Karl Kautsky

The Capitalist Class

Chapter V

How the Government Gets its Share of the Surplus from the Capitalist Class

Not less greedily than the landlord is the State, the Government, engaged in the work of paring off slices from the surplus of the capitalist. The modern State grew with and through the capitalist class until the point was reached when the former became the most powerful means for the exaltation of the latter. Each has promoted the interests of the other; the capitalist class cannot forego the assistance of the State, as at present constituted; it needs the powerful hand of Government to protect it from internal and external foes.

Weaknesses of the Capitalist System of Production Necessitate “Government”

The capitalist system of exploitation is by no means the product of specific laws. It is, on the contrary, the weaknesses of the system that have brought forth the laws that are to-day in force. These laws do not create the exploitation of the proletariat; they only provide for the smooth running of the system of exploitation, together with all the other processes appertaining to the existing social order. Competition being styled the mainspring of production, law may be designated the lubricating oil, the object of which is to diminish as much as possible the friction between the social antagonisms in the present social mechanism.

For every weakness in the constitution or make-up of the capitalist system, a special function is required of modern Government.

First Weakness: Capitalists Dispute over Profits – Hence the Necessity of Courts

It is a weakness in the capitalist system of production that its mechanism becomes more and more complicated, and the individual capitalists more and more interdependent. The prompt fulfilment by each individual capitalist of the duties that arise from his economic functions is a requisite condition for the fulfilment of their corresponding duties by all the others. Such a delicate social mechanism can suffer less than any of those that preceded it the individual settlement of disputes by the parties concerned or aggrieved. In proportion, therefore, as every single capitalist becomes more and more dependent upon the prompt co-operation of numerous others, the more involved, cumbersome, and complicated grow their conflicting interests. Out of this weakness springs the necessity for an adequate system of laws and of judicature, and of a properly equipped Government, able to keep the individual capitalists to their duties. Hence arises the vast machinery of courts with their extensive appendages, intended to enforce their decrees.

Second Weakness: Capitalist Nations Must Expand Abroad – Hence War Departments

It is a further weakness of the capitalist system of production that it digs the ground from under itself. The more it produces, the larger becomes the number of proletarians, and, consequently, the slighter the general capacity of the people to purchase their own products in the markets of their own country. Thus, capitalism in every capitalist country restricts its own, the home market, at the same rate that it develops in vigor. Failing of a market at home, the capitalist looks abroad, and is pushed beyond his own political limits in search of foreign markets. Foreign commerce plays, accordingly from the start, an important role in capitalist production. In proportion as the latter develops, security abroad and the power to expand over foreign lands become vital questions to the interests of the whole capitalist class in a capitalist nation. In the world’s markets, however, the capitalists of one nation run against those of another as competitors; in order to cope with each other, each set invokes the powers of its own State to enforce its “rights” at the cannon’s mouth, or, what it likes still better, to chase its competitors away. Formerly wars were dynastic, to-day they are essentially commercial, in the last analysis they can now always be traced to the economic conflicts between the capitalists of the belligerent nations. Out of this weakness of the capitalist system of production – the requirement to conquer, and maintain itself in, foreign markets – springs in turn the necessity for extensive armaments by land and by sea. Hence “War Departments” in government, with navies and land forces, whose size grows from year to year, with an ever increasing and expensive personnel of officers – an idle, unproductive class, that cultivates the “art of war” and must be supported from the surplus of the capitalists.

Third Weakness: Antagonisms Between Exploiters and Exploited – Hence Courts, Police, and Militia to Keep the Working Class Down

A further weakness of the capitalist system of production consists in the antagonisms it generates between exploiters and exploited, between property-holders and proletarians. This weakness the capitalist system shares with all of those that have preceded it, all of them being based upon human exploitation; but it intensifies the ill, and reproduces it in an aggravated form. The more the capitalist system develops, the greater becomes the friction, and the sharper the antagonisms, between these two leading and now only remaining classes – capitalist and proletariat – and the larger, more powerful, becomes the proletariat. Increasing numbers, increasing uncertainty of livelihood, increasing want and dependence, all of these causes combined conspire to make the proletariat more and more redoubtable to the capitalist class. Out of this weakness or this danger springs the third function of the capitalist State, the function of keeping the working class down. This specific function is filled by extending those previously mentioned. Hence the necessity of a still larger system of Courts, with a still larger and more specialized system of repressive forces-constables, police, official Pinkertons, militias, etc., etc.

Fourth Weakness: Creation of Crime – Hence Jails, Penitentiaries, and Reformatories.

Lastly, it is one of the conspicuous weaknesses of the capitalist system of production that it generates a special worthless, disgraceful, criminal class – the slums. As capitalism grows, the ground is narrowed upon which people can stand. The uncertainty and dependence of the masses become fatal to character; the weakest of the population, morally, sink swiftly below the class of the proletariat, they fall into the slums and become a part of that sink of moral putrefaction. The slums are recruited both from the capitalist and the proletariat classes, with numberless additions from the middle class. The steady increase of the capital necessary for production ruins the capitalists whose property is not sufficient to carry on the competitive struggle; it crushes out the members of the middle class; and it plays havoc among the proletarians. Fraudulent practices, crime in some form or another, from the lightest to the blackest, become the methods that the most unfortunate, the weakest, or the worst disposed of these resort to. Out of this weakness of the capitalist system springs, in all capitalist countries, the necessity for that extensive branch of government – the penitentiary, with its numberless appendages of jails, “houses of correction,” “reformatories,” etc.

These four functions and duties of the capitalist State, which correspond to the four leading and general weaknesses of the capitalist system, cause heavy outlays, and they reduce heavily the capitalist surplus.

In capitalist republics, there is still a fifth source through which the capitalist class is plundered of a goodly portion of its surplus by its own State. This arises from the concerted action of the slums and their extensive ramifications upon the political field. Universal, at least, manhood suffrage, places in the hands of the slums a weapon that they often use with unerring certainty, and by means of which they not infrequently put their own representatives into government offices. These representatives of the slums in governments act like a tap upon the capitalist class; they tap it of hoods of wealth that are poured straight into the hands of the slums, thereby rendering them still more worthless, vicious, and criminal. Of all republics, our own furnishes the most frequent and striking illustrations of this phenomenon. The slums have their representatives in all our legislative bodies and fill many an executive chair. Of the many instances of this fact, the most conspicuous is presented by the city of New York, where Tammany Hall, the organized crime of the city, i.e., the slums, holds sway and is a thorn in the side of the local capitalists.

Thus, in all these several ways the State, or the Government, reduces the profits or surplus of the capitalist; as the capitalist system develops, the causes that lead to that result are intensified; despite all capitalist manoeuvres to stem them, the inroads increase upon the surplus which labor produces and which capital grabs.


Last updated on 25.12.2003