Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

2. Marxism and the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”

There was nothing that Marx feared so much as the degeneration of his school into a rigid sect The same fear was entertained by Engels, whose scientific work is indissolubly linked with that of his friend Marx, so that we always keep in mind both Marx and Engels whenever we speak of the Marxist theory.

The worst reproach that Engels could make against the first English Marxists was that they were applying Marxism in a sectarian spirit What would he have said, had he lived to see it about a school of Marxists, who, having captured the state power proceeded to make a state religion, of Marxism, a religion whose articles of faith and their interpretation are watched over by the government, a religion, the criticism of which, nay the slightest deviation from which is sternly punished by the State; a Marxism ruling by the methods of the Spanish Inquisition, propagated by fire and sword, practicing a theatrical ritual (as illustrated by the embalmed body of Lenin); a Marxism reduced to the status not only of a state religion but of a medieval or oriental faith? Such a Marxism may indeed be called doctrinaire fanaticism.

To Marx there was no ultimate knowledge, only an infinite process of learning. Therefore, his own theory is not to be conceive as a collection of tenets which we must accept on faith. Marxism itself is nothing but a definite process of learning; founded upon a definite method introduced by Marx and Engels. This method itself, which Marx and Engels called the materialist conception of history, is not unalterable. It is constantly being improved, like a machine, through continued gain in experience accumulated in its application. The principles underlying a given method of intellectual activity often do not change as rapidly as do the results of that activity. The views of people under the influence of constantly changing experiences tend to change more easily than do the methods and forms o f thought by which they are attained. Both however, are regarded as in constant process of development. Even the materialistic conception of history did not, like Athena, spring fully armed from the head of its procreator; as a matter of fact it had two such procreators. These two were constantly developing it throughout their lives and to the Marxists bequeathed the task of continuing the process.

To know and understand the line of this development is of the highest importance to every Marxist as well as to any one who wishes to make a critical study of Marx, prompted by a sincere desire for knowledge, and not by the motives of the trickster lawyer who seeks to obtain a conviction of his opponent’s client at any cost.

Every form of doctrinaire fanaticism, every attempt to turn Marxism into an unalterable dogma is contrary to Marxist thought, which recognizes no absolute truth but only relative truth. This is not scepticism, which denies the very possibility of absolute perception of the world, but only a recognition of the limitations of our perception. All the truths which we recognize are not truths in themselves, independent of time and places but truths only as far as we are concerned, valid only for us, for our time, for the space in which we live. Every such truth must govern our actions until more advanced perception has exposed and removed the bit of error residing in the previously accepted truth.

Quite early in his career Marx realized, and in this he proved superior to other Socialists of his day, that the liberation of the working class could be achieved only by the working class itself, that no paternalistic friend from the bourgeoisie, no select proletarian vanguard could accomplish this task for the masses. But like other Socialists he had to admit that the masses were not yet ripe for the struggle. How was this ripeness to be achieved? Through well meaning tutors from above? Grown-up people will not submit to the guardianship of tutors. Where this attempt is made either by Christians or by atheists, it usually degenerates into a loathsome, priestly presumptuousness on the part of the tutor and a hypocritical submission of the tutored.

Grown-ups can be taught by life alone. Marx expected the education of the working class to come from life, that is to say, he expected it to come from capitalist development and its effect upon the workers. Marx pointed this out already in the Communist Manifesto. Industry draws the workers together in large numbers and thereby increases their class consciousness. At the same time that conflicts with the employers grow, trade unions develop. The extension of the conflicts to all industry transforms the occasional local clashes into a class struggle. This class struggle becomes political, finding expression in political changes. But the working class was not strong enough to overcome the forces tending toward the pauperization of the masses, which was the predominant feature of capitalism everywhere. The Communist Manifesto had yet to prove the absolute impoverishment of the industrial proletariat.

“The modern worker, instead of improving his condition with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper under the circumstances affecting his own class. The worker becomes a pauper and pauperism develops even faster than population and wealth.”

Under such conditions, whence could come that moral and intellectual advancement which alone could make possible the self-liberation of the working class?

Marx expected it to come as a result of revolution, the advent of which he correctly foresaw. He had studied the French Revolution. It bore at the beginning a purely bourgeois character but grew more and more radical and finally led to the rule, only for a short time, to be sure, of the working class. The revolution developed enormously not only the political courage but also the political understanding of the masses of the people, until then inert and ignorant. Opposed as Marx already was at the time of the Communist Manifesto to the policy of plots and coups des mains preached by the Blanquists, he was still strongly influenced by their Jacobin traditions. In the first months of 1850, in his articles on The Class Struggles in France, published in 1895 by Engels in pamphlet form, he regarded the Blanquists as properly the workers’ party of France. They, above all others, held his sympathies.

In 1847 Marx assumed that the forthcoming revolution would run the same course as did the Great Revolution but with a working class “much further advanced” by the growth of large industries. The revolution was to last long enough to lift the working class quickly to the necessary mental level. Hence “the German bourgeois revolution could serve only as a direct prelude to a proletarian revolution.”

This expectation was not realized. The force of the German revolution of 1848 spent itself within a few months and the working class as an independent factor played no part in it. What happened then was the same thing that was to happen to Marx often enough later. He correctly foresaw the direction in which events were moving but h misjudged the rate at which they were moving.

Yet none learned so readily from experience as did Marx, even when the experience ran counter to his innermost wishes. Already in September 1850 he came out against the view that “we must strive to gain power immediately” and declared that the workers might have to go through “15, 20, 30 years of civil strife and foreign wars in order to change not only conditions but to change yourselves, to qualify yourselves for rulership.”

This sounded quite different from the expectation that the coming bourgeois revolution would be the “direct prelude to a proletarian revolution.” Yet, even this new, more prudent hope proved too sanguine. Since it was first uttered not only 15, 20, 30 years but 80 years have passed. To be sure, these have not been years of stagnation, The strides made by the working class toward the achievement of political independence and skill during the intervening period have been enormous.

Though Marx in 1850 rose superior to the majority of his communist comrades who at the time were still dreaming of the immediate seizure of political power by the proletariat, he had not yet fully rid himself of his old Jacobin-Blanquist traditions. In armed struggle, in “civil strife and foreign wars” he still saw the means of lifting the proletariat to a higher level. He had not yet realized that every bloody struggle, including a popular war, inspiring and uplifting as it may appear at the beginning, in the long run demoralizes its participants, and, far from increasing, actually reduces their capacity for constructive effort in the field of production as well as in political life.

During the decade following 1850, Marx had opportunity to study the laws underlying commodity production in England, namely its capitalist form, and expounded them more clearly than had been done by any student before him. But he also perceived the opportunity for effective action by the English working class under the democratic political institutions prevailing in England. He saw that under such freedom it was possible for the proletariat to overcome the tendency under capitalism to absolute impoverishment of the workers. In his Inaugural Address (1864) as well as in Capital (1867) he welcomed the salutary results of the ten-hour work-day, as an improvement over the longer hours prevailing in English factories and plants. Of course, this did not blind him to the fact that the propertied classes in England were able to show an amazing gam in wealth and power, while at the same time the absolute pauperization of those proletarian groups which were not protected either by state laws or by strong trade unions advanced still further, and that among those protected by the law the improvement in conditions lagged behind the increase in the wealth of capital, so that their position became relatively if not absolutely worse.

Nevertheless, the proof was furnished that under conditions of adequate freedom the workers could by their own efforts lift themselves to a high enough level to be able finally to achieve political power not through “civil strife and foreign wars” but through the class struggle waged by their political and economic mass organizations. The condition prerequisite for such a struggle is an adequate measure of political freedom. Where this is lacking, where it has yet to be won, “civil strife and foreign wars” may be necessary to achieve democracy as essential to the rise of the working class. Where democracy exists, ` it is not necessary for the working class to resort to armed, force as a means of attaining power.

Here is what Marx said in 1872 at a public meeting in Amsterdam following the Congress of the International at the Hague (as reported by the Leipziger Volkstaat of October 2,1872)

“The worker must some day achieve political power, in order to found the new organization of labor; he must overthrow the old political machine upon which the old institutions are based, if, like the old Christians, who neglected and despised such matters, he does not wish to renounce the kingdom of this world.

“But we do not maintain that the means of attaining this objective are everywhere the same.

“We know that we must take into consideration the institutions, the habits and the customs of different regions, arid we do not deny that there are countries like America, England and – if I knew your institutions better I would perhaps add Holland – where the workers can attain their objective by peaceful means. But such is not the case in all other countries.”

By “other countries” Marx evidently meant first of all, the great centralized police and military states of continental Europe as they existed at that time. On April 12, 1871, in a letter to Kugelman at the time of the Paris Commune, Marx pointed out that the objective in next attempt of revolution in France would be “no longer as heretofore to effect a change of hands of the bureaucratic military apparatus, but to demolish it, and that is the prerequisite for every true popular revolution on the continent.”

It was not granted to Marx to witness a third phase of the labor movement, besides the two indicated by him, and which was already shaping itself about the time of his death. The “civil strife and foreign wars” of 1789-1871 were not sufficient to destroy the bureaucratic-military apparatus of the continental powers, but their effects were nevertheless strong enough to wrest from these powers a certain measure of freedom for the toiling masses, which enabled them to acquire not only great political skill but also to build strong trade unions and proletarian parties. Unfortunately, this new phase was characterized by great obstacles at the beginning. In prance the revolution of September 4, 1870, was followed by the bloody suppression of the Commune in May 1871, and thereafter by a period of dark reaction and oppression of the proletariat which lasted almost until Marx’s death. In Austria after 1866 came an era of liberalism which, however, did not last long. Nor did the liberal era that set in in Germany after 1866 prove of long duration. It ended with the anti-Socialist law of Bismarck.

Marx thus had little opportunity to observe the effects of democracy on the development of labor in the military bureaucratic countries of continental Europe.

Engels survived his great friend. He lived to witness the abolition of the Exception Laws in Austria, the rescinding of the Anti-Socialist Law in Germany, the beginning of the rapid growth of the labor movement all over Europe. He was thus in a position to sum up the results of this particular phase of development for Marxism. He did this in his famous introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France.

Marx had never believed in the possibility of bringing about a revolution at will. Therein he differed already in his early works from the Blanquists. But as long as there was no political freedom for the proletariat, he was compelled to wish ardently for the speediest possible coming of the revolution, first as a democratic bourgeois revolution, which would bring the necessary political freedom. During the fifties and sixties he eagerly looked for signs of the coming revolution arising either from war or civil conflicts.

But now the situation was quite different. Engels, too, saw the coming of the revolution, but he hoped it might be postponed. And he feared new wars. They might bring on the revolution but they threatened to ruin the working class, the only revolutionary class that still existed. They might destroy the revolution and impair the ability of the working class to utilize it, for what was expected from the revolution was that it would bring not merely political freedom, but power itself.

The expression “dictatorship of the proletariat” has been widely used in the past by many who are obviously confused as to its meaning. Most people assume that it connotes a political aim the meaning of which is self-evident and requires no explanation. Unfortunately this is not so.

The expression comes from Marx. In 1875, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, he wrote:

“Between the capitalist and Communist society lies the period of change of one into the other. This corresponds to a political transition period in which the state can be nothing else than a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Unfortunately, Marx failed to elucidate the momentous expression. He used it in a private letter to the executive committee of the Eisenach party, assuming the committee would understand what the dictatorship of the proletariat was without further comment. That this expression in no way signified either repudiation of democracy for absolute power in the state is quite clear from the one fact alone that in the very same letter Marx characterized the democratic republic as the form of government in which “the class struggle is to be fought out,” saying:

“Freedom consists in the transformation of the state from an organ dominant over society into an organ subordinate to society. And today, too, the various existing forms of state are free or not free in the measure in which they circumscribe the freedom of the state.”

Engels, at a later date, spoke in like manner. In 1891, the executive committee of the German Social Democratic Party, having formulated the draft of a new program, submitted it to him for his opinion. Engels expressed his criticism in a long monograph (published in the Neue Zeit, Vol.XX). Among other things he wrote:

“If anything is certain it is that our party and the working class can triumph only under the form of the democratic republic. This is precisely the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

And, indeed it was the democratic parliamentary republic that Engels had in mind, for he added that under all circumstances the program must include “the demand for the concentration of all political power in the hands of a representative assembly of the people.” (Underscored by Engels himself.)

Even Rosa Luxemburg, who was close to the Bolsheviks and fought so insistently for the dictatorship of the proletariat, held to the end of her days to the conviction that such a dictatorship must be founded upon a democracy. In The Russian Revolution she wrote:

“To be sure, every democratic institution has its ‘faults and limitations, which it has in common with all human institutions. But the remedy discovered by Lenin and Trotsky, the abolition of democracy, is worse than the evil it is supposed to cure, for it shuts off the lifespring from which can come the cure for all the inadequacies of social institutions.”

The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat proclaimed by Marx and Engels does not therefore constitute in any way a repudiation of the idea of democracy. On the contrary, it goes hand in hand with the demand for the abolition of the bureaucratic-military state apparatus and not the strengthening of its absolute power.

In 1891 Engels concluded his preface to the new edition of Marx’s Civil War in France with the following words.

“The German philistines have of late again fallen into wholesome fear of the expression ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Very well, gentlemen, do you wish to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

But Marx characterized the Paris Commune of 1871 as an attempt “no longer, as heretofore, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to destroy it, and this was the prerequisite for every true revolution of the people on the comment.” (Letter to Kugelman. )

The destruction of this type of state machine was, in truth, the only thing the Paris Commune undertook to achieve. It did not live long enough to embark upon any Socialist measures.

The maintenance of a strong bureaucratic-military state machine constitutes, however, the prerequisite of any dictatorship as a political order. Its destruction signifies complete anarchy or complete democracy, but never dictatorship. For Marx and Engels the all important aim in the destruction of the centralized state apparatus was solely the establishment of democracy.

Marx and Engels never explained why they characterized this condition as a “dictatorship,” although it was to spring from democracy. I assume they used the expression to denote a strong government.

Karl Marx was not the only one to speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This idea is much older than Marxism. It represents the oldest, most primitive form of a revolutionary Socialism which sought to emancipate the working people from exploitation and slavery not through peaceful socialistic settlements, colonies or mutual aid associations (another form of primitive Socialism) but by means of forcible seizure of power. This idea is related to the Jacobin reign of terror in the French Revolution.

It was François (“Gracchus”) Babeuf who after the overthrow of Robespierre sought to rally the remnants of the Montagards to combat the rising capitalist regime and to supplant it with a socialism of “crude levelling” (Marx). He organized “The Conspiracy of the Equals,” which set before itself the task of overthrowing the capitalist government by means of an uprising of the propertyless and putting a Communist regime in its place. Such a regime was to bring about complete democracy, but not immediately. Experience had shown that the workers permitted themselves to be led by the nose by men of property and education.

The conspirators feared that through democracy the poor, ignorant people would once more fall victim to these influences. For this reason a dictatorship was to be established by means of a popular revolution. Freedom of the press was to be abolished, and no publications were to be tolerated “which contradicted the sacred principles of equality and the sovereignty of the people,” the steering committee, of course, being empowered to determine what was in contradiction with these principles. There were to be popular elections, but only after equality had been thoroughly established.

This was intended to be a dictatorship for “the transition period between the capitalist and Communist society.” It was to be a proletarian dictatorship, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat, since the proletariat was as yet too ignorant and unable to defend its own interests. It was to be a dictatorship of “little fathers” and spokesmen of the proletariat. The recently coined expression “an educational dictatorship” (Erziehungsdikatur) characterizes well this form of government.

The dictatorship of Babeuf was not designed to be a political state emanating from democracy, the offspring of an adequate high level of working class development, but a form of government which, in view of the backwardness of the proletariat, would seek at all costs to defend the interests of the workers, ruthlessly and in the most extreme manner possible. It emanated from the conviction that democracy as a means of emancipation of the workers must fail because the proletariat itself had failed, because it was incapable of emancipating itself.

The “Conspiracy of Equals” was uncovered and Babeuf was executed (1797). But his conception of the dictatorship of spokesmen of the proletariat as the sole instrument for the realization of Socialism did not die with him. It was the product of certain specific conditions. Capitalist production left the masses of the working people no escape from their misery other than a transition to a Socialist mode of production. Only the power of the state could cope with capital. But under the rule of capital the proletariat found itself immersed in such misery that it lacked the capacity to achieve and to hold political power.

Wherever such conditions have existed and an opportunity arose, or appeared to exist, for the overthrow of the prevailing regime by insurrection, the idea of such a dictatorship made itself manifest, taking its root from the backwardness and helplessness of the working masses, not from any high degree of the proletariat’s intellectual and moral power and independence.

When the labor movement began to develop in France after the revolution of July 1830, the workers turned to the same problem of how to put an immediate end to their misery. Most of them agreed that they had nothing to expect from the bourgeoisie. They wanted to bring about Socialism immediately, by means of their own efforts.

The July revolution stimulated in the workers of Paris the belief in the power of the barricade. This led to a revival of Babeuf’s idea in Blanquism.

But not all Socialists were Blanquistically inclined. Some affiliated themselves with Louis Blanc, who believed fervently in the democratic republic. Were not the poor and disinherited a great majority of the nation? All that was necessary was to provide them with universal, free and equal suffrage, a sovereign parliament and complete freedom of press and organization, and no power in the state could stem their march to Socialism. Louis Blanc failed to perceive, however, that this achievement required a highly developed proletariat, for the development of which there had been little impetus before 1848.

Proudhon was opposed to both these tendencies. He perceived that under the then existing conditions the proletariat could not achieve victory through democracy, but he feared no less the dictatorship of a Socialist minority ruling through an all-powerful state apparatus. He, too, considered the proletariat as he found it, rather than as it might become. He regarded it as incapable of influencing the policy of the state and to master it, and yet he felt that the emancipation of the workers could be accomplished only by the workers themselves. To make this possible he sought to simplify the problem. The workers, he argued, could not pursue an independent state policy of their own; on the other hand, they could master the problem of the individual communities. He thus sought to arrive at Socialism by dissolution of the state into a network of sovereign communities.

These in brief, were the various tendencies dominant among Socialists when Marx began to think as a Socialist. He had never been in doubt as to the hopelessness of bourgeois-philanthropic utopianism. The only Socialism he took seriously was the Socialism emanating from the. labor movement. Very soon, however, he saw also the inadequacy of the three tendencies outlined above. He perceived this inadequacy in the fact that the adherents of each of these tendencies sought to bring about Socialism with the proletariat as they found it a task that was obviously unrealizable.

The utopians and Blanquists likewise realized the inability of the proletariat to bring about Socialism. They saw the need of educating the proletariat to this task, but this education was to be undertaken by leaders superior to and standing above the proletariat. Only with the realization of Socialism would it became possible for the working people to rise to a higher level of development, and thus learn how to govern themselves democratically. The expression “true democracy is possible only under complete Socialism” is not a new revelation but primitive pre-Marxian conception.

Marx discerned the weakness of this form of education of the proletariat by educators self-appointed to the role of Fuehrers, or lifted to dominance and absolute power over itself by an ignorant proletariat through insurrection or in some other way. This would mean making the emancipation of the workers dependent upon historical accidents, quite improbable accidents. For, as a general rule, it was not to be expected that a few Socialist conspirators, supported by a weak, ignorant proletariat, could attain that absolute power necessary for the expropriation of capital, to say nothing of coping with the difficulties of Socialist construction.

Marx perceived that the education required by the proletariat could be made secure not through abnormal circumstances but only as it developed from a phenomenon characteristic of all capitalist states, a phenomenon inexorable in its force and powerful in its effects. This phenomenon was the class contradiction between capital and labor, the class struggle arising inevitably from this contradiction. This class struggle was an incontrovertible fact, regardless of its characterization by liberals and fascists as a Marxian “invention. “

Marx did not invent it. He did not demand it. He merely registered its existence and pointed out its inherent, inescapable consequences. And, as one of those consequences he emphasized the education of the proletariat to democracy and Socialism, which cannot prosper without democracy.

Marx in 1872 divided the countries of Europe into two groups. In one – essentially Anglo-Saxon – it seemed possible that the working class would attain power without violence. In the other group Marx included most of the countries of the continent where the attainment of power without a revolution appeared impossible.

After the rescinding of the Anti-Socialist Law in Germany there came into view a third sub-division. As heretofore it still appeared impossible for the proletariat in the military countries of the continent to come into power without a revolution. But in most of these countries it was now highly desirable to postpone the decisive clash with the state as long as possible. In Russia, on the other hand, it was most imperative that the uprising of the people against the absolutist regime should take place as soon as possible.

We find, therefore, in the Second International, founded in 1889, whose period covered this new phase of development, three well defined currents. They are geographically distinct and spring from the different types of government prevailing on the continent. Each of them represents an adaptation to conditions, and from a Marxist point of view each was fully justified. Each of them could and did exist alongside the others, but not without some friction.

The human mind craves absolute solutions. It is against its nature to contend with relativities. And so, in each of the three above-mentioned divisions, there were many Socialists who regarded the particular stand on the question of revolution which was suited to their own countries as something that had an absolute validity, independent of space and time. This was enhanced by the brisk international intercourse which made it possible for ideas to circulate even faster than commodities. Born of the three views representing the different sub-divisions, all of which were reconcilable with Marxism, came three factions which opposed one another not only within the International but in some of the separate countries as well.

Nevertheless, from year to year the Socialist parties grew in size, in unity and in intellectual power.


Last updated on 27.1.2004