Karl Kautsky

Social Democracy versus Communism

10. The “United Front”

Right now one hears louder than ever the demand for a united front which before 1914 existed in almost every country of the world, with the exception of Russia, and which gave the laboring masses a chance to assert themselves successfully. The split in the ranks of the working class was responsible for the fact that the revolutions of 1918 and 1919 in central Europe did not accomplish the maximum results possible at that rime.

On the surface, it appears that the question of the united front involves an effort to bring together two opposing working class tendencies for joint action. Some will ask, “What does this have to do with the character of the dictatorship in Russia? And is not the cessation of fratricidal struggle in the ranks of the working class an urgent necessity?” The workers are fully aware that their power and the achievement of their aim depend upon their unity. They reject anything that threatens unity. They dislike any theoretical conflict which impedes unity of action.

On the other hand, we must not permit the memory of old conflicts no longer of any immediate significance, to interfere with any process of unification. I, too, recall many splits and conflicts of tendencies in which the followers of the respective camps developed a passionate hatred for each other. And yet, these very same people learned to regard each other later as valuable comrades and friends when the causes of the conflicts had been removed and it had become possible again to work together for common aims through common methods.”

I am fully aware of all this, and yet I have no enthusiasm for the efforts being made for the establishment of a “united front.”

The very term “united front” gives cause for doubt. Why not “unity” with the Communists? Because the Communists do not want unity. What is proposed is not unity of Social Democratic and Communist workers, under which both would pursue common aims through democratic methods, free discussions, and majority rule, respected by the minority.

To be sure, both the Communist and Socialist Parties regard themselves as working class organizations. Both consist in their overwhelming majority of workers. Many of these work side by side in the same plants and factories. They share the same sufferings and face a common opposition. And yet there are profound differences between them. It is not merely a question of belonging to the same class, but also of the organizations from which the individual workers take their slogans and directions. In the Social Democracy these slogans and directions are given democratically. Its organizations are governed by democracy, as are those of the entire free labor movement. This is not true of all organizations in which workers are active. This is not true, for example, of organizations whose workers are politically regimented and wear a uniform. Such workers follow a military discipline. They receive their slogans from above and they must obey them without question. The attitude of a military organization toward the Social Democracy depends not upon whether such organization is composed of workers but upon the stand taken with respect to the Socialist Party by its high command.

What is true, with certain variations of a military organization is inevitably true also of the Communists. Unlike the Social Democracy, they are not organized democratically, but in military fashion. They do not choose their own leaders and slogans, but receive them from their high command-in the last instance, from Moscow. The Communists of all countries are its disciplined praetorian guard. Communism has become for the present rulers of Russia what pan-Slavism was for the czars, with the exception that the Communists of today are much more obedient to the dictators in Moscow than the pan-Slavists were to the czars. Fundamentally, the united front would signify, therefore, not the cooperation of workers acting freely within the labor movement but the cooperation of the democratic Socialist and labor organizations of the world with the strongest dictatorship of the world.

A united front concluded by Social Democrats and Communists in a given country will always be limited by the fact that it rests not upon common interests and ideas but springs from a special situation, which may change overnight. This is especially true because faithlessness and treachery are part of the substance of dictatorship, that only he becomes a dictator who does not hesitate to destroy his erstwhile comrades whenever they become obstacles in the way of his determination to achieve absolute power.

The militarized, highly concentrated economy of the Soviet state certainly differs radically from the economy of private capitalism, but it is no less removed from the objective of the emancipation of the working class from all exploitation and enslavement. Before the rise of the Communist dictatorship in Russia, the bourgeois critics of Socialism used to characterize the objective of Socialists as a penitentiary or as a barrack economy. Social Democrats, in turn, repudiated this emphatically. We could not imagine that some day there would arise a group of Socialists claiming to be Marxists who would actually bring such a penitentiary or barrack economy into life, and that instead of being laughed out of court or condemned they would arouse the admiration and approval of some Socialists.

The bloody terror of the regime is hailed by such Socialists as the realization of the Socialist ideal, because, forsooth, there is no place for capitalists in the barrack of Soviet economy, they being permitted to enter it only occasionally as visitors. As such they are invited and received in most friendly manner, guided about with great politeness and asked to express their appreciation of the good food served in the penitentiary.

Those who realize all these facts will perceive that there is, indeed, very little in common between the new ruling aristocracy in Soviet Russia and the free labor movement, very little, indeed, of that community of interests essential for a successful united front between Socialists and Communists.

They differ far too widely in methods and character. Any prolonged cooperation between the two would be based upon a lie. For the Soviet regime, this would be quite acceptable, for falsehood is its outstanding characteristic. The Soviet regime has continuously, without interruption, paraded its slave economy as the emancipation of toiling humanity, but Social Democracy cannot flourish upon a lie, not even when the lie may appear to it to be the truth. Any such situation would lead inevitably to the decline of Socialism and its ultimate destruction.

From the very beginning of their activities, the Bolsheviks have been an element of dissension and weakening in the labor movement. This was inevitable. Such is the effect of dictatorship. The harmonious cooperation of different tendencies in the labor movement is possible only on the basis of democracy. At various times, in devious ways and under manifold guises, the Communists have tried to worm their way into the labor movement; and always with the one objective of either subjecting the organizations of labor to the will of Moscow or of splitting them.

Unity of the working class – yes! But unity only in a free labor movement! No fake unity – no “unity” which leads only to discord and dissension.

Some say we are absolutely opposed to the Communist parties outside but not to the dictatorship in Russia. In reality the reverse is true: cooperation with those Communist groups who are freeing themselves from their dependence on the present rulers of Russia for the purpose of attaining some common goal is possible. This has been proved by experience more than once. On the other hand, those Communists who are ruled by Moscow are implacably hostile to the Socialist parties not because of their Communist objectives, which are shared also by the Communist opposition, but because what the Moscow rulers want is not independently thinking allies but obedient tools.

The enemy that makes impossible any united front resides in Moscow. The conflict between Moscow and the Socialist and Labor parties is not based upon a misunderstanding but is deeply rooted in their respective natures and is just as insoluble as is the contradiction between dictatorship and democracy. One of the most outstanding characteristics of Communists was always their contempt of democracy.

This contempt, adopted by many a Socialist influenced by them, has since brought forth rotten fruit. It weakened the working class, gave permanency to the split which since 1918 has been brought about by the Communists in so many countries, and became one of the primary causes of the many painful defeats democracy has sustained in recent years.

But the consequences of these defeats were so serious for the Soviet State that it saw itself compelled to appeal for help to democracy outside Russia. Its watchword to Communists of all countries was now to take a stand for democracy and for this purpose to form a United Front with the Social Democrats they had hitherto so furiously attacked. [1]

So far as this goes, the situation can be greeted with rejoicing. But our joy is somewhat dampened by the fact that this change of the Communists is not one of principle but is merely one of tactical manoeuvering. They defend democracy only where they are in the opposition. They annihilate it and practice the most cruel subjugation of any form of popular freedom where they are in power.

The ousting of democracy by violent despotism in various great neighbor states of Russia constitutes a serious menace to it. Everyone of these despotisms, according to its nature, is pressing for military expansion. Two of them, the German and Japanese, threaten Russia from the East and from the West. But by itself the Russian Army could hardly withstand the pressure from two sides.

Russia needs allies, but they can be found only in the democratic states of the West. There, too, exist elements hostile to democracy. They are Russia’s enemies as well. It is not only in the strength of these countries, but in the strength of their democracy, that the Soviet Republic is most keenly interested. This explains the Soviets’ sudden interest in democracy, but only there – not at home.

Their aid to democracy must be welcomed by every democratic party. But this help may not be relied on too strongly. It emanates from the foreign policy of the present rulers of Russia and is in direct contrast to its home policy.

More recently Stalin has been obliged to make concessions to democratic ideas. He has granted the Russian people a new Soviet Constitution in place of the previous one, which he himself pronounces “the best democracy in the world.”

If any democracy deserves the description of a purely formal one, it is the latest constitution of Stalin. It granted no attribute of real democracy, no freedom of movement for the masses, no liberty of speech, of the press, of meeting, of organizations. Its parliament, not freely elected, is a mere assenting parrot.

How the life of the state really functions under this constitution is clearly demonstrated by the famous political trials which have since been staged by the Soviet Government. But they did not merely disclose the fake character of present day Russian “democracy.” The fact that they continue to find their victims in the governing groups demonstrates that the country is in the throes of a vast unrest reaching up into the ruling circles – an unrest which, in spite of most ferocious repression, does not cease.

We may yet expect terrific surprises. Whatever aspect these may bear, they promise to stir the masses into motion and thus to bring real concessions to democracy. If democracy should succeed in deed – actually rather than formally – in gaining ascendancy in Russia, the workers of all lands would be the gainers. Owing to the larger masses which would swell their ranks and the lessened obstacles in their way, their advance would proceed with heightened power and speed.

Then a new era would dawn upon mankind. Its advent depends chiefly on the Communists of Russia. But today it is the duty of Socialists, in all parleys and discussions with Communists, to point out this fact to them, and to explain to them how largely the further advance of the working class parties of the world depends on the granting of real democracy in Russia, what harm they do to Socialism and Labor so long as they deny it in that country.

The reestablishment of a united Socialist and Labor movement is impossible so long as Russia is ruled by a dictatorship seeking to subordinate to itself the working class of the whole world.

A united front will come of itself as soon as this dictatorship has vanished, for without it the Communist parties will be deprived of their life-force. They will speedily disintegrate as soon as slogans and money cease to come from Russia and the iron and golden ring that is holding them together has been removed.

Not the collapse of the dictatorship in Russia but its further continuance in power constitutes the gravest menace and causes the greatest damage to the struggle of the modern working class for liberation.



1. This was written in 1937.


Last updated on 27.1.2004