Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

8. Socialism and Democracy

The interests of the working class require democracy no less than Socialism. Labor can attain to the former sooner than to the latter, for other laboring classes, such as artisans and peasants, as well as many intellectuals, are equally interested in the development of democracy.

In the struggle for democracy and its immediate class interests, necessitating social reforms, the working class is lifted from primitive barbarism to higher forms. The consequences of this struggle creates a more fertile ground upon which the enlightened working classes, acting in organized masses, continues to develop its powers by means of free action and movement, thus lifting its development to the highest possible degree and rendering itself capable of pursuing successfully the struggle for the final aims of Socialism.

One may easily admit that democratic methods are not applicable in the struggle against totalitarianism, in fact impossible, and yet make the aim of our fight the restoration of democracy. Much confusion has resulted from the fact that in the discussion of this question the two points of view have not been clearly defined. Some take the position that democracy, having failed where fascism is in power, must fail also where fascism has been kept from power.

It is self-evident that we cannot fight with the weapons of democracy where such weapons are not available. Some now make the distinction between democratic and revolutionary methods. Some of us are pictured as insisting upon democratic methods, others upon revolutionary methods. The latter are characterized as implying insurrection and the general strike. But this juxtaposition of democratic methods and others is no less erroneous than that of reformists and revolutionists. Our aim is Socialist and revolutionary. Whether we fight for it reformistically or in a revolutionary manner depends not upon our thinking processes, but assumes practical significance only as we view our tactics from the standpoint of a given situation in the state, society and existing class relationships, which we cannot determine at will. This is what determines whether we resort to democratic or “revolutionary” methods of action.

Under the conditions that prevailed in the countries of Continental Europe during the last century, conditions that were characterized by the absence of that measure of democracy essential to the freedom of movement required by the masses, it was the democrats who were the revolutionists, for they were the ones who fought for democracy with revolutionary methods, because none other were available. At that time the conceptions of democrats and revolutionists were identical.

But it would be ridiculous, with this past period in mind, to consider ourselves obliged to preach a violent political overthrow in countries where democratic institutions have been attained.

There are people who believe that even under a democratic order Labor should utilize the methods of “revolution,” insurrection, the general strike, because, in their opinion, such methods will lead to Socialism more quickly than the casting of ballots, and that in the final analysis the opponents of Socialism in the democratic states will yield only to insurrection and the general strike.

In rejecting democracy, they go so far as to believe that a Socialist minority could achieve power by force in a democratic state. And, finally, they assert that Socialists cannot hope to attain an electoral majority even in countries where Labor represents the greatest number as long as the opponents of Socialism retain control over the economic and intellectual instruments of power.

To this we reply: To be sure, the power at the disposal of the opponents of Socialism, the economic dependence of the workers, the influence of the press and the stealing of elections can be brought into play even under democracy. But a Socialist Party which is unable, regardless of these obstacles, to obtain the support of a majority of the people in a democracy will find it even more impossible to obtain such a majority by the use of armed force or the general strike. For in the latter instance the weapons at the disposal of the opponents of Socialism will prove even more effective than under the form of democratic struggle. The road of force and violence requires even greater sacrifices from Labor than the road of democracy.

On the other hand, the use of force and violence requires the support of a much greater majority of the people if Socialism is to win. A majority of 51 per cent will not suffice.

In a situation in which force is pitted against force, the power at the disposal of the ruling classes comes much more into play than under democracy. To master that power we would require the support of an overwhelming majority of the people. The superiority of numbers is the sole decisive weapon Labor can command in any great decisive contest. To be sure, many workers have not infrequently achieved victory on the barricades or in general strikes, but only when they fought for objectives which were dear not only to the workers but to the great mass of the people as a whole, roused to enthusiasm and support.

Such objectives were always democratic objectives. Yet this alone did not suffice to assure victory in the contest of arms. Such victory required also the weakening of the support accorded to the existing regime by its army and bureaucracy.

Such was the case in the July revolution in Paris (1830), as well as in the uprisings of February and March 1848, and, later, in the general strike in Russia of 1905 and in Germany in 1920.

Both insurrection and general strike have proven quite useless, however, when they were utilized by a minority of the people in efforts to overthrow not a morally bankrupt government but a government supported by a majority of the people. The forcible overthrow of a government possessing not only the power of the state but also the support of a majority of the people is unthinkable. And, as we have already pointed out, any attempt to assert ourselves successfully by force requires not only majority but an overwhelming majority.

Moreover, the road of force requires greater sacrifices than the road of democracy. It is much easier to prevail upon a person to vote Socialist than it is to move him to give up his job or his life.

Force is, therefore, not a method by which a working class parry can advance in a democracy or achieve results that cannot be achieved by democratic methods. Democracy is the shortest, surest and least costly road to Socialism, just as it is the best instrument for the development of the political and social prerequisites for Socialism. Democracy and Socialism are inextricably entwined.

The big exploiters are not unconscious of this fact. Hence, their hatred of democracy and their efforts to destroy it wherever they can. These efforts gain in intensity and violence in proportions as democracy has facilitated the rise of Labor. Is this any reason for Socialists to minimize the value of democracy? What for the moment may appear as the weakness of democracy is in reality the weakness of the working classes. A working class which has not the power to defend democracy, until such time as the relationship of class forces change, is certainly least capable to assert itself against the exploiters by force. Where democracy has been lost, it is the first and most important task of Socialists and Labor to regain it.

It would be nonsensical to contend that Social Democrats are obliged to use democratic methods under all circumstances. Such an obligation we can assume only with respect to those who themselves use only democratic methods. Acts of violence cannot be repelled by ballots, newspaper articles or mass meetings. Nevertheless, in circumstances when Social Democrats are compelled to meet violence with violence they must seek first and foremast to win the support of the majority. This is the essential prerequisite of victory, regardless of whether they apply democratic or other methods. And, furthermore, they must never lose cognizance of the fact that democracy remains always the most valuable instrument Labor can possess.

Where democracy does not exist the most urgent task before Labor and Social Democracy is to establish political freedom. It is quite erroneous to say that the workers must first emancipate themselves economically, and that only then will “true” democracy be possible.

It makes no difference whether or not we choose to regard a strong representative assembly of the people, elected by universal equal suffrage, and coupled with freedom of the press, speech and organization, as mere “formal” democracy. The fact is that without such institutions the workers cannot emancipate themselves economically. To be sure, democratic institutions will change their character when society will be organized on a Socialist basis. Today they are essential instruments of struggle for the working class. Under Socialism they will be only instruments of free social administration. And this will constitute the difference between present day democracy and the democracy of a Socialist society. The fashionable conceptions of “true” and “formal” democracy are mere abstractions.

Some may say that the example of Soviet Russia refutes my conception of democracy. It is argued that in Soviet Russia a proletarian minority succeeded in seizing power by force, something which it could never have attained by democratic methods.

Those who present this argument forget that Czarism was not overthrown by a Bolshevist minority against the majority of the people. Czarism fell because its chief instrument of power – the army – was wrecked and shattered by the arm of German militarism and, in part, turned against the Czar. Moreover, the entire Russian population joined the rebellious troops. Unfortunately, Russia did not possess any class schooled in self-government. As a result, anarchy overwhelmed the country. Amidst this anarchy Bolshevism established itself with the instruments of a new army and bureaucracy.

It would be futile to expect a repetition of anything like this. The state to which these developments gave birth is a distinctly abnormal one. The continued existence of the Bolshevist state is by no means an argument against democracy in a modern state.

There remains now one more argument against democracy to be disposed of – that democracy necessarily implies a weak government. Only the application of extreme pressure will suffice to tackle the monopolists of finance, industry and land ownership, we are told.

This is quite true. The capitalist masters in some countries will stop at nothing to maintain themselves when they are confronted with the danger of expropriation. But this does not necessarily involve the use of military force, the raising of a private army by capital.

Only in politically backward country does fascism constitute a promising instrument for the exploiters. In the democratic states of Western Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon world the capitalists resort more to economic than military instruments, just as the working class in the great decisive political struggles of the past few decades fought with economic rather than military weapons. The methods pursued by the capitalists are essentially the same as those used by the workers: the strike, the crippling of production. The workers fight by stopping work; the capitalists fight by stopping the circulation of capital. By this means they have succeeded in overthrowing governments which they regard as inimical to their interests.

Only a government which does not stand in superstitious awe before the rights of private property can tackle the resistance of the monopolists of capital. Such a government must not hesitate to confiscate any enterprise which practices passive resistance, and operate it for the social interest.

It is simply impossible from the point of view o£ sound economics to change the whole of capitalist economy into a Socialist economy at one stroke. There will be many capitalist enterprises which it will be necessary for the time being to continue as such.

And, indeed, it will be to the advantage of the Socialist state to have these enterprises continue functioning without disturbance. But the owners of these enterprises will continue to operate them only when they feel secure against confiscation, and when we assure those of them whose enterprises are to be ultimately socialized a proper measure of compensation.

This very prospect of compensation should move the capitalists in question to refrain from passive resistance, economic sabotage and interference with the new regime. As regards capitalists who will sabotage under any circumstances we need have no compunction about seizing their property in socially necessary means of production. The threat of confiscation will be a most effective weapon to compel their cooperation with the Socialist government.

Economic as well as political considerations will make two things necessary: to reassure those capitalists willing to cooperate against direct confiscation of their property, and the determination to confiscate ruthlessly without compensation any enterprise hostile to the new economy and refusing to adapt itself to it.

But nothing is more erroneous than the assumption that only a dictatorship can show such determination. To be sure, no Socialist governments and certainly no coalition governments have ever been in a position to act with such determination. But it was not democracy that hindered them, but the fact that they did not command a united Socialist majority.

Only such a majority can have not only the courage and will but also the power to break ruthlessly the resistance of the capitalists. Such a majority, as we have already pointed out, can be attained, however, only in democracy.

Considered, therefore, from every point of view democracy facilitates, and in no way retards the emancipation of the working class.


Last updated on 27.1.2004