Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter VIII

The Object Lesson


The pernicious features of the method of dictatorship here discussed must now be contrasted with more favourable aspects. It furnishes a striking object lesson, and even if it cannot last it is able to accomplish many things to the advantage of the proletariat, which cannot be lost.

Let us look closely at the object lesson. This argument obviously rests on the following consideration: Under democracy, by virtue of which the majority of the people rule, Socialism can only be brought about when a majority in its favour is gained. A long and tedious way. We reach our goal far quicker if an energetic minority which knows its aims, seizes hold of the power of the State, and use it for passing Socialist measures. Its success would at once compel conviction, and the majority, which hitherto had opposed, would quickly rally to Socialism.

This sounds very plausible, and sounded so in the mouth of old Weitling. It has only the one defect that it assumes that which has to be proved. The opponents of the method of dictatorship contest the assumption that Socialist production can be brought about by a minority without the co-operation of the great mass of the people. If the attempt fails, it certainly is an object lesson, but in the wrong sense, not by attracting, but by frightening.

People who are influenced by such an object lesson, and not by examining and verifying social relations, thoughtless worshippers of mere success, would, in the case of the attempt failing, not inquire from what canes it did not succeed. They would not seek for the explanation in the unfavourable or unripe conditions, but in Socialism itself, and would conclude that Socialism is realisable under no circumstances.

It is apparent that the object lesson has a very dangerous side.

How has it been represented to us?

We may popularly express the essentials of Socialism in. the words: Freedom and bread for all. This is what the masses expect from it, and why they rally to it. Freedom is net less important than bread. Even well-to-do and rich classes have fought for their freedom, and not seldom have made the biggest sacrifices for their convictions in blood and treasure. The need for freedom, for self-determination, is as natural as the need for food.

Hitherto Social Democracy did represent to the masses of the people the object lesson of being the most tireless champion of the freedom of all who were oppressed, not merely the wage-earner, but also of women, persecuted religions and races, the Jews, Negroes and Chinese. By this object lesson it has won adherents quite outside the circle of wage-earners.

Now, so soon as Social Democracy attains to power, this object lesson is to be replaced by one of an opposite character. The first step consists in the suspension of universal suffrage and of liberty of the Press, the disenfranchisement of large masses of the people, for this must always take place if dictatorship is substituted for democracy. In order to break the political influence of the upper ten thousand, it is not necessary to exclude them from the franchise. They exercise this influence not by their personal votes. As regards small shopkeepers, home workers, peasants who are well off and in moderate condition, the greater part of the intellectuals, so soon as the dictatorship deprives them of their rights, they are changed at once into enemies of Socialism by this kind of object lesson, so far as they are not inimical from the beginning. Thus all those who adhere to Socialism on the ground that it fights for the freedom of all would become enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.

This method will win nobody who is not already a Socialist. It can only increase the enemies of Socialism.

But we saw that Socialism not only promised freedom, but also bread. This ought to reconcile those whom the Communist dictatorship robbed of freedom.

They are not the best of the masses who are consoled in their loss of freedom with bread and pleasure. But without doubt material well-being will lead many to Communism who regard it sceptically, or who are by it deprived of their rights. Only this prosperity must really come, and that quickly, not as a promise for the future, if the object lesson is to be effective.

How is this prosperity to be attained? The necessity for dictatorship pre-supposes that a minority of the population have possessed themselves of the power of the State. A minority composed of those who possess nothing. Th. greatest weapon of the proletariat is, however, its numbers, and in normal times it can only progress on these lines, conquering the political power only when it forms the majority. As a minority it can only achieve power by the combination of extraordinary circumstances, by a catastrophe which causes the collapse of a regime, and leaves the State helpless and impoverished.

Under such circumstances, Socialism, that is general well-being within modern civilisation, would only be possible through a powerful development of the productive forces. Which capitalism brings into existence, and with the aid of the enormous riches which it creates and concentrates in the hands of the capitalist class. A State which by a foolish policy or by unsuccessful war has dissipated these riches, is by its nature condemned to be an unfavourable starting point for the rapid diffusion of prosperity in all classes.

If, as the heir of the bankrupt State, not a democratic but a dictatorial regime enters into power, it even renders the position worse, as civil war is its necessary consequence. What might still be left in the shape of material resources is wasted by anarchy.

In fine, the uninterrupted progress of production is essential for the prosperity of all. The destruction of capitalism is not Socialism. Where capitalist production cannot be transformed at once into Socialist production, it mutt go on as before, otherwise the process of production will be interrupted, and that hardship for the masses will ensue which the modern proletariat so much fears in the shape of general unemployment.

In those places where, under the new conditions, capitalist production has been rendered impossible, Socialist production will only be able to replace n if the proletariat has acquired experience in self-government, in trade unions, and on town councils, and has participated in the making of laws and the control of government, and if numerous intellectuals are prepared to assist with their services the new methods.

In a country which is so little developed economically that the proletariat only forms a minority, such maturity of the proletariat is not to be expected.

It may therefore be taken for granted that in all places where the proletariat can only maintain itself in power by a dictatorship, instead of by democracy, the difficulties with which Socialism is confronted are so great that it would seem to be out of the question that dictatorship could rapidly bring about prosperity for all, and in this manner reconcile to the reign of force the masses of the people who are thereby deprived of political rights.

As a matter of fact, we see that the Soviet Republic, after nine months of existence, instead of diffusing general prosperity, is obliged to explain how the general poverty arises.

We have lying before us: Theses respecting the Socialist Revolution and the tasks of the proletariat during its dictatorship in Russia, which emanates from the Bolshevist side. A passage deals with “the difficulties of the position”.

Paragraph 28 reads as follows: “28. The proletariat has carried out positive organic work under the greatest difficulties. The internal difficulties are: The wearing out and enormous exhaustion of the social resources and even their dissolution in consequence of the war, the policy of the capitalist class before the October revolution (their calculated policy of disorganisation, in order after the ‘Anarchy’, to create a bourgeois dictatorship), the general sabotage of the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals after the October revolution; the permanent counter-revolutionary revolts of the ex-officers, generals and bourgeois, with arms or without; lack of technical skill and experience on the part of the working-class itself (italicised in original), lack of organising experience; the existence of large masses of the petty bourgeoisie, which are an unorganised class, par excellence, etc.”

This is all very true. But it does not indicate anything else than that the conditions are not ripe. And does it not strikingly show that an object lesson on the lines of Socialism is, under these conditions in present-day Russia, not to be thought of? It is a famous object lesson which makes it necessary for theoretical arguments to be set out why that which is to be shown is not possible at the moment. Will it convert those who have hitherto opposed Socialism, and who are only to be convinced by its practical success?

Of course, a new regime will come up against unexpected difficulties. It is wrong to lay the blame for them on this regime, as a matter of course, and to be discouraged by them without closer examination of the circumstances. But if one is to persevere, in spite of these difficulties, then it is necessary to win beforehand a strong conviction of the justice and necessity of this regime. Only then will confusion be avoided. Success worshippers are always uncertain Cantonists.

So we are driven back upon democracy, which obliges us to strive to enlighten and convince the masses by intensive propaganda before we can reach the point of bringing Socialism about. We must here again repudiate the method of dictatorship, which substitutes compulsory object lessons for conviction.

This is not to say that object lessons may avail nothing in the realisation of Socialism. On the contrary, they can and will play a great part in this, but not through the medium of dictatorship.

The various States of the world are at very different stages of economic and political development. The more a State is capitalistic on the one side and democratic on the other, the nearer it is to Socialism. The more its capitalist industry is developed, the higher is its productive power, the greater its riches, the more socially organised its labour, the more numerous its proletariat; and the more democratic a State is, the better trained and organised is its proletariat. Democracy may sometimes repress its revolutionary thought, but it is the indispensable means for the proletariat to attain that ripeness which it needs for the conquest of political power, and the bringing about of the social revolution. In no country is a conflict between the proletariat and the ruling classes absent, but the more a country is progressive in capitalism Mid democracy, the greater is the prospect of the proletariat, in such a conflict, of not merely gaining a passing victory, but also of maintaining it.

Where a proletariat, under such conditions, gains control of the State, it will discover sufficient material and intellectual resources to permit it at once to give the economic development a Socialist direction, and immediately to increase the general well-being.

This will then furnish a genuine object lesson t countries which are economically and politically backward. The mass of their proletariat will not unanimously demand measures on the same lines and also all other sections of the poorer classes, as well as numerous intellectuals, will demand that the State should take the same road to general prosperity. Thus, by the example of the progressive countries, the Cause of Socialism will become irresistible in countries which to-day are not so advanced as to allow their proletariat of its own strength to conquer the power of the State, and put Socialism into operation.

And we need not place this period in the distant future. In a number of industrial States the material and moral prerequisites for Socialism appear already to exist in sufficient measure. The question of the political dominion of the proletariat is merely a question of power alone, above all of the determination of the proletariat to engage in resolute class struggle. But Russia, is not one of these leading industrial States. What is being enacted there now is, in fact, the last of bourgeois, and not the first of Socialist revolutions. This shows itself ever more distinctly. Its present Revolution could only assume a Socialist character if it coincided with Socialist Revolutions in Western Europe.

That by an object lesson of this kind in the more highly-developed nations, the pace of social development may be accelerated, was already recognised by Marx in the preface to the first edition of Capital:

One nation can and should learn from others. And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement - it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.

In spite of their numerous calls on Marx, our Bolshevist friends seem to have quite forgotten this passage, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which they preach and practise, is nothing but a grandiose attempt to clear by bold leaps or remove by legal enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of normal development. They think that it is the least painful method for the delivery of Socialism, for “shortening and lessening its birth-pangs”. But if we are to continue in metaphor, then their practice reminds us more of a pregnant woman, who performs the most foolish exercises in order to shorten the period of gestation, which makes her impatient, and thereby causes a premature birth.

The result of such proceedings is, as a rule, a child incapable of life.

Marx speaks here of the object lesson which one nation may afford another. Socialism is, however, concerned with yet another kind of object lesson, viz., that which a highly-developed industry may furnish to an industry which is backward.

To be sure, capitalist competition everywhere tends to displace old-fashioned industrial methods, but under capitalist conditions this is so painful a process that those threatened by its operation strive to avert it by all means. The Socialist method of production would therefore find in existence a number of processes which are technically obsolete; for example, in agriculture, where large-scale production has made little progress, and in places is even receding.

Socialist production can only develop on the basis of the large industry. Socialist agriculture would have to consist solely in the socialisation of what large-scale production already exists. If good results are thereby obtained, which is to be expected, provided the social labour of freely-organised men is substituted for wage labour, (which only produces very inadequate results in agriculture) the conditions of the workers in the large Socialist industry will be seen to be more favourable than those of the small peasants, and it may then be anticipated with certainty that the latter will voluntarily pass over to the new productive methods, when society furnishes them with the necessary means. But not before. In agriculture the way for Socialism is not prepared by Capitalism in any adequate measure. And it is quite hopeless to try to convince peasant proprietors of the theoretical superiority of Socialism. Only the object lesson of the socialisation of peasant agriculture can help. This, however, presupposes a certain extension of large-scale agriculture. The object lesson will be the quicker and more effective according to the degree of development of large-scale industry in the country.

The policy of the petty bourgeois democrats, which has been taken up by Social Democrats of the David school, and in some respects made more extreme, that is, the destruction of any large-scale agriculture and its partition into small-scale industry, is sharply opposed to Socialism as applied to agriculture, and therefore to Socialism as applied to society generally.

The most striking feature of the present Russian Revolution is its working out on the lines of Eduard David. He, and not Lenin, has given the Revolution its peculiar direction in this respect. That is the Socialist instruction which it imparts. It testifies, in fact, to its bourgeois character.


Last updated on 19.1.2004