Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter III

Democracy and the Ripening of the Proletariat


Socialism postulates special historical conditions, which render it possible and necessary. This is pretty generally recognised. Yet there is by no means unanimity amongst us as regards the conditions which must be fulfilled in order to. make modern Socialism possible, should a country be ripe for it. This divergence on such an important question is not a calamity, and so far as it causes us to be occupied with the problem at the present time is a matter for rejoicing. We are obliged to consider this matter because, for most of us, Socialism has ceased to be something that must be expected in hundreds of years, as we were assured by many at the time of the outbreak of war. Socialism has become a practical question on the order of the day.

What, then, are the pre-requisites for the establishment of Socialism?

Every conscious human action presupposes a will. The Will to Socialism is the first condition for its accomplishment.

This Will is created by the great industry. Where small production is uppermost in a society, the masses of the people are possessors of the means of production. He who happens to be without property conceives his ideal to be the acquirement of a small possession. This desire may, in some circumstances, assume a revolutionary form, but such a social revolution would not have a Socialist character – it would only redistribute the existing wealth in such a manner that everyone would receive a share. Small production always creates the Will to uphold or to obtain private property in the means of production which are in vogue, not the will to social property, to Socialism. This Will first appears amongst the masses when large scale industry is already much developed, and its superiority over small production is unquestioned; when it would be a retrograde step, if it were possible, to break up large scale industry when the workers engaged in the large industry cannot obtain a share in the means of . production unless they take on a social form; when small production, so far as it exists, steadily deteriorates, so that the small producers can no longer support themselves thereby. In this way the Will to Socialism grows.

At the same time, the material possibilities of its achievement increase with the growth of the large industry. The larger the number of producers, and the more independent of each other they are, the more difficult it is to organise them socially. This difficulty disappears in the measure in which the number of producers decreases, and the relations between them become more close, and uniform. Finally, alongside of the will to Socialism, and its material conditions – the raw material of Socialism – the strength to realise it must also exist. Those who want Socialism must become stronger than those who do not want it.

This factor, too, is created by the development of the large industry, which causes an increase in the number of proletarians – those who have an interest in Socialism – and a decrease in the number of capitalists, that is a decrease as compared with the number of proletarians. In comparison with the non-proletarian classes, the small peasants and petty bourgeoisie, the number of capitalists may increase for some time. But the proletariat increases more rapidly than any other class in the State.

These factors are the direct outcome of the economic development. They do not arise of themselves, without human co-operation, but they arise without proletarian co-operation, solely through the operations of the capitalists, who have an interest in the growth of their large industry. This development is in the first place industrial, and confined to the towns. The agrarian development is only a weak echo of it. Socialism will come from the towns and from industry, but not from agriculture. For its realisation yet another – a fourth – factor is needful besides those already mentioned. The proletariat must not only have an interest in the establishment of Socialism, it must not merely have the material conditions for Socialism ready to hand, and possess the strength to make use of them; it must also have the capacity to retain its hold of them, and properly to employ them. Only then can Socialism be realised as a permanent method of production.

To the ripening of the conditions, the necessary level of the industrial development, must be added the maturity of the proletariat, in order to make Socialism possible. This factor will not, however, be created by the efforts of the capitalist to obtain rent, interest and profit, without the co-operation of the proletariat. It must, on the contrary, be obtained by the exertions of the proletariat in opposition to the capitalist.

Under the system of small production those without property fall into two sections. For one of them, viz., apprentices and peasants’ sons, their lack of property is only a temporary condition. The members of this class expect one day to become possessors and have an interest in private property. The other section of the class without property are the vagabonds, who are unnecessary and even harmful parasites on society, without education, without self-consciousness, without cohesion. When a chance offers itself, they are quite ready to expropriate the possessors, but they neither want nor are able to construct a new social order.

The capitalist method of production makes use of this propertyless class of vagabonds, whose numbers assume large proportions in the beginning of the capitalist system. Out of superfluous, even dangerous parasites, they are transformed into the indispensable economic foundations of production, and therefore of society. Capitalism increases their numbers and multiplies their strength, but it exploits their ignorance, rawness and incapacity. It even seeks to depress the working classes to their level. By overwork, monotony and dullness of toil, labour of women and children, capitalism even presses the working classes below the level of the former vagabond class. The impoverishment of the proletariat increases in an alarming degree.

From it, however, the first striving towards Socialism appears as an effort to make an end of the growing poverty of the masses. It seemed, however, that this poverty must render the proletariat for ever incapable of emancipating itself. Bourgeois sympathy must save it, and bring Socialism about.

It is soon apparent that nothing can be expected from this sympathy. Sufficient strength to accomplish Socialism can only be expected from those whose interests lie that way, that is the proletarians. But were not they perishing without hope?

Not all, in fact. There were particular sections which had shown strength and courage to fight against poverty. This small fraction would do what the Utopians were not capable of doing.

By a sudden stroke it would capture the powers of the State, and bring Socialism to the people. This was the conception of Blanqui and Weitling. The proletariat, which was too ignorant and demoralised to organise and rule itself, should be organised and ruled by a government comprised of its educated elite, something like the Jesuits in Paraguay who had organised and governed the Indians.

Weitling foresaw the dictatorship of a single person, who would carry through Socialism at the head of a victorious revolutionary army. He called him a Messiah.

I see a new Messiah coming with the sword, to carry into effect the teachings of the first. By his courage he will be placed at the head of the revolutionary army, and with its help he will crumble the decayed structure of the old social order, and drown the sources of tears in the ocean of forgetfulness, and transform the earth into a paradise. – (Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom)

A generous and enthusiastic anticipation. It is based, however, solely upon the expectation that the revolutionary army will find the right man. But suppose one is not disposed to accept this belief in a coming Messiah, and holds the conviction that unless the proletariat can free itself Socialism must remain an Utopia?

In view of the fact that the proletariat has not attained to the capacity for self-government in any of the organisations with which it is concerned, is not the hopelessness of Socialism, in face of the impoverishment of the workers by capitalism, thereby demonstrated?

So it would appear. Yet practice and theory soon showed a way out. In England the industrial proletariat first became a mass movement, there it found some instalment of democratic rights, some possibilities of organisation and of propaganda, and was stirred into motion by being summoned to the aid of the bourgeoisie in the struggle with the nobles for the franchise.

Among the Trade Unions and the Chartists the beginnings of the Labour movement first arose, with the resistance offered by the proletariat to its impoverishment and disfranchisement. It commenced its strikes, and its great fight for the suffrage and the normal working day.

Marx and Engels early recognised the significance of this movement. It was not the “theory of impoverishment” which characterised Marx and Engels. They held this in common with other Socialists, but were superior to them by not only recognising the capitalist tendency towards impoverishment, but also the proletarian counter tendency, and in this, in the class struggle, they recognised the great factor which would uplift proletariat, and give it the capacity which it needs if it is not merely to grasp political power by the luck of an accident, but is to be in a position to make itself master of that power, and to use it.

The proletarian class struggle, as a struggle of the masses, presupposes democracy. If not absolute and pure democracy, yet so much of democracy as is necessary to organise manes, and give them uniform enlightenment. This cannot be adequately done by secret methods. A few fly sheets cannot be a substitute for an extensive daily Press. Masses cannot be organised secretly, and, above all, a secret organisation cannot be a democratic one. It always leads.to the dictatorship of a single man, or of a small knot of leaders. The ordinary members can only become instruments for carrying out orders. Such a method may he rendered necessary for an oppressed class in the absence of democracy, but it would not promote the self-government and independence of the masses. Rather would it further the Messiah-consciousness of leaders, and their dictatorial habits.

The same Weitling, who gave such prominence to the function of a Messiah, spoke most contemptuously of democracy.

Communists are still pretty undecided about the choice of their form of government. A large part of those in France incline to a dictatorship, because they well know that the sovereignty of the people, as understood by republicans and politicians, is not suited for the period of transition from the old to a completely new organisation. Owen, the chief of the English Communists, would have the performance of specified duties allotted to men according to age, and the chief leaders of a government would be the oldest members of it. All Socialists with the exception of the followers of Fourier, to whom all forms of government are the same, are agreed that the form of government which is called the sovereignty of the people is a very unsuitable, and even dangerous, sheet anchor for the young principle of Communism about to be realised.

Weitling goes further. He will have nothing of democracy, even in a Socialist community.

If the idea of the sovereignty of the people is to be applied, all must rule. This can never be the case, and it is, therefore, not the sovereignty of the people, but the chance sovereignty of some of the people.

Weitling wanted the greatest geniuses to govern. They would be selected in a competition by scientific assemblies.

I have quoted Weitling in detail in order to show that the contempt for democracy, which is now recommended to us as the highest wisdom, is quite an old conception, and corresponds to a primitive stage in the working-class movement. At the same time that Weitling poured scorn on Universal Suffrage and freedom of the Press, the workers of England were fighting for these rights, and Marx and Engels ranged themselves by their side.

Since then the working classes of the whole of Europe, in numerous – often bloody – struggles, have conquered one instalment of democracy after the other, and by their endeavours to win, maintain and extend democracy, and by constantly making use of each instalment for organisation, for propaganda, and for resting social reforms, have they grown in maturity from year to year, and from the lowest have become the highest placed section of the masses of the people.

Has the proletariat already attained the maturity which Socialism postulates? And are the other conditions now in existence? These questions are to-day much disputed, the answers given being by some as decisively in the affirmative as by others in the negative. Both answers seem to me rather over hasty. Ripeness for Socialism is not a condition which lends itself to statistical calculation before the proof can be put to the test. In any case, it is wrong, as so often happens in discussing this question, to put the material pre-requisites of Socialism too much in the foreground. No doubt, without a certain development of the large industry no Socialism is possible, but when it is asserted that Socialism would only become practicable when capitalism is no more in a position to expand, all proof of this is lacking. It is correct to say that Socialism would be the more easily realisable the more developed the large industry is, and therefore the more compact the productive forces are which must be socially organised.

Yet this is only relevant to the problem, when it is considered from the standpoint of a particular State. The simplification of the problem in this form is, however, counteracted by the fact that the growth of the large industry is accompanied by an expansion of its markets, the progress of the division of labour and of international communications, and therewith the constant widening and increasing complication of the problem of the social organisation of production. There is, indeed, no reason for believing that the organisation of the largest part of production for social ends, by the State, Municipalities, and Co-operative Societies, is not already possible in modern industrial States, with their banking facilities and their machinery for the conduct of businesses.

The decisive factor is no longer the material, but the personal one. Is the proletariat strong and intelligent enough to take in hand the regulation of society, that is, does it possess the power and the capacity to transfer democracy from politics to economics? This cannot be foretold with certainty. The factor in question is one which is in different stages of development in different countries, and it fluctuates considerably at various times in the same country. Adequate strength -and capacity are relative conceptions. The same measure of strength may be insufficient to-day, when the opponents are strong, but to-morrow quite adequate, when they have suffered a moral, economic or military collapse.

The same measure of capacity might be quite inadequate to-day should power be attained in a highly complicated situation, and yet to-morrow it could be equal to all demands made on it, if meanwhile conditions have simplified and become stabler.

In every case only practice can show if the proletariat is already sufficiently mature for Socialism. We can only say the following for certain. The proletariat grows always in numbers, strength and intelligence, it is ever approaching the climax of its development.

It is not definite enough to say that the latter phase will be reached when the proletariat forms the majority of the people, and when the majority announce their adhesion to Socialism. On the other hand, it may be confidently said that a people is not yet ripe for Socialism so long as the majority of the masses are hostile to Socialism, and will have nothing of it.

So here again democracy not only matures the proletariat the soonest, but gives the quickest indications of this process.


Last updated on 19.1.2004