Karl Kautsky

The Road to Power

Chapter IV
Economic Evolution And The Will

The revisionists meet these conclusions with the claim that there is a much greater contradiction in Marx himself. They allege that, as a thinker, he recognized no such thing as a free will, but expected everything to come from inevitable economic evolution, which moves on automatically, but that as a revolutionary fighter he sought in the strongest manner to develop wills, and to appeal to the volition of the proletariat. This proves Marx to be guilty of an irreconcilable contradiction between theory and practice, declare the revisionists, anarchists and liberals in closest harmony.

In reality Marx is guilty of no such contradiction. It is a product of the confusion of his critics – a confusion that is incurable, since it recurs again and again. It rests in the first place in the making of will and free will identical. Marx has never failed to recognize the significance of the will and the “tremendous role of human personality” in society. He has only denied the freedom of the will, something very different. This has been explained so often that it scarcely seems necessary to restate it here.

Furthermore, this confusion rests upon a most remarkable conception of the meaning of economics and economic development. All these learned gentlemen seem to think that because this evolution proceeds according to certain definite laws it is automatic and spontaneous without the willing human personality. For them the human will is a separate element alongside of and above economics. It adds to the force and operates upon economics, “making otherwise” the things produced by economics. Such a view is only possible in minds that have only a scholastic conception of economics, that have gathered their ideas entirely from books, and that treat it purely intellectually, without the slightest vital conception of the actual economic process. Here, at least, the proletariat is superior to them, and in spite of Maurenbrecher and Eisner, is better capable of comprehending this process and its historic role, than the capitalist theoretician to whom economic practice is foreign, or than the capitalist practical man to whom every theoretical interest is foreign, and who has no conception of the necessity of understanding anything more of economics than is essential to successful profit making.

All economic theory becomes mere mental gymnastics for those who do not proceed from the knowledge that the motive force back of every economic event is the human will. Certainly not a FREE will, not a will existing by itself (Wollen an sich), but a PREDETERMINED (bestimmtes) will. It is, in the last analysis, the WILL TO LIVE which lies at the basis of all economics, which appeared with life as soon as it was gifted with movement and sensation. Every expression of the will is, in the last analysis, to be traced back to the will to live.

Whatever especial forms this life impulse (Lebenswille) of an organism may take in individual cases depends upon the conditions of that life, taking the word condition in the widest possible sense, as including all the dangers and limitations of life, not merely the means of its sustenance. The conditions of life determine the character of its volition, the nature of its acts and their results.

This knowledge forms the starting point of the materialistic conception of history. But, to be sure, the simplicity of the relations, that must be explained in this manner in the less complex organisms, give place in higher organisms to conditions in which many intermediate members step in between the mere will to live and the manifold forms of its expression.

I cannot here undertake to carry this further. But a few suggestions may be given.

The conditions of life of an organism are of a twofold nature – first, those that are continually repeated and that do not change in the course of many generations. A will developed by and adjusted to such conditions is strengthened both by inherited custom and natural selection. It becomes an instinct, an impulse which the individual follows under all circumstances, even under extraordinary conditions where following it does not maintain and sustain life, but injures it, perhaps even leads to death. In spite of all this the basis of this will is still the will to live.

Alongside of those conditions of life that are constantly repeated there are also others that appear only seldom or in changed form. Here instinct fails. Here the maintenance of life depends fundamentally upon the possession of intelligence by the organism which will enable it to recognize a given situation and to adjust itself to it. The more an animal form lives in swiftly changing conditions of life the more its intelligence is developed. This is partly due to the fact that the organ of intelligence has greater demands put upon it and partly because the individuals with weaker intelligence are more quickly eliminated.

Finally, when we come to man, intelligence has grown so great that he is able to construct artificial organs weapons and tools – with which the better to assert himself under given conditions of life. But at the same time he creates for himself new conditions to which, in turn, he must adapt himself. So it is that technical development, a result of higher intelligence, becomes in turn an impulse to further development of intelligence.

Technical development is also a result of the will to live, but it carries with it important modifications of that will. The animal wishes to live just because it is alive. It demands nothing more. The discovery of new weapons or new tools brings with it the power of living better than before. It brings the possibility of more abundant nourishment, greater leisure, better security, and finally the satisfaction of new necessities than has hitherto been possible. The higher technical evolution, the more the will to LIVE becomes the will to live BETTER.

This will is the distinguishing mark of civilized man.

Technical evolution changes not only the relation of man to nature, but also that between man and man.

Man belongs to the social animals. The conditions for his life cannot be met in isolation, but demand the formation of societies. The will to live takes on the form of the will to live with and for members of a society. Technical development changes, among other conditions of life, the forms of social life and co-operation, It does this primarily by bestowing organs upon man that are separated from his body. The natural tools and weapons, nails, teeth, horns and the like, are the property of all individuals of the same nature, and of the same age and sex. The artificial tools and weapons on the other hand, may all be possessed by a single individual, who may withhold them from all others. Those who have the control of such tools and weapons live under different conditions of life from those who are deprived of them. So different classes are created, in each of which the will to live takes a different form.

A capitalist, for example, according to the conditions under which he lives, cannot exist without profit. His will to live drives him to acquire profits, his will to live better forces him to seek increased profits. This, again, compels him to increase his capital; in the same manner and to an even higher degree, the competitive struggle threatens him with destruction, if he is not able continuously to increase his capital. The concentration of capital is not an automatic process, that proceeds without the will and the consciousness of the participants. It would not be possible without the energetic will of the capitalists to become rich and to drive their weaker competitors out of the field. What does lie outside their will and their consciousness is the simple fact that the result of their willing and striving is to create the necessary conditions for Socialist production. That the capitalists certainly do not wish. But this does not say that in the economic process, the volition of man, and the “gigantic role of creative personality” is excluded.

The same will to live that animates the capitalists, exists also among the workers. But it takes on different forms to correspond with the different conditions of life. It is not expressed in a struggle for profits, but for sale of labor power, for higher prices for labor power, and lower prices for the means of life; out of this springs the creation of unions and co-operatives, the seeking after legislation for the protection of labor, and finally out of this springs a second tendency, accompanying the concentration of capital, that may be designated as a growing into Socialism. Even here there is no such unintentional, unconscious process, as is customarily understood by the words “growing into”.

Finally, in relation to the social process there is still another phase of the will to live which must be considered. Under certain conditions the will to live of an individual or a society can express itself only through the subjection of the will to live of other individuals. The beast of prey can live only through the destruction of other animals. Often his will to live demands the dispossession of some of his own kind who contend with him for prey, or who diminish the supply of food. This does not demand the destruction of these others, but the bending of their will because of the superiority of muscle or nerve force.

Such contests also take place among men. They are less frequent between individuals than between societies. They are waged over means of winning life from hunting grounds and fishing places to markets and colonies. Such conflicts always end either with the destruction of one party, or, more frequently, with a breaking or bending of its will. Each time this is only a passing event. But out of this develops a continuous bending of the will of one man by another, that ends in a condition of continuous exploitation

Class antagonisms are antagonisms of volitions. The will to live of the capitalists meets with conditions that force it to bend the will of the workers and to make use of it. Without this bending of the will there would be no capitalist profit, and no capitalist could exist. The will of the laborer to live, on the other hand, forces him to rebel against the will of the capitalist. Therefore the class struggle.

Thus we see that the will is the motive force of the whole economic process. It is the starting point and enters into every expression of that process. There is nothing more absurd than to look upon the will and economic phenomena as two factors independent of each other. It is a part of the fetish-like conception that confuses the economic process – that is, the forms of social co-operative and competitive labor of mankind – with the material objects of such labor, and that imagines that just as men make use of raw materials and tools to form certain objects according to their own ideas, so the “creative personalities” make use through their free will of the economic process to form “thus and so,” certain definite social relations to suit their needs. Because the laborer stands outside of the raw material and tools, because he stands above them and rules them, these worshipers of the economic fetish, think that man stands outside the economic process, that he stands above it and rules it according to his free will.

There is no more ridiculous misunderstanding than this.

Economic necessity does not mean absence of will. It springs from the necessity of the will to live of living creatures, and from the inevitable necessity arising therefrom to utilize the conditions of life that they meet. It is the necessity of a predetermined volition.

There could also be no greater perversion of the truth than the idea that a knowledge of economic necessity means a weakening of the volition, and that the will of the workers must be aroused by biographies of generals and other powerful willed men, and by lectures on the freedom of the will. When the people have once been persuaded that a thing exists, then it must exist and can he used by them! If you do not believe this take a look at our professors and other bourgeois intellectuals, who have had a course in Kant on one side, and worshiped the powerful willed Hohenzollerns on the other, and observe what a great inflexible will they have obtained by this means.

If the will to live, which is the foundation of all economic necessity, is not most powerful in the workers, if this will must first artificially be awakened in them, then is all our struggle in vain.

This does not by any means imply that human volition has no relation to consciousness and is not determined by it. The energy of the will to live, to be sure, does not depend upon our consciousness, but our consciousness does determine the form that it will express itself in in any given case, and the amount of energy that the individual will expend in any given form. We have seen that next to instinct consciousness rules the will and that the way in which it is directed depends upon in what manner and to what degree the consciousness recognizes the conditions of existence. Since the intellect differs with individuals it can react differently upon the same will to live under the same conditions of life. It is this difference that gives the appearance of freedom of the will and makes it look as though the form of the volition of the individual depended, not upon the conditions of life, but upon his own will.

It is not through edifying legends and speculations concerning the freedom of the will, but only through a broader insight into social relations that the proletarian will can be awakened and its energy directed into the channels most effective for the furtherance of proletarian interests.

The will to live is the fact from which we must always take our start – that we must presume to exist. The form which it takes and the intensity with which it expresses itself depend, with each individual, class, nation, etc., upon their knowledge of the actual conditions of life. Wherever two classes arise developing opposing wills, the conditions are presented for conflict.

We have to deal only with this latter situation.

The expression of the will as the spirit of conflict is determined by three things: First, by the stake for which the combatants are striving; second, by their consciousness of strength; third, by their actual strength.

The greater the stake of battle, the stronger the will, the more the fighters will dare, the more eager the sacrifice of every energy to attain that stake. But this holds true only when one is convinced that the forces at his disposal are sufficient to attain the prize. If this necessary self-confidence is lacking, the prize may be ever so alluring, it will still fail to release any volition, but will only arouse desires and longings, and no matter how intense these may be they will give birth to no actual deed, and for all practical purposes are completely useless.

The feeling of strength is again worse than useless when it is not based upon actual knowledge of its own and its opponents’ powers, but depends upon pure illusions. Strength, without a feeling of strength, is dead, and arouses no volition. A feeling of strength without strength can, under certain circumstances, lead to actions that may overwhelm or destroy an opponent, weakening or bending his will. But permanent results are not to be obtained without actual strength. Undertakings that are carried through without actual strength, but whose success depends upon deceiving an opponent as to his real strength, are doomed to failure sooner or later, and the disappointment which they will bring with them will be all the greater in proportion as their first successes were brilliant.

When we apply what has just been said to the class struggle of the proletariat it shows us what must be the nature of the work of those who would fight with and for that class and how the Socialist movement affects it. Our first and greatest task must be to increase the strength of the proletariat. Naturally we cannot increase this by wishing for it. At any definite period of capitalist society the strength of the proletariat is determined by economic conditions and cannot arbitrarily be increased. But the effect of its existing strength can be increased by preventing its waste. The unconscious processes of nature always seem extremely wasteful when looked at from the standpoint of our purposes. Nature, however, has no purposes to serve. The conscious mind of man sets purposes before him, and also shows him the way to attain these purposes without waste of strength, and with the least expenditure of purposeful energy possible.

This holds true also in the class struggle of the proletariat. To be sure, it proceeds in the beginning without the consciousness of the participants. Their conscious volition includes only their closest personal needs. The social transformations that proceed from the effort to satisfy these needs remain hidden from the fighters. As a SOCIAL process, therefore, the class struggle is for a long time an unconscious process. As such, it is laden with all the waste of energy inherent in all unconscious processes. Only through a RECOGNITION of the social process, its tendencies or aims can this waste be ended, the strength of the proletariat concentrated, the workers brought together into great organizations united upon a common aim, with all personalities and momentary actions subordinated to the permanent class interests, and those interests, in turn, placed at the service of the collective social evolution.

In other words, the theory is the factor that raises to the highest degree the strength which it is possible for the proletariat to develop. The theory does this by teaching the workers how to use the powers arising at any given stage of economic development in the most effective manner and by preventing the waste of those powers.

The theory does not simply increase the effective strength of the proletariat; it also increases the consciousness of that strength. This latter is something that is no less necessary.

We have seen that the will is determined, not alone by consciousness, but by customs and instinct. Relations that have been constantly repeated through decades, and indeed through centuries, create customs and instincts that continue to operate after their material basis has disappeared. A class may have become weak that once ruled because of its superior strength, and a class that it exploits may become strong, that at one time was weak and permitted itself to be laden with an exploiting class. But the inherited consciousness of strength may long affect both sides until there comes a test of strength, such, for example, as a war, that exposes the whole weakness of the ruling class. Then the subject class suddenly becomes conscious of its strength and a revolution follows.

The proletariat is affected in this manner by the feeling of its original weakness and a belief in the invincibility of the capitalists.

The capitalist system of production arose in a period during which the mass of the proletariat had been thrown upon the street to a parasitic, socially useless existence. The capitalist who took them into his service was their savior, their “giver of bread”, or, as we say today, “giver of work”, a phrase that does not sound much better. Their will to live drove them to sell themselves. They saw no possibility of existence besides this, and much less any possibility of resisting the capitalist.

But gradually relations changed. From a troublesome beggar, employed out of pity, the proletarian became the working class from which society lives. The personality of the capitalist, on the contrary, became more and more superfluous in the progress of production, something which the corporation and the trust made plainly evident. Because of economic necessity the wage relation became more and more a relation of power, maintained by the power of the state. But the proletariat grew to become the most numerous class in the state, and also in the army, upon which the power of the state rests. In a highly developed industrial state like Germany or England it already possesses the strength to capture the power of the state, and if the economic conditions now existed it could use the power of the state for the substitution of social industry for the present capitalist industry.

But what the proletariat lacks is a consciousness of its own strength. Only a few sections possess this consciousness. For the great mass it is still lacking. The Socialist movement does what it can to develop this consciousness Here again it makes use of theoretical explanations, but not of these alone, More effective for the development of the consciousness of strength than any theory is always the deed. It is by its victories in the struggle against its opponents that the Socialist party most clearly demonstrates the strength of the proletariat and thereby most effectively arouses a feeling of strength, These successes, in turn are due to the circumstance that it is guided by a theory that makes it possible for the most consciously organized portion of the proletariat to utilize its maximum strength at any moment.

Everywhere outside the Anglo-Saxon countries the economic activity of the workers has been directed and assisted from the beginning by the knowledge of Socialism.

Next to these successes it has been the successful battles for parliament and in parliament that has done most to increase the strength and the feeling of strength on the part of the proletariat. Not alone through the material advantages that have been secured for some sections of the proletariat, but most of all through the fact that the propertyless, cowed and hopeless masses of the people saw here a power appear that boldly took up battle against the ruling powers, winning victory after victory, and which was itself nothing but an organization of these propertyless ones.

Therein lies the great significance of the first of May demonstrations, and battle of the ballots, as well as the battle for the ballot. These things often do not bring any important material advantage to the proletariat. Very often the gains are in no way proportionate to the sacrifices made. Nevertheless, every such victory signifies a mighty increase in the effective strength of the proletariat, because they mightily arouse its feeling of strength, and thereby the energy of its volition for the class struggle.

There is nothing that our opponents fear more than this increase in the feeling of strength. They know that the giant is not dangerous to them so long as he is not conscious of his own strength. To keep down this feeling of strength is their greatest care, even material concessions are much less hated by them than moral victories of the working class, which increase its self-confidence. Therefore they often fight much harder to maintain autocratic management of the factory, to maintain the right to “run their own business”, than against increases in wages. This explains the bitter enmity to the celebration of Mayday as a holiday taken by labor, and also explains the efforts to throttle universal and equal suffrage wherever it has become a means of visibly demonstrating to the population the continuous victorious advance of the Socialist party. It is not the fear of a Socialist majority that drives them to such efforts – they need not fear that for many an election.

No, it is the fear that the continual electoral victories of the Socialists will give the proletariat such a feeling of strength, and so overawe its opponents that it will be impossible to prevent the seizure of the powers of the state and the transformation of the relation of powers in the government.

Consequently we must be prepared to see our next great electoral victory followed by an attack on the present suffrage law for the Reichstag elections-by which I do not by any means say that this attack will be successful.

To be sure, our party does not have victories alone to record, but defeats as well. But the discouraging effect of these are lessened just in proportion as we turn our attention from the local and momentary limitations to follow our movement as a whole during the last two generations in all the nations of the world. The continuous and rapid advance of the whole proletariat, in spite of very heavy individual defeat, then becomes so notorious that nothing can destroy our confidence in ultimate victory.

The more, however, we seek to consider our individual battles in their relation to the whole social evolution, the clearer and stronger we keep before us the freeing of the working class, and thereby of all mankind from all class domination as the final object of all our endeavors, the more our minor tasks are ennobled, the more continuously and impressively the will to live on the part of the proletariat expresses itself, the more will the greatness of the battle prize spur that will on to the greatest possible revolutionary passion, that is not the product of a senseless excitement, but of clear and definite knowledge.

These are the methods by which Socialism has aroused the volition of the working class up to the present time and this has produced such marvelous results that there is not the slightest reason why these methods should be exchanged for any other.


Last updated on 25.12.2003