Karl Kautsky

The Road to Power

Chapter VII
The Softening Of Class Antagonisms

We have seen how Engels in 1885 called attention to the fact that since the French Revolution, with its after effects, which continued from 1789 to 1815, revolution had come in Europe in periods of about fifteen years – in 1815, 1830, 1848-52, 1870-71, From this Engels concluded that the next revolution was due about the close of the ’80s or the beginning of the ’90s. There actually was a great political transformation about this time, culminating in the overthrow of the Bismarckian regime and a revival of democratic and social-reform efforts throughout all Europe. But this uprising was insignificant and short lived, and since then almost two decades have passed without any actual revolution taking place – at least in Europe proper.

Why is this? How are we to account for the continuous unrest in Europe from 1789 to 1871, and for the continuous stability in political conditions since, which has now culminated in complete political stagnation.

During the whole of the first half of the nineteenth century large sections of the population, of greatest importance in the economic and intellectual life, were completely excluded from the government, which, as the agent of the nobility and the priesthood, was in sharp opposition to them, partly through misunderstanding and partly through direct antagonism. In Germany and Italy economic growth was prevented by the multitude of little states. The period from 1846 to 1870 greatly changed this situation. During this time industrial capital gained a victory over landed property, first in England, where the corn laws were abolished in 1846 and free trade introduced. Elsewhere, as in Germany and Austria, industrial capital at least obtained an equal position alongside of the landed interests. The intellectuals secured freedom of press and movement. The small capitalists and farmers obtained the suffrage. The national unity of Germany and Italy satisfied a long-felt and urgent longing of these nations. To be sure, this was brought about after the collapse of the revolution of 1848, not by internal movements, but by external wars. The Crimean War of 1854-56 overthrew serfdom in Russia and compelled consideration of the industrial bourgeoisie by the government of the Czar, 1859, 1866, and 1870 saw the completion of Italian unity, and 1866 and 1870 saw the same thing accomplished in an imperfect form in Germany. A liberal era was begun in Austria in 1866, and in Germany also the introduction of universal suffrage paved the way to a certain freedom of the press and of organization. The year 1870 completed this tendency and brought France a democratic republic. In England an electoral reform was carried through in 1867 granting the suffrage to the upper circles of the working class and such of the small capitalists as had not obtained it previously.

These steps gave all the classes in European nations, with the exception of the proletariat, a legal foundation upon which to base their existence. They had obtained, even if in a somewhat incomplete form, the things for which they had been striving since the great Revolution. While all their wishes were not fulfilled, and could not be fulfilled, since the interests of various divisions of the possessing class are frequently antagonistic, yet those who felt their rights abridged did not feel strong enough to fight for complete control of the state, and the things they lacked were not important enough to make them willing to take the risk of a revolution.

There remains but one revolutionary class in present European society, the PROLETARIAT, and, above all, the city proletariat. In it the revolutionary impulse still lives.

Although the carrying out of these transformations fundamentally altered the political situation, expectations were still widely cherished that were based upon the experiences of the years from 1789 to 1871. Reasoning upon the experiences of centuries, the conclusion was drawn that there would soon be another revolution. To be sure, it was not a purely proletarian revolution that was expected, but a combination of a small bourgeois and proletarian revolution, but in which the proletariat, in accordance with its increased importance, would take the lead. This was the expectation, not alone of a few “dogma-believing Marxists,” but of practical politicians who were wholly untouched by Marxism – such, for instance, as Bismarck. When, in 1878, he considered it necessary to call for special legislation against the Socialists, although they had at that time not drawn to themselves a half million votes, which was less than ten per cent of the number of voters and less than six per cent of the total number of those entitled to vote, and if he was even then considering the desperate remedy of trying to provoke the Socialists to street fighting before they became irresistible, such views can be explained only on the theory that he thought the proletarian-little bourgeois revolution at the very door.

And, in fact, there was a series of events that favored this view, and this wholly aside from the remembrance of the events of the previous century.

During the ’70s an economic crisis broke over Europe, more lasting and extensive than had ever been known ; it continued until the second half of the ’80s. The misery in proletarian and small capitalist circles and the discouragement in capitalist circles called forth by this crisis were aggravated still further by the simultaneous sharpening of competition in the means of life from America and Russia, which apparently promised to end all agricultural production in Western Europe.

The universal misery of farmers, artisans and proletarians, the dwindling confidence of the bourgeoisie, the brutal suppression of Socialist efforts – since 1871 in France, and no less in Germany and Austria since 1878 – all this appeared to indicate the early approach of a catastrophe.

But the governmental institutions that had been created between 1848 and 1871 corresponded too closely to the necessities of the great mass of the population for them to collapse at this time. On the contrary, the more threatening the danger of revolution appeared, which could be only of a proletarian, anti-capitalist character, the closer the wealthy classes clung to the government.

The small capitalists and farmers, moreover, found the newly acquired political rights, and especially the ballot, very effective means for influencing the government, and of obtaining all sorts of material concessions from it. They were all the more willing to purchase help from the government by political services, the more unbearable their previous allies in political struggles became.

So it was that the widespread discontent which arose from economic depression and political oppression produced only insignificant revolutions. The most important results of these, as has already been remarked, were the overthrow of Bismarck in 1890 and, in the course of a rather violent transformation of the French constitution, the appearance of Boulangerism in France in 1889. With these even the appearance of revolutionary situations disappeared.

Just about the time of these political transformations the long industrial depression ceased, A period of most active economic improvement began, which, with few interruptions, has continued up until within recent years. The capitalists and their intellectual retainers, professors, journalists and the like, took new courage, The hand workers shared in the improvement, and even agriculture once more enjoyed a revival. It found an expanding market in the swiftly growing industrial population, especially for such products as meat or milk, which were little affected by foreign competition. It was not the agrarian tariffs that rescued European agriculture, for even free trade countries like England, Holland, Denmark shared in the rise, but it was rather the rapid upward movement of industry which came at the end of the ’80s.

This upward movement was, in turn, itself a result of the rapid extension of the world market, the same extension that had sent the stream of food stuffs pouring into Europe from distant countries, and had thereby produced the agricultural crisis. This growth of the world market was due especially to the great development of railroad construction outside Western Europe. Following is the length of the railroads in kilometers [1]:





1880-1906 %
















On the other hand the following six countries show a remarkable increase:





1880-1906 %






British India

























One sees how much greater has been the building of railroads in the new region where capitalism has been growing than in older countries since 1880, and especially since 1890.

At the same time the means of ocean transportation have grown with leaps and bounds. The carrying weight of ocean steamers is in tons:






German Empire





Great Britain





Norway and Sweden












United States










These figures reflect the tremendous extension of the world market during the past two decades, which made possible the absorption during this period of an increased mass of goods. As a result of this fact the attention of all industrial countries was fixed upon this world market, and, naturally, as a result, upon colonial politics, as a means of extending the foreign market. To be sure, the acquisition of new and distant markets has done very little to extend the foreign market since the ‘80s. The later colonial politics of this period have been directed almost exclusively toward Africa, where alone there still remains a large extent of what the European powers call “free” land – that is, land that is not possessed by any powerful nation.

It is only necessary to refer to the foregoing table showing the progress of railroad construction to recognize how little Africa has been touched by this extension. To be sure, the length of its railroads during the years from 1880 to 1906 has grown from 4,600 to 28,000 kilometers, but what does this signify beside the growth in Asia during the same period from 16,000 to 88,000 and for America of from 171,000 to 473,000.Even in Africa itself the lion’s share of the railway building was not in the new colonies that have been established since the ’80s, but is the old colonies and independent states, as is shown by the following table:

Length of railroads in kilometers















Cape Colony











Orange State



Remainder of Africa








Only 7,000 kilometers, one-fourth of the railroad mileage of Africa, less than even one per cent of the railroads of the earth, was constructed in those districts which, to be sure not all but in large part, have been acquired through the recent colonial politics of the great European powers. It is evident how little this colonial policy has had to do with the extension of the world market which has taken place during the last twenty years, or with the revival of production.

But this revival is very plainly connected with the opening of foreign markets, which has taken place simultaneously with the development of modern colonial policy since the ‘80s. Consequently the mass of the bourgeoisie connect the colonial policy with the improvement in economic conditions. The result is that anew ideal has arisen for the bourgeoisie of the great European powers. During the ‘90s this ideal began to be placed in opposition to Socialism, the same Socialism that had captured so many of the thinkers of this same bourgeoisie a decade before. This ideal was the linking together of transoceanic territory with the European government the so-called IMPERIALISM.

The imperialism of one great nation, however, implies a policy of conquest, and implies enmity toward the other great powers which have entered upon the same policy of conquest in the same transoceanic fields. Such a policy cannot be carried out without great military preparations, without great standing armies, without fleets, that shall be in a condition to carry on battles in distant oceans.

Until the ‘60s the capitalist class was generally hostile to militarism, because it was hostile to the government. It hated the standing army that cost such vast sums of money and was the strongest support of a government that was hostile to it. The capitalist democracy looked upon the standing army as superfluous, since it confined its endeavors to national boundaries, and had no wish for wars of conquest.

Since the ‘70s the sympathy of the capitalist class for standing armies has steadily increased, and this not alone in Germany and France, where the war of 1870 had made the army popular – in Germany as the bringer of brilliant victories, in prance as a means of avoiding such desolation as that war had brought. In other countries also there began to be enthusiasm for the standing army, as much as a means of repressing the internal enemy as of repulsing external foes. The possessing class became friendly to the army in just the degree that they became friendly to the government. However much they might be divided by antagonistic interests, all joined hands in the willingness to sacrifice for the warlike preparations. Here the radical democrats and the conservative defenders of feudal privileges joined hands. The proletariat, the Socialist, presented the only opposition.

So it was that the government was extraordinarily strengthened during the last decade, and the possibility of its overthrow, of a revolution, appeared to disappear into the infinite.

The fundamental opposition – not to be confused with the opposition of the “ins” and “outs” of the office holders and seekers-was more and more confined to the proletariat. Many sections, even of the proletariat, lost their revolutionary impulse, after the last political upheaval of 1890.

This upheaval abolished the worst expressions of the political repression of the proletariat in Germany and Austria. Somewhat earlier in France the last remnants of the era of persecution after the uprising of the Commune had disappeared.

To be sure, social reform and labor legislation have not gotten on. These belong rather to the period when industrial capitalism had developed to the point where its destructive effect upon the public health had become so evident as to imperatively demand redress, where industrial capital did not absolutely and entirely rule in state and society, where the little capitalists, land holders and a portion of the intellectuals still stood in sharp antagonism to it, and where also the opinion prevailed that it was still possible to keep the proletariat, that had just begun to become a power, satisfied with a little labor legislation. This was the condition in England during the ‘40s of the previous century. The most significant measure of all its labor legislation, the ten-hour day for laboring women, became a law in 1847.

Continental Europe lingered far behind. It was not until 1877 that the Swiss enacted a federal factory law fixing a maximum day of eleven hours for men and women. Austria provided for a similar maximum labor day in 1885. The period of upheavals that followed the overthrow of Bismarck brought a few small advances in Germany and France. In 1891 the new German law on industry came, which fixed a maximum eleven hour work day for women, who had hitherto been entirely unprotected. In 1892 this same provision was introduced into France.

That was all! Since then no progress has been made worth speaking about. After seventeen years we at last obtained a ten-hour work day for women in Germany. The male workers remain, as always, wholly unprotected.

In the field of labor legislationãand also in every field of social reform, complete stagnation reigns. But the economic improvement which came since the end of the ‘80s brought to a number of sections of the working class the possibility, thank,, to the increasing demand for labor power, of improving their condition through the “direct action” of the unions without the help of legislation.

This increasing demand was well marked by the decrease in the emigration from the German empire.

The number of emigrants from Germany has been as follows:













This sudden increase in the demand for labor power created a relatively favorable position for a considerable number of sections of the laborers in their opposition to capital. The unions, which, during the first two decades of the new era beginning in 1870, because of the economic depression and the political oppression in Germany, France and Austria, had developed but slowly, now grew rapidly. This was especially true in Germany, where the economic development was most rapid. The English trade unions, the old champions of the working class, were caught up with and, indeed, passed. Considerable improvements in wages, hours of labor and other conditions of employment were obtained.

In Austria, for example, the membership of the unions grew in the period from 1892 to 1896 from :46,606 to 448,230. During the period from 1893 to 1907 the German unions affiliated with the Central organization increased front 223,530 to 7,865,506.The English trade unions, on the contrary, during the period from 1892 to 1906 only grew from 1,500,000 to 2,106,283. They added but 600,000 members to the German 7,600,000.

But it was not alone in rapidity of growth that German unions exceeded the English ones during this period. They presented a higher form of the economic movement. The English unions were purely a national development, the children of practice alone. The German unions were founded and led by the Socialists, who were guided by the fruitful theory of Marxism. Thanks to this fact, the German trade unions were able, from the beginning, to adopt a much more effective form. In place of the local and occupational divisions of the English unions they substituted the great centralized industrial organizations. They were able thereby largely to avoid jurisdictional disputes, as well as the guild-like ossification and aristocratic exclusiveness of the English unions. Far more than the English, the German unionists feel themselves the representatives of the whole proletariat and not simply of the organized membership of their own trade. The English unionists are but slowly overcoming these difficulties. The leadership in the international trade union world is falling more and more to the German unions, thanks to the fact that from the beginning they have been consciously or unconsciously more influenced by the Marxian teachings than their English comrades.

This brilliant development of the German unions made all the deeper impression upon the great mass of the proletariat in proportion as the course of social reform in parliament was checked, and the smaller the practical results attained by the working class during this period through political methods.

The unions, and along with them the co-operatives, appeared to have the mission, without any political disturbance, simply by utilizing the existing legal foundations, of continually raising the working class, of narrowing the field of capital, and of substituting the “constitutional factory” for capitalist absolutism, and through these transitional stages to gradually, without any sudden break or catastrophe, attain to “industrial democracy.”

But while the class antagonisms are apparently steadily softening, elements are already appearing that tend once more to sharpen them.



1. A mile equals 1,760 yards; a kilometer equals slightly over 1,093 yards.


Last updated on 25.12.2003