Karl Kautsky

The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

IV. Summary of German, French, and English Thought

Three nations were the victors of modern culture in the nineteenth century. Only he who had filled himself with the spirit of all three, mastered the achievements of all three, was armed with all the achievements of his century; only he was able to achieve the greatest that could be achieved with the means of this century.

The combination of the thinking of these three nations into a higher unity, in which each of their one-sidedness was abolished, forms the starting point of the historical achievement of Marx and Engels.

England, as already mentioned, had developed capitalism further than any other country in the first half of the nineteenth century, mainly thanks to its geographical position, which in the eighteenth century enabled it to take considerable advantage of the colonial policy of conquest and plunder and bled to death those countries of mainland Europe without access to the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to England’s insular position, it did not need to maintain a strong standing army; it could turn all its strength to fleets and gain naval supremacy without exhaustion. Its wealth of coal and iron then allowed it to use the wealth gained through colonial policy to develop a large capitalist industry which, by controlling the sea, reconquered the world market, which in turn could only be exploited for mass consumer goods by water before the development of the railway system.

Earlier than elsewhere, therefore, one could study capitalism and its tendencies in England, but also, as already mentioned, the proletarian class struggle that these tendencies evoked. Nowhere was the recognition of the laws of capitalist production, i.e. political economy, more advanced than in England, thanks to world trade, economic history, and ethnology. Better than anywhere else, one could see in England what the coming period contained in its lap. Yet also, thanks to the new humanities, one could now recognize the laws that dominated the social development of all time, and thus establish the unity of natural science and the humanities.

But England offered only the best material, not the best research methods.

It was precisely because capitalism developed earlier in England than elsewhere that the bourgeoisie came to rule society there, after feudalism had become politically, economically, and spiritually completely deprived and the bourgeoisie had achieved complete independence in every respect. The colonial policy itself, however, which facilitated capitalism, also gave new strength to the feudal lords.

In addition, for the reasons already mentioned, the standing army did not reach a strong development in England. This again prevented the emergence of a strong, central power of government. The bureaucracy remained weak, and the self-government of the ruling classes remained strong alongside it. This meant, however, that the class struggles were not centralized much and were often fragmented.

All this caused the spirit of compromise between old and new to permeate all life and thought. The thinkers and pioneers of the up-and-coming classes did not in principle turn against Christianity, the aristocracy, the monarchy; their parties did not set up any great programs. They did not seek to think their thoughts through to the end; they preferred to defend only certain individual measures which were practically necessary at the time instead of sweeping programs. Limitation and conservatism, overestimation of detail in politics and science, rejection of any aspirations to conquer a great horizon permeated all classes.

Meanwhile the situation in France was quite different. This country was economically much more backward, its capitalist industries dominated by luxury industries and the petty bourgeoisie. The tone was set by the petty bourgeoisie in its big cities like Paris, and such big cities, with half a million inhabitants or more, were few until the introduction of the railways, and they played a very different role than they do today. The armies could only be small before the advent of the railways, which enabled rapid mass transport. They were scattered throughout the country, not quick to assemble, their equipment not as defenseless to the masses as it is today. It was the Parisians in particular who had always distinguished themselves by their distinctive combativeness, long before the Great Revolution, by repeatedly wrestling concessions from the government in armed insurrection.

Before the introduction of compulsory schooling, the improvement of the postal system by railways and telegraphs, and the distribution of daily newspapers in the country, however, the intellectual superiority and influence of the metropolitan population over the rest of the country was tremendously great. At that time, social intercourse offered the masses of uneducated people the only opportunity to educate themselves, above all politically, but also artistically, even scientifically. How much greater was this possibility in the big city than in the country towns and villages! Everything that had spirit in France urged Paris to activate and develop it. Everything that was active in Paris was filled with a higher spirit.

And now this critical, cocky, audacious population saw an outrageous collapse of state power and of the ruling classes.

The same causes that inhibited economic development in France promoted the depletion of feudalism and the state. Colonial policy, in particular, cost the state infinite sacrifices, broke its military and financial strength, and accelerated the economic ruin especially of the peasants, but also of the aristocrats. State, nobility, church were politically, morally and, with the exception of the church, also financially bankrupt, but nevertheless knew how to assert their oppressive rule to the extreme, thanks to the violence which the government had centralized in their hands by the standing army and an extensive bureaucracy, and thanks to the complete abolition of any independent organization among the people.

This finally led to that colossal catastrophe which we know as the great French Revolution, in which at times the petty bourgeois and proletarians of Paris came to dominate all of France, to stand up to all of Europe. But even before that, the increasing sharp contrast between the needs of the masses, led by the liberal bourgeoisie, and those of the aristocrats and the clergy, protected by the power of the state, led to the most radical overthrow of all existing thought. War was declared against all traditional authority. Materialism and atheism, in England mere luxury hobbies of a degenerate nobility (which quickly disappeared with the victory of the bourgeoisie), became in France the way of thinking of the boldest reformers from the aspiring classes.

Nowhere else has the economic root of class antagonisms and class struggles become so evident as in England; nowhere else has it been so clear as in the France of the Great Revolution that all class struggle is a struggle for political power, that the task of every great political party is not limited to one reform or another, but must always bear in mind the conquest of political power, and that this conquest, when carried out by a class which has hitherto been subjugated, always entails a change in the entire social transmission. In the first half of the nineteenth century, economic thinking was most developed in England, while political thinking was most developed in France. While England was dominated by the spirit of compromise, France was dominated by radicalism; in England, the meticulous work of slow organizational development flourished; in France, it was the revolutionary passion which swept everything along with it.

The radical, bold action was preceded by radical, bold thinking which held nothing as sacred, which intrepidly and ruthlessly pursued every knowledge to its final consequences, thought every thought through to its end.

But as brilliant and enchanting as the results of this thought and action were, it also developed the errors of its merits. Full of impatience, it did not take the time to prepare them to reach their ultimate goals. Full of zeal to storm the fortress of the state with revolutionary élan, it failed to prepare the organizational ground for its siege. And the urge to advance to the final and supreme truths easily led to the most hasty conclusions from wholly inadequate foundations, replacing patient research with the pleasure of ingenious, spontaneous ideas. An addiction grew to mastering the infinite fullness of life through a few simple formulas and slogans. British sobriety was countered by a Gallic phrase-rush.

Yet the situation in Germany was different again.

There capitalism had developed far less than in France because it was almost completely cut off from the great road of world trade in Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and therefore recovered only slowly from the horrific devastation of the Thirty Years’ War. Much more than France, Germany was a petty-bourgeois country, but at the same time was a country without a strong central state power. Fragmented into innumerable small states, it had no great capital; small states and small towns made its petty bourgeoisie limited, weak, and cowardly. The ultimate collapse of feudalism was not brought about by an uprising from within, but by an invasion from without. Not German citizens, but French soldiers swept it out of the most important parts of Germany.

The great successes of the rising bourgeoisie in England and France probably also excited the German bourgeoisie. But, to the determination of the most energetic and intelligent of its members, each of the territories conquered by the bourgeoisie of Western Europe remained closed. They could not establish and run large commercial and industrial enterprises, intervene in the fate of the state in parliaments and a powerful press, command fleets or armies. Reality was desolate for them; they had no choice but to turn away from reality in pure thought and to transfigure reality through art. Here they created great things; here the German people surpassed France and England. While they produced a Pitt, Fox and Burke, Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, Nelson and Napoleon, Germany produced a Schiller, Goethe, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel.

Thinking became the noblest occupation of the great Germans, the idea became the ruler of the world for them, the revolution of thought the means to revolutionize the world. The more miserable and limited reality was, the more thought sought to rise above it, to overcome its barriers, to grasp the entire infinity.

While the English devised the best methods for the triumph of their fleets and industries, the French the best methods for the triumph of their armies and their insurrections, the Germans devised the best methods for the triumph of thought and research.

But this triumphal march, like the French and English, also had its disadvantages in its aftermath, both for theory and practice. The abandonment of reality produced an alienation from the world and an overestimation of the ideas to which life and strength were attributed, independent of the minds of the people who produced them and who had to realize them. One was content with being right in theory and failed to seek power in order to apply that theory. As deep as German philosophy was, as thorough as German science was, as rapturous as German idealism was, as glorious as its creations were, there was unspeakable practical impotence and complete renunciation of any striving for power concealed beneath it. The German ideals were far more illustrious than the French or even the English. But no step was taken to get closer to them. It was stated from the outset that the ideal was the unattainable.

Like English conservatism and the French radical phrase, the Germans’ inactive idealism continued for a long time. The industrial development of the great economy finally abolished it, even replacing it with military resolve. In the past, however, Germany found a counter-effect in the invasion of the French spirit after the revolution. Germany owes some of its greatest minds to the mixture of French revolutionary thinking with German philosophical methods – remember only Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Lassalle.

But the result was even more powerful when this mixture was fertilized with English economic insight. We owe the achievement of Engels and Marx to this.

They recognized how economics and politics, detailed organizational work and revolutionary Sturm und Drang, complement each other, how detailed organizational work remains infertile without a great goal in which it finds its constant guideline and its encouragement, and how this goal floats in the air without preparation, which creates only the necessary power for its attainment. They also recognized, however, that such a goal must not be born of a mere revolutionary need, if it is to remain free of illusions and self-intoxication; if it is to be won by the most conscientious application of the methods of scientific research, it must always be in harmony with the total knowledge of mankind. They also recognized that the economy forms the basis of social development, that it contains the laws according to which this development necessarily takes place.

England offered them most of the actual economic material, the philosophy of Germany the best method of deriving from this material the goal of present social development; the revolution of France finally showed them most clearly how we have to gain power, namely political power, to achieve this goal.

Thus, they created modern scientific socialism by uniting into a higher unity all which is great and fruitful in English, French, and German thought.


Last updated on 5 November 2020