Karl Kautsky

The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

VI. Summary of Theory and Practice

We have now looked at the most important achievements Marx made in his association with Engels. But the picture of their work would remain incomplete if we did not point to another aspect which characterizes it to an outstanding degree: the link between theory and practice.

To bourgeois thought, of course, this seems to be another patch on the shining shield of its scientific greatness, before which even bourgeois scholarship must bend, albeit reluctantly, grumbling and without understanding. If they had been mere theorists, parlor scholars who were content to discuss their theories in a language incomprehensible to ordinary people and in inaccessible folios, this could have gone further. But the fact that their science was born out of struggle and again serves the struggle, the struggle against the existing order, has robbed them of their impartiality and clouded their honesty.

This miserable view can only imagine a fighter as a lawyer, whose knowledge should serve nothing but to give him arguments to refute the other party. It has no idea that no one has a greater need for truth than a true fighter in a terrible fight, in which he has only the prospect of surviving if he recognizes his situation, tools, and his prospects in full clarity. The judges who interpret the laws of the state can be deceived by the tricks of a sophist who dominates legal science. The necessary laws of nature, on the other hand, can only be recognized, not duped nor bribed.

A fighter who takes this point of view will only draw from the fierceness of the fight an increased urge for undisguised truth; but also the urge not to keep the truth for oneself, but to communicate it to one’s comrades-in-arms.

Thus Engels also writes of the time period between 1845 and 1848, within which he and Marx had won their new scientific results, that they had no intention at all of whispering these results “in thick books exclusively to the ‘learned’ world.” Rather, they immediately contacted proletarian organizations in order to propagate their point of view and the tactics corresponding to it. In this way they succeeded in winning over one of the most important of the then-revolutionary proletarian associations, the international “Communist League,” for their principles, which were then expressed a few weeks before the February Revolution of 1848 in The Communist Manifesto, which was to become the “guide” of the proletarian movement of all countries.

The revolution called on Marx and Engels from Brussels, where they were staying, first in Paris, then in Germany, where they were for some time completely absorbed in revolutionary practice.

The decline of the revolution forced them from 1850 on, much against their will, to devote themselves entirely to theory. But when the workers’ movement revived in the early 1860s, Marx – for Engels was initially hindered by private circumstances – was immediately again able to intervene with full force in the practical movement. He did this in the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1864, which was soon to become a spectre for the whole of bourgeois Europe.

The laughable police mindset, with which even bourgeois democracy suspects every proletarian movement, made the International appear as a tremendous conspiracy society which had as its sole task the organization of riots and coups. In reality, it pursued its aims in full publicity: that of uniting all the proletarian forces into joint but also into independent action, detached from bourgeois politics and bourgeois thought, with the aim of expropriating capital, of the proletariat conquering all the political and economic means of power of the possessing classes. The most important and decisive step is the conquest of political power, but the economic emancipation of the working classes is the ultimate goal “to which every political movement must submit as a mere aid.”

Marx considers organization to be the most noble tool of the proletarian development of power.

“The proletarians possess an element of success,” he said in the inaugural address, “their numbers. But this only becomes significant if it is united by an organization and led toward a conscious goal.”

Without a goal, no organization. The common goal alone can unite the different individuals into a common organization. On the other hand, the diversity of goals is as divisive as the unity of goals is unifying.

Precisely because of the importance of organization for the proletariat, everything depends on the kind of goal that is set for it. This goal is of the greatest practical importance. Nothing is more impractical than the apparently realist view that the movement is everything and the goal nothing. Is organization then also nothing and the unorganized movement everything?

Even before Marx, socialists had set goals for the proletariat. But these had only caused sectarianism, divided the proletarians, since each of these socialists put the main emphasis on the particular way of solving the social problem they had invented. So many solutions, so many sects.

Marx gave no particular solution. He resisted all the challenges of becoming “positive,” of setting out in detail the measures by which the proletariat should be emancipated. In the International, he valued in organization only the general goal that every proletarian should make his own the economic liberation of his class; and the path he showed to that end was one that every proletarian already demonstrated in his class instinct: the economic and political class struggle.

Above all, it was the trade-union form of organization that Marx propagated in the International; it appeared to be the form most likely to permanently unite large masses. He also saw the cadres of the workers’ party existing in the trade unions.

No less eagerly did he pursue their imbuement with the spirit of class struggle – and their development to understand the conditions under which the expropriation of the capitalist class and the liberation of the proletariat was possible – than he pursued the expansion of trade-union organization itself.

He had to overcome great resistance, especially among the most advanced workers, who were still filled with the spirit of the old socialists and looked down on the unions with disdain because they did not challenge the wage system. They saw this as a departure from the right path, which they saw in the establishment of organizations in which the wage system was to be directly overcome, such as productive cooperatives. If, nevertheless, trade-union organization on the continent of Europe has made rapid progress since the second half of the 1860s, it owes it above all to the International and to the influence that Marx exerted on it and through it.

But the trade unions for Marx were not ends in themselves, but only a means to the end of class struggle against the capitalist order. He resisted those trade union leaders who tried to make the unions averse to this purpose – whether for limited personal or trade-union reasons – with the most vigorous resistance, as with the English trade-union officials who began to cheat with the liberals.

As indulgent and tolerant Marx was towards the proletarian masses, he was exceedingly strict towards those who acted as their leaders. This was primarily true of their theorists.

Into the proletarian organization, Marx warmly welcomed every proletarian who came with the honest intention of joining in the class struggle, no matter what views the entrant otherwise paid homage to, what theoretical motivations drove him, what arguments he used; no matter whether he was an atheist or a good Christian, whether Proudhonian, Blanquist, Weitlingian, or Lassallean, whether he understood the value of theory or considered it completely superfluous, etc.

Of course, he was not indifferent as to whether he was dealing with clear-thinking or confused workers. He considered it an important task to enlighten them, but he would have thought it wrong to repel workers and keep them away from the organization because their thought was confused. He placed full trust in the power of class antagonism and the logic of class struggle, which had to put every proletarian on the right path once he had joined an organization that served a real proletarian class struggle.

But he behaved differently toward people who came to the proletariat as teachers when they spread views that were likely to disrupt the power and unity of this class struggle. Against such elements he knew no tolerance. As a relentless critic, he confronted them, even if their intentions were the best; their work seemed to him in any case ruinous – that is, if it produced results at all and did not prove to be a mere waste of energy.

Thanks to this, Marx has always been one of the most hated men; most hated not only by the bourgeoisie, which feared in him its most dangerous enemy, but also by all the sectarians, inventors, educated councils of confusion, and similar elements in the socialist camp, who, the more painfully they felt his criticism, became the more outraged by his “intolerance,” his “authoritarianism,” his “papacy,” his “heretical courts.”

With the adoption of his views, we Marxists have also inherited this position, and we are proud of it. Only those who feel they are weak complain about the “intolerance” of a purely literary critique. Nobody is criticized more harshly, maliciously, than Marx and Marxism. But so far, no Marxist has thought of singing a sad song about the intolerance of our literary opponents. We are too sure of our cause for that.

What does not leave us indifferent, on the other hand, is the displeasure that the proletarian masses sometimes express about the literary feuds fought out between Marxism and its critics. This displeasure expresses a very justified need: the need for unity in the class struggle, for the combination of all proletarian elements into a great independent mass, the fear of divisions that could weaken the proletariat.

The workers know very well what strength they draw from their unity; it stands above theoretical clarity, and they curse theoretical discussions when they threaten to lead to divisions. Rightly so, for the pursuit of theoretical clarity would achieve the opposite of what it is supposed to achieve if it weakened rather than strengthened the proletarian class struggle.

A Marxist who would continue a theoretical disagreement to the point of splitting a proletarian fighting organization would not, however, be acting as a Marxist, in the sense of the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, for which every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs.

Marx and Engels have already set out their view of the Marxist position within proletarian organizations in The Communist Manifesto in the section entitled Proletarians and Communists. The communists were then about the same as what are now called Marxists. It says:

What is the relationship between the communists and the proletariat?

The communists do not form a separate party to the other workers’ parties.

They have no interests separate from the interests of the entire proletariat.

They do not establish special principles according to which they want to model the proletarian movement.

The communists differ from the other proletarian parties only in that, on the one hand, they emphasize and assert the common interests of the entire proletariat, which are independent of nationality, in the various national struggles of the proletarians [i.e. limited to the individual states] and, on the other hand, they always represent the interests of the entire movement during the various stages of development through which the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie passes.

The communists are thus practically the most decisive, ever-expanding part of the workers’ parties of all countries; theoretically, they have the insight into the conditions, the course, and the general results of the proletarian movement ahead of the rest of the mass of the proletariat.

The next purpose of the communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

The theoretical propositions of the communists are by no means based on ideas, on principles invented or discovered by this or that do-gooder. They are only general expressions of the actual conditions of an existing class struggle, of a historical movement going on under our eyes.

In the time since this was written, many things have changed so that these sentences can no longer be applied to every letter. In 1848 there were still no large, unified workers’ parties with comprehensive socialist programs, and alongside Marxist theory there were many other, much more widespread socialist theories.

Today, among the struggling proletariat united in mass parties, only one socialist theory is still alive: the Marxist theory. Not all members of the workers’ parties are Marxists; even less are all educated Marxists. But those among them who do not recognize Marxist theory have no theory at all. Either they deny the necessity of every theory and every program, or they brew a universal socialism together with a few Marxist chunks from pieces of the pre-Marxist ways of thinking that we have just come to know and that have not yet completely disappeared, which has the advantage that you can omit from it everything that doesn’t fit into your agenda at the moment, and take everything into it that seems usable at the moment, which is far more convenient than consistent Marxism, but fails completely where theory becomes most important. It is enough for the usual purposes of popular agitation, but it fails when it comes to finding one’s way in reality in the face of new, unexpected phenomena. Precisely because of its flexibility and softness, one cannot make a building out of it that defies all storms. But it also cannot form a roadmap which guides the seeker, since it is entirely determined by the personal momentary needs of his bearers.

Today Marxism must no longer assert itself in the proletariat against other socialist views. Its critics no longer oppose it with other theories, but only with doubts about the necessity of either theory at all or a consistent theory. There are only words, phrases like those of “dogmatism,” “orthodoxy,” and the like, not closed new systems, which are held against it in the proletarian movement.

For us Marxists today, however, this is just one more reason to report on any attempt to form a special Marxist sect within the workers’ movement that is detached from the other strata of the fighting proletariat. Like Marx, we see it as our task to unite the entire proletariat into one fighting organism. Within this organism, however, it will always be our goal to remain “the most practical, decisive, and ever-advancing part” that “has the insight into the conditions, the course, and the general results of the proletarian movement ahead of the rest of the mass of the proletariat” – that is, we will always strive to achieve the highest level of practical energy and theoretical knowledge that can be achieved with the given means. Only in this, in the superiority of our achievements, which the superiority of the Marxist standpoint enables us to achieve, do we want to occupy a special position in the overall organism of the proletariat organized as a class party, which, incidentally, wherever unconscious Marxism already fulfills it, is more and more pushed into its tracks by the logic of the facts.

But hardly a Marxist or Marxist group has ever caused a split because of purely theoretical differences. Where divisions occurred, they were always caused by practical, tactical, or organizational differences, not theoretical differences, and theory simply became the scapegoat onto whom all committed sins were laid.

For instance, the struggle by a part of the French socialists against an alleged Marxist intolerance is, when viewed in the light of day, only a struggle by a couple of literary critics and parliamentarians who are outraged by proletarian discipline. They demand discipline only for the great masses, but not for such enlightened beings as themselves. The defenders of proletarian discipline have always been the Marxists, and they have shown themselves to be dutiful students of their master.

Marx has not only theoretically shown the way in which the proletariat is most likely to achieve its high goal, he also made practical progress along this path. Through his work in the International he has become exemplary for all our practical activity.

Not only as a thinker, but also as a role model should we celebrate Marx, or rather, what is more, in his sense, study him. We draw no less wealth from the history of his personal effectiveness than from his theoretical discussions.

And he became exemplary in his work not only through his knowledge, his superior intellect, but also through his boldness, his tirelessness, which was paired with the greatest kindness and selflessness, and the most unshakable equanimity.

Whoever wants to learn of his boldness, read of his trial in Cologne on February 9, 1849, in which he was charged for his call to armed resistance and in which he explained the necessity of a new revolution. His goodness and selflessness is testified to by the active concern which he, even when living in the greatest misery, showed for his comrades, whom he always thought of rather than himself, after the collapse of the revolution of 1848, and after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871. His whole life was finally an unbroken chain of tests which only a man whose tirelessness and unshakeability far exceeding the usual measure could have stood up to.

Beginning with his work in the Rheinische Zeitung (1842), he was rushed from country to country until the revolution of 1848 promised him the beginning of a victorious revolution. By its fall, he saw himself thrown back into political and personal misery, which seemed all the more hopeless, since in exile, on the one hand, bourgeois democracy boycotted him, and on the other hand, a part of the communists themselves fought him because he was not revolutionary enough for them, despite the fact that many of his faithful comrades were buried in Prussian fortresses for many years. Then finally came a glimmer of hope, the International, but after a few years it vanished again by the fall of the Paris Commune, soon followed by the dissolution of the International and inner turmoil. It had fulfilled its task brilliantly, but it was precisely because of this that the proletarian movements of the individual countries had become more independent. The more it grew, the more the International needed a more elastic form of organization that would give the individual national organizations more leeway. At the same time, however, when this became most necessary, the English trade union leaders who wanted to join the liberals felt constrained by the tendencies of class struggle, while in the romantic countries Bakuninist anarchism rebelled against the participation of the workers in politics, phenomena which urged the General Council of the International to exercise its centralist powers most sharply at the time when the federalism of the organization became more necessary than ever. It was this contradiction that failed the proud ship whose steering wheel Karl Marx had in his hands.

This became a bitter disappointment for Marx. Of course, then came the brilliant rise of German social democracy and the strengthening of the revolutionary movement in Russia. In turn, the Anti-Socialist Law put an end to this brilliant rise, and Russian terrorism also reached its peak in 1881. From then on it went rapidly downhill.

Thus, Marx’s political activity was an unbroken chain of failures and disappointments, and no less his scientific activity. His life’s work, Capital, for which he had great expectations, apparently remained unnoticed and ineffective. Even in his own party, it was little understood until the early eighties.

Marx died on the threshold of that time when the fruits of what he had sowed during the most furious storms and sunless, gloomy times would finally ripen. He died when the time came that the proletarian movement seized the whole of Europe and everywhere filled it with its spirit, placed itself on its foundations, and thus began a period of victorious growth of the proletariat; and this growth does so brilliantly stand out from the time when Marx fought for his ideas in the class as a lonely, little-understood, but much-hated fighter against a world of enemies.

As discouraging, indeed downright bleak, this situation would have become for any ordinary man, Marx never let it rob him of his cheerful equanimity, never of his proud confidence. He so surpassed his fellow men, so far overlooked them, that he saw clearly the land of promise which the great mass of his fellow men was not able to foresee. It was his scientific greatness, the depth of his theory from which he drew the best strength of his character, in which his steadfastness and his confidence were rooted, which kept him free from all fluctuations and attitudes, from that unsteady feeling of exuberance which rejoices sky-high today and tomorrow is saddened to death.

From this source we must also draw. Then we can be sure that, in the great and difficult struggles of our days, we will stand at the ready and develop the utmost strength of which we are capable. Then we may expect to reach our goal sooner than would otherwise be possible. The banner of the liberation of the proletariat, and thus of all mankind – which Marx has unfolded, which he carried forward for more than a lifetime, in a constant onslaught, never tiring, never despairing – will be victoriously planted on the ruins of the capitalist stronghold by the fighters he has taught.


Last updated on 5 November 2020