Karl Kautsky

The Road to Power

Chapter I
The Conquest Of Political Power

Friends and enemies of the Socialists agree upon one thing, and that is that they constitute a REVOLUTIONARY party. But unfortunately the idea of revolution is many-sided, and consequently the conceptions of the revolutionary character of our party differ very greatly. Not a few of our opponents insist upon understanding revolution to mean nothing else but anarchy, bloodshed, murder and arson. On the other hand there are some of our comrades to whom the coming social revolution appears to be nothing more than an extremely gradual, scarcely perceptible, even though ultimately a fundamental change to social relations, much of the same character as that produces by the steam engine.

So much is certain: that the Socialists, as the champions of the class interests of the proletariat, constitute a revolutionary party, because it is impossible to raise this class to a satisfactory existence within capitalist society; and because the liberation of the working class is only possible through the overthrow of private property in the means of production and rulership, and the substitution of social production for production for profit. The proletariat can attain to satisfaction of its wants only in a society whose institutions shall differ fundamentally from the present one.

In still another way the Socialists are revolutionary. They recognize that the power of the state is an instrument of class domination, and indeed the most powerful instrument, and that the social revolution for which the proletariat strives cannot be realized until it shall have captured political power.

It is by means of these fundamental principles, laid down by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, that the Socialists of today are distinguished from the so-called Utopian Socialists of the first half of the last century, such as Owen and Fourier. It also distinguishes them from those who, like Proudhon, either treat the political struggle as unimportant, or else reject it entirely, and who believe it possible to bring about the economic transformation demanded by the interest of the proletariat through purely economic means without changing or capturing the power of the state.

In their recognition of the necessity of capturing political power Marx and Engels agreed with Blanqui. But while Blanqui thought it possible to capture the power of the state by a sudden act of a conspiratory minority, and then to use that power in the interest of the proletariat, Marx and Engels recognized that revolutions are not made at will. They come with inevitable necessity, when the conditions which render them necessary exist, and are impossible so long as those conditions, which develop gradually, do not exist. Only where the capitalist methods of production are highly developed is there the possibility of using the power of the state to transform capitalistic property in the means of production into social property. On the other hand, the possibility of capturing and holding the state for the proletariat only exists where the working class has grown to great proportions, is in large part firmly organized, and conscious of its class interests and its relation to state and society.

These conditions are being constantly created by the development of the capitalist methods of production and the class struggle between capitalists and laborers growing therefrom. So it is that just as the continuous expansion of capitalism necessarily and inevitably goes on, so the inevitable antithesis to this expansion, the proletarian revolution, proceeds equally inevitably and irresistibly.

It is irresistible, because it is inevitable that the growing proletariat should resist exploitation, and that it should organize industrially, co-operatively and politically to secure for itself better conditions of life and labor, and greater political influence. Everywhere the proletariat develops these phases of activity whether it is socialistically minded or not. It is the mission of the Socialist movement to bring all these various activities of the proletariat against its exploitation into one conscious and unified movement, that will find its climax in the great final battle for the conquest of political power.

This position, the fundamental principles of which were laid down in the Communist Manifesto, is today accepted by the Socialist movements of all countries. Upon it rests the whole great international Socialist movement of our time.

Meanwhile it is unable to proceed on its victorious way without finding doubters and critics within its own ranks.

To be sure, actual evolution has taken the road foretold by Marx and Engels. And the triumphant progress of Socialism is due, next to the extension of capitalism and therewith of the proletarian class struggle, above all to the keen analysis of the conditions and problems of this struggle supplied by the work of Marx and Engels.


The Communist Manifesto said at the end of 1847:

“The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution, that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization, and with a more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”

The Manifesto was right in expecting a German revolution. But it was deceived when it believed this to be the immediate prelude to a proletarian revolution.

Nearer to us in time lies another prophecy made by Engels in an introduction to Marx’s brochure on the trial of the Cologne Communists, published in 1885. In this he stated that the next European uprising “was almost due, since the period of European revolutions during the present century was between 15 and 28 years – 1815, 1830, 1848-52, 1870.”

This expectation was not fulfilled, and up to the present time the expected revolution has not arrived.

Why was this ? Was the Marxian method, upon which this expectation was based, false? In no way. But there was one factor in the calculation that was valued altogether too highly. Ten years ago I said concerning these very prophecies: “Both times the revolutionary and oppositional power of the capitalist class was overestimated.” – (Neue Zeit, XVII: 2, p.45)

Marx and Engels expected a far-reaching and violent revolution in Germany in 1847 similar to the great French upheaval that began in 1789. Instead of this, however, there was but a wavering uprising that served only to frighten the whole capitalist class so that it took refuge under the wing of the government. The result was that the government was greatly strengthened and the rapid development of the proletariat was stifled. The bourgeoisie then relinquished to individual governments such further revolutionary action as was necessary to its progress. Bismarck, especially, was the great revolutionist of Germany, at least to the extent of throwing a few German princes from their thrones, favoring the unity of Italy, the dethroning of the Pope, and bringing about the overthrow of the empire and the introduction of the Republic in France.

This was the way in which the German bourgeois revolution, the early entrance of which Marx and Engels had prophesied in 1847, proceeded until it reached its end in 1870.

In spite of this Engels still expected a “political upheaval” in 1885, and declared that the “middle class democracy is even now the only party” that in case of such an uprising “must certainly come into power in Germany”.

Again Engels prophesied truly in foretelling a “political upheaval,” but again he was mistaken in expecting anything from the middle class democracy. This class failed completely when the Bismarckian regime collapsed. Consequently the overthrow of the Chancellor became only an act of the emperor, with no revolutionary consequences.

More and more it becomes evident that the only possible revolution is a proletarian revolution. Such a revolution is impossible so long as the organized proletariat does not form a body large enough and compact enough to carry, under favorable circumstances, the mass of the nation with it. But when once the proletariat comes to be the only revolutionary class in the nation, it necessarily follows that any crisis in an existing government, whether of a moral, financial or military nature, must include the bankruptcy of all capitalist parties, which as a whole are responsible, and in such a case the only government that could meet the situation would be a proletarian one.

Not all Socialists, however, draw these conclusions. There are some who, when an expected revolution does not come at the time set, do not draw the conclusion that industrial development may have altered the form and character of the coming revolution from what might have been expected from the experience of previous capitalist revolutions. On the contrary, they at once conclude that, under the changed conditions, revolutions are not to be expected, are not necessary, and indeed are hurtful.

On one side they conclude that a further extension of the achievements already gained – labor legislation, trade unions, co-operation – will suffice to drive the capitalist class out of one position after another, and to quietly expropriate it, without a political revolution, or any change in the nature of governmental power. This theory of the gradual growth into (hineinwachsen) the future state is a modern form of the old anti-political utopianism and Proudhonism.

On the other hand it is thought to be possible for the proletariat to obtain political power without a revolution, that is without any important transfer of power in the state, simply by a clever policy of co-operation with those bourgeois parties which stand nearest to the proletariat, and by forming a coalition government which is impossible for either party alone.

In this manner they think to get around a revolution as an outgrown barbaric method, which has no place in our enlightened century of democracy, ethics and brotherly love.

When this attitude is carried to its logical conclusion it throws the whole system of Socialist tactics founded by Marx and Engels into the street. The two cannot be reconciled. To be sure that is no reason why such a position should be declared false without examination. But it is a reason why everyone who, after careful study has become convicted of its erroneous character, should energetically oppose it, and this not merely because of a difference of opinion, but because it means weal or woe to the struggling workers.

It is very easy to be led into false paths in discussing this question unless the boundaries of the subject are narrowly defined.

Therefore it is necessary to make clear, what has so often been stated before, that we are not discussing the question of whether labor legislation and similar laws in the interest of the proletariat, and unions and co-operatives are necessary and useful or not. There are no two opinions among us on that point. What is disputed is the view that the exploited class, who control the power of the state, will permit such a development of these factors, as will amount to abolishing capitalist oppression, without first making such a resistance, with all the means at its disposal, that it can be abolished only through a decisive battle.

Furthermore this has nothing to do with the question of utilizing quarrels among capitalist parties in the interest of the proletariat. It was not for nothing that Marx and Engels fought the use of the phrase “reactionary mass,” because it tended to conceal the antagonism that exists between different factions of the ruling class, which may well be very important in securing the progress of the working class. Laws for the protection of labor and the extension of the suffrage are largely due to such differences.

What is opposed is the idea of the possibility that a proletarian party can during normal times regularly combine with a capitalist party for the purpose of maintaining a government or a governmental party, without being destroyed by the insuperable conflicts which must exist. The power of the state is everywhere an organ of class rule. The class antagonisms between the workers and the possessing class are so great that the proletariat can never share governmental power with any possessing class. The possessing class will always demand, and its interests will force it to demand, that the power of the state shall be used to hold the proletariat down. On the other hand the proletariat will always demand that any government in which their own party possesses power, shall use the power of the state to assist it in its battle against capital. Consequent) every government based upon a coalition of capitalist and working class parties is foredoomed to disruption.

A proletarian party which shares power with a capitalist party in any government must share the blame for any acts of subjection of the working class. It thereby invites the hostility of its own supporters, and this in turn causes its capitalist allies to lose confidence and makes any progressive action impossible. No such arrangement can bring any strength to the working class. No capitalist party will permit it do so. It can only compromise a proletarian party- and confuse and split the working class.

It was just such a condition that constantly postponed the revolution of 1848 and brought about the political collapse of the bourgeois democracy, and excluded any co-operation with it for the purpose of winning and utilizing political power.

However willing Marx and Engels were to utilize the differences between capitalist parties for the furtherance of proletarian purposes, and however much they were opposed to the expression “reactionary mass,” they have, nevertheless, coined the phrase “dictation of the proletariat”, which Engels defended shortly before his death in 1891, as expressing the fact, that only through purely proletarian political domination can the working class exercise its political power.

Even if an alliance between capitalist and working-class political parties is incapable of contributing to the development of proletarian power, and even if the progress of social reform and economic organization must be limited under the present conditions, and even if because of these facts the political revolution has NOT YET come, this does not give the slightest reason for concluding that therefore revolutions belong to the past and there never will be any in the future.

Others who doubt the coming of a revolution are not so dogmatic in their conclusions. They recognize that revolutions may still come, but say that if one comes it will be in the far distant future. For at least a generation it is wholly impossible. So far as practical politics are concerned it is not to be taken into our calculations. For the next decade at least we must depend upon the policy of peaceful permeation and the alliance with capitalist parties.

Yet facts are just now arising that more than ever before tend to show the weakness of this view.


Last updated on 25.12.2003