Karl Kautsky

Hitlerism and
Social Democracy

II. Revolution and Civil War

After an unsuccessful war or a revolution that has miscarried, the losing side always becomes the subject of criticism as well as of self-criticism This last is not only inevitable but necessary and has a salutary effect if it helps to clear up the causes of defeat and enables the vanquished to resume the struggle anew with a higher solidarity and purposefulness and pursue it with greater vigor. Contrariwise, self-criticism is fruitless and of no avail if the only purpose it serves is to find scapegoats over whom the man indulging in self-criticism can assert his superiority with pharisaical conceit.

Perhaps a deeper inquiry into the combination of circumstances that led to Hitler’s victory would cause us to revise some of our long held views. For the present, however, I see no reason for doing so. At any rate we should guard against overestimating the superiority of Hitler’s power at the moment and adopting some of the views of the National Socialists. We must not allow that to happen. For it would add moral failure to material defeat. Of course, the danger must not be minimized. Present conditions in the state and in society lend a great power of attraction to some of the National Socialist ideas even for outspoken enemies of National Socialism who wish to utilize those ideas in order to defeat it. They think this can be best accomplished by using National Socialism’s own weapons.

The unrestrained violence of the Nazis has made a profound impression on some Social Democrats, an impression far from deterrent. They see in this violence the reason for Nazi success and an example worthy of emulation. A member of the Social Democratic party recently told me: “If at the end of 1918 we had acted toward our opponents as the Nazis acted toward us, we would have captured political power completely and maintained it, and would be now living in a Socialist republic.”

To these regrets for the past are added corresponding intentions for the future: “When we get back into power again in Germany we shall take frightful revenge on the Nazis and give them some of their own medicine. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

In the face of the sadistic fury of the brown terror such a state of mind is quite understandable. Nor is it lessened by the fact that there exists an old revolutionary tradition, according to which it is impossible to carry out a revolution without bloodshed. “Revolutions are not made with rosewater.”

This tradition is based partly on the confusion of revolution with civil war and partly on the assumption that the reign of terror in revolutionary France which lasted from 1792 to 1794 was the highest point of the revolution that began in 1789. Every revolution in the future was to strive to reach a similar climax if it wished to accomplish something big.

It goes without saying that civil war, like all war, means violence, bloodshed, cruelty. This is the very nature of war. One might even say that civil war is the most repulsive form of war. It may sound strange but it can not be denied that the most humane form of war is that between professional warriors. When warfare becomes the specialty of a separate calling whose adepts use it as a means of gaining a livelihood, there is created among the professionals of the different countries a sort of community of interest, an international solidarity, which manifests itself in spite of the duty devolving upon them to crack one anothers skulls. There arises a code of honor which commands that the enemy be shown every consideration during the struggle. The encounter becomes a sort of sport with definite rules, which are carefully observed and forbid every unnecessary cruelty, even in the most savage hand-to-hand fighting. The meeting of the opponents before and after the combat is characterized by exquisite politeness. Mistreating or slaying an unarmed prisoner is supposed to be out of the question.

This is the essence of chivalry. It is founded not upon gentleness of manners but the spirit of fellowship. When the enemy against whom the knights or the professional fighters are contending is one who does not belong to the profession he is fought not only with that savagery which an armed struggle naturally calls forth but also with hatred aroused in the professional against the non-professional and interloper. His chivalry does not prevent the magnanimous knight from putting to torture peasants who presume to put up an armed defence of their hearth and kin.

In this twentieth century army officers still treat as a common criminal any man taking up arms in defense of his country who is not enrolled in the army. Hence warfare becomes more cruel when professional soldiers do not predominate in the armies, when instead of war as planned out beforehand at headquarters we have war conducted by the masses of the people. The struggle is most brutal in the case of civil war when it is waged by professional fighters on the one hand and mere “civilians” on the other. Regular soldiers who join the civilians are particularly hated as traitors by their former comrades.

Yet civil war is almost never identical with revolution. In most cases it is only a prelude to revolution. It is only when the revolutionists gain the upper hand in the fratricidal struggle that there begins the revolutionization of the state and of society. At least this was true of the revolutions of the nineteenth century where civil war was limited to street battles that lasted only a few days and in some cases even a few hours. It was quite different during the English revolution of the seventeenth century. At that time civil war lasted a decade, and throughout its course the revolutionary activity of Parliament continued. But this civil war was not a struggle between professional soldiers and civilians. It was precisely the revolutionists who formed a professional fighting army whose superior discipline and strategy brought them victory.

At that time the civil war period was coterminous with the period of revolution. This was no longer the case in the revolutions that followed. Armed clashes between the revolutionists and counter-revolutionists in the nineteenth century formed the beginning and in some instances the end of the revolution, but they consumed only a few days, a very small part of the entire duration period of the revolution in question.

A special case is provided by the Great French Revolution, which began in 1789. It initiated an era of foreign wars which, with but a few interruptions, lasted from 1792 to 1815. At times these foreign wars were interspersed with civil war. But even here it can not be said that the civil war was identical with revolution. The outbreaks of civil war were merely episodes in the unfolding of the revolution.

It can not be even said that every revolution at one time or another is necessarily connected with civil war. A revolution can overthrow only a government that no longer enjoys the confidence of the people and is rejected by them. This happens through an armed uprising of the people when the latter are kept down by the armed forces of the government. But when the army has before this been defeated by a foreign foe and disbanded, or when the government is financially bankrupt and cannot pay its defenders, then the government is forced to capitulate without a struggle and the revolution proves victorious without resort to civil war. This was the case in France in September 1870, in Russia in March 1917, in Austria and Germany in November 1918.

There is yet another factor that may be responsible for a bloodless revolution. In the course of the nineteenth century democracy, political freedom of the masses, had made great progress throughout Europe. This created an opportunity to ascertain the strength of the separate parties and movements at election time. The results of elections were at times so overwhelming that the government or party in power realized the futility of offering resistance and resigned without appealing to the force of arms, even where there was no regularly functioning democracy, which places government power in the hands of the strongest party in the state as a matter of course. Thus in Spain of late (April 1931) a municipal election was sufficient to overthrow the monarchy. On the other hand, the results of the last German Reichstag elections made possible the success of Hitler’s counter-revolution.

It is even possible to gain political power by fraudulent means, without resort to force, by the wolf parading in sheepskin. Of this, too, the National Socialist movement offers an excellent illustration.

It is, therefore, quite wrong to regard civil war as the sole content of revolution and its only form. Nor are cruelty and terrorism, apart from civil war, necessary concomitants of every unfolding revolution.

The reign of terror of 1792-1794 in France was not a necessary manifestation of the progress of the revolution that began in 1789, but a consequence of the war waged by revolutionary France against the allied monarchies of Europe, which began in 1792. Moreover, it was the outcome of a certain phase of the war, namely, the defeat of the French armies in the first years of the struggle. It was not the revolution, it was the war, the menace to the revolution presented by the foreign armies, as well as the treason Of the counter-revolutionists, that led to the reign of terror and to the adoption of measures such as are resorted to in a besieged fortress, but which bore a socialistic stamp because the working classes of Paris were the most active advocates Of a policy of fighting the war to a finish. Which was quite natural, since they stood to lose most if victory went to the opposing monarchies, while under military communism they would lose least. I discuss this question in my book War and Democracy.

The tremendously important historical role played at that time by the revolutionary parties of Paris exercised a great influence and led to the belief among many revolutionists and counter-revolutionists that terror was the proper form of every revolution.

As a matter of fact, many of the democrats and socialists of later days recoil from bloody terror. Only the socialist successors of the bourgeois Jacobins, these standard-bearers of the reign of terror of 1792-1794, definitely believed in it. They were the Blanquists. But even they extolled terror only in theory, not in practice, for which they had hardly had an opportunity at all. It was only their successors, the Bakuninist anarchists, who practiced terror, not on a mass scale, but on individuals. And they practiced it not as a method of maintaining power for victorious revolutionists, but as a fighting method of separate individuals in desperate struggle with an overpowering government when this government rendered impossible the slightest mass movement, as was the case in Russia. We are not concerned here with this aspect of terrorism.

In general, it may be said that for a century or so the democratic and socialist movements have been characterized not by bloody violence but by humanity, mercy and kindness.


Last updated on 20.1.2004