Review: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, by Karl Kautsky

I am of two minds about this book. On the one hand, it hasn’t stood the test of time. Kautsky’s predictions from 1918 about what was going to happen next in Soviet Russia turned out to be wildly off the mark. To be fair, he could not have known about the new totalitarian society that was then being born. And yet it is strange that in a book so critical of Lenin and his party, there is no mention of the Red Terror, the creation of the feared Cheka or the labour camps that grew into the GULAG. Some of Kautsky’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks come, strangely, from the left — for example, he chastises them for encouraging peasants to seize the land and divvy it up among themselves, rather than turn it over to the state.

But on the other hand, when Kautsky wrote the book in the summer of 1918, just nine months after the Bolsheviks seized power, hardly any socialists outside of Russia had a bad thing to say about them. Even Rosa Luxemburg’s short book, though critical of the Bolsheviks, is extremely enthusiastic about their revolution. But in this book, Kautsky slowly, methodically explains the connection between socialism and democracy, completely rejecting dictatorship. He even does an effective job of explaining precisely what Karl Marx meant when he used the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” on one or two occasions. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t mean banning socialist parties, shooting hostages, invading neighbouring countries and creating an entire economy based on slave labour.)

This edition of the book includes a long introduction by Kautsky’s grandson John, which is terrific — and not least because he quotes Max Shachtman, a personal favourite. John Kautsky calls his grandfather’s book “an important document in the history of Marxism and of the socialist movement and a milestone at the point of its path where communism and democratic socialism parted ways.” I would argue that it took another six years for that to happen, and that the suppression of the 1924 uprising in Georgia played a surprising role in that. But it was in this book that Kautsky first laid out the distinction between democracy and dictatorship that played such a critical role in the creation of the modern socialist movement.