How to be truly radical: Karl Kautsky on theology

I have been thoroughly enjoying a careful reread of Karl Kautsky’s much neglected Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus, especially the second volume. The translation is known as Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. Not a bad title, since Kautsky has no problem speaking about Christian and heretical communism. More soon, but for now an insight that goes well beyond both Marx and Engels:

The more radical a social movement, the more theological are its party words (p.221).

His immediate reference is the Reformation. Immediate political and economic terms were expressed as such – bread riots, protests against landlords, etc. But when a movement gained in breadth and strength, it sought deeper and more radical expression. This is where it became thoroughly theological.


6 thoughts on “How to be truly radical: Karl Kautsky on theology

  1. Do you think that the move toward a more overtly theological rhetoric is a sign that a movement is losing sight of its materiality, becoming more concerned with transcendent formalizations?

    1. That’s the more usual interpretation, so Kautsky’s argument is both counter-intuitive and more deeply dialectical. It reminds me of Lukacs’s observation that the more abstract you become, the more concrete is your analysis- precisely what Lenin rediscovered when reading Hegel in 1914.

  2. Doesn’t Engels say something similar (or maybe the opposite) in The Peasant War in Germany? I recall something about Muntzer expressing more radical demands the closer he came to defeat.

    1. He does say that, but the Bauernkrieg study is not Engels’s best. He argues that theological language cloaked – using the terminology of the day – properly political and economic demands. Indeed, to his inner circle Muntzer supposedly dropped theological language altogether. Not a microgram of evidence for that.

  3. It seems to me that Kautsky is describing how local movements, whose interests and demands begin in fundamentally economic terms, are transformed when they expand regionally, joining with others of similar interests and demands. The point being the necessity of shifting scope, not necessarily that of moving into a theological realm.

    Kautsky explains that as long as the “special demands” of the movement remain as such, “its economic character is clearly evident.” But insofar as a movement expands and seeks to transform all of society, the “ultimate aims of a movement” will necessarily become more abstract and look to “lofty general principles” for their explanation. Consequently the economic basis becomes obscured.

    The Reformation connection is by analogy. He says, “This is a phenomenon which often meets us in the period of the Reformation, and finds its analogy in modern middle-class and proletarian movements.”

    “But if the movement has to do with the general class-antagonism of the middle class or proletariat against existing society, then, to a superficial observer, the economic basis is almost wholly lost sight of, and it becomes a question of the everlasting principles of natural right, reason, justice, &c., &c. At the time of the Reformation, the general tone of thought was not legal, but theological, and, in consequence, the more radical a social movement, the more theological were its party words; such as the “Will of God”, the “Word of Christ”, and others of a similar nature.”

    1. Exactly, and if you read closely, Kautskyis advances an argument that I have found enormously useful: the abstractions of political radicalism and theology are deeply translatable, which usefully relativises both and offers a far more fruitful way forward to understanding the intersections between Marxism and religion. This is a key idea in my book on Lenin.

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