‘The Death of Karl Kautsky’ by Leon Trotsky from The New International. Vol. 5 No. 2. February, 1939.

by Max Lieberman, 1919.

Brief, but rich, Leon Trotsky writes on the role of the leading figure of pre-war Marxism, Karl Kautsky, on his death in October, 1938 at age 84.

‘The Death of Karl Kautsky’ by Leon Trotsky from The New International. Vol. 5 No. 2. February, 1939.

The death of Karl Kautsky has passed unnoticed. To the young generation this name says comparatively little. Yet there was a time when Kautsky was in the true sense of the word the teacher who instructed the international proletarian vanguard. To be sure, his influence in the Anglo-Saxon countries, especially also in France, was less considerable; but that is explained by the feeble influence of Marxism in general in these countries. On the other hand, in Germany, in Austria, in Russia, and in the other Slavic countries, Kautsky became an indisputable Marxian authority. The attempts of the present historiography of the Comintern to present things as if Lenin, almost in his youth, had seen in Kautsky an opportunist and had declared war against him, are radically false. Almost up to the time of the world war, Lenin considered Kautsky as the genuine continuator of the cause of Marx and Engels.

This anomaly was explained by the character of the epoch, which was an era of capitalist ascension, of democracy, of adaptation of the proletariat. The revolutionary side of Marxism had changed into an indefinite, in any case, a distant perspective. The struggle for reforms and propaganda was on the order of the day. Kautsky occupied himself with commenting upon and justifying the policy of reform from the point of view of the revolutionary perspective. It was taken for granted that with the change of the objective conditions, Kautsky would know how to arm the party with other methods. That was not the case. The appearance of an epoch of great crises and of great shocks revealed the fundamentally reformist character of the Social Democracy and of its theoretician Kautsky. Lenin broke resolutely with Kautsky at the beginning of the war. After the October Revolution he published a merciless book on the “renegade Kautsky.” As for Marxism, Kautsky, from the beginning of the war, behaved incontestably like a renegade. But as for himself, he was only half a renegade from his past, so to speak: when the problems of the class struggle were posed in all their acuteness, Kautsky found himself constrained to draw the final conclusions of his organic opportunism. Kautsky undoubtedly leaves behind numerous works of value in the field of Marxian theory, which he applied successfully in the most variegated domains. His analytical thought was distinguished by an exceptional force. But it was not the universal creative intelligence of Marx, of Engels, or of Lenin: all his life Kautsky was, at bottom, a talented commentator. His character, like his thought, lacked audacity and sweep, without which revolutionary politics is impossible. From the very first cannon-shot, he occupied an ill-defined pacifist position; then he became one of the leaders of the Independent Social Democratic Party which tried to create a Two-and-one-Half International; then, with the debris of the Independent Party he returned under the wing of the Social Democracy. Kautsky understood nothing of the October Revolution, showed the petty-bourgeois savant’s fright before it, and devoted to it not a few works imbued with a spirit of fierce hostility. His works in the last quarter of a century are characterized by a complete theoretical and political decline.

The foundering of the German and Austrian Social Democracy was also the foundering of all the reformist conceptions of Kautsky. To be sure, he still continued to affirm to the last that he had hopes of a “better future,” of a “regeneration” of democracy, etc.; this passive optimism was only the inertia of a laborious and in its way honest long life, but it contained no independent perspective. We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.

The New International began as the theoretical organ of the Communist League of America, formed in 1928 by supporters of The International Left Opposition in the Communist Party. The CLA merged with the American Workers Party led by AJ Muste to form the Workers Party of the U.S. in Dec 1935 before intervening in the Socialist Party, at which time this magazine was suspended. After leaving the SP, the main Trotskyist forces formed the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and resumed publication. In the split of 1940, the State Capitalist/ Bureaucratic Collectivist faction left the Party and held on to the magazine; the SWP then produced ‘The Fourth International’ as their organ of theory.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol05/no02/v05n02-feb-1939-new-int.pdf

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