A Socialist Government’s First Job Is Not Abolishing Capitalism

“The idea that the only task of a socialist government is to put socialism into practice is not a Marxist one, but pre-Marxist and utopian. It conceives of socialism as an ideal picture of a complete society. Like ideal conceptions generally, its nature is very simple. Once it has been thought out, only the necessary power is required to realise this ideal everywhere and under all circumstances. When this result does not immediately follow on the possession of power, it is due either to treachery or to cowardice. A socialist government has no other task than the putting into practice of the ideal socialist state. The more absolute its power, the more effectually it will be able to do this.

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“This conception of the task of Socialism was completely upset by Marxism. The starting point of Marxism was the class struggle, which is waged under the conditions of capitalist production by the proletariat, itself the product of industrial capitalism. The task of Social Democracy is to raise the physical, intellectual, moral, and organising powers of the proletariat, as well as to bring plan, and method into the isolated proletarian struggles. This implies that the proletariat must be taught what is the social and economic objective which can alone satisfy it, and put an end to its struggles. This objective is the emancipation of the working class, which from being the mere tool will become the master of production. Among the working class must be counted not only the industrial proletariat, but likewise, peasants, hand-workers, and intellectuals. But the proletariat forms the strongest and most dependable factor in this development.

“This objective is the goal of the socialist movement. Its realisation, may come about in various ways, which will depend upon the prevailing modes of production, the relative strength of classes, the degree of their organisation, intelligence and discipline, and so forth. The forms of socialism may vary considerably in different countries, at different times, and in different branches of industry. They must everywhere be related to the existing forms of production, and permit their further development.

“The common element of all of them will be the common ownership of the means of production and management by social institutions, with the object of satisfying the common need whether that be the need of the state, the municipality, or co-operative societies, instead of private ownership of the means of production and private production for the market to secure private profit. Production will not be the realisation of an ideal conception of a complete society which has been previously thought out, but the result of a fluctuating process of development, a result which in no way excludes or renders unnecessary further development, but which forms merely the starting point of a new order of social development.

“The endeavour can and should be made to-day to visualise the picture of the coming Socialist mode of production, but it must also be remembered that the reality will be far different from any mental picture, and that the most thorough investigations at the present time will never succeed in revealing all of the agents that will enter into the development of the future, and in estimating how great a significance every one of these agents will assume. The better we are able to investigate the present, the deeper will be our insight into the future. But the forms of the future society will always be more manifold than is possible for us to foresee, and new momenta will constantly arise which are inconceivable to us to-day.

“We may expect great surprises before us in this sphere.

“Nevertheless the socialist goal has a great significance for us. Champions of the labour cause will the more readily avoid the contradictions and waste of strength in their daily political and economic policies, and effect the improvement and liberation of the working people the more speedily, the more they estimate how far each one of their demands and measures will subserve or prejudice the ultimate objective.

“As we have already observed, the development of the productivity of labour is closely connected with the objective of the transformation of the property basis of the means of production and with the establishment of the widest self-government and freedom, of expression and organisation of the labouring masses.

“From the standpoint of this conception, the task of socialists in relation to socialism assumes a shape very different from the standpoint of pre-Marxian socialism. The creation of a system of socialist production is now neither the sole nor the first task of socialists. Such a system is rather to be considered as the end of their endeavour, the result of their total activity. Their duty is, under all circumstances, the elevation and strengthening of the proletariat, the giving it a keener insight into the economic process, and its destiny and the extension of the productivity of labour.

“This is the task of every socialist party. From this point of view, socialist parties will become possible and necessary everywhere, even in countries where the prerequisites of socialist production do not yet exist, provided that they contain an industrial proletariat.

“The position will be in no way modified when a socialist party gains political power, which permits it to set up a socialist government. The immediate task of such a government would likewise be to increase the strength and insight of the proletariat, to subject the capitalist to the control of the state, and to develop the productivity of labour, but not under all circumstances immediately to abolish capitalism in its entirety, and put socialism into practice. To how great an extent socialism can be introduced must depend upon the degree of ripeness which the country has reached.

“If the tasks of a socialist government are conceived in this wise, it will be clear that the existence of such a government in an economically backward country is compatible with the Marxist theory, according to which the prerequisites of socialism, are only to be found in a highly developed capitalism. A socialist regime is thus possible under economically backward conditions, if the state is democratic, and the industrial proletariat is superior in intelligence and organisation to the other classes which express their strength by and through democracy. Provided also that the socialist government remains always conscious of the limits of its power and does not attempt more than it can achieve with the strength and resources at its disposal, and if, finally, it is anxious to develop the productive forces and to strengthen the proletariat. From being the champion of the special interests of the proletariat it will become the representative of the general social interests. In this capacity it will be enabled to marshal behind it the majority of the nation and maintain their allegiance.

“Such a government must be guided by the principle that by limitation the master reveals himself. A socialist government which does not restrict its endeavours to the economic necessities and possibilities but allows itself to be influenced only by the needs of the proletarians and the eagerness for power of many party friends, so that it plunges into an immoderate policy of extravagant radicalism — a socialist government of this kind will never accomplish a lasting liberation of the proletariat and an increase in the productive forces, but it is sure to end in a new servitude by completely destroying the productive forces, which will mean an indefinite postponement of its hopes.”

— Karl Kautsky, Georgia: A Social-Democratic Peasant Republic — Impressions And Observations

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