Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Democracy (from The Social Revolution)
by Karl Kautsky
1902
Estimated Reading Time: 15 actual minutes


It's an interesting debate: how do we get to the revolution? If capitalism is as bad as we think it is, what's the fastest way to overthrow the ruling class and bring the working class to power? How do we get from here to there? Are there mechanisms of bourgeois democracy we should be utilizing? Or, to reference the Lorde, will the master's tools never dismantle the master's house?

These are not new questions. We at Red Letter have the humility to know we have not figured out all the answers, but we are surprised in how much we can relate to an under-acknowledged chapter of Big-S Socialist history, the Second International. Much of progressive language today has been passed down from it. Many of the activist institutions and parties have a direct lineage. And, most importantly, many of the debates of then are still being similarly debated today.

We will learn what will happen with the Second International, how it will stumble, but let's not be too pure to ignore the lessons it offers and the warnings we should heed. Why such a dramatic introduction today of all days? Because we are reading Kautsky's understanding of the role of Democracy and Parliamentarianism for the left. Enjoy it critically.

But does not democracy provide the foundation for a gradual, imperceptible transformation of capitalism into Socialism without any violent break with existing things if we but presuppose the conquest of political power by the proletariat?

There are some politicians who assert that only despotic class rule necessitates revolution; that revolution is rendered superfluous by democracy. It is claimed that we have today sufficient democracy in all civilized countries to make possible a peaceable revolutionless development. Above all it is possible to found cooperatives for consumption whose extension will introduce production for use, and so slowly but surely drive capitalist production out of one sphere after another. Most important of all, it is possible to organize unions that shall continually limit the power of the capitalist in his business, until constitutionalism shall supplant absolutism in the factory, and thus the way will be prepared for the slow transition to the republicanized factory. Still further, the socialists can penetrate into the municipal councils, influence public labor in the interest of the laboring class, extend the circle of municipal activities, and by the continuous extension of the circle of municipal production narrow the field of private production. Finally the socialists are pressing into parliament, where they are ever gaining more influence, and push through one reform after the other, restrict the power of the capitalists by labor legislation, and simultaneously extend ever wider the circle of governmental production, while they work for the nationalization of the great monopolies. So by the exercise of democratic rights upon existing grounds the capitalist society is gradually and without any shock growing into Socialism. Consequently the revolutionary conquest of political powers by the proletariat is unnecessary, and the efforts towards it directly hurtful, since they can operate in no other way than to disturb this slowly but surely advancing process.

So much for the opponents of revolutionary development.

It is an attractive picture they have painted for us, and again it cannot be truthfully said that it is wholly built in the air. The facts upon which it is founded actually exist. But the truth that they tell is only a half-truth. A little dialectical reflection would have shown them the whole.

This idyll becomes true only if we grant that but one side of the opposition, the proletariat, is growing and increasing in strength, while the other side, the bourgeoisie, remains immovably fixed to the same spot. Granting this, it naturally follows that the proletariat will gradually, and with no revolution, outstrip the bourgeoisie and imperceptibly expropriate it.

But things take on another aspect when the other side is considered, and it is seen that the bourgeoisie is likewise gaining in strength and is goaded on by every advance of the proletariat to develop new powers, and to discover and apply new methods of resistance and repression. That which from a one-sided observation appears as a gradual peaceable growth into Socialism is then seen as the organization of ever larger fighting bodies, as the development and application of ever more powerful resources for conflict, as a continuous widening of the battle held. Instead of being a gradual winning of the class struggle through the exhaustion of capitalism, it is rather a reproduction of the struggle upon ever wider stages, and a deepening of the consequences of every victory and every defeat.

Most harmless of all are the cooperatives, of which today the cooperatives of consumption are practically the only ones to be considered. Because of their purely peaceable character these are always highly esteemed by all opponents of revolutionary development. There is no doubt but that they can afford numerous important advantages to the laboring class, but it is laughable to expect even a partial expropriation of the capitalist class from them. So far as they are expropriating any class today it is that of little merchants and numerous grades of handworkers, that have been able to maintain their existence until now. Correspondingly it is noticed that nowhere do the great capitalists attack the cooperatives which it is pretended threaten them. On the contrary it is the little property owners whose rage is aroused against the cooperatives, and those who are injured are just the ones who are most dependent upon the laboring class, and who can be most easily won to the proletarian political cause. While the workingmen’s cooperatives bring some material advantages to certain divisions of the laboring class, they also drive away from our movement many classes who stand very close to the proletariat. These means to the peaceable absorption of capitalism and the abrogation of the class struggle tend rather to introduce a new bone of contention and to arouse a new class hatred. Meanwhile the power of capital remains wholly untouched. The cooperative for consumption has so far been victorious only in its battle with the little merchant; the struggle with the great stores’ is still in the future. This will not be so easy a victory.

The idea that the dividends of the cooperatives, even if not divided, but kept intact, can increase faster than the accumulation of capital so as to overtake it and contract the sphere of capitalism, is absolutely foolish.

The cooperative can play an important part in the emancipation of the proletariat only where the latter is engaged in an active class struggle. The cooperative can then become a means to supply the battling proletarians with resources. Even then they are wholly dependent upon the condition of legislation and the attitude of the state. So long as the proletariat has not yet attained political power, the importance of cooperatives for the class struggle of the proletariat will always be very limited.

Much more important for the proletariat than the cooperatives are the trade unions. This is true, however, only when these are fighting organizations, and not when they are organizations for social peace. Even where they conclude contracts with employers, either as individuals or as organizations, they can only secure and maintain these through their fighting ability.

However important, or indeed indispensable, unions may be for the battling proletariat, they must sooner or later reckon with the union of employers, which when it takes the form of a close agreement, of a cartel, or of a trust, will find it only too easy to become irresistible to the union. But unions of employers are not the only things that threaten the unions – more important is the governmental power. We in Germany could tell a tale on this point. That, however, even in such a democratic country as England, the unions have not yet overcome all their difficulties in this direction, has been shown by the recent well-known decision of the courts which threatens to completely incapacitate the unions.

On this point the already mentioned article of the Webbs in Socialen Praxis offers an interesting example which throws a significant light upon the future of the unions. They refer there to the great irregularity of the development of unions in England. Generally speaking the strong have grown stronger, while those that were formerly weak are now weaker than before. The unions of coal miners, cotton workers, and in the building trades and the iron industry have grown. Those of the farm workers, sailors, clothing trades and unskilled laborers have gone backwards. The whole union world, however, is now threatened by the increasing opposition of the possessing classes. The English laws lend themselves remarkably well to the suppression of undesirable organizations, and the danger that they now offer to the unions “has grown, and the fear of them is increasing with the hostility against the unions and strikes which the judges and officials share with the remainder of the upper and middle classes.” The existing laws are of a character “to deliver the laborers into the hands of the employers with hands tied.” So that the Webbs are forced to reckon with a position “in which the collective bargain with its undeniably favorable conditions, the collective cessation of labor and the opportune interruption of industry, is, through the legal operation of law, made impossible or at least costly and difficult.”

This places the unions in a decidedly embarrassing position in opposition to the capitalists, so that one can scarcely expect any effective restriction of exploitation from them. One may well reflect upon what action the governmental power will take in this former El Dorado of the unions, England, if the unions attempt any forcible restraint upon capital.

In the same way the so-called Municipal Socialism is limited to those States and social organizations where universal suffrage in the municipality rules. It must always remain bound to the general economic and political conditions, and can never proceed independently. To be sure, the proletariat may find the municipal government in the individual industrial communities in their hands before they have the strength to conquer the general government, and they can by means of this control, or at least restrain, action hostile to the proletariat and carry through individual betterments which could not be expected from a bourgeois regime. But such municipal governments find themselves limited not alone by the power of the State, but also by their own economic helplessness. They are mostly poor municipalities, almost exclusively made up of proletarians, that are first conquered by the social democracy. Where shall these obtain the means to carry out great reforms? Ordinarily the taxing power of the municipality is restricted by State laws, and even where this is not the case the taxation of the well-to-do and the rich cannot exceed certain bounds without these residents, the only ones from whom anything can be taken, being driven out of the municipality. Every decisive work of reform demands at once new taxes which are unfavorably received not only by the upper classes but also by wider circles of the population. Many a municipal government which has been captured by socialists, or so-called socialistic reformers, has been taken away from them because of the taxation question, in spite of the fact that their actions have been exceedingly efficient. This was true in London and also in Roubaix.

But the political sphere! that knows no bounds! Shall we not find there an unbroken advance for the protection of laborers, and does not every session of Parliament bring us new restrictions on capitalism, and does not every recurring election increase the number of our representatives in Parliament? And is not thereby our power in the State and our influence upon the government slowly and surely but interruptedly growing, and does not this carry with it a corresponding dependence of capital upon the proletariat? Certainly the number of laws for the protection of labor grow from year to year. But when one looks closely at this he will see that in the last ten years they have been only an extension to new spheres of already existing protection Taking children out of the factory, protecting clerks, bookkeepers, house industries, sailors, etc., an extension of a superficial and doubtful character, and not in any way an increasing strengthening of protection where it already existed. When one considers, on the other hand, how remarkably fast the capitalist system of protection extends its sphere, how quickly it leaps from one calling to another, and from one man to another, it will be found that the extension of the protection of labor follows at a much slower pace; that it can never overtake the extension of capitalism, but always comes limping slowly on behind. And while the extension of the latter continually takes on a more rapid pace, the former tends ever more and more to come to a standstill.

If the advance of the protection of labor extensively is so unsatisfactory, intensively we shall find absolutely nothing. In England in 1847, under the pressure of the Chartist movement and the rapid degradation of the textile industry, the ten-hour day was secured for women and children – that is, actually for the whole laboring class of the textile industry. Where have we today an improvement on the ten-hour day?

What we're looking at in this section is the debate around Millerandism: Should socialists participate in capitalist governments in general?
Millerandism, the term, is inspired by Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943) "initially a leader of French Socialist Party; took ministerial post in the 1899 cabinet and then moved to right of bourgeois political spectrum; French premier 1920; president 1920–4." (Thank you John Riddell for that short bio). At the Paris Congress of 1902, Kautsky authors the compromise resolution, which is adopted, that allows that such a step might be acceptable as "a temporary expedient... in exceptional cases" if sanctioned by the party.

The Second Republic of France in 1848 fixed the laboring day at ten hours for all the laborers in Paris, and in the remainder of France at eleven hours. When lately Millerand announced in the Chamber the ten-hour day, and that only upon paper and with many restrictions, for those industries in which women and children worked with laborers, and this not for all industries, this was praised as an admirable act of which only a socialist minister was capable. And yet he offered less than the bourgeois lawmakers of a half century ago, for he extended the ten-hour day only to the children for which in England a labor day of six and a half hours had been fixed in 1844.

At the Geneva Congress of 1866 the “International” had already declared the eight-hour day to be the preliminary condition to any fruitful social reform. Thirty-six years later, at the last French Socialist Congress at Tours, a delegate could still arise and declare that the eight-hour day must be placed as our next demand. He only wished to demand “measures preparatory for the eight-hour day”, and yet this man was not laughed from the room. On the contrary, he was able to be a candidate at the last election in Paris.

It appears that the only thing in social reform that makes rapid progress is the modesty of the social reformers.

But how is this possible in spite of the increase of socialist representatives in parliamentary bodies? It becomes perfectly clear if one does not look at the matter wholly from one side, but studies the reverse of the medal. There is no doubt that the number of socialist representatives increases, but simultaneously therewith the bourgeois democracy falls to pieces. Very often this is shown openly in the diminution of their vote at election. More frequently it is seen in the falling off of any results. They are ever more cowardly, characterless, and resist reaction only to prepare the way to carry on a reactionary policy themselves as soon as they come to the helm. Indeed, that is the method by which Liberalism seeks nowadays to conquer political power.

As Bismarck saw his power waning he demanded that the terms of the German Reichstag should be extended from three to five years. This was an undoubtedly reactionary measure that raised a storm of indignation. In France, however, the last radical ministry of the republican defense, in which there was a Socialist minister, demanded an extension of the legislative term from four to six years, and the republican majority consented to grant this. Had it not been for the Senate, this reactionary measure would have become a law.

It is not alone that bourgeois liberalism disappears in the same degree that social democracy increases. At the same time that the influence of social democracy grows in Parliament the influence of Parliament decreases. These two phenomena proceed simultaneously without, however, having any direct connection with each other. On the contrary, the parliaments in which there are no Social Democrats, as, for example, the Saxon and Prussian Chambers, lose their influence and their creative power much more rapidly than the others.

The demoralization of Parliaments has various different causes. The most essential causes are not those that belong to Parliamentary tactics which through an alteration in the order of business, or of the sphere of Parliament, abolish its efficiency. The most essential lies in the character of the classes which are able through Parliament to significantly influence government. If Parliamentarism is to prosper, two preliminary conditions are necessary: the first, a single strong majority, and the second, a great social goal toward which this majority energetically strives and toward which they can force the government also. Both of these existed in the Golden Age of Parliamentarism. So long as capitalism represented the future of the nation, all classes of the people that possessed any Parliamentary significance, and especially the mass of the intellectuals, stood for freedom of capitalism. This was true of a majority of the small capitalists, and even the laborers followed the bourgeois leadership.

Liberalism thus stood as a united party with great aims. The struggle of the Liberalists for Parliament and in Parliament gave the latter its significance. Since then, as I have described above, a new development has risen. A special class consciousness has developed in the proletariat, so that a portion of the intellectuals, of the little property owners and of the small farmers are driven into the socialist camp. The rest of the small bourgeoisie and the farmers become wholly reactionary, while the powerful elements of industrial capital unite with the high finance which cares nothing for Parliament except when it can use it I'm sorry, but what the hell does Vide Panama mean? That industrial capital needed state funding for the initial Panama Canal? for its purposes – vide Panama.

The Liberal Party then dissolves into its elements without another great Parliamentary party with its united character rising from the governing class to take its position. The more reactionary the possessing classes become, the less are they a united body, and the more they split into little individual pieces, the harder it is to bring a united Parliamentary majority together. The more is it true that a majority is possible only through bringing together the different tendencies for a momentary coalition resting upon most uncertain foundations, because no interior bond, but only considerations of external opportuneness, controls them. Such coalitions are from the beginning doomed to unfruitfulness because their elements are so diverse that they are only held together through disclaiming just that decisive action which would give them life. It is a peculiar misunderstanding of the nature of these coalitions which arise from the downfall of Parliamentarism and signify its social and political impotency, that participation in them should be considered the means to a slow, step-by-step introduction of the proletariat to political power.

Social evolution does not, however, lead merely to the dissolution of the great united Parliamentary parties into countless, diverse and indeed often hostile factions. It leads also to the result that very often the Parliamentary majorities are more reactionary and more hostile than the government. Even if the governments are but agents of the ruling classes, still they have more insight into the sum of political and social relations, and, however willing a servant the official bureaucracy is to the government, it nevertheless develops its own life and its own tendencies that react upon the government. Moreover, the bureaucracy is recruited from the intellectuals, in which, as we have already seen, an understanding of the significance of the proletariat is advancing, even though timidly.

All this operates so that not seldom the government, with all its reactionary attitudes and hostility to labor, still does not proceed with such blind rage as does the ruling class, with its little bourgeois and agrarian tail, which stands behind the government. The Parliament which was formerly the means of pressing the government forward upon the road to progress becomes ever more and more the means to nullify the little progress that conditions compel the government to make. In the degree that the class which rules through Parliamentarism is rendered superfluous and indeed injurious, the Parliamentary machinery loses its significance.

When, on the other hand, consideration of the proletarian body of voters compels the representative body to move towards friendship for labor and democracy and thereby to overreach the government, the latter easily finds means to circumvent Parliament.

In the United States the battle against the unions is carried on much less through the representative bodies than through the courts. In the same way it is the decisions of the House of Lords, and not the legislation of the popularly elected House of Commons, whereby the road to an attack upon the unions has recently been opened in England; and how the spirit of the abolished laws of exception still lives in the German courts, the German laborers can tell many a tale.

So the candle is burning from both ends, and the ruling parties as well as the government more and more doom Parliament to sterility. Parliamentarism is continually more incapable of following a decisive policy in any direction. It becomes ever more senile and helpless, and can only be reawakened to new youth and strength when it, together with the total governmental power, is conquered by the rising proletariat and turned to serve its purposes. Parliamentarism, far from making a revolution useless and superfluous, is itself in need of a revolution in order to vivify it.

I do not wish to be understood as holding democracy superfluous, or to take the position that cooperatives, unions, the entrance of social democracy into municipalities and parliaments, or the attainment of single reforms, is worthless. Nothing would be more incorrect. On the contrary, all these are of incalculable value to the proletariat. They are only insignificant as means to avoid a revolution.

This conquest of political power by the proletariat is of the highest value exactly because it makes possible a higher form of the revolutionary struggle. This struggle is no longer, as in 1789, a battle of unorganized mobs with no political form, with no insight into the relative strength of the contending factors: with no profound comprehension of the purposes of the struggle and the means to its solution; no longer a battle of mobs that can be deceived and bewildered by every rumor or accident. It is a battle of organized, intelligent masses, full of stability and prudence, that do not follow every impulse or explode over every insult, or collapse under every misfortune.

On the other hand, the elections are a means to count ourselves and the enemy and they grant thereby a clear view of the relative strength of the classes and parties, their advance and their retreat. They prevent premature outbreaks and they guard against defeats. They also grant the possibility that the opponents will themselves recognize the untenability of many positions and freely surrender them when their maintenance is no life-and-death question for them. So that the battle demands fewer victims, is less sanguinary and depends less upon blind chance.

Neither are the political acquisitions that are gained through democracy and the application of its freedom and rights to be undervalued. They are much too insignificant to really restrict the dominion of capitalism and to bring about its imperceptible transition into socialism. The slightest reform or organization may be of great significance for the physical or intellectual re-birth of the proletariat that, without them, would be surrendered helpless to capitalism and left alone in the misery that continuously threatens it. But it is not alone the relief of the proletariat from its misery that makes the activity of the proletariat in Parliament and the operation of the proletarian organizations indispensable. They are also of value as a means of practically familiarizing the proletariat with the problems and methods of national and municipal government and of great industries, as well as to the attainment of that intellectual maturity which the proletariat needs if it is to supplant the bourgeoisie as ruling class.

Democracy is also indispensable as a means of ripening the proletariat for the social revolution. But it is not capable of preventing this revolution. Democracy is to the proletariat what light and air are to the organism; without them it cannot develop its powers. But we must not be so occupied with observing the growth of one class that we cannot see the simultaneous growth of its opponent. Democracy does not hinder the development of capital, whose organization and political and economic powers increase at the same time as does the power of the proletariat. To be sure, the cooperatives are increasing, but simultaneously and yet faster grows the accumulation of capital; to be sure, the unions are growing, but simultaneously and faster grows the concentration of capital and its organization in gigantic monopolies. To be sure, the socialist press is growing (to only mention here a point which cannot be further discussed), but simultaneously grows the partyless and characterless press that poisons and unnerves ever wider popular circles. To be sure, wages are rising, but still faster rises the mass of profits. Certainly the number of socialist representatives in Parliament is growing, but still more sinks the significance and efficaciousness of this institution, while simultaneously Parliamentary majorities, like the government, fall into ever greater dependence on the powers of the high finance.

So beside the resources of the proletariat develop also those of capital, and the end of this development can be nothing less than a great, decisive battle that cannot end until the proletariat has attained the victory.

The capitalist class is superfluous, and the proletariat, on the other hand, has become an indispensable social class. The capitalist class is not in a condition either to elevate the proletariat nor to root it out. After every defeat the latter rises again, more threatening than before. Accordingly the proletariat, when it shall have gained the first great victory over capital that shall place the political powers in its hands, can apply them in no other way than to the abolition of the capitalist system. So long as this has not yet happened, the battle between the two classes will not and cannot come to an end. Social peace inside of the capitalist system is a Utopia that has grown out of the real needs of the intellectual classes, but has no foundation in reality for its development. And no less of a Utopia is the imperceptible growth of capitalism into socialism. We have not the slightest ground to admit that things will end differently from what they begun. Neither the economic nor the political development indicates that the era of revolution which characterizes the capitalist system is closed. Social reform and the strengthening of the proletarian organizations cannot hinder it. They can at the most operate to the end that the class struggle in the higher developed grades of the battling proletariat will be transformed from a battle for the first conditions of existence to a battle for the possession of dominion.

 
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