Karl Kautsky

Hitlerism and
Social Democracy

V. The Period of Dictatorship

The tendency to resort to violence which modern capitalism had developed as early as in the last decade preceding the World War was greatly enhanced by the world struggle itself. The influence of a century of almost uninterrupted peace was destroyed by the four years of international butchery which in extent and intensity had no parallel in human history, since the entire population of the belligerent countries able to bear arms was drafted into service.

The effects of military devastation among the vanquished were augmented by the misery and despair occasioned in large measure by the treaties of peace which had not been dictated by reason but rather imposed by force. And finally the cult of violence was greatly strengthened in Eastern countries by the huge migrations which war and defeat had brought about.

Military authority which had supported the exploiting classes collapsed along with its armies. The exploiting classes sought other military support, at first not of government origin but of a private character.

On the other hand, the war considerably reduced, at least relatively and often also absolutely, the number of educated and organized workers and increased the number of uneducated and unorganized proletarians. It diminished the number of those who were sufficiently developed to set themselves a new goal for which they were ready to put up a long and stubborn fight. It enlarged the number of those who could not wait and were often looking for immediate spoils.

The disintegration of the lower middle class groups added to the number of proletarians of the latter type, while at the same time the war was responsible for the great decrease in the number of educated workers of mature age, thereby impeding the proper political training of the new generation of workers and furthering their brutalization.

This was no less true of the new generation of intellectuals, whose number increased in proportion to the proletarianization of the mass of craftsmen and small tradespeople, which stimulated the growth of the intellectual professions. The growing hopelessness of the latter caused the student youth to become rebellious, robbed them of their peace of mind and zeal in pursuing their favorite studies, increased the tendency, especially among the least gifted, to seek to establish for themselves by force a monopoly of privileged and gainful positions and to compel the dismissal of their socially weaker but much more accomplished competitors, namely, the Jews and foreigners.

All these elements opposed that state of freedom and equality i.e., democracy, which first came into existence in the European states located east of the Rhine after the collapse of the military order in that region and whose strongest champion was the most cultivated and socialist-minded portion of the working class. What the monopolists among the capitalists and the intelligentzia wanted to have instead of democracy was the settling of political and social differences by the methods of war; in other words they wanted civil war. Civil war not for the purpose of winning and defending freedom and equality, in other words democracy, which was the aim of the earlier revolutions beginning with the English in the seventeenth and the French in the eighteenth centuries, but for the purpose of achieving the disfranchisement and enslavement of those defeated in the struggle, in other words oppression and inequality, which under the prevailing conditions of centralized government found their organized political form in dictatorship.

The tendencies manifested by this confusion of groups, all longing for a dictatorship and a regime of violence, are of a contradictory nature, differing mainly according to their being either capitalistic or anti-capitalistic in origin. The latter, however, should not be confused with socialist aims. The Socialism toward which the Social Democratic party is striving is a mode of production superior to capitalism. But the latter constitutes the highest of all modes of production yet developed: large industries with free workers who as yet have no authority over their means of production. Collective ownership and management of the large enterprises with fullest freedom for the workers is Socialism, which is superior to industrial capitalism. But this capitalism is superior not only to the small industry of the guild craftsman, but also to large industry with compulsory labor, as well as every form of state economy based upon conscript labor. Every economy of this sort must be rejected in spite of the fact that it is not capitalist. I do not agree with Max Adler who, arguing against me, once said that “for a Marxist the duty to participate in and sympathize with every movement against capitalism is a moral axiom.”

Our duty is not merely to abolish the capitalist order but to set up a higher order in its place. But we must oppose those forces aiming to destroy capitalism only in order to replace it with another barbarous mode of production.

It is for this reason that the democratically minded portion of the working class must oppose all tendencies toward a dictatorship threatening the freedom of the workers, tendencies manifested not only by the capitalists but also such as originate with anti-capitalist groups. And conversely, the anti-capitalist elements who seek their salvation in a dictatorship are just as much opposed to the democratic wing of the proletariat as is a dictatorship inspired by capital. Exposed on both flanks, from the right and from the left, the democratically minded portion of the proletariat, following the revolutions accompanying the collapse of 1917 and 1918, has here and there succumbed to the attack.

The authority and power of Social Democracy indeed came with the military collapse of the Central Empires. Wherever it was at the helm it acted with the same humanity and magnanimity as did the revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871, 1905 and 1917. But owing to the war and the short-sightedness of the victors, the wholly socialist or semi-socialist governments in Germany and other countries were faced with problems which could not be solved overnight and the solution of which could not bring immediate prosperity. This quickly activated the bitter enmity of the disintegrating groups, with the result that the exercise of authority by either capitalist or anti-capitalist elements became a matter of mere chance. The outcome was a regime of dictatorship, of conscript labor, of terror, of arbitrary rule by a privileged minority.

History willed it that victory should go first not only to the anti-capitalist but also to anti-democratic elements of the politically untrained portion of the proletariat as against its democratic groups. This happened in Russia, where it led to the dictatorship of the Bolsheviki.

The Bolshevist methods were everywhere eagerly studied and followed not alone by the Communists but by capitalists and reactionaries wherever the democratic wing of the proletariat was too weak to exert a decisive political influence.

Those methods were not only followed but accentuated by National Socialism. Its adherents developed to perfection and applied at one stroke all those methods of oppression which it had taken the Bolsheviki years to bring to fruition and which even Mussolini did not find ready at hand. And yet the Bolsheviki constituted a party that had taken an active part in the class struggles of a highly developed proletarian vanguard whose traditions continued to exert an influence upon the Bolsheviki for many years even when these openly embraced the policy of letting themselves be carried along by the backward portions of the working classes and the most barbaric instincts, and ended up by establishing a system of government maintained entirely by an all-powerful political police. Nevertheless, they have remained a party striving toward a higher order of society.

Mussolini, too, had served his apprenticeship in the Social Democratic party. But the leaders of the brown gangs have only one purely personal ideal, which may be expressed thus: “Be off, so I can get your place!” This mode of thinking and feeling on the part of the National Socialists is the result exclusively of the demoralizing effects of the World War and the hopeless conditions following it, conditions which not only killed every vestige of idealism among large numbers of people but destroyed every feeling of consideration for human life and human dignity and extolled infamy and brazenness.

Among the countries ruled by dictatorship Germany was the last to succumb to it. She put up the longest and most stubborn resistance to it. But this only served to increase the fury of the gangs who for a long time had been vainly seeking power. Almost continuously since the termination of the war these bands had been conducting a civil war against democracy, but until recently only in disguised and insidious form. And civil war in a democracy where each party has full freedom of propaganda, is a war of malice which often requires base, criminal methods to advance the cause of dictatorship. National Socialism, therefore, needed criminals, attracted criminals and gave some of them political power.

Hitler’s dictatorship may, therefore, claim the sad distinction of being superior to all the other dictatorships in bestiality. The fact that it takes no pride in its deeds, as did the champions of the reign of terror of 1792-1791, but on the contrary sheds tears over the ingratitude of a world that condemns the outrages committed by National Socialists, only adds disgusting hypocrisy and cowardice to the picture of bestiality. It makes the brown dictatorship not only abominable but contemptible.

The dictators of our time are falsifying history when they attempt to justify their bestiality by pointing to the example of previous revolutions. The revolutionists of the nineteenth century were humanitarian to the utmost, as we have already shown. They never soiled their victory with cruelty and brutality. But even the reign of terror of 1792-1794 instituted by the French Revolution cannot with justice be cited as an excuse by the National Socialists. In the first place, it was not carried out in times of peace but in the midst of a war in which enemy armies had penetrated into the heart of the country and were assisted by numerous reactionary supporters inside the country. Even then the terror in time of war was less cruel than the present peace-time policies of the National Socialists in Germany.

The bloody insurrection of September 1792, the so-called September Massacres, comes nearest to the present furies of the brown hordes. At that time, when the foreign foe appeared to be standing at the gates of Paris, threatening to destroy it and to massacre its population, a portion of the latter rose up in arms. The jails were filled with people accused of being agents of the enemy. The courts of justice took their time in investigating the charges. Frantic with fear and fury, petty bourgeois and workmen, victims of the worst kind of war psychosis, gathered into mobs, broke into the jails and took justice into their own hands. Not a few ghastly deeds of vengeance were committed at which we now shudder.

But those were events of a passing character, they lasted only “one hundred hours” (for September 2 to 7).

The revolutionists themselves, the Jacobins as well as the Girondists, were greatly upset over this manifestation of popular fury. To prevent its recurrence they declared a special kind of martial law which we now call the reign of terror but which was more humane than the usual courts-martial and other military police measures. They appear dreadful to us only when we compare them with the institutions of peace-time but not with the kindred measures resorted to in time of a desperate war.

Every military regime is abhorrent, but that of the French Revolution of almost 150 years ago was far more humane than the present civil regime of Hitler. It is true that every one who was considered an agent of the enemy, a “defeatist” or a profiteering exploiter of the people was arrested. It is true that every one found guilty by the courts was executed and that the growing war psychosis ultimately led to frightful mass executions, but at least the people who were imprisoned or condemned were not tortured. The fighters in the revolutionary and civil wars often acted like bloodthirsty animals, but at least they did not dishonor themselves by knavish mistreatment and humiliation of their opponents They sought to render their opponents harmless, not to torment them. A true reign of terror on a mental level that permits the use of malicious knavery as a political method in time of peace has been introduced into world history only by the brown shirt heroes.

I am not so naive as to expect that this statement of fact will make any impression on these heroes. It is not for their benefit that I write but for the benefit of Socialists, whom I want to warn against regarding the methods of the National Socialists as worthy of emulation because at the moment these methods happen to be successful. Some Socialists regret the fact that we used no force in the November days of 1918 and believe that had we done so we would have now been in the saddle and our enemies destroyed.

It is a dangerous illusion to think that a movement rooted in a given set of circumstances can be destroyed by violence. I cannot pass over in silence this particular aspect of our attitude toward dictatorship, although to go into a detailed discussion of the question is beyond the scope of this article. I shall merely point out briefly that in studying the problem we must first of all make a distinction between the methods of arbitrary murder and plunder pursued with respect to opponents and the methods of the legitimate suppression of crime and brutal violence in political contests. There is yet another distinction that must be made. On the one hand we have the methods of the Nazis which assure every one of their party members a well paying government position, whether he is fit for it or not, and make every political or personal opponent of the Nazis ineligible for any kind of public service. On the other hand, we have the methods pursued by the Social Democrats, who seek to break the monopoly of the opponents of democracy in the control of the State and see to it that the laws of the state are applied to the enemies of democracy as strictly as they are to other elements of the population.

If we are to consider the carrying out of this part of the Social Democratic program alone then German Social Democracy has earned no reproach whatever. It did its utmost in this respect. If it did not accomplish more the fault lies in no small measure with those who make this reproach, above all the Communists who voted for the amnesty of murderers and incendiaries known to be opponents of democracy.

If, on the other hand, the Social Democracy is to be reproached for failing to institute a reign of terror against its Political opponents after November 1918, then those who make the reproach should remember that such a reign of terror would have affected first of all the Communists, whose Bolshevist colleagues in Russia were then applying the most brutal methods against the Russian Socialists, and who sought to bring about the same thing in Germany. Attempts to bring about the establishment of an anti-Bolshevist reign of terror under a Social Democratic regime were not lacking, as was evidenced by the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, an assassination perpetrated by a group of reactionary army officers. But the Social Democrats must consider it fortunate that the Social Democratic government of that time repelled with horror every effort of the frenzied army officers to force it to adopt terroristic measures.

What would have happened if the German Social Democrats had permitted themselves to be driven to the setting up of a reign of terror against their political opponents?

What Germany needed most, after its military defeat and in the face of the hostility of the entire world, were moral conquests instead of military ones. The German people had to gain the good will of the world and end its isolation. Now, moral conquests, which alone are lasting and productive of good results, cannot be made by brutal force. Since the German Social Democracy had established a democratic republic and was determined to administer it on a democratic basis it tried to do its best to win back Germany’s former moral and economic standing in the world.

Had the German Social Democrats established a system of terror in 1918 and 1919 it would have meant the isolation of Germany and the stagnation of her economic life, as now brought about by Hitler, fifteen years ago under the most unfavorable conditions then prevailing in a country that had been bled white. The frightful blame which rests upon the brown shirts now would have been placed upon the German Social Democrats then, and with a vehemence ten times as strong. It would have flung the German people and above all its proletariat into an abyss of misery and filth and would have morally destroyed the Social Democratic Party.

To have paid for the short-lived illusion of absolute authority, based on blood and murder, with the price of such a frightful finale would have been too much. So that now when despite all our opposition the National Socialists have been given the power to put their party and their government into such a position of authority, we must not envy them and still less take them as our model. The “Third Reich” can end only in a condition of general decay.

Precisely what form this end will assume and how dictatorships will end generally cannot be discerned at the present time. In a period of continuous economic development, such as is represented by capitalism, and especially in a period of constant disturbances and insecurity, such as the war brought in its train, dictatorship cannot maintain itself indefinitely and must end in catastrophe. The choice of methods and weapons to be used by the champions of democracy will not depend upon our wishes but will be determined by political and social conditions. and especially by the methods and weapons of the enemy. Right now we can have no clear conception of what those conditions may be. It is possible, however, to consider now what political and economic methods we shall pursue after the dictatorship has been overthrown. For these methods are closely bound up with the ultimate goal which we have already set before us now and for the attainment of which we are already fighting today. And conversely, the methods which we plan to pursue when we are victorious will reflect back upon our conception of the objectives which we can set out to achieve in the present. The end and the means are to a high degree conditioned by each other.

He who thinks that lasting peace can be brought about by means of war, “the last war,” is wrong. Equally wrong are those who imagine that the working class can be assured prosperity and freedom by organizing economic life an a militaristic basis. No less erroneous is it to strive for a dictatorship for the purpose of crushing the enemy and establishing the proletariat in a privileged position in the state and Society while reducing the rest of the population to the position of pariahs as a means of establishing ultimately socialist equality for all. But most objectionable of all would it be to attempt to build a regime of humanity upon the basis of brutality, seeing that without the former no true Socialist commonwealth can exist. For this commonwealth must represent the realization of the slogan of the French Revolution, which was: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Dictators may torture or kill us, but they shall not succeed in demoralizing the soul of our movement, in bringing it to a state where for the sake of saving its life it is willing to renounce its ideal. Our cause will conquer in spite of everything, for in economic life as well as in politics the highest ability to accomplish and to advance things belongs to communities and organizations of free men working in free cooperation. These free communities will far outstrip every collective body, every organization that is built on compulsion and that can be maintained only by brute force; and ultimately the communities based on oppression will perish.

The victory of Hitlerism for the moment does not in the slightest provide the occasion for us to become ruthless in our methods, as we are now frequently urged to become, if by becoming ruthless is meant to become bloodthirsty and unscrupulous, to adopt the Nazi methods of lying, intriguing, and torturing and slaughtering political opponents. The brown barbarians may arrest us, may throw us into concentration camps, may shoot us “in flight,” but they shall not succeed in making us prisoners of their depravity. Under all circumstances we shall remain the champions of democracy and humanity. We reject as senseless and cruel and ruinous to both our cause and our nation the suggestion that we strive to arrive at humanity by the method of brutality.

The circumstances that made Hitlerism are temporary. The German working class, however, remains basically the same as it was before the World War and will again do its duty when circumstances change and make possible the overthrow of the Hitler regime.


Last updated on 20.1.2004