Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

1. The Origin of Socialism

What is it that divides the Social Democrats from the Communists? Like the Socialists, they are a working class party. The emancipation of the workers is their common aim.

There was a time when both had a common theoretical basis. But later a gulf developed between them, which cannot be bridged, however much we may desire and consider this necessary. This gulf arises neither from a misunderstanding nor from a mere difference of opinion.

To realize how absolutely irreconcilable are Communism and Socialism, we must first look into the history of the origin of Socialism. It springs from two roots, one ethical and the other economic. The first emanates from the natural instinct of man, the second from the nature of capitalist society and the position of the workers as a class.

The demand “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” advanced by the men of the French Revolution antedates all written history. It reflects the desire of all oppressed, exploited and their friends ever since there have been oppression and exploitation. But this demand merely poses a problem. It does not indicate the road to its solution. What this road should be has been variously conceived, depending upon varied social conditions and the classes who have sought to find it. Only under the capitalist mode of production has the solution of this problem, through the establishment of a democratic social economy of the workers, become possible and necessary. Only through economic research, not through ethical indignation, can this solution be achieved. Certainly it can never be achieved by mere impassioned desire for what, since 1789, has been termed “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

All socialist thinkers were rebels against any kind of enslavement and exploitation. But they were also research workers in the domain of economics.

The revolt-provoking study of the mass impoverishment generated by capitalist industry gave birth to socialist ideas. It was precisely this impoverishment, however, which by its very frightfulness so held the workers down, that they were frequently rendered incapable of resistance. Whenever some few did revolt, they knew nothing better to do than to destroy machines and burn factories. By such outbursts of indignation they succeeded only in multiplying their own misery.

The early socialists, therefore believed that the working class could not emancipate itself by its own efforts. It was to be emancipated through the efforts of humanitarians, superior to the workers. It soon became clear, however, that little was to be expected from the statesmen and millionaires of the bourgeois world. Side by side with the utopians who relied upon the well meaning bourgeoisie were socialists who perceived that the power necessary for the realization of socialism could come only from the working class itself. But they, too, despaired of the masses. They addressed themselves to the small group of the elite among the working class, those enjoying more favorable conditions than the average worker. Together with professional revolutionists they were to enter into a conspiracy to capture political power, and bring about socialism by means of armed revolt. Finally, there were socialists who, permitting themselves to be deceived by the prospects aroused by the early labor movements, overestimated the numbers and intellectual power of the workers of their period and believed that the working class needed only to bring about democracy, namely, the universal franchise, in order to win immediately the power of government and transform society in line with their desires.

All these schools, however they appeared to differ from each other, had this common characteristic: they looked upon the working class as they found it, and sought a means for the immediate “solution of the social question,” i.e. for the immediate abolition of the misery and enslavement of the working class. Every one of these schools criticized severly the other socialists, each perceiving clearly the illusions of the others. Each was right and all succumbed to the criticism of time, which wrecked every one of them.

Then came Marx and Engels who introduced the idea of development into socialist thought, and perceived the working class not only as it was but also as it was becoming. In their Communist Manifesto they realized that the working class had not yet advanced far enough to achieve immediately its own emancipation and, further, that this could not be achieved through the universal franchise, the efforts of the well-meaning portion of the bourgeoisie, or by the armed action of an advanced guard of energetic conspirators. At the same time they also perceived that through the development of industry the working class would grow in numbers and organization, while gaining constantly in intellectual and moral power. In this way labor would achieve the power to emancipate itself. To be sure it would have to be educated to this. But this education, as Marx and Engels realized, could not be brought about by men who proclaimed themselves .the schoolmasters of the workers, but through the experience of the class struggle, forced upon the wage earners, by the conditions under which, they lived.

The-more the class struggle proceeds in a democratic environment, all other things being equal, i.e. in an environment of universal education, freedom of press and organization and of universal suffrage, the greater its educational influence. Long before the instruments of democracy become the means for acquisition of power by the workers, they constituted the means of its education in the task not only of how to attain power but also of how to keep it and apply it successfully in the building of a higher social order.

As Marx and Engels saw it, the task for Socialists was not to bring about the immediate solution of “the social question” and the realization of socialism, but, first, to support the workers in the class struggle, to help it understand the nature of capitalist society, its power relationships and processes of production, and promote the organization of Labor.

Proceeding from this point of view, Marx and Engels sought to bring about the union of all elements participating in the class struggle for the liberation of the working .class into a strong mass party. Before their arrival upon the scene, each of the various socialist leaders and thinkers had put forward their own distinct method for the solution of the social question and opposed all other socialists who would follow other methods. So it had come about that socialism had served only to divide the working class. Marx and Engels tried to unite it, not to add a Marxian sect to those already in the field.

We find emphasis of this already in the Communist Manifesto (1847). Speaking to their adherents, who called themselves communists, Marx and Engels said:

“The communists do not constitute a separate party, distinct from other working class parties.”

They demanded only that their adherents within the working class parties strive to develop “in advance of the rest of the masses of the proletariat an understanding of the. conditions, the process and the general consequences of the movement of the proletariat.”

Their actions were in line with this idea, as for example in the First International, which had very few Marxists but plenty of Proudhonists and, later, also Blanquists as well as British trade unionists, who knew little of socialism.

Marx and Engels understood well how to bring about a firm union between the world of socialist ideas and the labor movement. All truly working class parties of our time, which have arisen since the final quarter of the last century to take the place of preceding seas, rest upon this union. As working class parties they fight for the interests of the working class; as Socialist parties they wage the class struggle as a means of emancipation of all the oppressed and exploited, not of the wage earners alone.

The Socialist parties fight not only for shorter working hours and higher wages, unemployment insurance and shop councils, but also for the liberty, equality, fraternity of all human beings, regardless of race, color or creed.

Such Socialist parties are bringing about the realization of Marxist ideas even when they themselves are not conscious of them. Every place where the capitalist mode of production exists, with few exceptions, they have been irresistibly on the march since the end of the last century.


Last updated on 27.1.2004