Karl Kautsky

The Struggle of the Masses


Source: The Masses, February, 1912. [1*]
Transcribed: for marxists.org, September, 2002.

As the starting point of my analysis I should like to take the class struggle of the proletariat. The main weapon of the proletariat is its large numbers. Only through its great masses the proletariat can be victorious; only through the development of its masses can the proletariat maintain its grip on its victory. This presupposes the long existence of unified activity and organization, and this in turn is only possible as an open public organization, but that means also a legal organization. In an illegal conspiratory manner only individuals can be organized, but not the masses.

Everything that makes the open organization of workingmen harder or seeks to divert the interest of the workers from such open organization is to be objected to.

Where the legal right and foundation for such proletarian mass organization has not been won yet, there, to be sure, we must scorn (pfeifen) legality; we must organize illegally, secretly, and carry on an illegal, secret propaganda, just as they do in Russia. Our object in so carrying on the propaganda must be, however, to win in the legal right for such organization and propaganda.

Whenever we have won this legal right, however, or already find it in operation, we must make use of it and avoid everything which might place in jeopardy this legal basis, which means also avoid every form of lawlessness. Even where our opponents disregard this established legal right in their practices, we must not do the same – at least not until these illegal practices of our opponents go so far that it makes it impossible for us to gain influence over the masses in a legal way. We must under such circumstances teach the masses to protest against the illegality of their opponents – and this we could not do if we are ourselves going to preach and practice lawlessness.

But even there where there is no legal basis for the organization of the masses, where we are, therefore, forced to resort to illegal organization and action, we ought never to preach and practice an “individual” struggle against the property laws.

We must not forget that private property rests not alone upon laws that were created by the ruling classes, but also upon an ethical sentiment, which is a product of thousands and thousands of years of development in society, and which is alive in the toiling proletariat, as well as in the peasantry and in the middle class, and not alone in the capitalist class. On the contrary, the practices of the capitalist class show greater disregard for the sanctity of private property than the practices of wage earners. The mass of wage workers despise the thief. The capitalists bow reverentially for the successful big thief.

To preach the individual struggle against property means to turn the interest of the workers from mass action to individual action; in other words, to turn their interests from effective to ineffective form of action. But this form of action is not alone ineffective. It is in opposition to the ethical conception of the masses of workingmen. It repels them and injures seriously the propaganda of Socialism, if this action is looked upon as a product of this propaganda.

The individual struggle against property takes us out of the ranks of the masses of wage earners and brings us in contact with the slum proletariat (lumpenproletariat). The conditions of existence and struggle of this class are entirely different from those of the wage-earning class. Just as the former are indispensable to the well being of society, so the latter; the slum proletariat, are useless, yes, even harmful, for they are pure parasites.

Both carry on a struggle against existing society; both are propertiless and disinherited: both must combat the existing form of property. But the working proletariat fights openly as a mass, its weapons are solidarity and economic indispensability, its aims the changing of the laws regarding property. The slum proletariat fights individually and secretly, its weapons are lies and breach of confidence; its aim is not the changing of the property laws, but the possession of the properly of others.

Contact with the slum proletariat and acceptance of its war methods cannot but compromise and disorganize the proletarian movement. This is bound to happen all the more, because the proletarian elements, which foster such methods, invariably fall victims to provocative agents and spies.

The ruling classes have every reason to encourage individual action against property and life of individuals, because, through this, they can hurt the cause of the working masses. For this purpose they employ spies and inciters who hobnob with those elements that are inclined to individual action. Never yet has a ruling class employed provocative methods to advance the legal, open organization of the masses. This form of organization our enemies fear. It can jeopardize their power. Individual action by workers, on the other hand, they do not fear, for while it may be dangerous to individuals of the ruling class, such action ultimately strengthens the ruling class and weakens the proletariat.

The champions of individual action find themselves surrounded on every step by spies whom they cannot differentiate from their real comrades. All such movements have at all times dissolved themselves in wide distrust of every one against every one else, while the open, legal action of the masses invariably strengthens the faith of the individual in his comrades and promotes and strengthens his cause.

All this makes it vitally necessary to oppose most emphatically individual illegal action and the advocacy of such action in every country where mass action and organization can legally be carried on. And everywhere and under all circumstances individual action against property is to be objected to.

It is conceivable how individual Comrades, who find the organization of the masses a rather slow process, showing no perceptible results, while the existing laws malignantly mock the workers, will urge such action. But no matter how worthy and unselfish the Comrades may be who, through their love for the proletariat and their impatience, let themselves be carried away in that direction, we must combat these Comrades most energetically, because nothing can check the onward march of the proletariat more powerfully, nothing is more dangerous to our cause, nothing can degrade the proletariat deeper, than the dissolution of legal mass action of the proletarian in a series of individual crimes.



1*. An editor’s note states that this essay is a reply to a letter by Louis Tazai, editor of the Testveriseg, who asked Kautsky for his opinion on the Direct Action vs. Political Action controversy at the time.


Last updated on 11.12.2003