Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Karl Kautsky and “ultra-imperialism”

The central accusation of the Spartacists’ four-part attack—the subtitle of the series—is that the International Committee’s analysis of globalization constitutes an “embrace” of the theory of ultra-imperialism developed by Karl Kautsky, the theoretical leader of the German Social Democracy, at the outbreak of World War I.

Kautsky’s thesis provided the main theoretical rationale for the support which the German social democratic leaders gave to their own bourgeoisie in its prosecution of the war, and for their virulent opposition to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

While the accusation of “Kautskyism” forms the core of the Spartacists’ denunciation, nowhere do they set out Kautsky’s positions, nor do they demonstrate how these positions are reproduced in the International Committee’s analysis of globalization. In fact, as we will show, it is the Spartacists who follow in the footsteps of Kautsky.

Before proceeding to Spartacist, let us review Kautsky’s essential propositions, and the rationale they provided for the betrayals of the leaders of the German social democracy. Just as the war was breaking out, Kautsky unveiled his theory of ultra-imperialism in an article published in Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the SPD, which he edited. The Marxist movement had continuously warned of the approach of war, arising from the increasingly tense struggle between the major capitalist powers for the control of markets and access to raw materials. At the Stuttgart Congress in 1907, and again at Basle in 1912, the Second International carried resolutions calling upon the workers of the different capitalist countries to unite in the struggle against war and warning that should war break out, the working classes and their parliamentary representatives would “utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule.” [1]

The resolutions of the Second International explained that wars were inherent in the capitalist system and arose out of the struggle for markets and profits, and would only cease when capitalism was abolished. In his theory of ultra-imperialism, Kautsky advanced a new perspective—the peaceful development of capitalism under the domination of a single world trust formed out of an agreement between the major financial powers to jointly exploit the globe.

According to Kautsky: “What Marx said of capitalism can also be applied to imperialism: monopoly creates competition and competition monopoly. The frantic competition of giant firms, giant banks and multi-millionaires obliged the great financial groups, who were absorbing the small ones, to think up the notion of the cartel. In the same way, the result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest who renounce the arms race.

“Hence from the purely economic standpoint it is not impossible that capitalism may still live through another phase, the translation of cartellization into foreign policy: a phase of ultra-imperialism, which of course we must struggle against as energetically as we do against imperialism, but whose perils lie in another direction, not in that of the arms race and the threat to world peace.” [2]

In a further article published in Neue Zeit in April 1915, Kautsky set out his position as follows: “The subsiding of the Protectionist movement in Britain; the lowering of tariffs in America; the trend towards disarmament; the rapid decline in the export of capital from France and Germany in the years preceding the war; finally, the growing international interweaving between the various cliques of finance capital—all this has caused me to consider whether the present imperialist policy cannot be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital. Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question ...” [3]

As Lenin demonstrated, Kautsky’s speculations on the possibility of the development of ultra-imperialism were the basis of his defense of social chauvinism and the social democratic and trade union bureaucracies who provided the central prop for the imperialist war effort. According to Kautsky, “the extreme Lefts” sought to “contrapose” socialism to inevitable imperialism, i.e., “not only the propaganda for socialism that we have been carrying out for half a century in contraposition to all forms of capitalist domination, but the immediate achievement of socialism. This seems very radical, but it can only serve to drive into the camp of imperialism anyone who does not believe in the immediate practical achievement of socialism.” [4]

Lenin explained that the issue was never the “immediate” achievement of socialism, but the perspective on which the party had to fight—the development of immediate propaganda against the war, to carry forward the independent struggle of the working class.

Kautsky’s position was that the war did not signify a fundamental turn in the historical development of capitalism. It could have been an interlude opening up a whole new phase of capitalist development. There was no necessity for the party to actively pose the task of taking political power; it could continue as before, carrying out general propaganda in favor of socialism, combined with the struggle for immediate reforms.

The differences between Lenin and Kautsky were rooted in opposed assessments of the development of capitalism. For Lenin, the war signified a far-reaching crisis of capitalism—the essence of which lay in the transformation of competitive capitalism into monopoly capitalism—posing the necessity for the taking of power in the socialist revolution. For Kautsky, the war merely opened up several possibilities, including that of a further stage, ultra-imperialism. Hence the issue was not imperialism or the socialist revolution. The party, therefore, could not undertake the struggle for power, but had to continue along the lines established before the war.

Kautsky’s positions on the significance of the war, and his denunciation of “the Left”, were guided by one central political objective: to provide the theoretical rationale whereby the party could resume its pre-war activities once hostilities ceased. In other words, Kautsky’s theories were rooted in the defense of a definite social and political practice, and the defense of a social layer—above all, the labor and trade union bureaucracies and sections of the petty-bourgeoisie aligned with them.


See Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, John Riddell ed., p. 88


Kautsky, “Ultra Imperialism” in New Left Review, No. 59, January 1970


Cited in Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, Collected Works, Volume 21, p. 223


Cited in Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 21, p. 224