Home > political-economy > My May Day Post: How Kautsky and Lenin Fundamentally Revised Marx

My May Day Post: How Kautsky and Lenin Fundamentally Revised Marx


Part One: “… the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution”

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”

In this statement Marx is arguing changes in material existence and social relations must produce changes in consciousness.

Based on his argument, we can assume when, in the German Ideology, he and Engels wrote capitalism gives rise to,

“a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”,

they were making the argument capitalism gives rise to changes in material existence, social relations and social life that produces a communist consciousness.

I ask this, because I certainly don’t want to be accused of “stringing quotes together”. I want to be sure these two concepts — one from the Communist Manifesto, the other From the German Ideology — actually are related. I want to be sure the two arguments form a discrete, coherent and continuous line of reasoning going through their life’s work. This is so when I ask dumb fucking vanguardist groupuscules (like, e.g., the SWP (UK)) why they exist, I am on solid ground. But. more important, I want to make sure I am on solid ground when I begin looking at the arguments of both Kautsky and Lenin on the issue of working class consciousness. I don’t want any silly mindless vanguardists to say I am taking Engels or Marx out of context when I rip Kautsky and Lenin new assholes.

In the German Ideology, Engels and Marx describe the necessity of communist revolution this way:

“It is a consciousness emanating from a class that forms a majority of society, who bear all the burdens of society with none of its benefits…”

Notice they do not call communism a theory. They say it is the actual consciousness of the working class, which is to say, it is the way this class apprehends and comprehends the world — it is the way this class makes sense of the world. The working class do not have to be taught this view, or re-educated toward this view — this is how they think based on their material existence, social relations and social life.

What has to be emphasized is that this is not a particular feature of the proletariat. The consciousness of every class in society in history was formed by the conditions of its material existence, social relations and social life. There is nothing special about the proletarian communist consciousness except the peculiarities of the class itself. The consciousness of the bourgeoisie is exactly the same as the consciousness of the proletarians in that the bourgeois consciousness is formed by the material conditions of the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois consciousness was not brought to it from outside — from feudal intellectuals — it arose with the bourgeoisie itself. Bourgeois consciousness reflects bourgeois material conditions and bourgeois social relations. If this holds for the bourgeoisie and all previous classes, it must hold for the proletariat as well — or we must explicitly describe how and why it might be different.

Marx and Engels called the consciousness of the working class a communist consciousness — not a class consciousness. So, the question is why, in relation to the bourgeois class, we have a class consciousness, but, in relation to the proletarians, we have a communist consciousness? The answer is both obvious and simple: the proletarians are not a class. As Marx and Engels stated in the German Ideology, the proletariat,

“no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society…”

Since it is not a class, it cannot develop the consciousness of a class, nor act as a class. On the other hand, if proletarians have a communist consciousness, they must already be the actual communist society developing in the belly of capital. The communist consciousness of the proletarians can only suggest they are the communist society itself. The very idea communism is something apart from them leads to the conclusion that communism must be brought to them from outside. It also leads to the conclusion communism is something they must build after the overthrow of capitalism. In fact neither of these conclusions are true: communism is itself the consciousness of proletarians and their actual real mode of existence.

Capitalism has two products: the new productive forces and means of intercourse; and the class of proletarians. Under bourgeois relations of production, the first cause “nothing but mischief”, while the second bears all the burdens of society. The conditions under which the productive forces can be applied, says Marx and Engels, are the conditions of the rule of the specific class to whom these productive forces belong — expressed in the form of the state. For the bourgeois class these conditions are expressed in the bourgeois state. This is a point to which we will return to later — but hold onto it: the conditions under which the productive forces of bourgeois society can be applied are expressed in the bourgeois state.


In What Is To Be Done”, chapter II, part B, Lenin brings us a conception of proletarian consciousness that is entirely at odds with the conception developed by Marx and Engels. Lenin’s argument is based on a conception first introduced into Marxism by “The Pope of Socialists”, Karl Kautsky. Kautsky is interesting in this discussion because his conception of the formation of working class consciousness is completely at odds with Marx. According to Adam Przeworski, in his study Proletariat into a Class:

“Kautsky’s analysis is based on the assumption of the active role of parties and other-political forces in the process of class formation.”

At first glance this statement appears consistent with the Communist Manifesto, where Marx argued,

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

However Przeworski argues the formulation in the Communist Manifesto, leaves some ambiguity regarding what Marx actually meant:

“It is not exactly clear how Marx saw the transformation of economic categories into politically organized classes taking place — what role he assigned to spontaneous self-organization or what role he attributed to parties and other agents of class formation.”

The very way the issue is posed by Przeworski is misleading: There is nothing to suggest in Marx’s statement that parties are in any way responsible for the formation of the proletariat into a class. These parties are themselves proletarian organizations, the self-organized political expressions of the working class. Far from having a “role” as an “agent of class formation”, these parties are the proletarians themselves organizing as a class. Unknowingly Przeworski is examining Marx’s argument using as a measure a conception for which Kautsky himself, not Marx and Engels, is responsible. In Kautsky’s conception, the party is no longer the self-organized political expression of the working class, but an agent of the political formation of the working class.

Along the same lines, in a footnote (14) in his paper, Przeworski cites some guy named Magri to the effect, as Przeworski puts it,  “Marx himself was not aware of the problems generated by this formulation.” Marx, says Magri, seems not to realize “the proletariat cannot achieve a complete vision of the social system as a whole, nor promote its overthrow.” It cannot do this because the working class is confined to the “immediacy of prevailing conditions”. (Whatever the fuck that means. When has any emergent class ever known more than the “immediacy of prevailing conditions” of its existence.) Magri continues:

“Its practice as a class can only develop by transcending this immediacy via the mediation of revolutionary consciousness. What then is the process, the mechanism by which this consciousness is produced? Or, to pose the question more precisely, can this class consciousness develop within the proletariat spontaneously, by virtue of an intrinsic necessity, based on the elements that are already present in its social objectivity and which gradually come to dominate over the other elements that originally condemned it to a subordinate and fragmented condition? Or must revolutionary consciousness represent a transcendence of the immediacy of the proletariat, produced by a qualitative dialectical leap-a complex interaction between external forces and the spontaneous action of class itself? Marx did not confront this problem. [Magri, “Problems of the Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party,” p. 101.]

Przeworski and Magri appear to be completely unaware that Kautsky just invented this idea — an idea that has no basis whatsoever in Marx and Engels writings and could not have any basis in labor theory. So when they go back to find the theoretical roots of Kautsky’s argument in Marx, this idea invented by Kautsky appears nowhere in the writings of either man. So what do Przeworski and Magri do? They then accuse Marx and Engels of being imprecise or unclear.

This is the typical pattern of all dumb Marxist academics and sectarians.

In What Is To Be Done, Lenin also cites Kautsky, not Marx or Engels, as the authority for his own position. He quotes Kautsky explaining that the proletariat is incapable of developing a communist consciousness:

“Many of our revisionist critics believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create, not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness of its necessity.”

The passage from Kautsky quoted by Lenin is so breath-taking precisely because Marx and Engels clearly asserted this almost word for word in the unpublished German Ideology manuscript, where they describe the proletariat as,

“a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”

The comparison of the two texts is astonishing. Amazing though it might seem, Kautsky was labeling Marx’s and Engels’ own position revisionist in the debate within the German party at that time. This argument could not have come to Kautsky from his work with Engels, because, as many scholars today believe, Engels was likely the person who wrote the German Ideology. One is left with the conclusion Kautsky himself invented this argument to explain the importance of political work against the revisionists. Against the idea political work was not necessary or beside the point, Kautsky reached for an explanation that appeared to justify the German party and its importance to the working class. And the justification he reaches for is that the German party provided to the class something it lacked: a communist consciousness. Says Kautsky:

“Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other…”

This might be true as far as it describes the origins of scientific socialism — a theory. Labor theory itself is only a theory derived from the material conditions of the working class; it is not itself the working class’s consciousness. But then Kautsky takes this argument one step further:

“Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so…”

Kautsky is conflating two things at this point: the real communist consciousness of the working class and the theoretical reflection of this consciousness in the form of labor theory. Kautsky is essentially arguing the proletariat is incapable of developing a communist consciousness that Marx and Engels argued was actually the only consciousness the working class was capable of developing.

It would be interesting to know if Kautsky had access to the unpublished German Ideology manuscript at the time he made his own argument. But this is mainly of historical interest, since by the time the manuscript became widely available, the prejudice had already spread within Marxism that communist consciousness is brought to the working class from outside of it. This conception of communism appears in the post-Engels era — Holloway is mistaken to attribute it to Engels — as the idea that communist consciousness is first and foremost a theoretically derived consciousness, a theory of capitalist society.

Przeworski argues, Kautsky, may have played a critical function in the subsequent evolution of all forms of Marxism:

“Perhaps even more importantly, Kautsky’s book represents ‘orthodox Marxist thought,’ as this thought functioned not only within the context of the debates of the time, but in the form in which it has been perpetuated for nearly a century. Afraid of simplifying orthodoxy, Marx disclaimed being ‘a Marxist.’ Kautsky was a Marxist, and his book is a codified summary of ‘Marxism.'”

Is Przeworski correct in this assessment? Is he over-reaching here in describing Kautsky’s role? I think he is over-reaching at least somewhat, since Kautsky’s role in this fundamental revision of labor theory was vastly extended by the success of the Soviet revolution. Lenin, who would later castigate Kautsky for revisionism on other significant points of labor theory, also imported Kautsky’s argument on communist consciousness into his own interpretation of labor theory, and never subsequently rejected it. If Kautsky’s interpretation became the prevailing one as a result of internal disputes in the German party, it became an article of faith with the hugely popular, almost literally earthshaking, success of the October Revolution.


Kautsky’s argument that the working class is incapable of developing a communist consciousness was a fundamental revision of labor theory almost word for word. For Lenin, this revisionist argument is the starting point of his own argument on how communists should organize themselves within the general workers’ movement and the relation of this organization to the working class movement itself.

As I noted before, according to labor theory, the working class itself produces a communist consciousness that emanates throughout bourgeois society. In line with the assumptions of labor theory, this communist consciousness must reflect the actual conditions of material existence of this class, its social relations and the social life of these individuals (Communist Manifesto). This would suggest those material conditions, social relations and individual social lives are already effectively communistic. Which is to say, the proletarians themselves are the new society gestating within the womb of bourgeois society. Lenin, who is completely familiar with the argument Marx makes in the Communist Manifesto nevertheless insists the working class cannot acquire a communist consciousness and produce a revolutionary movement without acquiring revolutionary communist theory.

It can be seen in Lenin’s very approach to the problem of consciousness that he is working from the assumption the working class is not itself the new society. The new society is something external to the working class that it must attain and this is only possible through scientific understanding. This external thing which must be attained by the working class is the bourgeois state. Lenin’s criticism of the “economists” in Russia is precisely along these lines:

“There is politics and politics. Thus, we see that Rabochaya Mysl does not so much deny the political struggle, as it bows to its spontaneity, to its unconsciousness.”

This unconscious, or spontaneous, political struggle is a politics that leaves the existing state in the hands of the bourgeoisie. In the very formulation of the problem, as invented by Kautsky and developed by Lenin, communist consciousness is a political (i.e., theoretical), rather than real, consciousness. It is not the way the proletariat actually apprehends and comprehends the world, but the way it apprehends and comprehends politics. To develop this political consciousness among the working class, Lenin argues communists must organize themselves separately from the spontaneous activity of the proletariat:

“The political struggle of Social-Democracy is far more extensive and complex than the economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government. Similarly (indeed for that reason), the organisation of the revolutionary Social-Democratic Party must inevitably be of a kind different from the organisation of the workers designed for this struggle. The workers’ organisation must in the first place be a trade union organisation; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; and thirdly, it must be as public as conditions will allow (here, and further on, of course, I refer only to absolutist Russia). On the other hand, the organisation of the revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people who make revolutionary activity their profession (for which reason I speak of the organisation of revolutionaries, meaning revolutionary Social-Democrats).”

On this basis arises the arguments of our present day vanguardists, who, in total disregard of the Communist Manifesto that “Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties”, argue that this separate organization is necessary if the working class’s own inability to develop a communist consciousness is to be patched by an organization of professional revolutionaries tasked to bring this missing consciousness to them. And, moreover, to substitute for them in functions necessary to the social revolution that the broader organization of the working class cannot accomplish, because these tasks, which are never detailed by Lenin, are far more extensive and complex than the spontaneous struggle of the working class.

Working off of the fundamental revision of labor theory begun by Kautsky, Lenin extended this revision to include not only the need for communist theory to supplement and develop the consciousness of the working class, he also introduced the argument — in direct conflict with the Communist Manifesto — that communists must organize themselves separately from the working class as a whole to facilitate the development of the working class’s own consciousness and to undertake tasks too extensive and complex to be undertaken by the class itself. With Lenin, this organization of professional revolutionaries not only served as a theoretical guide for the class, but would be responsible for molding the class in its struggle against capital.


It is not enough to state both Kautsky and Lenin fundamentally revised labor theory, however. We must also explain the revisions — we have to explain this decidedly ‘non-Marxist’ approach to the problem. I think we can best understand it by looking not at Kautsky’s and Lenin’s argument directly, but, surprisingly, at the argument of Bakunin. Although it might seem that there is little in Bakunin’s argument against Marx and Engels that can be compared to Kautsky’s and Lenin’s argument against them, both the Lenin-Kautsky and the Bakunin arguments in fact share the same assumptions. And these common assumptions led first Bakunin and then Kautsky and Lenin to argue against Marx’s and Engels’ analysis. Underlying European social-democracy, Leninist vanguardism and present day anarchism is the common assumption that communism is something other than the working class itself. In the first two, communism is identified with the state power; in the second, it is identified with the immediate abolition of the state.

It should be clear, Bakunin was not someone unfamiliar with Marx; he actually translated and introduced Marx’s Capital to Russia. His criticisms of Marx were no more founded on ignorance of Marx’s theory than the criticisms of Marx by Kautsky and Lenin. All three were completely familiar with Capital and with the general methods employed by Marx in his analysis. And all three came to conclusions that were diametrically opposed to Marx’s and Engels’s conclusions. It cannot be stated that Kautsky and Lenin’s conclusions were in any way sympathetic to labor theory while Bakunin’s conclusion was hostile. The conclusions of all three were simply based on assumptions that violated labor theory as Marx and Engels described them — nothing more.

The assumption of labor theory is the proletariat is in itself the new society and needs no other form to express itself as communism. This means all forms of self-activity and self-organization of the proletariat is an expression of its essentially communist character — a real communist movement of society. In his Critique of the Marxist Theory of the State, Bakunin disagreed with this notion as much as Kautsky and Lenin, as he explains when it comes to the question of organization of necessary social tasks in a post-capitalist society:

“We have already expressed several times our deep aversion to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the workers, if not as a final ideal at least as the next immediate goal, the founding of a people’s state, which according to their interpretation will be nothing but ‘the proletariat elevated to the status of the governing class.’”

Bakunin asks: over whom will the proletariat rule? Another laboring class? The peasants? One nation ruling over another?  If there is a state in any form — even a “proletarian state” — there will be slavery and domination of one class over another. Even necessary social concerns, like utilities or water and sewer works, roads, etc., will lead to the formation of a new privileged class of scientists and administrators. Beyond this, the very idea of elected representatives had to lead to the emergence of a new sort of despotism:

“The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.

Ultimately, from whatever point of view we look at this question, we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority. The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people. Those who doubt this know very little about human nature.”

What makes Bakunin’s criticism of Marx appear so devastating is that many of these questions have no way of being answered concretely. The very attempt to answer Bakunin’s questions would result in precisely what he rails against: a “scheme of social organization taken from books or concocted by ourselves.” How can you answer the question of forms of representation without immediately concocting a scheme for representation? Bakunin was not so dense as not to realize this — moreover he was already quite familiar with the Communist Manifesto in which all communists agreed it was not the task of communists to set up principles by which to shape and mould the working class movement.

Answering Bakunin’s questions would be precisely an attempt to establish in advance what the working class must do. As the Paris Commune had already demonstrated, only the working class itself could answer these questions and they could only do so in light of their practical movement.

Bakunin takes it on himself then to declare anarchism the enemy: “of every government and every state power, and of governmental organization in general.” By this assertion, Bakunin unilaterally declares anarchism to be the enemy of the Commune and even of every form of organization the workers themselves might see as necessary. Under the guise of opposing the reemergence of an alien exploiting power over the working class in the aftermath of the social revolution, Bakunin denies even the validity of the proletariat’s own self-organization.

And in this denial we find his essential agreement with Lenin, who also decries this self-organization as necessarily resulting in the working class’s “subordination to bourgeois ideology”. For both Bakunin and for Lenin, the spontaneous self-organization of the working class must, of necessity, lead to a bourgeois dictatorship. Although expressed in very different conclusions, Lenin’s argument is essentially Bakunin’s own argument against Marx and Engels. The proletariat is incapable of acquiring a communist consciousness based on its own material conditions of existence, social relations and social life. The self-organization of the working class must, therefore, lead to the rule of the bourgeoisie, as Lenin argued, or to a new form of exploitative despotism, as was argued by Bakunin.

It is not that European social-democracy and Leninism proceed from different assumptions than Bakunin’s anarchism — the three proceed from the very same assumption about the working class: profound hostility to, and suspicion of, the revolutionary potential of the working class. Against Marx’s and Engels’ conception of the proletariat as itself the new communist society, emanating a communist consciousness, social-democracy, Leninism and anarchism assert the working class is incapable of communist consciousness. This argument suggests there is nothing of particular significance about the material conditions, social relations and social life of the working class compared to other classes in society.

Just to be clear on what Kautsky, Lenin and Bakunin argued, each in their own way: The fact that all other classes in society rest on a definite relation to their particular forms of property has no significance in comparison to a class that has no property. The fact that the worker converts her capacities to labor into a commodity to be sold is no different than the sale of any other commodity. It does not matter, in this argument, that the shoemaker sells shoes, while the shoemaker’s employee sells herself. The workers very humanity is no different than a pair of cheap fucking shoes which can be sold on the market. The farmer has his crop, the bankster his money-capital, the capitalist his shoes and the worker her self: everybody has something to sell.

On the other hand, the fact that the proletarians are engaged in directly social labor, and are together dependent on a common means of production that can only be placed in motion by their combined cooperative effort, is to be considered of no significance whatsoever. Are we to believe this universal dependence of the proletarians on material conditions that require their combined cooperative effort leads to the same results as competition between capitals? Social-democracy, Leninism and anarchism says, “Yes.” If left to themselves, say all of these ideologies, the proletarians will simply reproduce all the features of present society.

In contrast to all three of these ideologies, Marx and Engels maintained the same argument as they did with bourgeois society. As Marx and Engels explained in the German Ideology, the conditions under which the productive forces can be applied are the conditions of a specific class expressed in the form of a given state. The state produced by the proletariat, therefore, could not be that of the bourgeois state, since the material conditions of the proletariat were not those of the bourgeois class. It cannot as social-democracy, Leninism and anarchism suggest lead to the present state in any form whatsoever. This material difference has nothing whatsoever to do with the political (theoretical) development of the class, its stage of development nor so-called scientific and technical knowledge necessary to manage social production. It concerns only the character of the proletariat itself as the new society already present in the womb of capitalist society. The “state” produced by the community of social producers can only be an association of these social producers.

As might be expected, this has implications for how the working class movement appears within capitalist political relations itself. I will turn to these implications next.

  1. April 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    As usual, a fascinating post! On another matter, however, why are you linking to an anti-Semitic cesspool like zombie’s soup?


    • April 10, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      Thank you. I had not paid attention to that site for some time. I did not realize it had become what it is.

  2. Chris Wright
    April 23, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Here we meet a clear impasse. The role of the proletariat has been to destroy the capitalist mode of production in order to liberate the productive forces imprisoned within it: communism was to begin only after this action was accomplished. But far from imprisoning the productive forces, capitalism raises them to new heights, because they exist for the benefit of capital, not humanity. The proletariat therefore, is superfluous. The reversal referred to just now, whereby the productive forces are liberated by capital, rather than by the proletariat, which has been made possible thanks to the development of science, is a development in parallel with the domestication of human beings. Their domestication is their acceptance of the development of capital as theorized by Marxism, which is itself the arch-defender of the growth of productive forces. In the course of this development, the proletariat as producer of surplus value has been denied even this function by the generalization of wage labour and the destruction of any possible distinction between productive and unproductive work. The once revered proletariat has now become the strongest upholder of the capitalist mode of production. What does the proletariat want? And those who speak in the name of the proletariat and happily venerate its name – what do they want? If it is full employment and self-management, this would only ensure the permanent continuity of the capitalist mode of production since it has now become humanized. The left all believe that the process of production, being rationality in action, only needs to be made to function for human needs. But this rationality is capital itself.
    Against Domestication, Camatte

    • April 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

      What an interestingly pessimistic take on the problem. Thanx

  3. December 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    I have to say that your points against Bakunin are complete rubbish. I would suggest that you read up on his ideas before trying to refute them. In terms of the Commune, well, a great many of its ideas — as praised by Marx — can be found in Bakunin and Proudhon. Given that Proudhon was very influential in French labour circles, it is not too surprising.

    In terms of his critique of Marx, Bakunin’s basic point was that any state would be above the organisations of workers and so an alien power (top-down, bureaucratic, a new class). History proved him right.

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