Karl Kautsky


The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


Chapter X

The New Theory


We have seen that the method of dictatorship does not promise good results for the proletariat, either from the standpoint of theory or from that of the special Russian conditions; nevertheless, it is understandable only in the light of these conditions.

The fight against Czarism was for a long time a fight against a system of government which bad ceased to be based on the conditions prevailing, but was only maintained by naked force, and only by force was to be overthrown. This fact would easily lead to a cult of force even among the revolutionaries, and to over-estimating what could be done by the powers over them, which did not repose on the economic conditions, but on special circumstances. Accordingly, the struggle against Czarism was carried on secretly, and the method of conspiracy created the manners and the habits proper to dictatorship, and not to democracy.

The operation of these factors was, however, crossed by another consequence of the struggle against Absolutism. We have already referred to the fact that, in contradistinction to democracy, which awakens an interest for wider relations and greater objects side by side with its constant preoccupations with momentary ends, Absolutism arouses theoretical interest. There is to-day, however, only one revolutionary theory of society, that of Karl Marx.

This became the theory of Russian Socialism. Now what this theory teaches is that our desires and capabilities are limited by the material conditions, and it shows how powerless is the strongest Will which would rise superior to them. It conflicted sharply with the cult of mere force, and caused the Social Democrats to recognise that definite boundaries were set to their participation in the coming Revolution, which, owing to the economic backwardness of Russia, could only be a bourgeois one.

Then the second Revolution came, and suddenly brought a measure of power to the Socialists which surprised them, for this Revolution led to the complete demobilisation of the Army, which was the strongest support of property and bourgeois order. And at the same time as the physical support collapsed, the moral support of this order went to pieces, neither the Church nor the Intellectuals being able to maintain their pretensions. The rule devolved on the lower classes in the State, the workers and peasants, but the peasants do not form a class which is able itself to govern. They willingly permitted themselves to be led by a Proletarian Party, which promised them immediate peace, at whatever price, and immediate satisfaction of their land hunger. The masses of the proletariat rallied to the same party, which promised them peace and bread.

Thus the Bolshevist Party gained the strength which enabled it to seize political power. Did this not mean that at length the prerequisite was obtained which Man and Engels had postulated for the coming of Socialism, viz., the conquest of political power by the proletariat? In truth, economic theory discountenanced the idea that Socialist production was realisable at once under the social conditions of Russia, and not less unfavourable to it was the practical confirmation of this theory, that the new regime in no way signified the sole rule of the proletariat, but the rule of a coalition of proletarian and peasant elements, which left each section free to behave as it liked on its own territory. The proletariat put nothing in the way of the peasants as regards the land, and the peasants put no obstacle in the way of the proletariat as regards the factories. None the less, a Socialist Party had become the ruler in a great State, for the first time in the world’s history. Certainly a colossal and, for the fighting proletariat, a glorious event.

But for what can a Socialist Party use its power except to bring about Socialism? It must at once proceed to do so, and, without thought or regard, clear out of the way all obstacles which confront it. If democracy thereby comes in conflict with the new regime, which, in spite of the great popularity which it so quickly won, cannot dispose of a majority of the votes in the Empire, then so much the worse for democracy. Then it must be replaced by dictatorship, which is all the easier to accomplish, as the people’s freedom is quite a new thing in Russia, and as yet has struck no deep roots amongst the masses of the people. It was now the task of dictatorship to bring about Socialism. This object lesson must not only suffice for the elements in its own country which are still in opposition, but must also compel the proletariat of other capitalist countries to imitation, and provoke them to Revolution.

This was assuredly a train of thought of outstanding boldness and fascinating glamour for every proletarian and every Socialist. What we have struggled for during half a century, what we have so often thought ourselves to be near, what has always again evaded us, is at length going to be accomplished. No wonder that the proletarians of all countries have hailed Bolshevism. The reality of proletarian rule weighs heavier in the scale than theoretical considerations. And that consciousness of victory is still more strengthened by mutual ignorance of the conditions of the neighbour. It is only possible for a few to study foreign countries, and the majority believe that in foreign countries it is at bottom the same as with us, and when this is not believed, very fantastic ideas about foreigners are entertained.

Consequently, we have the convenient conception that everywhere the same Imperialism prevails, and also the conviction of the Russian Socialists that the political revolution is as near to the peoples of Western Europe as it is in Russia, and, on the other hand, the belief that the conditions necessary for Socialism exist in Russia as they do in Western Europe.

What happened, once the Army had been dissolved and the Assembly had been proscribed, was only the consequence of the step that had been taken.

All this is very understandable, if not exactly encouraging. On the other hand, it is not so conceivable why our Bolshevist comrades do not explain their measures on the ground of the peculiar situation in Russia, and justify them in the light of the pressure of the special circumstances, which, according to their notions, left no choice but dictatorship or abdication. They went beyond this by formulating quite a new theory, on which they based their measures, and for which they claimed universal application.

For us the explanation of this is to be found in one of their characteristics, for which we should have great sympathy, viz., their great interest in theory.

The Bolshevists are Marxists, and have inspired the proletarian sections coming under their influence with great enthusiasm for Marxism. Their dictatorship, however, is in contradiction to the Marxist teaching that no people can overcome the obstacles offered by the successive phases of their development by a jump, or by legal enactment. How is it that they find a Marxist foundation for their proceedings?

They remembered opportunely the expression, “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Marx used in a letter written in 1875. In so doing he had, indeed, only intended to describe a political condition, and not a form of government. Now this expression is hastily employed to designate the latter, especially as manifested in the rule of the Soviets.

Now if Marx had somewhere said that under certain circumstances things might come to a dictatorship of the proletariat, he has described this condition as one unavoidable for the transition to Socialism. In fact, as he declared, almost at the same time that in countries like England and America a peaceful transition to Socialism was possible, which would only be on the basis of democracy and not of dictatorship, he has also shown that he did not mean by dictatorship the suspension of democracy. Yet this does not disconcert the champions of dictatorship. As Marx once stated that the dictatorship of the proletariat might be unavoidable, so they announce that the Soviet Constitution, and the disfranchising of its opponents, was recognised by Marx himself as the form of government corresponding to the nature of the proletariat, and indissolubly bound up with its rule. As such it must last as long as the rule of the proletariat itself, and until Socialism is generally accomplished and all class distinctions have disappeared.

In this sense dictatorship does not appear to be a transitory emergency measure, which, so soon as calmer times have set in, will again give place to democracy, but as a condition for the long duration of which we must adapt ourselves.

This interpretation is confirmed by Theses 9 and 10 respecting the Social Revolution, which state:

(9) Hitherto, the necessity of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was taught, without enquiring as to the form it would take. The Russian Socialist Revolution has discovered this form. It is the form of the Soviet Republic as the type of the permanent Dictatorship of the Proletariat and (in Russia) of the poorer classes of peasants. It is therefore necessary to make the following remarks. We are speaking now, not of a passing phenomenon, in the narrower sense of the word, but of a particular form of the State during the whole historical epoch. What needs now to be done is to organise a new form of the State, and this is not to be confused with special measures directed against the bourgeoisie, which are only functions of a special State organisation appropriate to the colossal tasks and struggle.

(10) The proletarian dictatorship accordingly consists, so to speak, in a permanent state of war against the bourgeoisie. It is also quite clear that all those who cry out about the violence of the Communists completely forget what dictatorship really is. The Revolution itself is an act of naked force. The word dictatorship signifies in all languages nothing less than government by force. The class meaning of force is here important, for it furnishes the historical justification of revolutionary force. It is also quite obvious that the more difficult the situation of the Revolution becomes, the sharper the dictatorship must be.

From the above it is also apparent that Dictatorship as a form of government is not only to be a permanent thing, but will also arise in all countries.

If in Russia now the newly-acquired general freedom is put an end to again, this must also happen after the victory of the proletariat in countries where the people’s freedom is already deeply rooted, where it has existed for half a century and longer, and where the people have won it and maintained it in frequent bloody revolutions. The new theory asserts this in all earnestness. And stranger still it finds support not only amongst the workers of Russia, who still remember the yoke of the old Czardom, and now rejoice to be able to turn the handle for once, even as apprentices when they become journeymen rejoice when they may gve the apprentices who come after them the drubbing they used to receive themselves – no, the new theory finds support even in old democracies like Switzerland.

Yet something stranger still and even less understandable is to come.

A complete democracy is to be found nowhere, and everywhere we have to strive after modifications and improvements. Even in Switzerland there is an agitation for the extension of the legislative powers of the people, for proportional representation and for woman suffrage. In America the power and mode of selection of the highest judges need to be very severely restricted. Far greater are the demands that should be put forward by us in the great bureaucratic and militarist States in the interests of democracy. And in the midst of these struggles, the most extreme fighters raise their heads, and say to the opponents: That which we demand for the protection of minorities, the opposition, we only want so long as we ourselves are the opposition, and in the minority. As soon as we have become the majority, and gained the power of government, our first act will be to abolish as far as you are concerned all that we formerly demanded for ourselves, viz., franchise, freedom of Press and of organisation, etc.

The Theses respecting the Socialist Revolution are quite unequivocal on this point:

(17) The former demands for a democratic republic, and general freedom (that is freedom for the bourgeoisie as well) were quite correct in the epoch that is now passed, the epoch of preparation and gathering of strength. The worker needed freedom for his Press, while the bourgeois Press was noxious to him, but he could not at this time put forward a demand for the suppression of the bourgeois Press. Consequently, the proletariat demanded general freedom, even freedom for reactionary assemblies, for black labour organisations.

(18) Now we are in the period of the direct attack on capital, the direct overthrow and destruction of the imperialist robber State, and the direct suppression of the bourgeoisie. It is therefore absolutely clear that in the present epoch the principle of defending general freedom (that is also for the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie) is not only superfluous, but directly dangerous.

(19) This also holds good for the Press, and the leading organisations of the social traitors. The latter have been unmasked as the active elements of the counter-revolution. They even attack with weapons the proletarian Government. Supported by former officers and the money bags of the defeated finance capital, they appear on the scene as the most energetic organisations for various conspiracies. The proletariat dictatorship is their deadly enemy. Therefore, they must be dealt with in a corresponding manner.

(20) As regards the working class and the poor peasants, these possess the fullest freedom.

Do they really possess the fullest freedom?

The “Social Traitors” are proletarians and Socialists, too, but they offer opposition, and are therefore to be deprived of rights like the bourgeois opposition. Would we not display the liveliest anger, and fight with all our strength in any case where a bourgeois government endeavoured to employ similar measures against its opposition?

Certainly we should have to do so, but our efforts would only have a laughable result if the bourgeois government could refer to Socialist precepts like the foregoing, and a practice corresponding with them.

How often have we reproached the liberals that they are different in Government from what they are in opposition, and that then they abandon all their democratic pretensions. Now the Liberals are at least sufficiently prudent to refrain from the formal abandonment of any of their democratic demands. They act according to the maxim; one does this, but does not say so.

The authors of the Theses are undeniably more honourable; whether they are wiser may be doubted. What would be thought of the wisdom of the German Social Democrats, if they openly announced that the democracy, for which they fight to-day, would be abandoned the day after victory. That they have perverted their democratic principles to their opposites, or that they have no democratic principles at all; that democracy is merely a ladder for them, up which to climb to governmental omnipotence, a ladder they will no longer need, and will push away, as soon as they have reached the top, that, in a word, they are revolutionary opportunists.

Even for the Russian revolutionaries it is a short-sighted policy of expediency, if they adopt the method of dictatorship, in order to gain power, not to save the jeopardised democracy, but in order to maintain themselves in spite of it. This is quite obvious.

On the other hand, it is less obvious why some German Social Democrats who are not yet in power, who furthermore only at the moment represent a weak opposition, accept this theory. Instead of seeing something which should be generally condemned in the method of dictatorship, and the disfranchising of large sections of the people, which at the most is only defensible as a product of the exceptional conditions prevailing in Russia, they go out of their way to praise this method. as a condition which the German Social Democracy should also strive to realise.

This assertion is not only thoroughly false, it is in the highest degree destructive. If generally accepted, it would paralyse the propagandist strength of our party to the utmost, for, with the exception of a small handful of sectarian fanatics, the entire German, as also the whole proletariat of the world, is attached to the principle of general democracy. The proletariat would angrily repudiate every thought of beginning its rule with a new privileged class, and a new disfranchised class. It would repudiate every suggestion of coupling its demand for general rights for the whole people with a mental reservation, and in reality only strive for privileges for itself. And not less would it repudiate the comic insinuation of solemnly declaring now that its demand for democracy is a mere deceit.

Dictatorship as a form of government in Russia is as understandable as the former anarchism of Bakunin. But to understand it does not mean that we should recognise it; we must reject the former as decisively as the latter. The dictatorship does not reveal itself as a resource of a Socialist Party to secure itself in the sovereignty which has been gained in opposition to the majority of the people, but only as means of grappling with tasks which are beyond its strength, and the solution of which exhausts and wears it; in doing which it only too easily compromises the ideas of Socialism itself, the progress of which it impedes rather than assists.

Happily, the failure of the dictatorship is not synonymous with a collapse of the Revolution. It would be so only if the Bolshevist dictatorship was the mere prelude to a bourgeois dictatorship. The essential achievements of the Revolution will be saved, if dictatorship is opportunely replaced by democracy.


Last updated on 19.1.2004