5. The Problem of Evil and Karl Kautsky


June 11th, 2020

34 mins 37 secs

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About this Episode

Before we talk about WWI I want to discuss the problem of evil. Some of my listeners may not know the Trolley problem. In the Trolley problem you are driving a Trolley, and it is hurtling down a track at a group of people. You can switch the trolley onto another track where there is only one person. Should you allow a group of people to die, or choose that one person should die? There are endless variations on this basic scenario. What if the one person was your mother? What if instead you were a doctor and could save several people by murdering one person and harvesting their organs to give to the other people? The thing is, we all know the answer to this dilemma. We all know it’s wrong to take a life, and so whatever tradeoff we have to make to save more life we ought to make. What the problem points out is that doing this simple right thing is really hard. It can be a matter of skill, something that you can only succeed at if you have practiced and if you aren’t tired or handicapped. It can even be impossible to do the right thing. This is the problem of evil in its simplest form: we cannot escape the knowledge that there is a right and wrong, but we often find ourselves incapable of doing the right thing. I want to lay all of this out, because this view is fundamentally different from a certain view of evil that I will call superstitious. It’s superstition, completely unfounded, to imagine that people are inherently evil. There are many versions of this idea, but the one most people will be familiar with is the fall of Adam and Eve into original sin. Historically, socialist revolutionaries after WWI think that the German Social Democratic Party’s voting for war bonds shows a fundamental flaw in those people and that ideology. The thinking in terms of original sin, of those socialists and their ideas being fundamentally wrong keeps us from seeing how they ended up doing that in its context. And in failing to see the context, we fail to understand their actions.

In order to break out of superstitious thinking about evil that labels certain people as fundamentally evil in their nature, we can’t do better than to examine what Spinoza says about it. For Spinoza all things are in and part of God. To imagine that god has specific qualities, or occupies a certain place, or wants certain things but not others, is to limit God and to betray the concept of God. For Spinoza, God is infinite. So, eveything that is done anywhere for whatever reason is willed by God. This attitude was rejected by the church, but even people within the enlightenment puzzled over it. Many of them did believed in a transcendent God that sat beyond the realm of human activity. Many of them believed the biblical story of the fall of man where Eve gives the apple to Adam and they both realize they are naked and get kicked out of the garden of Eden. But they couldn’t escape how reasonable Spinoza’s argument was. How could there exist anywhere something that God had not willed? This is the essence of the question William Blyenburg addresses to Spinoza in a letter in 1665. Specifically, Blyenburg asks Spinoza if as Spinoza maintains all acts are willed by God and are therefore not evil, how can it be that God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden for original sin?

Spinoza argues in the following way. Adam’s acts are imperfect only from our point of view as limited human beings. From God’s point of view all actions fit perfectly into the divine plan, a plan that we cannot fully know. In other words a specific act can be evil on its own terms: it doesn’t express the kind of people we would like to be. On another level that act fits into a historical chain of events that then condition what it is possible for us to do next; they shouldn’t be denied, forgotten or repressed. We are most free, so Spinoza claims, when we best understand the conditions that limit us and act according to what is most necessary for us. On yet a third level, under the aspect of eternity all acts are perfectly in their place in the overall act and idea God. Whether the consequences of an act, the act taken from the point of view of history on the second level, can be turned to something better, something progressive, depends in Spinoza’s estimate on our understanding them. I want to quote Spinoza about freedom here, because the idea that someone can only be as good as they have understood their circumstances is going to be crucial to a fair discussion of socialist attitudes and decisions regarding World War 1: “Our freedom lies not in a kind of contingency nor in a kind of indifference, but in the mode of affirmation and denial, so that the less indifference there is in our affirmation or denial, the more we are free. For instance, if God’s nature is known to us, the affirmation of God’s existence follows from our nature with the same necessity as it results from the nature of a triangle that its three angles are equal to two right angles. Yet we are never so free as when we make an affirmation in this way. Now since this necessity is nothing other than God’s decree… hence we may understand after a fashion how we act freely and are the cause of our action notwithstanding that we act necessarily and from God’s decree. This, I repeat, we can understand in a way when we affirm something that we clearly and distinctly perceive. But when we assert something that we do not clearly and distinctly grasp - that is, when we suffer our will to go beyond the bounds of our intellect - then we are not thus able to perceive that necessity and God’s decrees; however, we do perceive the freedom of ours that is always involved in the will (in which respect alone our actions are termed good or bad). If we then attempt to reconcile our freedom with God’s decree and his continuous creation, we confuse that which we clearly and distinctly understand with that which we do not comprehend, and so our effort is in vain. It is therefore sufficient to us to know that we are free, and that we can be so notwithstanding God’s decree, and that we are the cause of evil; for no action can be called evil except in respect of our freedom.” (Spinoza p.825)

On this account evil is a consequence of our limited abilities to know what is best for ourselves. We have an awareness of what we want, but a limited one, and as we pass through the experiences of our life it is hoped that we reflect on the results of pursuing what we want, and that we find a clearer understanding of what we want. This is the road to freedom, and because we walk this road one step at a time we are stuck with this awareness that we do not yet perfectly see what we need to do to be more free. Only under the aspect of eternity, where all things present and past occur in an infinitesimal flash, can all the the things, us included, be said to be completely free.

If anyone wants to ask a question, or help clear me up on something about this, please @ me. We now have the philosophical tools we need to understand the problem of socialists reacting to the approach of World War 1.

The debate around the causes and origin of WW1 is probably interminable. The beliefs people hold about it often say more about who that person is holding the belief and less about the real events. I’m going to lay out the version of the lead up to WW1 that I learned from reading Lenin and from conversations with other people in the Marxist left. Then I’m going to talk about what I learned engaging the latest scholarship on the start of WW1.

The basic story is this. World War one happened because of imperialism. The Capitalist market needs to expand, to generate ever larger profits. From the period of capitalism where small companies compete for market share comes the existence of monopolies, and monopoly capital causes such intense competition for markets that it sets nations on a collision course inevitably leading to world war. Because the German Social Democratic Party was essentially reformist it had delusions that the bourgeois states would reform towards socialism. The reformist illusion went hand in hand with the idea that monopoly capitalists had economic incentives to avoid the destructiveness of war. However, leaving the bourgeois imperialist classes in power made conflict and war inevitable. Had The German SDP, the Socialist Party in France, Labour in Great Britain and the various trade unions in all these countries stuck to the principle of international working class solidarity then they would have been able to stop the bourgeois ruling class of Europe from sending workers to kill their class brethren in the other countries by pursuing revolution to unseat the warmongering bourgeois class. Those who knew better, but did not fight against the rush to war, people like the formerly most important leader in terms of Marxist theory Karl Kautsky, were guilty above all because as the leadership of the conscious workers movement they could have stopped the march to war by taking a strong stand against it. Only the Bolsheviks in Russia and their partners in the 3rd international took the correct position on the eve of war, which was to organize workers internationally for the defeat of all the bourgeois powers, each group working on the national level taking advantage of wartime circumstances to fight their own national bourgeoisie. Had Socialists across Europe resisted the war as was called for at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915, then Europe could have avoided the obscene spectacle of workers of the various nations fighting each other in a war that served only the interests of competing national cliques of capitalists. I’m just typing this all out from memory, so likely there’s a smarter version somewhere with better attention to detail, but I think this corresponds fairly well to the common understanding of events from the point of view of revolutionary Marxist thinking today. Let’s attack this version with facts and see if it holds up.

The war of 1870 came about because France thought they could win, Bismark was willing to allow it to happen for his own political gain and the Habsburgs thought they should be able to sit on the throne of Spain. The excuse for it was a French diplomat having sent a letter to the Prussian King William Friedrich the 3rd to swear to oppose any attempt of the Austrian Hapsburgs to sit on the Spanish throne after Queen Isabella had been deposed in the Spanish revolution of 1868. Though the Prussian King was also against the expansion of Austrian power, the high handed tone of the letter set off a war frenzy in Prussia and Austria. The military cooperation that resulted between the two Germanys led after the war to the political unification of Germany. The existence of a strong state in the center of Europe was new. So long as the middle of Europe was occupied by a lot of squabbling little fiefdoms, great powers on either side of Europe could play them off each other and nibble away at territory in Poland and Hungary or in the Rhineland. With a strong centralized Germany after 1871 France found its interests aligned more and more with those of Russia. In the context of broad social support for Imperialism, with powerful imperialist political movements in France, Germany and Russia, the stage was set for an alliance between France and Russia against Germany. That does not mean that war was inevitable. It does mean that the events of 1914 were prepared by the situation that 1870 created. At the same time, Prussia, with one of the most modern armies in Europe, was now tied to the defense of Austria-Hungary, a sprawling commonwealth that encouraged the cultural autonomy of all these burgeoning nationalist movements where Russia was promoting political radicalism and rebellion, the better to turn these nationalist movements against Austria and then to dominate them from Moscow in the name of pan-Slavic identity.

Let’s say that WW1 had many causes. Sean McMeekin, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey, in “The Russian Origins of the First World War” has laid out a strong case for supposing that in the days following the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Russian and French diplomats conspired to take advantage of the situation to start a war against Germany on two fronts, supported in the west by Great Britain. In 1914 Russia was watching an expanding network of railroads destroy its traditional natural defense of geographic remoteness on its western borders. It was also clear to Russia that with every passing day Turkey was being equipped by the British maritime industry to challenge Russian naval hegemony on the Black Sea. Then as now Russian trade with the rest of the world depends crucially on access to Crimean ports and free passage through the sea of Marmara. If Russia was going to halt this steady encroachment on its imperial interests, it needed a war, and time was running out.

The Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, of 1914. Prussia and Austria develop an ultimatum demanding Serbia officially renounce its claims to independence. This was done instead of a localized punitive military mission, which the Austrians hoped would not result in war with Russia, as many prior crises had been resolved. The Austrians issued an ultimatum because their imperial partner Hungary didn’t want violent confrontation.

On July 20-23rd the French president Poincare meets with the Czar in St. Petersburg. The Russians and the French know about the ultimatum at that point and leave no written record of what they discussed at this key meeting. On July 25th the ultimatum is announced (McMeekin, pp. 65-66). That same day Russian troops begin to mobilize, and simultaneously the German SDP mobilizes mass demonstrations against the war. But by then Russia had already set in motion its invasion (Dorrien, pp. 194-195). On July 26th the news of Russian mobilization arrives in Berlin, alarming authorities there. It is worth noting that the Prussian state was not run democratically, and that furthermore the Prussian army didn’t always obey the Kaiser. During the 400 years that stretch out from the 30 years war to WW1 Prussia had been the site of countless invasions from all directions. Given the sudden and unexpected mobilization of Russia over the German demand for a statement from Serbia, an excuse for war really, it is natural and right that Germans prepared themselves for self defense. The question remained whether they would try against all expectations to avoid the war with Russia that was already in motion. It was not a foregone conclusion that war with Russia would mean war with Great Britain, but the strategic choice on the part of the Germans to invade France through Belgium really cinched the entry of the UK into the war. The leadership of the German Social Democratic Party hoped to avoid an official declaration of war in the faint hope of avoiding it, and their position in the Reichstag was not strong. The Reichstag gave the votes of wealthier and more privileged strata of society three times the weight of the rest of the population. Moreover, the Reichstag’s motions could in principle be ignored by the Kaiser, or by the military, or both. SDP opposition to war in the Reichstag would have been merely symbolic. Moira Donald has provided us a detailed account of Kautsky’s actions that first week of August, 1914.

“It is impossible to know precisely what role Kautsky played in the discussions on war credits. However, the presumption made at the time, and by many commentators since, that Kautsky vacillated and then succumbed to the patriotic tide instead of giving clear internationalist leadership at this important moment of crisis, is probably not entirely accurate. Kautsky’s own account of events concentrates on his initial support for abstention on the war credits vote. On 1 August Kautsky and Hugo Haase had drafted a statement for the Fraktion in which they assumed that it would refuse to vote for war credits. On 3 August he was summoned to a meeting of the SPD Fraktion (although he did not himself have a vote as he was not a member of the Reichstag) to discuss the vote the following day in the Reichstag on special finance for the war. He intended to push for abstention, but discovered that this was no longer seen as a viable option. By this meeting of the Fraktion on 3 August, party opinion had moved to discussion of rejection versus acceptance. In fact the right-wing members of the Fraktion had already decided to vote for war credits whatever the decision of the majority. Once it became clear that abstention would not be acceptable to the majority, Kautsky tried still to exert some influence over the final outcome, proposing conditional acceptance. In the face of a massive vote in favour of war credits of seventy-eight for to only fourteen against, Kautsky tried to use his position as one of the drafters of the party’s official declaration to demand that the German government should renounce any annexations or violations of neutrality. Only after the event did Kautsky discover that his clause had been deleted from the SPD statement at the demand of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Thus, what the international socialist world heard, along with the German people, on 4 August 1914 was that the SPD had given its support of the German government’s declaration of war. In late November 1914, just before another vote for war credits took place, Kautsky again urged for the inclusion of an anti-annexationist clause to no avail...Not having a seat in the Reichstag, unlike Liebknecht, he was not forced to make a public choice and he did not believe in empty gestures. Should he have called over the heads of the party to the masses to rise in revolution? Theoretically he could have done so, but no one was more painfully aware than Kautsky that in this instance the party in voting for war credits was following the masses themselves, rather than leading them. In July 1914 he told Adler that the time was ripe for a mass strike in Austria to protest against the looming war, but he could see not the slightest sign of mass protest action. To have tried to incite mass action would not only have been futile, it would have split the party… Having lost the battle on war credits, Kautsky directed his efforts not at how to stop the war but at the nature of the victory or defeat which would follow the war. If Social Democracy had proved itself incapable of preventing war from breaking out, he did not believe that it was realistic to argue that there was anything Social Democrats could do to stop a war in progress. In Kautsky’s view, in a war situation it was legitimate for Marxists to defend the national territory, but not legitimate for them to call for territorial gain. He did not argue the case for defensive war, i.e. analysing who was the aggressor, and supporting the nation which had been attacked. Instead he argued that socialist in every country involved in the war had the right to self-defence, regardless of which government was responsible for the war.” (Donald, pp 189-191).
I would like to suggest that Lenin and Leninists have been unfair to Kautsky. He could have decided to make some grand gesture of political purity and denounced the whole world, but then he would have still not stopped the war, and he would not have had the chance to make the case within the party against annexations. Maybe Germany would have been forced either way into military conflict with an invasion of the Czar’s armies, but it is still an open question to me whether Germany needed to invade Belgium to preempt a French invasion. The massacres committed by German soldiers of civilians in Belgium doesn’t seem to me to have helped with German self defence. In fact, that invasion seems to have made England’s choice of whether to enter war. What clarifies Kautsky’s predicament for me is the knowledge that in a situation where he had very little power, he found what it was that he needed to be doing. He found what was necessary for him to do to make the strongest case possible for Germany not leading a war of conquest even if Germany was being attacked. His clarity about the situation he was in provided him a freedom to act in a situation where someone else who may have had delusions of grandeur might have done nothing at all, might have split the party making progress against the prowar majority even harder. If anyone thinks they could have done better than Kautsky, (1) I encourage you to give the matter some serious study, and (2) please explain to me how because I cannot fathom it.

We can consider Kautsky’s acts as a necessary evil. That he signed his name to a statement endorsing World War 1 cannot be denied. That he was correct to do so given the circumstances, given it was his best chance at minimizing the damage and risk all around him were rushing into, also cannot be denied. Kautsky knew that the present moment might overcome him, that the actions of that moment might be constrained, imperfect, or what earlier we called ‘evil,’ but he also had to have seen that we would have to accept that those events as part of history, as having formed the circumstances we would have to act within afterwards. As Marx famously said, we can free ourselves, but not under conditions of our own choosing.

So, how did the story Leninists tell about World War 1 hold up in contact with facts?

With all apologies to Lenin, World War 1 didn’t happen because the nations of Europe were strongly pursuing their own best self interest or corporate market share so much as it was the result of the worst actors finding resolve at the very moment when those who should have known better couldn’t muster a clear intention. On the other hand, in Lenin’s favor, England clearly enters the war because they need French and Russian cooperation to maintain the British empire. Russia clearly felt they couldn’t maintain their empire if England kept arming the Turkish Navy. France conspired with Russia to start the war because France couldn’t tolerate a united Germany in the context of national competition for resources. In the years leading up to World War 1 there were countless minor diplomatic crises involving one imperial power or another trying to edge in on some other powers trade relations or sphere of influence. It must be said, the economics of empire work the way they do at that time because imperialism was a mass phenomenon, a way that European governments coped with the tumultuous arrival of mass politics. We have already remarked on how Marx thought the new production methods implied that the tensions inherent to modern mass culture would finally dissolve the old privileges and find a higher sublimation in radical democracy.

On the other hand, Kautsky wasn’t a renegade, he did everything possible to prevent war and to prevent the defensive war from spilling over into an offensive one where Germany took advantage of the situation to try and annex new territory. The case was clear for German self defence; Russia was mobilizing its forces for an assault while Germany was trying to work things out peacefully with Serbian which was legit harboring terrorist protofascist insurgents. Germans were never going to have a democratic government so long as Germany was divided into several dozen fiefdoms. If German unification threatened the prevailing order, that was only because Europe was driven by imperial ambitions. It was possible for Germany to choose not fight a war of expansion, but at the same time a stong case could be made that if Germans failed to take the initiative to take the fight to the Russians in Poland and to the French in France itself that they were missing their best chance to mount a good defence and avoid having to fight on two fronts at once. The part of the story where any of this is Kautsky’s fault or even something he could influence, that part is clearly false. Kautsky and Lenin were both right about one thing: the Czar had to be resisted. Because of their respective positions in history, the two men were constrained to different political choices. Germany was destined to get a bourgeois parliamentary democracy that pleased no one, and Russia was not going to get democracy at all, though the Bolsheviks were the best hope for progress. The story of how the Bolsheviks led a democratic insurgency in 1917 and then failed to protect it is the subject of our next podcast.

I will leave you with the words of another great Marxist of Kautsky’s generation, the man who introduced Marxist political thought into the Russian context. In an essay on the role of the individual in history, Plekhanov writes:

“The ideals of the so-called Russian ‘disciples’ [the Marxists] resemble capitalist reality far less than the ideals of the subjectivists. Notwithstanding this, however, the ‘disciples’ have found a bridge which unites ideals with reality. The ‘disciples’ have elevated themselves to monism. In their opinion, in the course of its development, capitalism will lead to its own negation and to the realization of their, the Russian ‘disciples’’ - and not only the Russian - ideals. This is historical necessity. The ‘disciple’ serves as an instrument of this necessity and cannot help doing so, owing to his social status and to his mentality and temperament, which were created by his status. This, too, is an aspect of necessity. Since his social status has imbued him with this character and no other, he not only serves as an instrument of necessity and cannot help doing so, but he passionately desires, and cannot help desiring, to do so. This is an aspect of freedom, and, moreover, of freedom that has grown out of necessity, i.e., to put it more correctly, it is freedom that is identical with necessity - it is necessity transformed into freedom. This freedom is also freedom from a certain amount of restraint; it is also the antithesis of a certain amount of restriction. Profound definitions do not refute superficial ones, but, supplementing them, include them in themselves. But what sort of restraint, what sort of restriction, is in question in this case? This is clear: the moral restraint which curbs the energy of those who have not cast off dualism; the restriction suffered by those who are unable to bridge the gulf between ideals and reality. Until the individual has won this freedom by heroic effort in philosophical thinking he does not fully belong to himself, and his mental tortures are the shameful tribute he pays to external necessity that stands opposed to him. But as soon as this individual throws off the yoke of this painful and shameful restriction he is born for a new, full life, hitherto never experienced; and his free actions become the conscious and free expression of necessity. Then he will become a great social force; and then nothing can, and nothing will, prevent him from ‘Bursting on cunning falsehood/ Like a storm of wrath divine…’” (pp 145-146).