Karl Kautsky

Hitlerism and
Social Democracy

IV. The Brutality of Latter-Day Capitalism

During the past century, along with the progress of democracy grew also those social elements who professed pacifism and abhorred violence. One might have expected that these elements would ultimately influence the entire character of social life, despite existing class contradictions. And these, too, it was thought, might assume a milder form, even though exploitation continued.

But these tendencies soon met with strong influences tending in the opposite direction. Among these was the universal compulsory military service that grew out of democracy. The professional armies of the eighteenth century were small and had no appreciable influence upon the character of the population. But following the wars of the French Revolution these armies became larger and larger in size. They comprised an ever increasing portion of the population and infected it with the spirit of violence and brutality, which military service and the preparation for war naturally encourage. At the same time this development was counteracted by the fact that economic circumstances compelled the constant shortening of the term of service in the standing army. The ideal arrangement for a democracy is the militia where service is reduced to a few months of training in barracks, and the soldier is in no manner separated from the rest of the population and thus not exposed to influences making for the development of a peculiar militaristic psychology and its spread among the masses.

Still more damaging than the extension of military service was another tendency that manifested itself: the change in the mentality of the bourgeoisie. In the eighteenth century and in the major part of the nineteenth century the bourgeoisie was outspokenly pacifist. Not alone the intellectuals in it but the capitalists as well, at least the industrial capitalists. Nothing is more erroneous than the view expressed as a self-evident truth that war is the result of capitalism. War is very old. It became a permanent institution with the rise of a military nobility in the State ruled by despots and defended by hired troops. Financial and commercial capital do not oppose military adventure, on the contrary they often derive profits from it. Industrial capital, On the other hand, during its period of growth, is opposed to it. For long periods of time, therefore, it professes pacifist views, that is to say as long as it fights the nobility and absolutism and sees in free competition and free trade the best condition for its prosperity, and as long as it is thoroughly convinced that it is the most serviceable of all modes of production, which in comparison with pre-capitalistic practices it most assuredly is. The present generation of industrial capitalists think quite differently, since their social position has within the last fifty years changed profoundly.

Since the days of the world crisis of 1873, which lasted almost twenty years, capitalists have come to question more and more the blessings of free competition and free trade. They seek to replace the two by organizing production in the form of private monopolies. For this they need high tariffs and other things. These are granted by the state, which likewise has become dependent upon capital. The capitalists no longer fight the state but make use of it. To be able to do this they make common cause with the large land-owners whom they have formerly opposed. To the monopolization of the home market they seek to add the monopolization of the foreign markets. This leads to a revival of colonial expansion – imperialism – which had become quite dormant in the period of Manchesterism.

At the same time the part played by heavy industries in industrial economy becomes more and more prominent, while that of the textile industries less and less so. The heavy industries, however, are interested in armaments. The armaments race assumes unheard of proportions, having already been brought about by the constant growth of national armies and colonial expansion.

The expense of this entire development is borne by labor. The spirit of violence engendered by it is directed first of all against the laboring classes.

It is enhanced by the fact that the capitalists are losing their assurance that their mode of production is best for the welfare of the nation, and seeing that it is merely tolerated, seek to carry it on and maintain it at all costs. They see the belief rapidly gaining ground now that the socialization of production in an ever increasing number of industries in a democratic state will create a mode of production superior to that of capitalism. The capitalists are less and less in a position to disprove this belief on theoretical grounds, while practically the idea is gaining strength in the measure that the workers are not only increasing in number and broadening their capacity for mass organization. Forcible destruction of proletarian organizations and of democracy in which they thrive becomes more and more the objective of the capitalists, whose liberalism is now fast disappearing.

Simultaneously with this there arises among the intellectuals the desire of winning a privileged monopoly position, which inspires also the determination to keep competitors out of the privileged category by some means of compulsion. As long as higher education was something that was not common it alone gave the man who possessed it a preferred standing among the working population. It was thought at the time that all that the workers had to do was to obtain a higher education and they would then rise to a position of esteem and prosperity. This illusion has long since vanished. The state-established institutions of higher learning have been ever growing in number, with the result that the professions requiring a scientific training have become overcrowded. This has created an important social problem. The victory of the workers will solve it through the building of a socialist society. Intellectuals who do not believe in this victory or fear it, and expect to secure, instead, some preferment from the ruling classes, seek a solution of the problem more convenient to them, namely, by establishing guilds which shall control the right to seek a higher education or apply it only to a restricted number of citizens. This means the degradation of those desiring an education. In some intellectual groups there has developed within the last half-century a philosophy of brute force which is in dismal contrast with the philosophy of humanity that characterized the enlighteners of the eighteenth century and the liberals and democrats of the nineteenth. Liberalism and democracy are steadily losing ground among the bourgeoisie, especially in those countries where this class has not been rooted in the traditions of liberalism and democracy by centuries of struggle for freedom.

But the proletariat itself has not fully escaped the influence of the cult of violence which in the last fifty years has been continually growing among the middle class groups, previously the champions of humanitarianism and world peace.

The discovery of the historical significance of classes and class struggle was one of the greatest contributions to human thought made by Marx and Engels. In practice, however, one must not stop at the abstractions, the simplifications with which the inquirer starts in order to facilitate the discovery of the laws that govern the phenomena in question. In reality things are much more complicated than in theory.

Therefore, we must not content ourselves with the mere recognition of the class contradictions between capital and labor established by Marx in his Capital if we wish to understand the social and political struggles of our time. And we must not only keep in mind the fact that besides capitalists and workers there are other classes in modern society, but also consider the differences existing between the various groups within the capitalist class on the one hand and those between the various groups within the proletarian class on the other.

I have already alluded to the fact that it makes a tremendous difference whether we are dealing with a highly developed proletariat or with a backward one. The workers of Paris in 1848 behaved in a manner quite different from that of the workers of Naples.

Marx and Engels themselves were compelled to recognize the difference between the working proletariat and the low rabble proletariat. But within the working proletariat itself there are manifold differentiations occasioned by the differences in working conditions as well as by the various strata from which the workers are recruited. Some of them are less difficult to organize, others are more so; some are capable of acquiring a higher education, others again are hardly able to read an article, etc.

At the beginning of the labor movement it was only the elite among the workers who possessed enough energy and understanding to take up the political and economic class struggle. It was only through a slow and difficult process that these self-sacrificing pioneer fighters of the proletariat, thirsting for knowledge as much as for freedom, were able to draw wider circles of workers into the ranks of the class conscious, fighting working class.

For a long time attention was paid only to these fighting proletarians and their organizations. They alone presented a threat to the bourgeoisie. But as the spirit of violence awakened within the bourgeoisie, and at the same time the ranks of the fighting proletarians continued to swell while the number of peasants and petty bourgeois diminished (at least relatively, and often absolutely) there arose the need, well recognized by not a few of the capitalists, not to leave the backward portion of the proletariat entirely to itself until it should become infected with the propaganda of the Social-Democrats and the free trade unions. By granting certain advantages and sometimes by intimidation it was sought to bring the ignorant or economically timorous or unprincipled elements of the proletariat together and organize them into a body of defenders of capitalism. Already prior to the world war favorable circumstances made it possible to arm them and use them as private armies of the capitalists. This was especially true in the United States, in the case of the so-called Pinkertons, who were organized, armed bands of strikebreakers. There was an extensive growth of what are known as “yellow” or company unions, organized and led by the hirelings of capital.

Since they regarded themselves as a legitimately functioning minority within the working class, the “yellow” trade unionists felt constantly menaced by the majority of their colleagues. Their one aim became to protect themselves against that majority, to keep it down with the aid of their employers and the police. Thus there came into existence a new subdivision of the proletariat professing a philosophy of violence and submissive to capital.

To the classes and groups who have always been brutal and belligerent, such as the nobility, the monarchs and their agents, there have been added since the end of the last century more and more elements hailing from the rank and file Of the population who previously believed in democracy and humanity but now are for absolutism, violence and war.

Yet, on the whole, humanitarian ideas have continued to grow among the peoples of capitalist states.

In no small measure this may be ascribed to the fact that from 1815 on, for a whole century, Europe was enjoying a period of almost complete peace. This condition characterized the rise of industrial capitalism. In the pre-capitalist era war had been going on almost uninterruptedly. This was true not only of the period of feudal monarchy and later of the religious movements but also of the time when absolutism was already established.

Consider, for example, the eighteenth century. It opened with a great war of France against Austria which was allied with England and the Netherlands. It lasted fourteen years, from 1701 to 1714. Simultaneously there was a war in progress between Sweden and Russia and other powers (1700-1718). From 1716 to 1718 there was a war between Austria and Turkey; from 1717 to 1720 between Spain and France and her allies. This was followed by the war for the Polish succession between France and Austria (1733-1735), as well as a struggle between the Turks and the Russians and Austrians (1736-1739). After this interlude of small wars came the tremendous contest between Frederick II of Prussia and Austria, in which France associated herself first with one side and then with the other. England, too, was drawn in, always taking sides against France. Then there was the war of the Austrian succession, 1740-1748, followed by the Seven Years war of 1756-1763. Then came the wars of the Russians with the Poles, starting in 1768, which led to the first partition of Poland in 1772, and the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774.

The struggle for American independence initiated a period of wars in Western Europe: between France and Spain and later between England and the Netherlands (1778-1782). After that, war broke out again between the Austrians and the Russians allied with the Turks in 1787 and lasted five years, at the conclusion of which there was another war between Russia and Poland.

In 1792 there began the war of the monarchies of Europe against revolutionary France which, with short interruptions, lasted until 1815.

Thus in the period from 1700 to 1815 few years passed without war; almost half of it is given over to fierce contests between the great powers.

How different is the century from 1815 to 1914! In Europe there was not a single important war between the years 1815 and 1854. And none between 1878 and 1914. The period between 1854 and 1878 saw indeed not a few wars of the first magnitude. But two of them were waged in Asia Minor – the Crimean war and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. They affected Europe but little. In Europe proper there were during this period only three important wars: the Italian war between Austria and France (1859), the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, and the France-German war of 1870-71. They all occurred within the short period of a dozen years. Nine-tenths of the century between 1815 and 1914 passed without any great wars in Europe proper. And those that occurred during the remainder of the period were short. In Italy the first battle was fought on May 20, 1859, and the last on June 24, of the same year. In the war between the Prussians and the Austrians in 1866 the first encounter occurred on June 26, and the last on July 22. These wars were too short to have any corrupting influence on the minds of the people of the contending powers. The France-German war, too, would have ended quickly. The first battle was fought on August 2, 1870. By September 1, Napoleon III had already been taken prisoner, his armies defeated and the war virtually terminated. France sued for peace, Germany could have had it immediately after attaining everything she could through war, namely, the assurance of her unity and in addition a huge war indemnity. But Bismarck, spurred on by the generals and professors influenced by the customary hurrah-patriotism of the Philistines among the joy-intoxicated victors, insisted upon the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, whose population was vehemently opposed to the step. This led to a new outbreak of war which lasted until the end of January 1871, which cost both nations rivers Of blood, and brought Germany no appreciable improvement. Of her strategic position, as was clearly proved in August, 1914, but a profound change for the worse in her world Standing: the hatred of France, the antipathy of the entire civilized world, and, in addition to that, the domination of militarism at home. But despite the evils it left behind, the war of 1870-71 was unable to undo the total effect of the warless period which, with but a few interruptions, lasted from 1815 to 1914.

And because there was this period of almost uninterrupted peace, the economic life of Europe during the century after 1815 developed tremendously. But with it grew the power of the proletariat. The proletariat grew not only in number but in influence as well. Peace brought increasing prosperity, a large and constantly growing share of which went to the working class. Like peace, prosperity makes rough tempers less harsh, at least such is the effect of prosperity on the workers. Upon the employers, on the other hand, increasing wealth does not always have a softening effect, especially if this wealth has been acquired in a bitter struggle or when it is believed to be in danger from some source.

The yearning for “the good old days” is now general. Compared with the present they constituted indeed a happy period. But only the ignorant can believe the happiness of the past was due to the monarchs. It sprang from the blessing of a long period of peace. On the other hand, the World War that followed the period of peace and lasted four years proved such a calamity that not even the great achievements of the working class at the time of the revolution of 1918 could fully assuage the anguish created by the war and the terms upon which it was concluded.

The state of peace that lasted from 1815 to 1914 owed its existence in the last analysis to the growing power of the democratic and liberal classes, and from the end of the nineteenth century almost exclusively to the growing power of the Social Democratic working class. The war of 1914 and the misery which it brought in its train on the other hand were the outcome of the union of the old militaristic classes with the bourgeoisie that had turned anti-democratic and anti-pacifist.


Last updated on 20.1.2004