The German-Austrian Socialist Karl Johann Kautsky (1854-1938) was the major theoretician of German Social Democracy before World War I and one of the principal figures in the history of the international Socialist movement.
Born in Prague, Karl Kautsky was the son of a Czech painter and his actress wife. His studies at the University of Vienna were mainly scientific, however, rather than artistic. Although he considered himself a Socialist by 1875, it was his encounter with Wilhelm Liebkneckt and Eduard Bernstein about 1880 that brought him to Marxism, and in 1883 he became editor of Die neue Zeit, which soon became the leading Marxist theoretical journal in Germany and perhaps the world. In 1887 he published The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, which did much to popularize Marxist ideas.
Ideologically, Kautsky (along with August Bebel) represented the Socialist "center" which retained its belief in the inevitable—indeed imminent—collapse of capitalism, but which differed from the radical left in holding that socialism was possible only through political democracy. Unlike the Socialist right, however, Kautsky maintained that imperial Germany was too undemocratic for Socialists to participate in governmental coalitions and that therefore they must remain in the opposition. Kautsky was the author of much of the Erfurt program of 1891, strongly Marxist and revolutionary in tone, which was to remain the official program of the party throughout the imperial period, and he strongly resisted the revisionist tendencies associated with Bernstein that subsequently challenged many of the basic assumptions laid down at Erfurt.
Kautsky broke with the majority of the Social Democrats during World War I. Convinced of the war guilt of Germany and Austria, he joined the pacifist Independent Socialists (USPD), which cost him the editorship of Die neue Zeit. Though most of the Independent Socialists came from the radical wing of the prewar party, Kautsky did not share their enthusiasm for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and he became one of its most vocal Socialist opponents (especially in his Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1918).
After the German revolution of 1918 Kautsky served briefly in the republican government in the Foreign Office and on the Socialization Commission. In 1919 he helped edit a collection of documents on the outbreak of the war, tending to show the guilt of the Kaiser. But in general Kautsky was without much influence in the post-war Social Democratic party or in the Weimar regime. He moved to Vienna, which he had to flee at the time of the Anschluss, just before his death in 1938.
Further Reading on Karl Johann Kautsky
Extensive material on Kautsky is in George Douglas Howard Cole, A History of Socialist Thought (4 vols., 1953-1958); Sidney Hook, Marx and the Marxists: The Ambiguous Legacy (1955); and J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (2 vols., 1966). See also Merle Fainsod, International Socialism and the World War (1935), and George Lichtheim, A Short History of Socialism (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Geary, Dick, Karl Kautsky, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Kautsky, John H., Karl Kautsky: Marxism, revolution & democracy, New Brunswick, U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1994.
Salvadori, Massimo L., Karl Kautsky and the socialist revolution, 1880-1938, London; New York: Verso, 1990.
Steenson, Gary P., Karl Kautsky, 1854-1938: Marxism in the classical years, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.