Karl Kautsky

Revolutions, Past and Present


Published: 1906, International Socialist Review.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
HTML markup: David Walters.

While many within our own ranks may well be in doubt concerning the events of the present year, one thing is plain today even to the most stupid: Russia is now in the midst of a revolution, that for violence and significance may well be compared with the two greatest revolutions that history has yet known: the English Revolution of the 17th century and the French of the 18th.

It is easy to draw comparisons between them, and their superficial resemblances are striking. Each of these revolutions was directed at absolutism, against which the mass of the nation arose, because its yoke had become unbearable – because it had brought misery, outrages and despair upon the country.

The resemblance does not go much further. We are met with fundamental differences the moment we penetrate beneath the political surface and investigate the class antagonisms which furnish the effective motive force of the movement.

There we find, first of all, as the great difference between earlier revolutions and the present one, that in the latter, for the first time in the history of the world, the industrial proletariat rises triumphantly as the dominant independent directing force. The rising of the Paris Commune of 1870 was but the revolt of a single city, suppressed within a few weeks. Now we see a revolution extending from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, and from the Baltic to the Pacific, which has already continued for a year, and in which the proletariat grows ever mightier in power and self-consciousness.

To be sure we do not yet have the complete domination the dictatorship of the proletariat – not yet the socialist revolution, but only its beginnings. The proletariat of Russia is breaking its chains, only in order to free its hands for the class struggle against capitalism; it does not yet feel itself strong enough to attempt the expropriation of capital. But that the watchword of a proletarian class struggle has been raised is a tremendous advance from the socialist standpoint, as contrasted with the revolutions of 1648 and 1789.

In each of these revolutions only the capitalist class was a victorious class. But, politically as well as economically, this class lives from the exploitation of the strength of others. It has never made a revolution, but always exploited them. It has always left the making of revolution, the fighting and its perils to the mass of the people. The real active force in the masses during the 17th and 18th centuries was not the proletariat, but the class of small traders and manufacturers; the proletariat was but their unconscious followers. It was the bold and self-conscious small capitalists of the metropolitan cities of London and Paris who dared to take up the leadership in the battle against absolutism, and who were successful in overthrowing it.

In Russia this class has been neither bold nor self-conscious, at least not during the last century, since there has been a Russian Czarism. It has been largely recruited only from uprooted peasants, who but a few decades ago were still serfs. And there is no great city dominating the whole Russian kingdom. Moreover, today, even in France and England the capital cities have lost their absolute domination, but must now share their power will the industrial cities; even in Western Europe the small capitalists have ceased to be revolutionary, but have become rather a pillar of reaction and governmental power.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the small capitalists of Russia, together with the slum proletariat, have from the beginning joined the elements of the counter-revolution placing themselves at the disposal of the police for the suppression of the revolution. But since this class of small capitalists has no political goal, it can be driven into the battle against the revolution only by the promise of private gain or the goal of personal revenge. But there is no booty to be gained by fighting a propertyless proletariat, and if this be armed only wounds and death. Consequently the reactionary little capitalist, as soon as he no longer has any political ideal becomes as cowardly as he is brutal; he vents his rage only on the weakest members of society. As an exploiter, he prefers women and children; in the present battle against the revolution he attacks only Jews and isolated students and not the sturdy laborers. So the Russian counter-revolution soon becomes a riot of plunder, murder and arson. The revolutionary proletariat, in its battle against the reaction, is therefore as much the indisputable element in social progress, as it has long been the most significant element economically. On the other hand, the small capitalist class, so far as it does not unite with the proletariat, shows itself as a political factor to be capable of producing only evil and social destruction, just as economically it has today become little more than a parasite on the social body, maintaining its existence only at the expense of society.

In previous revolutions the peasantry have ranked next to the small trading class as the most important fighting group. To be sure the Peasant Revolt showed that even in the period of the Reformation, the latter class was capable only of destroying the state, but was no longer able to found a new independent political rulership. The peasantry no longer forms its own party, a definite political army, but serves only as auxiliary troops of some other army or party. Nevertheless it is by no means insignificant, since according as it throws its strength to one side or the other, it may determine defeat or victory. It sealed the downfall of the revolution in France in 1848, as well as the triumph of 1789 and the years that followed.

The role played by the peasantry in the great French Revolution, however, was wholly different from its part in the English one. In France the landed possessions of the nobility and clergy had maintained the full feudal form; they lived from the exploitation of the feudal peasantry, whom they pressed down with an inconceivable mass of misery, and in return for which, since they had become attaches of the court, they rendered no reciprocal service. The destruction of these landed possessions was one of the imperative tasks of the Revolution, and was the bond that secured the firm allegiance of the peasants.

In England the old feudal nobility had been destroyed during the War of the Roses, and had been replaced by a new fresh-baked nobility, who were in close sympathy with capitalism. The Reformation had plundered the churches for the benefit of this nobility. The old feudal economy had completely disappeared by the 17th century. What peasants remained were free masters of their own ground. The great landed possessions were not operated by the compulsory service of feudal peasants, but through capitalist tenants with wage workers. Very few of the landed nobility had become attached to the court. The majority remained throughout the year upon their property, where they served as justices or in the local governments.

As a consequence the English revolution showed no tendency toward a general overthrow of landed property. To be sure there were plenty of instances of the confiscation of property, but always as political and not as social measures. However covetous the peasants and tenants might have been of the great estates, no necessity compelled their dismemberment while fear of the numerous country wage workers effectively frightened them from beginning a process that might easily prove dangerous to themselves. The great English landed aristocracy did not simply survive the revolution, it ended it by a compromise with the bourgeoisie, who had also grown tired of the domination of the small traders and manufacturers, and thereby so fortified its rulership, that today there is no landed aristocracy, not even that of the German provinces east of the Elbe or Hungary, which sits as firmly in the saddle as they.

Things will develop very differently in Russia, the condition of whose peasantry is practically identical in all its details with that of French peasants before the revolution. Here the result of the two revolutions will be the same to the extent that we may expect the disappearance of the present great landed estates throughout the whole Russian kingdom and their transformation into peasant possessions. Next to Czarism it is the landed estates with whom the revolution must balance accounts.

It is impossible to foresee what form of agricultural production will develop upon the new foundations, but one thing is certain: at this point also the Russian and the French revolutions will be alike in that the breaking up of the great private landed estates will constitute a tie that will bind the peasants indissolubly to the revolution. We do not yet know what battle of races the new revolution may conceal within its bosom, and it is easily possible that differences may arise between the peasants and the city proletariat, but the former will fight with tooth and nail to defend themselves against any revolution that seeks to reestablish the old landed regime even by foreign intervention.

This brings us to the third factor to be considered in any comparison of the three revolutions – the foreign conditions which they create.

During the 17th century international commerce was still so small that the English revolution remained a purely local event that found no echo in the remainder of Europe. It was not foreign wars, but the long drawn out civil war arising from the great power of resistance of the landed nobility, that created the revolutionary military domination, and finally led to the dictatorship of a victorious general, Cromwell.

The end of the 18th century found a well-developed commerce between European nations, and the French Revolution convulsed all Europe; but its liberating efforts found only a weak echo. The convulsion was a result of the war which the united monarchs of Europe led against the one republic and from which there rose in France military domination and the empire of a victorious general, Napoleon.

Now, at the beginning of the 20th century, international relations have become so close that the beginning of the revolution in Russia was enough to awaken the enthusiastic echo in the proletariat of the whole world, to quicken the tempo of the class struggle, and to shake the neighboring empire of Austria to its foundations.

As a. consequence any coalition of European powers against the revolution, such as took place in 1793, is inconceivable. Austria is at the present moment absolutely incapable of any strong external action. In France the proletariat is already strong enough in opposition to the government to prevent any interference for Czarism, even if the ruling powers were insane enough to think of such a thing. There is no fear of a coalition against the revolution and then only one single power which is expected to intervene in Russia: the German Empire.

But even the government of the German Empire may well consider before it enters upon a War that will not be a national war, but a dynastical war and as unpopular, as hated, as that which Russia led against Japan, and which may easily draw upon the German government similar internal consequences to those which that war brought to Russia.

Whatever may happen there is no occasion to expect an era of long world wars such as the French Revolution ushered in, and accordingly we need not fear that the Russian revolution will, like the former, end in a military dictatorship, or any sort of “Holy Alliance.” Its promise is rather the ushering in of an era of European revolutions that will end with the dictatorship of the socialist society.


Last updated on 26.11.2003