Ethics and the Materialist, Conception of History – Karl Kautsky


Sigríour Póra Flygenring

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Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) is a rare figure in the history of Marxism in that he is one of the few Marxist theoreticians to have written a full-length work specifically devoted to ethical questions. Kautsky’s Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (first published in 1906) is not by any means a great work.

More than one commentator has observed that it contains a number of logical inconsistencies and demonstrates an apparent inability on the part of its author to deal systematically with complex philosophical issues.

Nevertheless, Kautsky’s book continues to be the ’only sustained treatment of these questions in the classical Marxist canon’. Despite the logical inconsistencies which it contains, therefore, it is of considerable interest for anyone who is interested in the subject of Marxism and ethics. It is also of interest because despite the fact that it is, as Lezsek Kolakowski has observed, one of Kautsky’s most important works, it has been largely neglected by those who have written about Kautsky and his ideas.

Karl Kautsky (1854 –1938) was a Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was one of the most authoritative promulgators of orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He founded the socialist journal Neue Zeit.

Following the war, Kautsky was an outspoken critic of the Bolshevik Revolution, engaging in polemics with Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin on the nature of the Soviet state.