Lenin’s reaction to the betrayal of German social democracy at the outbreak of World War I

We all know the famous anecdote about Lenin when he received the news that the Germany Social Democratic Party’s delegation to the Reichstag had voted for war credits – he initially believed it was a forgery put out by the bourgeoisie in order to whip up support for the war. I would like to put this and other such shocks into a more exact context.

On August 1 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, and at that time Lenin was living in a village in Poland which was under Austrian control. It was on August 5 that he discovered the SPD delegation had voted for war credits. They could have abstained, but they did not even do this and that completely floored him.

But then he had another problem to deal with, because the Austrian authorities were wondering about this suspicious character who spoke Russian, had French money and went for walks in the hills. Lenin was jailed on suspicion of spying and held from August 8 to August 19. One of the reasons he managed to get out so quickly (as opposed to his arrest 10 years earlier) was that he now had friends in high places: namely Victor Adler, the leader of Austrian Social Democracy, who called on the minister of the interior to release Lenin, who was, after all, one of the biggest opponents of the tsar.

But before he finally got out he received yet another shock: a French leaflet had been issued under the title, ‘Declaration of Russian socialists joining the French army as volunteers’. The war fervour was such that even some Bolsheviks had become swept up in it. I would like to emphasise just how tough these weeks were for Lenin – he had all this to think about combined with the ill-health of his mother-in-law, who was dying.

He arrived in Bern on September 5 for a meeting with the local Bolsheviks and presented to them the principles of his programme for the next two to three years. Either he had managed to undertake some sort of rethink in this short time or he did not have to do so. By outlining these dates and details I am trying to suggest that it was the latter.

But actually the shocks were not over. The most personally upsetting one related to Karl Kautsky – the mentor whose writings Lenin had unreservedly admired. Kautsky was now writing articles that wibbled, wobbled and wavered and did not live up to what Lenin thought he should be saying. Lenin was devastated.

In September 1914 but before these Kautsky articles came out, Lenin had written that the dangers of opportunism had long been pointed out by the greatest representatives of the workers’ movement of all countries, and it is pretty clear that it was predominantly Kautsky and Luxemburg he had in mind. But now one of these two finest representatives was writing articles that essentially justified what the Reichstag deputies did. A famous account in a letter to one of his comrades says: ‘I hate more than anybody else this dirty, vile, self-satisfied, smug hypocrisy of Kautsky’.1 I may have left out a term or two, but his strong, emotional response was evident.

Another of Lenin’s letter to the same addressee, Shlapnikov, a week later contained the line: “Obtain without fail and reread Kautsky’s The road to power and see what he says there about the tasks of our time. And now how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”2 The reason he is so angry and upset is because this book, along with Kautsky’s views, were so right. What was in that book and what did it mean to talk about “the tasks of our times”?

Aggressive unoriginality

There are two ways of looking at this. The traditional way on the left is to say that the Reichstag vote and other shocks led Lenin to a process of rethinking Marxism – he came to understand the fallacious nature of the Second International’s version and either returned to the roots of Marxism or came up with new theories.

One story is that he read Hegel, rediscovered the dialectic, and then applied that to the tasks of his time (he did, of course, read Hegel, but that was not the reason for his platform at the time). Another story is that Nikolai Bukharin was a big influence on him, and so on. I refer to this as the ‘rethinking’ way of looking at Lenin in 1914.

I have my term for what I think is happening, and that is aggressive unoriginality. Why? If you read Lenin’s writings in the period between 1914 and 1916 he sort of grabs you by the throat and says, ‘I am not original, OK? I am just saying what everybody else was saying. This was the educated Marxist consensus which is now being betrayed.’ Now, this could just be rhetoric, but it could also neatly express what is going on. And I think it could also lead us to Lenin’s platform, outlook and definition of the situation in these years and, secondly, to a closer look at the ideological background and historical context of those ideas.

I refer to 1914-1916 as the ‘left Zimmerwald’ years. Zimmerwald is the little village in Switzerland, where in September 1915 a three-day conference was held of the movement’s representatives from various countries who opposed the war. ‘Left Zimmerwald’ came to be known as the faction that Lenin led within that movement. It was more revolutionary and wanted a more radical, defeatist and non-pacifist position, which marked them out from many of the others. This is significant in that it marks the first time that Lenin was a leader on a European scale, staking a leadership claim over a very small but well-known grouping.

Lenin made the point that all left Zimmerwaldians were saying what Kautsky had been saying before 1914: namely that revolution will come from war and that we will be faced with a new revolutionary situation – an example of this ‘aggressive unoriginality’. Lenin insisted that it was his grouping that had the strongest connections with what Kautsky had been saying in The road to power.

So let me say a few words about this book, which is not very long – more like a pamphlet of 80-90 pages. It came out in 1909 and it is the end part of a development that began in 1902 with a book called The social revolution. Against the revisionists, both these books were adamant that not only is revolution necessary, but that it is becoming more necessary – the contradictions are sharpening and we are entering into a revolutionary era.

Actually, the experience of trying to get this book published told Kautsky that something was wrong with the party, because the leadership said that they would not produce it under the party name – under the pretext that this would risk prosecution for high treason. This excuse was not quite plucked out of thin air, but its basis was pretty thin. So Kautsky had to fight behind closed doors and the compromise was that the book would be published if he would agree to change the odd word or two. He did not change anything significant though.

Almost before it was published in Germany under the auspices of the party, it was already being translated and published elsewhere – including in Russia. Oddly enough, there is no record of Lenin commenting on it until 1914, when he started making these pleas to reread it. I think he took his own advice to Shlapnikov, because he wrote an article in which he literally went through The road to power pulling out quotes along the way, pointing out what Kautsky had said before.

He began: “For decades, German social democracy was a model to the social democrats of Russia – even more so than for any other country in the world. It is therefore clear that there can be no intelligent attitude towards the new social chauvinism without a precise definition of one’s attitude towards German social democracy. What was it in the past? What is it today? What will it be in the future? Part of the first of these questions can be found in The road to power – a pamphlet written by Kautsky in 1909 and translated into many different languages [a point made in order to highlight just how authoritative this international work is] containing a most complete exposition of the tasks of our times. I am going to go into this in some detail, since it now these ideals are so barefacedly cast aside.”3

Lenin concludes by arguing: “This is German social democracy at its finest. This is the German social democracy that had promise and this is the German social democracy that one can and must respect.”4 I am trying to get across not only how strongly he felt, but his belief that this “social democracy at its finest” was still valid.

Neither did Lenin change his mind on this. He kept repeating the same things throughout this period – I think the last such reference is in 1918 or 1919. In State and revolution he criticises The road to power for not mentioning the state, but still says that it is the best of Kautsky’s books. He does not actually criticise anything that Kautsky says: merely what he does not say on the state. Even then he still agrees with the arguments.


I am going to do a little summary of the book to clarify things. This summary will only consist of quotes that Lenin himself pulled out when reading it again. So in a sense this is Lenin’s summary of the book.

“We are entering a new age of revolutions”. “In particular … a world war is imminent and war also means revolution.” “This revolutionary situation will lead to an acceleration of social polarisation”, since “the rate of advance becomes very rapid as soon as the time of revolutionary fervour comes”. “For one thing, petty bourgeois forces such as the peasantry are capable of coming over to our side en masse”. “Western Europe is ripe for socialism … therefore the proletariat can no longer speak of a premature revolution.” “In fact, the long-awaited dictatorship of the proletariat is a real possibility in the near future.” The duty of the socialist party is therefore to remain “consistent, unshakeable and irreconcilable”.

I should also mention that there is a scenario of global revolution in this book which was picked up and used by Lenin.

In good dialectical fashion I am going to move from the abstract to the concrete. The most abstract thing concerns the idea of a revolutionary situation: we alternate between periods of peaceful development and periods that are revolutionary – utterly dissimilar. Peaceful and revolutionary situations are different in their logic and everything about them – including the tactics that are called forth. One such difference relates to the tempo of development. This is what Kautsky said (I think this is interesting because it helps to explain why Lenin and many other revolutionaries admired Kautsky):

“When times of revolutionary ferment come, the tempo of development at once becomes rapid. It is quite incredible how quickly the masses of the population learn in such times and achieve clarity about their own class interests – not only their courage and their desire to fight, but also their political interest is spurred on in the most powerful way by the consciousness that the time has arisen for them to rise by their efforts out of the darkest night into the bright glory of the sun. Even the most sluggish become industrious, even the most cowardly bold, even the most intellectually limited acquire a wider mental grasp. In such times, political education of the masses that would otherwise require generations takes place in years.”5

Lenin also picks up on this idea that you learn more in months in a revolutionary situation than you would in decades of peaceful development many times in his writings. By the way, I think that this idea comes from the Marxist notion that revolutionary situations are not created by the party. The party is revolutionary, but it is objective forces that prepare the way for revolution – you just have to be ready. Therefore you need new tactics.

At the time of writing The road to power Kautsky had been engaged in a polemic with Rosa Luxemburg. He argued that a mass strike is fine for a revolutionary situation, but we are not in one now so let us not use it just yet.

I am not going to evaluate the situation that was actually faced, but will merely highlight how the idea of a revolutionary situation affects the context of the party’s response. That is the most abstract idea. Next we are going to progress to another fairly abstract set of necessary and sufficient conditions for recognising a revolutionary situation. There is a fairly well known Lenin quote on this, and what is interesting is that it bears a very strong resemblance to the one presented by Kautsky.

Kautsky offers four conditions: 1. a regime hostile to the people; 2. a party of irreconcilable opposition; 3. mass support given to the party; 4. a regime crisis of confidence.

Lenin’s own definition also contains four parts, and the ‘aggressive unoriginality’ rhetoric can once more be seen when Lenin states: “Such are the Marxist views on revolution – views that have been developed many, many times, have been accepted as indisputable by all Marxists and for us Russians were corroborated in a particularly striking fashion by the experience of 1905.”6 So again he his disclaiming any originality for his own definition.

Kautsky was one of the first to have the idea of moving into one of three periods – 1. a revolutionary period up until 1871; 2. a peaceful period of development between 1871 and 1905; and then 3. 1905 onwards – a new era of revolutions, unrest and accelerated revolutionary development. Lenin adopted this idea, and it is part of his explanation for what happened to the Second International – ie, that during the time of peace it degenerated.

Turning to the concrete, let us look at what Kautsky said and what Lenin picked up on in terms of the expected revolutionary situation in Europe. In western Europe, there were sharpening class contradictions – not the softening of them, as the revisionists around those like Bernstein maintained. The framework and the prerequisites of socialism are in place and therefore it is impossible to speak of a premature revolution. At one point Lenin said of this: “There is no need for us to prove that the objective conditions in western Europe are ripe for socialist revolution. This was admitted before the war by all influential socialists in all advanced countries.”7

That quote brings out two things. Firstly, whilst Kautsky was the main guy, Lenin is clearly talking of all influential socialists in the advanced countries. Secondly, the statement, “There is no need for us to prove …”, in my opinion shows the rhetorical use of this aggressive unoriginality. He is saying that not just some radical Russian is telling you this – it is the informed consensus of the experts, so you had better believe it! And, by the way, Kautsky himself had said that there was nothing new in The road to power, but that it was merely a summation of what he had been arguing for the previous seven or eight years.

Then there was what I call the ‘global interactive revolutionary scenario’. This is an aspect of Kautsky which I think has not been fully explored. And he was also highly interested in colonial policy – the first attack on Edward Bernstein, which led to the famous debates of the 1890s, was over colonial policy, because Bernstein fought for an ethical or ‘nice’ colonialism. As I mentioned in my last talk, Kautsky was particularly interested in and knowledgeable about Russia, and the Bolsheviks were picking up on this global scenario even before the outbreak of war.

What are the features of this? Firstly, the ‘interactive’ formula generally means that events in one country have a strong influence on those in other countries, and Kautsky stresses that as something we have to understand. How does he fill this picture out? Firstly, there are all sorts of linkages between the class struggles in various countries. One is that people can read and know about them – particularly the case for Russia, where everybody has been influenced by events in western Europe. Any class struggle today will be different to those of yesterday because people can know about and be influenced by them.

Secondly, bourgeois revolutions can no longer be the same because there is a new need to fight external domination, which there was not previously. Thirdly, there is the possibility of what you might call syncopated development – ie, backwardness can actually be an advantage because you move faster. One example he gives of this is Japan, which he argues was able to leap over feudalism.

Of course, there was also Russia. Russia plays a big role in this ‘interactive’ formula, because it was a generally accepted idea that Russia’s democratic revolution might well spark off a socialist revolution in western Europe. But Kautsky also says that should this happen then you might well have accelerated development in Russia: because it is backward, it might proceed faster in the context of a socialist Europe than one of the more hidebound western European countries.

Finally, he talks a great deal about nationalist revolutions. He wants to make clear that countries such as China, Turkey and Russia represent a new development that is going to upset things, and he insists that the leaders of the movements in these countries are generally not nice people! But for Kautsky this does not alter the fact that they are weakening capitalism and are bringing an element of political unrest to the whole world – ie, he almost cheers on these movements because they are fighting against national oppression and also making life more difficult for the European powers.

When Kautsky polemicises against Bernstein and the ‘ethical’ colonialists, he says: “Colonial policy is based on the idea that only the European countries are capable of development – the men of other races are children of idiots or beasts of burden – and even socialists proceed on this assumption as soon as they want to pursue a policy of ethical colonial expansionism. But reality soon teaches them that our party’s tenet that ‘All men are equal’ is no mere figure of speech, but a very real force.”8

Kautsky is arguing that people are perfectly capable of fighting back and that they are actually doing so. He says: “When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist manifesto, they regarded only western Europe as the field of battle of the proletarian revolution, but today it has become the whole world. Today, the battles and the liberation struggle of the whole of labour and exploited humanity is being fought not only on the banks of the Spree and the Seine, but also on the Hudson and the Mississippi, the Neva and the Dardanelles, the Ganges and the Huangho.”9

Here I call attention to the Neva – the Russian river near Petersburg. Kautsky was including Russia in this idea of global unrest.

I want now to move on to the subject of imperialism, war and revolution. In this context I disagree with the idea that Kautsky’s ‘ultra-imperialism’ theory argued that war was not going to break out. This is not quite correct – for two reasons. The first is that super-imperialism is a new theory that Kautsky consciously and explicitly developed in a move away from what he had himself been saying earlier. So, it is Kautsky who is rethinking here and exploring a new concept. And it is once again Lenin who is defending the old orthodoxy. So when Lenin says that he is getting his definition of the tasks of the times from Kautsky, he was including imperialism. He was infuriated at the new concept of ultra-imperialism.

The second thing to be said on this is that Kautsky was not quite saying that ultra-imperialism is occurring right now, but that it is a possibility – and a strong one – because at some point the imperialists will wonder why they are shooting each other when they could easily get together and exploit everyone as a team. So it was not exactly a prophecy – more of a future possibility.

However, it was exactly this implication that made Lenin so furious. He argued that if you think peace is possible with imperialism then you are letting down the side and it is untrue anyway. But I do not want to get into this debate now, and so will return to our current topic.

We find in Kautsky’s The road to power the following ideas: firstly, that imperialism is the “last refuge of capitalism”.10 What he meant is that people are desperate; they see capitalism as a blind alley, but there is one possible great rallying idea – imperialism, where the country will go forth, make it in the world, bring benefits to humanity and do well for itself. But he says that, once this obviously nonsensical idea is blown apart, then that is it. He is also saying that the world is being completely divided up, and in this respect imperialism has reached its limits in that it has divided up the world. Secondly, imperialism leads to war. He thinks that, even though we are in situation where the ruling classes are afraid of war because they are afraid of revolution, guns will fire of themselves.

Another idea – and this links back to the idea of the bourgeois workers’ party concept – is that England has avoided social revolution because of the profits brought by India. As far as I can see, he does not mention the labour aristocracy, although I think he does discuss that elsewhere. But what he is saying here is just that England is exploiting India to make concessions, so that if India rebels that will mean crisis for England. This even leads him on to suggest that if the English workers do not rebel even after India has broken free, then they really are hopeless!

I am not going to try to evaluate these ideas written in about 1904. I merely wish to point out that Lenin’s ideas about imperialism as a reason why the revolution has not yet broken out is not a particularly new one. Further, both Lenin and Kautsky are looking to limit the damage and to find a reason why the English workers are not rising up.

To sum up all of what I have said, then, the prediction based on the growing class contradictions at home and abroad is that there is a period of upheaval and unrest coming up and it will probably end with the dictatorship of the proletariat in Europe.This is what Kautsky says in 1906 (I think he is talking about the Russian revolution): “What it promises to inaugurate is an era of new European revolutions that will lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, paving the way for the establishment of a socialist society.”11

Tactics and the ‘new Lenin’

The reason that I have emphasised these themes in Kautsky is because Lenin emphasises them. But I now I wish to discuss the tactical conclusions. The two main tactical conclusions which Lenin draws from this era of upheaval are also contained in Kautsky, even if they are somewhat more ambiguous.

By the two tactics I mean the ones he is already going for in September 1914 – ie, turn the imperialist war into a civil war and get rid of opportunism in the new international.

For the first of these tactics, I wish to bring your attention to something which was very important to Lenin, and which he referred to on numerous occasions – the Basel manifesto of 1912. It was the last in a series of manifestos at Socialist International congresses. This was a special one called because of a diplomatic crisis. This manifesto is important for Lenin, who refers to it many times, and the reason I think he does so is that it was a solemn document which everybody signed up to, but few actually carried out.

Representatives of European social democracy at the Basel congress repeated their 1907 pledge to resolve to “use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”12

It is a little more evasive than maybe Lenin realised. Note how it says “to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule”. What he understood it to mean was that the parties were under the obligation of their own manifesto to turn the imperialist war into a civil war: ie, turn an unjust war into revolution. So he insists that this was a solemn, binding obligation which Kautsky had also signed up to. Furthermore, he believed that the Basel manifesto was squarely within the socialist tradition – another piece of ‘aggressive unoriginality’.

For Lenin it was “the summation of millions and millions of proclamations, articles, books and speeches of the socialists of all countries in the entire epoch of the Socialist International. To brush aside the manifesto means to brush aside the whole history of socialism”.13 Because he thought they were brushing this aside, he accused them of being traitors.

So that leads to the next tactical conclusion, which is to get rid of opportunism from the international parties. One of the things Lenin wanted to achieve by this was to get rid of Kautsky! So it is very ironic that he practically quotes Kautsky to explain his reasoning.

Firstly, he gives Kautsky full credit for developing and fighting the concept of opportunism. Even in 1920 Lenin is still saying that, although Kautsky becomes a traitor and an opportunist in 1914, he did yeoman work in fighting opportunism. Secondly, for Lenin the new social chauvinism – ie, people defending the national interest – is just the old opportunism reborn. (By the way, there is a slight problem with this assertion, in that the people who were the most rabid social patriots and social chauvinists tended to have been on the left in France, Germany and Russia.)

Lenin is saying that he understands what is going on in 1914 in terms of how he and Kautsky understood the old Second International – ie, opportunism versus orthodoxy. Lenin actually quotes Kautsky in underlining the need to split if opportunism becomes too dominant – Kautsky advised a split if opportunism became not just a mood or danger, but a tendency that threatened to take over. And then – this is quite amazing – he quotes Kautsky talking about changing the name of the party from ‘Social Democratic’ to ‘Communist’ in order to justify doing so himself. Kautsky had never called for a Third International and would never have wanted it, but the idea of it was inspired by things that Lenin got from Kautsky!

What I have tried to show is that between 1914 and 1916 Lenin operated on the basis of a revolutionary situation and global unrest that had certain features requiring new tactics. He got his understanding of these, and the assurance that it was the truth, from the old international and from Karl Kautsky.

I also pointed out that Lenin had rhetorical reasons for making this kind of assumption. If he had gone and rethought Marxism and said that everyone had been wrong for the last 30 years and people should follow him on that basis, then he would not have got very far. He did not – what he did was state that he was the one standing up for what all the others used to say.

Again I am not giving you my opinion, but Lenin’s – he might be right or he might be wrong. I happen to think he was right, but even if he was wrong, even if it was all just rhetorical and he did not really mean it, we should definitely take it very seriously when Lenin says that Kautsky and his The road to power is the most precise definition of the tasks of our times.

In Lenin’s mind, the job of a political leader was to take the broad definition of the historical situation and work out tactics that are both true to the principles and applied to the situation, which I think is what he meant when he talked about dialectics. At one point he says that Kautsky had taught us dialectics, but he completely failed to apply them himself when it came to 1914.

So did 1914 lead to a new Lenin? I think it did in one way. It led to Lenin putting himself on the line on a European scale. He was now thinking in terms of being a European leader with a European programme. To overstate it perhaps, ‘Lenin had to become Kautsky because Kautsky was not being Kautsky’.


  1. Paraphrasing from Lenin’s letter to Shlapnikov, October 27 1914.
  2. October 31 1914.
  3. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/dec/12.htm
  4. Ibid.
  5. Quoted by Lenin in ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/dec/12.htm
  6. marx.org/archive/lenin/works//1915/csi/ii.htm
  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/nov/20.htm
  8. www.marx.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/ch09.htm
  9. Ibid.
  10. www.marx.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/ch09.htm
  11. www.marx.org/archive/kautsky/1906/xx/revolutions.htm
  12. www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1912/basel-manifesto.htm
  13. VI Lenin Imperialist war: the struggle against social chauvinism and social pacifism.

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