Karl Kautsky

To What Extent is the Communist Manifesto Obsolete?


Source: From Social Democrat, Vol.9 no.?, 1905, pp.155-164.
Originally published: Leipziger Volkszeitung, 1904.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford, April, 2003. [1*]

Almost sixty years have passed since the Communist Manifesto was written, sixty years of a mode of production which, more than any preceding one, consists in a constant overturning of the old, and a continual hurrying and hunting after the new. They have been sixty years of thorough political and social revolutionising, not only of Europe, but of the whole globe. Naturally, these sixty years could not pass without leaving their mark on the Communist Manifesto.

The more correctly it had comprehended its time and corresponded to it, the more it must needs grow obsolete, and become an historic document, which bears witness of its own time, but can no longer be determinative for the present.

But this, mark you, is true only with regard to some points, to those, namely, where the practical politician speaks to his contemporaries. Nothing; would be more erroneous than to stamp the whole of the Communist Manifesto simply as an historic document. On the contrary. The principles developed by it, the method to which it leads us, the characteristic it gives by a few strokes of the capitalist mode of production, are to-day more valid than ever. The whole actual development, as well as the whole theoretic investigation, of the time since the drawing-up of the Manifesto, are nothing but an unbroken line of confirmations of its fundamental conceptions. Never was the principle more universally accepted that the history of all hitherto existing (civilised) society is the history of class wars; and never has it appeared plainer that the great moving power of our times is the class war between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

But the proletarians, and also the bourgeois, are no longer quite the same as they were six decades ago. Sharp and accurate as is the Manifesto’s portrayal of them, and though even to-day it forms the most brilliant and profound exposition of them possible within so narrow a limit, in some respects it does no longer tally.

At the tune when the Communist Manifesto appeared, the most striking characteristics of the proletariat were its degradation, the lowering of its wages, the lengthening of its working hours; its physical, and often its moral and intellectual damage; to short, its misery. Of the three great classes, which made up the bulk of the people, the peasants, the small tradesmen, and the wage workers, the last named then stood, in every respect, at the bottom of all. It was poor, oppressed, and helpless; and numerically as well as in economic importance it stood (except in England) inferior to the two other classes. For most of the disinterested spectators it was only an object of pity. It therefore needed all the economic and historic knowledge and all the acumen of a Marx and an Engels to detect in the class struggle of the proletariat the strongest motive power in the social development of the coming decades, at a time when the successors of the great utopians yet regarded the proletariat as a helpless mass to which relief could come only from the upper classes. At that time, the revolutionists expected everything from what was called the “people,” that is, in the main, from the small traders and the peasants, whose appendix was this mass of wage workers, intellectually, socially, and often economically dependent upon them.

Entirely different is the position of the proletariat nowadays. True, it is still subjected to the distressing influences of capital, as it was 60 years ago, and capital even to-day still endeavours to lengthen the hours of labour, to supplant the worker with the machine, to displace the toiling man by the woman and the child, and thus degrade the proletariat. But ever mightier does also grow “the rebellion of the constantly increasing working class, schooled, united and organised through the mechanism of the capitalist process of production.” (Marx in Capital) Ever stronger sets in the resistance of the proletariat as one after the other of its strata learns to overcome the degrading effects of capitalism.

Quite different is it with the peasantry and the small trading class. While for decades growing numbers of proletarians were shortening their worktime and increasing their wages, the worktime of the craftsmen and small farmers remained the same, or was extended even to the limits of physical endurance. At the same time the intensity of their labour grows, and more and more does the standard of life of the craftsman, the small trader and the small farmer approach the minimum of existence. On the other hand, while the working class knows how to gain an ever stronger bulwark, an ever greater protection for the women and children employed in the great industries, craftsmen and farmers are more and more forced to a far-reaching exploitation of their own women and children, as well as those of others.

Hand in hand with this economic transformation goes an intellectual and political one.

A hundred years ago the small tradesman far surpassed in intelligence, self-reliance, and courage, all other classes of the people; to-day he has become the prototype of narrowness, servility and cowardice, while the proletariat vigorously develops in those virtues. A hundred years ago the small trader-class still formed the heart of democratic opposition and bourgeois radicalism, which declared war upon the castle, throne, and altar, and peace to the cottage. To-day the small bourgeoisie has become the Elite of reaction, the bodyguard of those in the castle, upon the throne and before the altar, to whom it looks for salvation from the misery into which it has been thrown by the economic development; and a similar thing has happened to the peasantry. Now there is only one class of the population that, with all its strength, stakes itself for social progress, and that class is the proletariat.

But all these transformations are, fortunately for social progress, attended by a complete shifting of the proportion of power. At the time of writing of the Communist Manifesto, the great majority of the population (in France and Germany 70 to 80 per cent.) were still living in the open country. In the cities the petty bourgeoisie was dominant. To-day the urban population of all the industrially developed States of Europe is in the majority, and in the cities the proletariat preponderates. And still more than its proportion to the whole population has grown its economic importance. A hundred years ago capitalist industry, especially on the Continent of Europe, still served, chiefly, to satisfy the demands of luxury, and to produce silkstuffs, rugs, porcelain, paper, &c. Sixty years ago economic life rested mainly upon handicrafts and husbandry. At present the economic significance and the wealth of a country depend in the first place upon its great capitalist industries, which no longer serve luxuries but mass consumption and producing things that are indispensable. A modern State can exist without farmers and handicraftsmen, as is shown by the example of England, but it cannot exist without capitalist industries and the means of communication corresponding to them. One can no longer say, as did the Manifesto: “The worker becomes a pauper; he sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.”

Thus the proletariat occupies to-day quite a different position from sixty years ago. But, to be sure, he looks at things in a peculiar way, who thinks he perceives that in consequence of these changes the antagonism of the proletariat toward capital has been softened. Quite the contrary. On the one hand the proletariat has to-day, just as every other class, at its disposal a greater part of the advantages of culture than in former centuries, or even decades. The enormous increase of productive forces which have been unchained by capitalism, has not come upon the working class, without leaving its mark. We may speak of an amelioration of the condition of many proletarian strata, if we compare them with the condition of the small bourgeoisie and the peasantry, but it falls short compared with the growth of the social powers of production, which capital appropriates and exploits to its own advantage. Compared with the standard of life of the capitalist class and the accumulation of capital the condition of the proletariat deteriorates; its share in the product of its toil decreases more and more and its exploitation increases. All the progress, which it nevertheless gains, has been gained only by a war against capital, and only by a continuous struggle is it able to maintain its winnings. In this way its degradation and its elevation, its defeats and also its victories, become sources of a continuous and growing exasperation against the hostile class. The faunas of the struggle change, it assumes a higher level. Isolated acts of wild despair change to well planned acts of great organisations, but the antagonism remains and becomes ever harsher.

But as the proletariat so the industrial bourgeoisie, during the last sixty years, has undergone a transformation. When the Communist Manifesto appeared that class had only just done away with the corn laws, the last obstacle to its domination in England, and on the continent of Europe it was confronted with the necessity of a revolution, to make the political power subservient to its aims.

It stood in hostile attitude opposed to the powers that most apparently oppressed the bulk of the population - clergy, nobility, monarchy, and high finance. It was still cherishing great political aims, ideals that even surrounded it with something like ethical significance. It still believed that only the debris of feudalism stood in the way of a general prosperity, and after that was cleared away, there would begin an era of general happiness.

The revolution of 1848 brought the great disappointment and unveiled the class antagonism which, as we have just seen, the economic development afterwards deepened more and more, and thus the industrial bourgeoisie with its followers were driven into the camp of reaction. Nowhere in Europe could it gain exclusive sway. It tried to obtain power with the help of the small traders and the proletariat, and to preserve its domination by the help of those powers against which it had mobilised the democracy. To this should be added that industry is more and more surrendered to high finance, which has always been anti-democratic and favouring an absolute power in the State.

The Communist Manifesto could yet declare:- “In Germany the Communist Party fights with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.”

To-day we can nowhere speak of a revolutionary bourgeoisie.

However, not only are bourgeoisie and proletariat in some respects differently disposed to-day, but the course of development, also, has not turned out quite as had been expected. To be sure, the basic economic development has wholly moved along the path which the Manifesto outlined so clearly; and what it says in this respect remains classic to this day. But the political development has proceeded in a different manner than one could foresee at that time.

Marx and Engels were well aware of the fact that the working class in its condition at that time, especially in Germany, were unable to conquer the political powers or to maintain them. But they expected a bourgeois revolution which they in Germany sooner than elsewhere foresaw, and they expected it to take a similar course to that of the English revolution of the seventeenth and the French revolution of the eighteenth century. They expected it to be in its beginning a movement of the revolutionary bourgeoisie against absolutism and feudalism, but they hoped that in its onward course the proletarian elements would more and more recognise and develop their antagonism to the bourgeoisie, and that the revolution would strengthen the influence of the proletariat and rapidly render them stronger and riper. For during a revolution, so they reasoned, every development proceeds at the quickest pace; a revolutionary class proceeds in five years as far as otherwise in a century. Thus the proletarian revolution and the conquest of the political powers by the proletariat would follow immediately the bourgeois revolution was won, not as the result of a coup, but of years, perhaps decades, of revolutionary struggles.

The Communist Manifesto says in this respect:- “The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, and with a more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”

This expectation did not materialise, as we all know; it did not materialise just because the revolution of 1848 happened “under more progressive conditions of European civilisation” than those of 1640 and 1789.

That which drove the proletarian, the half-proletarian, and half-petty-bourgeois elements of the English and the French revolutions to the front, and helped them into temporary political power, was the war, a war of life and death, which the revolution had to carry on, and in which it could only maintain its position by that disregard of its own life and the property of the owning class, which distinguishes the proletariat. In England it was the long war of the Parliament against the feudal armies of Charles I, and in France the war, likewise lasting for years, against the allied monarchs of Europe.

But the revolution of 1848 kindled no war. Not a long-drawn civil war brought down the Governments, the barricade battles of one day were sufficient to make them break down in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. And since the revolution extended over the whole of Europe, there was no foreign power to proclaim war against it. Absolutist Russia kept at first very quiet.

But while the feudal-absolutist opponents of the revolution of 1848 were much weaker than in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the proletariat was much stronger. During the days of February it gained at once a dominating position in Paris. In place of a struggle of life and death against monarchy and nobility, for which it would have been necessary to call the proletariat to arms, submitting, finally, to its consequent influence, the bourgeoisie now at once felt constrained to begin a struggle of life and death against the proletariat itself, and for this purpose it called upon the power of the State just subdued by it, for the help of its army, thus submitting once more to the military yoke.

The battle of June was the catastrophe of the revolution of 1848. It inaugurated a new historical epoch and marks the time when the bourgeoisie entirely ceases to be a politically revolutionary class. It brings, at least for Western Europe, the era of bourgeois revolutions to a close. I will not discuss how far this holds good for Russia, where the peasantry and the intellectuals play an entirely different role as in Western Europe. After June, 1848, a bourgeois revolution which could form the prelude of a proletarian revolution, is no longer possible in Western Europe. The next can only be a proletarian revolution.

And in Russia, too, the initiative for a revolution can only emanate from the industrial proletariat, even if as yet it does not lead to its exclusive domination.

But all this has put the labour movement in a totally different position.

The strengthening of the working class and its elevation to the altitude which would enable it to conquer the political powers and maintain them, can no longer be expected from a bourgeois revolution, which, becoming permanent, grows beyond its own limits and develops out of itself a proletarian revolution. Outside of the revolution, and preceding it, this ripening and strengthening must take place. It must have reached a certain degree before a revolution is at all possible. It must take place through methods of peace, not of war - if one is permitted to express oneself as distinguishing between warlike and peaceful methods of the class struggle.

Protection of the workers, trade unionism and the organisation of co-operative societies, now gradually assume a significance quite different from that of the time before June, 1848.

That which 60 years ago was still enshrouded in deepest darkness is to-day as clear as daylight. Thanks to this fact many a short-sighted mole who is diligently digging for earth-worms, thinks himself far superior in range and sharpness of vision to the masters of the Communist Manifesto, and even looks down with pity upon their intellectual errors. But the fact is that among the Socialists and revolutionaries nobody comprehended the new situation sooner than Marx and Engels.

They were the first to recognise that the era of revolution, for the near future at least, had come to an end. It was the International which before others systematically endeavoured to promote trade union organisation on the continent of Europe. “Capital,” by Marx, first offered a theory for the protection of the workers, and it was the International which in the sixties participated energetically in the movement for universal suffrage in England.

But not only the methods by which the working class becomes riper, the pace of the development, also, had to change in consequence of the new situation. The place of rapid revolutionary flight was taken by the snail-like movement of peaceful and legal evolution, too slow for a fiery soul.

Thus some things have had an outcome different from what the authors of the Manifesto expected at the time of its writing. But they were the first to recognise the new situation, and they did so because of the principles and methods they had developed in their Manifesto, and the new situation was itself, although in different forms, an affirmation of those principles. When, during the following decades, the questions of protection to the worker and trade organisation acquired an importance which in 1847 it was impossible to recognise, this was due only to the fact that a few months after the appearance of the Manifesto the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat already reacted upon the bourgeoisie in a manner which before February, 1848, nobody suspected. It was due therefore to the fact that the outlines of this antagonism in the Manifesto for its own time already proved to be truer than its authors had assumed.

Very few of those who act the part of “critics” of the Manifesto suspect this connection of things. From the fact that a rapid and stormy development was replaced by a “peaceful” and gradual one, and revolutionary by legal methods of class war, they conclude that an antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat either does not exist at all, or that it is in a state of constant mitigation. They preach co-operation between the Liberal bourgeoisie and the proletariat and, in so far as they are Socialists, they refer to that sentence of the Manifesto which states:

“In Germany the Communist party fights with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.”

This sentence, it is claimed, gives approval to the policy of a combination of Radicals in order to capture the government, and to the policy of a socialistic ministerialism, as practised by some Socialist factions in France and Italy, and preached everywhere by the representatives of the “new method.”

Here we have a Marxian “dogma,” defended with a truly dogmatic fanaticism by the champions especially of “critical” Socialism. But we have seen that so far as we may speak of a “mistake” in the Manifesto and deem criticism a necessity, this has to begin with the very “dogma” of the politically revolutionary bourgeoisie. The very displacement of revolution by evolution during the last fifty years grows out of the fact that a revolutionary bourgeoisie no longer exists. Besides, Marx and Engels understood by the term “fighting with the bourgeoisie” something else than the supporters of present-day socialistic ministerialism. The address of the Central Executive Board of the Communist League of March, 1850, treats of the relation of the Communists to the bourgeois democracy, of which it was assumed at that time that during a new revolutionary eruption it would place itself at the helm of the State. To quote:

“At the present moment, when the democratically inclined petty bourgeoisie is everywhere oppressed, they generally preach union and conciliation to the proletariat. They offer their hand for the formation of a great party of the opposition, comprising all the different shades of democratic belief. That is, it is their aim to draw the workers into a party organisation ruled by the phrase behind which the bourgeois democracy hide their special interests. In this organisation the definite demands of the proletariat, for the sake of dear peace, must not be mentioned. Such a combination would only redound to the benefit of the bourgeoisie, and wholly to the disadvantage of the proletariat. The latter would lose its independent position, gained by hard work, and it would again descend to the level of an appendix of the bourgeois democracy. This kind of combination must therefore be rejected most energetically. No special combination is necessary in case of a fight against a common enemy. As soon as such an enemy is to be fought, the interests of both parties for the time being are one, and just as heretofore, so also in the future an alliance, calculated to serve the moment, will spring into existence. It is understood that in the approaching bloody conflicts, as in preceding ones, the workers, by their courage, firmness and sacrifice, will have to win the victory ... During the struggle and after it, the workers must at every opportunity advance their own demands side by side with those of the bourgeois democrats. They must demand guarantees for themselves as soon as the bourgeoisie prepare to take the government in their hand. They must, if necessary, wrest such guarantees from them and in general see to it that the new rulers pledge themselves to all possible concessions and promises - the surest means to make them compromise themselves. On the whole, they must in every way keep back as much as possible the intoxication that comes of victory and the enthusiasm for the new state of affairs, by a calm and cool comprehension of conditions and by an open distrust in the new government ... In a word: from the first moment of victory the distrust must no longer be directed against the vanquished reactionary party, but against those who have so far been allies, against the party which will try to exploit the common victory solely for its own advantage.”

This, then, was the form of the common struggle of bourgeoisie and proletariat against absolutism and feudalism, as Marx and Engels looked upon it. It is something quite different from what the present-day Socialistic ministerialism in France and Italy aim at.

Of course one may object that what took place at that time were revolutionary struggles. But a common revolutionary struggle is for the united action of bourgeoisie and proletariat the most favourable case. The danger that the political power of the proletariat may be exploited by the bourgeoisie; the danger of a loss of that political power which emanates from its political independence, and the necessity for distrust against a bourgeois democratic government, are evidently much stronger where the bourgeoisie can no longer be anything but conservative, than where its aim is still the revolutionary conquest of new positions.

But wherever to-day a co-operation of bourgeoisie and proletariat may become necessary, it is, with the exception of Russia, not for revolutionary but for conservative purposes, for the preservation and security of the existing meagre rudiments of democracy against the onslaught of reaction.

In these struggles against reaction also the proletariat has to stand its ground, here too the hardest work falls to its share, and here too it sometimes has to co-operate with the Liberal bourgeoisie. But more even than in the revolutionary struggle there is danger here that it may be betrayed by its ally, and it is necessary to face him with open distrust. And above all there exists the necessity of a fully independent organisation. The proletariat, by condition of its class, is a most thoroughly revolutionary class, and is to-day the only revolutionary class. For a time circumstances may force it to participate in a conservative action against reaction, but never can it be fully consumed thereby. It will always give practical proof of its revolutionary character, which will break through even where for the moment it acts conservative. Its powers can only develop and increase by revolutionary action and revolutionary propaganda, and it destroys the roots of its strength if it limits itself to the rôle of a conservative guardian of the ruling Liberal bourgeoisie against the onslaught of clergy, landed aristocracy and mercenaries.

Of course, these are questions which concern the Socialists of Western Europe more than those who are active in the Russian Empire. The latter live under political and economic conditions which still greatly resemble those of Germany on the eve of the revolution of 1848. For that reason the Manifesto is still far more valid for them than for the Socialists of Western Europe, not only as regards its fundamentals and methods and its presentation of the general character of the capitalist mode of production, all of which at present still form the firm foundations for every consciously proletarian movement of every country, but also in many details which for Western Europe have become obsolete.

With modern conditions of international intercourse, however, no country, and least of all a capitalist country, is moved along the path of its domestic development by its internal motive power alone. Outside influences, and above all the reaction of the class wars of foreign countries, become almost equally important for its class struggles.

The revolutionary battle of June, 1848, in France proved decisive not only for the course of the French revolution, but also for that of the German revolution and the labour movement in England. In the same way, the relations between proletariat and bourgeoisie in Western Europe react upon the relations of these classes in Russia, which classes are placed in a political and economic situation at once corresponding to the time of the Manifesto, and embodying all the tremendous revolutions and experiences which for two generations of uninterrupted economic revolution since the Communist Manifesto have been created.

The political relation between bourgeoisie and proletariat, between Liberalism and Socialism, is for that reason a much more complex and difficult one in Russia than in Western Europe. To rightly comprehend it, the Socialists active under Russian absolutism, will have to take into consideration the most primitive conditions of their own country just as much as the most highly-developed conditions of other countries. The bourgeoisie of Russia still has a revolutionary task to fulfil, but it has already the reactionary turn of mind of the bourgeoisie of the West.

The best and most reliable guide the Russian Socialists will find in the Manifesto. It is no gospel, no bible, as it has been called, the words of which are holy words, but an historic document that should be subjected to criticism, to a criticism, however, which does not limit itself to state how some sentences and turns no longer fit the case: to a criticism, furthermore, that endeavours to comprehend it and to comprehend also those sentences which to-day are obsolete, thus deriving new knowledge from them. To him who studies the Communist Manifesto in this manner it is a compass upon the stormy ocean of the proletarian class struggle. A compass that has proved reliable by pointing out, for sixty years, the direction of the economic development, and which all the facts have corroborated again and again. A compass to which the Socialist parties of all countries are indebted for the fact that despite all contrary currents, despite fogs and cliffs, they are always headed in the right direction. There is no historic document which the decades following its writing have confirmed more gloriously than the Communist Manifesto.

Karl Kautsky


Transcriber’s note

1. This was written as an introduction to a Polish publication of the Manifesto but according to Blumenberg’s bibliography it was originally published in German in 1904 (i.e. before the outbreak of the first Russian Rev.) in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, the organ of the SPD left wing, edited by Parvus, Rosa Luxemburg and Mehring.

Note the explicit reference to the 1850 Address of the Central Committee of the Communist League and to “a bourgeois revolution, which, becoming permanent, grows beyond its own limits and develops out of itself a proletarian revolution” - though it does not conclude that it must necessarily lead to the complete collectivisation of the means of production. This may be why both Lenin and Trotsky could see in Kautsky’s analysis a confirmation of their own theories.


Last updated on 26.11.2003