Karl Kautsky

The Road to Power

Chapter II
Prophecies Of The Revolution

In order to discredit the expectations of a revolution by the Marxians, we are frequently reproached with the statement that while we dearly love to prophesy, we are very poor prophets.

We have already seen why it was that the proletarian revolution expected by Marx and Engels has not yet appeared. When, however, we turn from this one disappointed expectation, astonishment arises, not that all their prophecies have not been realized, but that they were able accurately to foretell so much.

For example, we have already called attention to the fact that in November, 1847, the Communist Manifesto had already announced the revolution of 1848. This was at the very time when Proudhon was proving that the era of revolutions had gone forever.

Marx was the first Socialist to point out the significance of the trade unions in the proletarian class struggle. He did this in his controversial work against Proudhon, The Misery of Philosophy, in 1846. His work upon Capital shows that during the ’70’s he already foresaw the growth of the corporations and the trusts of today. During the war of 1870-71 he prophesied that henceforth the center of gravity of the Socialist movement would pass from France to Germany. In January, 1873, he prophesied the crisis that had its beginning a few months later, etc.

The same is true of Engels.

Even when they were mistaken there was always a very accurate and important kernel of truth in the midst of the error. Remember, for example, what has just been said about the expectations that Engels expressed in 1885 concerning the political upheavals of the next few years.

Here is a good place to refute a legend that has of late gained considerable credence. In his work on The Labor Question, a fifth edition of which has just appeared, Professor H. Herkner of Berlin writes as follows concerning the report of the Socialist Congress at Hanover in 1899:

“In the heat of the debate Kautsky was led to designate the hope of an early catastrophe that would fulfill all wishes, as idiocy and to attack this idea far sharper than even Bernstein had done. If Engels actually had predicted the coming of a great catastrophic collapse (Klatterdatsch) in 1898 (said Kautsky) then he would not have been the great thinker that he was, but such an idiot that not a single district would have chosen him as a delegate to the convention. Engels meant nothing more than to say that by 1898 the present Prussian political system might collapse.

“There may be some uncertainty as to what Engels meant. On the other hand the statement of Bebel’s at the Erfurter Convention in 1891, that there were but few members of that body but would live to see the realization of the final goal, admits of no saving explanation. This statement was, to use Kautsky’s expression, idiotic. This is the way in which the confusion that reigns in the heads of the defenders of the old tactics is gradually gaining as clear and satisfactory expression as could be wished.” (p.379)

Unfortunately the professor’s clearness leaves much to be desired. I have never designated as idiotic “the hope of an early catastrophe that would fulfill all wishes (!)” for the simple reason that no one was talking about any such thing. I would certainly be justified in calling the hope of an “all-wishes-fulfilling” catastrophe idiotic. I applied the word “idiocy” to the statement that Engels had ever set a DEFINITE DATE for the outbreak of the revolution in 1898. Any prophecy of this sort would certainly seem to me to be idiotic. But Engels was never guilty of anything of the kind. Just as little was Bebel. Nor did he, at the Erfurter Convention, set any definite date for the coming of the revolution.

There were some who made fun of his “prophesying” at that time. To these he made this reply:

“You may laugh and sneer, at prophesying, but thinking men can not avoid it. There was a time, not so many years ago, when even Vollmar did not assume this attitude of cold pessimistic darkness. Engels, whom he has been attaching, correctly foretold the revolution of 1848 in 1844. And furthermore was not everything prophesied by Marx and Engels in the well known address of the International Workingmen’s Association at the time of the Commune uprising, concerning the future of events in Europe, fulfilled even to the dotting of an i. (That’s right.) Liebknecht, who has been making a little fun of me on this point, has done his share of prophesying. (Laughter.) Like me, he prophesied certain things in the Reichstag in 1870 which have since been completely fulfilled. Read his speeches and mine from 1870-1871 and you will find the proof of this. But now comes Vollmar and cries; ‘Keep still about your ancient history and stop prophesying.’ But he also has done some prophesying. The only difference between him and me is that he has the most wonderful optimism in regard to our opponents, and the most fearful pessimism in regard to the principal aims of the party and its future.” (Proceedings of Congress, p.283.)

One of the most significant of the prophecies of Bebel which has been fulfilled was the one which he made in 1873 that the Center, which then had sixty seats, would soon have a hundred, and that the Bismarckian fight on the Catholic Center (Kulturkampf) would have a miserable end, and would contribute to Bismarck’s overthrow.

Recently some have done me the honor to place me in the ranks of the “prophets”. I could not well be in better company.

I have been reproached with some of the things that I wrote in the series of articles in the Neue Zeit and in the introduction to my work on Ethics concerning the revolution, which it is claimed the course of events proved fundamentally wrong.

Is this correct? In the introduction to my Ethics I wrote

“We are about to enter upon a period, whose length no one knows, during which no Socialist can engage in quiet labors, but where our work must be that of constant fighting ... The tools of the Czar are eager in their work as were the Albas and the Tillys in the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-not with deeds of military heroism, but of brutal murder and arson. The West European champions of law and order defend these actions as restoring legal conditions. But just as little as the soldiers of the Hapsburgs, in spite of momentary successes, were able to restore Catholicism in North Germany and Holland, are the Cossacks of the Romanoffs capable of restoring the regime of absolutism. The Czar has the power to lay his country waste, but he never more can govern it.

“In any case the Russian revolution is far from being at an end. It cannot end so long as the Russian peasants are not satisfied. The longer it continues the greater will be the unrest of the masses of the workers of Western Europe, the nearer the danger of financial catastrophes, and the more probable that an era of acute class struggles will begin in Western Europe.”

What is there in these words, written in January, 1906, of which I should now be ashamed? Does anyone believe that the Russian revolution is at an end and that normal conditions are now prevailing in Russia? And is it not true that since the above lines were written the whole world has been in a condition of great unrest? And now about my “unfortunate prophecy” in my Various Phases of Revolution. I was there writing a polemic against Lusnia, who declared it impossible that a war over Corea could lead to a Revolution in Russia, and claimed that I exaggerated when I pronounced the Russian laborers a much more vital political factor than the English. On these points I replied as follows in February, 1904, at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war

“There is no doubt that the economic development of Russia is far behind that of Germany or England, and that its proletariat is much weaker and less mature than the German or the English. But all things are relative, including the revolutionary power of a class.”

I explained the reasons that made the Russian proletariat such an extraordinary revolutionary force, and continued:

“The more completely Western Europe withholds its help from absolutism, the quicker will it be overthrown. To assist to this end, to discredit Czarism as much as possible, is today the most important work of the International Socialist movement.

“Meanwhile, in spite of all his valuable friendships in Western Europe, the Autocrat of the Russias grows visibly less powerful. The war with Japan may greatly hasten the progress of the Russian revolution ... What took place after the Russo-Turkish war will be repeated in a higher degree: a great extension of the revolutionary movement.”

Having established this point, I continued:

“A revolution in Russia cannot at once establish a Socialist regime. The economic conditions of the country are not sufficiently developed for that. The best it can do is to bring a democratic government into existence, behind which would be a strong and impetuous and progressive proletariat that would be able to demand important concessions.

“Such a regime in Russia could not but have powerful counter effects upon neighboring countries. First by reviving and inspiring the proletarian movement itself, giving it thereby the impulse to attack the political obstacles to an actual democracy – in Prussia, primarily the ‘three-class’ electoral system. Secondly, through the release of the manifold national questions of Western Europe.”

I wrote this in February 1904. In October 1905, the Russian Revolution was a reality and the proletariat was its champion, while at the same time its reactions were being felt upon neighboring lands. In Austria the battle for universal suffrage gained irresistible force and pressed on to victory. Hungary was on the verge of actual insurrection. The German Socialists accepted the principle of the general strike, and threw its full force into the fight for suffrage, especially in Prussia, where it led to actual street demonstrations, in January, 1908, something that had not been seen in Berlin since 1848. And in 1907 came the hysterical elections and the complete collapse of the German democracy. When I had expressed an expectation of the release of the nationalistic movements of Eastern Europe, these expectations were far exceeded by the rapid awakening of the entire Orient – in China, India, Egypt, Morocco, Persia and Turkey. In the last two countries especially this awakening has culminated in successful revolutionary uprisings.

And in connection with this we have had a steady sharpening of national antagonisms that have twice already, first in Morocco and their in Turkey, led Europe to the verge of war.

If ever there was a “prophecy”, if you wish to use the word, that has been completely fulfilled, it was this one of the coming of the Russian revolution and that it would bring with it an era of increased political unrest and a sharpening of all social and national antagonisms.

Certainly I will not deny that I did not foretell the momentary defeat of the Russian revolution. But did the person who in 1846 foretold the revolution of 1848 make a mistake because it was put down in 1849?

Certainly we must recognize the possibility of defeat in the case of every great movement or uprising. Only the fool sees victory already in his pocket before he enters upon a battle. All we can do is to investigate and decide whether we shall enter upon a great revolutionary struggle. We can determine this question with certainty. But the outcome of such a struggle cannot be foretold. We would be a miserable sort of fellows, and, indeed, direct traitors to our cause, and incapable of any fight, if we overlooked the possibility of defeat and reckoned only upon victor.

Naturally every expectation cannot be fulfilled. Anyone who pretends to be an infallible prophet, or who demands infallible prophecies of others, presupposes supernatural powers in men.

Every student of politics must calculate upon the possibility of the defeat of his expectations. From this it does not necessarily follow that “prophesying” is foolish play, but, on the contrary, when carefully and methodically done, it is a part of the continuous work of every thinking and far-seeing political worker, as Bebel has already proven.

Only the most brainless routine worker is satisfied with the belief that things will continue to be as they now are. The politician, who is also a thinker, will weigh every possibility that each coming event may carry in itself, and think them out to their furtherest consequences. To be sure, the power of inertia in society is enormous. In nine cases out of ten the follower of precedent will be right when he follows the old road, without worrying about new situations and possibilities. But on the one time there will come an event strong enough to overcome this power of inertia, that has perhaps already been internally weakened by previous conditions, while externally everything remained the same. Then suddenly evolution starts out upon new roads. The followers of routine lose their heads. Only those politicians are able to assert themselves who have been considering new possibilities and their consequences.

It does not even follow that even in the customary run of events the brainless follower of routine is superior to the “prophesying” politician who weighs the future. This can be true only when the politician treated the possibilities whose consequences he had calculated, as realities, and directed his practical acts accordingly. Will anyone claim that Engels and Bebel and other similar “prophesying” politicians that we have been discussing have ever understood their prophecies in this sense?

The brainless follower of routine will never feel himself compelled to study present conditions, which to him are simple repetitions of already well-known situations, in which he has already been moving. Whoever, on the contrary, considers all the possibilities and consequences of a given situation must carefully study all the forces and powers that it presents. In so doing his attention would naturally be turned first of all to the most recently developed and least considered factors.

What many a Philistine looks upon as a purposeless building of castles in the air, is in reality the result of the deepest study, and consequently is based upon the most careful consideration of. reality. Bebel and Engels can be criticised for their “prophecies,” only if these can be shown to be impractible phantasies. As a matter of fact, no one has shown a greater ability in advising the proletariat in times of desperate need, or has given more valuable guidance, than just these “prophets.” This was just because they were occupied with the work of “prophesying”. It has not been the politicians with the widest visions who have most frequently misled the rising class, but rather those “practical politicians” who could not see further than their noses, and who considered only those things to be real which they could touch with their noses, and who pronounced every obstacle endless and unconquerable against which they bloodied their noses.

But there is still another form of “prophecy” besides that described above. In the last analysis the development of any society is determined by the development of its method of production. We are today sufficiently familiar with these laws to recognize the direction which social evolution must take, and to determine the road the political happenings must take.

This sort of “prophesying” is frequently confused with what we have been discussing, and yet the two are fundamentally different. In the one case we are dealing with a great mass of possibilities which may be contained in any particular situation or event, and whose possible consequences we must determine. In the other. case we are dealing with a single necessary line of evolution, knowledge of which we are seeking. In the first case we are concerned with definite, concrete facts. In the other we can only point out general tendencies, without being ` able to say anything definite regarding the form they will take. These two forms of investigation must not be confused, even though they appear to give the same result.

When, for example, one person says that a war between France and Germany would lead to a revolution, and when another declares that the constantly increasing class antagonisms in capitalist society will lead to a revolution, it seems as if the latter prophecy of a revolution was of the same nature as the first. Yet they are fundamentally very different.

When I speak o£ a war between France and Germany I am not talking of an event, the appearance of which can be determined with the certainty of a law of nature. Science has not yet reached that point. Such a war is only one of very many possibilities. On the other hand, a revolution which comes from such a war must be of certain definite forms. It may happen that in the weaker of the two warring countries the effort to unite all the forces of the state against the external enemy may bring the most daring and energetic class – the proletariat – to the head of the nation. This was what Engels thought possible in 1891i in Germany when a war was expected between Germany and the then relatively more populous France, and when Russia was still unconquered and not disrupted by revolution.

Revolution as a result of war can only come from an uprising of the mass of the people. This would come when the power of the army was broken and the nation was surfeited with the misery of war. The government would then be overthrown, not in order to prosecute the war more energetically, but to end a useless and accursed war with an. opponent who also desired nothing more than the end.

Again, revolution as the result of war may arise as a result of a universal uprising against a disgraceful and especially injurious treaty of peace. Such an uprising might easily combine the army and the people.

In such cases the form of the revolution can be determined in advance. But it is impossible to form any picture of the revolution which I can foretell as a result of the increased sharpening of class antagonisms. I can state with certainty that a revolution brought on by war will take place during the war or immediately after it. On the other hand, when I speak of a revolution as the result of increased sharpening of class antagonisms, this tells us absolutely nothing as to the time it will appear.

I can say definitely that a revolution brought about by a war will happen but once. Nothing whatever can be said on this point concerning the revolution springing from sharpening class antagonisms. It may be a long-drawn-out process, while a revolution as the result of war must take on more the character of a single event. It is impossible to say in advance whether a revolution as the result of war would be successful. The revolutionary movement springing out of class antagonisms, on the contrary, cannot meet with any thing more than temporary defeats, and must ultimately win.

On the other hand, the preliminary conditions to a revolution in the first case – that of war – are something which may or may not appear. No one can possibly say anything definite on this point. The sharpening of class antagonism, on the contrary, arises inevitably out of the laws of the capitalist method of production. While a revolution as the result of war is only one of many possibilities, as the result of class antagonisms, it is inevitable.

It is evident that each sort of “prophecy” demands its own especial method, and its own especial study, and that the significance of the “prophecy” depends upon the thoroughness of such study, instead of being, as some people who have no conception of the amount of such studying seem to think, mere empty phantasies.

It would be very much of a mistake, however, to conclude that we Marxians are the only ones that prophesy. Even bourgeois politicians, who are standing on the basis of the present state of affairs, are not without their visions of a distant future. The whole force of colonial politics, for example, rests on this fact. If we were dealing with colonial policy for today only it would be easy to do away with it. For every country but England it is a miserable business. But it is the only field inside capitalist society from which great hopes for the future at least appear to beckon. And therefore, because of the glittering future which our colonial fanatics prophesy, and not because of the miserable present, colonial politics exercise such a fascinating attraction to such minds as are not convinced of the coming of Socialism.

Nothing is more foolish than the idea that distant ideals have no practical significance in present politics that immediate interests always rule, or that we will be successful in our electoral agitation in proportion as we are “practical” – which signifies insipid and insignificant, and the more we talk only of taxes and tariffs, police graft and sick insurance and similar thing, and the more we treat our future goal as a youthful love affair, to be cherished in our hearts and looked back to with longing, but to which it is best not to make any reference in public.


Last updated on 25.12.2003