Loren Balhorn in Jacobin (image Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel. 1529):
Reading Karl Kautsky at the tail end of 2014 is a peculiar undertaking. For starters, there is the burning question of “who actually reads Kautsky?”
Vilified by the Bolsheviks and their descendants for, in their eyes,betraying the Marxist principles his writings had done so much to popularize, yet still too Marxist for comfort in the rightward-moving Social Democratic Party of Weimar Germany, the “Pope of Marxism” has largely been consigned (along with Georgi Plekhanov, Bruno Bauer, and others) to the pile of seemingly-important authors one should at least have read about, but is not obligated to actually read.
Once we move beyond this first peculiarity, we are confronted with the second: namely, that a lot of what Kautsky writes is quite good. Sure, his work is riddled with over-simplifications and teleological projections that hold little water a century after the fact. But to reduce his Marxism to these shortcomings alone is to ignore one of the most important socialists of the twentieth century.
Kautsky’s most significant contribution — namely, systematizing classical Marxist theory into a series of easily understandable, digestible works fit for mass consumption — brought socialist theory and politics into the hearts and minds of millions of European workers at the turn of the last century. Kautsky was considered a “Pope” not due to unassailable ecclesiastic authority or backroom intrigues within the upper ranks of the SPD, but rather because he represented one of the main authorities on Marxist theory in an age where the spirit of revolution was sweeping up the German working classes like never before (and never since).
He sat at the pinnacle of an expanding workers’ movement, whose promises of inevitable socialist transformation seemed plausible and within reach. He wrote for an audience of millions of eager, attentive militants, and no doubt felt a sense of responsibility to use his authority to imbue the spirit of class consciousness in his readers.
This spirit runs through Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, in which Kautsky traces the revolutionary egalitarian impulses of subaltern Protestant currents in the Middle Ages, identifying both an “egalitarian communism” of the poor and downtrodden masses, as well as an intellectualized “Utopian communism” of the educated upper classes.