Karl Kautsky

The National Constituent Assembly

(February 1919)

Source: The Class Struggle, Vol.III, No.I, February 1919.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, June 2002.

Four great problems confront the government brought in by the revolution. The first is the conclusion of peace and bringing about of normal intercourse with the other countries. Second, making certain of the supply of food. Third, the rebuilding of the government machinery so as to make it suitable for a Socialist method of production. And lastly, the controlling of the steps of reconstruction, which is subdivided into the change from a war to a peace basis, and the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society.

This formulation of our problems is rejected by many revolutionists as being “philistine” and even “bourgeois.” They demand that the revolution be carried still further.

It is not quite clear what is meant by this very loose expression. Do they imply by the word “Revolution” that the present government must be overthrown? Who is to overthrow it, what is to replace it? The present government is composed of both the great Socialist parties of Germany. We will not here investigate as to who is to bear the blame for the split.

That this weakens the German proletariat at this very crucial movement, at a time when it needs all its strength to hold its own, will not he denied by the intelligent of either party. The co-operation of the two parties, while not an ideal state, is the only condition that makes a Socialist government possible under the given circumstances. Every attempt to overthrow this compromise government only sets one part of the proletariat in opposition to the other, thus making the strength of the entire proletariat impotent, and making sure the victory of the counter-revolutionists; just as in 1794, when the quarrels between Hebert, Danton and Robespierre sealed the downfall of the party of the Mountain and the victory of the bourgeoisie.

However, the demand to carry the revolution still further may, in another sense, be interpreted as not being altogether inimical to the present government. It would certainly be disastrous should the working-class masses begin to believe that now everything is as it should be and the government will provide all necessities of life. But there need be no fear that they will go to sleep again. Even if there should be such a danger, it would be counter-acted by our opponents. Their first shock is over, they are beginning to rally and use the new freedom for their own advantage. By no means should any one hinder them in this. The urgent need rests upon us, however, of meeting their activity, their work of agitation and organization with ours, to use the general awakening of the masses so as to win them over to our aims. The mass of the proletariat and also groups of the petty-bourgeoisie and intellectuals had a close interest in Socialism. Why many of them did not join us, was merely because they doubted our power. They voted for the Centrists, Liberals, National-Liberals and Conservatives not because their programme appealed to them more, but because they believed in their power. Now that we have gotten the power into our hands many of these blind ones have begun to see clearly. They will now believe in us, and work with us, if we give them an opportunity to join us in our activity.

And because the belief in our power means so much to so many unenlightened members of the lower strata, I do not see such an advantage, as many of my friends do, in postponing the gathering of the Constituent Assembly. Their belief in our power cannot increase with further delay. It may rather decrease, as soon as the shock, caused by the unheard of cataclysm begins to abate. The champions of the delay count upon the lesson to the masses from the practical application of Socialism. But we cannot work by magic. We may speed the work of nationalizing production, but a decided improvement in the welfare of the masses will first be possible when we succeed by advanced nationalization to increase the productivity of society’s work. This may require one or two years. But it is just these unenlightened masses, whose support is most important, that expect Socialism to make a paradise of this earth tomorrow. Not to call the National Assembly together until Socialism has by its accomplishments won over the doubtful ones, we cannot.

On the other hand, it is a lack of faith, absolutely beyond my comprehension, to fear that we are lost as soon as we place our programme before the public. I have complete confidence in its conquering power after the frightful sufferings of the past four years. Waiting will not enhance this power, but weaken it. It gives an impression of insincerity, of hesitation and lack of faith in one’s own strength. And that is particularly bad where it is necessary to convert doubting, undecided elements. They wish to convene the National Assembly only after Socialist measures have been executed. How can they be carried out, however, with the present government machinery? And how will they bring this change uniformly and thoroughly throughout the country without a Constituent National Assembly?

For instance, one of the first measures will be the nationalization of coal mines. But how can this be done while the relation between Prussia and the rest of the country is not settled? Things cannot remain the way they are now. The coal mines must come under the ownership of the federal government, but the Prussian state must not be allowed to dispose of that question alone. On the other hand, can Lippe-Detmold nationalize anything? And how about the nationalization of the water power? Shall they come into the control of the states or the nation?

It is clear that the foundation of the new state must first be laid, before nationalization can be attempted in practice, not merely in decrees. First to establish government ownership and control, and then the government, would mean to begin building the house at the roof. We were prevented from establishing a modern uniform government under capitalist rule, because of the maintenance of our two dozen kings and princes and the slavish servility of our bourgeoisie toward them. To build up the state, we must first clear away this mass of feudal rubbish, which hinders us from immediately undertaking the socialization of society with all our strength before calling together the National Constituent Assembly.

Naturally, much can be done and must be done immediately. But for the speedy establishment of truly thoroughgoing measures, the machinery of state must first be changed. The transformation of Germany into a democratic republic must not be confined to the disappearance of a few dynasties. It must penetrate the entire spirit of the government in all its details. And only a National Constituent Assembly can do this.

Last updated on 11.11.2011