Karl Kautsky’s Notebooks: Insight into a Writer’s Methods

Karl Kautsky was a leading German-language democratic socialist politician and theoretician at the end of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century. He wrote an interesting text called The Foundations of Christianity (Ger: Der Ursprung des Christentums) in 1908. I haven’t read it at this point, though I’d like to remedy that someday.

Kautsky; George Grantham Bain Collection
(Library of Congress)

However, I was reading about Kautsky and came upon a passage that described his “notebook” method of research and reflections, especially in regards to his work on the above-named volume, and I found it fascinating. This jumped out at me because, as someone who researches and writes, I’ve tried various methods to keep my materials organized and productive, and I don’t feel like I’ve found a way that really works for me yet. This frustrates me. Additionally, I recently read a post by Elissa Cutter about “Journaling as a Means of Research” that I found interesting. So I was primed when I came across this passage.

So, for any of you who are also interested in this sort of thing, I present James Bentley’s description of Karl Kautsky’s notebooks and research methods. And for a bonus, you’ll get some of his analysis of communism in the Didache.

James Bentley, Between Marx and Christ: The Dialogue in German-Speaking Europe, 1870–1970 (London: NLB, 1982), 45–46.

These notebooks display both his lifelong interest in the phenomenon of Christianity and how remarkably he qualified himself to write about it (and much else, too). One notebook in particular, containing analyses of only three books, reveals the peculiar quiddity of his mind. Seven pages of notes on Strauss’s notorious Life of Jesus are immediately followed by forty-eight pages analysing the second volume of Capital, which precedes another seven pages on G. F. Daumen’s Secrets of Christian Antiquity.

            It is not always possible to assign a single date to each notebook, for although he was invariably systematic in his notes and references, Kautsky used several volumes at different times over several decades. Thus one notebook begins with a seventeen-page analysis of the Historie de Thomas More by Thomas Stapleton. … Kautsky began this analysis in August 1886. This is followed by an eleven page summary of G. T. Rudhart’s Thomas More, and three pages of quotations from Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation in England. In September of the same year Kautsky started at the other end of the notebook with a page on Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism, followed by a quotation on Utopia from Erasmus.

            Thirty years later he took up this notebook again and filled the middle pages with an analysis (almost seventy pages long) of Otto Pfleiderer’s history of the primitive church. He was now working intently on his Foundations of Christianity. In November 1906 he used the same notebook for a seventeen-page analysis of Wünsche’s edition of the Didache, carefully hunting down quasi-communistic elements in this early Christian document. (He found them in cap. I: ‘Give to everyone that asketh of thee, and ask not again; for the Father wishes that from all his gifts there should be given to all’, and in cap IV: ‘Thou shalt not turn away from him that is in need, but shalt share with thy brother in all things, and shalt not say that things are thine own; for it ye are partners in what is immortal, how much more in what is mortal?’)

            This is followed by an important section on the second edition of a work by Bruno Bauer from whose subtitle Kautsky took the title of his own book on Christianity. Next come detailed analyses of Seneca’s religion, of Christianity under Trajan, of Hadrian and gnosis, of the age of Marcus Aurelius, and of the formation of the New Testament literature. Finally, Kautsky set down a summary of the article on angels in the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, a page on Seutonius and thirty pages drawn from volume 7 of The Romans under the Empire by Charles Merivale. The last page of this is written upside-down.

            Thus the leading Marxist of his time industriously prepared his analysis of primitive Christianity. 



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