Karl Kautsky

Marxism and Bolshevism:
Democracy and Dictatorship

II. Marx and Revolution

Quite early in his career Marx realized, and in this he proved superior to the 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, nor a 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 proletariat to come from life, that is to say, he expected it to come from capitalist development and its effect upon the proletariat. 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 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 proletariat 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 proletariat?

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 classes. 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 proletariat “much further advanced” by the growth of large industries. The revolution was to last long enough to lift the proletariat 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 proletariat 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, and still more often to us Marxists. He correctly foresaw the direction in which events were moving but he 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. It was precisely his materialist method that facilitated this learning from experience, for it stressed the study of the surrounding world and not that of personal wishes and emotions.

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 proletariat toward the achievement of political independence and skill during the intervening period has been enormous.

Though Marx in 1850 rose superior to the majority of his Communist comrades who at that 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 then prevailing in English factories and plants. Of course, this did not blind him to the fact that the possessing classes in England were able amazing gain 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, and 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 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, 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 yet 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 France 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 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 the proletariat 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.

A peculiar situation developed in the military-bureaucratic countries at that time. From 1890 the labor movement grew by leaps and bounds, marching from victory to victory. Side by side with this continued the domination of the military, the police and the centralized government administration, with the monarch as its head. But now with this domination was associated a rapidly growing class of capitalists headed by great monopolists representing banks and heavy industry. These capitalists allied themselves more and more readily with the large landowners against whom previously they had fought. The magnates in the cities and country together dominated the government.

The conflict between the two camps – the proletarians and the profit makers – became ever sharper. It was bound to culminate in a violent clash. But Social-Democracy had no reason to hasten a violent collision. Under the conditions prevailing it was growing in power from year to year. The number of proletarians grew faster than that of any other part of the population. And the influence of Social-Democracy on the proletariat was increasing in the same measure. The number of proletarians and Social-Democrats in the army also increased. And this army was less and less to be relied upon by the government in case of internal war.

It was vitally important for Social-Democracy not to disturb this state of affairs by a premature, violent collision with the government. It had to strive to postpone this collision as long as possible. Our opponents thought quite differently. The unscrupulous element among them endeavored to hasten the clash by provoking the masses into premature action.

Thus the revolutionary tactics of the Socialists as pursued hitherto were reversed. Engels pointed out: “We the ‘revolutionaries’, the ‘overthrowers’ thrive better by the use of legitimate methods than by using illegitimate ones and revolution.”

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 impelled 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 proletariat, the only revolutionary class that still existed. They might destroy the revolution and impair the ability of the proletariat to utilize it, for what was expected from the revolution was that it would bring not merely political freedom, but power itself.

This was true of the situation in all military states of continental Europe, with one important exception: Russia. That country had not yet come out of the stage of absolutism. Its people were denied every vestige of freedom. The country needed first of all a democratic revolution, and it needed it immediately. The sooner the revolution came the better. Nothing could be gained by further delay. In Russia, too, however, it was impossible to kindle the revolution by artificial means. But its coming, its immediate coming, was ardently desired not only by all Socialists of whatever faction throughout the world, but also by wide circles outside the proletariat.

Marx in 1872 divided the countries of Europe into two groups. In one – essentially Anglo Saxon – it seemed possible that the proletariat would attain power without violence. In the other group Marx included most of the countries of the continent where the gaining 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, 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. Each of them represents an adaptation to conditions, and from a Marxist point of view is fully justified. Each of them could and did exist alongside the others, but not without 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.

To this was added the influence of the new conditions on Marxism itself. Its literature and, to a still larger extent, the conception of Marxism prevalent among the workers of the different countries, still bore the traces of the traditions of the revolutionary movement which culminated in the insurrections of 1848, even traces of the century-old traditions of the Great French Revolution. For that reason there was an inconsistency between the ideology and phraseology of the movement as it existed at the end of the nineteenth century on the one hand, and its practice on the other. Marx’s Capital was now a generation old. It said nothing about the new economic phenomena such as the preponderance of the heavy industries over the textile industries, or the trusts, for example. The crises themselves had assumed a different form. Instead of ten-year cycles of crises there were now periods of crises as well as of prosperity of such long duration that some regarded the crisis of the eighties, for example, or the prosperity that followed, as the enduring state of capitalism.

At any rate all this provided the occasion for new critical studies and discussions which became mingled with those arising out of the geographical differences of the International.

The new current which arose as a consequence of these studies and discussions was called “Revisionism” and was referred to also as the “Crisis of Marxism.” Our opponents were jubilant. Marxism was breathing its last, it was being given up by its own advocates. In reality Marxism emerged from the struggles of the time unscathed, even strengthened. The theoretical criticism directed against it soon exhausted itself, without causing any reverberations. It merely strengthened the striving of the younger Marxists toward further theoretical development of the doctrine of their teacher.

However, what did not come to an end as quickly as did was imminent and therefore to be reckoned with, or whether the discussion about the economic theory of Marxism were the tactical differences as to whether or not the revolution it was possible to avoid it. It was these tactical differences and not the theoretical ones that now and then, as in France, appreciably hurt the unity of the Socialist movement at the turn of the century. Eventually, however, these difficulties too were overcome.

From year to year the Socialist parties grew in size, in unity, in intellectual power. The party of the proletariat, Social-Democracy, became the equal of the other parties; nay, proved superior to them. This is proved by some of its deserters who, thanks to the schooling they received from us, subsequently became prominent politicians in the bourgeois camp, as, for example, Millerand, Briand, Mussolini, MacDonald.

In the bourgeois parties one naturally finds more men with an academic training, but Social-Democracy has become the only party that still possesses high ideals and opens wider horizons to the intellect of its adherents. The bourgeois parties champion only temporary and limited group interests; hence the growing superiority of Social-Democracy, which constantly increases its capacity to exercise political power more purposefully than can the other parties. Our opponents had imagined that with the death of Marx, or at least with the death of Engels, the movement whose intellectual foundations were laid by the two, would collapse. But even with the sowers gone the seed continued to grow. Harvest time seemed approaching. Then came the inclement weather of the World War, with its inundations and hailstorms. Nevertheless it proved possible to bring new life out of the ruins.


Last updated on 19.1.2004