Karl Kautsky

Practical Work in Parliament


Source: International Socialist Review, December 1908.
Translated: William E. Bohn.
Transcribed: for marxists.org, May, 2002.


Comrade Maurenbrecher is reported to have said recently: “In parliament we wish to do practical work, to secure funds for social reforms, – so that step by step we may go on toward the transformation of our class government.” It is probably through a mistake of the reporter that the securing of funds is made to appear the principal object of our “practical work.” But what I wish to draw attention to is the fact that we “abstract” Socialists, we theorizers “cut off from reality,” also wish to do practical work in parliament. But, unlike Comrade Maurenbrecher, we do not halt here; we can see beyond.

According to Comrade Maurenbrecher this practical work is the be-all and end-all of our political activity. To this we are always to limit ourselves, never go beyond it.

This would all be very nice, if we were alone in the world, if we could arrange our field of battle and our tactics to suit our taste. But we have to do with opponents who venture everything to prevent the triumph of the proletariat. Comrade Maurenbrecher will acknowledge, I suppose, that the victory of the proletariat will mean the end of capitalist exploitation. Does he expect the exploiters to look on good-naturedly while we take one position after another and make ready for their expropriation? If so, he lives under a mighty illusion. Imagine for a moment that our parliamentary activity were to assume forms which threatened supremacy of the bourgeoisie. What would happen? The bourgeoisie would try to put an end to parliamentary forms. In particular it would rather do away with the universal, direct and secret ballot that quietly capitulate to the proletariat.

So we are not given the choice as to whether we shall limit ourselves to a purely parliamentary struggle.

It is only by having an extra-parliamentary force to fall back on that the proletariat can make full use, of its parliamentary power. We can accomplish in legislative halls what can be accomplished there only on condition that we are ready to defend our right to representation. We must be prepared at any moment to fight for the ballot with all the means at our command.

Wherever the proletarian party is not resolved to do this, where it lives under the conviction that governments and ruling classes are unconquerable, there it is practically powerless. At any rate the possibility of its making use of parliamentary power depends entirely upon the will of the ruling classes. Under such circumstances the proletariat need never try to gain strength for a decisive conflict. Rather must it be content to purchase concessions through compromise; it must seek the good-will of the government, must try to get into a position where it can drive bargains with the bourgeois parties.

But economic development and the class-struggle are strangely careless of the needs of such parliamentarians. They may adopt a tone conciliatory as you please, – the class oppositions grow sharper every day and beget great conflicts which shatter all the calculations of pure-and-simple politicians. Nowhere can the proletariat accomplish anything worth while by the method of compromise. Wherever this method has been tried, as in France, it has had to be given up. Hard facts soon put an end to it. Nowhere has it been in operation without working harm to the proletariat. For nowhere can this be the policy of the whole working-class. Its lack of adaptation to actual economic conditions cannot be overcome. Only particular strata of workers, those who fancy themselves favored by local or craft conditions, are open to its illusions: the great mass must always remain in opposition.

Thus this policy of compromise leads always to a division of the proletariat, and so to a loss of power. This is clearly proved by party history outside of Germany. Only under the banner of the class-struggle, never under that of legislative bargaining, can the whole proletariat be united, can it finally succeed in unfolding its full power.

Moreover respect for the Social Democracy among the masses of the people must suffer under the pure-and-simple parliamentary method. This respect rests upon the courageous and unwavering opposition which we have offered from the beginning. Thus far the Social Democracy has been a rock upon which the violence of the opposition has been splintered. This has shown its power and its confidence; through this it has impressed the world: through this it has won the unfaltering trust of all the oppressed and exploited.

This impression will he lost if it becomes a party like all the others, if it allows itself to be bought off from its attitude of uncompromising opposition like the Centrists and Liberals. The respect for the government that could bring about such a change would increase; that felt for the Social Democracy would diminish.

Just recently, therefore, our party rejected this policy. This action was taken at the congress of Dresden, and in the very year when Maurenbrecher’s National Socialism played out. The Dresden resolution contained the following passage: “The party condemns most emphatically the Revisionist attempts to alter our tried and triumphant policy. This policy has had for its basis the class-struggle and for its purpose the taking over of power through the overthrow of our enemy. We are opposed to putting in place of this a program of compromise with the existing order of things.

The result of such a change is easy to foresee; instead of a party striving for a rapid transformation of the existing bourgeois society into the Socialist republic we should have a party content with reforming bourgeois society.”

This resolution was accepted by a vote of 288 to 11. It is clear that what has been called the position of a few “abstract theorists” is in reality that of the great majority of the party. But the policy which Comrade Maurenbrecher wishes to force upon us is the exact opposite of this; it is the discredited policy of the National Socialists, who wished to tempt the proletariat away from the class-struggle into the bogs of bargains and trade. It is the policy which proved the ruin of National Socialism and is now proving the ruin of the Liberal faction of the bloc. Nevertheless the attempt is now being made to force this policy upon us.


His general conception of the problem of tactics Comrade Maurenbrecher illustrates by means of an explanation of the Bavarian vote in favor of the budget. This action, naturally, meets with his entire approval. He said: “What is a budget? A budget is a financial estimate If or the fiscal period during which it is to be in effect. It includes a great variety of provisions and is voted upon item by item. Thereafter occurs the vote on the whole. Theoretically this final vote is, therefore, nothing but the sum of all the previous ones. Each party casts its sum, compares the points granted with those denied, and governs itself accordingly. As a matter of principle we object to the appropriations for army, navy and colonies, likewise to the income drawn from indirect taxes. In the make-up of the imperial budget the items voted against by the Socialists outweigh the others; therefore we vote against the budget as a whole. But in Bavaria this time the matter stood quite differently. In this case even Vorwärts could figure out only 15 millions among 600 which Socialists could not accept. Anyone who considers soberly the fact that the comrades had accepted more than five sixths in detail will conclude that they were forced to accept the budget as a whole. It is like the acceptance of a law: if the most essential paragraphs have been incorporated and finally a few objectionable ones appear among them, the law as a whole is nevertheless supported.”

This conception of a budget is that of a calculating tradesman, not that of a militant statesman. It leaves entirely out of account one question, the fundamental one, which every statesman must ask himself. To whom am I granting the budget?

To grant the budget means to give the government the right to raise the taxes provided for; it means to put into the hands of the government the control of hundreds of millions of money, as well as thousands of people, laborers and office-holders, who are paid out of these millions.

Many believe that voting in favor of the budget means granting incomes to the employees of the state: and that refusing to do so is to expose this class to starvation. Nothing more false than this. The state employees are necessary to the operation of state machinery. A government inimical to the people, however, can easily be spared. It is not the state employees who would lose their bread through a refusal of the budget, but the government. The government would have to go, the employees would remain. Not against these latter is the policy of refusal directed, but against the government which exploits and oppresses them. The refusal of the budget is one of the means employed to bring about a system under which state employees performing useful labor would be far better off than now.

To represent the vote against the budget as directed against state employees has about as much justification as the complaints of our opponents that strikes are not directed against capitalists but against consumers: as if striking bakers raised the price of bread or striking masons that of houses.

This is something that many voters have not understood hitherto. In the last Reichstag election failure to understand it drove many into the camp of our opponents. But this is no reason why workers should refrain from striking, but only a reason for enlightening the voters as to the actual state of affairs.

Thus the question as to the final vote on the budget depends on the sort of government and not on the sort of budget. Even in case the budget is unobjectionable to Socialists we must not grant it to a government inimical to the proletariat; for that would mean to put into its hands a tremendous power. Even the best means of education and civilization can in the hands of an unscrupulous government, be used to oppress the people. What, for example, can be more useful or necessary than public schools? But it is unsafe to give a penny for school purposes to a priest-ridden ministry that appoints none but clerical teachers and uses the schools for the systematic degradation of the children. Therefore the important matter is not the individual items of the budget, but the character of the government.

The final vote in the affirmative is in the nature of a vote of confidence. To grant the budget and explain at the same time that we lack confidence, is to exhibit a remarkable degree of political naivete. It is the same as saying: I wouldn’t trust you across the street, but I confide to you the expenditure of a couple of hundred millions a year.


Last updated on 26.11.2003