[Classics] The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

Can There Be Equality Between the Exploited and the Exploiter?

Kautsky argues as follows:

(1) “The exploiters have always formed only a small minority of the population” (p. 14 of Kautsky’s pamphlet).

This is indisputably true. Taking this as the starting point, what should be the argument? One may argue in a Marxist, a socialist way. In which case one would proceed from the relation between the exploited and the exploiters. Or one may argue in a liberal, a bourgeois-democratic way. And in that case one would proceed from the relation between the majority and the minority.

If we argue in a Marxist way, we must say: the exploiters inevitably transform the state (and we are speaking of democracy, i.e., one of the forms of the state) into an instrument of the rule of their class, the exploiters, over the exploited. Hence, as long as there are exploiters who rule the majority, the exploited, the democratic state must inevitably be a democracy for the exploiters. A state of the exploited must fundamentally differ from such a state; it must be a democracy for the exploited, “and a means of suppressing the exploiters; and the suppression of a class means inequality for that class, its exclusion from “democracy”.

If we argue in a liberal way, we must say: the majority decides, the minority submits. Those who do not submit are punished. That is all. Nothing need be said about the class character of the state in general, or of “pure democracy” in particular, because it is irrelevant; for a majority is a majority and a minority is a minority. A pound of flesh is a pound of flesh, and that is all there is to it.

And this is exactly how Kautsky argues.

(2) “Why should the rule of the proletariat assume, and necessarily assume, a form which is incompatible with democracy?” (p. 21). Then follows a very detailed and a very verbose explanation, backed by a quotation from Marx and the election figures of the Paris Commune, to the effect that the proletariat is in the majority. The conclusion is: “A regime which is so strongly rooted in the people has not the slightest reason for encroaching upon democracy. It cannot always dispense with violence in cases when violence is employed to suppress democracy. Violence can only be met with violence. But a regime which knows that it has popular backing will employ violence only to protect democracy and not to destroy it. It would be simply suicidal if it attempted to do away with its most reliable basis—universal suffrage, that deep source of mighty moral authority” (p. 22).

As you see, the relation between the exploited and the exploiters has vanished in Kautsky’s argument. All that remains is majority in general, minority in general, democracy in general, the “pure democracy” with which we are already familiar.

And all this, mark you, is said apropos of the Paris Commune! To make things clearer I shall quote Marx and Engels to show what they said on the subject of dictatorship apropos of the Paris Commune:

Marx: “. . . When the workers replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by their revolutionary dictatorship . . . to break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie . . . the workers invest the state with a revolutionary and transitional form . . .”[14]

Engels: “. . . And the victorious party” (in a revolution) “must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted more than a day if it had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Cannot we, on the contrary, blame it for having made too little use of that authority? . . .”[15]

Engels: “As, therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ‘free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist. . . .”[16]

Kautsky is as far removed from Marx and Engels as heaven is from earth, as a liberal from a proletarian revolutionary. The pure democracy and simple “democracy” that Kautsky talks about is merely a paraphrase of the “free people’s state”, i.e., sheer nonsense. Kautsky, with the learned air of a most learned armchair fool, or with the innocent air of a ten-year-old schoolgirl, asks: Why do we need a dictatorship when we have a majority? And Marx and Engels explain:

—to break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie;

—to inspire the reactionaries with fear;

—to maintain the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie;

—that the proletariat may forcibly hold down its adversaries.

Kautsky does not understand these explanations. Infatuated with the “purity” of democracy, blind to its bourgeois character, he “consistently” urges that the majority, since it is the majority, need not “break down the resistance” of the minority, nor “forcibly hold it down”—it is sufficient to suppress cases of infringement of democracy. Infatuated with the “purity” of democracy, Kautsky inadvertently commits the same little error that all bourgeois democrats always commit, namely, he takes formal equality (which is nothing but a fraud and hypocrisy under capitalism) for actual equality! Quite a trifle!

The exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal.

This truth, however unpleasant it may be to Kautsky, nevertheless forms the essence of socialism.

Another truth: there can be no real, actual equality until all possibility of the exploitation of one class by another has been totally destroyed.

The exploiters can be defeated at one stroke in the event of a successful uprising at the centre, or of a revolt in the army. But except in very rare and special cases, the exploiters cannot be destroyed at one stroke. It is impossible to expropriate all the landowners and capitalists of any big country at one stroke. Furthermore, expropriation alone, as a legal or political act, does not settle the matter by a long chalk, because it is necessary to depose the landowners and capitalists in actual fact, to replace their management of the factories and estates by a different management, workers’ management, in actual fact. There can be no equality between the exploiters—who for many generations have been better off because of their education, conditions of wealthy life, and habits—and the exploited, the majority of whom even in the most advanced and most democratic bourgeois republics are downtrodden, backward, ignorant, intimidated and disunited. For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to retain a number of great practical advantages: they still have money (since it is impossible to abolish money all at once); some movable property—often fairly considerable; they still have various connections, habits of organisation and management; knowledge of all the “secrets” (customs, methods, means and possibilities) of management; superior education; close connections with the higher technical personnel (who live and think like the bourgeoisie); incomparably greater experience in the art of war (this is very important), and so on and so forth.

If the exploiters are defeated in one country only—and this, of course, is typical, since a simultaneous revolution in a number of countries is a rare exception—they still remain stronger than the exploited, for the international connections of the exploiters are enormous. That a section of the exploited from the least advanced middle-peasant, artisan and similar groups of the population may, and indeed does, follow the exploiters has been proved by all revolutions, including the Commune (for there were also proletarians among the Versailles troops, which the most learned Kautsky has “forgotten”).

In these circumstances, to assume that in a revolution which is at all profound and serious the issue is decided simply by the relation between the majority and the minority is the acme of stupidity, the silliest prejudice of a common liberal, an attempt to deceive the people by concealing from them a well-established historical truth. This historical truth is that in every profound revolution, the prolonged, stubborn and desperate resistance of the exploiters, who for a number of years retain important practical advantages over the exploited, is the rule. Never—except in the sentimental fantasies of the sentimental fool Kautsky—will the exploiters submit to the decision of the exploited majority without trying to make use of their advantages in a last desperate battle, or series of battles.

The transition from capitalism to communism takes an entire historical epoch. Until this epoch is over, the exploiters inevitably cherish the hope of restoration, and this hope turns into attempts at restoration. After their first serious defeat, the overthrown exploiters—who had not expected their overthrow, never believed it possible, never conceded the thought of it—throw themselves with energy grown tenfold, with furious passion and hatred grown a hundredfold, into the battle for the recovery of the “paradise”, of which they were deprived, on behalf of their families, who had been leading such a sweet and easy life and whom now the “common herd” is condemning to ruin and destitution (or to “common” labour . . .). In the train of the capitalist exploiters follow the wide sections of the petty bourgeoisie, with regard to whom decades of historical experience of all countries testify that they vacillate and hesitate, one day marching behind the proletariat and the next day taking fright at the difficulties of the revolution; that they become panic-stricken at the first defeat or semidefeat of the workers, grow nervous, run about aimlessly, snivel, and rush from one camp into the other—just like our Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries.

In these circumstances, in an epoch of desperately acute war, when history presents the question of whether age-old and thousand-year-old privileges are to be or not to be–at such a time to talk about majority and minority, about pure democracy, about dictatorship being unnecessary and about equality between the exploiter and the exploited! What infinite stupidity and abysmal philistinism are needed for this!

However, during the decades of comparatively “peaceful” capitalism between 1871 and 1914, the Augean stables of philistinism, imbecility, and apostasy accumulated in the socialist parties which were adapting themselves to opportunism. . . .

* *

The reader will probably have noticed that Kautsky, in the passage from his pamphlet quoted above, speaks of an attempt to encroach upon universal suffrage (calling it, by the way, a deep source of mighty moral authority, whereas Engels, apropos of the same Paris Commune and the same question of dictatorship, spoke of the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie—a very characteristic difference between the philistine’s and the revolutionary’s views on “authority” . . .).

It should be observed that the question of depriving the exploiters of the franchise is a purely Russian question, and not a question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. Had Kautsky, casting aside hypocrisy, entitled his pamphlet Against the Bolsheviks, the title would have corresponded to the contents of the pamphlet, and Kautsky would have been justified in speaking bluntly about the franchise. But Kautsky wanted to come out primarily as a “theoretician”. He called his pamphlet The Dictatorship of the Proletariat—in general. He speaks about the Soviets and about Russia specifically only in the second part of the pamphlet, beginning with the sixth paragraph. The subject dealt with in the first part (from which I took the quotation) is democracy and dictatorship in general. In speaking about the franchise, Kautsky betrayed himself as an opponent of the Bolsheviks, who does not care a brass farthing for theory. For theory, i.e., the reasoning about the general (and not the nationally specific) class foundations of democracy and dictatorship, ought to deal not with a special question, such as the franchise, but with the general question of whether democracy can be preserved for the rich, for the exploiters in the historical period of the overthrow of the exploiters and the replacement of their state by the state of the exploited.

That is the way, the only way, a theoretician can present the question.

We know the example of the Paris Commune, we know all that was said by the founders of Marxism in connection with it and in reference to it. On the basis of this material I examined, for instance, the question of democracy and dictatorship in my pamphlet, The State and Revolution, written before the October Revolution. I did not say anything at all about restricting the franchise. And it must be said now that the question of restricting the franchise is a nationally specific and not a general question of the dictatorship. One must approach the question of restricting the franchise by studying the specific conditions of the Russian revolution and the specific path of its development. This will be done later on in this pamphlet. It would be a mistake, however, to guarantee in advance that the impending proletarian revolutions in Europe will all, or the majority of them, be necessarily accompanied by restriction of the franchise for the bourgeoisie. It may be so. After the war and the experience of the Russian revolution it probably will be so; but it is not absolutely necessary for the exercise of the dictatorship, it is not an indispensable characteristic of the logical concept “dictatorship”, it does not enter as an indispensable condition in the historical and class concept “dictatorship”.

The indispensable characteristic, the necessary condition of dictatorship is the forcible suppression of the exploiters as a class, and, consequently, the infringement of “pure democracy”, i.e., of equality and freedom, in regard to that class.

This is the way, the only way, the question can be put theoretically. And by failing to put the question thus, Kautsky has shown that he opposes the Bolsheviks not as a theoretician, but as a sycophant of the opportunists and the bourgeoisie.

In which countries, and given what national features of capitalism, democracy for the exploiters will be in one or another form restricted (wholly or in part), infringed upon, is a question of the specific national features of this or that capitalism, of this or that revolution. The theoretical question is different: Is the dictatorship of the proletariat possible without infringing democracy in relation to the exploiting class?

It is precisely this question, the only theoretically important and essential one, that Kautsky has evaded. He has quoted all sorts of passages from Marx and Engels, except those which bear on this question, and which I quoted above.

Kautsky talks about anything you like, about everything that is acceptable to liberals and bourgeois democrats and does not go beyond their circle of ideas, but he does not talk about the main thing, namely, the fact that the proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie, without forcibly suppressing its adversaries, and that, where there is “forcible suppression”, where there is no “freedom”, there is, of course, no democracy.

This Kautsky has not understood.

* *

We shall now examine the experience of the Russian revolution and that divergence between the Soviets of Deputies and the Constituent Assembly which led to the dissolution of the latter and to the withdrawal of the franchise from the bourgeoisie.


[14] See Marx’s article “L’indifferenza in materia politica” (“On Political Indifferentism”) (Alinanacco Republicano for 1874).

[15] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1962, Vol. I, p. 639.

[16] See Engels’s letter to A. Bebel of March 18–28, 1875 (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1955, p. 357).

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