Kautsky and ideas “from outside”

Submitted by Matthew on 4 October, 2017 - 11:35 Author: Colin Waugh

In Chapter 3 of The Russian Revolution: When workers took power, Paul Vernadsky discusses Lenin’s 1901/1902 document What Is To Be Done?, referring among other things to Lars T. Lih’s 2005 book, Lenin Rediscovered.

Later (pp163-169) Paul demolishes Lih’s claim that in 1921 Lenin was still a disciple of Karl Kautsky. In Chapter 3, however, he broadly accepts Lih’s approach to What Is To Be Done?, which is that it’s primarily about urging revolutionaries in Russia to model their activity on methods used by the SPD in Germany. He discusses the 1902 passage by Kautsky which Lenin both paraphrased and quoted with approval, the idea in both cases being, that, left to themselves, workers could develop only trade-union consciousness, and hence that the idea of modern socialism had to be brought to them “from outside” by its originators, Marx and Engels. I agree with Kautsky that what Marx and Engels did was decisive, but disagree with him about what this was, and what enabled them to do it.

Lih argues that the “from outside” idea was uncontroversial amongst intended readers of What Is To Be Done? and that Lenin used it only to win an argument. Either way, I feel that what’s involved is more important than this. Paul recognises one reason for this when he says (p112) that in his quote and paraphrase: “Lenin is reiterating the basic Marxist proposition that in bourgeois society, the ruling ideas . . . are those of the ruling class”, and that this “is a key explanation for why workers do not simply draw socialist conclusions from the experiences of their exploitation”.

One problem with Lih’s approach is that, although Lenin quoted Kautsky’s formulation with approval in What Is To Be Done?, much of what he said there, for example when he talked about “embryonic consciousness” (translated by Lih, however, as “embryonic form of purposiveness”) and again in the footnote (number 11) that he attached to the Kautsky quote, shows that he was already beginning to adopt a different approach — a point made also by Hal Draper in his 1990 document ‘The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party” or What they Did to What Is To Be Done?’

Kautsky had claimed that a draft for the Austrian Party’s 1901 programme left the door open to revisionism, by implying that workers develop socialist consciousness spontaneously as a result of their exploited situation, thereby allowing revisionists to cite the supposed counter-instance of England, where a large proletariat showed little sign of embracing revolutionary socialist ideas. He pointed out that the Austrian party’s 1888 Hainfeld Programme had guarded against this by emphasising that the idea of socialism originated with traditional intellectuals. However, Kautsky’s approach assumes that the essentials of modern socialism were defined once and for all at one point — or at least during one period — and thereafter had only to be disseminated. This is wrong, because the world changes — for example, production and hence the working class is repeatedly restructured — so, unless we keep on developing them, socialist ideas can decay, and even turn into weapons in the hands of the ruling class. But by asserting that Marx and Engels created their conception of socialism in isolation from workers, I feel that Kautsky also rejected a key element in Marx’s way of understanding the world.

This problem is apparent also in chapters 5 and 6 of section 11 in The Class Struggle, Kautsky’s commentary on the SPD’s 1891 Erfurt Programme.

The discussion there is much longer and makes interesting points but still comes down eventually to the same mistake, which was to return to a position that Marx had early on and rightly abandoned.

In late 1843 Marx wrote that: “As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, the proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy.” This recognised the necessity for interaction between traditional intellectuals and workers, but could imply that the workers must do all the routine organising and at the same time simply accede to the intellectuals’ model of what should happen. But within two years he moved to a different approach. For example, in 1845, in a note to himself, he famously wrote that, “The [crude] materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by [humans] and that the educator must himself be educated. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

To me, this says, rightly, that we understand the world mainly through working in and on it, which in turn implies that most insights into how it functions must be arrived at by workers — people who until recently have been shut out from mainstream education altogether, or at least beyond a basic level, and also from the chance to express themselves in writing, let alone print. This in turn implies that in class society the elaboration of such insights into transferable concepts — ideas, if you like — has usually been restricted to intellectuals produced by the ruling class in the interests of its continued dominance. Further, given that historically the vast majority of changes to circumstances have taken place through work, especially work with a large physical component — ie have been made by slaves, serfs, peasants, artisans or industrial workers — it’s also a compressed way of saying that, to be properly so-called, education, at least of adults, and including the education of class struggle activists, is necessarily dialogic. In other words, Marx thought that would-be socialists who had been trained through mainstream higher education to elaborate ideas must both teach, and within that same process be taught by, those whose central experience was of hands-on work.

If so, this must have happened with Marx and Engels themselves, because if not it’s hard to see how one person who had never performed alienated labour and another who had performed it only at a desk in a firm part-owned by his father could have come up with a conception of socialism, as expressed for example in the Communist Manifesto, that centres on working-class agency. And in fact there’s every reason to think that between 1843 and 1845 the nature of work was explained to them by the artisans with whom they associated in the League of the Just, and by the textile workers who Engels talked with in Lancashire, including his partner, Mary Burns. In other words, along with their observation of events like the 1844 uprising by linen-weavers in Silesia, their world outlook was shaped by their participation with workers in a sustained process of reciprocal and mutual education.

Kautsky’s model overlooks this aspect altogether.

According to him, some unspecified factor made Marx and Engels reflect on the writings of economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and this led them to create a worldview that they then communicated to working-class activists, who in turn spread it to wider groups of working-class people, a process to be repeated as fresh groups of workers entered industrial production. In this model, then, rather than dialogue of the type described above, you have two phases, in both of which, however, the movement of ideas is one-way. Or, as the Hainfeld programme, co-authored by Kautsky, put it, “the particular program of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Austria” is to “fill [the proletariat] with consciousness of its condition and its tasks”.

In the early 1930s, arguably reflecting on, among other things, the failure to bring about a revolution in Germany and consequent isolation of the Soviet Union, Antonio Gramsci wrote about the need for socialist thinkers and organisers to “work out and make coherent the principles and the problems raised by the masses in their practical activity”, to “never forget to remain in contact with” the broad mass of working-class people, and “indeed [to] find in this contact the source of the problems [they] set out to study and to resolve”.

In doing so, I feel he was trying to revive the approach to ideological struggle that Marx had arrived at in 1845, which is latent in Lenin’s formulations even as he quotes Kautsky’s contrary view, and which we should try to implement now.