Karl Kautsky

Marxism and Bolshevism:
Democracy and Dictatorship

III. Marxism since the War

The last days of the World War brought great progress, above all the overthrow of the military monarchy in the three great powers of Eastern Europe – a revolution whose consummation had until then been the frightfully difficult but yet indispensable task of Social-Democracy. At the same time the World War immensely increased the army of the dispossessed, while the economic collapse during the war brought despondency and perplexity into the ranks of the possessing classes. It appeared as though the time had arrived for the political rule of the proletariat, for Socialism. Unfortunately, however, this proved only a fleeting illusion.

A great protracted war which strains the energies of a nation to the utmost always carries frightful damage in its trail; not only huge losses in property and human life, which are quite obvious, but also profound economic and psychologic disturbances whose effects are not immediately discernible.

Already before the World War economic thought among the possessing classes was being supplanted by militaristic thought. People dominated by economic thought find themselves compelled to study economic law, and upon the basis of the knowledge thus gained they seek to give it practical application. Militaristic thought on the other hand despises such knowledge. It considers brutal force all powerful. In autocratic monarchies and among their army officers and bureaucrats militaristic thought had always been predominant. This is also true of the feudal nobility. But in the field of capitalist production this thought was being increasingly superceded by the growing influence of capitalists who sought to build their actions and those of the state upon the foundation of economic knowledge.

During the generation preceding the war, however, there occurred a change of attitude in the capitalist class, arising from the new importance which heavy industry, the banks, trusts and colonial policies had assumed for it. The capitalists, too, became more inclined to make brutal force instead of economic knowledge their servant. They united for that purpose with the great landowners, the higher bureaucracy, the generals, the monarchy. Like the latter, the capitalist magnates sought to utilize their growing influence in the state to the end that they might plunder it and exploit the short-sighted conflicting interests of the smaller groups, and sometimes even of large individual concerns or family fortunes, to their own advantage.

The World War greatly increased and accelerated these tendencies. Every war means the disregard of the laws of production in the respective fields. A war of the extent and duration of the last one makes this disregard general throughout the world. And equally universal did the World War make the belief in the omnipotence of brutal force. This was demonstrated not only during the war but even more fatally at its termination and after.

The economic terms of the peace treaty, especially those dealing with reparations, were sheer madness which can be explained only by the fact that the militaristic way of thinking in the previously existing military monarchies as well as in the government circles of the great western democracies had crushed out all economic thought. Naturally, in the course of time it was proven that the force of economic law is still stronger than that of violence. The reparations had to be constantly reduced until they practically vanished altogether. But that happened too late, only after the economically impossible claims had brought with them new economic disturbances, to remove which brutal force for the most part was again resorted to, making the economic chaos still worse.

To unscrupulous people relying upon compulsion no other condition is more favorable than this for forcing themselves into the economic affairs of the nation and satisfying their uncontrollable greed at the expense of the community, for securing by most shameful methods exemptions, subventions and other favors for their personal advantage.

The result of that is the desperate condition of the world today. It is said that it denotes the final collapse of capitalism. This is not true if what is meant is that this collapse is the natural result of the development of capitalist production according to the laws inherent in that production. No, it proceeds from the disregard of these laws by men in authority who are as ignorant as they are unscrupulous, men who have set up the cult of brutal force in place of a striving for economic insight. Today it is the great capitalist magnates themselves who are bringing on the collapse of capitalism.

Unfortunately this suicidal policy of the leaders of capitalist economy has found its socialist counterpart. In Russia it was a Marxist sect that dedicated itself resolutely to the cult of brutal force, which the World War unleashed also in circles other than those of the ruling class. The Bolsheviki, too, agreed among themselves to establish the rule of brutal force instead of economic insight. They thereby succeeded in setting up throughout the immense Russian state in place of the overthrown Czarist autocracy, an autocracy of their own. They succeeded perfectly, if the purpose of a socialist party is to be regarded as making its own leaders the rulers of the State. They failed dismally if the purpose of a socialist party is to be the use of its power for the realization of the party’s program. This program demands the freedom and welfare of the entire people. The Bolsheviki erased freedom from their program the minute they seized power. The welfare of the masses they could strive to attain, considering their disregard of economic law, only by bringing about the robbing of one portion of the population by another. First the interests of the proletarians and the peasants were to be satisfied by robbing the capitalists and the big landowners. This did not accomplish much. Then it was sought to improve the condition of the industrial manual workers at the expense of the peasants and the intellectuals. Soon Soviet economy declined to such an extent that the despoilment of the cities, too, became necessary in order to maintain the instruments of power of the ruling Communist party. Ultimately this party itself may make robbery one of its articles of official belief.

In the capitalist states it is the leaders of capitalist economy and their agents in the army and among the bureaucracy that are ruining capitalist economy. In Soviet Russia it is not capitalistically trained leaders but economic leaders who came from the ranks of Social-Democracy that are similarly ruining the economic administration of their state, which they call Socialist merely because instead of private ownership of the means of production they have established government ownership of these means. But they have at the same time transformed the State into the property of the ruling dictators and instead of democratically socializing production they have autocratically militarized it. As a result we have the same dreadful conditions existing in both cases: the same degradation and slavery, although for different reasons and in different form.

But let us assume that capitalism is about to break down. Will it not mean the same thing as the victory of Socialism? Unfortunately, not. When the capitalistically managed factories are stopped it will mean, first of all, only the stoppage of production; it will not mean the carrying on of production under Socialist forms.

We must, therefore, guard against interpreting the materialist conception of history in an automatically-mechanistic way, as if social development went on by itself, being impelled by necessity. Human beings make history, and the course of history is propelled by necessity only to the extent that human beings living under the same conditions and prompted by the same impulses will of necessity react in the same manner.

Marx expected the victory of Socialism to come not from the collapse of capitalism; this I pointed out as early as 1899 in my polemical discourse against Bernstein. Marx expected it to come as a result of the growing power and maturity of the proletariat, in consequence of circumstances already discussed. It is true that the paralysis of production greatly arouses the discontent of the masses against the existing economic conditions or, rather, against the mismanagement of economic affairs. But such discontent predisposes the proletariat to destruction and plunder, and not to Socialist construction. Like war, mass unemployment arouses the impulse to strike down and despoil the opponent, the passion for immediate success, whatever the consequences. The cult of violence, the contempt for all economic law is intensified by economic crisis no less than by war. The one as well as the other has a tendency to demoralize not alone the profit-making classes but the working classes as well. This demoralization is primarily responsible for the ascendency of Hitlerism in Germany.

Up to the World War the German Socialists were rapidly achieving a majority and approaching the final struggle with the monarchy. After the collapse of the monarchy it seemed as if we had attained our goal. But it soon became evident that under the material and psychological conditions resulting from the war a large portion of the proletariat became a rather insecure foundation for our power. The terrible aggravation of the crisis within the last few years drove millions of proletarians into the arms of the champions of shortsighted brutal force, into the arms of the Communists and National Socialists.

As long as this condition continues the proletariat can attain neither the power nor the ability to control the State and use it for Socialist purposes. We must have no illusions on this point. We must and will do our utmost only to assert ourselves but also to attract new followers to the idea of gaining political power for Socialist construction. But our work will be very difficult as long as the political and economic conditions described here continue to exist. The immediate moment is one of great trial for the Socialist movement in the defeated countries, which have suffered most from the perturbations of the war and of the present economic depression. Fascism alone has profited by these conditions, but it has gathered about itself only loose quicksand which the wind has swiftly heaped to a huge mountain only to scatter it tomorrow in all directions.


Last updated on 19.1.2004