Karl Kautsky

The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

V. The Merging of the Workers’ Movement and Socialism

The materialist conception of history in itself signified a new epoch. It marked the beginning of a new era of science, despite all the resistance of bourgeois scholarship; it defined a new epoch not only in the history of thought, but also in the history of the fight for social development, of politics in the broadest and highest sense of the word. For it was through it that the workers’ movement and socialism were united, thus giving the proletarian class struggle the most potent strength possible.

The workers’ movement and socialism are by no means inherently one. The workers’ movement is necessarily born as resistance against industrial capitalism wherever it occurs; it expropriates and subjugates the working masses, but also crowds and unites them in large enterprises and industrial cities. The most original form of the workers’ movement is the purely economic one, the struggle for wages and working hours, which at first merely takes the form of simple outbursts of despair, of repeatedly unprepared actions, but is soon transformed into higher forms by trade-union organization. Early on, the political struggle arose parallel to this. The bourgeoisie itself needed proletarian help in its struggles against feudalism and called for it. The workers soon learned to appreciate the importance of political freedom and political power for their own ends. In England and France in particular, universal suffrage early on became the object of the political aspirations of the proletarians and led to a proletarian party in England in the 1830s, that of the Chartists.

Socialism was already emerging, but by no means in the proletariat. It is certainly, however, like the labor movement, a product of capitalism; with the growth of capitalism, it arises from the urge to counter the misery that capitalist exploitation imposes on the working classes. Meanwhile, the proletariat’s self-defense in the form of the labor movement arises wherever a large working-class population gathers, while socialism requires deep insight into the nature of modern society. Every type of socialism is based on the realization that capitalist misery cannot be brought to an end on the ground of bourgeois society, that this misery is based on private ownership of the means of production and will only disappear with it. All socialist systems agree that they deviate from each other only in the ways in which they want to see private property abolished and in the ideas they have about the new social property to replace it.

As naïve as the expectations and proposals of the socialists might sometimes have been, the knowledge on which they were based presupposed a social knowledge that was still completely inaccessible to the proletariat in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Only a man who was able to stand on the ground of the proletariat, to view bourgeois society from its point of view, could come to socialist knowledge. But he could only be one who mastered the means of science, which at that time were still far more accessible to the bourgeois circles than they are today. As naturally and consequently as the workers’ movement develops from capitalist production, wherever it reaches a certain height, socialism in its development did not only have capitalism as a prerequisite, but also a confluence of extraordinarily rare circumstances. Everywhere socialism could at first only arise from a bourgeois milieu. In England, even until recently, socialism was propagated primarily by bourgeois elements.

This background appeared as a contradiction to Marx’s theory of class struggle, but it would only be such if the class of the bourgeoisie had ever adopted socialism somewhere, or if Marx had declared it impossible for individual non-proletarians to accept, for unique reasons, the standpoint of the proletariat.

Marx had always asserted that the only power capable of helping socialism to break through is the working class. In other words, the proletariat can only free itself by its own efforts. But this by no means implies that only proletarians can show it the way.

That socialism is nothing if it is not supported by a strong workers’ movement no longer needs proof today. The other side of this coin, that the workers’ movement can only unfold its full power if it has understood and accepted socialism, is not so clear today.

Socialism is not the product of an ethic outside of time and space or all class distinctions; it is basically nothing but the science of society from the point of view of the proletariat. But science does not merely serve to satisfy our desire for new things and knowledge of the unknown and the mysterious; it also has an economic purpose, that of sparing energy. It makes it possible for man to navigate reality more easily, to use his powers more expediently, to avoid any useless expenditure of energy, and thus to achieve at all times the maximum of what can be achieved under the given circumstances. At its starting point science directly and consciously serves such purposes of the economization of exertion. The more it develops and moves away from this point of departure, the more mediators come between the activity of its research and its eventual practical effect. But the connection between the two can only be obscured, not broken.

Similarly, the social science of the proletariat, socialism, serves to make possible the most efficient application of exertion and helps it to achieve its highest possible development. Naturally, it achieves this the more, the more perfected it is itself and the deeper its knowledge of reality is.

Socialist theory is by no means the fruitless gimmickry of some parlor scholars, but a very practical thing for the struggling proletariat.

Its main weapon is the concentration of its totality in vast, independent organizations, free from all bourgeois influences. It cannot achieve this without a socialist theory, alone capable of finding out the common proletarian interest among the colorful diversity of the various proletarian strata, and of sharply and permanently separating them altogether from the bourgeois world.

Incapable of this achievement is the naive labor movement, which is bare of any theory, and which rises of its own accord in the working classes against growing capitalism.

Let us examine, for example, the trade unions. They are professional associations that seek to protect the immediate interests of their members. But how different these interests are in the individual professions, how different they are with the seafarers than with the coal diggers, the cab drivers, or the typesetters! Without socialist theory, the individual proletarian professions are not able to recognize the commonality of their interests, are foreign to each other, sometimes even hostile to each other.

Since the trade union only represents the interests of its members, it does not easily stand in opposition to the entire bourgeois world, but initially only to the capitalists of its profession. Besides these capitalists, however, there is now a whole row of bourgeois elements which draw their existence either directly or indirectly from the exploitation of proletarians, who are therefore interested in maintaining the bourgeois social order and who will oppose any attempt to put an end to proletarian exploitation. Whether the spinner of Manchester earns 2 or 2.5 shillings a day, whether he worked 10 or 12 hours a day, a big landowner, a banker, a newspaper owner, or a lawyer would be completely indifferent if they did not own spinning shares. They might have an interest in making certain concessions to the trade unionists in order to win political favors from them. Thus, where trade unions were not enlightened by a socialist theory, they were given the opportunity to serve purposes that were nothing less than “proletarian.”

But even worse could happen and, moreover, did happen. Not all proletarian strata are able to seize trade-union organization. In the proletariat there is a difference between organized and unorganized workers. Where they are filled with socialist thinking, they become the most militant parts of the proletariat, the protagonists of its entirety. Where the organized workers lack this thinking, they become all too easily aristocrats who not only lose all interest in the unorganized workers, but often even oppose them, hindering their organization in order to monopolize its advantages. But the unorganized workers are incapable of any struggle, any ascent, without the help of the organized ones. The more they rise, the more they fall into misery without their support. Thus, the trade union movement, despite all the strengthening of individual strata, can even bring about a direct weakening of the entire proletariat if it is not filled with a socialist spirit.

Yet even the political organization of the proletariat cannot develop its full power without this spirit. This is clearly testified to by the first labor party in England, Chartism, born in 1835. This movement contained very far-reaching and far-sighted elements, but in its entirety it did not pursue a specific socialist program, but only individual, practical, easily attainable goals, above all universal suffrage, which of course was not to be an end in itself, but a means to an end; but for the total mass of the Chartists this again consisted only of individual economic demands, above all the ten-hour normal working day.

This first had the disadvantage that the party did not become an unadulterated class party. The general right to vote was also of interest to the petty bourgeoisie.

To some it might seem an advantage for the petty bourgeoisie to join the workers’ party as such. But this only makes it more numerous, not stronger. The proletariat has its own interests and its own methods of struggle, which differ from those of all other classes. It is constrained by unity with the others and cannot develop its full power. We Social-Democrats welcome individual petty bourgeois and peasants if they want to join us; but only when they stand on proletarian ground, when they have proletarian feeling. Our socialist program ensures that only such petty-bourgeois and smallholder elements come to us. The Chartists lacked such a program, and so their electoral struggle was joined by numerous petty-bourgeois elements who had as little sympathy as they had inclination for the proletarian interests and methods of struggle. The natural consequence was thriving internal conflict within Chartism, which weakened it greatly.

The defeat of the 1848 revolution then put an end to all political workers’ movement for a decade. When the European proletariat stirred up again, the struggle for universal suffrage began anew in the English working class. One could now expect a resurgence of Chartism. But there the English bourgeoisie led a masterstroke. It split the English proletariat, granted the organized workers the right to vote, detached them from the masses of the rest of the proletariat, and thus prevented the resurgence of Chartism. It did not possess a comprehensive program beyond the general right vote. As soon as this demand was met in a way that satisfied the militant sections of the working class, the ground for it had disappeared. It was not until the end of the century, when the English were struggling to crawl behind the workers of the European mainland, that they started to found an independent workers’ party again. But they have long failed to grasp the practical significance of socialism for the full development of the proletariat’s power and have refused to accept a program for their party because it could only be a socialist one! They waited until the logic of the facts forced it upon them.

Everywhere today the conditions are already given for the necessary unification of workers’ movement and socialism. They were missing in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

At that time the workers were so defeated by the first onslaught of capitalism that they could hardly resist it. It was rare enough that they defended themselves, albeit in a primitive way. They lacked all possibilities for deeper societal studies.

The bourgeois socialists therefore saw in the misery spread by capitalism only one side, the oppressive one, not the other, the inciting one and the one spurring on the revolutionary rise of the proletariat. They believed there was only one factor capable of enforcing the liberation of the proletariat: bourgeois goodwill. They judged the bourgeoisie from their own position, believing that they could find in it enough good fellow-men to be able to carry out socialist measures.

Their socialist propaganda was also initially well received by the bourgeois philanthropists. On average, the bourgeois are not inhuman. The misery touches them, and as far as they do not profit from it, they would like to help. Meanwhile, as the suffering proletarian is viewed favorably, the fighting one is viewed harshly. They feel that he shakes at the root of their existence. The begging proletariat enjoys their sympathies, the demanding one drives them to outrage and wild enmity. So, the socialists found it very unpleasant that the labor movement threatened to rob them of the factor on which they relied most: the sympathies of the “well-meaning bourgeoisie” for the dispossessed.

The lower their confidence in the proletariat, which at the time generally still formed a very low mass, and the more clearly they recognized the inadequacy of the naïve labor movement, the more they saw a disturbing element in the labor movement. Thus, they often came to turn against the workers’ movement, proving, for example, how useless the unions were by simply trying to raise wages rather than fight the wage system itself, the root of all evil.

Gradually, however, a reversal was taking place. In the forties, the labor movement was ready to produce a series of highly gifted minds who seized socialism and recognized in it the proletarian science of society. These workers already knew from their own experience that they could not count on the philanthropy of the bourgeoisie. They recognized that the proletariat had to free itself. In addition, bourgeois socialists realized that the generosity of the bourgeoisie could not be relied upon. Admittedly, they did not gain confidence in the proletariat. The movement appeared to them only as a destructive force that threatened all culture. They believed that only bourgeois intelligentsia could build a socialist society, but saw the driving force behind it no longer in compassion for the tolerating but in fear of the storming proletariat. They already recognized its tremendous power and understood that the labor movement necessarily emerged from the capitalist mode of production, that it would grow more and more within that mode of production. They hoped that the fear of the growing labor movement would cause the intelligent bourgeoisie to take away its dangerousness through socialist measures.

This was a tremendous advance, but the union of socialism and the workers’ movement could still not spring from this latter view. Despite the genius of some of them, the socialist workers lacked the comprehensive knowledge needed to establish a new, higher theory of socialism in which it was organically linked to the labor movement. They could only adopt the old bourgeois socialism, utopianism, and adapt it to their needs.

The proletarian socialists who were most far-reaching were those who followed Chartism or the French Revolution. In particular, the latter gained great importance in the history of socialism. The Great Revolution had clearly shown the importance that the conquest of state power can have for the liberation of a class. In this revolution, however, thanks to strange circumstances, a powerful political organization, the Jacobin Club, had also managed to dominate all of Paris and all of France through a reign of terror by the petty bourgeoisie, who were then strongly displaced by proletarian elements. Even during the revolution itself, Babeuf had already drawn the consequences of this in a purely proletarian sense and tried, by a conspiracy, to conquer state power for a communist organization and make it subservient.

The memory of this had never died in the French workers. The conquest of state power early became the means for the proletarian socialists to gain the strength to carry out socialism. But given the weakness and immaturity of the proletariat, they knew of no other way to conquer state power than the coup d’état of a number of conspirators to unleash the revolution. Blanqui is best known among the representatives of this thought in France. Weitling represented similar ideas in Germany.

Other socialists also took up the French Revolution. But the coup appeared to them to be a less than suitable means of overthrowing the rule of capital. Neither did the direction just mentioned count on the strength of the workers’ movement. It helped itself by overlooking the extent to which the petty bourgeoisie was based on the same basis of private ownership of the means of production as capital, by believing that the proletarians could carry out their confrontation with the capitalists without being disturbed by the petty bourgeoisie, the “people,” even with its assistance. One needed only the republic and universal suffrage to induce the power of the state to socialist measures.

This superstition of some republicans, whose most distinguished representative was Louis Blanc, found a counterpart in Germany in the monarchical superstition of social kingship, as cherished by a few professors and other ideologues, such as Rodbertus.

This monarchical state socialism was always only a quirk, here and there also a demagogic phrase. It has never gained serious practical significance. However, this was not the case with the directions represented by Blanqui and Louis Blanc. They gained the strength to rule Paris in the days of the February Revolution of 1848.

In the person of Proudhon they acquired a tremendous critic. He doubted the proletariat, the state, and the revolution. He recognized well that the proletariat must free itself, but he also saw that if it fought for its liberation, it must also take up the struggle with the state and for state power, for even the purely economic struggle depended on the state power, as the workers at the time felt at every turn the lack of any freedom to associate. Since Proudhon now regarded the struggle for state power as hopeless, he advised the proletariat to refrain from any struggle in its emancipatory efforts and to apply only the means of peaceful organization, such as exchange banks, insurance funds, and similar institutions. He had just as little sympathy for trade unions as he had for politics.

Thus, the workers’ movement and socialism, and all attempts to bring the two into a closer relationship, formed a chaos of the most diverse currents in the decade in which Marx and Engels formed their point of view and method. Each current had discovered a piece of what was right, yet none was willing to form them into a totality, with each sooner or later having to end in failure.

What these directions were unable to do was achieved by the materialistic conception of history, which thus, in addition to its great significance for science, gained no less significance for the actual development of society. It facilitated the revolution of one and the other.

Like the socialists of their time, Marx and Engels also recognized that the workers’ movement appears inadequate when it is contrasted with socialism and one asks: what is the more appropriate means with which to provide the proletariat with a secure existence and abolition of all exploitation? The workers’ movement (trade unions, the struggle for the right to vote, etc.), or socialism? But they also realized that this question was completely wrong. Socialism, the secure existence of the proletariat, and the abolition of all exploitation are synonymous. The question is only this: how does the proletariat get to socialism? And there the doctrine of class struggle answered: through the labor movement.

It may not be able to provide the proletariat with a secure existence and the abolition of all exploitation, but it is the indispensable means not only to save the individual proletarians from sinking into misery, but also to give the whole class ever greater power – intellectual, economic, and political power, power that is always growing, even if at the same time the exploitation of the proletariat is increasing. The labor movement must be measured not according to its significance for restricting exploitation, but according to its significance for increasing the power of the proletariat. Not from Blanquist conspiracy, but also not from the state socialism of Louis Blanc or Rodbertus, nor from the peaceful organizations of Proudhon, but only from the class struggle, which has to last for decades, even generations, does the strength arise which can and must seize the state in the form of the democratic republic and finally bring about the breakthrough of socialism in it. To lead the economic and political class struggle, to cultivate its detailed work zealously, but also to fill it with the thoughts of a far-sighted socialism, to thereby unite the organizations and activities of the proletariat uniformly and harmoniously into a tremendous whole that swells more and more irresistibly – according to Marx and Engels, this is the task of everyone who, whether he is a proletarian or not, takes the standpoint of the proletariat and wants to liberate it.

The growth of the power of the proletariat itself, however, is in the last analysis based on the displacement of the pre-capitalist, petty-bourgeois modes of production by the capitalist one, which increases the number of proletarians, concentrates them, increases their indispensability for the whole of society, but at the same time also creates in increasingly concentrated capital the preconditions for the social organization of production, which no longer is arbitrarily invented by the utopians but develops from capitalist reality.

Through this train of thought, Marx and Engels have created the foundation on which social democracy rises, the foundation on which the struggling proletariat of the entire world, from which it began its glorious triumphal march, is increasingly based.

This achievement was hardly possible as long as socialism did not have its own science, independent of bourgeois science. The socialists before Marx and Engels were mostly very familiar with the science of political economy, but they adopted it uncritically in the form in which it had been created by bourgeois thinkers, and differed from them only in that they drew other, proletarian conclusions from it.

It was only Marx who undertook a completely independent study of the capitalist mode of production, who showed how much deeper and clearer it can be when viewed from the proletarian point of view, rather than from the bourgeois point of view. For the proletarian standpoint stands outside and above it, not in it. Only he who regards capitalism as a temporary form makes it possible to fully grasp its particular historical peculiarity.

This feat was performed by Marx in his work Capital (1867), after he had already presented his new socialist point of view with Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848).

Thus, the proletarian struggle for emancipation had received a scientific basis of a magnitude and strength which no revolutionary class before it had possessed. But of course, no one had yet been given such a gigantic task as the modern proletariat; it had to rethink the whole world that capitalism had thrown out of its seams. Fortunately, it is not Hamlet, it does not greet this task with woe. From its immense size it draws immense confidence and strength.


Last updated on 5 November 2020