Karl Kautsky

The Intellectuals and the Workers


Written: Die Neue Zeit (Volume XXII, no.4, 1903).
First published in English: Fourth International, Vol.7 No.4, April 1946, pp.125-126.
Reprinted and published on-line: Revolutionary History

Part of the very problem which once again so keenly preoccupies our attention is the antagonism between the intellectuals and the proletariat.

My colleagues will for the most part wax indignant at my admission of this antagonism. But it actually exists, and as in other cases, it would be a most inexpedient tactic to try to cope with this fact by ignoring it.

This antagonism is a social one, it relates to classes and not individuals. An individual intellectual, like an individual capitalist, may join the proletariat in its class struggle. When he does, he changes his character too. It is not of this type of intellectual, who is still an exception among his fellows, that we shall deal with in the following lines. Unless otherwise indicated I shall use the word intellectual to mean only the common run of intellectual. who take the standpoint of bourgeois society and who are characteristic of intellectuals as a whole, who stand in a certain antagonism to the proletariat.

This antagonism differs, however, from the antagonism between labour and capital. An intellectual is not a capitalist. True, his standard of life is bourgeois and he must maintain it if he is not to become a pauper; but at the same time he has to sell the product of his labour, and frequently his labour. power; and he is himself often enough exploited and humiliated by the capitalists. Hence the intellectual does not stand in any economic antagonism to the proletariat. But his status of life and his conditions of labour are not proletarian, and this gives rise to a certain antagonism in sentiments and ideas.

As an isolated individual, the proletarian is a nonentity. His strength, his progress, his hopes and expectations are entirely derived from organisation, from systematic action in conjunction with his fellows. He feels himself big and strong when he is part of a big and strong organism. The organism is the main thing for him; the individual by comparison means very little. The proletarian fights with the utmost devotion as part of the anonymous mass, without prospect of personal advantage or personal glory, performing his duty in any post assigned to him, with a voluntary discipline which pervades all his feelings and thoughts.

Quite different is the case of the intellectual. He fights not by means of power, but by argument. His weapons are his personal knowledge, his personal ability and his personal convictions. He can attain a position only through his personal abilities. Hence the freest play for these seems to him the prime condition for success. It is only with difficulty that he submits to serving as a part which is subordinate to the whole, and then only from necessity, not from inclination. He recognises the need of discipline only for the masses, not for the select few. And naturally he counts himself among the latter,

In addition to this antagonism between the intellectual and the proletarian in sentiment, there is yet another antagonism. The intellectual, armed with the general education of our time, conceives himself as very superior to the proletarian. Even Engels writes of the scholarly mystification with which he approached workers in his youth. The intellectual finds it very easy to overlook in the proletarian his equal as a fellow fighter, at whose side in the combat he must take his place. Instead he sees in the proletarian the latter’s low level of intellectual development, which it is the intellectual’s task to raise. He sees in the worker not a comrade but a pupil. The intellectual clings to Lassalle’s aphorism on the bond between science and the proletariat, a bond which will raise society to a higher plane. As advocate of science, the intellectuals come to the workers not in order to co-operate with them as comrades, but as an especially friendly external force in society, offering them aid.

For Lassalle, who coined the aphorism on science and the proletariat, science, like the state, stands above the class struggle. Today we know this to be false. For the state is the instrument of the ruling class. Moreover, science itself rises above the classes only insofar as it does not deal with classes, that is, only insofar as it is a natural and not a social science. A scientific examination of society produces an entirely different conclusion when society is observed from a class standpoint, especially from the standpoint of a class which is antagonistic to that society. When brought to the proletariat from the capitalist class, science is invariably adapted to suit capitalist interests. What the proletariat needs is a scientific understanding of its own position in society. That kind of science a worker cannot obtain in the officially and socially approved manner. The proletarian himself must develop his own theory. For this reason he must be completely self-taught, no matter whether his origin is academic or proletarian. The object of study is the activity of the proletariat itself, its role in the process of production, its role in the class struggle. Only from this activity can the theory, the self-consciousness of the proletariat, arise.

The alliance of science with labour and its goal of saving humanity, must therefore be understood not in the sense which the academicians transmit to the people the knowledge which they gain in the bourgeois classroom, but rather in this sense that every one of our co-fighters, academicians and proletarians alike, who are capable of participating in proletarian activity, utilise the common struggle or at least investigate it, in order to draw new scientific knowledge which can in turn be fruitful for further proletarian activity. Since that is how the matter stands, it is impossible to conceive of science being handed down to the proletariat or of an alliance between them as two independent powers. That science, which can contribute to the emancipation of the proletariat, can be developed only by the proletariat and through it. What the liberals bring over from the bourgeois scientific circles cannot serve to expedite the struggle for emancipation, but often only to retard it.

The remarks which follow are by way of digression from our main theme. But today when the question of the intellectuals is of such extreme importance, the digression is not perhaps without value.

Nietzsche’s philosophy with its cult of superman for whom the fulfilment of his own individuality is everything and the subordination of the individual to a great social aim is as vulgar as it is despicable, this philosophy is the real philosophy of the intellectual; and it renders him totally unfit to participate in the class struggle of the proletariat.

Next to Nietzsche, the most outstanding spokesman of a philosophy based on the sentiments of the intellectual is Ibsen. His Doctor Stockmann (An Enemy of the People) is not a socialist, as so many believe, but rather the type of intellectual who is bound to come into conflict with the proletarian movement, and with any popular movement generally, as soon as he attempts to work within it. For the basis of the proletarian movement, as of every democratic movement, is respect for the majority of one’s fellows. A typical intellectual a la Stockmann regards a “compact majority” as a monster which must be overthrown.

From the difference in sentiment between the proletarian and the intellectual, which we have noted above, a conflict can easily arise between the intellectual and the party when the intellectual joins it. That holds equally even if his joining the party does not give rise to any economic difficulties for the intellectual, and even though his theoretical understanding of the movement may be adequate. Not only the very worst elements, but often men of splendid character and devoted to their convictions have on this account suffered shipwreck in the party.

That is why every intellectual must examine himself conscientiously, before joining the party. And that is why the party must examine him to see whether he can integrate himself in the class struggle of the proletariat, and become immersed in it as a simple soldier, without feeling coerced or oppressed. Whoever is capable of this can contribute valuable services to the proletariat according to his talents, and gain great satisfaction from his party activity. Whoever is incapable can expect great friction, disappointment, conflicts, which are of advantage neither to him nor to the party.

An ideal example of an intellectual who thoroughly assimilated the sentiments of a proletarian, and who, although a brilliant writer, quite lost the specific manner of an intellectual, who marched cheerfully with the rank-and-file, who worked in any post assigned to him, who devoted himself wholeheartedly to our great cause, and despised the feeble whinings about the suppression of one’s individuality, as individuals trained in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Ibsen are prone to do whenever they happen to be in a minority – that ideal example of the intellectual whom the socialist movement needs, was Wilhelm Liebknecht. We might also mention Marx, who never forced himself to the forefront, and whose hearty discipline in the International, where he often found himself in the minority, was exemplary.

Karl Kautsky


Last updated on 9.2.2009