Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

7. Communism, Social Democracy and the Rise of Nazism in Germany

The old idealists among the dictators in the Kremlin have either died out or been removed from office. The men who are at the helm now have derived from the labor movement in which they formerly participated as part of the Social-Democratic movement, only the desire to utilize the working class for their own ends, which in practice are no longer the liberation of the laboring masses but the strengthening of their own absolutism. The working classes not alone of Russia but of the entire world have become their cannon fodder. In the eyes of the Kremlin rulers the workers of all countries must play the part of wooden soldiers marching to their command. This is really the task of the Comintern.

In this effort to establish their dictatorship over the working class of the world and to drag it into adventures regardless of consequences, the Moscow dictators encounter the determined resistance of Social Democracy. Therefore, they regard Social Democracy as their most dangerous enemy. The rage of the Communists is directed principally not against foreign capitalists but against the workers organized into Socialist and Labor parties and free trade unions.

The rulers of Russia seem to be able to get along with foreign capitalists and capitalist governments and to do business with them. For the capitalists are not in the least embarrassed by methods of dictatorship, nor by the omnipotence of a political police, nor by the exploitation of the masses for the purpose of “primitive accumulation.” Many of them would greatly appreciate having a similar regime in their own countries.

The fundamental aim of the Communists of every country is not the destruction of capitalism but the destruction of democracy and of the political and economic organizations of the workers.

By their policies they always pave the way for reaction. The capitalists no longer fear Soviet Russia.

The entire Five-Year Plan was conceived in the expectation that the capitalists of the entire world would vie with one another, in supplying Soviet Russia with improved means of production, and in this the Communists were not deceived. And the capitalists fear Soviet Russia as little politically as they do economically. Mussolini owes his success in no small measure to the Communists. They made possible the triumph of Hitler in Germany. In many countries the reactionaries owed a number of their seats in Parliament to the Communists. Everywhere from the moment the war [1] ended the Communists have been doing the greatest harm to the cause of the working class by bringing discord into its ranks.

The Bolshevist methods were everywhere eagerly studied and followed not only by the Communists .but by reactionaries wherever the democratic wing of the working class was too weak to exert a decisive political influence.

Authority and power for Social Democracy came with the military collapse of the Central Empires. Wherever it was at the helm it acted with the same humanity and magnanimity as did the revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871, 1905 and 1917. But owing to the war and the shortsightedness of the victors, the wholly socialist or semi-socialist governments in Germany and other countries were faced with problems which could not be solved overnight and the solution of which could not bring immediate prosperity. This activated speedily the bitter enmity of the disintegrating groups, with the result that the exercise of authority by either capitalist or anticapitalist elements became a matter of mere chance. The outcome was a regime o£ dictatorship, of conscript labor, of terror, of arbitrary rule by a privileged minority.

The causes of the collapse of the German Republic may be summarized as follow

  1. The consequences of the Versailles Peace Treaty.
  2. The inner weakness of the republic, born out of military defeat.
  3. The economic crisis.

The great French Revolution came under conditions of peace. The humiliation and exhaustion of military defeat did not rest upon the French people. They were able to devote all their fighting strength to the Revolution.

The German Revolution of 1918 came at the end of a war which had brought the German people to a condition of unprecedented exhaustion. Added to this was another important factor. The French Revolution soon found itself at war with the monarchs of Europe, whom it finally vanquished. However internationalist we may be in our sentiments, we are compelled to admit that the national enthusiasm of a people who repels the attacks of foreign adversaries constitutes a tremendous propelling force. A revolution is greatly strengthened when it combines revolutionary with national enthusiasm. This was a factor that proved of great help to the Bolsheviks in 1920, who drew new power from the war with Poland. It strengthened greatly the French Revolution after 1792. Of course, in the end democracy is the loser under such an awakening of the warlike spirit, even when the revolutionists emerge as the victors.

In contrast to the French Revolution of 1789, the German Revolution of 1918 sprang from the horrible misery of the war. In addition, it was compelled to accept a most humiliating and crushing peace. The monarchy unleashed and lost the war, but the monarchists deserted before the conclusion of peace. The ignominious and ruinous peace treaty of Versailles was the consequence of the policy of Kaiserist Germany. But the signing of the inevitable peace treaty the monarchists left to the republicans.

In the eyes of those politically illiterate masses who like to look for scapegoats rather than for the causes of events, the Social Democrats appeared to be most responsible for the peace treaty.

The force of national sentiment which had so strengthened the revolutionary elan of the First French republic had the opposite effect on the fate of the first German Republic. The democratic victor states did everything they could through the conditions of peace which they had imposed upon the German Reich to rouse the national feeling of the German people against the republic which had been compelled to accept those conditions. Nor did the victor states permit the German people to return to a state of calm. This was done through the imposition of insane reparations payments, which, in turn, provoked the inflation and Ruhr occupation, both equally ruinous in their political and economic effects. The consequence was a repetition of the situation created by the war. A German reactionary cabinet permitted itself to be drawn into the Ruhr conflict, unleashed the inflation, thereby bringing Germany to the abyss, and deserted at the decisive moment, leaving it to the Socialists to clean up the mess piled up by the Messrs. Cuno and his confreres.

Hardly had the worst consequences of reparations been overcome and the reparations themselves eliminated, than the world crisis made its appearance, affecting all countries, but none so severely as Germany. This was the decisive factor in Hitler’s victory.

In July 1932, only a minority of the 20,000,000 wage earners in Germany were fully employed; 7½ million were without jobs and 5 million were on part-time work.

No less eloquent are the statistics of the trade unions, showing unemployment of only 8.6 per cent among the organized workers in 1928, the last year before the crisis, as compared with 46.1 per cent in March 1933. In 1928, part-time workers comprised only 5.7 per cent. In March, 1933, the figure was 23.4 per cent. In February it was 24.1 per cent. Fully employed in the critical month of March were only 30 per cent of the organized workers!

Add to the situation the split between the Social Democrats and Communists, which, in the final analysis, was also a consequence of the World War, and assumed particularly large dimensions in Germany, and we are compelled to admit that in no other country have the workers since the war, and to a large extent as a consequence of the war, been subjected to so much suffering. Nowhere have the workers been compelled to pass through so many struggles, economic, social and political, nowhere have the workers faced such a corroding ordeal as the workers of the German Republic.

The energy generated by German Social Democracy during the period of 1918-1933 has not been fully appreciated abroad for the simple reason that conditions in Germany expressed themselves only occasionally in explosive form, as during the Kapp putsch, whereas the general situation was one of a prolonged stubborn contest for power, without dramatic sensations, and failed, therefore, to find proper appraisal.

When one considers the circumstances under which the German Republic came into being and the persistent sapping of the strength of its best defenders – the German workers who had already reached a high point of exhaustion as the Kaiser-Reich collapsed and the revolution began in November, 1918 – there need be little wonder of the triumph of the counter revolution, as it triumphed finally after 1789 and 1848. The remarkable thing is that this triumph came only after 15 years of struggle.

It may be argued that even if this be true, there still remains the fact that Social Democracy had pursued a mistaken policy and thus opened the door to the calamity.

It is quite true that “the policy of the lesser evil” of supporting Hindenburg for the presidency against Hitler and tolerating the quasi-dictatorial government of Bruening as the last available bulwark against Nazism, did not avert the ultimate greater evil and that it proved a failure.

In the situation which developed under the historic circumstances outlined above there were but two roads open for the Social Democrats-the road of either the lesser evil or that of the Communists, which would have led inevitably to the greater evil. The Social Democratic policy at least made possible the averting for a time of the greater evil, the Hitler dictatorship. Had the Socialists followed the policy of the Communists, the Socialists themselves would have put Hitler in the saddle.

Had a revolution appeared to have the slightest chance of success, the Communists would have surely tried to make one. Unfortunately, the masses can succumb to such a state of paralysis as to render even the most optimistic hopeless and incapable of action.

Coalition with the most democratic of the bourgeois parties became necessary in order to save the German Republic and its hard won social acquisitions. On the other hand, as a result of the economic breakdown caused by the war and its consequences, and of the peace treaty, circumstances favoring the formation of a purely Socialist government would have made its task difficult because of the lack of the support of a Socialist majority. Conditions became utterly unbearable with the setting in of the crisis, which sharpened the social contradictions to such an extent that it was impossible for the Socialists to remain in the government any longer. In March 1930, the Social Democratic cabinet of Hermann Mueller resigned. Its place was taken by the Bruening cabinet.

The Socialist ministers without a Socialist majority naturally could not terminate the crisis. Those who expected the Socialists to do that should have at least granted them the necessary power by providing them with a parliamentary majority. To be sure, even then socialization measures would have merely mitigated but would not have entirely overcome the crisis. This could not be done by one country alone. There were, however, certain manifestations of the crisis that could have been avoided by a Social Democratic government supported by a Social Democratic majority, and the masses of the people thereby saved a tremendous lot of suffering. But under the division of power then existing among the parties and classes in Germany the Social Democrats were not even in a position to beat off successfully the attack of the possessing classes upon labor. The purely bourgeois cabinets made the evil even worse.

Large numbers of persons, especially among the middle classes and including a great many workers, saw and felt the misery of the times very keenly. They rebelled against it. But in their ignorance they failed to see that the root of the calamity lay in the powerlessness of the Social Democracy, that it was necessary to help it achieve power. They lost faith in all the major political parties who took part in the parliamentary struggle and who sought to assert themselves in parliament and through parliament. They looked for the cause of the misery not in the balance of power of the political parties, not in the unfitness of the bourgeois parties, not in the lack of power of the Social Democracy, but in the parliamentary system itself. They were vexed with the image of political and social relationships as reflected in parliament. And they thought they could improve the image by breaking the mirror.

The crisis, which in England happened to strike the Labor Party and in America the Republican Party because at that time both were steering the ship of state, was utilized in some of the constitutionally governed countries of continental Europe in attacking parliament itself. Since parliaments exist, since the political life of the countries is concentrated in them, they must be blamed for all evils and their destruction made a prerequisite to something better.

But what shall be put in their place?

There were in Germany three anti-parliamentary parties: the Communists, the German Nationalists and the National Socialists. Of these three parties the National Socialist Party was the weakest at the time the crisis set in. In 1928, it had but 12 seats in the Reichstag, the Communists had 54 and the German Nationalists 73. Since then the Communists had grown rather slowly, while the German Nationalists had lost rapidly. The latter had been unable to compete with the National Socialists, who for the most part drew their support from the same elements of the population. The superiority of the Nazis arose partly from the fact that although both the German Nationalists and the Communists were theoretically anti-parliamentary they had in practice associated themselves very closely with the parliamentary struggle in Germany, which contradictory conduct could not be laid at the door of the Nazis, inasmuch as prior to 1930 they were numerically very weak in the Reichstag.

All the other parties, whether in the government or in the opposition, had become, in a parliamentary sense, worn out with time. This could not be said of the National Socialist party. It had all the lustre and allurement of newness. The National Socialist party was young and for that reason appeared to many superficial observers also handsome.

And as soon as the circumstances described above began to exert their influence there was added a new factor: success. Here, too, the old adage may be quoted: “Nothing succeeds like success.” In order that the masses may believe in the dictator, he must be successful. He must dispense power and must be believed to be capable of heroic deeds. The Communists, too, advocated a dictatorship; they too promised the starving masses heaps of gold. But their rise in Germany never assumed such proportions as to make one hope for immediate practical results. And the starving wanted bread immediately. They would not and could not wait. The German Nationalists, on the other hand, were not only sworn enemies of the workers to begin with, but by the time of the crisis had lost much of their ground. From the days of the Constituent Assembly in Weimar up to 1924 they had been making steady progress. In 1924 they had 111 seats in the Reichstag. Then they began to lose. In 1928 their representation was reduced to 73. With the elections of 1930 their retrogression continued, the number of their mandates dropping to 41, while that of the National Socialists jumped from 12 to 107. It then became clear as to whom was to be given the confidence of those masses who expected their salvation to come from above.

This is what made the National Socialists irresistible – not their program, for they have not as yet shown any ability to work out a consistent program.

German Social Democracy succumbed to the counter-revolution only after 15 years of most stubborn resistance, in the course of which it was called upon to fight an overwhelming combination of enemies, ranging from the Communists to the People’s Party, the German Nationalists and the National Socialists.

In pointing out the injustice of condemning the German Social Democrats for their failure to put up a forcible resistance against Hitler, I wish to emphasize that the condemnation of the Social Democracy on this point would have to apply with equal force to the German Communist Party whose voting strength was greater than that of any Communist Party in other countries.

At times this party was almost as strong as the Social Democratic Party (In November 1932 the Communists had almost six million votes, while the Social Democrats rolled up slightly over seven million). In view of such tremendous mass support it is useless to look for individuals to put the blame on; one must search for deeper causes. How did it happen that thirteen million workers permitted themselves to be disenfranchised without offering violent resistance?

This attitude of the workers appears all the more strange when one contrasts it with the fighting spirit they displayed in a previous attempt to impose a dictatorship upon the German nation, namely the Kapp putsch of 1920. The occupation of Berlin by counter-revolutionary troops was answered with a general strike of such sweep and power that in a few days the counter-revolutionary uprising was crushed.

Quite different was the conduct of the same parties and even of the same leaders in 1933. This fact alone suggests we must look for the cause of the difference in conduct then and now not in personalities but in the dissimilarity of circumstances.

This dissimilarity is not difficult to establish. Those who took part in the Kapp rebellion of 1920 soon came to realize that they were an unsupported, isolated group in the nation. They wanted to bring back to power the very same class that had brought bloody war and terrible defeat upon the German people. In 1920 this fact had not yet been forgotten, hence the united will to fight back, which found its most powerful expression in the great general strike.

The Communists at that time felt so strong that they attempted to organize armed uprisings in the Ruhr and Vogt regions, which of course quickly came to naught. The Social Democracy on the other hand could truthfully claim that in its effort to ward off dictatorship it had the support of the great majority of the German people.

The situation in 1933 was quite different. The Hitlerites came to the fore not as the result of a coup by a few regiments, but by steadily winning the favor of the masses. A mere handful before 1928, they very suddenly developed such vote-gathering powers that already in June of 1932 they became the strongest party, with 230 mandates. And their rise continued unabated, as the elections of March 5, 1933 showed, resulting in almost half of the entire vote being cast for the Nazis alone, and more than half for the Nazis and their political allies combined.

This points to a profound change in the frame of mind of the people generally. And such a change is bound to affect all parties; no party can escape its influence unless the party is only a small sect whose power does not spring from the large masses.

Victories scored by counter-revolutionists during a period of civil strife signify not the beginning but the conclusion of a counter-revolutionary process. These victories are accounted for by the change of attitude of the broad masses of the people who have lost faith in the revolution or have even turned against it because they have been disappointed or believe their interests to have been endangered by it. Thus in 1848 many of the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and peasant elements in Germany and France, who during the months of February and March were revolutionists, later turned counter-revolutionist. It was this change of heart that encouraged the reactionary elements, who in February and March had been in hiding or had fled from the revolution, to appeal to arms once more.

At first glance it may seem as though the work of “one lieutenant and ten men” was sufficient, in July 1932, to destroy the entire German Social Democracy. In reality however, it was the irresistible advance of National Socialist ideas and sentiments among the masses of the people that rendered ineffective the fighting spirit of the class-conscious workers, both Communist and Social Democratic.

Whence came that irresistibility? Did it come from the superiority of the National Socialist program, the higher moral concepts and intelligence of its champions, the greater courage and spirit of self-sacrifice of their followers? In all of these things the “Marxists” leave the National Socialists far behind.

Whoever wishes to learn the reason for the irresistible upsurge of National Socialist sentiment need only observe the date when it began in Germany. Before the advent of the economic crisis the National Socialists were an insignificant group. In the Reichstag elections of 1928 they won only 12 seats. Two years later, however, they succeeded in increasing the number of their mandates almost tenfold, the number of seats captured jumping from 12 to 107. It was precisely these two years that saw the beginning of the world crisis. And this crisis everywhere brought revolutionary developments in its train. Revolutionary not in the sense that they favored the success of the socialist-revolutionary parties, but in the sense that they rendered desperate the existence of large masses of persons or citizens who blamed the governments or political parties in power for the misery brought about by the crisis and believed that they could save themselves by overthrowing those governments and parties. He who promised to bring about the overthrow most speedily and successfully was the right man for those masses, the man through whom they hoped to achieve their salvation, no matter what his program. The manner of reasoning of the rank and file of the population, wholly without political or economic experience and stirred to political action only by the war and its consequences, was militaristic, not economic.

Some Socialists regret the fact that the Social Democrats used no force in the November days of 1918 and believe that had they done so they would have now been in the saddle and their enemies destroyed.

It is a dangerous illusion to think that a movement rooted in a given set of circumstances can be destroyed by violence. In studying the problem we must first of all make a distinction between the methods of arbitrary murder and plunder pursued with respect to opponents and the methods of legitimate suppression of crime and brutal violence in political contests. There is yet another distinction that must be made. On the one hand we have the methods of the Nazis which assure every one of their party members a well paying government position, whether he is fit for it or not, and make every political or personal opponent of the Nazis ineligible for any kind of public service. On the other hand, we have the methods pursued by the Social Democrats, who seek to break the monopoly of the opponents of democracy in the control of the state and see to it that the laws of the state are applied to the enemies of democracy as strictly as they are to other elements of the population.

If we are to consider the carrying out of this part of the Social Democratic program alone, then German Social Democracy has earned no reproach whatever. It did its utmost in this respect. If it did not accomplish more the fault lies in no small measure with those who make this reproach, above all the Communists who voted in the Reichstag for the amnesty of murderers and incendiaries known to be opponents of democracy.

If, on the other hand, the Social Democracy is to be reproached for failing to institute a reign of terror against its political opponents after November 1918, then those who make the reproach should remember that such a reign of terror would have affected first of all the Communists, whose Bolshevist colleagues in Russia were applying the most brutal methods against the Russian Socialists, and who sought to bring about the same thing in Germany. Attempts to bring about the establishment of an anti-Bolshevist reign of terror under a Social Democratic regime were not lacking, as was evidenced by the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, an assassination perpetrated by a group of reactionary army officers. But the Social Democrats must consider it fortunate that the Social Democratic government of that time repelled with horror every effort of the frenzied army officers to force it to adopt terroristic measures.

What would have happened if the German Social Democrats had permitted themselves to be driven to the setting up of a reign of terror against their political opponents?

What Germany needed most, after its military defeat and in the face of the hostility of the entire world, were moral conquests instead of military ones. The German people had to gain the good will of the world and end its isolation. Now, moral conquests, which alone are lasting and productive of good results, cannot be made by brutal force. Since the German Social Democracy had established a democratic republic and was determined to administer it on a democratic basis, it tried to do its best to win back Germany’s former moral and economic standing in the world.

Had the German Social Democrats established a system of terror in 1918 and 1919 it would have meant the isolation of Germany and the stagnation of her economic life, as now brought about by Hitler. The frightful blame which rests upon the brown shirts now would have been placed upon the German Social Democrats then and with a vehemence ten times as strong. It would have flung the German people and above all its working class into an abyss of misery and filth and would have morally destroyed Social Democracy.

To have paid for the short-lived illusion of absolute authority, based on blood and murder, with the price of such a frightful finale would have been too much.

He who thinks that the working class can be assured, prosperity and freedom by organizing economic life on a militaristic basis is wrong. No less erroneous is it to strive for a dictatorship for the purpose of crushing the enemy and establishing the working class in a privileged position in the state and society while reducing the rest of the population to the position of pariahs as a means of ultimately establishing socialist equality for all. But most objectionable of all would be to attempt to build a regime of humanity upon the basis of brutality, seeing that without the former no true Socialist commonwealth can exist. For this commonwealth must represent the realization of the slogan of the French Revolution, which was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”



1. World War 1 – Ed.


Last updated on 16.8.2004