Karl Kautsky

The Capitalist Class

Chapter IX
Chronic Overproduction

Along with the periodical crises and their permanent manifestations, along with the recurring periods of overproduction and their accompaniments of loss of wealth and waste of force, overproduction increases steadily, becomes chronic, and human forces permanently go to waste.

Relation of Increased Productivity of Labor to Overproduction

The revolution in the machinery of production goes on uninterrupted; the fields that it invades are ever more numerous; year after year, new branches of industry, new fields, are conquered by capitalist large production; and, consequently, the productivity of labor grows incessantly, and at an ever-increasing rate. Simultaneously with this, the accumulation of new capital proceeds without interruption. The intenser the exploitation of the single laborer and the larger the number of exploited toilers, the larger also grows the quantity of the surplus and the mass of wealth that the capitalist class can lay by and apply as capital. It is, consequently, not given to the capitalist system to remain stationary; its constant expansion and the constant expansion of its market are matters or life and death to it; for it to stand still is to die. While formerly, in the days of handicraft and of the small farmers’ system, the country produced year in year out a quantity of wealth which, as a rule, increased only with the increase of population, the capitalist system, on the contrary, is from the start predicated upon an incessant increase of production; every stoppage denotes a social distemper that is all the more painful and unbearable in proportion to its length. Together with the periodical incentives to increase production, brought on by the periodical extensions of the markets, there is a permanent pressure upon production to stretch itself out. This pressure is inherent in the capitalist system of production itself, and instead of being brought on by the extension of the markets, compels the latter to be pushed ever further.

Relation of Commercial and Territorial Expansion to Overproduction

But there is a limit to this extension of the markets. During the last twenty years it has not been accompanied with the favorable results of former times; true enough, the markets are extended ever more; but while, on the one hand, the tendency of production is to increase at an ever quicker, on the other hand, the extension of the markets is accomplished at an ever slower pace.

True enough, again, the field over which capitalist production can extend itself is immense; it leaps over all local and national boundaries; it has the whole globe for its potential market. But capitalism has virtually reduced the size of the globe. Only a hundred years ago, the market for capitalist industry was comparatively limited and was almost wholly monopolized by England. But such was the activity and vigor of the capitalists, their aiders and abettors, and so gigantic were the means at their disposal, that since then almost all countries on earth have been forced open, not by the products of England alone, but by those of all capitalist nations, so that to-day there are hardly any other markets left to be opened, except such from which there is little else to be fetched besides fevers and blows.

The wonderful development of transportation renders from year to year a completer exploitation of the market possible; but this tendency is counteracted by the circumstance that the market steadily undergoes a change in those very countries whose population has reached a certain degree of civilization. Everywhere the introduction of the goods or capitalist large production extinguishes the domestic system or small production, and transforms the industrial and agricultural workers into proletarians. This transformation produces two important results in all the markets that are counted upon to absorb the surplus products of capitalist industry; first, it lowers the purchasing power of the population, and thereby counteracts the effect of the extension of the market; second, and more important than the first, it lays there the foundation for the estab1Ishment of the capitalist system of production by calling into existence the class of the proletariat, a class that did not previously exist in such localities.

How Capitalism Digs Its Own Grave

Thus capitalist large production digs its own grave. From a certain point onward in its development, every new extension of the market is tantamount to conjuring up a new competitor. At present, capitalist large production in the United States, which is not quite a generation old, is engaged not only in the work of freeing itself from its European competitor, but in a frantic endeavor to seize upon the market of the whole American continent. The still more youthful capitalist industry of Russia has started in to be the sole purveyor of the whole extensive territory owned by Russia in Europe and Asia. The East Indies, China, Japan, Australia are developing into industrial States, that sooner or later will be able, industrially, to supply their own wants. In short, the moment is drawing near when the markets of the industrial countries can no longer be extended, and will begin to contract. The moment this effect shall begin to be felt, it will be the signal for the wholesale bankruptcy of capitalist society – a cataclysm, which, unless forestalled by the Socialist Revolution and the establishment of the Socialist Republic, will engulf the world.

For some time past, the extension of the market has not held pace with the requirements of capitalist production; the latter is, consequently, more and more hampered, and finds it increasingly difficult to develop fully the productive powers that it possesses. The intervals of strong industrial activity become ever shorter: the length of the crises becomes ever longer, until these have virtually become continuous; – overproduction becomes daily more and more a permanent feature off the present system.

Hence the quantity of the means of production that can either not be sufficiently turned to use or is forced to remain wholly unused, is on the increase; the quantity of wealth that goes to waste, accumulates more and more; the quantity of labor-power compelled to lie idle, becomes ever more appalling. Under this last head do not belong only the swarms of the unemployed, who are rapidly growing into a threatening social danger. Under it must also be numbered, first, that ever-increasing crew of social parasites, who, finding all the avenues of productive work closed to them, try to eke out a miserable existence through a variety of occupations, most of which are wholly superfluous, and not a few injurious to health – such as the small middle-men, peddlers, saloon-keepers, agents, drummers, pimps, and the like; second, that stupendous lump of humanity that may be designated as the slums from the physical abodes of some of, and mental abodes of all, its members – such as the cheats and swindlers of high and low degree, the well and the poorly clad criminals, the prostitutes for a living in “upper” as well as lower ranks of the social body, together with their innumerable dependents for existence; third, the swarms of those who fasten upon the possessing classes in the capacity of “professional” and personal servants-such as butlers, lackeys, footmen, coachmen, “chefs,” private watchmen, and maids, and no inconsiderable number of lawyers, physicans, secretaries, “tutors,” and others of like stripe; finally, the increasing private army of capitalism, generally known by the name of “PINKERTONS,” and which would have been a social impossibility were it not for the existing overproduction that has rendered so many unnecessary for industrial purposes. Capitalist society has begun to smother in its own superfluities; it has reached the point where it is unable to promote the further and fuller development of the productive forces which it has called into being; lest it fall to pieces, it is bound to consign to idleness an ever larger quantity of productive forces, and to allow the wasteful squandering of an ever larger quantity of products.

Capitalist Class has Carried out Its Historic Mission

The introduction of the capitalist system (that is to say, the substitution of capitalist large production, where the implements of labor became the private property of a few individuals, and whose workmen were turned into propertiless proletarians, for small production, where the implements of labor were the property of the individual workers) was the means whereby the productive powers of labor were to be increased prodigiously and were to be emancipated from the narrow bonds that fettered them under the system of small production, both in industry and agriculture. To carry this out was the historic mission of the capitalist class. It did its work by inflicting untold sufferings upon the masses of human beings which it expropriated and exploited; but it fulfilled its mission. It was as fully a historic necessity as the two cornerstones upon which it rose: first, the production of merchandise – the system of production for sale; second, the private ownership of the implements of labor.

But, however necessary both the capitalist system and its foundations were once upon a time, they are no longer necessary to-day. The functions of the capitalist class devolve ever more upon paid employees. The large majority of capitalists have now nothing else to do but to consume what others produce; the capitalist is today as superfluous a being as the feudal lord had become a hundred years ago.

Nay, more. The same as the feudal lord a hundred years ago, so has the capitalist of to-day become a hindrance to the further development of mankind. Private ownership in the implements of labor has long ceased to secure to each producer the product of his labor, and to guarantee him his freedom. To-day, on the contrary, society is rapidly drifting to the point where the whole population of capitalist nations will be deprived of both property and freedom. Thus, what was once the foundation of society itself, the means, originally intended to stimulate the development of the productive powers that were latent in society, have now turned into a masterkey that forces society, in an ever-increasing degree, to squander and waste its productive powers. Thus, the system of private property in the instruments of production has wholly lost its original character; it has become a curse, not only to the small producer, hut to the whole of society; instead of being a spur to social development, it has become the cause of social decline and impending bankruptcy.

The Socialist Republic Inevitable

To-day there is no longer any question as to whether or not the system of private ownership in the means of production shall be maintained. Its downfall is certain. The only question to be answered is this: Shall the system of private ownership in the means of production be allowed to pull society with itself down into the abyss; or shall society shake off that baneful burden, place the land and the implements of production in the hands of the people, to be operated collectively, for use and not for profit, and then, free and refreshed, resume the path of progress, which the evolutionary low prescribes to it?

Such is the question and such the alternative. Our generation stands where the roads fork. One road leads, through ruin, back to barbarism; the other leads onward to the Socialist Republic.

All political parties in the United States, with one exception, drive us on to the former road.

The Socialist Labor Party, and it alone, points the way to the latter road.


Last updated on 25.12.2003