August Bebel

Society of the Future


The tide is rising and washing away the foundation upon which our state and social structure rests. All feel that the foundation is shaking and drat only strong props can save it. However, these demand great sacrifices on the part of the ruling classes, and there's the rub. Every proposition the implementation of which seriously threatens to prejudice the interests of the ruling classes and their privileged position is bitterly opposed by them and branded as an endeavour aimed at overthrowing the existing state and social order. Yet the sick world cannot be cured without encroaching upon, and eventually abolishing, the privileges and prerogatives of the ruling classes.

"The struggle for the emancipation of the working classes is not a struggle for privileges, but a struggle for equal rights and equal duties and for the abolition of all privileges," the Programme of the Social-Democratic Party reads. It follows that half-measures and minor concessions achieve nothing.

The ruling classes, however, regard their privileged position as quite natural and a matter of course, the justice and perpetuation of which leave no room for any doubt. Therefore, again as a matter of course, they reject and fight every attempt to undermine their privileged position. Even proposals and laws which affect neither the basis of the existing social order nor the privileged position of the ruling classes alarm them greatly the moment their purses are or could be touched. Whole mountains of printed speeches pile up in parliaments until the heaving mountain finally brings forth a little mouse. The most natural demands for protection of labour meet with stubborn resistance as if the existence of society was at stake. When after endless struggle a few concessions are wrested from the ruling classes, they act as if they have sacrificed a large share of their fortunes. They display the same stubborn resistance when the question of the formal recognition of the oppressed classes' equal rights is raised and, for example, of negotiating labour contracts with them on an equal basis.

This resistance in the simplest matters and to the most natural demands confirms the old principle drawn from experience that no ruling class can be convinced by force of reason unless force of circumstances compels it to accept reality and submit. This force of circumstances lies in the growing understanding awakened in the oppressed by the development of prevailing conditions. Class antagonisms are growing ever more acute, evident and tangible. As the understanding by the oppressed and exploited classes of the untenableness of existing conditions grows, their indignation mounts and with it their imperative demand for change and for more humane conditions. As this understanding embraces ever broader circles, it finally conquers the vast majority of society most directly interested in this change. In the same measure in which the people's understanding of the untenableness of existing conditions and the realisation of the need for their radical change rises, so the ruling class's capacity for resistance ebbs, since its power rests upon the ignorance and lack of understanding of the oppressed and exploited classes. This reciprocal effect is evident and, therefore, everything that promotes it must be welcomed. The progress of big capital is counterbalanced by the increasing realisation of the contradiction between the existing social order and the welfare of the vast majority of the people. Even though the resolution and elimination of social antagonisms may involve great sacrifice and effort, the solution will be found as soon as the antagonisms reach their peak which they are rapidly approaching.

The measures to be taken at various phases of development depend on prevailing circumstances. It is impossible to predict what measures may be necessary in specific circumstances. No government, no minister, be he ever so powerful, knows in advance what circumstances will compel him to do next year. This applies even more so to measures which will be affected by circumstances that cannot be accurately calculated or predicted. The question of means is a question of battle tactics. Tactics depend upon the enemy and also on the means both sides have at their disposal. A means excellent today may prove disastrous tomorrow, because the circumstances that yesterday justified its use have changed. With a known objective, the means to attain it depend on time and circumstances; what is vital is to seize the most effective and decisive means that tinge and circumstances allow. Therefore, in venturing to predict the shape of things to come, one can proceed only hypothetically, one must proceed from premises, regarding then as fact.

Proceeding from this point of view, we assume that at a given moment all the evils depicted above will have been carried to such extremes and will have become so evident and perceptible to the vast majority of the population, that they will appear unbearable to it, and that it will be seized by an all-embracing, irresistible desire for radical change, and that the quickest remedy will be regarded as the most effective one.

All social evils without exception have their source in the social order, which at present is based on capitalism, on the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist class is the owner of all means of production — land, mines and quarries, raw materials, implements, tools, means of communications — and thereby exploits and oppresses that vast majority of the people, this resulting in the growing insecurity, oppression and degradation of the exploited classes. Accordingly, the shortest and quickest step would be to transform capitalist property into social property (common property) by means of universal expropriation. Commodity production becomes socialist production conducted for and by society. Large-scale production and the steadily growing productivity of social labour, hitherto a source of misery and oppression for the exploited classes, now become a source of the highest prosperity and the harmonious development of all.


The transformation of all means of production into common property furnishes society with a new foundation. Living and working conditions in industry, agriculture, transport, education, marriage, in scientific, artistic and social life change fundamentally for both sexes. Human existence acquires new meaning. The state organisation also gradually loses ground and the state withers away; it, as it were, eliminates itself.

The state is a product of social advance from primitive society that rested on communism and that dissolved as private property developed. With the rise of private property antagonistic interests emerge within society. Contradictions appear between estates and classes — they inevitably lead to class battles between the various groups of interests and threaten the existence of the new social order. In order to be able to hold down the opponents of the new order and to protect the threatened proprietors, there must be an organisation that suppresses such attacks and pronounces property "legal" and "sacred". The state becomes this organisation and power protecting and upholding property. Through laws it secures the owner in his ownership and confronts those who assail the established order as judge and avenger. The interests of a ruling class of property owners and of state power are, therefore, always conservative in their very essence. The organisation of the state changes only when property interests demand a change. Since the state is the essential organisation of a social order based on class rule, its very existence becomes unnecessary and impossible as soon as class antagonisms disappear as a result of the abolition of private ownership. With the removal of relations based on domination, the state gradually ceases to exist, just as religion ceases to exist when faith in supernatural beings or in transcendental powers endowed with reason fades away. Words must possess meaning; if they lose it, then they no longer convey concepts.

A capitalistically orientated reader may interject here that all this is all very well, but by what "legal argument" can society justify these radical changes? The legal argument is the same one that is always used when such changes and reforms are discussed — the commonweal. Not the state but society is the source of justice, the state power is the agent of society, vested with authority to administer and dispense justice. Until now the ruling section of society was only a small minority but it acted in the name of the whole of society (the people) by passing itself off as "society", just as Louis XIV pronounced himself to be the state. "L'etat c'est moi." When our newspapers write: "The season is beginning, society is making for the city" or "The season is over, society is making for the country", they do not mean the people, but the upper ten thousand, who constitute "society", just as they constitute the "state". The majority are "plebs", "vile multitude", the mob, the people. In keeping with this state of affairs, everything the state does in the name of society, for the "commonweal", is useful and advantageous above all for the ruling classes. Laws are made in their interest. "Salus rei publicae suprema lex est" (The public weal is the supreme law) is a well-known principle of Roman law. But who constituted the Roman public? The subjugated peoples, the millions of slaves? No, the relatively small number of Roman citizens, notably the Roman nobility, who allowed themselves to be maintained by the subjugated.

When, in the Middle Ages, the nobility and the princes plundered common property, they did so "by right", in the "interests of the commonweal", and how drastically communal property and that of the helpless peasants was treated can be seen on every page of history from the Middle Ages to modern times. The agrarian history of the past thousand years is a chronicle of unceasing plunder of communal and peasant property perpetrated by the nobility and the Church in all advanced European countries. When the Great French Revolution expropriated the property of the nobility and the Church it did so "in the name of the commonweal", and the majority of the eight million landowners, today the prop of bourgeois France, owe their existence to this expropriation. In the name of the commonweal Spain seized church property on several occasions and Italy confiscated it altogether to the applause of the most zealous defenders of "sacred property". The English nobility has for centuries been robbing the Irish and English people of its property and between 1801 and 1832 in the "interests of the commonweal" "lawfully" made itself a present of not less than 3,511,710 acres of communal land. And when the great North-American war (1) for the abolition of slavery declared free millions of slaves, who were the lawfully acquired property of their masters, without paying compensation to the latter, this too was done "in the name of the commonweal". Our entire bourgeois development is an uninterrupted process of expropriation and confiscation by which the factory owner expropriates the artisan, the big landowner — the peasant, the big merchant - the small mer-chant and, finally, one capitalist the other, that is, a process in which the larger expropriates and absorbs the smaller. To hear our bourgeoisie talk, it would appear that all this happens for the sake of the "commonweal", "for the good of society".

On the 18th Brumaire and the 2nd of December (2) Napoleon's followers "saved society" and "society" congratulated them; if society in future shall save itself by retaking pos-session of the property it created, it will be carrying out a most memorable historical deed, for it will be acting not to oppress some in the interests of others, but to afford equal conditions of life for all and to provide a life worthy of human beings for all. It will be the noblest moral measure society has ever enacted.

What forms this great social process of expropriation will assume, and in what manner it will take place, eludes all prediction. Who can know how conditions will then shape.

In his fourth "social letter" to von Kirchmann, entitled "Capital", Rodbertus writes on page 117: "The abolition of all capitalist landownership is no chimera, but quite feasible on a national-economic scale. Moreover, it would certainly afford most radical aid to society which, to put it briefly, is suffering from the growth of rents — ground and capital rent. This would, therefore, be the only way to do away with the ownership of land and capital which would also not even for a moment interrupt trade and the development of the national wealth". What have our agrarians to say about this view of one of their former political friends?

How things are likely to shape after this measure cannot be predicted with any certainty. No one can know exactly how future generations may mould their social organisations and how they will satisfy their requirements in the most perfect manner. In society, as in Nature, everything is in a state of constant flux, one thing rises, another wanes. That which is old and has died away is replaced by that which is new and more viable. Inventions, discoveries and improvements, numerous and various, the scope and significance of which often no one can foresee, are made, take effect and each in accordance with its degree of significance revolutionises and reshapes the people's way of life, and society as a whole.

Hence, in the discussion to follow we can only deal with the development of general principles whose assertion evolves naturally front the preceding analysis, and whose implementation can be predicted up to a certain extent. Even before society has not been an entity that allowed itself to be led and guided by individuals (even though it often seemed to do so — "one imagines that one is pushing when one is actually being pushed") but an organism developing according to definite immanent laws, in future all guiding and leading by the whims of individuals will be all the more out of the question. Society will then be a democracy that has lit upon the secret of its essence, has discovered the laws of its development and applies them consciously to promote its further progress.

1. The American civil war.

2. On 18 Brumaire Napoleon seized power and instituted his military dictatorship while the 2nd December 1852 was when his nephew seized power as Emperor. See essay on 18th Brumaire by Marx.

Next: Basic Laws of Socialist Society