Karl Kautsky

The Labour Revolution

II. The Political Revolution


THE character of the transition from the capitalist to the socialist mode of production may also be described as the forms which we may expect the Labour Revolution to assume. The two questions are closely connected with each other.

The types of revolutions, or the great changes in the distribution of class power, as well as the forms of the State, vary with the changes in the economic conditions.

In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852, Marx makes reference to the fact that the Labour Revolution assumes different forms from those of middle class revolutions. He states:

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, rushed onward rapidly from success to success, their stage effects outbid one another, men and things seem to be set in flaming brilliants, ecstasy is the prevailing spirit; but they are short-lived, they reach their climax speedily, then society relapses into a long fit of nervous reaction before it learns how to appropriate the fruits of its period of feverish excitement.

“Proletarian revolutions, on the contrary, such as those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, continually interrupt themselves in their own course, come back to what seems to have been accomplished, in order to start ever anew, scorn with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and meannesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order to enable him to draw fresh strength from the earth and again to rise up against them in more gigantic stature, constantly recoil in fear before the undefined monster magnitude of their own objects, until finally the situation is created which renders all retreat impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out Hic Rhodes, hoc salta.” [1]

Marx here describes the Middle Class Revolution in a masterly fashion, but he lacked the data to describe the Labour Revolution. In the year 1852, it was premature on his part to regard the revolutions of the nineteenth century as Labour revolutions. This is only intelligible on the assumption that the February Revolution in France and the Chartist Movement in England in the year 1848 appeared to him as the preliminary phases of the Labour Revolution, and that he anticipated a vigorous growth of the Labour revolt would set in with the close of the period of reaction which began in the year 1848.

With all his acuteness, Marx was often betrayed by his revolutionary temperament into thinking that the developments of the future, which he foresaw clearly enough, were nearer the point of realization than was actually the case.

Thus in 1852 he could not have been aware that between the great Middle Class Revolution of 1789 and the great Labour Revolution, more than a hundred years of capitalist development would stretch, which would favour the growth of the capitalist class as well as that of the proletariat. Thus the Middle Class Revolution of the eighteenth century was not followed by a Labour revolution until after the dawn of the twentieth century, and in the interval we have more than a century of Labour class struggles, which were necessary to enable the working class to accomplish its revolution.

The conditions of this Revolution are quite different in 1922 from what they were in 1852. Every revolution has two sides, one being political and the other social: the conquest of political power by a new class and the employment of the captured political machinery for the purpose of adapting the economic conditions to the interests of the victorious class, so far as this can be effected by political legislation and administration.

First of all we will discuss the political revolution.

The starting-point of every middle class revolution is a struggle in the direction of democracy, a struggle to resist or to abolish absolutism. In its social aspect it is a struggle of the Third Estate against the First and Second Estates, the Church and the Nobility, which, having become economically and spiritually obsolete, constitute a hindrance to further economic development. At a time of approaching revolution these powers can only maintain their positions with the help of the State.

The monarchy, which in feudal times had formed the spearhead of the nobility, was intimately connected with the latter. Yet for many centuries the monarchy was engaged in a constant struggle against the indiscipline of the nobles, with whom it was generally powerless to cope. It was likewise involved in resistance to the pretensions of the Church. It was only able to put down the rebellious powers with the assistance of the towns. At the same time these powers were in process of being economically ruined by the growth of the monetary system. The advantages from this situation did not immediately accrue to the middle classes, but to the monarchy itself, which transformed the nobility and the Church into its pliant and well-paid tools. By means of the taxation it levied, it was able to establish a strong standing army and a strong bureaucracy, which suppressed every independent organization in the State and protected feudal exploitation.

To shake off feudal and bureaucratic oppression, it was urgently necessary to establish freedom of organization, of speech, and of writing, as well as popular control of legislation and of the Government. These objects coincided with the interests of all the classes and sections which took some part in the process of production and were concerned to save the State and society from economic death. These classes all came within the category of the Third Estate, to which peasants, workers, and the lower middle class belonged, as well as capitalists and intellectuals.

Thus the Middle Class Revolution in its inception is a struggle for democracy, not on the part of a class, but of an Estate, the Third Estate, which comprises the most various classes.

The revolutionary contingent of the Middle Class Revolution was for the most part entirely ignorant of political matters, and lacked any kind of cohesion. Every means of enlightenment and organisation had been withheld from it by the absolutist Government.

The only organizations which existed were controlled by the Government, and these were the strictly disciplined bureaucracy and the army. Moreover, the army alone was accustomed to the use of weapons and adequately armed.

Under these circumstances, any resistance to the Government was impossible in normal times. It would only become possible if a crisis broke out, which caused the rulers to lose their heads and become divided, and also dissolved the army or undermined its discipline, driving the incoherent masses of the population into the streets of the capital, where they would suddenly gain courage from their unexpected union, and finally gather the strength to overthrow the tottering Government.

Consequently middle class revolutions tend to assume an unexpected, sudden, catastrophic, and elemental character.

They are also planless and incalculable. Owing to its political inexperience and ignorance, the revolutionary mass is not guided by a clear perception of aims, but by its instincts and passions. Rumour takes the place of insight into facts. In the moment of victory it is inclined to overrate its strength and exaggerate what can be accomplished.

And being unaware of the relative strength of parties in the State, it promptly collapses as soon as it suffers a defeat. The agitated city of Paris became quite calm after the ninth Thermidor 1794, after the fall of Robespierre!

In his History of the Great French Revolution, Kropotkin would have us believe that greater political wisdom was to be found among the revolutionary masses than in the parliaments. The real state of affairs was as follows:

The intellectuals were the only section of the Third Estate which possessed profound political insight. From their ranks were recruited the leaders of the revolutionary masses, and the great legislative and constructive work of the Revolution was conducted by them.

The intellectuals in the eighteenth century were not a class which was eager for bloody struggles. Their labours favoured the development of the brain, not of the muscles; they fought out their disputes with the weapons of wit, of argument, and sometimes of intrigue, but never with their fists. In the eighteenth century, being freed from military service, they despised the use of weapons and recoiled from bloodshed. They preferred peaceful compromises to despairing insurrections, and held it was better to tire the enemy than to try to defeat him.

In their readiness for insurrection and for civil war, the masses prove themselves superior to the intellectuals, and this fact exercised a salutary influence during several crises of the French Revolution. But this fact does not justify us in concluding that illiteracy is superior to knowledge.

Yet it is not merely by their reckless fighting that the masses distinguish themselves in the Middle Class Revolution. We have seen that this revolution is a task of the Third Estate, which comprises various classes. The latter co-operate so long as it is a question of overthrowing the absolutist regime. The moment this aim is achieved, and even while the regime is still tottering, the diverse elements of the Third Estate begin to feel the important differences which separate them more acutely than their common antagonism to absolute government and to the feudal powers. They are divided by tactical differences as well as by antagonistic interests. For each class has a favourite mode of waging the struggle, which is adapted to its particular resources.

The direction of the Middle Class Revolution passes first of all to those sections which are able the soonest to acquire the knowledge requisite to guide and re-organize the State, the capitalists and the intellectuals, who are comprised under the common name of the bourgeoisie. The intellectuals do not form a compact class, but are destined by their social position constantly to champion alien class interests. But their situation also enables them to perceive most readily what is necessary for the common social interest. And at the time of which we are speaking the interests of society coincided with the interests of industrial capitalism. Consequently, the, intellectuals were strongly biased in favour of capitalism, although they were not antagonistic to the workers, who did not yet play any part as a separate class. The development of industry which was emerging from the ruins of feudalism and absolutism seemed then to be synonymous with general prosperity and happiness.

With this expectation all the elements of the Third Estate plunged into the Revolution.

But it brought increased prosperity only to the capitalists and the peasants, not to the small handicraftsmen, tradesmen, and wage-earners. It was these poorer sections which, by their boldness and reckless self-sacrifice, had overthrown the old regime. They felt themselves to be the masters of the capital, and consequently, in the existing state of centralization, the masters of the Government and of the State. And yet their lot was not to be lightened!

As long as they were conscious of their superior strength, they strove to carry the Revolution to greater lengths, but their efforts were futile, as iron economic laws rendered industrial capitalism irresistible so long as commodity production continued. They became increasingly antagonistic to all other classes. They were now confronted not only by the supporters of the monarchy, the Church, and the aristocracy, but by the capitalists and the majority of the intellectuals, as well as by the comfortable members of the lower middle class and very often the peasants. As a minority in face of a growing majority, the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of the capital and those intellectuals who led them were impelled to adopt the system of terrorism, which could only end with the complete collapse of the movement. At this juncture no other class was in a position to govern directly for itself. The dictatorship of the terrorists had created a new, well-disciplined army, and the beginnings of a new political police system.

As after the fall of the dictatorship of the lower classes, none of the higher classes was in a position to assert itself by its own strength, the various antagonistic classes holding each other in check, a new dictatorship was set up by the war lord.

A Bonapartist or Caesarian regime, such as existed in France, as the result of the Middle Class Revolution, formed a state of transition to capitalist class rule.



1. Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Daniel De Leon’s translation.


Last updated on 27.1.2004