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Karl Kautsky: The proletariat and its ally

April 26, 2017

The following is the concluding section of “The Driving Forces and the Prospects of the Russian Revolution,” written by Kautsky in 1906. For a discussion of this article, see “The Logic of Bolshevik ‘hegemony’ ”. Selected and translated by Lars T. Lih.

Perhaps this is the place, as a conclusion to this study, for me to express my views in response to an inquiry that my friend Plekhanov has conducted among a number of non-Russian comrades on the character of the Russian revolution and the tactics that the Russian socialists should follow. Or rather, I should like only to make a few observations tied to these questions rather than give precise answers. While I believe that my almost three decades of intimate contact with the outstanding representatives of the Russian revolutionary movement allows me to provide my German comrades with some thoughts about this movement, I feel like a student vis-à-vis my Russian comrades when it comes to Russian affairs. It is, of course, urgently necessary for us, Western European socialists, to form a definite view of the Russian revolution: it is not a local but an international event, and the way we interpret it will exert a profound influence on the way we view the immediate tactical tasks of our own. But I also have no reason to hide my own opinion when Russian comrades ask me for it.

The questionnaire contains the following three questions:

  1. What does the general character of the Russian revolution appear to be? Are we facing a bourgeois or a socialist revolution?
  2. In view of the desperate attempts by the Russian government to suppress the revolutionary movement, what should be the attitude of the Social Democratic party towards the bourgeois democratic parties that are fighting in their own way for political freedom?
  3. What tactic should the Social Democratic party pursue in the Duma elections in order to utilize the strength of the bourgeois opposition parties in the struggle against our ancien régime, but without violating the Amsterdam resolution?

The first of these questions does not appear to me to be one that can be answered by simply choosing one of two alternatives. The age of bourgeois revolutions, that is, of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over—in Russia too. There too the proletariat is no longer an appendage and tool of the bourgeoisie, as it was in bourgeois revolutions, but an independent class with independent revolutionary aims. But wherever the proletariat comes forth in this way, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class. The Russian bourgeoisie, insofar as it is liberal and has an independent class policy at all, certainly hates absolutism but it hates revolution even more, and the main reason it hates absolutism is because it sees it as the fundamental cause of the revolution; insofar as it demands political freedom, it does so above all because it believes that this is the only way to bring an end to the revolution.

The bourgeoisie therefore does not belong to the driving forces of the present revolutionary movement in Russia and to this extent we cannot call it a bourgeois one.

But this is not a reason to call it a socialist one without qualification. There is no way in which it can bring the proletariat to power by itself [Alleinherrschaft], to dictatorship. Russia’s proletariat is too weak and too undeveloped for that. Yet it is very possible [sehr wohl möglich] that as the revolution progresses, victory will fall to the Social Democratic party. Social Democracy does very well to imbue its supporters with this optimism about victory: you cannot fight successfully if you have renounced victory in advance. But it will not be possible for Social Democracy to achieve victory through the proletariat alone without the help of another class and as a victorious party it will not be able to implement any more of its program than the interests of the class that supports the proletariat allow.

But on which class should the Russian proletariat rely in its revolutionary struggle? If you take only a superficial look at politics, you might come to the view that all the classes and parties that are striving for political freedom will simply have to work together to achieve it and that their differences should only be worked out after political freedom has been won.

But any political struggle is at bottom a class struggle and thus also an economic struggle. Political interests are the result of economic interests; it is to protect such interests that the masses of the people [Volksmassen] rise up, and not in order to carry out abstract political ideas. Anyone who wishes to inspire the masses of the people to political struggle must show them how closely linked it is to their economic interests. These must not be allowed to retreat into the background for a single instant if the struggle for political freedom is not to come to a halt. The alliance of the proletariat with other classes in the revolutionary struggle must rest above all else on a community of economic interest, if it is to be both lasting and victorious. The tactics of Russian Social Democracy must also be built on that kind of community of interest.

A solid community of interest [Interessengemeinschaft] exists only between the proletariat and the peasantry. This community of interest must furnish the basis of the whole revolutionary tactic of Russian Social Democracy. Working together with liberalism should only be considered if it can be done in such a way that working together with the peasantry will not thereby be disrupted.

The revolutionary strength of Russian Social Democracy and the possibility of its victory rests on this community of interests between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry—but this same factor establishes the limits to the possible utilization of this victory.

Without the peasants, we cannot win in the near future in Russia. Still, it is not to be expected that the peasants will become socialists. Socialism can only be built on the foundation of large enterprises; it contradicts the conditions of small enterprises too thoroughly for it to arise and assert itself in the midst of a predominantly peasant population. If socialism comes to power [zur Herrschaft gelangt ist] in large-scale industrial and agricultural enterprises, the possibility exists that socialism, through the power of its example, could convince the small-scale peasants and stimulate them to imitation—but it cannot arise directly from such small-scale enterprises. And in Russia, more than elsewhere, the intellectual and material conditions for conditions for socialism are lacking. The communism of the Russian village has completely collapsed, and it does not signify in any way community of production. And so it is impossible for modern commodity production to move to a higher mode of production by building upon the village commune. This requires at least the framework of a large country, but the producers in Russian agriculture are in no way capable of production on a national scale.

The present revolution can only lead to the creation in the countryside of a strong peasantry resting on a basis of private ownership and thus also the creation of the same gulf between workers and the property-owning section of the agricultural population that already exists in Western Europe. It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already pointing toward the introduction of the socialist mode of production, even if it should temporarily bring Social Democracy to the helm [Trotsky translates: “bring to power [vlast]”].

Clearly, however, we may experience some surprises. We do not know how much longer the Russian revolution will last–and the forms that it has now adopted suggest that it has no desire to come quickly to an end. We also do not know what influence it will exert on Western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there. Finally, we do not yet have any idea how the resulting successes of the Western European proletariat will in their turn act on the Russians. We should do well to remember that we are approaching completely new situations and problems for which no earlier stereotype is appropriate.

We should probably best do justice to the Russian revolution and the tasks that it sets us if we view it as neither a bourgeois revolution in the traditional sense nor a socialist one but as a completely unique process that is happening on the borderline between bourgeois and socialist society—one that requires the dissolution of the one while preparing the formation of the other and, in any case, one that is bringing all of humanity [die ganze Menschheit] living within capitalist civilization a powerful stage further in its development.


  • For a translation of the full text of this article, see Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, Haymarket Books, 2011.
  • For the German-language original, see Die neue Zeit, 25:1 (1907) pp. 184-90 and 324-33.
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