The Renegade Kautsky and his Acolyte Eric Blanc

The Renegade Kautsky and his Acolyte Eric Blanc

Some thoughts on Kautsky, Jacobin magazine and the new Social Democratic current.

Note 1: This is a second draft of a longer version written just after reading the article so the original is a bit more disjointed and rambly.

Note 2: The text in the image is actually a qoute from Trotsky, unless Kautsky qouted in a response piece I'm unaware of, then its misattributed. Nevertheless the comment does some up the historical reputation of the man quite well.

Jacobin is a magazine that had a lot of promise. A magazine that's openly socialist and is getting a lot closer to a mass readership than any of the hundreds of newspapers and magazines and journals that have come before it and don't have a government subsidy or monopoly. But sadly its increasingly becoming a bit of punching bag in my circles, and I can't really disagree myself. The few articles I've liked or thought were important turned out to have been originally written for a different publication and then rehosted. Now to be clear rehosting is an important and useful service, its mostly what I do online so I'm not bringing this up to be dismissive I'm just relating my experiences with the publication.

One article that got a lot of derision a few months ago was Why Kautsky was Right (and Why you Should Care) by Eric Blanc. Most people on my radar made some comments about SPD degeneration, you know World War One, siding with the Freikorps, murdering its own members for being to radical etc and just writ it off as yet another example of Jacobins slide to the centre.

But well I figured I'd read it, and eventually got around to reading it. I don't think the argument is convincing, but it turned out to be a very different argument from what I thought it would make going in. I think it does merit a bit of response, because honestly as increased popularity of "the Left" has continued I have noticed a small but growing revival of what's sometimes called Orthodox Marxism, but that label is also applied to others not really compatible with Kautsky and sometimes Democratic Marxism, but again he doesn't sit easily with the others lumped under the banner, and is in my experience more commonly called Kautskyism,

The article written by Eric Blanc was largely a response piece to two other authors Muldoon and Post, whom Blanc believes are too attached to Leninism to be objective. Personally speaking I'm not familiar with any of the three authors nor am I really interested in which of the three are proved right, so I'm going to be skipping most of the direct responses to Post and Muldoon, except for areas were I do believe its relevant to what I think are the main issues with Blancs work.

Here's the article as it appears on Jacobin

For me the meat of the article begins with the section Kautsky's Democratic Road to Socialism, the previous section about Kautsky earlier more radical ideas and views and how they've been completely overshadowed by his more famous, or more infamous and more reformist and moderate stances later in life is largely true. I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the younger Kautsky either but I take the point.

Though I do disagree with the way Blanc absolves him of agency in his own compromise. The man did re-join the SPD in 1920, after they had led a brutal paramilitary counterrevolution against German socialists after all.

The articles defence of what I'm calling for convenience Kautsky's Democratic theories on revolution lies on two points.

  • The majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests.
  • Technological advances have made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old-nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting

Individually they're very power points to consider, do I even need to give an example of a failed insurrection? I'm sure we can all think of several. And Kautsky was arguing this in the early days of the 20th century, if anything military technology has increased significantly as has the repressive means of most states since then.

And its not hard to find a period of intense and popular struggle that sadly petered out with elections. To give an example the Poll tax protests of 89-90 and the famous riot in London, the mass resistance successfully scrapped the taxation scheme and brought down the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but the government continued to limp on for two years and even narrowly win the following elections.

That said, I don't think either point is insurmountable, nor do I believe they have much of a relationship. Autocratic states generally are just as advanced as more democratic states, and usually much of their military and police are more actively repressive and yet successful insurrections against them have happened since the 1900s to relatively recently. The Tsar lost power in February of 1917 due to massive resistance and revolution, having one of largest armies in the world didn't save the Shah in 1979 either.

So if insurrection can topple defeat the armed wings of autocratic states what makes democratic states immune? Blanc doesn't specify. And if we look a bit broader we find that the more democratic states are often very vulnerable to armed take over. Its just that mostly these are done by people who are reactionary in the form of coups, though there have been cases where this has been done with a lot of support. For example when the Czechoslovak Communist party launched a coup in 1948 it was largest party in the governing coalition with 31% of the vote.

I would agree with the last part that the old barricade model popularised by the rebellions in Paris in the 19th century aren't sufficient. Blanqui makes a similar argument in 1866

For with such a system, defeat is certain. It comes at the end in the person of two or three regiments which fall upon the barricade and crush their few remaining defenders. The whole battle is just the monotonous repetition of this invariable maneuver. While the insurrectionists smoke their pipes behind heaps of paving stones, the enemy successively concentrates all his forces against one point, then on to a second, a third, a fourth, and thereby exterminates the insurrection one bit at a time.

And his prediction would prove true in 1871 with the crushing of the Paris Commune.

But insurrections haven't generally followed that model since 1848, while barricades haven't gone away they're mainly used when the situation forces it, not as part some grand strategy. Even the Paris Commune involved them sending troops into the field, then falling back to a series of fortifications and then finally the barricades as a last resort once the walls were breached.

And Blanc should know this, because as part of his frequent responses to Muldoon and Post he frequently goes back to October 1917 which not exactly a copy of Paris of 1830.

And speaking of the Bolsheviks coming to power, not only was the street fighting different but it was not an attack on the Tsar but on the Provisional Government. On paper the Provisional Government was parliamentary and did have in its early days something close to a democratic mandate through its relationship with the parties in the Soviet, though it squandered much of that.

Now personally speaking the Provisional Government or the old Duma that was largely based on doesn't meet my criteria for a democratic state and I doubt it does for many other people's. But its very important that Kautsky came to these conclusion in the 1910s at the latest when he was active in Imperial Germany. So while the Provisional Government was corrupt and autocratic by 1917 standards it wasn't atypical.

Which leads us to the former point and the very thorny issue of democracy.

Democracy Manifest?

Now the word democracy despite or because of its popularity has a lot of different meanings. The most popular usage is that a government where the representatives are chosen by some kind of election preferably where all the votes are weighted the same and the electorate is as close to universal as possible.

But there are exceptions, I'm one of them and so is Kautsky, he didn't beleive that this was enough to make a nation truly democratic and beleived in going further.

To qoute Blanc

In line with this approach, Kautsky insisted that fighting for a democratic republic — the complete democratization of the political regime, election of state officials, dissolution of the standing army, etc. — was a central component of socialist politics.

This definition will be important later.

However since he was already arguing the futility of insurrection in states that had achieved the very limited democratic levels of Imperial Germany, it does seem that a very low level of democracy is sufficient to rule out the feasibility of more militant roads to socialism. I initially struggled with this on the one hand Kautsky seems adamant that only democracy can achieve socialism but none of the countries that existed at the time would measure up to even the limited liberal opinions of democracy in our modern times. All the more democratic nations directly disenfranchised large chunks of their populations and had unelected (the House of Lords in the UK, the Senate in the US until 1913 etc) arms of government making major decisions.

But it seems given what I know of Kautsky and what Eric Blanc states in his articles once a state achieves a parliament that has some power and has an electorate its reached the stage where the only hope is to push on for more democratisation of the state.

Blanc will eventually gives us a concrete example of what he considers enough of a democratic foundation for Kautskyist democratic revolution.

But before that I do concede that examples of socialist risings against more democratic states are rare, if we broaden our definitions of insurrection the most obvious examples would be France in 1968 and the struggles in Italy in the 70s, and possibly the red years in Italy just after the First World War. Now some may take issue with calling these insurrections, but not only did the Italian experience involved limit armed clashes but Kautsky also turned against general strikes, mass street protest and workplace occupations around the same time. This was largely what caused his rift with more radical social democrats like Rosa Luxemburg.

Thinking a bit harder I beleive you could also make a case for the Zapatista rising. It may seem strange to call the Mexican state under the PRI a democracy but by the very limited standards of Kautsky and Blanc it seems to count.

Now I agree these aren't perfect examples, the Zapatistas didn't have any support outside of Chiapas but its clear they were and are supported quite a lot by the working poor in that state, and while its political synthesis doesn't match our common conceptions of socialism it was a revolt against the effects of capitalism on their communities, particularly threat of a free trade agreements.

The Finnish Case

I think its time to get to the most surprising part of Blancs article.


Similarly, Post at no point provides any evidence for his assertion that
only workers’ councils, not a socialist-led government elected by universal suffrage, are capable of leading a break with capitalism.

Now as said earlier I'm not familiar with Post's work so I don't know if Blancs assertion is accurate. But I do know that Blanc provides no evidence of his chosen path representing a break with capitalism.

He does try though, and its here where we get Blancs own criteria for a sufficient level of democracy, the Grand Duchy of Finland.

The viability of Kautsky’s strategy in practice was demonstrated by the Finnish Revolution of 1917–18. Unlike most social-democratic parties of the era, the Finnish Social Democracy under the guidance of a cadre of young “Kautskyists” led by Otto Kuusinen upheld its commitment to radical democratic socialism. Through patient class-conscious organization and education, Finnish socialists won a majority in parliament in 1916, leading the Right to dissolve the institution in the summer of 1917, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution in January 1918. Finnish social democracy’s preference for a defensive parliamentary strategy did not prevent it from overthrowing capitalist rule and taking steps towards socialism.

This slab of text links to another article written by Blanc and hosted on Jacobin Finland's Revolution

Since Blanc is putting so much of his faith in the revolutionary power of Kautsky into the Finnish experience, I'm going to be qouting extensively from this article too.

The reason of citing Finland, is because Blanc believes its an example apparently of mass socialist party working within a Democratic system and maintaining a more radical commitment to anti-capitalism. There's just one problem here, in Blanc's own words in the Finnish Revolution article, that radicalism was tied to events in the wider Russian Empire.

But Finland’s participation in the 1905 Revolution veered the party to the left. During the November 1905 general strike, one Finnish socialist leader marveled at the popular upsurge:
"We live in a wonderful period of time … Peoples who were humble and satisfied to bear the burden of slavery have suddenly thrown off their yoke. Groups who until now have been eating pine bark, now demand bread."
In the wake of the 1905 Revolution, moderate socialist MPs, union leaders, and functionaries now found themselves a minority within the SDP. Seeking to implement the orientation elaborated by German Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, from 1906 onwards most of the party infused legal tactics and a parliamentary focus with a sharp class-struggle politics. “Class hatred is to be welcomed, as it is a virtue,” proclaimed one party publication.
Only an independent labor movement, the SDP announced, could advance workers’ interests, defend and expand Finnish autonomy from Russia, and win full political democracy. A socialist revolution would eventually be the task of the day, but until then the party should cautiously build up its strength and avoid any premature clashes with the ruling class.
This strategy of revolutionary social democracy — with its militant message and slow-but-steady methods — was spectacularly successful in Finland. By 1907, over one hundred thousand workers had joined the party, making it the largest socialist organization per capita in the world. And in July 1916 Finnish Social Democracy made history by becoming the first socialist party in any country to win a majority in parliament. Due to recent years of tsarist “Russification,” however, most state power in Finland by this time was held by the Russian administration. Only in 1917 did the SDP confront the challenges of holding a parliamentary socialist majority in a capitalist society.

So we have the revolution of 1905 energising the more radical Finnish Social Democrats to push against the moderates, and an acknowlegdement from Blanc that the Imperial Russian state maintained much of the power within the Duchy. So a Democratic parliament within the belly of an autocracy, for democratic marxists they don't seem to view democracy as much of a priority.

Further into the article it describes how the army (mostly made up of Russians) quickly mutinied once news of the Insurrection in February of 1917 arrived in Finland, and then that revolutionary army disarmed the police. This is very important because it means that a key part of the success of the Finnish Social Democrats, was the insurrection against Tsarist autocracy in the other parts of the Empire. So lets say for argument sake that the success of the Finnish SPD does prove conclusively the sucess of Kautskyian ideas. It ultimately doesn't matter because they're are no longer practical. We don't live in a world where Imperial entities like the Russian Empire exist anymore, there are no moderately democratic provinces within greater autocratic powers. Well I suppose the situation with Hong Kong and the People's Republic might be similar but that's about it as far as I can see.

Blanc in his responses to Muldoon and Post believes that their ideas are too rooted in the past of 1917, but I don't see how he's any different here. In his own words, much of the political development of the Finnish SPD was dependent on its connections to the wider Empire, and it too like the German SPD had its own collaborationist wing that worked with anti-socialists.

Like in the rest of the empire, Finland in March was swept up by a call for “national unity.” Hoping to win broad autonomy from the new Russian Provisional Government, a wing of moderate SDP leaders broke with the party’s longstanding position and joined a coalition administration with Finnish liberals. Various radical socialists denounced this move as a “betrayal” and a gross violation of the SDP’s Marxist principles — other key leaders, however, went along with the entry into government in order to prevent a split in the party.

Finland’s political honeymoon was short-lived. The new coalition government was quickly caught in the crossfire of the class struggle as unprecedented militancy erupted in Finland’s workplaces, streets, and rural areas. Some Finnish socialists focused their efforts on building armed workers’ militias. Others promoted strikes, militant trade-unionism, and shop-floor activism.

This is not a picture of ideological coherence or of organisational discipline. The Finnish parliament was also pushing for independence, this agitation got the parliament dissolved by the Provisional Government in Russia, so we see that even during the revolution the parliamentary democratic powers of the Duchy were still highly constrained.

our bourgeoisie had no army, nor even a police force they could count upon … [t]herefore there seemed every reason to keep to the beaten track of parliamentary legality, in which, so it appeared, Social Democracy could wrest one victory after another.

This quotation that Blanc includes in his article does not support him at all. It concedes that their parliamentary stance could only be maintained because the repressive apparatus of the police and army had already been removed by forces independent of them. And even with this miracle the parliamentary road was quickly blocked.

History and curiously Blancs own article goes on to outline how Finnish workers turned increasingly to mass direct action with the leaders of the SPD and its Unions being outflanked, before losing the civil war. I don't see how this is supposed to be compelling, Blanc even goes so far as to say that eventually the Finnish SPD "grew a spine" and started leading the class struggle, but by his own admission this was after the workers and their militia's had already continued on after the moderates in the SPD backed down.

The Finnish Revolution is a very interesting episode and we can learn much from it, but one thing we can't learn from it is how to enact Kaustky's ideas of democratic social revolution. The SPD majority, divered and split, operated within a autocratic society and was forced into its radicalism by the Finnish workers. The only difference between Finland and Germany is the numbers within the factions of the SPD.

This is a recurring flaw in both Blanc and Kautsky's views, on the one hand both acknowledge that for socialism to be achieved it will have to rely on mass struggle, such as a general strike.

To defeat such ruling-class resistance, Kautsky advocated that workers use the weapon of a general strike. He also affirmed that though Marxists desired and advocated a peaceful revolution, they must be prepared to use force if necessary to uphold their democratic mandate. Capitalists would not renounce violence even if the socialists did.

Which raises the question, if the General strike and other forceful means will be the decisive factors, then why bother putting time, resources and faith into parliamentary representatives? Blanc is an outspoken Kautskyite, but even he can only point to one example, and even his own recounting of that example has the parliamentary wing often getting in the way of the more radical workers movement. The phrase growing a spine to describe the eventual coming around of the SPD leaders was his usage, not mine!

What precisely do these politicians bring to the table?

Speaking of

The Heirs of the SPD

But more relevantly, Blanc in his article on Kautsky does have examples of what he believes are the viability of Democratic Socialism for the modern day.

Lastly, upholding the best elements of Kautsky’s approach is important for helping leftists take the electoral arena more seriously. After decades in which apolitical movementism dominated the far left, and consistent support for mainstream Democrats defined the broader “progressive” milieu, mass working-class politics is finally back. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other newly elected radicals have raised working people’s expectations and changed national politics. Socialists should participate in this electoral upsurge to promote mass movements and to organize hundreds of thousands of people into independent working-class organizations.

This is the point where I think its important to go back and remember what Blanc had earlier said about the revolutionary legacy of Kautsky's democratic marxism.

In line with this approach, Kautsky insisted that fighting for a democratic republic — the complete democratization of the political regime, election of state officials, dissolution of the standing army, etc. — was a central component of socialist politics.

How on earth do the people named above fit into this?

This is frankly bizarre, these Democrat politicians are not Kautskyites, and Kautsky's views are not represented by them. Bernie Sanders is not in favour of arming the people, on the contrary he has been a supporter of American militarism

Bernie became an imperialist to get elected in 1990. In August,
1990--after the Bush administration enticed Iraq into invading
Kuwait--Sanders said he wasn't "going to let some damn war cost him the
election," according to a staff member who was present at the time. So
Sanders backed the buildup in the Persian Gulf and dumped on the left
anti-imperialist peace movement, singling out his former
allies like Dave Dellinger for public criticism.

And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez like the SPD who showed their internationalism by voting for War Credits, showed hers by voting to fund ICE a paramilitary body in the United States that torments and hunts suspected illegal migrants, on her first day in office.

Now this is not the place for a full appraisal of the merits of either Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But they're aren't drive by criticisms either. I picked them because they show the fundamental problem with putting faith in career politicians, even those open to socialism or progressivism.

In order for a politician to have the power to influence decisions, they have to achieve a high position in the governing process. This will inevitably mean some compromise. Bernie Sanders said it himself when he was running for Congress in the 90s, opposing war would make him vulnerable in the election so he went out of his way to be in favour of American militarism, burning some bridges and a lot of built up good will as political radical in the process.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of the way ICE operates, she is currently receiving extreme criticism for accusing the organisation of running concentration camps. So why did she vote to fund it? well the bill wasn't just on funding ICE, it was a much larger budget which included funding for ICE. But theres the issue, she and the other more progressive Democratic politicians Blanc is referring to have had to compromise and have helped fund the very agency they are denouncing. Whether they've done this cynically or as part of a lesser evil stance is debatable but largely irrelevant. Again while their critical comments are welcome, the main resistance to the violence of ICE is from the grass roots communities targeted, not from the "radicals" in Congress.

Now I thought Eric Blanc was trying to resuscitate the legacy of Karl Kautsky, and who knows maybe Blanc was, but I don't see how linking him to a new generation of politicians attached to one of the most right wing liberal parties in the world serves that purpose.

For all that's been said I do think the obstacle of even the limited democracy offered by modern liberal states is a serious one that those committed to revolutionary change haven't done a very good job of grappling with. But I don't think Blanc or much of Jacobins output gets us much closer to an answer.

Posted By

Aug 14 2019 02:33


Attached files


Aug 14 2019 11:46

And in regard to the ideological arguments going on in the DSA and 'Jacobin' magazine (in some sort of strange historical replay that seems ignorant of other material changes in the evolution of modern global capitalism) it's worth recalling this:

Aug 14 2019 17:21

Maybe just a point but the Finnish Social-democratic party is called SDP, it is a bit confusing to read this essay when it is called by the same acronym as the SPD by the author.

The articles defence of what I'm calling for convenience Kautsky's Democratic theories on revolution lies on two points.

Aren't these two points just what Engels sort of wrote in Tactics of Social-democracy? At least the second, the first is probably more complicated(which Kautsky also discusses in Road to power in the chapter about legality).

Red Marriott
Aug 14 2019 22:43

Serge on the Finnish revolution and compromises of social democracy;

R Totale
Aug 20 2019 17:11

Fwiw, I think this is an important critique of Blanc: Blanc's now written an entire book setting out his account of the West Virginia strikes, which seems to be that it all came out of the Bernie 2016 campaign, and so if you want to see more mass worker upsurges then you should be a good Kautskyist and go out canvassing for Sanders or whoever.