Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter IV

The Effects of Democracy


The modern State is a rigidly centralised organism, an organisation comprising the greatest power within modern society, and influencing in the most effective way the fate of each individual, as is especially obvious in time of war.

The State is to-day what the family and community used to be for the individual. If communities were in their way democratically organised, the power of the State, on the contrary, including the bureaucracy and the army, looms over the people, even gaining such strength that at times it acquires an ascendancy over the classes which are socially and economically dominant, thus constituting itself an absolute government. Yet this latter condition is nowhere lasting. The absolute rule of bureaucracy leads to its ossification and its absorption into endless time-wasting formulae, and that just at the time when industrial capitalism is developing, when the revolutionary methods of production which arise from it subject all economic and social conditions to constant change, and impart a quicker movement to industrial life, thus requiring the speediest political adjustments.

The absolute rule of bureaucracy, therefore, leads to arbitrariness and stultification, but a system of production like capitalism, in which each producer is dependent upon numerous others needs for its prosperity the security and legality of social relations. The absolute State gets into conflict with the productive forces, and becomes a fetter on them. lit is, then, urgently necessary for the executive to be subjected to public criticism, for free organisations of citizens to counterbalance the power of the State, for self-government in municipalities and provinces to be established, for the power of law-making to be taken from the bureaucracy, and put under the control of a central assembly, freely chosen by the people, that is a Parliament. The control of the Government is the most important duty of Parliament, and in this it can be replaced by no other institution. lit is conceivable, though hardly practicable, for the lawmaking power to be taken from the bureaucracy, and entrusted to various committees of experts, which would draft the laws and submit them to the people for their decision. The activities of the executive can only be supervised by another central body, and not by an unorganised and formless mass of people.

The attempts to overcome the absolute power of the State, as here described, are made by all classes in a modern State, with the exception of those which may share in its power, that is all except bureaucrats, court nobles, the State Church, as well as the great bankers who do a lucrative business with the State.

Before the united pressure of the other classes, which may include the landed gentry, the lower clergy, the industrial capitalists, the absolute regime must give way. In a greater or lesser degree it must concede freedom of the Press, of public meeting, of organisation, and a Parliament. All the States of Europe have successfully passed through this development.

Every class will, however, endeavour to shape the new form of the State in a manner corresponding to its particular interests. This attempt is especially manifested in the struggle over the character of the Parliament, that is in the fight for the franchise. The watchword of the lower classes, of the people, is Universal Suffrage. Not only the wage-earner, but the small peasant and the petty bourgeoisie have an interest in the franchise.

Everywhere and under all circumstances these classes form the great majority of the population. Whether the proletariat is the predominant class amongst these depends on the extent of the economic development, although this factor does not determine whether the proletariat comprises the majority of the population. The exploiters are always a small minority of the population.

In the long run no modem State can withstand the pressure of these classes, and anything short of general suffrage in our society to-day would be an absurdity. In capitalist society, with its constantly changing conditions, the classes cannot be stereotyped in fixed grooves. All social conditions are in a state of flux. A franchise based on status is consequently excluded. A class which is not organised as such is a formless fluctuating mass, whose exact boundaries it is quite impossible to mark. A class is an economic entity, not a legal one. Class-membership is always changing. Many handworkers who, under the regime of small industry, think they are possessors, feel like proletarians under large industry, and are really proletarians even when for purposes of statistics they are included with the possessing classes and independent producers. There is also no <franchise based on the census which would secure to the possessing classes a lasting monopoly of Parliament. It would be upset by every depreciation in money values. Finally, a franchise based on education would be even more futile, in view of the progress of culture amongst the masses. Thus various factors combine to render general suffrage the only solution in the society of to-day, and bring the question more and more to the front. Above all, it is the only rational solution from the standpoint of the proletariat as the lowest class of the population. The most effective weapon of the proletariat is its numerical strength. It cannot emancipate itself until it has become the largest class of the population, and until capitalist society is so far developed that the small peasants and the petty bourgeoisie no longer overweight the proletariat.

The proletariat has also an interest in the fact that the suffrage should not only be universal and equal, but also non-discriminatory, so that men and women, or wage earners and capitalists, do not vote in separate sections. Such a method would not only involve the danger that particular sections, who belong to the proletariat in reality, but are not wage earners in form, would be separated from it, hut it would also have the still worse result of narrowing the outlook of the proletariat. For its great historical mission consists in the fact that the collective interests of society fall into line with its permanent class interests, which are not always the same thing as special sectional interests. It is a symptom of the maturity of the proletariat when its class consciousness is raised to the highest point by its grasp of large social relations and ends. This understanding is only made completely clear by scientific Socialism, not only by theoretical teaching, but by the habit of regarding things as a whole instead of looking at special interests which are furthered and extended by engaging in political action. Confining the outlook to trade interests narrows the mind, and this is one of the drawbacks to mere Trade Unionism. Herein lies the superiority of the organisation of the Social Democratic Party, and also the superiority of a nondiscriminatory, as compared with a franchise which divides the electors into categories.

In the struggle for the political rights referred to modern democracy arises, and the proletariat matures. At the same time a new factor appears, viz., the protection of minorities, the opposition in the State. Democracy signifies rule of majority, but not less the protection of minorities.

The absolute rule of bureaucracy strives to obtain for itself permanency. The forcible suppression of all opposition is its guiding principle. Almost everywhere it must do this to prevent its power being forcibly broken. It is otherwise with democracy, which means the rule of majorities. But majorities change. In a democracy no regime can be adapted to long duration.

Even the relative strength of classes is not a fixed quantity, at least in the capitalist era. But the strength of parties changes even quicker than the strength of classes, and it is parties which aspire to power in a democracy.

It must not here be forgotten, what so often happens, that the abstract simplification of theory, although necessary to a clear understanding of realities is only true in the last resort, and between it and actualities there are many intervening factors. A class can rule, but not govern, for a class is a formless mass, while only an organisation can govern. It is the political parties which govern in a democracy. A party is, however, not synonymous with a class, although it may, in the first place, represent a class interest. One and the same class interest can be represented in very different ways, by various tactical methods. According to their variety, the representatives of the same class interests are divided into different parties. Above all, the deciding factor is the position in relation to other classes and parties. Only seldom does a class dispose of so much power that it can govern the State by itself. If a class attains power, and finds that it cannot keep it by its own strength, it seeks for allies. If such allies are forthcoming, various opinions and standpoints prevail amongst the representatives of the dominant class interests.

In this way, during the eighteenth century Whigs and Tories represented the same landed interest, but one party endeavoured to further it by affiance with the bourgeoisie of the towns at the expense of the Throne and its resources, while the other party conceived the Monarchy to be its strongest support. Similarly to-day in England and also elsewhere, Liberals and Conservatives represent the same capitalist interests. But the one thinks they will be best served by an alliance with the landed class, and forcible suppression of the working classes, while the other fears dire consequences from this policy, and strives to conciliate the working classes by small concessions at the expense of the landed class.

As with the socially and economically ruling classes and their parties, so it is with the aspiring class and its parties.

Parties and classes are therefore not necessarily coterminous. A class can split up into various parties, and a party may consist of members of various classes. A class may still remain the rulers, while changes occur in the governing party, if the majority of the ruling class considers the methods of the existing governing party unsuitable, and that of its opponents to be more appropriate.

Government by parties in a democracy changes more rapidly than the rule of classes. Under these circumstances, no party is certain of retaining power, and must always count on the possibility of being in the minority, but by virtue of the nature of the State no party need remain in a minority for ever.

These conditions account for the growing practice of protecting minorities in a democracy. The deeper the roots which a democracy has struck, and the longer it has lasted and influenced political customs, the more effective is the minority, and the more successfully it can oppose the pretensions of any party which seeks to remain in power at all costs.

What significance the protection of minorities has for the early stages of the Socialist Party, which everywhere started as a small minority, and how much it has helped the proletariat to mature, is clear. In the ranks of the Socialist Party the protection of minorities is very important. Every new doctrine, be it of a theoretical or a tactical nature, is represented in the first place by minorities. If these are forcibly suppressed, instead of being discussed, the majority is spared much trouble and inconvenience. Much unnecessary labour might be saved – a doctrine does not mean progress because it is new and championed by a minority. Most of what arises as new thought has already been discussed long before, and recognised as untenable, either by practice or by refutation.

Ignorance is always bringing out old wares as if they were something new. Other new ideas may be original, but put in a perverted shape. Although only a few of the new ideas and doctrines may spell real progress, yet progress is only possible through new ideas, which at the outset are put forward by minorities. The suppression of the new ideas of minorities in the Party would only cause harm to the proletarian class struggle, and an obstacle to the development of the proletariat. The world is always bringing us against new problems, which are not to be solved by the existing methods.

Tedious as it may be to sift the wheat from the chaff, this is an unavoidable task if our movement is not to stagnate, and is to rise to the height of the tasks before it. And what is needful for a party is also needful for the State. Protection of minorities is an indispensable condition for democratic development, and no less important than the rule of the majority.

Another characteristic of democracy is here brought in view, which is the form it gives to the class struggle.

In 1893 and in 1900 I have already discussed this matter, and give below some quotations from my writings:

Freedom of combination and of the Press and universal suffrage (under circumstances, even conscription) are not only weapons which are secured to the proletariat in the modern State by the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie, but these institutions throw on the relative strength of parties and classes, and on the mental energy which vitalises them a light which is absent in the time of Absolutism. At that time the ruling, as well as the revolutionary, classes were fighting in the dark. As every expression of opposition was rendered impossible, neither the Government nor the Revolutionists were aware of their strength. Each of the two sides was thus exposed to the danger of over-estimating its strength, so long as it refrained from measuring itself in a struggle with the opponent, and of under-estimating its strength the moment it suffered a single defeat, and then threw its arms away.

This is really one of the chief reasons why, in the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie, so many institutions collapsed at one blow, and so many governments were overthrown at a single stroke, and it also explains all the vicissitudes of revolution and counter-revolution.

It is quite different to-day, at least in countries which possess some measure of democratic government. These democratic institutions have been called the safety valve of society. It is quite false to say that the proletariat in a democracy ceases to be revolutionary, that it is contented with giving public expression to its indignation and its sufferings, and renounces the idea of social and political revolution. Democracy cannot remove the class antagonisms of capitalist society, nor prevent the overthrow of that society, which is their inevitable outcome. But if it cannot prevent the Revolution, it can avoid many reckless and premature attempts at revolution, and render many revolutionary movements unnecessary. It gives a clear indication of the relative strength of classes and parties; it does not do away with their antagonism, nor does it avoid the ultimate outcome of their struggle, but it serves to prevent the rising classes from attempting tasks to which they are not equal, and it also restrains the ruling classes from refusing concessions when they no longer have the strength to maintain such refusal. The direction of evolution is not thereby altered, but the pace is made more even and steady. The coming to the front of the proletariat in a State with some measure of democratic government will not be marked by such a striking victory as attended the bourgeoisie in their revolutionary period, nor will it be exposed to a violent overthrow.

Since the rise of the modern Social Democratic working-class movement in the sixties, the European proletariat has only suffered one great defeat, in the Paris Commune of 1871. At the time France was still suffering from the consequences of the Empire, which had withheld real democratic institutions from the people, the French proletariat had only attained to the slightest degree of class-consciousness, and the revolt was provoked.

The proletarian-democratic method of conducting the struggle may seem to be a slower affair than the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie; it is certainly less dramatic and striking, but it also exacts a smaller measure of sacrifice. This may be quite indifferent to the finely endowed literary people who find in Socialism an interesting pastime, but not to those who really carry on the fight.

This so-called peaceful method of the class struggle, which is confined to non-militant methods, Parliamentarism, strikes, demonstrations, the Press, and similar means of pressure, will retain its importance in every country according to the effectiveness of the democratic institutions which prevail there, the degree of political and economic enlightenment, and the self-mastery of the people.

On these grounds, I anticipate that the social revolution of the proletariat will assume quite other forms than that of the bourgeoisie, and that it will be possible to carry it out by peaceful economic, legal and moral means, instead of by physical force, in all places where democracy has been established.

The above is my opinion to-day.

Of course, every institution has its bad side, and disadvantages can be discovered in democracy.

Where the proletariat is without rights, it can develop no mass organisation, and normally cannot promote mass action; there it is only possible for a handful of reckless fighters to offer lasting opposition to the governing regime. But this elite is daily confronted with the necessity of bringing the entire system to an end. Undistracted by the small demands of daily politics, the mind is concentrated on the largest problems, and learns constantly to keep in view the entire political and social relations.

Only a small section of the proletariat takes part in the fight, but it cherishes keen theoretical interest, and is inspired by the great aims.

Quite differently does democracy affect the proletariat, when it ham only a few hours a day at its disposal under present-day conditions. Democracy develops mass organisations involving immense administrative work; it calls on the citizen to discuss and solve numerous questions of the day, often of the most trivial kind. The whole of the free time of the proletariat is more and more taken up with petty details, and its attention occupied by passing events. The mind is contracted within a narrow circle. Ignorance and even contempt of theory, opportunism in place of broad principles, tend to get the upper hand. Marx and Engels praised the theoretical mind of the German working class, in contrast with the workers of Western Europe and America. They would to-day find the same theoretical interest amongst the Russian workers, in comparison with the Germans.

Nevertheless, everywhere the class-conscious proletariat and their representatives fight for the realisation of democracy, and many of them have shed their life’s blood for it.

They know that without democracy nothing can be done. The stimulating results of the struggle with a despotism are confined to a handful, and do not touch the masses. On the other hand, the degenerating influence of democracy on the proletariat need not be exaggerated. Often is it the consequence of the lack of leisure from which the proletariat suffers, not of democracy itself.

It were indeed extraordinary if the possession of freedom necessarily made men more narrow and trivial than its absence. The more democracy tends to shorten the working day, the greater the sum of leisure at the disposal of the proletariat, the more it is enabled to combine devotion to large problems with attention to necessary detail. And the impulse thereto is not lacking. For whatever democracy may be able to accomplish it cannot resolve the antagonisms inherent in a capitalist system of production, so long as it refrains from altering this system. On the contrary, the antagonisms in capitalist society become more acute and tend to provoke bigger conflicts, in this way forcing great problems on the attention of the proletariat, and taking its mind off routine and detail work.

Under democracy this moral elevation is no longer confined to a handful, but is shared in by the whole of the people, who are at the same time gradually accustomed to self-government by the daily performance of routine work.

Again, under democracy, the proletariat does not always think and talk of revolution, as under despotism. It may for years, and even decades, be immersed in detail work, but everywhere situations must arise which will kindle in it revolutionary thought and aspirations.

When the people are roused to action under a democracy, there is less danger than under despotism that they have been prematurely provoked, or will waste their energy in futile efforts. When victory is achieved, it will not be lost, but successfully maintained. And that is better in the end than the mere nervous excitement of a fresh revolutionary drama.


Last updated on 19.1.2004