Karl Kautsky

Driving the Revolution Forward

(29 December 1918)

Karl Kautsky, Das Weitertreiben der Revolution, pamphlet issued and published by the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für staatsbürgerliche und wirtschaftliche Bildung.
Originally published in Freiheit, No. 79, 29 December 1918.
Translation by Ben Lewis.
Transcription by Thomas Schmidt for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


According to the Spartacus people, they differ from the other socialist tendencies in that they want to drive the revolution forward, whereas the majority Socialists are paying homage to the counter-revolution and the Independent Socialists are, whether out of weakness or out of ignorance against their will, supporting the counter-revolution by participating in the government. According to such a view, the revolution has no secure basis out outside of the Spartacus League.

Yet however small this basis may currently be, the Spartacus people are convinced that they will and must grow quickly. For them, every revolution began with the reign of the most moderate of the revolutionaries. Then ever more radical elements took their place until eventually the most radical gained the upper hand. This is how things will happen this time too. The second, radical phase of the revolution has to follow the first, moderate phase as night follows day. Before we go about examining this assertion, we need to be clear about what we understand by driving the revolution forward. There can be no doubt that the revolution has not yet come to an end, and that it is in its infancy both politically and socially.

The military autocracy, which has hitherto stood in the way of all social progress, has been overthrown, but the old administrative and governmental apparatus continues to function in the state and in the army. We were given the choice of either destroying the apparatus with one blow, and with this rendering the country’s administrative functions and the whole of public life impossible, or to maintain this apparatus, and at the same time to allow it, and the basis of the old regime, which had thrown us into the abyss, to continue to exist. In this way we would restrict the revolution to a temporary change of roles. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils helped us out of this desperate alternative. Their monitoring (‘Kontrolle’) made it possible for the old state apparatus to continue to function without bringing about the counter-revolution.

Yet this situation could only be temporary. The state mechanism that has existed until now must be completely refashioned. The bureaucracy must be stripped of its power and many of its functions, and must be placed under the supervision/control of the democratic representatives of the people in the municipality, the provinces, the states and the nation. At the same time the kingdom must be made more united, the preponderance of Prussia must be broken by splitting it up from one federal state into something like three, petty statedom must be removed by merging the states into larger structures, the special rights of Bavaria and Wuerttemberg and the sovereign rights of the federal states must be abolished. Switzerland and the United States of America are federal states with most extensive independence for the members of their federation. But today it does not occur to the canton of Bern to entertain an envoy in the canton of Zürich, or to send its own envoy to Paris. Neither will Texas and New York grant themselves anything like this. Indeed, the state railways in Switzerland are federal railways; they are not run by the cantons.

Raising the German Empire at least to the level of unity of Switzerland or the United States, even if more than this cannot be achieved at the moment, is just as urgent an issue as the most extensive democratisation of all the Empire’s component parts.

That is one task in driving the revolution forward. The other task is a social one. Through far-reaching social reforms, government intervention in production, in the housing sector and in trade, the position of the great mass of people – both producers and consumers – must be increased as much as possible under the given conditions of production. At the same time everything must be called on to convert the capitalist mode of production into the socialist mode of production, thus eliminating the last form of exploitation of man by man.

This second, social task of driving the revolution forward is far more important than the first, democratic task, but it is also more difficult. If one can compare the state with a mechanism, then society is more comparable to an organism. An organism is more complicated and more difficult to figure out. It cannot be transformed as quickly. But this is merely to say that the social transformation must be carefully planned, that it cannot be a shot in the dark. It says nothing against the need to use all the energy we have to work on this transformation.

In this understanding of driving the revolution forward, we agree with the Majority Socialists (SPD).

Of course, many majority socialists proceed more cautiously than we Independents would like, and more cautiously than we think is required by the situation. But it would be ridiculous to seek to pass off the difference in revolutionary tempo as the difference between revolution and counter-revolution.

On the other hand, the Spartacist League understands driving the revolution forward in a different manner. It does not call for the consolidation of democracy, but for the violent overthrow of the current government, as well as any other government, until it has gained sufficient strength to seize state power itself. But because democracy appears to be backing the existing government, it also demands the abolition of democracy.

However, the Spartacus League does not imagine driving the revolution forward in a way which means that, following careful preparation, one branch of production after another will be socialised by planned state intervention, but that immediately, without any plan, all production will be rendered impossible through constant, uninterrupted strikes and unattainable demands in all branches of production. According to the Spartacus people, the state of emergency must reach boiling point. As of yet, just how the social order of production is to emerge from this boiling cauldron remains the Spartacus League’s secret. In any case, it has not yet dawned on its members that a strike has quite different effects after the revolution than before it.

For all that, they are well aware that their methods of consistent economic unrest make it impossible to feed, clothe and house the masses, while at the same time in the states of the West, in France, England, America, production returns to normal. In this way the danger arises that the workers in socialist Germany are not as well fed, clothed and housed as in capitalist countries. This is a grave danger for international socialism, which would lose its appeal if the regime of socialism in Germany merely meant misery and want.

They seek to obviate this danger by demanding world revolution. They surely do not expect not that this will not break out by itself – not a shred of evidence suggests as much. In a victorious country the masses are of a different temper to those in a defeated one. As the world revolution will not come by itself, they call for it to be violent induced. How this is supposed to happen is once again the Spartacus League’s secret, or perhaps even a secret to itself. But one thing is clear: Striving for world revolution means striving to overthrow the foreign, victorious governments. Unfortunately, this is not as hopeless as it is harmless. The victorious governments are just as violent as the Spartacus people, and a Spartacus victory in Germany would mean another war with the Entente. Lenin has already promised three million men and rich supplies of food for this purpose, but he has not shown where these armies and supplies are hidden in Russia.

Driving forward the revolution in the Spartacus sense therefore means not implementing and securing democracy or the planned socialisation of production, but the abolition of democracy, the constant disruption of production and, on top of it all, a renewal of the war. But all these things are supposed to be necessary for the revolution, since it is a natural law that in revolutionary times the less radical parties are taken over by the radical parties, with only the most radical party capable of bringing the revolution to complete victory. The victory of the Spartacus League would form the zenith of the revolution – in relation to this; any other attempts to do so are counter-revolutionary.

Apart from empty rumours about the majority socialists’ counter-revolutionary plots, this view is not based on a single argument about the present, but merely about the past, about the history of revolutions. It entirely overlooks the difference between then and now.


The previous revolutions of the nineteenth century were all bourgeois in origin. However, since the bourgeoisie only has a limited ability to fight by itself, all these revolutions were brought about by the energetic intervention of the classes beneath them – the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Initially, the bourgeoisie took possession of state power and used it for its own ends. This could not assuage the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat, who had become acquainted with their own power in the revolutionary struggles. They used this power to drive the bourgeoisie forward in order to eventually set up a government devoted to the poorer classes of the people. In this way the struggles between the classes inevitably drove the revolution forward and radicalised it. Thus 1789 was followed by the victory of the ‘Mountain’. In France, 4 September 1870 was followed by 18 March 1871. In Russia, the March Revolution was followed by the November Revolution. Therefore, the Spartacus people and their friends assume that the current revolution will not stop in its first phase, but that it must enter a second phase, a phase that can represent nothing but a victory for the most radical party, the Spartacus League.

The ‘Spartacides’ should be rather more careful in their method of indiscriminately applying templates drawn from the past, and from other countries, to the Germany of today. Just recently they tremendously failed with the call they blunderingly took from Russia: “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils”. The current revolution in Germany has its own laws.

It differs from all previous revolutions in that it is a proletarian and socialist revolution from the outset. However, there is no other more oppressed class, a more exploited class supporting the proletariat, which could have an interest in toppling the new regime. A class that wanted, and had to, drive the revolution forward in opposition to the class that currently finds itself in power would fail completely this time around. In contrast to the earlier revolutions, therefore, driving forward the current German revolution cannot take place through a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Any further attempt to drive the revolution forward by violently overthrowing the revolutionary government of the [revolution’s] first phase in fact means a struggle within the revolutionary class itself.

There was also such a struggle amongst the radicals, the Mountain, in the Great French Revolution. But only immediately before the revolution’s collapse, when driving the revolution forward had become impossible. In March 1794 Robespierre sent the Herbertistes to the block. Then in April he killed the Dantonists. In July he himself was overthrown and the counter-revolution set in.

Driving the revolution forward, therefore, it now not a matter of a struggle of an oppressed class against an oppressing class, but merely of a struggle between different methods and viewpoints amongst the same class. This is by no means to say that the most superior class must always force back the inferior class, nor is it so say that the more radical class must necessarily prevail. Historical experience says nothing about the present case, which has no precedents.

The differences between the proletarian parties can be of a theoretical nature. In this way, for example, the members of the Paris Commune of 1871 disintegrated into no less than four different groups. Firstly the Jacobins, who remained of the same point of view as the Mountain in 1793 – champions of the political rule of the lower classes, but with no interest in socialism. Alongside them were the Blanquists, who differed from the Jacobins in that they wanted to exploit political power for the purposes of socialism. But they had no distinct socialist programme and no interest in economic matters. Alongside the Jacobins, they focused on the radical republic and the Pfaffenfresserei. [1] The method they shared with the Jacobins was the exercise of political power through the strictest political centralisation and ruthless terror.

They were confronted by the Proudhonists, who were wholly absorbed in the economic sphere, primarily focussing their attention on the economic emancipation of the proletariat and expressing little interest in politics. They were opposed to any acts of violence, and resisted political centralisation to the extent that they demanded the dissolution of France into a heap of independent municipalities. Yet in the final years of the Empire, under the influence of the International and its finest mind, Marx, the Proudhonists were actually caught up in a process of change. A section of those in the International, which can be viewed as a fourth, specific group, came very close to Marxist views. They grasped the significance of political power for the economic emancipation of the working class and realised the necessity of a united republic. Nonetheless, within that republic they demanded the self-administration of the municipalities instead of centralism. They rejected terrorism.

In terms of numbers, these members of the International were the weakest part of the Commune. But they were the ones who worked most assiduously and best understood the situation. The real achievements of the Commune can be traced back to these people. It was these people who Marx above all had in mind when he described the work of the Commune in his work on the civil war in France.

But the small fraction could only enforce a small number of things, with great difficulty, and in a constant struggle – especially against the Jacobins and the Blanquists. The few weeks of the Paris Commune’s existence were replete with fierce internal struggles amongst the three factions – struggles which contributed to the dissolution of the Commune in no small manner, but which in no way managed to drive the revolution forward.

However, for all the polarity amongst the fractions, they stood united in the face of the bourgeois enemy. Not once they carry out their feuds with anything other than words, and they all faithfully stuck to the battle positions to which they were assigned right to the very end, irrespective of what tendency they belonged to. Proletarian class consciousness amongst them proved stronger than all their differences in opinion and method.

Today we are more theoretically advanced than then. We all base ourselves on Marxism; in the main we only differ essentially only in our interpretation and application of the same principles. The two extremes can be characterised in the following way. The one extreme has not yet completely freed itself of bourgeois thinking, placing much confidence in the bourgeois world, and overestimating its inner strength. In turn, the other extreme looks at the bourgeois world with an utter lack of comprehension, regarding it as the (last) refuge of scoundrels. They flout its intellectual and economic achievements and believe that the proletariat is able to immediately take over all political and economic functions previously carried out by the bourgeois authorities – without any specialist knowledge and any preparation.

Between these two extremes we find those who have studied and understood the bourgeois world, who approach it independently and critically, but who also appreciate its achievements and the difficulties involved in the task of replacing it with a higher social order. In equal measure, this Marxist centre must, on the one hand, spur on the faint-hearted and call the dewy-eyed to criticism. On the other it must reign in the blind storming away of the ignorant and unthinking. To the Marxist centre falls the contradictory task of driving the revolution forward and slowing it down at the same time.

These are the three tendencies struggling with each other amongst the proletariat. They have nothing to do with class differences and antagonisms, and it is not in the slightest necessary for the tendency most resolutely driving forward has to win. And it is certainly not the case that it represents the highest form of the movement.

On the contrary. The centre will most likely stand the tallest intellectually. This does not of course mean that it must victoriously assert itself in the revolution. In revolutionary times, the great uneducated masses are set in motion, who do not subtly discern. They are most attracted by the extremes. In exile in 1849, Marx and Engels found themselves completely isolated, rejected both by the bourgeois radicals such and the Socialist Revolutionaries. By the same token, after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871, the radical Blanquists and Bakuninists, as well as the tame social liberals, turned on Marx and Engels, isolating them in the International. Thus to a large extent the clearest minds of Russian Marxism, Axelrod and Martov, lost their influence on the masses.


How the struggle between the extremes will react on the revolution depends above all on the manner in which they conduct it. If it does not breach the united proletarian front, if it merely leads to the left driving forward the right and the right keeping the left from imprudence and illusions, then it can enliven and enrich the revolution.

Things are very different if this struggle leads to the left violently overthrowing the right in a civil war, thus initiating the “second phase” of the revolution.

How would the left achieve its victory, how would it win the masses? Through promises which go beyond those made by the other section, because they are abstracted from all economic realities, because in the midst of a scarcity and general limitation of production they promise the masses an abundance of products. Because they disregard the necessity of knowledge, convincing the proletarians hitherto kept in ignorance that they are able to replace the more educated classes in all their functions at the drop of a hat.

Another factor that could help the extreme left to victory would be if it won over the labour aristocracy. There are always layers of the working class which are stronger than others, and which know how to gain a better living situation at the expense of their disadvantaged brethren. Before the revolution they achieved this by winning the benevolence of the capitalists. The possibility of another labor aristocracy arises in the revolution. On the one hand, we find the unarmed civilian population confronted by armed proletarians. The former are stronger than the latter that and it is obvious to the extreme revolutionaries that they can win over the civil population by granting them extremely favourable incomes. Today, at a time when capitalist profits are so low, these incomes can be raised from the working population. On the other hand, there are branches of industry with a monopolistic character. In the capitalist era, these branches of production were used by their owners to fleece the public. Now, in the revolution, the workers in these industries can use the position of power they have acquired to take home extraordinary wages at the cost of the general public. If one talks the workers in the coal mines out of a sense of public spirit, if one drives them to strike and to demand wages which drive up the price of coal, without asking oneself whether this will bring industry to a standstill and cause people to freeze, then one can certainly win over the coal miners as a huge power factor.

But it is clear that in reality all these methods of driving the revolution forward can do nothing but drag down the revolution to a lower level. They signify nothing other than speculation on ignorance, thoughtlessness, carelessness and selfishness.

When the extreme left’s political means of struggle become more and more primitive, this is line with this degradation. After Marx and Engels, Bebel and Liebknecht had fought for decades to teach the mass of workers to recognise that, in the hands of a politically mature proletariat, the ballot paper could turn, as Marx put it, from a means of deception into a means of emancipation, once more today the Spartacus people champion old anti-parliamentarism. And theirs is not even the anti-parliamentarianism of the syndicalists, who sought to make trade union organisation into a tool to liberate the workers. Equally as disappointed by the trade unions as they were by parliamentarism, they placed all their hopes on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. With their expectations in these councils betrayed as well, nothing is left for them but the “street”. The street is to reconstruct the new Germany, the new society. The street means those layers of the working class who have not yet been organised. Socialism, the organisation of production, democracy and the reorganisation of the state are not to emerge from the workers’ organisations – they are to be created by those who are still incapable of any organisation.

The rule of the organised over the unorganised, the ignorant over the informed, the selfish over the selfless – that is what “driving the revolution forward” means in today’s conditions. It would mean nothing but the degradation of the revolution. And this degradation would merely be the prelude to utter ruin.

For in the face of a united bourgeois mass (presumably class) the proletariat can only hold its ground if it itself remains united and calls on everything it has to offer in terms of intelligence, selflessness and organisation.

A sect of the proletariat, which is only able to come to power by destroying all of these factors, digs the revolution’s grave.

But fortunately it is not necessary that this sect will really come to power. We have already seen that things are different in the proletarian revolution than in the bourgeois revolution, where the displacement of the moderate parties by more radical parties was a necessity which emerged from the conditions of the class struggle. The more moderate and the radical elements currently fighting for power in Germany do not represent different classes, but merely different elements of the same class. Which of these elements will prevail depends on the maturity of the German proletariat.

But if this time around it is not necessary for the “more radical” party to defeat the more moderate one, this is not to say that the next phase of the course of the bourgeois revolution need not necessarily come about: the counter-revolution.

In the bourgeois revolutions it was inevitable that sooner or later the bourgeois elements would be driven out of power by fully or semi-proletarian elements. But it was equally inevitable that these forces would attempt to carry out the impossible, because economically only bourgeois society was possible. Therefore, just as the second phase of the revolution had to come about, so did the third – the collapse of the proletarian regime, the counter-revolution.

There is no need for this today. In today’s Germany both the economy and the proletariat are ripe for socialisation. But science has also advanced since the bourgeois revolution. In the great French Revolution, and even in 1871, the masses did not yet have any suspicion of the fact that their emancipation is tied to specific economic conditions, that society undergoes constant change and that specific phases of development cannot be skipped over at will. They still believed that everything could be achieved by force/violence, that everything depended on winning power.

Since then we have become acquainted with the vast teachings of our great masters, Marx and Engels. Of course, as the last few years demonstrate, these teachings often remain misunderstood and superficially assimilated. But they have actually advised wide circles on how it is necessary to recognise the economic base of society, and promoted this recognition.

Now it will have to be proved just how far these teachings have blossomed. The more deeply the teachings have penetrated, the more the proletariat will be in a position to set itself tasks that can be solved under existing conditions. It will avoid all the waste of energy and all the setbacks that are connected with striving for what is impossible. But precisely because of this it will strive for what is achievable with a greater concentration of energy, implement this all the more rapidly and purposefully, and maintain it permanently.

Of course, we must constantly be alert to a counter-revolution. We must be vigilant and prepared. But this time around it is not the case that the counter-revolution, unlike previously, must be the necessary culmination of the revolution, that the proletarian regime is doomed from the outset to be a temporary phenomenon.

But if the proletarian regime in Germany holds its ground, then it will, it must, drive the revolution forward by itself by the most irresistible of all forces – the logic of facts. Then, as soon as the initial difficulties are overcome and experience has been gathered, it is not only the socialisation of the factories that will have to proceed at a more rapid pace. Then the inevitable repercussions on the rest of the civilised world cannot fail to materialise. Then the movement of the proletariat will become irresistible everywhere, its political power will grow everywhere, and socialisation will have to be undertaken everywhere. The socialist world revolution will then become a fact without emissaries, without conspiracies, without a state of war with the forces of foreign countries.

Nonetheless, the precondition for this is that the proletariat in Germany remains at the helm – something that is only possible if it unitedly confronts the bourgeois world. Attempts to push the revolution forward through methods that rupture the revolution’s unity do not drive it forward but down – down towards moral and economic decay, towards its eventual demise.

Translator’s Note

1. Literally “devouring the clerics”.

Last updated on 29 May 2016