It is perhaps helpful to take a step back from current events and learn from the history of the socialist tradition about political mistakes made in the past, and the origins and significance of these. German socialist Karl Kautsky, influential a century ago, is the classic embodiment of what's known as 'centrism'. This summary draws heavily on 'The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition' (p135-143) by John Rees.
Karl Kautsky became involved in Marxist politics while Marx was still alive. After Marx's death in 1883 he worked closely with Marx's lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels. He edited the journal Die Neue Zeit for thirty five years, from 1883 onwards, and it became very influential in marxist circles internationally. He popularised Marxist ideas more than anyone in the last years of the nineteeenth century and the start of the twentieth.
Referred to as 'the Pope of Marxism', he was central to the politics of the Second International of socialist organisations (which was effectively finished, in 1914, by the capitulation of most affiliates in supporting World War One).
Caught between reform and revolution
However, Kautsky was (in the words of John Rees) 'the living embodiment of the contradiction between reform and revolution'. This makes him a case study in what is typically referred to as 'centrism'. Trotsky, in his obituary of Kautsky in the late 1930s, wrote that he 'occupied himself with commenting upon and justifying the policy of reform from a revolutionary perspective'. Marx, rather more bluntly, called the young Kautsky 'a small-minded medicority'.
Around the turn of the century the German SPD's Marxist principles were threatened from the right - there was a revisionist attitude associated with Eduard Bernstein and others. Kautsky defended the left, including the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, against Bernstein. This meant that at a formal or theoretical level his Marxist credentials were impeccable.
But this only goes so far. As Rees puts it, 'Kautsky could continue to appear to hold revolutionary purity in theory, although in practice the SPD fell more and more completely into the hands of the revisionists.' He describes the split between theory and practice as 'the hallmark of Kautsky's marxism'.
Evolutionary or revolutionary perspective?
Kautsky's attitude to the marxist dialectic - which is central to marxist theory - captured this contradiction. He may have subscribed to it offically, but in effect he drained the dialectic of its genuinely revolutionary content. He wanted, as Rees writes, 'to rid the dialectic of any notion of internal contradiction, of leaps and revolutions in social development, and leave behind only a flat, featureless process of peaceful evolution.'
This 'Darwinian' version of the dialectic was at odds with Marx's dialectic; it became the philosophical justifcation for a retreat from authentically revolutionary practice. Kautsky no longer viewed the working class as - in the words of Rees - 'a class whose struggle transforms it from being an exploited class lacking in socialist consciousness and unable to control the society it produces into a class capable of consciously fighting to banish exploitation and able to run society according to its own needs'.
In Kautsky's deterministic conception of history, people are really pawns at the mercy of larger historical forces rather than active agents capable of making history. Kautsky's weaknesses informed his approach to strategy and tactics for the ostensibly Marxist SPD.
He was most noticeably inadquate when there were sharp turns in events, for example the revolution in Russia in 1905. That unexpected upsurge of revolt illustrated the need for analysis of the world informed by the marxist dialectic, capable of explaining ruptures in historical development. Rosa Luxemburg - consistently a revolutionary and a Marxist, representing the left of the SPD - fared much better in responding to the events of 1905.
Kautsky failed to grasp the significance of the rise of the trade union bureaucracy, and its role in the SPD, during the early years of the twentieth century. He underestimated the political weight of the bureaucracy, in the unions but also regarding its role inside the SPD. This pulled him to the right, so he became a bulwark for the right-wing and bureaucratised leadership against radical critics from the left.
Lessons from Kautsky
This is one of the main lessons to take from Kautsky's political trajectory: too strong an orientation on the union bureaucracies, as opposed to a powerful rank and file strategy, is liable to pull revolutionaries into compromise and conciliation with reformism. This is true regardless of someone's formal commitment to Marxism as a theory. That's another lesson: the need for revolutionary practice to remain aligned with revolutionary theory.
One of the striking features, for me, is how Kautsky had to attack the authentic revolutionary left as part of allying with more (comparatively) right wing forces in the SPD and labour movement. This was the logic of 'going soft' on the right - having to increasingly attack the left. This is what happens when there's a process of polarisation.
It seems to me, too, that Kautsky gave up on what Lukacs later talked of as 'the actuality of revolution', an insight derived from Lenin that recognises the constant latent potential for revolutionary upheaval in the contradictions and crises of capitalism. However distant revolution may seem most of the time, the fact is that it is constantly with us as a possibility.
This isn't wishful thinking - it is rooted in a dialectical understanding of the internally contradictory and constantly changing nature of society. Kautsky, like all centrists, adopted a political practice that was out of kilter with this revolutionary perspective - even if he had known Marx and Engels.