Karl Kautsky

Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History

Chapter III
The Ethic of Kant

I. The Criticism of Knowledge

Kant took the same ground as the materialists. He recognized that the world outside of us is real and that the starting point of all knowledge is the experience of the senses. But the knowledge which we acquire from experience is partly composed of that which we acquire through the sense impressions and partly from that which our own intellectual powers supply from themselves; in other words, our knowledge of the world is conditioned not simply by the nature of the external world, but also by that of our organs of knowledge. For a knowledge of the world therefore the investigation of our own intellectual powers is equally as necessary as that of the external world. The investigation of the first is, however, the duty of philosophy – this is the science of science.

In this there is nothing contained that every materialist could not subscribe to, or that, perhaps with the exception of the last sentence had not also been previously said by materialists. But certainly only in the way in which certain sentences from the materialist conception of history had already been uttered before Marx, as conceptions which had not borne fruit. It was Kant who first made them the foundation of his entire theory. Through him did philosophy first become the science of science, whose duty it is not to teach a distinct philosophy, but how to philosophize, the process of knowing, methodical thinking, and that by way of a critique of knowledge.

But Kant went farther than this, and his great philosophical achievement, the investigation of the faculties of knowledge, became itself his philosophical stumbling block.

Since our sensual experience does not reveal to us the world as it is in itself, but only as it is for us, as it appears to us, thanks to the peculiar constitution of our faculties of knowledge, so the world as it is in itself must be different to that which appears to us. Consequently Kant distinguishes between the world of phenomena, of appearances, and the world of things in themselves, the “noumena”, or the intelligible world. Certainly this latter is for us unknowable, it lies outside of our experience, so that there is no need to deal with it; one might simply take it as a method of designating the fact that our knowledge of the world is always limited by the nature of our intellectual faculties, is always relative, that for us there can only be relative and no absolute truths, not a final and complete knowledge, but an endless process of knowing.

But Kant was not content with that. He felt an unquenchable longing to get a glimpse into that unknown and inexplorable world of things in themselves, in order to acquire at least a notion of it.

And indeed he got so far as to say quite distinct things about it. The way to this he saw in the critique of our powers of thought.

These latter by separating from experience that which comes from the senses must arrive at the point of describing the forms of knowledge and perception as they originally and a priori, previous to all experience, are contained in our “feelings”. In this manner he discovered the ideality of time and space. According to him these are not conceptions which are won from experience, but simply the forms of our conception of the world, which are embedded in our faculties of knowledge. Only under the form of conceptions in time and space can we recognize the world. But outside of our faculties of knowledge there is no space and no time. Thus Kant got so far as to say about the world of things in themselves, that completely unknowable world, something very distinct, namely, that it is timeless and spaceless.

Without doubt this logical development is one of the most daring achievements of the human mind. That does not say by any means that it is not open to criticism. On the contrary there is a great deal to be said against it, and in fact there are very very weighty objections which have been brought against it. The assumption of the ideality of space and time in the Kantian sense led to inextricable contradictions.

There can certainly be no doubt that our conceptions of time and space are conditioned by the constitution of our faculties of knowledge, but I should have thought that that would only necessarily amount to saying, that only those connections of events in the universe can be recognized which are of such a nature as to call forth in our intellectual faculties the concepts of space and time. The ideality of time and space would then imply just as the thing in itself, no more and no less than a limit to our powers of knowing.

Relations of a kind which cannot take the form of space or time concepts – even if such really exist, that we do not know – are for us inconceivable, just as much as the ultra-violet and ultra-red rays are imperceptible for our powers of vision.

But Kant did not mean the matter in this sense at all. Because space and time provide the forms in which alone my faculties of knowledge can recognize the world, he takes for granted that time and space are forms which are only to be found in my faculty of knowledge, and correspond to no sort of connection in the real world. In his Prolegomena to every future Metaphysic Kant compares in one place the concept of space with the concept of color. This comparison appears to us very apt, it by no means, however, proves what Kant wants to prove. If cinnabar appears red to me, that fact is certainly conditioned by the peculiarity of my visual organs. Out of that there is no color. What appears to me as color is called forth by waves of aether of a distinct length which affect my eye. Should any one wish to consider these waves in relation to the color as the thing in itself, which in reality they are not, then our power of vision would not be a power to see the things as they are, but power to see them as they are not; not a capacity of knowledge, but of illusion.

But it is quite another matter when we look not at one color alone, but take several colors together and distinguish them from one another. Each of them is called forth by distinct ether waves of different lengths. To the distinctions in the colors there correspond differences in the lengths of the ether waves. These distinctions do not lie in my organ of vision but have their ground in the external world. My organs of vision have only the function of making me conscious of this difference in a certain form, that of color. As a means to a recognition of this distinction it is a power of real knowledge and not of illusion. These distinctions are no mere appearances. That I see green, red and white, that has its ground in my organ of sight. But that the green is different to the red, that testifies to something that lies outside of me, to a real difference between the things.

Besides that the peculiarity of my organ has the effect that by its means I can only recognize the motions of the ether. No other communication from the outer world can reach me through that medium.

Just as with the power of vision in particular so is it with the organs of knowledge in general. They can only convey to me Space and Time conceptions, that is, they can only show me those relations of the things which can call forth Time and Space conceptions in my head. To impressions of another kind, if there are any, they cannot react. And my faculty of knowledge renders it possible for me to obtain these impressions in a particular way. So far are the categories of space and time founded in the construction of my faculty of knowledge.

But the relations and distinctions of the things themselves, which are shown to me by means of the individual space and time concepts, so that the different things appear to me as big and small, near and far, sooner or later, are real relations and distinctions of the external world, which are not conditioned through the nature of my faculty of knowledge.

Even if we therefore are not in a position to recognize a single thing by itself, if our faculty of knowledge is in respect to that a faculty of ignorance, we can yet recognize the real differences between things. These distinctions are no mere appearances, even if our conception of them is conveyed to us by means of appearances; they exist outside of us, and can be recognized by us, certainly only in certain forms.

Kant, on the other hand, was of the opinion that not simply are space and time forms of conception for us, but that even the temporal and spacial differences of phenomena spring solely from our heads, and indicate nothing real. If that were really so, then would all phenomena spring simply from our heads, since they all take the form of temporal and spacial differences. Thus we could know absolutely nothing about the world outside of us, not even that it existed. Should there exist a world outside of us, then, thanks to the ideality of space and time, our faculty of knowledge would be not an imperfect, one-sided mechanism, which communicated to us only a one-sided knowledge of the world, but a complete mechanism of its kind, and one which served to completely cut us off from all knowledge of the world. Certainly a mechanism to which the name “Faculty of Knowledge” is just about as suitable as the fist to the eye.

Kant could attack ever so energetically the “mystical” idealism of Berkeley, which he hoped to replace with his critical idealism. His criticism took a turn, which nullifies his own assumption that the world is real and only to be known through experience, and thus mysticism cast out from the one side finds on the other a wide triumphal doorway open, through which it can enter with a flourish of trumpets.


II. The Moral Law

Kant assumed as his starting point that the world is really external to us and does not simply exist in our heads, and that knowledge about it is only to be attained through experience. His philosophical achievement was to be the examination of the conditions of experience, of the boundaries of our knowledge. But just this very examination became for him an incitement to surmount this barrier, and to discover an unknowable world, of which he actually knew that it was of quite another nature than the world of appearances, that it was completely timeless and spaceless, and therefore causeless as well.

But why this break-neck leap over the boundaries of knowledge which caused him to lose all firm ground under the feet? The ground could not be a logical one, since through this leap he landed in contradictions which nullified his own assumptions. It was a historical ground which awaked in him the need for the assumption of a supersensuous world – a need which he must satisfy at all price.

If, in the eighteenth century, France was a hundred years behind England, just so much was Germany behind France. If the English bourgeoisie no longer needed the materialism, since without it, and on religious grounds, they had got rid of the feudalist state and its church, the German bourgeoisie did not yet feel strong enough to take up openly the fight against the state and its church. They therefore withdrew in fear from the materialism. This came in the eighteenth century to Germany, just as to Russia, not as the philosophy of conflict but of pleasure, in a form suitable to the needs of the “enlightened” despotism. It grew at the princely courts, side by side with the narrowest orthodoxy. In the bourgeoisie there remained, however, even in its boldest and most independent pioneers, as a rule, some relic of Christian belief, from which they could not emancipate themselves.

That was bound to make the English philosophy appeal to German philosophers. In fact they had also a very great influence on Kant. I cannot remember ever to have found in his writings any mention of a French materialist of the eighteenth century. On the other hand he quoted with preference Englishmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Locke, Hume, Berkeley and Priestley.

But between the German and English philosophy there was a great difference. The English philosophized at a time of great practical advance, of great practical struggles.

The practice captured their entire intellectual force; even their philosophy was entirely ruled by practical considerations. Their philosophers were greater in their achievements in economics, politics, natural science, than in philosophy.

The German thinkers found no practice which could prevent them from concentrating their entire mental power on the deepest and most abstract problems of science. They were therefore in this respect without their like outside of Germany. That was not founded on any race quality of the Germans, but on the circumstances of the time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the deepest philosophic thinkers were to be found in Italy, France, Holland, England, and not in Germany. The quiet that came over German political life in the century following the Thirty Years War first gave Germany the lead in Philosophy, just as Marx’s Capital had its origin in the period of reaction following on 1848.

Kant, despite his sympathy for the English, could not find satisfaction in their philosophy. He was just as critical towards it as towards materialism.

In both cases Ethics was bound to strike him as the weakest point. It seemed to him quite impossible to bring the moral law into a necessary connection with nature; that is, with the world of phenomena. Its explanation required another world, a timeless and spaceless world of pure spirit, a world of freedom in contrast to the world of appearances (phenomena) which is ruled by the necessary chain of cause and effect. On the other hand his Christian feelings, the outcome of a pious education, were bound to awaken the need for the recognition of a world in which God and immortality were possible. [1] As Kant had to allow that God and immortality were completely superfluous in the world of our experience, he was obliged to look for a world “beyond” experience for them, and thus the spaceless and timeless world of things in themselves corresponded most completely to his needs.

Kant obtained the best proof for the existence of God and immortality in this world of the “beyond” from the moral laws. Thus we find with him, as with Plato, that the repudiation of the materialist explanation and the belief in a special world of spirits, or if it is preferred a world of spirit, lend each other mutual support and render it necessary.

How, however, did Kant manage to obtain farther insight into this spirit world? The critique of pure reason only allowed him to say of it, that it was timeless and spaceless. Now this spacelessness has to be filled up with a content. Even for that Kant has an idea.

The unknowable world of things in themselves becomes at least partly knowable directly one succeeds in getting- hold of a thing in itself. And Kant finds this for us. It is the personality of man. I am for myself at once phenomenon and thing in itself. My pure reason is a thing in itself. As a part of the sensuous world I am subject to the chain of cause and effect, therefore to necessity; as a thing in itself I am free, that is, my actions are not determined by the causes of the world of the senses, but by the moral law dwelling within me, which springs from the pure reason and calls out to me not “Thou must,” but “Thou shalt.” This shall were an absurdity if there did not correspond to it, a can, if I were not free.

The moral freedom of man is certainly a complicated thing. It brings along with it certainly no less contradictions than the ideality of time and space. Since this freedom comes to expression in actions which belong to the world of phenomena, but as such fall into the chain of cause and effect, – they are necessary. The same actions are at the same time free and necessary. Besides this freedom arises in the timeless, intelligible world, while cause and effect always fall in a particular time. The same time-determined action has thus a time, as well as a cause in time.

But what is now the moral law, which from the world of things in themselves, the “world of the understanding, extends its working right into the world of appearances, the world of the “ senses,” and then subordinates itself? Since it springs from the world of the understanding its determining ground can only lie in he pure reason. It must be of a purely formal nature, because it must remain fully free from all relation to the world of the senses, which would at once involve a relation of cause and effect, a determining ground of the will which would at once annihilate its freedom. “ There is, however,” says Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason, “ besides the matter of the law, nothing further contained than the lawgiving form. Thus the law-giving form, so far as it is contained in the maxim, is the only thing that can constitute a determining ground of the free will.”

From that he draws the following Fundamental Law of the Pure Practical Reason.

“Act so that the maxim of thy action may be a principle of universal legislation.”

This principle is by no means startlingly new. It forms only the philosophic translation of the ancient precept, to do unto others as we would be done by. The only new thing is the declaration that this precept forms a revelation of an intelligible world; a revelation which with the greatest application of philosophic insight was to be discovered as a principle which applied not only for humanity, “but for all finite Beings who possess Reason and will, nay even including the Infinite Being as the highest intelligence.”

Unfortunately the proof for this law which applies even to the Supreme Intelligence shows a very serious flaw. It ought to be “independent of all conditions appertaining to the world of the senses,” but that is easier said than fulfilled. Just as little as it is possible with the air pump to create a completely airless space; just as it must always contain air, though it be in so refined degree, that it is no more to be recognized by us, in the same way we cannot possibly grasp a thought, which is independent of all conditions appertaining to the world of the senses. Even the moral law does not escape this fate.

The moral law already includes conditions which belong to the world of the senses. It is not a law of the “pure will” in itself, but a law of the control of my will when brought in contact with my fellow men. It assumes this; for me, however, these appearances are from the world of the senses.

And still more is assumed, however, by the conception of the moral law: “act so that the maxim of thy action may be a principle of universal legislation.” This assumes not only men outside of me, but also the wish that these fellow men should behave themselves in a particular manner. They are so to behave themselves as the moral law prescribes to me to act. Not only society but also a distinct form of social conditions is assumed as possible and desirable.

That in fact the need for such is concealed in the ground of his “practical reason” and determines his spaceless and timeless moral law, Kant himself betrays in his Critique of Practical Reason in a polemic against the deduction of the moral law from pleasure. [2]

“It is therefore surprising that intelligent men could have thought of calling the desire for happiness a universal practical law on the ground that the desire is universal and therefore also the maxim by which everyone makes this desire determine his will.

“For, whereas, in other cases a universal law of nature makes everything harmonious, here, on the contrary, if we attribute to the maxim the universality of law the extreme opposite of harmony will follow, the greatest opposition and the complete distraction of the maxim itself and its purpose. For, in that case, the will of all has not one and the same object, but everyone has his own (his private welfare), which may accidentally accord with the purposes of others which are equally selfish, but it is far from sufficiency for a law, because the occasional exceptions which one is permitted to make are endless and cannot be definitely embraced in a universal rule. In this manner there results a harmony like a married couple bent on going to ruin. ‘O, marvellous harmony, what he wishes, she wished also,’ or like what is said of the pledge of Francis I, to the Emperor Charles V.: ‘What my brother Charles wishes, that I wish also’ (viz. Milan).”

Thus pleasure is not to be a maxim which can serve as a principle of universal legislation, and that because it can call forth social disharmonies. The moral law has thus to create a harmonious society, and such must be possible, otherwise it would be absurd to wish to create it.

The Kantian moral law assumes thus, in the first place, a harmonious society as desirable and as possible. But it also assumes that the moral law is the means to create such a society, that this result can be achieved through a rule which the individual sets to himself. We see how thoroughly Kant was deceived, when he thought that his moral law was independent from all conditions appertaining to the world of sense, and that it formed thus a principle which would apply to all timeless and spaceless spirits, including God Almighty himself.

In reality Kant’s moral law is the result of very concrete social needs. Naturally, since it springs from the wish for a harmonious society, it is possible to deduce from it the ideal of a harmonious society and thus it has been possible to stamp Kant as a founder of Socialism. Cohen repeats this again also in his latest work Ethics of the Pure Will (Ethik des reinen Willens) 1905. In reality, however, Kant is far farther removed from Socialism than the French materialism of the eighteenth century. While according to these the Moral Law was determined by the condition of the state and society, so that the reform of morality rendered in the first place necessary the reform of the State and Society, and so the fight against immorality widened itself into a fight against the ruling powers; according to Kant the society which exists in time and space is determined by a moral law standing outside of time and space, which directs its commands to the individual not the society. Is the morality of the individual imperfect, one must not lay the blame for that on the State and Society, but in the fact that man is not entirely angel, but half animal and consequently always being drawn down by his animal nature, against which he can only fight through the raising and the purifying of his own inner man. The individual must improve himself if the Society is to be improved.

It is clear that Socialism takes peculiar forms if we look on Kant as its founder. This peculiarity will be in no way diminished when we observe the farther development of the moral law by him. From the moral law springs the consciousness of Personality, and the dignity of man, and the phrase: “Act so, that you, as well in your own person as in the person of every other, at all times look on man as end, and never simply as a means.”

“ In those words,” says Cohen (pp. 303-4) “is the deepest and most far-reaching sense of the categoric imperative brought to expression; they contain the moral programme of the new time and the entire future world history. The idea of the final (or end) advantage of Humanity becomes thereby transformed into the idea of Socialism, by which every man is defined as a final end, as an end in itself.”

The programme of the “entire future world history” is conceived in somewhat narrow fashion. The “timeless moral law, that man ought to be an end, and at no time simply a means, has itself only an “end” in a society in which men are used by other men simply as means to their ends. In a communist society, this possibility disappears and with that goes the necessity of the Kantian Programme for the “entire future world history.” What becomes then of this? We have then in the future either no Socialism, or no world history to expect.

The Kantian Moral Law was a protest against the very concrete feudal society with its personal relations of dependency. The would-be “socialist” principle which fixes the Personality and Worth of men is accordingly just as consistent with Liberalism or Anarchism as with Socialism, and contains, in no greater degree any new idea than the one already quoted, of the universal legislation. It amounts to the philosophical formula for the idea of “Freedom, Equality and Fraternity” already then developed by Rousseau, and which, moreover, was to be found in primitive Christianity. The only thing Kantian, even here, is simply the mere form in which this principle is proved.

The dignity of Personality is namely derived from the fact, that it is a part of a super-sensuous world, that as a moral being it stands outside nature and over nature. Personality is “Freedom and Independence from the mechanism of the entire nature,” so that “the person as belonging to the world of sense is subordinate to its own personality, so far as it belongs to the world of intelligence.” Thus it is not then to be wondered if man, as belonging to both worlds, is obliged to look on his own being with regard to its second and highest qualification, not otherwise than with respect and to conceive the greatest respect for the laws of the same. With that we would be happily arrived again at the primitive Christian argument for the equality of all men, which necessarily arises from the fact that we are all children of God.


III. Freedom and Necessity

Meanwhile, reject as we must the assumption of the two worlds to which, according to Plato and Kant, man belongs, it is nevertheless true that man lives at the same time in two worlds, and the moral law inhabits one of them, which is not the world of experience. But all the same even this world is no super-sensuous one. The two worlds, in which man lives, are the Past and the Future. The Present forms the boundary of the two. His whole experience lies in the past, all experience is past, and all the connecting links which past experience shows him lie with inevitable necessity before, or still more, behind him. In these there is nothing more left to alter, he can do nothing more in regard to them than recognize their necessity. Thus is the world of experience the world of knowing, and the world of necessity.

It is otherwise with the Future. Of it I have not the smallest experience. Apparently free it lies before me, as the world which I do not explore as one knowing it, but in which I have to assert myself as an active agent. Certainly I can extend the experience of the past into the future, certainly I can conclude that these will be even so necessarily determined as those, but even if I can only recognize the world on the assumption of necessity, yet I shall only be able to act in it on the assumption of a certain Freedom. Even if compulsion is exercised over my actions, there remains to me the choice, whether I shall yield to it, or not, there remains to me as last resort the possibility of withdrawing myself by a voluntary death. Action implies continual choice between various possibilities, and be it alone that of doing or not doing, it means accepting or rejecting, it means defending and opposing. Choice, however, assumes in advance the possibility of choice just as much as the distinction between the acceptable and the inacceptable, the good and the bad. The moral judgment, which is an absurdity in the world of the past, the world of experience, in which there is nothing to choose, where iron necessity rules, is unavoidable in the world of the unknown future – of freedom.

But not simply the feeling of freedom is assumed by action, but also certain aims. If in the world of the past, the sequence of cause and effect (causality) rules, so in the world of action, of the future; the thought of aim (Teleology). For action the feeling of freedom is an indispensable psychological necessity, which is not to be got rid of by any degree of knowledge. Even the sternest Fatalism, even the deepest conviction that man is a necessary product of his circumstances, cannot bring it about that we cease to love, and to hate, to defend and attack.

But all that is no monopoly of man but holds also of the animals. Even these have freedom of the will, in the sense that man has, namely as a subjective, inevitable feeling of freedom, which springs from ignorance of the future and the necessity of exercising a direct influence on it.

And just in the same way they have command of a certain insight into the connection of cause and effect. Finally the conception of an end is not quite strange to them. In respect of insight into the past and the necessity of nature on the one hand, and on the other in respect of the power of foreseeing the future, and the setting up of aims for their action the lowest specimens of humanity are distinguished far less from the animals than from civilized men.

The setting up of aims is not, however, anything which exists outside the sphere of necessity, of cause and effect. Even though I set up aims for myself only in the future, in the sphere of apparent freedom, yet the act of setting up aims itself, from the very moment when I set up the aim, belongs to the past, and can thus in its necessity be recognized as the result of distinct causes. That is not in any way altered by the fact that the attainment of the end is still in the future, in the sphere of uncertainty, thus in this sense in that of freedom. Let the attainment of the end be assumed as ever so far distant, the setting up of the aim itself lies in the past. In the sphere of freedom there lie only those aims which are not yet set up, of which we do not even know anything as yet.

The world of conscious aims is thus not the world of freedom in opposition to that of necessity. For each of the aims which we set ourselves, just as for each one of the means which we apply to its attainment, the causes are already given and are under certain circumstances recognizable as those which brought about the setting up of these aims and determined the way in which that was to be achieved.

It is impossible, however, to distinguish the realm of necessity and that of freedom simply as past and future; their distinction often coincides also with that of nature and society, or to be more exact, of society and that other nature from which the former displays only one particular and peculiar portion.

If we look at nature in the narrower sense, as apart from Society and then both in their relation to the future, we find at once a serious difference. The natural conditions change much slower than the Social. And the latter are at the period when men commence to philosophise, at the period of the production of wares, of a highly complicated nature, whereas there are in nature a large number of simple processes, whose subjection to law can be relatively easily perceived.

The consequence is, that despite our apparent freedom of action in the future, this action, nevertheless as far as nature is concerned comes to be looked on as determined at an early period. Dark as the future lies before me, I know of a certainty that summer will follow winter, that to-morrow the sun will rise, that to-morrow I shall have hunger and thirst, that in winter the need for warming myself will occur to me, and that my action will never be directed to escaping these natural necessities, but with the idea of satisfying them. Thus I recognize, despite all apparent freedom that in face of nature my action is necessarily conditioned. The constitution of nature external to us and of my own body produce necessities which force on me a certain willing and acting which being given according to experience can be reckoned with in advance.

It is quite otherwise with my conduct to my fellow men, my social actions. In this case the external and internal causes, which necessarily determine my action, are not so easy to recognize. Here I meet with no overpowering forces of nature, to which I am obliged to submit myself, but with factors on a level with myself, men like myself, who by nature have no more strength than I have. Over against these I feel myself to be free, but they also appear to me to be free in their relations to their fellow men. Towards them I feel love and hate, and on them and my relations to them I make moral judgments.

The world of freedom and of the moral law is thus certainly another than that of recognized necessity, but it is no timeless and spaceless and no super-sensual world, but a particular portion of the world of sense seen from a particular point of view. It is the world as seen in its approach to us, the world on which we have to work, which we have to rearrange, before all.

But what is to-day the future will be to-morrow past; thus what to-day is felt to be free action will be recognized to-morrow as necessary action. The moral law in us, which regulates this action, ceases, however, with that to appear as an uncaused cause, it falls into the sphere of experience and can be recognized as the necessary effect of a cause – and only as such cause are we at all able to recognize it, or can it become an object of Science. In that he transferred the moral from the “this side,” the sensual world, to the “other side,” the super-sensual world, Kant has not advanced the scientific knowledge of it, but has closed all access to it. This obstacle must be got rid of before everything else, we must rise above Kant if we are to bring the problem of the moral law nearer to its solution.


IV. The Philosophy of Reconciliation

The Ethic forms the weakest side of the Kantian Philosophy. And all the same it is just through the Ethic that it has won its greatest success, because it met very powerful needs of the time.

The French Materialism had been a philosophy of the fight against the traditional methods of thought, and consequently against the institutions which rested on them. An irreconcilable hatred against Christianity made it the watchword, not only of the fight against the church, but of that against all the social and political forces which were bound up with it.

Kant’s Critique of the Pure Reason equally drives Christianity from out of the Temple; but the discovery of the origin of the moral law, which is brought about by the Critique of the Practical Reason, opens for it again the door with all due respect. Thus through Kant, Philosophy became, instead of a weapon of the fight against the existing methods of thought and institutions, a means of reconciling the antagonisms.

But the way of development is that of struggle. The reconciliation of antagonisms implies the stoppage of development. Thus the Kantian Philosophy became a conservative factor.

The greatest advantage thereby was drawn by theology. It emancipated this from the quandary, into which the traditional belief had fallen through the development of science, in that it rendered it possible to reconcile science and religion.

“No other science,” says Zeller, “experienced the influence of the Kantian Philosophy in a higher degree than the Theology. Here Kant found the soil best prepared for his principles; with that, however, he brought to the traditional methods of thought a reform and an increase in depth, which it was badly in need of.” (Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie, 1873, p.519.)

Just after the outbreak of the French Revolution a specially strong need arose for a theology, which was in a position to hold its own against materialism, and to drive it out of the field among educated people. Zeller writes then further.

“Kant’s religious views corresponded exactly both to the moral and intellectual need of the time; it recommended itself to the enlightened by its reasonableness, its independence of the positive, its purely practical tendency; to the religious by its moral severity and its lofty conceptions of Christianity and its founder. German theology from now on took Kant as their authority.” His Moral Theology became after a few years the foundation on which Protestant theology in Germany almost without exception, even the Catholic to a very large extent, was built up. The Kantian Philosophy, exercised for that reason, that the majority of German theologians for close on fifty years took their start from it, a highly permanent and far-reaching influence on the general education.

Vorländer quotes in his History of Philosophy (Leipzig 1903) the word of a modern German Theologian, Ritschl, who declared:

“Thus the development of the method of knowledge by Kant implied at the same time a practical rebirth of Protestantism. (Vol. II, p. 476.)”

The great Revolution created the soil for the influence of Kant, which was strongest in the two decades after the Terror. Then this influence became paler and paler. The Bourgeoisie acquired after the thirties, even in Germany, strength and courage for more decided struggles against the existing forms of State and thought, and to an absolute recognition of the world of the senses as the only real one. Thus through the Hegelian dialectic there arose new forms of Materialism, and just in the most vigorous form in Germany, for the very reason that their Bourgeoisie was well behind that of France and England; because they had not conquered the existing state machine; because they had that still to upset, therefore they required a fighting philosophy and not one of reconciliation.

In the last decades, however, their desire to fight has greatly diminished. Even though they have not attained all that they wish, yet they have all which was necessary for their development. Further struggles on a large scale, energetic fights against the existing, must be of much less use to them than to their great enemy, the proletariat, that grew in a most menacing fashion and now for its part required a fighting philosophy. This was so much the more susceptible to the influence of materialism, the more the development of the world of the senses showed the absurdity of the existing order and the necessity of its victory.

The Bourgeoisie, on the other hand, became more and more susceptible to a philosophy of reconciliation, and thus Kantism was aroused to a fresh life. This resurrection was prepared in the reactionary period after 1848 by the then commencing influence of Schopenhauer.

But in the last decade the influence of Kant has found its way into Economics and Socialism. Since the laws of Bourgeois Society, which were discovered by the Classical Economists, showed themselves more clearly as laws which made the class war and the disappearance of the Capitalist order necessary, the Bourgeois Economists took refuge in the Kantian Moral Code, which being independent of Time and Space must be in a position to reconcile the class antagonisms and prevent the Revolutions which take place in Space and Time.

Side by side with the ethical school in Economics we got an ethical Socialism, when endeavors were made in our ranks to modify the class antagonisms, and to meet at least a section of the Bourgeoisie half way. This policy of Reconciliation also began with the cry: Back to Kant! And with a repudiation of materialism, since it denies the Freedom of the Will.

Despite the categoric imperative, which the Kantian Ethic cries to the individual, its historical and social tendency, from the very beginning on till today, has been that of toning down, of reconciling the antagonisms, not of overcoming them through struggle.



1. As a curiosity it may be mentioned here that it is possible to confront Bernstein’s witty remark “Kant against Cant” with the fact that Kant himself was Cant. “His ancestors came from Scotland ... The father, a saddler by profession, maintained in his name the Scottish spelling Cant, the Philosopher first changed the letters to prevent the false pronunciation as Zant. [Kuno Fischer, History of Modern Philosophy, Vol.III., p.52, German Ed.] His family was very religious and this influence Kant never got over. Not less than Kant is the “cant” related to puritan piety. The word signifies first the puritan method of singing, then the puritan religious and finally the customary, thoughtless oft-repeated phraseology to which men submit themselves. Bernstein appealed, in his Assumptions of Socialism, for a Kant as an ally against the materialist “party-cant”.

2. Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, Tr. by T.W. Abbott,. Lond. 1889, Sect.10, theorem II, pp.115-6.


Last updated on 25.12.2003