Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter II

Democracy and the Conquest of Political Power


The distinction is sometimes drawn between democracy and Socialism, that is, the socialisation of the means of production and of production, by saying that the latter is our goal, the object of our movement, while democracy is merely the means to this end, which occasionally might become unsuitable, or even a hindrance.

To be exact, however, Socialism as such is not our goal, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race.

We seek to achieve this object by supporting the proletarian class struggle, because the proletariat, being the undermost class, cannot free itself without abolishing all causes of exploitation and oppression, and because the industrial proletariat, of all the oppressed and exploited classes, is the one which constantly grows in strength, fighting capacity and inclination to carry on the struggle, its ultimate victory being inevitable. Therefore, to-day every genuine opponent of exploitation and oppression must take part in the class struggle, from whatever class he may come.

If in this struggle we place the Socialist way of production as the goal, it is because in the technical and economic conditions which prevail to-day Socialistic production appears to be the sole means of attaining our object. Should it be proved to us that we are wrong in so doing, and that somehow the emancipation of the proletariat and of mankind could be achieved solely on the basis of private property, or could be most easily realised in the manner indicated by Proudhon, then we would throw Socialism overboard, without in the least giving up our object, and even in the interests of this object. Socialism and democracy are therefore not distinguished by the one being the means and the other the end. Both are means to the same end. The distinction between them must be sought elsewhere. Socialism as a means to the emancipation of the proletariat, without democracy, is unthinkable.

Social production, it is true, is also possible in a system other than a democratic one. In primitive conditions communistic methods became the basis of despotism, as Engels noted in 1875, when dealing with the village communism which has existed in India and Russia down to our own day.

Dutch colonial policy in Java for a long time based the organisation of agricultural production under the so-called “culture” system upon land communism for the profit of the government who exploited the people.

The most striking example of a non-democratic organisation of social work was furnished in the eighteenth century by the Jesuit State of Paraguay. There the Jesuits, as the ruling class, organised with dictatorial power the labour of the native Indian population, in a truly admirable fashion, without employing force, and even gaining the attachment of their subjects.

For modern men, however, such a patriarchal regime would be intolerable. It is only possible under circumstances where the rulers are vastly superior to the ruled in knowledge, and where the latter are absolutely unable to raise themselves to an equal standard. A section or class which is engaged in a struggle for freedom cannot regard such a system of tutelage as its goal, but must decisively reject it.

For us, therefore, Socialism without democracy is unthinkable. We understand by Modern Socialism not metly social organisation of production, but democratic organisation of society as well. Accordingly, Socialism is for us inseparably connected with democracy. No Socialism without democracy. But this proposition is not equally true if reversed. Democracy is quite possible without Socialism. A pure democracy is even conceivable apart from Socialism, for example, in small peasant communities, where complete equality of economic conditions for everybody exists on the basis of participating in privately owned means of production.

In any case, it may be said that democracy is possible without Socialism, and precedes it. It is this pre-Socialist democracy which is apparently in the minds of those who consider that democracy and Socialism are related to each other as the means to an end, although they mostly hasten to add that, strictly speaking, it is really no means to an end. This interpretation must be most emphatically repudiated, because, should it win general acceptance, it would lead our movement into most dangerous tracks.

Why would democracy be an unsuitable meant for the achievement of Socialism?

It is a question of the conquest of political power.

It is said that if in a hitherto bourgeois democratic State the possibility exists of the Social Democrats becoming the majority at an election, the ruling classes would make use of all the forces at their command in order to prevent democracy asserting itself. Therefore, it is not by democracy, but only by a political revolution that the proletariat can conquer the political power.

Doubtless, in cases where the proletariat of a democratic State attains to power, one must reckon with attempts of the ruling classes to nullify by violence the realisation of democracy by the rising class. This, however, does not prove the worthlessness of democracy for the proletariat. Should a ruling class, under the suppositions here discussed, resort to force, it would do so precisely because it feared the consequences of democracy. And its violence would be nothing but the subversion of democracy. Therefore, not the uselessness of democracy for the proletariat is demonstrated by anticipated attempts of the ruling classes to destroy democracy, but rather the necessity for the proletariat to defend democracy with tooth and nail. Of course, if the proletariat is told that democracy is a useless ornament,- the needful strength for its defence will not be created. The mass of the people are everywhere too attached to their political rights willingly to abandon them. On the contrary, it is rather to be expected that they would defend their rights with such vigour that if the other side endeavoured to destroy the people’s privileges, a political overthrow would be the result. The higher the proletariat values democracy, and the closer is its attachment to its rights, the more may one anticipate this course of events.

On the other hand, it must not be thought that the forebodings above mentioned will everywhere be realised. We need not be so fainthearted. The more democratic the State is, the more dependent are the forces exerted by the Executive, even the military ones, on public opinion. These forces may become, even in a democracy, a means of holding down the proletarian movement, if the proletariat is still weak in numbers, as in an agrarian State, or if it is politically weak, because unorganised, and lacking self-consciousness. But if the proletariat in a democratic State grows until it is numerous and strong enough to conquer political power by making use of the liberties which exist, then it would be a task of great difficulty for the capitalist dictatorship to manipulate the force necessary for the suppression of democracy.

As a matter of fact, Marx thought it possible, and even probable, that in England and America the proletariat might peacefully conquer political power. On the conclusion of the Congress of the International at the Hague in 1872. Marx spoke at a meeting, and among other things said:

The worker must one day capture political power in order to found the new organisation of labour. He must reverse the old policy, which the old institutions maintain, if he will not, like the Christians of old who despised and neglected such things, renounce the things of this world.

But we do not assert that the way to reach this goal is the same everywhere.

We know that the institutions, the manners and the customs of the various countries must be considered, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and, if I understood your arrangements better, I might even add Holland, where the worker may attain his object by peaceful means. But not in all countries is this the case.

It remains to be seen whether Marx’s expectations will be realised.

There are certainly in the above named countries sections of the ruling classes whose inclinations to use force against the proletariat grow. But, beside these there are other sections in whom the rising power of the proletariat gains respect and evokes a desire to keep it in good humour by concessions. Although the world war, for the period of its duration, has strictly confined the struggle of the masses for freedom everywhere, it has brought to the English proletariat a considerable extension of political power. It cannot to-day be foreseen how democracy in the various States will influence the forms which the conquest of political power by the proletariat will take, and how far it will avert the use of violent methods from both sides and promote the use of peaceful means. In any case, the institution of democracy would not lose its importance. In a democratic republic, where the people’s rights have been firmly established for decades, perhaps centuries, rights which the people conquered by revolution, and maintained or extended, thus compelling the respect of the ruling classes for the masses, in such a community the forms of transition would certainly be different from those in a State where a military despotism has been accustomed to rule by force, and hold the masses of the people in check.

For us the significance of democracy in the pre-Socialist period is not exhausted with the influence it may have on the forms of transition to a proletarian regime. It is most important for us during this period, in so far as it bears on the ripening of the proletariat.


Last updated on 19.1.2004