Karl Kautsky

The Labour Revolution

II. The Political Revolution


(a) Democracy

THE starting-point of the Middle Class Political Revolution is the struggle for democracy, and upon the extent to which this Revolution has removed the vestiges of feudalism will depend the strength of democratic institutions in the middle class State.

These institutions do not attain the same degree of development in every middle class State, as they are conditioned by the level of social development at the time of the Middle Class Revolution and the distribution of power among the various classes within the Third Estate, which is usually designated as the people. Complete democracy is never established at one blow, and is generally liable to set-backs. Thus the task of the Revolution has to be revived and continued in subsequent movements. Of no middle class State are we able to say that it has established complete democracy, and that the fight for the latter is won.

But every middle class revolution establishes a certain number of democratic institutions, whilst capitalist development, especially the growth of communications, prepares the ground which makes the democratic movement irresistible much earlier than the Labour movement.

A large instalment of democracy has been obtained in any country where the working class has progressed to the point at which it can contemplate with some hope of success the seizure of political power, and consequently the carrying out of the Labour Revolution. This is a symptom as well as a prerequisite of the ripeness of the State and of the working class for Socialism.

Democracy is a barometer which permits the strength and the political intelligence of the working class to be measured. Moreover, it is a means for nourishing this strength, as indispensable as the capitalist mode of production itself.

It is obvious that the existence of democracy creates forms for the Labour Revolution that are fundamentally different from those of the Middle Class Revolution.

However much Marx may have recognized that the Labour Revolution would differ from the Middle Class Revolution, in 1852 he was not in a position to discern wherein this distinction would lie, for in no European State at that time had democracy made such progress and rooted itself so firmly as to have given a new content to the proletarian class struggle.

At that time a thoroughgoing democracy could only have been spoken of in connection with the United States of America, a colonial country with wide tracts of free soil, with an enormous majority of peasants and a small minority of industrial workers, whose most energetic members were not inspired by a socialistic ideal, but aimed at acquiring an independent peasant holding or climbing into the middle class. In this country there was as yet no pronounced differentiation of classes. Democratic institutions indeed existed, but a proletariat with developed class-consciousness, which strove for political power, was lacking.

The Swiss cantonal democracy was extremely petty and disproportionate. In the economically backward cantons an extensive democratic system survived from the dim past, from the period of the Mark community. It was not until towards the middle of the nineteenth century that democracy was established in the industrially advanced cantons. It had influenced political habits so little at that time that the forties were the period of insurrections and of civil war in Switzerland, which, however, usually lasted but a few days, and involved the spilling of more wine than blood.

It was not until the last third of the nineteenth century that democracy in Europe ceased to be an isolated and local curiosity, and became a universal phenomenon which influenced the whole of political and social life. The turning-point was the year 1867, which in England saw the reform of the franchise, whereby at least the aristocracy of labour received the vote. In the same year the North German Confederation, the precursor of the German Empire, was founded upon the basis of universal suffrage, and there arose in Austria the liberal era of “citizen ministries,” whose freedom-loving middle class members elected a prince as their president. And in the year 1867 the new political orientation commenced in Napoleonic France, accompanied by rather feeble concessions, which did not prevent the collapse of the Empire and the advent of the Republic in 7870.

The effects of democracy upon class struggles did not become perceptible until the seventies, and even then the results were at first rather meagre, in view of the numerous setbacks, especially the reaction which followed the Communist rising in Paris, and which lasted from 1871 to 1879, and the Socialist proscription in Germany from 1878 to 1890.

As Marx was unable to observe what effect the growth of democratic liberties would exert upon the political struggle, it is all the more remarkable that in 1872, at the conclusion of the Hague Congress of the International, he declared:

“We know that the institutions, the manners and the customs of the various countries must be considered, and we do not deny that there are countries, like England and America, and, if I understood your arrangements better, I might add Holland, where the worker may attain his object by peaceful means. But not in all countries is this the case.”

On two occasions I have drawn the attention of the Bolshevists to this sentence, in my Dictatorship of the Proletariat and then in Terrorism and Communism.

So far as I know, the Communists, who swear by Marx, have made no attempt to discuss this sentence, nor have they even taken any notice of it.

At a later date Engels dealt with the same question in a criticism he made of a draft programme in 1891, where he said:

“It is conceivable that the old society may peacefully evolve into the new in countries where popular representation has gathered to itself all the power, where one may do what one likes constitutionally, as soon as the majority of the people is behind one; in democratic republics like France and America, in monarchies like England, where the dynasty is powerless against the popular will.

“But in Germany, where the Government is practically omnipotent, and the Reichstag and other representative bodies have no power, to proclaim anything of that sort, and that without any need, is to take off the fig-leaf from absolutism, and to screen its nakedness by one’s own body.”

The last paragraph of the above quotation from Engels was quoted textually by Lenin in his State and Revolution, but the first paragraph he paraphrases by saying:

“Following Engels, one can conceive a peaceful development for those countries which possess extensive liberties.”

Lenin thought this inconvenient sentence was robbed of all its force by underlining the words “one can conceive.”

One of the first effects of democracy is that the masses are enabled to organize for specific political or economic objects, and that enrolled in these organizations they maintain constant contact with each other, gather experience, and make leaders of their most gifted and trustworthy comrades.

The mass conflicts in the Middle Class Revolution are fought out in the streets by sections of the population, which, lacking cohesion otherwise, are driven by a sudden political impulse out of their dwellings and workplaces. Contagious excitement goads them to common action, without preparation or plan, following leaders who are the choice of the moment. They are guided chiefly by their instincts and needs, and rumours and illusions take the place of experience and political knowledge.

The struggles of the political Labour Revolution for the conquest of political power by the workers are conducted by great organizations, which have existed for decades, possessing great experience, ample training, well-considered programmes; and leaders who are as famous as they are trustworthy.

The leaders of the Middle Class Revolution were novices who had suddenly become prominent, and of whom the world had known nothing previously. It seemed as if this revolution possessed creative power, judging from the number of political geniuses which it produced, whose careers, however, were as short-lived as they were brilliant, being mere comets flashing across the political sky.

On the other hand, the Labour Revolution that has just begun has not produced any new genius, not because the sections of the population now coming to the fore lack talented persons, but because these persons had an opportunity o£ showing what they were capable of before the Revolution, and of revealing their qualifications to be leaders of their class movement.

Even the present Russian Revolution, which exhibits to such a marked degree all the characteristics of a middle class revolution, found in the general democratic atmosphere of Europe in pre-revolutionary days so many opportunities, at least among the emigration, for developing its talent for leadership, that even it has not produced a solitary new leader of importance. Its Marats and Robespierres, Dantons and Carnots, etc., were well-known comrades long before the Revolution, such as Lenin and Trotsky, Radek and Zinoviev, etc, The Labour Revolution does not produce new parties any more than new leaders. On the other hand, the Middle Class Revolution first creates the conditions which permit the formation of parties, and the parties actively engaged in furthering the Revolution are all of its own creation.

In the present Revolution the Communist Party at the most may be regarded as an innovation, but even this, as an organization, is only a continuation and extension of the Bolshevist Party which existed long before the war. Its programme at any rate is new. It may boast of being the completion and most logical application of old-time Marxism, but in all that distinguishes it from the programme of Social Democracy, it is entirely a child of the Russian Revolution

Born of the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party will cease to exert any influence on the working class when the effects of that Revolution have been dissipated. In a real Labour revolution, which breaks out where the workers as a class have captured political power, the Communist Party, which constitutes a mere sect, will no longer play any part. Victory will fall to the Social Democratic Party, which is wide enough to include all the class-conscious workers, and it will be its task to employ the political power thus acquired to carry out a socialistic transformation.

Such a victory will not come like a thief in the night, as the preliminary struggle is being fought out on the basis of democracy. In this respect also the Labour Revolution differs from the Middle Class Revolution. In the feudal and absolute State, any kind of open political life was impossible, just as it is in present-day Russia. The population knew nothing definite about the Government, its resources, its finances, etc., nothing of the various Court tendencies upon which the government depended: The Government knew just as little of the currents of thought among the population, of its strength and its determination. In these circumstances, the Revolution comes in the form of a surprise, an elemental event which upsets all calculations. The revolt can only triumph through the suddenness of its outbreak, which causes the ruling powers to lose their heads, exposes their confusion and wavering to the world, paralyses their defenders, and encourages their opponents.

One of the consequences of the blindness of absolutism to existing conditions is that its concessions which, if offered at the right time, would have satisfied the people for a period, always come too late when they come at all. Thus an absolutist regime constantly ends in complete collapse, in a terrible catastrophe, which is all the more devastating as force is the only arbitrament which absolutism knows in internal and external policy. Against democrats only soldiers are of any use, William the first Emperor of Germany was fond of saying. And William the last Emperor was of the same opinion. Both were steeped in absolutist modes of thought.

The case is otherwise with democracy. Democratic institutions which include universal suffrage enable every change in the thoughts and feelings of the masses and in their relative strength to be clearly discerned. This perception restrains the rising class from many premature attacks, for which its strength would not be adequate. The same perception causes a ruling class voluntarily to evacuate many positions whose untenableness it has recognized, and whose stubborn defence would involve it in a defeat, which might culminate in disaster. The struggles of insurgents with Government troops is supplanted by the struggles of parties to win supporters through the agency of the press and public meetings; the struggles of parties to secure a majority in parliamentary elections.

As a rule this method excludes the element of great surprises-the arena of conflict is occupied by parties with which the people have long been familiar, and the people themselves are politically educated and know what is to be expected from each party.

Democracy does not, however, entirely exclude political surprises, for social life does not always repeat itself in the same way, and novel situations may suddenly arise, especially in foreign politics, which would confuse the people in such a manner that the outcome could not be foreseen. Moreover, even under the best democratic institutions, a section of the population lives amid conditions which prevent it from taking a regular part in political life. This section has to be aroused by the stimulus of great events before it plays any part in political decisions. It does this without knowledge and without consideration, being moved by its feelings and instincts. It may happen that this section will turn the scale and decide the fate of the nation when the striving parties are of approximately equal strength.

This tendency sometimes works most disastrously, yet we need not exaggerate its importance. A strong party which is firmly rooted in democratic institutions never suffers a crushing defeat. If for the moment it fails to win a majority, this fact is an incentive to enlighten and train the backward masses, which had turned the decision against it, in order to embark upon the next attempt with increased strength and better prospect of success.

If these considerations apply to democracy in general, they have a special importance for the political revolution of the working class which is accomplished under democratic conditions. Democracy makes it possible for this revolution to be peaceful, bloodless, and without coercion; democracy also ensures that this revolution will occur with a lesser degree of wonder and produce fewer new champions and new programmes than was the case with the Middle Class Revolution. Consequently, the Labour Revolution is less dramatic and provides fewer sensations for eager journalists; it is more prosaic and less extravagant than the Middle Class Revolution. The fact that the present Russian Revolution is rich in dramatic episodes shows once more that it is actually a middle class revolution, in spite of the intentions of its leading personalities.

Against the peaceful development of the Labour Revolution it is contended that no ruling class voluntarily relinquishes its privileged position. Doubtless this is perfectly true. It would be foolish to imagine that a ruling class could be persuaded into withdrawing from the field, or that the progress of civilization will ever imbue the capitalist class with so much social spirit that it will abdicate all its positions without contest to the workers.

If I am reminded of August 4, 1789, when the nobles of the French National Assembly enthusiastically renounced their feudal privileges, I would say that this was voluntary in appearance only, and was actually carried out under the pressure of a formidable peasant revolt, which threatened the nobles with the expropriation or the destruction of all their possessions, unless the peasants were pacified by the renunciation of feudal privileges.

The workers will certainly not win political power unless they already represent a strong and even preponderating force. The importance of democracy lies in the fact that the magnitude of this force may be clearly perceived, without having recourse to armed conflict.

Whether votes are a power or not depends upon the type of men who cast them. If the voters are shiftless persons who only live by the favour of the rich, or wage-earners whose mentality is such that they regard the capitalists as “bread givers,” such workers will certainly not capture political power through the votes they cast. So far as they possess the vote at all, they will rather be inclined to sell the political power which it represents to the highest bidder.

The case is different with workers in a society which they sustain and which would collapse without them. When the workers form a majority and are conscious of their importance to society, their voting for the Socialist Party signifies that they have recognized their strength and are determined to make use of it.

Of course the vote is only a power within democracy. It would be foolish to attempt to wage the struggle for democracy itself with the agencies of democracy. By peaceful means democracy is neither to be wrested from nor defended against a regime of coercion. This is often overlooked.

Until a short time ago a large fragment of arbitrary power still inhered to the installment of democracy that had been conquered in the great States of the European Continent. They were all strongly centralized military States, and most of them military monarchies. Even in the French Republic so many vestiges have survived from the period of the Empire that it has often been called an empire without an emperor.

In these cases complete democracy has first to be conquered. But how else than through the violent overthrow of the constitution could the military monarchies have been overcome? Mere votes are not sufficient against them.

The progress that our party made through. manhood suffrage, in spite of the military monarchy, caused many of our comrades to hope that the working class would be able to secure political power under the monarchy by peaceful means, that is to say, the Labour invasion of the strongholds of power would be so imperceptible that the military monarchy itself would not perceive how it was losing its positions one after another.

There were Socialists who even opined that the interest of the monarchy itself could be enlisted in favour of Socialism, if the latter were presented as a means of satisfying the appetite for conquest, especially in colonial policy.

The idea that the forcible overthrow of the monarchy and the revolution which this act implied could be circumvented by a process of gradual reforms, was known as the reformist conception in contrast to the revolutionary conception. Around these conceptions revolved our hottest party conflicts in the two decades preceding the war. The discussion is now only of academic interest, as the Revolution which was to have been averted by reforms actually came.

So far we revolutionaries proved to be right. But matters worked out rather differently from what we had expected.

The whole middle class world had made its peace with the military monarchy; the working class alone strove for the democratic Republic. We were therefore of opinion that the Republic would not be established until the working class was strong enough to settle accounts with the whole of the possessing classes. We anticipated that the advent of the Republic would coincide with the conquest of political power by the workers, and that the democratic German Republic would of necessity be a social-democratic republic.

This expectation would probably have been realized if the monarchy had been overthrown from within. Nor was it a prospect of the dim and distant future. The more the growing power of Social Democracy was expressed through general suffrage, the nearer was our prospect of gaining a majority in the Reichstag, the more rapidly the decisive conflict with the monarchy approached.

But before matters came to this point, the monarchy unchained that senseless war which led to its military collapse. At this date the German working class was so strong that the military collapse before the external foe was followed by the political collapse in the Empire. But the working class was not strong enough to be able to maintain the power which the catastrophe placed in its hands, especially as the war had weakened its ranks, demoralized many of its members, and disrupted its most revolutionary sections. Instead of presenting a united front to its middle class opponents, the working class was ravaged by internecine strife.

Thus its achievements did not amount to more than the abolition of the military monarchy and the introduction of a few social reforms, particularly the eight-hour day.

Now the old antagonism between revolutionaries and reformers seems to have cropped up again. But in reality this antagonism in this post-revolutionary epoch is only a “useless admonition” to “futile strife.”

The Republican Constitution, which is one of the products of the Revolution, despite its defects, provides the socialistic working class with sufficient opportunities to gain political power by peaceful means.

This Constitution is not yet so secure that the working class may not have to resort to force in order to defend it. But the workers have not the slightest excuse to desire forcibly to subvert it.

He who in Germany to-day speaks of a forcible upheaval and a revival of the Revolution in these terms, reminds one of a man who, because he was justified in announcing the imminent sunrise at 3 a.m., thinks he owes it to his principles to announce the coming sunset at noon.

These revolutionaries of to-day belittle their own work of yesterday. They overlook the tremendous changes brought about by the Revolution of yesterday, of 1918, and the fact that it has completely changed the conditions which govern the struggle for power.

Our present task is not the forcible overthrow of the constitution, but the fullest utilization of the democratic rights that it confers. It is Labour unity, and not the idea of upheaval, which will assist the German workers at the present time to capture political power. The revival of the antagonism between revolutionaries and reformers, which blocks the path to unity, is now only an obstacle to the advent of Labour rule, to the Social Revolution, to the supplanting of capitalism by socialism, at which all we Socialists are aiming, however we may be designated.



(b) Forcing the Pace of the Revolution

The Labour Revolution thus progresses upon the basis of democracy, while the Middle Class Revolution proceeds from the fight for democracy. This distinction involves a further point of difference.

We have seen that the Middle Class Revolution begins as a revolt of various classes against absolutism. When the latter is overthrown, the liberated sections of the people become fully conscious of their class interests and class antagonisms, and begin to fight among themselves, using the forcible methods characteristic of the Middle Class Revolution, which push the latter to greater lengths and bring ever more extreme classes and parties to political power.

In her remarkable work entitled The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg asserts the necessity of “advancing impetuously, crushing all obstacles with an iron hand, and continually extending its aims,” to be the “vital principle” and the basic doctrines of every great revolution” (pp. 77 and 78).

As a matter of fact, this process is only the vital principle of every great middle class revolution.

The Labour Revolution is accomplished under quite different conditions. As it presupposes a long period of familiarity with democratic institutions, the Labour Revolution is carried out after the full development and clear recognition of class antagonisms which were formerly veiled by absolutism. Although democracy introduces into political struggles more peaceful methods than those of former times, it must not be assumed that this denotes a mitigation of class antagonisms. Classes are economic, and not political, categories; their interests and antagonisms, as well as the degree of their acuteness, depends upon economic, and not political, factors. The separate classes become enlightened as to their interests and antagonisms in the degree that the various sections of the people have opportunities for self-expression. Any accentuation of these interests and antagonisms produced by economic causes is immediately detected under democracy. Consequently, the Labour Revolution, unlike the Middle Class Revolution, cannot originate in illusions entertained by various antagonistic classes regarding their common interests. The Labour Revolution is the result of decades of tenacious class struggles, during which class consciousness on each side has been developed to the highest pitch. It is inaugurated by the preponderance of a single class, the working class, behind which there stands no other class to be oppressed and exploited by the new rulers. Through its political organization, the Social Democracy, the working class has set forth its aims in the most comprehensive manner long before its victory. There is no class or party which can rise up behind its back to extend the limits of the Revolution.

Nevertheless, we have to be prepared for the appearance of an extreme party, which would try to carry the Revolution to greater lengths.

The workers do not form a homogeneous mass. They are divided into two sections, one of which is so favoured by special economic conditions or by legislation that it is able to form strong organizations, and thereby look after its interests: it constitutes the ascending portion of the working class, its “aristocracy,” which is able to offer successful resistance to the depressing tendencies of capitalism, sometimes to the extent that the struggle against capitalism is no longer a fight against poverty, but a struggle for power.

By the side of these well-disciplined, trained, and fit troops is the great army of those who are placed in such unfavourable conditions that they are not yet able to organize themselves and counteract the depressing tendencies of capitalism. They remain in poverty, and often sink deeper into the mire.

The Labour Revolution also arouses these sections and inspires them with courage for the struggle. And the workers who have previously been most apathetic are now most eager to force the pace. For them the class struggle is a war against poverty. The worker who is crushed by poverty cannot wait; he urgently needs immediate help. As long as he feels impotent, he resigns himself. But the moment he gains possession of power, he determines to put an immediate stop to all suffering and oppression. Ignorant of the iron laws of economics, he believes he is able to accomplish everything by force. Owing to his ignorance and inexperience, he falls an easy prey, in his enthusiasm for liberty and prosperity, to the demagogues who deliberately or carelessly dangle before him the most brilliant promises. He is goaded into fighting the trained and organized workers, who are accustomed to slow movement, who only attempt to perform the tasks for which their strength and capacity are adequate, and who have sufficient experience to realize that the problems in question are not so simple as they appear. This antagonism within the ranks of the working class is accentuated through the influence of Marxism. At the time of the Middle Class Revolution, a science of political economy had indeed come into existence, but it regarded commodity production as the natural form of production, and its laws as the natural laws of social economy. The extent to which all political and social ideas and institutions are economically determined had not yet been discerned.

Consequently economic knowledge was only to be found amongst the bourgeoisie. This word is constantly used as if it were synonymous with the capitalist class, but this is a mistake. Bourgeois signifies the municipal citizen as distinct from citoyen, the citizen of the State. We understand by the term bourgeoisie the whole of the educated and comfortable section of the urban population, in contradistinction to the whole of the country population, the large landowners as well as the peasantry, and the poorer section of the urban population. The bourgeoisie does not form a class in the economic sense; it is, like the “Third Estate,” a collective name, which comprises various elements, intellectuals as well as capitalists, and in addition many sections that live, not from the exploitation of alien labour, but merely from their own labours, being frequently exploited themselves. The intellectuals among the bourgeoisie are perhaps more numerous than the capitalists.

Some comprehension of the laws of political economy existed amongst the bourgeoisie at the time of the Middle Class Revolution, although such knowledge was not to be found amongst the poorer members of the lower middle class, the workers, or the peasants. The workers above all were not yet in a position to acquire economic knowledge; they instinctively fought against the recognition of economic laws, inasmuch as the latter taught that the workers’ poverty was an ordinance of nature. The struggles of these sections against the bourgeoisie during the Revolution were at the same time struggles of ignorance against economic insight.

The position is quite different to-day. Marx and Engels perceived that the laws of political economy have the force of natural laws only under specific historical conditions, conditions which alter in accordance with their natural laws. They discerned not only the laws of movement of the existing mode of production more profoundly than anyone else, but also its laws of development. Whilst the former reveal the necessity of exploitation and poverty under the existing conditions, the latter show the abolition of exploitation and the victory of the workers to be inevitable.

During the same period as the more fortunate section of the workers raises itself out of its degradation and is enabled to acquire more and more knowledge, there also arises the doctrine which promises the victory of the working class and imposes on it the duty of studying the laws and the facts of economic life as closely as its circumstances permit.

There are, however, two sides to the Marxian doctrine. On the one hand, it shows the necessity of the Labour victory.

The weaker the position of the workers and the more oppressive the conditions under which they live, the more important it becomes to emphasize this side of the Marxian doctrine, as it is essential to encourage a working class battling with superior forces by pointing out that the laws of development of the capitalist mode of production itself are moving in its direction and will eventually assure it a preponderant position in society.

The task of trained Marxists assumes quite a different shape after victory has been attained. Now the great question that arises is how to make use of the victory.

And it behoves us Marxists to lay the greatest stress upon the other side of Marxism, which teaches that all political and social ideas and institutions are conditioned byeconomic laws which may not be altered at will. It teaches that Socialism will inevitably, and as a necessity of nature, emerge at a certain stage of capitalist development. But this involves a recognition of the fact that Socialism is impossible at an earlier stage of development. To quote a well-known, but too little regarded, passage from the preface to Marx’s Capital:

“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 these revolutionary tunes another passage from Capital, which also employs the metaphor of birth, is more frequently quoted than the above:

“Force is the midwife of every old society that is pregnant with a new.”

Those who are fond of quoting this passage generally forget that Marx has just described this force, not as that of the fist or the bayonet-machine guns did not yet exist-but as the State power, the “concentrated and organized force of society,” and that, on the other hand, in the passage previously quoted, Marx expressly warns against attempting to clear by bold leaps the obstacles offered by the successive phases of social development.

An impatient midwife who employs force to deliver a pregnant woman in the fifth month instead of the ninth will perform the feat of considerably shortening the period of pregnancy, but all the vital functions of the child will be suspended after a few convulsions, and the mother will be lucky if she escapes a lingering illness or even death.

This species of midwifery is at the moment being practised on that poor mother called Russia by a number of doctors who assert that they have walked the Marxian hospital. These loud-mouthed saviours announce in every accent of quackery that their application of force is the appropriate means “of shortening and mitigating the birth pangs of Socialism.”

Whenever and wherever the working class conquers political power, it behoves us Marxists to ascertain in which normal phase of development this conquest of power has taken place, to make whatever use of this victory is practicable in the given stage of development, and above all to warn the workers against the adoption of methods which, however desirable they might seem, are bound in the existing circumstances to lead to failure and setback.

We are emphatically not of the opinion of Rosa Luxemburg, who contends that the Revolution always imposes on Socialists the duty of forcing the pace of events, as the Bolshevists are doing:

“The fundamental doctrine of every great revolution or its vital principle is as follows: Either the revolution must press forward with determination and rapidity, crushing all obstacles with an iron hand, and continually extending its aims, or it will be very quickly thrown back beyond its weaker starting-point and crushed by the counter-revolution (The Russian Revolution, 1922, p.77-78)

“Once the working class has seized power, it may never renounce its task of socialist transformation, in accordance with Kautsky’s good advice, under the pretext of the ‘unripeness of the country,’ without treason to itself, to the International, and to the Revolution. It shall and must immediately embark upon socialistic measures in the most energetic, uncompromising, and ruthless manner” (op. cit., p.115).

Unfortunately, Rosa Luxemburg was precluded from observing the example of the Soviet Republic in Turkestan, otherwise she might have reconsidered the question as to whether the socialist transformation ought to have proceeded there, if we were not to be traitors to our dearest principles.

To-day we are able to observe things more dispassionately than was possible in the year 1918, when Rosa Luxemburg wrote the above words. We have now the example of the hopeless conditions of Russia to show us what happens when, without regard to the given stage of development, socialist measures are adopted in the most energetic, uncompromising, and ruthless manner.

When the working class captures power, we need not be really concerned about urging it to adopt socialist measures in the most energetic, uncompromising, and ruthless manner. The danger does not lie in the fact that too little revolutionary driving force will be released, but that it will be expended in an inappropriate manner, upon measures which will achieve the opposite of what is expected.

It is not to ruthlessness and to carrying positions by storm that we have to exhort the workers, but to reflexion and to that limitation wherein is revealed the master, to limitation that is not dictated by fear or weakness, but by the clear perception of what is possible or practicable at a given moment. This in no wise signifies renunciation of the idea of socialist transformation, which of course I have never advocated, but merely means desisting from attempting such a task with inappropriate means or under circumstances which render it impossible. The question now is whether the working class, when it comes to power, will be inclined to practise the qualities of reflexion and self-limitation which Marxism enjoins.

These qualities will be assimilated the soonest by the organized and trained section of the working class, and least of all by the unorganized and untrained section. Thus in the course of the Labour Revolution these two sections tend to fall into an antagonism, which sometimes breaks out into forcible conflict and outwardly recalls the struggles between the various fractions of the Middle Class Revolution, in which the radicals always dished the moderates and constantly forced the pace of the Revolution. And thus it seems that the Labour Revolution obeys the same “law of life” as the Middle Class Revolution.

But in reality the two types of revolution are fundamentally different. The “forcing the pace” which was a struggle between different classes in the Middle Class Revolution, is in the case of the Labour Revolution a struggle between the members of the same class. In the Middle Class Revolution it was the most advanced elements of the propertyless classes which broke away from middle class leadership and embarked upon a struggle against the bourgeoisie, as radicals against moderates. In the Labour Revolution the entire working class is freed from middle class leadership, and the struggle of radicals against moderates is a struggle of the ignorant, unorganized, inexperienced, in other words, the most backward members of the working class against the trained, experienced, and most highly developed sections of the workers.

In both revolutions the radicals are bound finally to fail, but in the Middle Class Revolution they fail because their aim is unattainable in the existing conditions, because they attempt to banish poverty and misery while leaving commodity production untouched. In the Labour Revolution the Socialists of every school of thought have the same objective, which is now attainable. When the radicals fail in this instance, it is because, in their ignorance and carelessness, they steer blindly for their goal, without studying their course and taking account of its shallows and rocks. They do not fail because their class position impels them to attempt the impossible, but because they are in too much of a hurry to achieve what is attainable and within easy reach. Thus they break their legs and lose their capacity to continue advancing towards a goal that will never be reached by such methods.

Finally we have to consider yet another distinction between the Middle Class and the Labour Revolution.

At the time of the Middle Revolution the conditions of production are still of a very simple nature, and can stand a severe shock. Civil war and terrorism only temporarily injure the process of production, and the economic liberation which the Revolution effects is so immense that the damage suffered is rapidly repaired. After the Revolution production progresses by leaps and bounds, and an era of prosperity sets in. Thus the Revolution lives in the memory of the whole nation as a proud and fortunate episode. And in the minds of the propertyless sections, which succumbed to it, the Revolution is remembered as the first attempt to achieve their emancipation, which they intend soon to repeat with better judgment.

The process of production which prevails at the time of the Labour Revolution is, on the contrary, of an extremely complicated and sensitive nature. Every rude attack of amateurs or illiterates threatens to bring it to a standstill, and the suspension of production signifies death.

Consequently, when the above described “radical” elements come to the top in the Labour Revolution, and proceed to the most reckless destruction of the “old,” so as to clear the path for the “new,” the upshot is not merely the reaction which follows upon vanished illusions, pricked like brilliant soap bubbles, but complete economic ruin, such as we now contemplate in Russia with a shudder.

To the workers who survive these reprehensible methods of forcing the pace of the Revolution, the most radical elements of this Revolution will not appear in the same light as the radicals of the Middle Class Revolution, as the pioneers of the Labour struggle for emancipation to be remembered with reverence, but as its destroyers, to be held in abhorrence.



(c) The Counter-Revolution

Fortunately for our cause, in addition to the one we have just considered, there is a further distinction between the Middle Class and the Labour Revolution.

In the former case, the bitter internecine strife among the revolutionaries after the overthrow of absolutism was inevitable, as this overthrow was the result of the co-operation of various classes. With their newly won freedom, these classes immediately became conscious of their antagonisms, in pursuance of which they were bound to fight.

The Labour Revolution, on the other hand, is the work of a single class, although this class is divided into various sections which have reached different stages of development. These sections may into conflict during the Revolution, but they are not bound to do so.

The tendency to conflict will be lessened to the extent that the trained and organized elements preponderate amongst the workers and prior to the Revolution have championed the interests of their weaker and unorganized brothers, winning their confidence by this means. Finally, the wealthier the nation is amongst which the Revolution takes place, the more highly developed will its productive machinery be and the more intensely will the latter operate. It will be all the easier for the victorious working class to proceed at once to alleviate at least the worst poverty existing in society, thus removing the stimulus for any rash action on the part of revolutionaries.

If the most recent revolutions show us a different picture, the fact is to be ascribed to a series of peculiar circumstances which flow from the terrible world war and its abnormal consequences, a knowledge of which we take for granted. All these circumstances, however, are of an exceptional kind, and will hardly be repeated, whatever form the future might assume

The disastrous division into three camps of the fighting portion of the German working class will soon be a thing of the past. Hungry, even starving, Russia will also no longer fascinate those credulous simpletons who look longingly for the advent of a Messiah to redeem them.

If democracy succeeds in maintaining itself in Germany, which we have every reason to expect, united Social Democracy, as Marx and Engels anticipated in the case of England, will also conquer political power in Germany by peaceful means so soon as the majority of the nation is behind it. By that time we shall have passed through the present desperate period of insufficient production and congested world markets, and the social sources of wealth will flow so copiously that they may be drawn upon abundantly. Then it will be possible for Social Democracy, having arrived at power, to effect a big improvement in the position of the poorest without prejudice to the general level of civilization, even while raising it and increasing the productive forces at the same time.

If the workers come to political power under these circumstances – and they are normal for the Labour Revolution – there will not be the slightest reason for the untrained and inexperienced members of the working class to turn against their more progressive comrades in destructive fury, in order to force the pace of the Revolution – really to ruin it. For we have every prospect that the backward section of the working class will in all confidence follow its vanguard, that is, its great organizations, and together with them will carry out the Revolution to the extent permitted by the relative political strength of classes and the objective economic conditions.

Amongst the socialistic working class there can only be a difference of opinion regarding the pace of the progress of the Revolution. This difference will not become so acute as to endanger the organized unity of Social Democracy.

The great political and trade union organizations of the working class will be able to co-ordinate the revolutionary activities of the whole class all the more easily if hitherto the progressive workers have aided their weaker brethren.

If the coming Labour Revolution is accomplished in this way, it will be preserved from the fate which befalls every middle class revolution, viz., the counter-revolution.

In her book from which we have already quoted, Rosa Luxemburg is of opinion that it is a law of life of every great revolution to press onward rapidly, bringing ever more extreme elements to the front, as otherwise it will be crushed by the counter-revolution.

But the facts show that every middle class revolution moves on these lines, only to be eventually crushed by the counter-revolution. And this was no accident, but as much a necessity of nature as the feverish march of events following from the antagonisms of the classes which had acted in concert at the outbreak of the Revolution. It was inevitable that the propertyless classes should attempt the impossible. With their collapse, the Revolution lost its most energetic and faithful supporters, and was fated to succumb to the counter-revolution.

Upon this point Engels remarks in his introduction to Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

“Upon this excess of revolutionary activity there necessarily followed the inevitable reaction, which in its turn went beyond the point where it might have maintained itself.”

Immediately before this he had said, after illustrating this process by the example of the English Revolution of the eighteenth century:

“This seems in fact to be one of the laws of evolution of the bourgeois Revolution.”

Yes, of the bourgeois, but not of the Labour Revolution, which is carried out under quite different conditions.

Unlike the Middle Class Revolution, the Labour Revolution is not made by a variety of classes, but by a single class. Behind it is no other class which might attempt to force the pace of development, and, whilst unable to establish a political order on its own account, might cause the collapse of the whole Revolution.

Where the Labour Revolution is accompanied by the internecine strife of the revolutionaries, and is therefore followed by the counter-revolution, this does not spring from a necessary “law of evolution,” but from exceptional circumstances, which tend to become rarer, as they mostly arise from the survival of feudal conditions in middle class society.

Although the last political upheaval in Germany was not a Labour revolution in the proper meaning of the word, as it only brought temporary power to the working class, and although in this case, for reasons which are ultimately to be traced to the war and not to the Revolution, the working class became involved in fratricidal conflict, and thereby cleared the path for the counter-revolution, the latter has not yet assumed the proportions usual in middle class revolutions, and we may expect that the momentary reaction will soon reach its high-water mark.

After the great French Revolution, the peace of the grave reigned in France; there was complete absence of freedom of movement, and for a long time the masses felt no need for movement. This lasted a generation, until 1830. After the suppression of the rising of 1848, a dozen years elapsed before there were again signs of life in middle class and Labour democracy. Complete political stagnation characterized the interval from 1849 to 1860.

In present-day Germany, on the other hand, we can detect a subsidence of political interest on the part of the masses, and consequently a decrease in the socialist vote as compared with the middle class vote. But this phenomenon is not general, and is so insignificant that so far it has not effected any alteration in the relative strength of classes.

A real counter-revolution is only to be found in extremely backward countries, such as Hungary, where an illiterate population falls under Communist leadership, and even the trained section of the working class is swept off its feet.

As in other things, Russia is also peculiar in this respect. As her revolution is in essentials a middle class revolution, it follows that “the law of development of middle class society” and the “excess of revolutionary activity” is followed by “the inevitable reaction,” which overshoots the mark.

Whereas this process has hitherto been carried out in every country in the world through the agency of one party which overthrows another, it has been reserved for the Bolshevists themselves to carry out the transition from the revolution to the reaction. Astonishment is expressed at the vitality of their regime, but this does not depend upon the vitality of the revolution which they introduced, but upon the fact that, as soon as they saw the end of the revolution approaching, they thoughtlessly took over the functions of the counter-revolution themselves.

The Vicar of Bray was ready to serve any Government, revolutionary or reactionary, with equal devotion. Lenin beat the Vicar, inasmuch as he himself formed both revolutionary and the reactionary regimes.

We have every reason to expect that the coming Labour Revolution, that is the conquest of political power, will be achieved on the basis of democracy, and therefore peaceably; that it will not lead to internecine strife, and consequently will not be followed by counter-revolution. It will lack the impetuous progress which characterizes the Middle Class Revolution, but its progress will be all the surer, inasmuch as it will not be checked by serious reactions and setbacks.

Wild-eyed revolutionaries may object to this interpretation. For them a revolution without massacre and terror is not a proper revolution, but merely milk and water reformism. Their notions of the revolution only prove how conservative their minds are, in spite of all their revolutionary utterances. They cannot conceive of a revolution except on the lines of the middle class revolutions of the past. Whatever one may think about the Labour Revolution of the future, one thing is certain it will assume quite a different form, because it will be accomplished under quite different conditions, from those of the middle class revolutions, whose history has hitherto supplied us with our knowledge and ideas of revolutions in general.

If we regard the political revolution as the conquest of political power by a class (or a coalition of classes) hitherto excluded from State power, we may detect many differences between the Middle Class and the Labour Revolutions from this standpoint.

At this stage we need only examine one of these.



(d) The Policy of Coalition

The Middle Class Revolution ended in counter-revolution, the instrument of which is usually military dictatorship. This is made possible by the fact that, after the ravages of the internecine strife into which they plunge, the various classes of the Revolution – bourgeoisie, peasants, and workers – reach a state of equilibrium, in which none of these classes is able to assert its political dominance over the others. At this stage democracy is not yet firmly rooted, while the civil war and the foreign wars which are a frequent incident of the revolutionary period result in the creation of a new, strictly disciplined army which takes the place of the old and now dissolved army of absolutism. Whoever controls this army may easily become master of the classes that are holding each other in check. Thus the revolution ends in what is termed Bonapartism or Caesarism.

In the case of a real, and not, as in Russia, an apparent Labour revolution, all the conditions are lacking for such a development, which was an inevitable termination of the Middle Class Revolution. They are absent because democracy is well established at the commencement of the Labour Revolution, whose political struggles are not fought out through the agency of civil war, which sets up a new militarism in place of the one that has been abolished. Moreover, the Labour Revolution presupposes at its inception a preponderance of the working class over all other classes, so that only a split in the Labour ranks would enable the opponents of the Revolution to recover their lost advantages, which is by no means likely, and indeed only happens in exceptional cases.

Yet the state of equilibrium of classes which marks the close of the Middle Class Revolution may exist at the inception of the Labour Revolution., This condition arises at a time when the workers are not far enough advanced to gain political power for themselves, but are too strong for any of the middle classes to maintain its rule in opposition to the workers.

At this conjuncture orderly political administration and consequently a flourishing economic life would be quite impossible, if efforts were made to form a pure class Government. The State and society and all its sections, including the workers, would be overtaken by dire necessity. Civil war, the attempt of one class to suppress its opponents by force, would achieve nothing but complete economic collapse to the extent of what we see to-day in Russia, assuming that this policy was practicable under the developed democratic institutions which we are predicating.

Under these circumstances only two forms of Government are possible: either one of the parties would form a Government with the acquiescence or support of at least one of the opposing parties, whose prejudices would have to be taken into account, or the Socialists would form a coalition Government with one or several of the middle class parties.

Examples of the first type of Government are to be found in Austria and Sweden. In Sweden there is a purely Socialist Government whose vitality depends upon Liberal support. In Austria there is a Christian Socialist Government, which would become impossible on the day the Socialists decided to overthrow it.

Previously there was a coalition Government in Austria. in which the Socialists participated. This was also the case in Belgium and Denmark. We had a Socialist-bourgeois coalition Government in Germany.

To support a Government because it is the best under the circumstances, without taking part in or influencing Cabinet discussions, or to enter such a Government and directly assent to its decisions, may sometimes be an important tactical distinction, but never a question of principle. There are some politicians who are chiefly agitators, and consequently shrink from open co-operation with middle class elements, preferring to employ covert methods. Thus, for example, among the German Social Democracy, at the time of the old electoral system, it went without saying that votes were cast for a member of the middle class Opposition, a Democrat or a Centre Party candidate, at the second ballot. But a special arrangement to this end with the parties concerned would have been rejected by many of our radicals as base treachery to the principles of the class struggle. Thus many Socialists today consider it reprehensible to enter a coalition ministry, even when its necessity is fully recognized.

Appeal is constantly made to the principle of the class struggle in support of this rigid attitude. Now it is certainly one of the most eminent services of Marx and Engels that they recognized the significance of the class struggle in politics, but they never dreamed of maintaining that a class could only effectively safeguard its interests by remaining completely isolated. Do I cease fighting because I seek allies in order to maintain the struggle more successfully? Of course, if I have allies, I must take them into account, and this might prevent me from imposing such severe conditions on the beaten foe as I could do if I defeated him alone.

The attitude of refusing to join a coalition under any circumstances arises from that conception of the class struggle which regards all middle class parties as equally reactionary, an idea that nobody opposed more than did Marx, because it countenanced class narrowness more than class consciousness.

An important contribution to this question was made by Otto Bauer in an article published in the Berlin Freiheit, under the title of Coalition Governments and the Class Struggle.

He distinguished between two types of coalition Government, one of which he called the “reformist.” This type of Government is formed at a time when the middle class is considerably more powerful politically than the workers, and is therefore not obliged to grant them any concessions. Once a solitary Socialist enters a middle class Government, he becomes responsible for a purely capitalist governmental policy.

The position is quite different to-day when the workers are so strong as to be able to hold the other classes in check.

“Where power is so evenly distributed among the classes, a coalition Government may be a temporary necessity.”

With this I heartily agree. Yet it seems to me that Bauer has the special conditions of Austria too much in mind when he emphasizes military power as one of the weapons which the workers must employ, in order to strengthen their position.

“Reformist ministerialism allows Labour parties to share in the powers of government, although the various military and economic resources are still monopolized by the bourgeoisie; but the Austrian coalition Government was based on the fact that such weapons as the control of the army and of the means of transport had fallen into the hands of the workers.”

Bauer is manifestly of opinion that the workers in the parties belonging to the Second International are less powerful than the workers of Austria, else he would not have added that “reformist ministerialism to-day dominates the parties of the Second International.”

In my judgment, the working class is stronger in Germany than it is in Austria, although in the former case it does not control the militia, and is moreover far superior numerically to the peasantry than in the Alpine countries. This applies still more to England, where there is no longer a peasantry. The peasantry is strong in Belgium and Denmark, but even there the workers occupy a position of relative strength certainly equal to that of the Austrian workers. A coalition policy in these countries would therefore not partake of the character that Bauer describes as “reformist ministerialism.”

But Bauer is quite right when he asserts that a coalition policy has all the greater prospect of success, and the dangers which it involves are all the more diminished, a when a powerful Labour movement stands behind the Ministers in a coalition Government. Once coalition policy becomes unavoidable, the Labour movement should be made as powerful as possible, in order to extract the fullest advantages for the workers from this policy.

The opponents of the policy of coalition in our ranks usually dilate upon the comparative advantages of a purely Socialist Government.

But this comparison is absurd, for no Socialist would prefer a coalition Government, if given the choice of a Socialist Government. Only the latter type of Government can pave the way to Socialism, and proceed energetically and systematically to the socialization of the capitalist process of production. About this there can be no question. We are, however, referring to the stage at which the workers are not strong enough to set up and maintain a purely Socialist Government, although they are powerful enough to render any Government impossible which adopts an attitude hostile to Labour. At this stage the alternatives are either a coalition Government or a middle class Government by the favour of the workers.

A purely Socialist Government, dependent upon the goodwill of the Liberal Party, such as the British Labour Government of 1924, could not accomplish the tasks which a Socialist Government, supported by a powerful Labour movement, would be able to execute.

It might happen that, if a middle class regime creates extraordinary difficulties, the Socialist Party would prefer to leave to the bourgeoisie the unenviable task of clearing up the mess, for example, dealing with the consequences of the war. But it might very often be extremely dangerous for Labour to leave the middle class parties in unrestricted control of the resources of the State. It is Bauer’s opinion that the Austrian coalition policy was justified because the workers in that country controlled the armed forces. I might add that precisely because they controlled the armed forces, the Austrian Socialists were able to risk leaving the coalition as soon as it became inconvenient to them.

In a country where Labour does not control the armed forces, and this will be the rule for a long time to come, the greatest disasters are likely to happen if Social Democracy leaves the entire resources of the State in the hands of the middle classes, without exercising any control or having any say as regards their employment.

It may be admitted that the idea of coalition is obnoxious to Labour. None of the middle class parties is a pure class party, but each is comprised of an assemblage of various class elements. Only the Labour Party is a purely class party. By virtue of their class position, the workers are in the strongest opposition to the existing order, and this impels them to offer constant opposition in the State. Consequently, to abandon their post of opposition for any purpose short of the immediate overcoming of capitalism would go very much against their grain.

But our actions must be dictated by our perception of what is fitting rather than by our class feelings. The above considerations explain why those who object on principle to the idea of coalition and the surrender of the post of opposition find support among the workers more readily than those holding the opposite opinion.

They explain why the idea of coalition only slowly makes headway, but they cannot prevent the arrival of what is inevitable. Given the stage at which the capitalist countries have now arrived, the idea of coalition, in spite of all opposition, will gain ground and tend to dominate Labour politics, not as substitute for the Labour Revolution, but as preparation for this Revolution, that is to say, the sole political rule of the workers through the agency of a purely Socialist Government.

In his well-known criticism of the Gotha programme of German Social Democracy, Marx wrote:

“Between the capitalist and the Communist social order lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. To this there would correspond a political period of transition, when the State could be nothing else than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

In the light of the experiences of recent years pertaining to questions of government, we might vary this sentence by saying:

“Between the time when the democratic State has a purely middle class Government and the time when it has a purely Labour Government extends a period when the one is being transformed into the other. To this a political period of transition would correspond, when the Government would generally assume the form of a coalition.”

This would apply to all countries where the conquest of political power by Labour is effected by means of democracy, which is the normal method now that the military monarchies have collapsed.

Those who to-day reject the policy of coalition on principle are oblivious to the signs of the times, and incapable of rising to the height of their tasks.


Last updated on 27.1.2004