Referenda and direct democracy

Ben Lewis looks at Karl Kautsky’s Parliamentarism and democracy

Who's asking?

The September 18 referendum on Scottish independence has obviously sparked much controversy. Yet what is often absent in such discussions is a consideration of the nature of referenda themselves and their role both historically and in contemporary society.

All too often, even amongst the ranks of the left, referenda are taken as a given and thus the analysis boils down to whether one should advocate a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote - and little else besides. Yet, given the centrality of the “battle of democracy” to the Marxist project, how should we approach referenda in particular and direct democracy in general? This article does not claim to exhaustively answer that question, but will attempt to focus on some of the related issues by digging up a largely overlooked contribution by Karl Kautsky - the “pope of Marxism”, who in August 1914 famously became “the renegade Kautsky” - entitled Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy.

Written in 1893, this book was reprinted in 1911 (under the shortened title Parliamentarism and democracy) and had a considerable impact on European social democracy. It was translated into Russian, Dutch, French, Polish and several other languages, but as of yet there is no English version, so most readers of the Weekly Worker will not be familiar with it. Nevertheless, it is certainly more than timely to make it available in English for the first time.1

One good reason for engaging with this book is its centrality to many of the strategic conceptions of Bolshevism. As with many of Kautsky’s other works, it was quickly translated into Russian and extensively discussed amongst the social democrats there. In his wide-ranging introduction to Lenin’s What is to be done?, historian Lars T Lih has argued that this text provided Russian social democracy with much of the raw material needed for their version of ‘Erfurtianism’: Russian revolutionaries were determined to do everything they could to ensure that their party would be as much like the influential German social democracy and its Erfurt programme (1891) as Russian conditions would allow. The German party had shown that it was both possible and necessary, through expanding circles of awareness, for social democracy to win over the workers’ movement to socialism, and in turn not only the proletariat as a whole, but also the ‘labouring classes’ - at that time the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie. This was the scenario of proletarian class hegemony - a crucial and enduring feature of Bolshevism right through to 1917 and, indeed, beyond. Summarising, Lih writes:

The merger formula - social democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement - pulls all Kautsky’s arguments together [ie, the Erfurtian outlook]: the expanding circle of [social democratic] awareness, the original and nearly fatal separation of socialism and the worker movement, the two-front polemical war against those who refuse the Marxist synthesis, political freedom as light and air for the proletariat, the strength that comes from an inspiring goal, the need for disciplined parties of nationwide scope, the aspiration to become a Volkspartei, the need to carry out democratic tasks that the bourgeoisie is too scared to undertake and, finally, social democracy’s own exalted sense of mission - all these flow from the merger narrative.2

As such, this text is worthy of study quite apart from its provocative arguments on referenda, parliament and democracy. Readers will hopefully see these major themes come to the fore over and over again. At its best, it powerfully evokes what Lenin meant when describing how well Kautsky wrote “when he was a Marxist”. However, as I will argue, the text is far from being beyond criticism and in several respects is limited by an erroneous reading of both the essence and function of the various wings of the capitalist state apparatus that have repeatedly blighted leftwing thought. All the more important, therefore, that we try and understand just what Kautsky was saying, how he made his case and how the book fits into his overall oeuvre.


To ascertain Kautsky’s motivations which drove him to pen this contribution, we have to cast our minds back to the state of German social democracy in 1893. Having emerged out of the illegality of Otto von Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws (1878-90), the party steadily gained support. The parliamentary fraction had a very strong presence, but, according to Kautsky, this area of work had not been sufficiently thought through: practice was running ahead of theory, which is odd because this work was one of the few spheres of legal social democratic activity during the anti-socialist laws, meaning that the parliamentary fraction was at the centre of party activity during those times and thus pivotal to the functioning of the organisation as a whole.

Second, Kautsky was writing in response to a situation where social democracy internationally was being attracted by the ideas of direct democracy and direct legislative initiatives by the people. Kautsky had already polemicised with the Swiss socialist, Karl Bürkli (1823-1901), on direct democracy. And, as we shall see below, Bürkli was in many ways the spokesperson for the ideas of Moritz Rittinghausen (1814-90), a German social democrat and ‘1848er’.

Third, in the text Kautsky sets out to defend the basic assertion he made in his hugely influential commentary on the Erfurt programme, known in English as The class struggle: “In a modern state, parliament cannot be rendered superfluous by direct democracy …” Indeed, Kautsky contends that, from the standpoint of Marxist socialism, even if referenda could replace existing representative institutions then this would represent a step backwards: it was much more important to focus on the extension of existing representative democracy, which is indispensable both to modern proletarian organisations (he lists co-ops, trade unions and social democratic parties) and to the proletariat’s struggle to conquer state power and reorganise society. At best, he argues, direct democracy can serve as a tool to reinforce accountability and control over representative institutions, nothing more.


As arguably the Second International’s leading historian, it should come of little surprise that Kautsky buttresses his arguments with a history of direct democracy from the Iroquois through to the 1890s, via ancient Greece and Rome, the city state of Venice, absolutist Europe and the English and French revolutions. One key advantage of this approach, so Kautsky argues, is that many contemporary advocates of direct democracy drew on various ‘golden age’ chapters from history, in which direct democracy was supposedly able to freely blossom to the happiness of all.

We will have to largely skip over much of this history and merely note Kautsky’s essential argument: namely that in the past direct democracy was only possible through the exclusion of certain groups of people. These people were extremely productive economically, and thus integral to the functioning of society, but thereby unable to take part in decision-making: either women (ancient Germanic tribes) or women and slaves (ancient Athenian democracy in particular).

In his historical sketch, Kautsky simultaneously traces the origins of the representative system, discusses what he terms “modern democracy” and particularly focuses on England, “the fatherland of parliamentarism”, in order to attack the “fable” that “the representative system is inexorably bound up with the rule of the bourgeoisie”. He contends that this is an erroneous idea, betrayed by a cursory look at history: “the representative system is a political form whose content has been, and thus can be, most diverse. The same is true of the despotic monarchy” (p94). Kautsky’s other historical claim is that it is absurd to assert, as proponents of direct democracy often do, that the representative system was somehow ushered in by the ascendant capitalist class: for Kautsky representative political forms can actually be traced back to pre-French Revolution 18th century absolutism in countries with restrictive monarchies, such as Poland, Sweden and “England” (ie, Britain).

For Kautsky, then, parliament (or any other social institution, for that matter) has no intrinsic content. It is shaped by the class battles and social transformations which play out beyond it. Thus, representative democracy in Britain, for example, assumes a different shape during the rise of the struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and particularly when the proletariat enters the political stage. This is perhaps the most compelling argument of the book, although it is not without its flaws, as we shall see.

Given that much of what is written about Kautsky to this day unfortunately tends to heavily rely on recycled phrases and received opinions largely drawn from cold war historiography, it is important to emphasise what Kautsky is not doing in this text. He is not defending parliament and parliamentary democracy against soviet democracy and organisation along the lines of Russia 1905/1917 or Germany 1918-19. What he actually seeks to do is to defend the need for representative democracy in society and the workers’ movement against attempts to prioritise, or even to exclusively focus on, direct democracy. As he puts it, “if the idiosyncrasies of the opponents of parliamentarism merely extend to the name then it is easy to help them. The representative system will always re-emerge, however often they may destroy it” (p85). The issue of ‘soviets versus parliament’ was not on the agenda in 1893 and is not taken up in the 1911 edition either. Of course, the obvious shortcoming of attempts to frame the issue along the lines of ‘soviets vs parliament’ today is that soviet democracy is itself a form of representative democracy.

Be that as it may, there is much that is hotly contested in this text - most notoriously Kautsky’s controversial claim that “a real parliamentary regime can be just as well an instrument for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as it can be for the dictatorship of the proletariat”.3 We shall return to this quote below.


It should be stressed that Rittinghausen was not some kind of anarchist who argued for the renunciation of the political or even the parliamentary struggle: he had, after all, been a Reichstag deputy for the so-called ‘Eisenach’ wing of German social democracy, under the leadership of August Bebel, which then proceeded to unite with the Lassalleans in Gotha in 1875. He was a member of the ‘moderate’ wing of this organisation and as such often came in for much criticism from Bebel.

Before that, Rittinghausen had also been an active participant in the European upheavals of 1848 and had worked with Karl Marx on the communist daily, Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In Kautsky’s estimation, it was the very failure of this revolutionary wave which occasioned Rittinghausen to develop his somewhat quirky ideas on democracy (both Marx and Engels felt the need to revise their views on democracy as well - crucially the bourgeoisie’s approach towards it).

Kautsky contends that for Rittinghausen the failure of 1848 lay not in the contending class interests latent within ‘the democracy’, but rather in some of the institutions thrown up by this upheaval: namely the various ineffective parliaments and assemblies (the Frankfurt Assembly being a case in point). In Rittinghausen’s estimation these representative institutions are the natural tools of the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie and by the bourgeoisie. For Kautsky, Rittinghausen’s assertion that parliamentary officials were mainly bourgeois in origin (doctors, lawyers, specialists and so on) had a “certain justification” back in 1850 (when Rittinghausen set forth his views) - that is to say, in the period of counterrevolution - but not in 1890, after the proletariat had stepped onto the political stage with its own independent agenda, and not merely as an appendage of other classes lumped together in ‘the democracy’.

At any rate, Rittinghausen came to see the representative system as the source of counterrevolutionary evil. He notes: “It is absurd to have white represented by black, a general interest represented by a private interest to which it is opposed” (quoted on p65). As such, Rittinghausen’s social democratic republic must necessarily abolish the representative system and replace it with direct legislation by the people - only then will ‘true right’ and the ‘general interest’ come to the fore. Showing a certain immodesty (and ignorance of the history mentioned above, argues Kautsky) Rittinghausen claims “the honour of discovering and announcing this truth” (quoted on p65). What Rittinghausen proposes is in some ways similar to what we now know as the referendum, but it is also quite distinct.

What he has in mind is the following situation: as soon as a certain number of citizens (to be ascertained) demands that this or that topic be placed on the popular agenda - that a new law should be passed, reformed or abolished - then the ministry (a representative body, as Kautsky is quick to point out) is obliged, within a given time, to invite the people to assemble on a certain day and proceed with the work of legislation. These assemblies would gather together around 1,000 citizens in the localities, with everybody being able to demand the floor and intervene. Each assembly would elect a chair, who would then be responsible for passing on the results of the various votes to the ministry, which must gather all of this information from the various districts and act accordingly.

Since, for Rittinghausen, everybody should be sovereign in setting the actual questions to be voted on, this would invariably lead the ministry to be inundated with vast amounts of often contradictory information, making it rather difficult to ascertain the will of the people: not only would there be different answers from different districts, but there may even be completely different questions. For example, when it comes to an issue such as the privatisation of the land, Rittinghausen envisages the following broad scenario unfolding in the localities:

1. Should the country’s land and soil remain in private ownership or become the common property of the nation? The majority is for it becoming the common property of the nation.

2. Should the land be bought back or simply be seized by the people without compensation for the landowners? The majority is for buying it back.

3. What percentage of compensation should there be for the property owner? Several percentages are proposed: one will achieve majority support.

4. How should compensation be carried out? In cash or in state obligations with interest? The latter is agreed on (p69).

And so on. But what happens if not all of the assemblies - potentially thousands of them in a modern country - do not conduct their business in this exact same fashion? The result would be absolute chaos, which would serve to wreck the legislative process, not speed it up or make it more transparent. This is Kautsky’s main point of attack in his polemic. Yet he also has a number of other objections.

Direct drawbacks

First, he contends, by splitting up the population into a large number of sections, both politics and the population itself become atomised. This means that it is not possible to either expose or indict corruption and potential foul play on the part of representatives on a national scale - you can only speak to others in your locality. Second, while Kautsky actually concedes that Rittinghausen has a point about the representation of general interests by private interests (a quandary that can probably only be overcome with the abolition/sublation of ‘politics’ itself in classless society), he is slightly at a loss as to how exactly Rittinghausen’s “ministry” would be able to magically solve this problem. In gathering together all the information from the districts and determining the “popular will”, it possesses huge and arbitrary power, which could not be easily kept in check by an atomised and divided population.

Third, it is obvious - especially in Rittinghausen’s ‘simple’ example of the land question - that politics is an art that cannot often be boiled down to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, however much Rittinghausen may try to portray it as a straightforward affair. Even those who agree that the land should be held in common ownership will hold the most diverse views on how this is to be realised, for example. This objection forms another important pillar of Kautsky’s case against direct democracy.

In an age of class-based parties, from the standpoint of revolutionary change it is far preferable for the population to think about, organise around and vote for competing party outlooks for society as a whole than to vote on individual questions - not least because it allows a revolutionary social democratic party to proclaim its hostility to the existing order and to argue for its inspiring ‘final goal’, from which it will draw strength and cohesion. By dealing with just one individual question (or in Rittinghausen’s schema a series of isolated questions), direct democracy serves to blur and obfuscate these fundamental dividing lines between the classes and their respective parties: precisely the opposite of what any Marxist wants to see. Usefully, Kautsky talks about the struggle for a shorter working day: in and of itself it is not a particularly revolutionary demand, and under certain class-political conjunctures can be latched onto by even the most conservative of parties. Yet within the context of a revolutionary social democratic programme for society in general it becomes a truly revolutionary rallying call.

Fourth, Kautsky makes a more general point about direct democracy in the form of referenda. Marxism strives, particularly through its emphasis on the necessity of a social democratic party, to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak - and the people are as strong and organised - as possible. He draws a subtle distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an isolated, unorganised mass who are not thinking about national or global politics and not organised into, or by, social democratic parties with a national focus (as in Rittinghausen’s ‘small is beautiful’ scenario) and, on the other, ‘the people’ as a coherent, organised, partyist force organised into, or by, social democracy on a higher level of political struggle. To make this point, Kautsky refers to studies about the conservative effects of the referendum in peasant-dominated Switzerland.

This is not the same thing as arguing that referenda are flawed because of the influence of conservative, parochial and unthinking peasants. Quite the opposite. He is simply asserting that social democracy, which is based on the most advanced and most organised sections of “the fighting proletariat”, has much more chance of positively influencing, and winning over, other sections of the labouring classes to its banner by fighting in elections on its whole programme rather than on this or that isolated issue. This logic is clearly brought out by the following expression of this confidence in the power of proletarian parties of Marxism and their distinct outlook:

It can even come to pass that social democracy wins the majority of people, even in countries where the waged workers do not form the majority. But today this is still far away. And, however near we may get towards it, the proletariat will always form the backbone of the party (p124).

As far as I know, nobody threw this quote back at Kautsky in light of his vehement opposition to the Russian Revolution of October 1917 …

Finally, while granting that to date there had been “no experience” of a referendum in a modern, advanced capitalist country, Kautsky reminds readers of how, precisely under conditions where the state is strong and repressive and ‘the people’ is made up of a weak, amorphous mass, referenda can easily turn into the plebiscites for which Louis Bonaparte became known, and as such, the basis for a “‘democratic’ despotism” or even modern-day “Caesarism” (p140). Louis Blanc had already made a similar point in his 1851 polemic against Rittinghausen,4 highlighting how, when Louis XVI was condemned to death during the French Revolution, the Girondistes demanded a referendum (in vain, of course). They were convinced that this was the only way to save the king and to stall the revolution …

Proletarian democracy

This notwithstanding, Kautsky admits that referenda could become a useful feature in weaker, less autocratic states (“Maybe in the USA, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”).

Far more important for him, however, is that social democracy prioritises the expansion and deepening of existing representative democracy. In terms of Britain, for example, this would involve the election of judges, the abolition of the House of Lords, short parliamentary terms and the abolition of extortionate electoral deposits, which effectively debarred working class representatives (the experience of Chartism is in the forefront of his mind, although he does not draw on all of that movement’s demands). Indeed, Kautsky is convinced that since the English civil war (1642-51) the proletariat has been the revolutionary class par excellence. Before the upheavals of 1848 what distinguished this class was that it fought energetically for democracy and always drove on the struggle with more enthusiasm and verve than the hesitant and vacillating petty bourgeoisie and peasantry - and certainly far more than the bourgeoisie, which by 1848 had completely abandoned the struggle for democracy out of fear of the burgeoning proletariat. Indeed, the day of this movement’s victory had to be the bourgeoisie’s defeat, for each particular class in that movement would necessarily seek to exploit the newly-won freedoms in their own particular class interest. Social democracy is an energetic champion of democracy, but does not hold illusions in it (p125).

Since 1848, the democratic struggle now fell to the proletariat, which it must rapidly take up - crucially by moving beyond local struggles to the formulation of national party perspectives and the winning of allies in the process. Kautsky actually goes a step further: “Only by forming parties can the individual classes assert themselves. In elections masses of people are drawn into the party struggles - not as individuals, but as parties, do the candidates appear before them” (p130). The rise of social democracy - which Kautsky is convinced will also spread to Britain with time - not only counters the capitalist monopoly over the press and its systematic corruption of public opinion through the establishment of a workers’ press, but also trains leaders, speakers and parliamentarians who can take the social democratic message to new heights. Through party organisation the working class thus actually learns to rule and impose its agenda on society.

Through the prism of the “modern” class parties, Kautsky sheds some light on the history of parliamentarism in Britain: Whigs and Tories, Conservatives and Liberals, and finally the Labour Party. When the battles between these various class forces (the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) flowed, this found expression in fierce parliamentary struggles. When these battles ebbed, when the main parties agreed in principle on the direction to be taken by society, then parliament became obviously more corrupt and more of a sideshow.

This is undoubtedly true. Yet what about Kautsky’s idea of England as “the fatherland of parliamentarism”? The unspoken assumption in his narrative more generally is obviously influenced by the dominant view of 18th-19th century Britain as somehow embodying “the separation of powers” between the legislative, executive and judiciary in the state administration, where, in the words of the Manchester liberal, John Bright, the “mother of all parliaments” cracked the whip and the other wings of the state obediently fell into line. Yet this entire account is utterly misleading and obviously had implications both for Kautsky’s argument here and for his understanding of the “modern state” more generally: while there was a balancing of the respective wings of the state in comparison to the “continental states” of the 19th century, there certainly was no complete separation. Indeed, as compelling as his discussion of the role of the ascendant working class in the extension of the suffrage is, it overlooks entirely the fact that, as this suffrage was (ever so gradually) expanded over time, the power and mandate of parliament was increasingly restricted. The absence of a discussion of this aspect is all the more strange, in that such a phenomenon would actually confirm Kautsky’s basic thesis on parliament as outlined above, but perhaps this was not so evident back in 1893.

Kautsky further assumes the existence of a permanent, independent civil bureaucracy, ready to carry out without further ado the decrees and rulings of the parliament. He thus completely underestimates the ability and willingness of the non-parliamentary wings of the British state administration (including the monarchy, about which he says next to nothing) to act independently of parliament’s will.


Despite these obvious shortcomings, this text is an important one from the standpoint of Marxist strategy. I have attempted to avoid approaching it from the perspective of ‘What can it teach us today?’ Nonetheless, many of Kautsky’s objections to referenda and the ideas of direct democracy still hold weight - particularly in that we do now have some rather negative experience of referenda in advanced capitalist countries, which have often provided a fig-leaf of democracy and popular support for various dictators and despots (for all his faults, Rittinghausen did at least recognise that the setting of the question to be decided on is extremely important and thus should fall to the popular assemblies).

Aside from some anarchists, there are today few who would propose splitting up Britain into thousands of mini-communities to implement elaborate schemes for the composition of legislation (although there were echoes of this in the wackier elements of the Occupy movement). Yet there is a certain ‘modern-day Rittinghausenism’ on today’s left with regards to parliament - a tendency to counterpose ‘action’ and ‘getting out there’ to the alleged ‘diversion’ that is parliament and electoral politics. Such an approach does little more than highlight the current weakness of the workers’ movement and its lack of strategic perspectives. One of the great strengths of Kautsky’s narrative is that it counters such nonsense. Today, the working class is only marginally represented in parliament, a representation mediated through the pro-capitalist Labour Party in its current state.

Yet this can all change if our side gets its act together. And, helpfully, we have much to draw on in terms of the best aspects of our history: the writings of Marx and Engels on elections and democracy (transforming voting “from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”5) and also the experience of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, which, as Mike Macnair pointed out recently,6 was based on assessments of the party’s strength in various soviet and municipal elections during the course of 1917.

This text is all the more important, in that part of the revolutionary tradition we have inherited (a tradition which also correctly opposed Kautsky’s treacherous role in the German and Russian revolutions, it must be said) has tended to argue that, while parliament was an acceptable site of proletarian struggle in the (so-called) ‘period of peaceful development’ of capitalism, it is now historically outdated. Quite understandable in the context of 1917-21 in Europe, but obviously not so in 2014.

And, of course, the ‘soviets vs parliament’ paradigm dominant today flows from this understanding. To crudely summarise this attitude: you are a reformist if you favour parliament, a revolutionary if you want soviets, and a centrist if you demand a mixture of both. Yet from today’s perspective this is also unhelpful, because it elevates form over content: ie, the radical constitutional alternative to the capitalist state around which the workers’ movement should organise in the here and now in order to dissolve the main pillars of bourgeois rule and usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat. A revolutionary crisis can take many forms and it would be stupid to rule out any particular scenario a priori: after all, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 both embodied a similar content of radical proletarian rule, but the form they assumed was quite different.

In this sense, I think Kautsky is right to assert that a real parliamentary regime could be the basis of either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat. A genuinely democratic parliament à la Paris 1871 - based on regular elections, recallable representatives on a workers’ wage - which is an executive and legislative body at the same time, can only be achieved by the proletariat armed with the kind of “merger formula” vision with which I introduced this discussion. Accordingly, when it comes to Marxist political strategy, it is not so much a question of Parliaments, the streets or both7 as it is of the working class movement asserting its positive hegemony and revolutionary outlook in all areas of social and political life.


1. I am working from a pdf of the second edition, available for download from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung website:

2. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Chicago 2008, p102.

3. Translation taken from RB Day and D Gaido Witnesses to permanent revolution Leiden 2009, p55, note 159.

4. The pamphlet was aptly entitled No more Girondistes! (L Blanc Plus des Girondines Paris 1851). Blanc also made the point that Rittinghausen’s proposal for a ministry which would oversee the popular will, as determined by local assemblies, would ensure that this body would have more unaccountable power than an average capitalist government (he would know, of course, having joined the French provisional government in 1848, for which he was excoriated by Marx and Engels).

5. Taken from the programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880):

6. M Macnair, ‘The Bolsheviks’ success and the “revolutionary” fear of electoralismWeekly Worker July 24 2014.

7. The title of August Nimtz’s recent book on Bolshevik electoral strategy.