Karl Kautsky

The Social Revolution


Volume I
The Social Revolution
(Part 3)


But does not democracy provide the foundation for a gradual, imperceptible transformation of capitalism into Socialism without any violent break with existing things if we but presuppose the conquest of political power by the proletariat?

There are some politicians who assert that only despotic class rule necessitates revolution; that revolution is rendered superfluous by democracy. It is claimed that we have today sufficient democracy in all civilized countries to make possible a peaceable revolutionless development. Above all it is possible to found cooperatives for consumption whose extension will introduce production for use, and so slowly but surely drive capitalist production out of one sphere after another. Most important of all, it is possible to organize unions that shall continually limit the power of the capitalist in his business, until constitutionalism shall supplant absolutism in the factory, and thus the way will be prepared for the slow transition to the republicanized factory. Still further, the socialists can penetrate into the municipal councils, influence public labor in the interest of the laboring class, extend the circle of municipal activities, and by the continuous extension of the circle of municipal production narrow the field of private production. Finally the socialists are pressing into parliament, where they are ever gaining more influence, and push through one reform after the other, restrict the power of the capitalists by labor legislation, and simultaneously extend ever wider the circle of governmental production, while they work for the nationalization of the great monopolies. So by the exercise of democratic rights upon existing grounds the capitalist society is gradually and without any shock growing into Socialism. Consequently the revolutionary conquest of political powers by the proletariat is unnecessary, and the efforts towards it directly hurtful, since they can operate in no other way than to disturb this slowly but surely advancing process.

So much for the opponents of revolutionary development.

It is an attractive picture they have painted for us, and again it cannot be truthfully said that it is wholly built in the air. The facts upon which it is founded actually exist. But the truth that they tell is only a half-truth. A little dialectical reflection would have shown them the whole.

This idyll becomes true only if we grant that but one side of the opposition, the proletariat, is growing and increasing in strength, while the other side, the bourgeoisie, remains immovably fixed to the same spot. Granting this, it naturally follows that the proletariat will gradually, and with no revolution, outstrip the bourgeoisie and imperceptibly expropriate it.

But things take on another aspect when the other side is considered, and it is seen that the bourgeoisie is likewise gaining in strength and is goaded on by every advance of the proletariat to develop new powers, and to discover and apply new methods of resistance and repression. That which from a one-sided observation appears as a gradual peaceable growth into Socialism is then seen as the organization of ever larger fighting bodies, as the development and application of ever more powerful resources for conflict, as a continuous widening of the battle held. Instead of being a gradual winning of the class struggle through the exhaustion of capitalism, it is rather a reproduction of the struggle upon ever wider stages, and a deepening of the consequences of every victory and every defeat.

Most harmless of all are the cooperatives, of which today the cooperatives of consumption are practically the only ones to be considered. Because of their purely peaceable character these are always highly esteemed by all opponents of revolutionary development. There is no doubt but that they can afford numerous important advantages to the laboring class, but it is laughable to expect even a partial expropriation of the capitalist class from them. So far as they are expropriating any class today it is that of little merchants and numerous grades of handworkers, that have been able to maintain their existence until now. Correspondingly it is noticed that nowhere do the great capitalists attack the cooperatives which it is pretended threaten them. On the contrary it is the little property owners whose rage is aroused against the cooperatives, and those who are injured are just the ones who are most dependent upon the laboring class, and who can be most easily won to the proletarian political cause. While the workingmen’s cooperatives bring some material advantages to certain divisions of the laboring class, they also drive away from our movement many classes who stand very close to the proletariat. These means to the peaceable absorption of capitalism and the abrogation of the class struggle tend rather to introduce a new bone of contention and to arouse a new class hatred. Meanwhile the power of capital remains wholly untouched. The cooperative for consumption has so far been victorious only in its battle with the little merchant; the struggle with the great stores’ is still in the future. This will not be so easy a victory.

The idea that the dividends of the cooperatives, even if not divided, but kept intact, can increase faster than the accumulation of capital so as to overtake it and contract the sphere of capitalism, is absolutely foolish.

The cooperative can play an important part in the emancipation of the proletariat only where the latter is engaged in an active class struggle. The cooperative can then become a means to supply the battling proletarians with resources. Even then they are wholly dependent upon the condition of legislation and the attitude of the state. So long as the proletariat has not yet attained political power, the importance of cooperatives for the class struggle of the proletariat will always be very limited.

Much more important for the proletariat than the cooperatives are the trade unions. This is true, however, only when these are fighting organizations, and not when they are organizations for social peace. Even where they conclude contracts with employers, either as individuals or as organizations, they can only secure and maintain these through their fighting ability.

However important, or indeed indispensable, unions may be for the battling proletariat, they must sooner or later reckon with the union of employers, which when it takes the form of a close agreement, of a cartel, or of a trust, will find it only too easy to become irresistible to the union. But unions of employers are not the only things that threaten the unions – more important is the governmental power. We in Germany could tell a tale on this point. That, however, even in such a democratic country as England, the unions have not yet overcome all their difficulties in this direction, has been shown by the recent well-known decision of the courts which threatens to completely incapacitate the unions.

On this point the already mentioned article of the Webbs in Socialen Praxis offers an interesting example which throws a significant light upon the future of the unions. They refer there to the great irregularity of the development of unions in England. Generally speaking the strong have grown stronger, while those that were formerly weak are now weaker than before. The unions of coal miners, cotton workers, and in the building trades and the iron industry have grown. Those of the farm workers, sailors, clothing trades and unskilled laborers have gone backwards. The whole union world, however, is now threatened by the increasing opposition of the possessing classes. The English laws lend themselves remarkably well to the suppression of undesirable organizations, and the danger that they now offer to the unions “has grown, and the fear of them is increasing with the hostility against the unions and strikes which the judges and officials share with the remainder of the upper and middle classes.” The existing laws are of a character “to deliver the laborers into the hands of the employers with hands tied.” So that the Webbs are forced to reckon with a position “in which the collective bargain with its undeniably favorable conditions, the collective cessation of labor and the opportune interruption of industry, is, through the legal operation of law, made impossible or at least costly and difficult.”

This places the unions in a decidedly embarrassing position in opposition to the capitalists, so that one can scarcely expect any effective restriction of exploitation from them. One may well reflect upon what action the governmental power will take in this former El Dorado of the unions, England, if the unions attempt any forcible restraint upon capital.

In the same way the so-called Municipal Socialism is limited to those States and social organizations where universal suffrage in the municipality rules. It must always remain bound to the general economic and political conditions, and can never proceed independently. To be sure, the proletariat may find the municipal government in the individual industrial communities in their hands before they have the strength to conquer the general government, and they can by means of this control, or at least restrain, action hostile to the proletariat and carry through individual betterments which could not be expected from a bourgeois regime. But such municipal governments find themselves limited not alone by the power of the State, but also by their own economic helplessness. They are mostly poor municipalities, almost exclusively made up of proletarians, that are first conquered by the social democracy. Where shall these obtain the means to carry out great reforms? Ordinarily the taxing power of the municipality is restricted by State laws, and even where this is not the case the taxation of the well-to-do and the rich cannot exceed certain bounds without these residents, the only ones from whom anything can be taken, being driven out of the municipality. Every decisive work of reform demands at once new taxes which are unfavorably received not only by the upper classes but also by wider circles of the population. Many a municipal government which has been captured by socialists, or so-called socialistic reformers, has been taken away from them because of the taxation question, in spite of the fact that their actions have been exceedingly efficient. This was true in London and also in Roubaix.

But the political sphere! that knows no bounds! Shall we not find there an unbroken advance for the protection of laborers, and does not every session of Parliament bring us new restrictions on capitalism, and does not every recurring election increase the number of our representatives in Parliament? And is not thereby our power in the State and our influence upon the government slowly and surely but interruptedly growing, and does not this carry with it a corresponding dependence of capital upon the proletariat? Certainly the number of laws for the protection of labor grow from year to year. But when one looks closely at this he will see that in the last ten years they have been only an extension to new spheres of already existing protection Taking children out of the factory, protecting clerks, bookkeepers, house industries, sailors, etc., an extension of a superficial and doubtful character, and not in any way an increasing strengthening of protection where it already existed. When one considers, on the other hand, how remarkably fact the capitalist system of protection extends its sphere, how quickly it leaps from one calling to another, and from one man to another, it will be found that the extension of the protection of labor follows at a much slower pace; that it can never overtake the extension of capitalism, but always comes limping slowly on behind. And while the extension of the latter continually takes on a more rapid pace, the former tends ever more and more to come to a standstill.

If the advance of the protection of labor extensively is so unsatisfactory, intensively we shall find absolutely nothing. In England in 1847, under the pressure of the Chartist movement and the rapid degradation of the textile industry, the ten-hour day was secured for women and children – that is, actually for the whole laboring class of the textile industry. Where have we today an improvement on the ten-hour day?

The Second Republic of France in 1848 fixed the laboring day at ten hours for all the laborers in Paris, and in the remainder of France at eleven hours. When lately Millerand announced in the Chamber the ten-hour day, and that only upon paper and with many restrictions, for those industries in which women and children worked with laborers, and this not for all industries, this was praised as an admirable act of which only a socialist minister was capable. And yet he offered less than the bourgeois lawmakers of a half century ago, for he extended the ten-hour day only to the children for which in England a labor day of six and a half hours had been fixed in 1844.

At the Geneva Congress of 1866 the “International” had already declared the eight-hour day to be the preliminary condition to any fruitful social reform. Thirty-six years later, at the last French Socialist Congress at Tours, a delegate could still arise and declare that the eight-hour day must be placed as our next demand. He only wished to demand “measures preparatory for the eight-hour day”, and get this man was not laughed from the room. On the contrary, he was able to be a candidate at, the last election in Paris.

It appears that the only thing in social reform that makes rapid progress is the modesty of the social reformers.

But how is this possible in spite of the increase of socialist representatives in parliamentary bodies? It becomes perfectly clear if one does not look at the matter wholly from one side, but studies the reverse of the medal. There is no doubt that the number of socialist representatives increases, but simultaneously therewith the bourgeois democracy falls to pieces. Very often this is shown openly in the diminution of their vote at election. More frequently it is seen in the falling off of any results. They are ever more cowardly, characterless, and resist reaction only to prepare the way to carry on a reactionary policy themselves as soon as they come to the helm. Indeed, that is the method by which Liberalism seeks nowadays to conquer political power.

As Bismarck saw his power waning he demanded that the terms of the German Reichstag should be extended from three to live years. This was an undoubtedly reactionary measure that raised a storm of indignation. In France, however, the last radical ministry of the republican defense, in which there was a Socialist minister, demanded an extension of the legislative term from four to six years, and the republican majority consented to grant this. Had it not been for the Senate, this reactionary measure would have become a law.

It is not alone that bourgeois liberalism disappears in the same degree that social democracy increases. At the same time that the influence of social democracy grows in Parliament the influence of Parliament decreases. These two phenomena proceed simultaneously without, however, having any direct connection with each other. On the contrary, the parliaments in which there are no Social Democrats, as, for example, the Saxon and Prussian Chambers, lose their influence and their creative power much more rapidly than the others.

The demoralization of Parliaments has various different causes. The most essential causes are not those that belong to Parliamentary tactics which through an alteration in the order of business, or of the sphere of Parliament, abolish its efficiency. The most essential lies in the character of the classes which are able through Parliament to significantly influence government. If Parliamentarism is to prosper, two preliminary conditions are necessary: the first, a single strong majority, and the second, a great social goal toward which this majority energetically strives and toward which they can force the government also. Both of these existed in the Golden Age of Parliamentarism. So long as capitalism represented the future of the nation, all classes of the people that possessed any Parliamentary significance, and especially the mass of the intellectuals, stood for freedom of capitalism. This was true of a majority of the small capitalists, and even the laborers followed the bourgeois leadership.

Liberalism thus stood as a united party with great aims. The struggle of the Liberalists for Parliament and in Parliament gave the latter its significance. Since then, as I have described above, a new development has risen. A special class consciousness has developed in the proletariat, so that a portion of the intellectuals, of the little property owners and of the small farmers are driven into the socialist camp. The rest of the small bourgeoisie and the farmers become wholly reactionary, while the powerful elements of industrial capital unite with the high finance which cares nothing for Parliament except when it can use it for its purposes – vide Panama.

The Liberal Party then dissolves into its elements without another great Parliamentary party with its united character rising from the governing class to take its position. The more reactionary the possessing classes become, the less are they a united body, and the more they split into little individual pieces, the harder it is to bring a united Parliamentary majority together. The more is it true that a majority is possible only through bringing together the different tendencies for a momentary coalition resting upon most uncertain foundations, because no interior bond, but only considerations of external opportuneness, controls them. Such coalitions are from the beginning doomed to unfruitfulness because their elements are so diverse that they are only held together through disclaiming just that decisive action which would give them life. It is a peculiar misunderstanding of the nature of these coalitions which arise from the downfall of Parliamentarism and signify its social and political impotency, that participation in them should be considered the means to a slow, step-by-step introduction of the proletariat to political power.

Social evolution does not, however, lead merely to the dissolution of the great united Parliamentary parties into countless, diverse and indeed often hostile factions. It leads also to the result that very often the Parliamentary majorities are more reactionary and more hostile than the government. Even if the governments are but agents of the ruling classes, still they have more insight into the sum of political and social relations, and, however willing a servant the official bureaucracy is to the government, it nevertheless develops its own life and its own tendencies that react upon the government. Moreover, the bureaucracy is recruited from the intellectuals, in which, as we have already seen, an understanding of the significance of the proletariat is advancing, even though timidly.

All this operates so that not seldom the government, with all its reactionary attitudes and hostility to labor, still does not proceed with such blind rage as does the ruling class, with its little bourgeois and agrarian tail, which stands behind the government. The Parliament which was formerly the means of pressing the government forward upon the road to progress becomes ever more and more the means to nullify the little progress that conditions compel the government to make. In the degree that the class which rules through Parliamentarism is rendered superfluous and indeed injurious, the Parliamentary machinery loses its significance.

When, on the other hand, consideration of the proletarian body of voters compels the representative body to move towards friendship for labor and democracy and thereby to overreach the government, the latter easily finds means to circumvent Parliament.

In the United States the battle against the unions is carried on much less through the representative bodies than through the courts. In the same way it is the decisions of the House of Lords, and not the legislation of the popularly elected House of Commons, whereby the road to an attack upon the unions has recently been opened in England; and how the spirit of the abolished laws of exception still lives in the German courts, the German laborers can tell many a tale.

So the candle is burning from both ends, and the ruling parties as well as the government more and more doom Parliament to sterility. Parliamentarism is continually more incapable of following a decisive policy in any direction. It becomes ever more senile and helpless, and can only be reawakened to new youth and strength when it, together with the total governmental power, is conquered by the rising proletariat and turned to serve its purposes. Parliamentarism, far from making a revolution useless and superfluous, is itself in need of a revolution in order to vivify it.

I do not wish to be understood as holding democracy superfluous, or to take the position that cooperatives, unions, the entrance of social democracy into municipalities and parliaments, or the attainment of single reforms, is worthless. Nothing would be more incorrect. On the contrary, all these are of incalculable value to the proletariat. They are only insignificant as means to avoid a revolution.

This conquest of political power by the proletariat is of the highest value exactly because it makes possible a higher form of the revolutionary struggle. This struggle is no longer, as in 1789, a battle of unorganized mobs with no political form, with no insight into the relative strength of the contending factors: with no profound comprehension of the purposes of the struggle and the means to its solution; no longer a battle of mobs that can be deceived and bewildered by every rumor or accident. It is a battle of organized, intelligent masses, full of stability and prudence, that do not follow every impulse or explode over every insult, or collapse under every misfortune.

On the other hand, the elections are a means to count ourselves and the enemy and they grant thereby a clear view of the relative strength of the classes and parties, their advance and their retreat. They prevent premature outbreaks and they guard against defeats. They also grant the possibility that the opponents will themselves recognize the untenability of many positions and freely surrender them when their maintenance is no life-and-death question for them. So that the battle demands fewer victims, is less sanguinary and depends less upon blind chance.

Neither are the political acquisitions that are gained through democracy and the application of its freedom and rights to be undervalued. They are much too insignificant to really restrict the dominion of capitalism and to bring about its imperceptible transition into socialism. The slightest reform or organization may be of great significance for the physical or intellectual re-birth of the proletariat that, without them, would be surrendered helpless to capitalism and left alone in the misery that continuously threatens it. But it is not alone the relief of the proletariat from its misery that makes the activity of the proletariat in Parliament and the operation of the proletarian organizations indispensable. They are also of value as a means of practically familiarizing the proletariat with the problems and methods of national and municipal government and of great industries, as well as to the attainment of that intellectual maturity which the proletariat needs if it is to supplant the bourgeoisie as ruling class.

Democracy is also indispensable as a means of ripening the proletariat for the social revolution. But it is not capable of preventing this revolution. Democracy is to the proletariat what light and air are to the organism; without them it cannot develop its powers. But we must not be so occupied with observing the growth of one class that we cannot see the simultaneous growth of its opponent. Democracy does not hinder the development of capital, whose organization and political and economic powers increase at the same time as does the power of the proletariat. To be sure, the cooperatives are increasing, but simultaneously and yet faster grows the accumulation of capital; to be sure, the unions are growing, but simultaneously and faster grows the concentration of capital and its organization in gigantic monopolies. To be sure, the socialist press is growing (to only mention here a point which cannot be further discussed), but simultaneously grows the partyless and characterless press that poisons and unnerves ever wider popular circles. To be sure, wages are rising, but still faster rises the mass of profits. Certainly the number of socialist representatives in Parliament is growing, but still more sinks the significance and efficaciousness of this institution, while simultaneously Parliamentary majorities, like the government, fall into ever greater dependence on the powers of the high finance.

So beside the resources of the proletariat develop also those of capital, and the end of this development can be nothing less than a great, decisive battle that cannot end until the proletariat has attained the victory.

The capitalist class is superfluous, and the proletariat, on the other hand, has become an indispensable social class. The capitalist class is not in a condition either to elevate the proletariat nor to root it out. After every defeat the latter rises again, more threatening than before. Accordingly the proletariat, when it shall hare gained the first great victory over capital that shall place the political powers in its hands, can apply them in no other way than to the abolition of the capitalist system. So long as this has not yet happened, the battle between the two classes will not and cannot come to an end. Social peace inside of the capitalist system is a Utopia that has grown out of the real needs of the intellectual classes, but has no foundation in reality for its development. And no less of a Utopia is the imperceptible growth of capitalism into socialism. We have not the slightest ground to admit that things will end differently from what they begun. Neither the economic nor the political development indicates that the era of revolution which characterizes the capitalist system is closed. Social reform and the strengthening of the proletarian organizations cannot hinder it. They can at the most operate to the end that the class struggle in the higher developed grades of the battling proletariat will be transformed from a battle for the first conditions of existence to a battle for the possession of dominion.



Forms and Weapons of Social Revolution

What will be the precise form under which the decisive battles between the ruling class and the proletariat will be fought out? When may we expect them to occur? What weapons will be at the service of the proletariat?

To these questions it is hard to give definite answers. We can to a certain degree suggest the direction of the development but not its form nor its velocity. The investigation of the direction of evolution concerns itself only with relatively simple laws. Here one can only isolate from the whole confused manifold, the phenomena which we recognize as not regular or necessary, or which appear to us as accidental. These latter on the contrary play an important part in the determination of the form and the velocity of the movement. For example, in all modern civilization the direction of capitalist development during the last century has been the same, but in every one of them the form and the velocity was very different. Geographical peculiarities, racial individualities, favor and disfavor of the neighbor, the restraint or assistance of great individualities, all these and many ether things have had their influence. Many of these could not be foreseen, but even the most easily recognizable of these factors operate upon each other in such diverse ways that the result is so extremely complicated as to be impossible of determination from a previous stage. So it came about that even the people who through fundamental and comprehensive knowledge of the social relations of other civilized countries and by methodical and fruitful methods of research far exceeded all their contemporaries, as for example, Marx and Engels, were able to determine the direction of economic development for many decades in a degree that the course of events has magnificently justified. But even these investigators could strikingly err when it came to the question of predicting the velocity and form of the development of the next month.

There is only one thing I think that one can certainly say to-day about the approaching revolution. It will be wholly different from any of its predecessors. It is one of the greatest mistakes that revolutionists as well as their opponents frequently commit to present the coming revolution according to the model of past ones for there is nothing easier than to prove that such revolutions are no longer possible. The conclusion is then at hand that the idea of a social revolution is an entirely outgrown one. It is the first time in the history of the world that we are confronted with a revolutionary struggle to be fought out under the application of democratic forms by organizations created upon the foundation of democratic freedom against resources such as the world has not yet seen, prominent among which are organizations of employers before which even monarchs bow and whose power will be strengthened by the governmental powers of bureaucracy and militarism, which the modern great nations have inherited from absolutism.

One of the peculiarities of the present situation consists in the fact that, as we have already pointed out, it is no longer the governments which offer us the harshest resistance. Under absolutism, against which former revolutions were turned, the government was supreme and class antagonisms could not clearly develop. The government hindered not alone the exploited but also the exploiting classes from freely defending their interests. On the side Of government there stood only a portion of the exploiting class; another and a very considerable part of the exploiters, namely, the industrial capitalists, mere in the camp of the opposition, together with the whole mass of the laboring class – not simply proletarians, but also the small bourgeois and the peasants – except in some backward localities. Government was also isolated from the people. It had no hold on the broad masses of the populace; it represented the most highly favored strength of the oppression and the exploitation of the people. A coup d’etat could under certain circumstances suffice to overthrow it.

In a democracy not alone the exploited but the exploiting class can more freely develop their organization, and it is necessary that they do this if they are to be able to resist their opponents. The strength not only of the former but of the latter as well is greater than under absolutism. They use their forces recklessly and more harshly than the government itself, which no longer stands above them, but rather beneath them.

The revolutionary circles have also to deal not only with the government but also with the powerful organizations of the exploiters. And the revolutionary circles no longer represent as in the early revolutions an overwhelming majority of the people opposed to a handful of exploiters. To-day they represent in reality only one class, the proletariat, to which not only the whole body of the exploiting class, but also the great mass of the farmers, and a great majority of the intellectuals stand opposed.

Only a fraction of the intellectuals and the very small farmers and the little bourgeois who are actually wage-workers and dependent on their custom unite with the proletariat. But these are decidedly uncertain allies; they are all greatly lacking in just that weapon from which the proletariat draws all its strength – organization.

While the former revolutions were uprisings of the populace against the government, the coming revolution with the exception perhaps of Russia will have more of the character of the struggle of one portion of the people against another, and therein, and only therein, resemble more the struggles of the Reformation than the type of the French Revolution. I might almost say that it will be much less of a sudden uprising against the authorities than a long drawn out civil war, if one does not necessarily join to these last words the idea of actual slaughter and battles. We have no ground to think that barricade battles and similar warlike accompaniments will play a decisive role to-day. The reasons for this have been given so often that I have no need of dallying longer concerning them. Militarism can only be overthrown by rendering the military itself faithless to the rulers, not through its being conquered by popular uprisings.

We have just as little to expect from a financial crisis as from an armed uprising in producing a collapse of existing conditions. In this respect the situation is also wholly different from that of 1789 and 1848. At that time capitalism was still weak, the accumulation of capital still slight and capital difficult to obtain. In this relation capital was partially hostile to absolutism or at least distrustful of it. The government was dependent upon capital and especially upon industrial capital and its development was impossible without it, or at least against its will. The dying feudalism, however, led to the drying up of all material sources of help so that the government received even less money from its lands and was ever more dependent upon the money lenders. This finally led to financial collapse or to concessions to the struggling class either of which events were able to bring about a political collapse.

It is wholly different to-day. Capitalism does not, like feudalism, lead to under-production, but to over-production, and chokes in its own fat. It is not a lack of capital, but superfluity of capital which to-day demands profitable investment and in pursuit of dividends draws back from no risk. The governments are completely dependent upon the capitalist class and the latter has every reason to protect and support them. The increase of public debts can only become a revolutionary factor in so far as it increases the pressure of taxes and therewith leads to an uprising of the lower classes, but scarcely (Russia perhaps must be excepted) to a direct financial collapse, or even to a serious financial embarrassment of the government. We have just as little cause to expect a revolution from a financial crisis as from an armed insurrection.

One means which is peculiar to the proletariat for battle and the exercise of influence is the organized withholding of labor – the strike. The more the capitalist manner of production develops and capital concentrates, the more gigantic the dimensions of the strike, and the more the capitalist manner of production presses the small industries, the more will the whole of society become dependent upon the undisturbed continuance of capitalist production and the more will every important disturbance of this latter as for instance, a strike of great dimensions, bring with it national calamities and political results. At a certain height of economic development the thought will at once occur to use the strike as a means for political struggle. It has already appeared as such in France and Belgium and has been used with good results. In my opinion it will play a great role in the revolutionary battles of the future.

That has been my view for a long time. In my articles on the new party programme of 1891 (Neue Zeit, 1890-1891, No.50, page 757) I pointed out the possibility that “under certain conditions, when a great decision is to be made, when great events have moved the labor masses to their depths an extensive cessation of labor may easily have great political results.”

Naturally, I am not using the idea of a general strike in the sense that the anarchists and the French trade unionists use the word. To these latter the political and especially the Parliamentary activity of the proletariat is to be Supplemented by the strike and it is to become a means to throw the social order overboard.

That is foolish. A general strike in the sense that all the laborers of the country at a given sign shall lay down their labor presupposes a unanimity and an organization of the laborers which is scarcely possible in present society, and which if it were once attained would be so irresistible that no general strike would be necessary. Such a strike mould, however, at one stroke render impossible the existence not simply of existing society but all existence, and that of the proletarians long before that of the capitalist, and must consequently collapse uselessly at just the moment when its revolutionary virtue began to develop.

The strike as a political weapon will scarcely ever, certainly not in any time now visible, take on the form of a strike of all the laborers of a country. It can also not have the purpose of displacing the other means of political struggle but only of supplementing and strengthening them. We are now entering upon a time where opposed to the overwhelming power of organized capital an isolated non-political strike will be just as hopeless as is the isolated parliamentary action of the labor parties opposed to the pressure of the capitalistically dominated governmental powers. It will be ever more necessary that both should grow and draw new strength from co-operation.

As is the case with all new weapons the best manner to use a political strike must first be learned. It is not a cure-all as the anarchists announce it, and it is not an infallible means, under all conditions, as they consider it. It would exceed my purposes to investigate here the conditions under which it is applicable. Considering the latest events in Belgium I might observe that these have shown how very much it demands its own peculiar methods which do not favorably combine with other methods, as for example, with alliances with Liberals. I do not necessarily reject such an alliance under all conditions. It would be foolish for us not to utilize the disagreements and divisions of our opponents. But one should not expect more from the Liberals than they are able to grant. In the field of proletarian activity it may be easily possible under certain conditions that the opposition between them and us in regard to this and that measure may be less than between them and our bourgeois opponents. At such a time an alliance may have a place. But outside of the parliamentary field any effort for a revolutionary demand cannot be fought with Liberal aid. To seek to strengthen proletarian powers in such a struggle by a Liberal alliance is to attempt to use the weapons for a purpose that are ordinarily used to defeat that purpose. The political strike is a powerful proletarian weapon that is applicable only in a battle which the proletariat fights alone and in which it enters against the total bourgeois society. In this sense it is perhaps the most revolutionary weapon of the proletariat.

Moreover it is probable that still other means and methods of battle will develop of which we do not even dream to-day. There is this difference between the understanding of the methods and organs and of the direction of the social battle that the latter call be theoretically investigated in advance while the former are created in practice and can only be observed by the logicians afterwards, who can then investigate their significance for further evolution. Unions, strikes, corporations, trusts, etc., have sprung from practice and not from theory. In this field many surprises for us may yet appear.

As a means of hastening the political development and of bringing the proletariat into a position of political power war may play a part. War has already often shown itself to be a very revolutionary factor. There are historical situations in which revolution is necessary to the further progress of society but where the revolutionary classes are still, too weak to overthrow the ruling powers. The necessity of revolution does not always imply that the aspiring classes should have just the right strength at just the right moment. Unfortunately the world is not Set so purposefully planned as this. There are situations where revolution is undoubtedly demanded, where one ruling class should be displaced by another, but where the latter is still held in firm subjection by the former. If this situation continues too long the whole society collapses. Very often in such a situation war fulfills the function to which the aspiring class has not yet grown. It fulfills this in two ways. War can be carried on only by the exercise of all the powers of a people. If there is a deep division in the nation war will compel the governing class to grant concessions to the aspiring class which they would not have attained without the war.

If the governing class is not capable of such a sacrifice or yields too late for it to be effective then war can easily lead to defeat from without which carries with it a collapse within. A government resting mainly upon an army is overthrown as soon as the army is defeated.

So it has not unfrequently happened that war has been an extremely efficient means, even if brutal and destructive, to bring about a progress of which other means were incapable.

The German bourgeois, for example, was rendered too weak by the transference of the economic center of Europe to the sea coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and by the thirty years’ war and its results to overthrow by its own strength the feudal absolutism It was freed from this only through the Napoleonic wars and then later through the wars of the Bismarckian era. The legacy of 1848 was realized upon mainly through the wars of the counter-revolutionary forces as these forces had themselves been formerly established.

Today we are in a period of external and internal political antagonisms analogous to that which existed in the 50’s and 60’s. Once more a mass of social tinder has accumulated. The problems of external and internal politics demanding solution become ever more tremendous. But none of the rulings classes or parties dare earnestly to attempt their solution because this is not possible without great upheavals and they shrink back from these because they have learned to know the gigantic power of the proletariat which every such great upheaval threatens to set free.

I have referred above to the decay of the internal political life which finds its most striking expression in the increasing decadence of Parliaments. But hand in hand with this is the decay of external politics. One fears every energetic policy that may lead to an international conflict, not from an ethical dislike of war, but for fear of the revolution, whose forerunner it may be. Accordingly the statesmanship of our rulers consists simply, not alone internally, but also externally, in placing every question upon the shelf and thereby increasing the number of unsolved problems. Thanks to this policy there now exists a row of shadow States such as Turkey and Austria, which an energetic revolutionary race of a half century ago placed on the list of extinct States. On the other side, and for the same reason, the interest of the bourgeoisie has completely ceased to stand for an independent Polish national state.

But these social craters are not put out, they may burst out again any day in devastating war, like Mt. Pelee at Martinique. Economic evolution itself continually creates new craters, new causes of crises, new points of friction and new occasions for warlike developments, in that it awakens in the ruling classes a greed for the monopolization of the markets and the conquest of foreign colonies and in that it substitutes for the peaceful attitude of the industrial capitalist, the violent one of the financier.

The single security for freedom is found to-day in the fear of the revolutionary proletariat. We have yet to see how long this will restrain the ever increasing causes of conflict. And there are also a number of powers who have no independent revolutionary proletariat to fear and many of these are completely dominated by an unscrupulous, brutal clique of men of the “high finance.” These powers, hitherto insignificant or peace-loving in international politics, are continuously becoming more prominent as international disturbers of peace. This is true most of all of the United States, but also of England and Japan. Russia has figured previously in the first place in the list of international disturbers; her heroic proletariat has momentarily restrained her. But just as over-confidence of a government in unrestricted interior power with no revolutionary class at its back, so also can the despair of a tottering government kindle a war. This was the case with Napoleon III in 1870 and perhaps may yet be the case with Nicholas II. The great danger to the peace of the world to-day is from these powers and their antagonisms and not from such as exist between Germany and France, or between Austria and Italy. We must reckon on the possibility of a war within a perceptible time and therewith also the possibility of political convulsions that will end directly in proletarian uprisings or at least in opening the way to them.

Let no one misunderstand me. I am investigating here, not prophesying and still less am I expressing wishes. I investigate what may happen; I do not declare what will happen, least of all do I demand what should happen. When I speak, here of war as a means of revolution, that does not say that I desire war. Its horrors are so terrible that to-day it is only military fanatics whose ghastly courage could lead them to demand a war in cold blood. But even when a revolution is not a means to an end but an end in itself, which even at the most bloody price could not be too dearly purchased, still one cannot desire war as a means to release revolution for it is the most irrational means to this end. It brings such terrible destruction and creates such gigantic demands upon the State that any revolution springing from it is heavily loaded with tasks that are not essential to it but which momentarily absorb all its means and energy. Consequently a revolution which rises from war is a sign of the weakness of the revolutionary class, and often the cause of further weakness, just because of the sacrifice that it brings with it, as well as by the moral and intellectual degradation to which war gives rise. It also increases enormously the tasks of the revolutionary regime and simultaneously weakens its powers. Accordingly a revolution springing from a war is easier wrecked or sooner loses its motive force. How wholly different were the results of the bourgeois revolution in France where it sprung from an uprising of the people, from those in Germany, where it was imported through a number of wars. And the proletarian cause would have received much greater justice from the uprising of the Parisian proletariat if it had not been prematurely brought about by the war of ’70 and ’71, but had waited until a later period in which the Parisians mould have had sufficient strength to have driven out Louis Napoleon and his band without a war.

We also have not the slightest ground to wish for an artificial acceleration of our advance by a war.

But things do not move according to our wishes. To be sure men make their own history, but they do not choose according to their desires the problems which they have to solve nor the conditions under which they live, nor the means through which these problems are to be solved. If it came according to our wishes who of us would not prefer the peaceable to the violent road for which our present strength has perhaps not sufficiently grown and which perhaps would swallow us up. But it is not our task to express pious wishes and to demand of the world that it move in accordance with them, but to recognize the tasks, conditions and means which arise and to use the latter purposefully to a solution of the former.

Investigation of existing facts is the foundation of any rational policy. If I have arrived at the conviction that we are entering upon a revolutionary epoch, concerning whose conclusions everything is not yet clear, I am driven thereto by the investigation of actual conditions and not by my desires. I desire nothing more than that I may be wrong and that those may be right who maintain that the greatest difficulties of the transition period from capitalism to socialism lie behind us, and that we have all the essential foundations for a peaceful advance to socialism. Unfortunately I see no possibility of accepting this view. The greatest and the most difficult of the battles for political power still lies before us. It will be decided only after a long and hard struggle that will test all our powers to the utmost.

One can do nothing worse to the proletariat than to advise him to rest upon his arms in order to encourage a favorable attitude of the bourgeoisie. Under present conditions this means nothing less than to deliver the proletariat over to the bourgeoisie and bring it into intellectual and political dependence upon the latter, to enervate and degrade it and make it incapable of fulfilling its great historical purposes.

The proof that this is not exaggerated is furnished by the English laborers. Nowhere is the proletariat more numerous, nowhere is its economic organization better developed, nowhere is its freedom greater than in England, here is the proletariat politically more helpless. It has not simply lost all independence in the higher politics. It no longer knows how to even preserve its immediate interests. Here also we may again refer to the previously cited article of Webb, which certainly cannot be suspected of being consciously revolutionary.

“During the upward movement of the last ten years,” he says, in the previously mentioned article,”the participation of the English laborers in labor politics has gradually decreased. The eight-hour law and the constructive Socialism of the Fabians to which the unions turned so eagerly in the period of ’90 and ’93 ceases more and more to occupy their thoughts. The number of labor representatives in the Lower House does not increase.”

Even the latest scourgings of their opponents have not served to rouse the proletariat of England. They remain dumb, even when their hands are rendered powerless, dumb when their bread is made more costly. The English labourers to-day stand lower as a political factor than the laborers of the most economically backward country in Europe – Russia. It is the real revolutionary consciousness in these latter that gives them their great political power. It is the renunciation of revolution, the narrowing of interest to the interests of the moment, to the so-called practical politics, that have made the latter a cipher in actual politics.

But in this practical politics the loss of political power goes hand in hand with moral and political degradation.

I have referred above to the moral re-birth of the proletariat which has transformed them from the barbarians of modern society into the most significant factor in the maintenance and furtherance of our culture. But they have only so risen when they have remained in sharpest antagonism to the bourgeoisie; where the strife for political power has kept alive in them the consciousness that they are called to raise themselves together with the whole of society. Here, again, England offers us an illustration of a laboring class who renounce revolution and care only for practical politics, laughing scornfully at their ideals hung on a peg at one side and casting from them every goal of battle that they cannot express in pounds and shillings. From the mouths of the bourgeois themselves come complaints of that moral and intellectual decay of the elite of the English laborers which they share with the bourgeoisie itself and to-day indeed they are scarcely more than little bourgeois and are distinguished from them only by a somewhat greater lack of culture. Their highest ideal consists in aping their masters and in maintaining their hypocritical respectability, their admiration for wealth, however it may be obtained, and their spiritless manner of killing their leisure time. The emancipation of their class appears to them as a foolish dream. Consequently, it is foot-ball, boxing, horse racing and opportunities for gambling which move them the deepest and to which their entire leisure time, their individual powers, and their material means are devoted.

One seeks hopelessly to rouse by political preaching the English laborers to a higher way of life, to a mind capable of nobler considerations. The ethic of the proletariat flows from its revolutionary efforts and it is these which have strengthened and ennobled it. It is the idea of the revolution which has brought about that wonderful elevation of the proletariat from its deepest degradation, which elevation stands as the greatest result of the second half of the nineteenth century.

To this revolutionary idealism we must above all cling fast, then come what will, we can bear the heaviest, attain the highest, and remain worthy of the great historical purpose that awaits us.


Last updated on 28.1.2004