Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter V



Democracy is the essential basis for building up a Socialist system of production. Only under the influence of democracy does the proletariat attain that maturity which it needs to be able to bring about Socialism, and democracy supplies the surest means for testing its maturity. Between these two stages, the preparation for Socialism and its realisation, which both require democracy, there is the transition state when the proletariat has conquered political power, but has not yet brought about Socialism in an economic sense. In this intervening period it is said that democracy is not only unnecessary, but harmful.

This idea is not new. We have already seen it to be Weitling’s. But it is supposed to be supported by Karl Marx. In his letter criticising the Gotha party programme, written in May, 1875, it is stated: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. This requires a political transition stage, which can be nothing else than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Marx had unfortunately omitted to specify more exactly what he conceived this dictatorship to be. Taken literally, the word signifies the suspension of democracy. But taken literally It also means the sovereignty of a single person, who is bound by no laws. A sovereignty which, is distinguished from a despotism by being regarded as a passing phase, required by the circumstances of the moment, and not a permanent institution of the State.

The expression “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, that is the dictatorship not of a single person, but of a class, excludes the inference that Marx thought of dictatorship in the literal sense.

He speaks in the passage above quoted not of a form of government, but of a condition which must everywhere arise when the “proletariat has conquered political power. That he was not thinking of a form of government is shown by his opinion that in England and America the transition might be carried out peacefully. Of course, Democracy does not guarantee a peaceful transition. But this is certainly not possible without Democracy.

However, to find out what Marx thought about the dictatorship of the proletariat, we need not have recourse to speculation. If in 1875 Marx did not explain in detail what he understood by the dictatorship of the proletariat, it might well have been because he had expressed himself on this matter a few years before, in his study of the Civil War in France. In that work, he wrote: “The Commune was essentially a government of the working class, the result of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form under which the freedom of labour could be attained being at length revealed.”

Thus the Paris Commune was, as Engels expressly declared in his introduction to the third edition of Marx’s book, “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.

It was, however, at the same time not the suspension of democracy, but was founded on its most thoroughgoing use, on the basis of universal suffrage. The power of the Government was subjected to universal suffrage.

The Commune was composed of town councillors, chosen by general suffrage in the various departments of Paris.

Universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business.

Marx constantly speaks here of the general suffrage of the whole people, and not of the votes of a specially privileged class. The dictatorship of the proletariat was for him a condition which necessarily arose in a real democracy, because of the overwhelming numbers of the proletariat.

Marx must not, therefore, be cited by those who support dictatorship in preference to democracy. Of course, this does not prove it to be wrong. Only, it must be demonstrated on other grounds.

In the examination of this question, dictatorship as a condition must not be confused with dictatorship as a form of government, which alone is a subject of dispute in our ranks. Dictatorship as a form of government means disarming the opposition, by taking from them the franchise, and liberty of the Press and combination. The question is whether the victorious proletariat needs to employ these measures, and whether Socialism is only or most easily realisable with their aid.

It must next be noted that when we speak of dictatorship as a form of government, we cannot mean the dictatorship of a class. For, as already remarked, a class can only rule, not govern. If by dictatorship we do not merely signify a state of sovereignty, but a form of government, then dictatorship comes to mean that of a single person, or of an organisation, not of the proletariat, but of a proletarian party. The problem is then complicated so soon as the proletariat itself is divided into various parties. The dictatorship of one of these parties is then no longer in any sense the dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of one part of the proletariat over the other. The situation becomes still more complicated if the Socialist Parties are divided according to their relations to non-proletarian elements, and if perchance one party attains to power by an alliance of town proletarians and peasants, then the dictatorship becomes not merely a dictatorship of proletarians over proletarians, but of proletarian and. peasants over proletarians. The dictatorship of the proletariat thus assumes a very peculiar form.

What are the grounds for thinking that the sovereignty of the proletariat must necessarily take a form which is incompatible with democracy?

Now it may be taken for granted that as a nil. the proletariat will only attain to power when it represents the majority of the population, or, at least, has the latter behind it. Next to its economic indispensability, the weapon of the proletariat in its political struggles is its huge numbers. It may only expect to carry the day against the resources of the ruling classes where it has the masses behind it. This was the opinion of Marx and Engels, and therefore they wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “All previous movements were movements of minorities, and in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of that majority.”

This was true also of the Paris Commune. The first act of the new revolutionary regime was an appeal to the electors. The ballot, taken under conditions of the greatest freedom, gave strong majorities for the Commune in all districts of Paris. Sixty-five revolutionaries were chosen, against 21 of the Opposition, of whom 15 were distinct reactionaries, and six Radical Republicans of the Gambetta school. Among the 65 revolutionaries all the existing phases of French Socialism were represented. However such they fought against each other, no one exercised a dictatorship over the others.

A government so strongly supported by the masses has not the least occasion to interfere with democracy. It cannot dispense with the use of force when this is employed to suppress democracy. Force can only be met by force. But a government which knows that the masses are behind it would only use force to protect democracy, and not to subvert it. It would be committing suicide to cast aside such a strong support as universal suffrage, which is a powerful source of moral authority.

The subversion of democracy by dictatorship can therefore only be a matter for consideration in exceptional cases, when an extraordinary combination of favourable circumstances enables a proletarian party to take to itself political power, while the majority of the people are either not on its side, or are even against it.

Amongst a people who have been trained in politics for decades, and have run into party moulds, such a chance victory is hardly possible. It is only likely in very backward conditions. If in such a case universal suffrage goes against the Socialist Government, is the latter now to do what we have hitherto demanded of every government, viz., to bow to the will of the people, and to resume its struggle for the power of the State with confidence, on the basis of democracy, or is it to subvert democracy in order to hold on to power?

How can a dictatorship remain at the helm against the will of the majority of the people?

Two ways suggest themselves, that of Jesuitism or that of Bonapartism.

We have already referred to the Jesuit State in Paraguay. The means by which the Jesuits there maintained their authority was their enormous mental superiority to the natives organised by them, who without them were helpless.

Can a Socialist Party acquire such a superiority in a European State? This is quite out of the question. No doubt the proletariat, in the course of the class struggle, raises its mental stature until it is higher than that of other workers, such as peasants, but not without the latter acquiring a political interest and understanding at the same time. The chasm between these various classes is by no means an unbridgable one.

Alongside of the classes of hand workers grows a section of intellectuals, which tends to become more numerous and increasingly necessary for the productive system. Their vocation calls for the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise and development of intelligence.

This section occupies a middle place between the proletariat and the capitalist class. It is not directly interested in capitalism, but is nevertheless mistrustful of the proletariat, so long as it does not consider the latter to be capable of taking its fate into its own hands. Even such members of the cultured classes as most warmly espouse the cause of the freedom of the proletariat stand aloof from the Labour movement in the early stages of the class struggle. They only change their attitude when the proletariat shows increasing capacity in its struggles. The confidence in the proletariat, which is thus inspired in intellectuals who enter the Socialist movement, is not to be confused with the trust which, since August 4, 1914, the Liberal and Centre Parties, and even the Government of Germany, have placed in the Governmental Socialists.

The first kind of confidence is bred by the conviction that the proletariat has acquired the strength and capacity to free itself. The second sort of confidence comes with the conviction that the Socialists in question no longer take the proletariat’s fight for freedom seriously.

Without the help, or in opposition to the intellectuals, Socialist production cannot be instituted. In circumstances where the majority of the population mistrust the proletarian party, or stand aloof from it, this attitude would be shared by the bulk of the intellectuals. In that case, a victorious proletarian party would not only be without great intellectual superiority to the rest of the people, but would even be inferior to its opponents in this regard, although its outlook in general social matters might be a much higher one.

The method of Paraguay is therefore not practicable in Europe. There remains to be considered the method adopted by Napoleon the First on Brumaire 18, 1799, and his nephew, the third Napoleon, on December 2, 1862. This consists in governing by the aid of the superiority of a centralised organisation to the unorganised masses of the people, and the superiority of military power, arising from the fact that the armed forces of the Government is opposed to a people who are defenceless or tired of the armed struggle.

Can a Socialist system of production be built up on this foundation? This means the organisation of production by society, and requires economic self-government throughout the whole mass of the people. State organisation of production by a bureaucracy, or by the dictatorship of a single section of the people, does not moan Socialism. Socialism presupposes that broad masses of the people have been accustomed to organisation, that numerous economic and political organisations exist, and can develop in perfect freedom. The Socialist organisation of Labour is not an affair of barracks.

A dictatorship of a minority which grants to the people the fullest freedom of organisation undermines its own power by so doing. Should it seek, on the other hand, to maintain its authority by restricting this freedom, it impedes development towards Socialism, instead of furthering it.

A minority dictatorship always finds its most powerful support in an obedient army, but the more it substitutes this for majority support, the more it drives the opposition to seek a remedy by an appeal to the bayonet, instead of an appeal to that vote which is denied them. Civil war becomes the method of adjusting political and social antagonisms.

Where complete political and social apathy or dejection does not prevail, the minority dictatorship is always threatened by armed attack, or constant guerilla warfare, which easily develops into a protracted armed rising of great masses, to cope with which all the military power of the dictatorship is needed.

The dictatorship is then involved in civil war, and lives in constant danger of being overthrown.

To the building up of a Socialist society there is no greater obstacle than internal war. In the present state of extensive geographical division of labour, the big industries are everywhere closely dependent on the security of communications no less than on the security of contract. External war would shake the Socialist society to its foundations, even if the enemy did not penetrate into the country. Russian Socialists of all sections in the present Revolution are right in urging the necessity of peace for the rebuilding of society.

Yet civil war is far more harmful to a Socialist society than external war, as civil war is fought out in the land itself, and wastes and paralyses as much as a foreign invasion.

In the struggles of States it is usually only a question of an accession or loss of power on the part of one or the other government, and not a matter of their very existence. After the war the various belligerent governments and peoples seek to live in peace, if not in amity.

The parties in a civil war are quite differently related to each other. They do not carry on the war to wrest some concessions from the opponents. and then to live with them in peace. And a civil war is also different from democracy, under which minorities are so protected that any party which finds itself in this position, and is obliged to renounce hopes of being the Government, need not relinquish political activity. Every party which is reduced to a minority always retains the right to strive to become the majority, and thereby take over the Government.

In a civil war each party fights for its existence, and the vanquished is menaced with complete destruction. The consciousness of this fact accounts for civil wars being so terrible. A minority which only retains control by military power is inclined to crush its opponents by the bloodiest means, and to decimate them in reckless slaughter, when it is threatened by a revolt, and succeeds in repressing it. June, 1848, in Paris, and the bloody May week of 1871 have shown this with terrible distinctness.

Chronic civil war, or its alternative under a dictatorship, the apathy and lethargy of the masses, would render the organisation of a Socialist system of production as good as impossible. And yet the dictatorship of the minority, which either produces civil war or apathy, is to be the sovereign means for effecting the transition from Capitalism to Socialism!

Many people confuse civil war with the social revolution, considering this to be its form, and are therefore prepared to excuse the acts of force inevitable in a civil war. This has always been the case in revolutions, they say, and ever will be.

We Social Democrats are decidedly not of the opinion that that which has been must always be. Such ideas of the revolution are formed on the examples of previous bourgeois revolutions. The proletarian revolution will be accomplished under quite different conditions from these.

The bourgeois revolutions broke out in States in which a despotism, supported by an army separated from the people, suppressed all free movements, in which freedom of the Press, of public meeting, of organisation, and general suffrage did not exist, and in which there was no real representation of the people. There the struggle against the Government necessarily took the form of a civil war. The proletariat of to-day will, as regards Western Europe at least, attain to power in States in which a certain measure of democracy, if not “pure” democracy, has been deeply rooted for decades, and also in which the military are not so cut off from the people as formerly. It remains to be seen how the conquest of political power by the proletariat is achieved under these conditions, where it represents the majority of the people. In no case need we anticipate that in Western Europe the course of the great French Revolution will be repeated. If present-day Russia exhibits so much likeness to the France of 1793, that only shows how near it stands to the stage of bourgeois revolution.

The social revolution, the political revolution, and civil war must be distinguished from each other.

The social revolution is a profound transformation of the entire social structure brought about by the establishment of a new method of production. It is a protracted process, which may be spread over decades, and no definite boundaries can be drawn for its conclusion. It will be the more successful, according to the peaceful nature of the forms under which it is consummated. Civil and foreign wars are its deadly foes. As a rule a social revolution is brought about by a political revolution, through a sudden alteration in the relative strength of classes in the State, whereby a class hitherto excluded from the political power possesses itself of the machinery of government. The political revolution is a sudden act, which is rapidly concluded. Its forms depend on the constitution of the State in which it is accomplished. The more democracy rules, not merely formally, but actually anchored in the strength of the working classes, the greater is the likelihood that the political revolution will be a peaceful one. Contrariwise, the more the system which has hitherto prevailed has been without the support of a majority of the people, and has represented a minority which kept control by military force, the greater is the likelihood that the political revolution will take the form of a civil war.

Yet, even in the last case, the supporters of the social revolution have a pressing interest in seeing that the civil war is only a transitory episode which quickly terminates, that it is made to serve the sole end of introducing and setting up democracy, to whose pace the social revolution should be adapted. In other words, the social revolution must not, for the time being, be carried out farther than the majority of the people are inclined to go, because beyond this the Social Revolution, desirable as it may seem to far-seeing individuals, would not find the necessary conditions for establishing itself permanently.

But did not the Reign of Terror of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie of Paris, that is the dictatorship of a Minority, in the great French Revolution, bring with it enormous consequences of the highest historical significance?

Of course. But of what kind were they? That dictatorship was a child of the war which the allied Monarchs of Europe had waged against Revolutionary France. To have victoriously beaten off this attack was the historical achievement of the Reign of Terror. Thereby is again proved distinctly the old truth, that dictatorship is better able to wage war than democracy. It proves in no way that dictatorship is the method of the proletariat to carry through social transformations to its own liking, and to keep control of political power.

In energy the Reign of Terror of 1793 cannot be surpassed. Yet the proletariat of Paris did not succeed, by this means, in retaining power. The dictatorship was a method by means of which the various fractions belonging to proletarian and petty bourgeois politics fought amongst themselves, and, finally, it was the means of making an end of all proletarian and petty bourgeois politics.

The dictatorship of the lower classes opens the way for the dictatorship of the sword.

Should it be said, after the example of the bourgeois revolutions, that the Revolution is synonymous with civil war ad dictatorship, then the consequences must also be recognised, and it must be added the Revolution would necessarily end in the rule of a Cromwell or a Napoleon.

This is, however, by no means the necessary upshot of a proletarian revolution where the proletariat forms the majority of the nation, which is democratically organised, and only in such cases do the conditions for Socialist production exist.

By the dictatorship of the proletariat we are unable to understand anything else than its rule on the basis of democracy.


Last updated on 19.1.2004