The AWL Basic Education Programme

Second edition.

Issued 1997

HTML version issued 1998

"What Marx and Lenin meant by socialism" by Karl Kautsky

This outline of socialism was written by Karl Kautsky at the time when he was a revolutionary and the leading writer in a great effort to popularise and spread the ideas of Karl Marx (who had died only a few years earlier) and Frederick Engels (who was still alive).

Lenin acknowledged Kautsky as his teacher right up to 1914, and the only shift he made after that in his vision of socialism was to add a clearer idea of smashing the old bureaucratic state of the capitalists and replacing it with a flexible, responsive "semi-state".

Nowhere does Kautsky say that socialism must be democratic - because he considered it so obvious. This excerpt is from his widely-circulated commentary on the 1891 programme of the German Social-Democratic Party and Lenin and all Marxists called themselves Social-Democrats until 1917. Kautsky does specifically rebuff "state socialism". "As an exploiter of labour, the state is superior to" - i.e. worse than - "any private capitalist. Besides economic power, it can also bring political power to bear on the exploited classes." It was Stalin, not Lenin or Marx, who identified socialism with 100% nationalisation by a bureaucratic state.

The 1891 programme (the "Erfurt Programme") for which this commentary was written was divided into a "maximum" programme (socialism) and "minimum" demands (immediate reforms). Later Marxists criticised the lack of linkage between "minimum" and "maximum" - a gap which, they argued, had helped people like Kautsky slide into reformism - but they never rejected the basic idea summed up by Kautsky, of socialism as a system of freedom and democracy.

Ownership by the workers in common of the instruments of production means a co-operative system of production and the extinction of the exploitation of the workers, who become masters of their own products and who themselves appropriate the surplus of which, under our system, they are deprived by the capitalist. To substitute common, for private, ownership in the means of production, this it is that economic development is urging upon us with ever-increasing force.

The economic activity of the modern state is the natural starting point of the development that leads to the Co-operative Commonwealth. It does not, however, follow that every nationalisation of an economic function or of an industry is a step towards the Co-operative Commonwealth, and that the latter could be the result of a general nationalisation of all industries without any change in the character of the state. The theory that this could be the case is that of the state Socialists. It arises from a misunderstanding of the state itself. Like all previous systems of government, the modern state is pre-eminently an instrument intended to guard the interests of the ruling class. This feature is in no wise changed by its assumption of features of general utility which affect the interests not of the ruling class alone, but of the whole body politic. The modern state assumes these functions often simply because otherwise the interests of the ruling class would be endangered by those of society as a whole, but under no circumstances has it assumed, or could it ever assume, these functions in such a manner as to endanger the overlordship of the capitalist class.

If the modern state nationalises certain industries, it does not do so for the purpose of restricting capitalist exploitation, but for the purpose of protecting the capitalist system and establishing it upon a firmer basis, or for the purpose of itself taking a hand in the exploitation of labour, increasing its own revenues, and thereby reducing the contributions for its own support which it would otherwise have to impose upon the capitalist class.

As an exploiter of labour, the state is superior to [i.e. worse than] any private capitalist. Besides the economic power of the capitalists, it can also bring to bear upon the exploited classes the political power which it already wields.

The state has never carried on the nationalising of industries further than the interests of the ruling classes demanded, nor will it ever go further than that. So long as the property-holding classes are the ruling ones, the nationalisation of industries and capitalist functions will never be carried so far as to injure the capitalists and landlords or to restrict their opportunities for exploiting the proletariat. The state will not cease to be a capitalist institution until the proletariat, the working class, has become the ruling class; not until then will it become possible to turn it into a co-operative commonwealth. From the recognition of this fact is born the aim which the Socialist Party has set before it: to call the working class to conquer the political power to the end that, with its aid, they may change the state into a self-sufficing co-operative commonwealth.

The opponents of socialism seek to frighten the small producers and the working men with the claim that equalisation of incomes can mean for them nothing else than a lowering of their condition, because, they say, the incomes of the wealthy classes are not sufficient, if divided among the poor, to preserve the present average income of the working and middle classes; consequently, if there is to be an equality of incomes, the upper classes of workers and the small producers will have to give up part of their incomes, and will thus be the losers under socialism.

Whatever the truth there may be in this claim lies in the fact that the wretchedly poor, especially the slum proletariat, are today so numerous and their need so great that to divide among them the immense incomes of the rich would scarcely be enough to make possible for them the existence of a worker of the better paid class. Whether this is a sufficient reason for preserving our glorious social system may very well be doubted. We are of the opinion, however, that a diminution of the misery, which would be accomplished through such a division, would mean a step forward.

There is, however, no question of "dividing up"; the only question is concerning a change in the method of production. The transformation of the capitalist system of production into the socialist system of production must inevitably result in a rapid increase of the quantity of wealth produced. It must never be lost sight of that the capitalist system of production for sale hinders today the progress of economic development, hinders the full expansion of the productive forces that lie latent in society. Not only is it unable to absorb the small industries as rapidly as the technical development makes possible and desirable, but it has even become impossible for it to employ all the labour forces that are available. The capitalist system of production squanders these forces; it steadily drives increasing numbers of workers into the ranks of the unemployed, the slum proletariat, the parasites and the unproductive middlemen.

Such a state of things would be impossible in a socialist society. It could not fail to find productive labour for all its available labour forces. It would increase, it might even double, the number of productive workers; in the measure in which it did this it would multiply the total wealth produced yearly. This increase in production would be enough in itself to raise the incomes of all workers, not only of the poorest. Furthermore, since socialist production would promote the absorption of small production by large production and thus increase the productivity of labour, it would be possible, not only to raise the incomes of the workers, but also to shorten the hours of labour.

In view of this, it is foolish to claim that socialism means the equality of pauperism. This is not the equality of socialism; it is the equality of the modern system of production. Socialist production must inevitably improve the condition of all the working classes, including the small industrialist and the small farmer. According to the economic conditions under which the change from capitalism to socialism is effected this improvement will be greater or less, but in any case it will be marked. And every economic advance beyond that will produce an increase, and not, as today, a decrease, in the general well-being.

Thus we become acquainted with another element of superiority in socialist over capitalist society. It affords, not only a greater well-being, but also certainty of livelihood - a security that today the greatest fortune cannot guarantee. If greater well-being affects only those who have hitherto been exploited, security of livelihood is a boon to the present exploiters, whose well-being demands no improvement or is capable of none. Uncertainty hovers over both rich and poor, and it is, perhaps, more trying than want itself. In imagination it forces those to taste the bitterness of want who are not yet subject to it; it is a spectre that haunts the palaces of the wealthiest.

That a socialist society would afford its members comfort and security has been admitted by many of the opponents of socialism. "But", they say, "these advantages are bought at too dear a price; they are paid for with a total loss of freedom. The bird in a cage may have sufficient daily food; it also is secure against hunger and the inclemence of the weather. But it has lost its freedom, and for that reason is a pitiful thing. It yearns for a change to take its place among the dangers of the outside world, to struggle for its own existence." They maintain that socialism destroys economic freedom, the freedom of labour; that it introduces a despotism in comparison with which the most unrestricted absolutism would be freedom.

So great is the fear of this slavery that even some socialists have been seized with it, and have become anarchists. They have as great a horror of communism as of production for sale, and they attempt to escape both by seeking both. They want to have communism and production for sale together. Theoretically, this is absurd; in practice, it could amount to nothing more than the establishment of voluntary cooperative societies for mutual aid.

It is true that socialist production is irreconcilable with the full freedom of labour, that is, with the freedom of the labourer to work when, where and how he wills. But this freedom of the labourer is irreconcilable with any systematic co-operative form of labour, whether the form be capitalist or socialist. But in a socialist community the lack of freedom in work would not only lose its oppressive character, it would also become the foundation of the highest freedom yet possible to man. This seems a contradiction, but the contradiction is only apparent.

Down to the day when large production began, the labour employed in the production of the necessities of life took up the whole time of those engaged in it; it required the fullest exercise of both body and mind. This was true, not only of the fisherman and the hunter, but also of the farmer, the mechanic and the merchant. The existence of the human being engaged in production was consumed almost wholly by his occupation. It was labour that steeled his sinews and nerves, that quickened his brain and made him anxious to acquire knowledge. But the further division of labour was carried, the more one-sided did it make the producers.

Mind and body ceased to exercise themselves in a variety of directions and to develop all their powers. Wholly taken up by incomplete momentary tasks, the producers lost the capacity to comprehend phenomena as organic wholes. A harmonious, well-rounded development of physical and mental powers, a deep concern in the problems of nature and society, a philosophical bent of mind, that is, a searching for the highest truth for its own sake - none of these could be found under such circumstances, except among those classes who remained free from the necessity of toil.

Until the commencement of the era of machinery this was possible only by throwing upon others the burden of labour, by exploiting them. The most ideal, the most philosophic race that history has yet known, the only society of thinkers and artists devoted to science and art for their own sakes, was the Athenian aristocracy, the slaveholding landlords of Athens.

Among them all labour, whether slave or free, was regarded as degrading - and justly so. It was no presumption on the part of Socrates when he said: "Traders and mechanics lack culture. They have no leisure, and without leisure no good education is possible. They learn only what their trade requires of them; knowledge in itself has no attraction for them. They take up arithmetic only for the sake of trade, not for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of numbers. It is not given to them to strive for higher things. The merchant and mechanic say: "The pleasure derived from honour and knowledge is of no value when compared with money-making". However skilled smiths, carpenters and shoemakers may be at their trade, most of them are animated only by the souls of slaves; they know not the true nor the beautiful."

Economic development has advanced since those days. The division of labour has reached a point undreamt of, and the system of production for sale has driven many of the former exploiters and people of culture into the class of producers. Like the mechanics and farmers, the rich are wholly taken up with their business. They do not now assemble in gymnasiums and academies, but in stock exchanges and markets. The speculations in which they are absorbed do not concern questions of truth and justice, but the prices of wool and whisky, bonds and coupons. These are the speculations that consumer their mental energies. After this "labour" they have neither strength nor taste for any but the most commonplace amusements.

On the other hand, as far as the cultured classes are concerned, their education has become a merchandise. They, too, have neither time nor inclination for disinterested search for truth, for striving after the ideal. Each buries himself in his speciality and considers every moment lost which is spent in learning anything which cannot be turned to money. Hence the movement to abolish Greek and Latin from the secondary schools. Whatever the pedagogic grounds may be for this movement, the real reason is the desire to have the youth taught only what is "useful", that is, what can be turned into money. Even among scientific men and artists the instinct after a harmonious development is perceptibly losing ground. On all sides specialists are springing up. Science and art are degraded to the level of a trade. What Socrates said of ancient handicraft now holds good of these pursuits. The philosophic way of looking at things is on the decline - that is, within the classes here considered.

In the meantime, a new sort of labour has sprung up - machine labour; and a new class - the proletariat. The machine robs labour of all intellectual activity. The working man at a machine no longer needs to think; all that he has to do is silently to obey the machine. The machine dictates to him what he has to do; he has become an appendage to it. What is said of hand labour applies also, though to a slighter extent, to homework and hand-work done in the factory. The division of labour in the production of a single article among innumerable working men paves the way for the introduction of machinery.

The first result of the monotony and absence of intellectual activity in the work of the proletarian is the apparent dulling of his mind.

The second result is that he is driven to revolt against excessive hours of work. To him labour is not identical with life; life commences only when labour is at an end. For working men to whom labour and life were identical, freedom labour meant freedom of life. The working man who lives only when he does not work, can enjoy a free life only by being free from all labour. Labour is the condition of life. But their efforts will necessarily be directed toward reducing their hours of labour far enough to leave them time to live.

This is one of the principal causes of the struggle on the part of the modern proletariat to shorten the hours of work, a struggle which would have had no meaning to the farmers and mechanics of former social systems. The struggle of the proletariat for shorter hours is not aimed at economic advantages, such as a rise in wages. The struggle for shorter hours is a struggle for life.

Only the triumph of Socialism can render accessible to the proletariat all the sources of culture. Only the triumph of socialism can make possible the reduction of the hours of work to such a point that the working man can enjoy leisure enough to acquire adequate knowledge. The capitalist system of production wakens the proletarian's desire for knowledge; the socialist system alone can satisfy it.

It is not the freedom of labour, but the freedom from labour, which in a socialist society the use of machinery makes increasingly possible, that will bring to mankind freedom of life, freedom for artistic and intellectual activity, freedom for the noblest enjoyment. That blessed, harmonious culture, which has only once appeared in the history of mankind and was then the privilege of a small body of select aristocrats, will become the common property of all civilised nations. What slaves were to the ancient Athenians machinery will be to modern man. Man will feel all the elevating influences that flow from freedom from productive toil, without being poisoned by the evil influences which, through chattel slavery, finally undermined the Athenian aristocracy. And as the modern means of science and art are vastly superior to those of two thousands years ago, and the civilisation of today overshadows that of the little land of Greece, so will the socialist commonwealth outshine in moral greatness and material well-being the most glorious society that history has thus far known.

Happy the man to whom it is given to contribute his strength to the realisation of this ideal.

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