Karl Kautsky

The Road to Power

Chapter V
Neither Revolution Nor Legality “At Any Price”

On the one side we Marxists are accused of having excluded the will from politics and of having thereby reduced politics to an automatic process. On the other side, these same critics assert the exact reverse. They allege that our desires far exceed our knowledge of reality. They claim that the facts should teach us the impossibility of any revolution, but that we cling to the idea of revolution out of pure sentimental fanaticism until we are drunk with it. They allege that we are seeking a political revolution at any price, even though we might progress faster on the existing legal basis.

(Kautsky here introduces an argument and quotations to show that Frederick Engels did not disavow the revolutionary position, as has been sometimes claimed. This matter deals so largely with German local politics as to be of little interest to English readers.)

I discussed this question of the revolution in the Neue Zeit in December, 1893, and I will simply reproduce a portion of what was said there.

We are revolutionists, and this not simply in the sense that the steam engine is a revolutionist. The social transformation for which we are striving can be attained only through a political revolution, by means of the conquest of political power by the fighting proletariat. The only form of the state in which Socialism can be realized is that of a republic, and a thoroughly democratic republic at that.

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come. We know that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat cannot end until the latter is in full possession of the political powers and has used them to introduce the Socialist society. We know that this class struggle must grow both extensively and intensively. We know that the proletariat must continue to grow in numbers and to gain in moral and economic strength, and that therefore its victory and the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable. But we can have only the vaguest conjectures as to when and how the last decisive blows in the social war will be struck. All this is nothing new ...

Since we know nothing concerning the decisive battles of the social war, we are manifestly unable to say whether they will be bloody or not, whether physical force will play a decisive part, or whether they will be fought exclusively by means of economic, legislative and moral pressure.

We are, however, quite safe in saying that in all probability the revolutionary battles of the proletariat will see a much greater predominance of these latter method over physical, which means military force, than was the case in the revolutionary battles of the bourgeoisie.

The one reason why the battles of the coming revolution will be less frequently fought out by military methods is to be found in the fact, which has been often pointed out, of the colossal superiority of the weapons of the present standing armies, as compared with the weapons in the possession of civilians, and which makes any resistance of the latter practically doomed to failure from the beginning.

On the other hand the revolutionary sections of today have better weapons for economic, political and moral resistance than was at the disposal of the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century. Russia is the only exception to this rule.

Freedom of organization and of the press and universal suffrage (under certain circumstances universal military duty) not only place weapons in the hands of the proletariat of modern nations which give them an advantage over the classes which fought the revolutionary battles of the bourgeoisie; these institutions shed a light upon the relative strength of the various parties and classes and upon the spirit that animates them, and this light was wholly lacking under absolutism.

At that time the ruling classes as well as the revolutionary ones were groping about in the dark. Since every expression of opposition was rendered impossible neither the government nor the revolutionists could gain any idea of their strength. Each party was in danger of overestimating its strength so long as it had not measured it against an opponent. It was, on the other hand, inclined to underestimate it as soon as it suffered the slightest defeat.

This is one of the principal reasons why, during the bourgeoisie revolutions, so many uprisings were suppressed with a single blow, and why so many governments were overthrown at a single stroke, and why revolution was so generally followed by a counter revolution. It is wholly different today in those countries having any democratic institutions, Such institutions have been called social safety valves. If this expression is intended. to mean that in a democracy the proletariat ceases to be revolutionary, and that it is satisfied with a public expression of its anger and its sufferings, and that it renounces the political and social revolution, then the expression is false. Democracy cannot do away with the class antagonisms of capitalist society. Neither can it avoid the final outcome of these antagonisms – the overthrow of present society. One thing it can do. It cannot abolish the revolution, but it can avert many premature, hopeless revolutionary attempts, and render superfluous many revolutionary uprisings. It creates clearness regarding the relative strength of the different parties and classes. It does not abolish their antagonisms, nor postpone their ultimate object, but it does operate to hinder the rising class from sometimes attempting the accomplishment of tasks of which it is not yet capable, and to keep the governing class from refusing concessions that it no longer possesses the strength to maintain. The direction of development is not thereby changed, but its course becomes steadier and more peaceful.

The advance of the proletariat in those nations with some democratic institutions is not marked by such striking victories as those of the bourgeoisie during its time of revolution; but it also lacks the great defeats. Since the appearance of the modern Socialist labor movement in the ’60s, the European proletariat has met with but one great defeat – that of the Commune of 1871. At that time France was suffering from the victories of the German empire, that had withheld democratic institutions from its people, while the French proletariat had attained to but the dawn of class consciousness and was forced into the uprising.

The democratic-proletarian method of battle may appear more monotonous than the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie; it is certainly less dramatic and striking, but it calls for far fewer sacrifices. This may be somewhat disappointing to those smart literary persons who come to Socialism as an interesting sport, looking for interesting stuff, but not to those who actually have to do the fighting. [1]

These so-called peaceful methods of conducting the class struggle, which are confined to non-military measures (parliamentarism, strikes, demonstrations, the press and similar methods of bringing pressure to bear) stand a chance of being maintained in any country the more democratic the institutions, and the greater the political and economic insight and the self control of the people.

Of two opponents confronted with the same conditions, that one is most likely to retain his cool-headedness who feels himself superior to the other. On the contrary, the person who does not have faith in his own ability quickly becomes excited and loses his self-control.

In all civilized countries it is the proletariat above all other classes that has the greatest faith in itself and its cause. It is not necessary for it to cultivate any illusions for this purpose. It need only study the history of the last generation, to see how it has moved forward everywhere uninterruptedly. It has only to trace the course of evolution in present-society to be convinced that its victory is inevitable. It is not, therefore, to be expected that in those countries where it is most highly developed, the proletariat will easily lose its head and its self-control and enter upon any adventurous policy. And the danger of this is lessened just in proportion to the simultaneous height of culture, the insight of the working class and the democratic development of the state.

On the other hand, the same assurance cannot be offered in regard to the ruling class. It sees and feels that it is growing weaker from day to day and is accordingly more and more nervous and uneasy, and consequently uncertain. It is more and more approaching a state of mind where it is evident that it is liable to be seized with a fit of desperate rage that will lead it to throw itself furiously upon its opponent, in a desperate hope of gaining a victory regardless of the wounds it may inflict upon the whole social body, and also of the irreparable destruction it may produce.

The political situation of the proletariat is such that it can well afford to try as long as possible to progress through strictly “legal” methods alone. The danger that these efforts to progress peacefully will be thwarted lies principally in just this nervous attitude of the ruling class.

The statesmen of the ruling class desire above everything else the commission of some insane act that would arouse, not only the ruling class itself, but the whole great indifferent mass of the population against the Socialists, and they desire this before the Socialists shall have become too powerful to be defeated. Such an occurrence offers the only possible hope of putting off the victory of the working class for at least a number of years. To be sure, they are staking everything on this game. If it is not successful and the proletariat is not overthrown in the act of rage that follows, then the collapse of the capitalist class will but be hastened, and the triumph of Socialism be brought so much nearer. Put the politicians of the ruling class have reached a condition where they are ready to risk everything upon a single throw of the dice. They would rather take their chances in a civil war than endure the fear of a revolution.

The Socialists, on the other hand, not only have no reason to follow suit in this policy of desperation, but should much rather seek by every means in their power to postpone any such insane uprising, even if it is recognized as inevitable, to a time when the proletariat shall be so powerful as to be able to at once whip the enraged mob and to restrain it so that the one paroxysm shall be its last, and the destruction that it brings and the sacrifice it costs shall be as small as possible.

The Socialists must, therefore, avoid, and indeed actively oppose, any purposeless provocation of the ruling class that might give their statesmen an opportunity to rouse a mad rage against the Socialists. When we declare that revolutions cannot be made, and when we maintain that it is foolish, and indeed pernicious to incite to revolution, and when we act in accordance with these statements, we do not do this in the interest of the capitalist politicians, but of the fighting proletariat. These same tactics have been followed by the Socialist parties of all countries. Because of this fact the ruling class politicians have not, as yet, been able to accomplish what they have desired.

Although the political influence of the Socialists is as yet comparatively small, still it is, in most modern states, too great for the capitalist politicians to do with it as they desire. Petty measures and punishments do not help them; they merely embitter those against whom they are directed, without either frightening them or diminishing their combativeness. Every attempt to carry out such unfair measures for the purpose of disarming the proletariat, carries with it the danger of civil war, which, whatever its final outcome might be, is sure to bring terrible devastation. Everyone with even a little foresight knows this.

However anxious capitalist politicians may be to drive the Socialists to a test of strength, which they are not yet, perhaps, strong enough to meet, the capitalist business men have no desire to enter upon an experiment that may easily ruin any one of them. They certainly will not invite anything of the kind so long as they retain their judgment and are not carried away by any attack of insane rage such as has already been discussed.

The interest of the proletariat today more than ever before demands that everything should be avoided that would tend to provoke the ruling class to a purposeless policy of violence. The Socialist party governs itself in accord with this position.

There is, however, a faction that calls itself proletarian and social revolutionary which takes as its most favored task, next to fighting the Socialist party, the provoking of a policy of violence. The very thing that the statesmen of the ruling class desire, and which is alone capable of checking the victorious progress of the proletariat, is made the principal business of this faction, thereby gaining them the special favor of Puttkamer and his followers. The adherents of this faction do not seek to WEAKEN but to ENRAGE the capitalist.

The overthrow of the Paris Commune was, as has already been noted, the last great defeat of the proletariat. Since that time it has, in most countries, marched steadily forward. This has been due to the acceptance of the tactics just described, and if the progress has sometimes been slower than we might desire, it has been more certain than that of any previous revolutionary movement.

There have been but few instances since 1871 where the proletarian movement has suffered any setback, and in every instance these have been due to the interference by individuals with methods that we have come to designate as “anarchistic”, since they correspond to the tactics preached by the great majority of present-day anarchists as the “propaganda of the deed”.

Concerning the evils inflicted by the anarchists in the “International” and by the uprising in Spain in 1873 we can only make a passing reference. Five years after these uprisings came the incident of the popular rage excited by the attacks of Hodel and Nobiling, without which Bismarck would scarcely have been able to carry his anti-Socialist laws. It certainly could not have been so rigorously administered as it was during the first years of its existence, and the German proletariat would have been spared some terrible sacrifices, and its victorious progress would not have been checked even for a moment.

The next setback suffered by the labor movement was in Austria in 1884 as a result of the knavery and bestiality of Kammerer, Stellmacher, and their followers. The mightily growing Socialist movement there was over thrown at a single stroke without being able to offer a trace of resistance, crushed, not by the authorities, but by the general rage of the people, who charged the Socialists with the acts of the so-called anarchists.

Another setback came in America in 1886. The labor movement had been growing rapidly, and had attained great power. It had been progressing with such giant strides that many observers thought it possible that within a short time it would pass the European movement and stand on the apex of the labor movement of the world. In the spring of 1886 the unions made a tremendous concerted effort to secure the eight hour day. The labor organizations grew to colossal size. Strike followed strike. The most hopeful expectations ruled, and the Socialists, always the foremost and most active, began to attain to the leadership of the movement.

Then at one of the numerous clashes between the laborers and the police came the well known Chicago bomb affair of May 4. No one knows, even today, who was the real author of this affair. The anarchists who were hung upon the 11th of November and their associates, who were condemned to long terns of imprisonment, were the sacrifices of a judicial murder. But the deed had corresponded to the tactics so long preached by the anarchists. It released the rage of the entire bourgeoisie of America, confused the laborers and discredited the Socialists, whom the people did not know how to distinguish from the anarchists, and whom they often did not wish to distinguish.

The struggle for the eight hour day ended with the defeat of the workers. The labor movement collapsed and the Socialist movement sank into insignificance. Not until within recent years has it once more slowly arisen in the United States.

The only great injuries suffered by the labor movement during the last twenty years have come as a result of acts for which the anarchists were directly responsible, or else which were in accord with the tactics they preach. The anti-Socialist laws of Germany, the exceptional conditions in Austria, the judicial murder in Chicago, with its results, all were thereby made possible.

The possibility that anarchy will again gain a hold upon the masses, is today much less than ever before.

The two great causes which made the. people receptive to anarchy were lack of insight and hopelessness, and especially the apparent impossibility of securing the slightest improvement by means of political action.

During the first half of the ‘80s, during the time when the laborers of Austria and the United States were captured by anarchistic phrases, both countries showed a most remarkable growth in the labor movement – but which was also almost entirely without leaders. The battalions of labor were formed almost entirely from undrilled recruits, without knowledge, without experience and without officers. And out of this condition arose the apparent impossibility of overthrowing the political domination of capital by political methods. The laborers of Austria did not possess the suffrage and had little hopes of obtaining it through legal methods in any conceivable time. In America the laborers were disheartened by the political corruption.

Even in other countries beside these two there was a pessimistic wave during the ’80s. Since then things have changed everywhere for the better. In Austria there was still another condition favoring the rise of anarchy – faith in the Socialists had been almost destroyed among the masses. When the political and economic weapons – the organization and the press – of the German proletariat were destroyed by the anti-Socialist laws, the just arising anarchists in Austria took advantage of this situation to accuse the party which had thus been rendered momentarily dumb, of having thrown away its weapons and renounced its revolutionary principles. The Austrian Socialists who defended their German comrades not only failed to rehabilitate the latter in the eyes of the majority of the Austrian laborers, but only succeeded in discrediting themselves. A government official, Count Lamezan, gave his assistance to the anarchists, who were naturally very much beloved by him, and sneeringly declared that the Socialists were only “revolutionists in dressing gowns”.

Even today the anarchists devote most of their activities to showing that the Socialists are only “revolutionists in dressing gowns”.

Up to the present time they have had little success. But if it should ever be possible for an anarchist movement to gain a foothold in Germany, it would not be because of the agitation of the “independents,” but either through such action of the ruling class as would destroy all hope among the laborers and inspire them with an attitude of extreme prejudice, or else through events among ourselves which would arouse the idea that we had relinquished our revolutionary attitude. The more “moderate” we become, therefore, the more water we supply to the mills of the anarchists, and thus give aid to just the movement that would substitute the most brutal forms of battle for the civilized forms of struggle. We may say that there is today one force that would cause the workers to turn of their own accord from the “peaceable” methods of struggles that we have just been considering – the loss of faith in the revolutionary character of our party. We can endanger the course of peaceful evolution only by too great peacefulness.

We do not need to state here what misfortunes will follow any wavering in our policy.

The opposition of the possessing classes will not thereby be diminished, and no trustworthy friends will be won thereby. It would, however, introduce confusion into our own ranks, render the indifferent more indifferent still and drive away the energetic.

The greatest force making for our success is the revolutionary enthusiasm. We will need this more in the future than ever before, for the greatest difficulties are before, not behind us. So much the worse for all these things that tend to weaken this power.

The present situation brings the danger that we will appear more “moderate” than we really are. The stronger we become the more practical tasks are forced into the foreground, the more we must extend our agitation beyond the circle of the industrial wage worker, and just so much the more we are compelled to guard against any useless provocation or any absolutely empty threats. It is very difficult to maintain the proper balance, to give the present its full due without losing sight of the future, to enter into the mental attitude of the farmers and the small capitalists without giving up the proletarian standpoint, to avoid all possible provocation and yet always maintain the consciousness that we are a fighting party, conducting an irreconcilable war upon all existing social institutions.

The above paragraphs were written in 1893. They also contain a prophecy that has since been fulfilled. What I feared in 1893 appeared a few years later. In France a portion of our party membership became temporarily a government party. The masses received the impression that the Socialists had renounced their revolutionary principles. They lost faith in the party. Not a small section of them fell under the influence of the latest variety of anarchism – syndicalism – which, like the old anarchism, follows the propaganda of the deed not so much to strengthen the proletariat as unnecessarily to frighten the bourgeoisie, to arouse its rage and provoke immature, inopportune tests of strength, to which the proletariat is not adequate in the existing conditions.

It is just the revolutionary Marxists among French Socialists who have presented the most determined opposition to this tendency. They fight syndicalism as energetically as ministerialism, and consider one just as injurious as the other.

The revolutionary Marxists are still standing today upon the standpoint developed by Engels and myself in the articles just quoted, written in 1892-1895.

We are neither men of legality at any price, nor are we revolutionists at any price. We know that we cannot create historical situations to suit our desires, and that our tactics must correspond to such situations.

At the beginning of the ’90s I had recognized that further peaceful development of the proletarian organizations and the proletarian class struggle, upon the then existing governmental foundations, would best advance the proletariat in the situation existing at that time. Neither can I be accused of being drunk with r-r-revolution and r-r-radicalism when my observation of the present situation leads me to the conclusion that the situation which existed at the beginning of the ’90s has fundamentally changed, and that today we have every reason to believe that we are entering upon a period of fighting for governmental institutions and governmental power; that these battles under manifold conditions and changes of fortune may continue for a decade, and that the form and duration of these battles cannot now be foretold, but which it is highly probable will within a comparatively short time bring about important changes in relative power in favor of the proletariat, if they do not bring its complete domination in Western Europe. The reasons for these views will be indicated in the following chapters.



1. “Capitalist revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, rush swiftly on from victory to victory, their dramatic effects pile climax upon climax, men and things appear in most glowing brilliancy, ecstasy becomes the every-day spirit but they are short lived, they soon reach their apex and there is a long ‘morning after’ (Katzenjammer), for society, before the results of the storm and stress period are deliberately appropriated. Proletarian revolutions, on the contrary, are constantly criticizing themselves, etc.” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire) In the comparison which he made in 1852, between the capitalist and proletarian revolution, Marx naturally did not take into consideration the influence of democratic institutions.


Last updated on 25.12.2003