Karl Kautsky

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany

(April 1924)

Source: Socialist Review, vol.23, no.127 (April 1924), the journal of the Independent Labour Party.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford for, July, 2002.

THE 1918 Revolution in Germany was proletarian, not bourgeois, in character. Bourgeois revolutions represent an uprising of differing classes alike oppressed by absolutism and feudalism, not only capitalists and intellectuals, but the bourgeoisie, the peasants, the proletariat. Its united attack makes it irresistible. The overthrow of-the system once accomplished, conflicts between the revolutionary classes begin. Those who have least to lose, who are most energetic, most ruthless, i.e. the proletarians and the poorer section of the bourgeoisie gain in influence. The revolution becomes more and more radical. At the same time conflicts between revolutionary sections grow more and more bitter, and the common basis more and more narrow. In the French Revolution of 1789 a point was reached when Robespierre sent his fellow organisers of the Terror, Danton and Hebert, to the guillotine. This was the turning point; reaction, counter-revolution, at once set in.

The course of proletarian revolutions is different. From the start they are carried through not by a majority of classes, but by one class – the proletariat. There are no others behind it, which can become more radical than it; no room indeed for radicalisation The very nature of the objects of a proletarian revolution causes the effort to realise them to reveal difficulties in practice that are not foreseen in theory, and compels the revolution to become more and more cautious as it proceeds. There are no class antagonisms within the proletariat and thus no need for a rending of revolutionary sections by each other. Unity is compelled by the opposition of all other classes.

Unfortunately the German proletarian revolution was preceded by a revolution in Russia which was compelled by the structure of that country to be a bourgeois one. Welcome as was the downfall of the stronghold of absolutism to the revolutionary proletariat of the world, its effect on the German revolution, eighteen months later, was fatal. Developments in Russia followed the invariable course. First, co-operation of all the forces hostile to absolutism and feudalism, then progressive radicalisation finally leading to internecine struggles between revolutionary sections. The Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing first the bourgeoisie and then all the other Socialists, and then proceeded to treat them as Robespierre treated Danton and Hebert. But the Russian Robespierres of our time, instead of being overthrown by a counter-revolution, maintained themselves in power and became their own Bonapartes.

From the first the influence of all this in Germany was profound. The war split the German Social Democratic movement. The Bolsheviks, not content with oppressing the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries in their own country, had sworn a bitter feud against them in every other. They used the influence which their revolution lent them over the minds of the proletariat elsewhere to alienate Socialist working men from Social Democracy. Thus the German Revolution, instead of closing, aggravated the split in the Social Democratic Party and that at a time when unity alone could have enabled the workers to maintain the power that the military collapse of Kaiserism gave into their hands. Thus the Revolution frightened the capitalists for the moment; embittered them lastingly; but did not confine their power. One result of this was that the mass of the proletariat experienced no substantial improvement in their lot.

Even a united movement would have met vast difficulties. The war had shattered the economic structure of the country. Even more disastrous were the effects of the Treaty of Versailles.

The capitalist class in Germany was fundamentally changed by the war. Before, it lived, in the main, directly or indirectly, on the industrial exploitation of the workers. For this, quiet, order, security, and a strong central authority were essential. The State was theirs and they believed in it.

This class has gone. Inflation, insecurity, have turned the possessing classes from industry to speculation. The dominating factor now is not the industrialist, but the profiteer. He is for the most part a parvenu without education, without any sense of responsibility, without any sympathy for the worker or respect for work. The State is no longer his State; his first object is to weaken it. The German bourgeois has never liked paying taxes. To-day the profiteer and the agrarian consider it a political duty to pay as little in taxes as possible and so accelerate the bankruptcy of the State.

Speculators alone flourish in the actual conditions in Germany to-day; they and that lowest sections of the proletariat whom they buy. They profit by the growing disorder and insecurity. This is the counter-revolutionary force, and it has to be faced by a proletariat that for nearly a decade now has had to struggle with hunger, misery and mortal danger, and in the last few years has had unemployment to scourge it. Despite its wretchedness and its weakness it has, so far, kept the counter-revolution in check. How long?

It is a notable fact that the proletariat which meets a counter-revolution does so at a higher stage of development than it showed in the preceding revolution. This was the case in 1830, when, in contrast with 1793, the fighters and victors showed the greatest humanity; and after 1848. If the German proletariat can resist now, it will emerge at a higher cultural stage than that of November, 1918.

It should be remembered that the political education of Social Democracy, before the Revolution, was in one respect materially deficient. We had learned how to be an opposition. We had to take over Government, and that in the fullest sense; in industry, in the localities, in the State. The task had been studied, it is true, buff theoretically, from the outside. We are only now beginning to see it from within. Our previous studies have proved anything but superfluous; indeed, they have been our best guides. But they are insufficient. It is true that wherever our representatives in Government had adequate power at their disposal, they secured important achievements; notably in Vienna. Where their achievements fell short of what was hoped the cause was either in impossible circumstances or the lack of power. In every case there are important lessons to be learned.

For instance, we have acquired a far more accurate estimate of what can be done. The first condition of success is the concentration of available strength on the possible instead of its diffusion on the impracticable. Further, we have become acquainted with real difficulties, previously overlooked; moreover, success in individual areas has given us models for future effective work, once the counter-revolution is over, and leaves us free to build on its ruins a higher type of proletarian regime than that of November, 1918.

One condition remains indispensable – the unity of the proletariat itself. There are no real conflicts of interest within it; such conflicts are purely tactical. Such ‘conflicts can be far-reaching, notably m times of revolution. At the same time, all educated Socialists know that unity is the life of the proletariat, and that an inferior tactic which maintains unity achieves more than a superior one which sacrifices it. Every minority within a Socialist Party must remember that in separating itself it injures not the party only, but itself. If it stands in, it can, if circumstances justify its point of view, become a majority within the party and determine the general tactic. If it stands out it purchases freedom only to lose the opportunity of propaganding within the larger body. No minority which believes in itself and the proletariat has the smallest ground for leaving a party so long as its right of expression within it is unrestrained. Had the Social Democratic minority not believed that they could not express their views freely so long as they remained inside, there would never have been the split that occurred during the war. Whether or no they were right then, there is no justification for any such view or action to-day.

The Third International has been an active agent of division. But the day is not far off when the Bolshevik Government will see it as rather a source of embarrassment than of strength; when the Russian Embassy in Berlin, representing a Government seeking for the friendship of capitalist Governments, will turn a cold eye on Clara Zetkin. Side by side with its consequent decline in power over the masses, another tendency is likely to operate. The Revolution has had its influence on the Catholic workers. Hitherto the Centre has known how to hold them; if, however, its right wing wins and makes the party an instrument of counter-revolution, the workers will begin to escape from Roman as from Russian guidance. Then proletarian unity on the broadest basis will become possible.

The counter-revolution, if it comes, will be very different from its historical predecessors, even if it secures an apparent temporary success.



Last updated on 12.12.2003