Napoleon III used plebiscites he carried on where his uncle left off: James Gillray, ‘Bonaparte closing the farce of égalité’ (1799)

Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle

By Karl Kautsky

We believe we have demonstrated that in a modern state the focus of political activity necessarily lies in its parliament. We believe we have also demonstrated that this fact is no tragedy for the proletariat, because through its class struggles it develops a range of abilities which enable it to render parliament subservient to its aims.

Direct legislation by the people can only be considered in the manner in which it already exists in Switzerland - that is to say, in the sense it is also demanded by the Erfurt programme: not as a means of eliminating the representative system, but merely of making this system more democratic and of subjecting it to the control of the population.

Direct legislation by the people in this sense - the referendum and the initiative2 - which should, however, more fittingly be called the direct participation of the people in the legislative process, naturally plays a more modest role in politics than, for instance, suffrage. This is because direct legislation leaves the focus of political activity to parliament. Yet suffrage, which determines the composition of parliament and thereby its activity, is of much greater significance than the right to monitor parliament or to encourage it to pass certain laws - both of which can only assert themselves here and there and which are anyway implemented by the same people who have already made their will known in the act of voting.

The only question left for us to examine is the importance that direct legislation by the people in this modest sense can acquire for the proletarian class struggle.

The radical democracy3 of the old school could only view direct legislation (in what follows, we will use the word solely in the narrow sense outlined above) as a highly advantageous arrangement. After all, for this trend of thought only ‘the people’ come into consideration; and it is supposed that direct legislation by the people increases the power of those people.

For the social democrats, the matter is not so simple. The democracy was the child of a situation in which it was necessary to combine all classes of the population against the aristocratic-absolutist regime. The democracy was only able to solve this problem by ignoring the class antagonisms amongst the mass of the people.

Social democracy was formed when the aristocratic-absolutist regime was broken. It emerged out of the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie - a contradiction that is now by necessity manifesting itself. If the historical task of the democracy was to mask the class antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, then the particular task of social democracy is to unveil this antagonism and to bring it most sharply to the consciousness of the proletariat.

Social democracy is the representative of the interests of the proletariat - but the proletariat is not synonymous with ‘the people’. This is not because social democracy can only represent proletarian interests exclusively. Its historical task points it towards promoting the development of society in all the areas in which it is able to intervene, and to lead the cause of all the exploited and oppressed. It is also to be expected that, wherever social democracy has become a powerful party, the petty bourgeoisie and peasants will join it en masse. This is because these classes are incapable of forming their own political parties. They can only choose between joining one of the parties of the propertied or joining the party of the propertyless. And, the more they are oppressed by capitalist exploitation, the more they feel that they are propertyless, the more they will be inclined to join the party of the propertyless.

It can even come to pass that social democracy wins the majority of the people, even in countries where waged workers do not form the majority. But today this is still far away. And, however close we may get to it, the proletariat will always form the backbone of the party; its characteristics will determine the party’s character, its strength the party’s power. Bourgeois and peasants are most welcome to join us and to march alongside us, but the proletariat will always show the way.

Yet if the mass from which social democracy draws its recruits not only consists of the wage workers, but also the peasants and the petty bourgeois - craftsmen, middlemen, small officials and so on (in short the so-called ‘common people’) - then these classes, with exception of the class-conscious wage workers, also form areas of recruitment for our enemies. The main root of our enemies’ political power lay, and still lies today, in their influence on these classes.

Granting the people political rights thus by no means leads to safeguarding the interests of the proletariat or those of social development. It is well known that universal suffrage has not yet delivered a social democratic majority anywhere. On occasion, it can provide more backward majorities than would be the case under the same circumstances with a census vote.4 It can get rid of a liberal regime in order to put a conservative or ultramontanist5 one in its place. In these cases, the liberals declare that the people are not yet ‘ready’ for freedom.

Nevertheless, the proletariat must under all circumstances demand democratic institutions for the same reason that it - once having gained political power - can only use its class rule to put an end to all class rule. It is the lowest of the social strata. It cannot attain political rights, at least not for the class as a whole, without everyone attaining them. All other classes can potentially become a privileged class, but not the proletariat. Social democracy, the party of the class-conscious proletariat, is thus the strongest buttress of democratic aspirations - much stronger than the democracy itself.

But, while social democracy is the most resolute champion of the aspirations of the democracy, it must not share its illusions. It must remain conscious that every popular right it wins becomes a weapon not only for social democracy itself, but also for its enemies. It must in certain circumstances be prepared for the fact that democratic achievements initially may be of more use to these enemies than to social democracy itself - but only initially, because eventually, of course, the introduction of democratic institutions in the state must turn out in favour of social democracy, must facilitate the struggle of social democracy and lead it to victory. The fighting proletariat has so much confidence in the development of society, so much confidence in itself, that it fears no fight - not even against a superior force. It merely demands a battlefield on which it can move freely. This battlefield is the democratic state; it is where the last decisive struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat will be fought out.

If social democracy does not share the illusions of the democracy, then it also differs from it in the value it places on the individual democratic institutions. In assessing these institutions, social democracy does not merely ask whether they increase the power of the people in general, but also whether, and to what extent, they influence the strength and development of the proletariat in particular. From this point of view, social democracy places particular emphasis on certain democratic demands, which the bourgeois democracy does not at all emphasise - and vice versa. Freedom of association, for example, is a living condition for the proletariat, but not for the petty bourgeois and the peasants - and least of all for the capitalists, for whom it is most inconvenient. Thus the bourgeois democracy never fought for this demand with particular zeal; the French Revolution even ushered in a direct ban on all associations. By contrast, the right to freedom of association is one of the emerging proletariat’s first demands.

Town and country

In dealing with the question of the referendum and the initiative, we can thus not be content with the assurance that they increase the power of the people. We must ask, how do they influence the proletariat’s strength and process of development? The answer to this question primarily hinges on the value we attribute to direct legislation by the people.

We have shown that the modern representative system is not particularly favourable to the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie - particularly those in the rural towns. The classes that are most likely to come into their own in the representative system are: those who preside over great wealth - whether in capital or land; the intellectuals; and - under a democratic system - the fighting and class-conscious part of the industrial proletariat. In general one can thus say, the parliamentary system favours the population of the cities vis-à-vis the rural population. All the above-mentioned strata of the people who live in the country - even the large landowners, for example - are related to the city in manifold ways and receive their ideas from there.

But, in turn, of the large cities, it is the capital city that has a particular influence on the parliament. In an earlier chapter, we pointed out that the centralising tendencies of the modern mode of production make it possible for the city population to influence the government to a greater extent than the remainder of the population. This is because the government is necessarily based in the economic and political centre of the country, the capital city. But in a parliamentary country it is equally necessary that parliament is also based in the capital. The medieval legislative assemblies, sessions of the court and the estates were not tied to any particular location - nor was the government. By contrast, in our century all attempts on the part of reactionary governments to deprive parliament of the influence of the city and to relegate it to a small country town have been short-lived experiments. Despite its fear of revolutionary Paris, the French reactionary chamber of 1871 had to remain close to the Parisian cannons, in Versailles.

The capital city’s influence on parliament assumes the most varied forms. In revolutionary periods it can even come to pass that the population of the capital city directly dictates its will to the chamber and that this chamber is the mere tool of the capital’s population. But even in the most peaceful times it is hardly possible for a deputy to escape entirely from the impact of the capital. The moral naivety of the rural deputies might often suffer badly as a result, but their political horizons will certainly be expanded.

Direct legislation by the people counteracts these tendencies within parliamentarism. Since parliamentarism strives to place the political focus in the population of the large cities, this means that this political focus is to be found amongst the mass of the population. With the exception of England, however, even today this mass lives in the rural districts and towns. Direct legislation takes the city population’s particular political influence and subjects it to the rural population.

Earlier in the pamphlet, we already saw how peasant production isolates people. The capitalist mode of production and the modern state, however, work powerfully towards abolishing the rural seclusion of the peasants - through tax demands, military service, railways, newspapers and suchlike. But, as a rule, the increase in the points of contact between urban and rural areas merely causes the peasant to experience his desolation and loneliness as something painful. This process does not raise his status as a peasant, but awakens in him the desire for the city and drives all energetic and independent-minded elements from the country into the cities, robbing the former of its best forces. Thus the rise of modern commercial life tends to promote the desolation and loneliness of the countryside rather than rectify it.

The fact is that in any modern state the rural population is the most backward economically and politically. This is not to reproach them - it is their misfortune - but it is a fact to which we must be alert. Wherever and however long this situation exists, we have little reason to put our shoulder to the wheel for direct legislation.

Switzerland has perhaps the most progressive rural population in Europe. Its good school system, its often longstanding democratic habits and its dispersal of a large section of capitalist industry across the countryside - amongst which we can also include the ‘flat’ land of the deeply cut valleys - make the Swiss peasant intellectually lively and broaden his horizons. On the other hand, the Swiss wage worker is generally more conservative than most of his comrades in Europe. That which raises the peasant holds the worker back - namely the dispersal of capitalist industry across the countryside. The Swiss worker is often very close to the peasant economically too, calling a little piece of land his own. In addition, Switzerland lacks a leading capital city. The contradiction between town and country is much less developed there than it is in a modern large state. And many politicians in Switzerland argue that referenda have a conservative effect.

Parliament and referenda

The referendum has yet another adverse effect for the revolutionary proletariat. We have seen that the parliamentary system necessarily requires large, national and self-contained parties. Only through their fusion into such parties can the individual classes come into their own in the parliamentary state. During elections, all of those with the right to vote are drawn into party struggles in the liveliest possible manner. The candidates appear before the voters not as individuals, but as representatives of specific parties who present their programmes to the population and ask them to decide.

In times of a decaying parliamentarism - that is to say, when in parliament there are only parties standing opposite each other that are not separated by any fundamental contradictions, when these parties do not conduct their struggles in order to assert their principled demands, but merely in order to get access to the state coffers - then, of course, all the petty differences which the candidates dig up in order to differentiate themselves from other parties are mere humbug: the election campaign leads not to the enlightenment of the electorate, but to its deception.

But things are quite different wherever great antagonistic interests stand before each other - thus in our period especially when social democracy intervenes. Social democracy stands in irreconcilable opposition to all other parties; it is in its vital interest to bring out this opposition to the full. Wherever the party appears, therefore, election campaigns inevitably and increasingly become struggles between great principles. The population becomes acquainted with new ideas and is compelled to occupy themselves with these ideas. Even if here and there social democrats who are soft-hearted or too clever by half should attempt to hide their revolutionary aims, it will be to no avail. Our enemies themselves would ensure that the population understands that there is the most profound contradiction between the social democratic and the bourgeois candidate: not just when it comes to this or that side issue, but in their entire worldview.

The development of great contradictions also works towards ensuring that the small differences and on occasion contradictions - the small, particular and momentary interests that emerge between the various professions and layers within one and the same class - recede behind great, permanent and general interests. Whenever they involve class struggles, parliamentary battles and election campaigns in particular stimulate the separation of the individual classes. On the other hand, they also promote the fusion of the individual elements within each of the fighting classes. They are a powerful means of awakening and strengthening class-consciousness, a powerful means of uniting the proletarians under one banner, of generating enthusiasm and excitement for far-reaching goals amongst the workers and of having them enter into the struggle for them as a united phalanx.

In this way, the election campaign promotes the separation of the parties amongst the people; in this way, it becomes a powerful lever of organisation and discipline, as well as of enlightenment and propaganda. This aspect of the election campaign is so important that it is mainly for this reason that social democracy also champions universal suffrage even in countries where parliament is by no means the decisive factor and where it plays a very modest role in relation to the government: that is to say, in countries where the possibility of positively influencing the legislative process and the state administration is very small. This explains the bourgeois parties’ fear of each and every election campaign where there is a powerful social democratic movement that can legally participate in the elections.

Direct legislation by the people has the opposite effect. Here the population is not called to vote on entire, comprehensive programmes for the reorganisation of society and politics, but merely on a single measure, a single proposal - which, moreover, always has to be adapted to the momentary power relations in state and society, if it is to be a ‘practical’ vote and not intended as a mere gesture.

Programme and demands

We have seen above that a law is usually the result of a compromise. This is particularly true today, at a time when so many parties appear on the political stage and the old bourgeois parties are so split.

Some have argued that parliamentary corruption stems from this need for compromise. We think that this is an exaggeration. After all, the parties send their most perceptive and experienced politicians to parliament. As a rule, these people know full well what they are doing when they enter into a compromise: in making a compromise they are neither led astray nor are their fundamental beliefs shaken. If, in the act of compromise on legislative proposals, weaknesses of character and unscrupulousness come to light, then these characteristics already existed before. The compromise did not produce these weaknesses, but merely brought them to light.

The supporters of direct legislation are of a different opinion, but they are replacing one evil with another by transferring votes on draft laws to the people, for this means nothing else than relocating the root cause of corruption from the parliament to the people! For there can be no legislation without compromise; the great mass of people, which does not consist of trained politicians, must be confused all the more easily and led further astray by compromises than the politicians in parliament. If it was the compromise in voting on bills that was the cause of corruption, then this would exert a much more damaging influence than in enacting legislation in parliament.

But what is certain is this: there is hardly one practical demand on today’s legislative process which would be particularly unique to a single party. Even social democracy can hardly make such a demand. What distinguishes it from the other parties is the totality of its practical demands - the aims to which these demands point. The eight-hour day, for example, is in and of itself not a revolutionary demand; within the framework of the social democratic programme, it is a means of raising the working class and of contributing to its socio-political maturity, to its ability to take the work of liberation and social transformation into its own hands. The same eight-hour day can be a conservative demand within the framework of the programme of a party of social reform that banks on the delusion of being able to reconcile the working class with the existing social order through concessions.

Thus, if the population is not presented with entire party programmes, but merely individual legislative measures to be accepted or rejected, then this inevitably leads to a situation where all the individual parties who have an interest in this measure - as hostile as they may otherwise be towards each other - now suddenly pull in the same direction and to a certain extent cooperate. Do we really believe that educating the large and as of yet indifferent mass of the people is thereby made any easier? Direct legislation by the people has the tendency to restrict, not promote, the separation of the population into parties; over and again it creates new bridges between the parties that usually diverge from each other in various directions - simultaneously, it works towards reducing cohesion within the individual parties.

What holds political parties together - particularly when they have a great historical role to fulfil, such as the social democratic party - are its final goals, not its immediate demands; not ideas about how the party should behave regarding all the individual issues that confront it. Differences of insight, temperament, interests, tradition and so on can be found within every party; they will result in the most varied differences of opinion. Naturally, these differences can only relate to some of the party’s imminent tasks, not its final goals and not the method that is generally to be followed in achieving them. After all, without unity on these points, combining such disparate elements into a party would be an absurdity.

As I have argued, differences of opinion will always exist within a party, and on occasion they can reach a threatening pitch. But, the more lively the awareness of the great goals common to all party members, the more powerful the enthusiasm for them, the more difficult it will be for such differences to blow the party apart, with the demands and interests of the moment taking a back seat relative to the party’s goals. From this point of view as well, elections, which have an enlightening and incentive effect, are invaluable for social democracy.

By contrast, direct legislation tends to distract interest from the general matters of principle to a focus on concrete, individual questions. The more this tendency comes into effect, the more it reduces cohesion within each party, at least in relation to several of these questions. And the discussions which would otherwise take place within the party are now carried into the mass of the population, to layers which have only started to come into contact with the party and can easily split from it due to momentary differences.

Sectarianism, which one-sidedly becomes fixated on this or that measure, can be strengthened by direct democracy; the party system cannot. Were it possible to replace the representative system with direct legislation by the people, then this would lead to the complete dissolution of parties. This is admitted by the supporters of direct democracy themselves - they have even hailed it as one of the advantages of direct democracy. The dissolution of parties will not happen, of course, because it is impossible to transfer legislation completely to the population as a whole. But, under certain circumstances, even the referendum and the initiative, following the Swiss model, can strongly counteract, on the one hand, the intensification of antagonisms within the party and, on the other, the consolidation and disciplining of parties.

But this is not in the interest of social democracy. Other parties can put the wealth or the influence of some of their members in the balance. Social democracy can only assert itself through the combined strength of the fighting proletariat.

Centrality of party

In some circles it has again become fashionable to turn up one’s nose at the party system. That is nothing new. The anarchistic and other literati socialisms of our day merely repeat what the utopian socialists said two generations ago.

This view was understandable wherever the bourgeois party system in politics ruled exclusively (with the exception of England, where the Chartist party flourished) and the class struggle as the lever of the emancipation of the proletariat was not yet clearly understood. It is absurd if one adopts the position of Thecommunist manifesto.

Only as a political party can the working class in its entirety achieve a solid, permanent union. Purely economic struggles always merely concern one or several professions - mainly those in a small locality, town or province. In and of themselves alone, none of these struggles are yet the class struggle. At first, they never concern the interests of the entire working class, but merely the particular interests of a certain branch. Wherever the workers have not gone as far as to organise themselves into an independent political workers’ party, wherever they remain restricted to their purely economic organisations, trade unions and mutual-benefit funds, it is all too easy for the particular interests of a section to come to the fore: class-consciousness - without which social-revolutionary action is impossible - has not been awakened. The worker who does not feel that he is a proletarian, but merely a typesetter, hatter or metalworker and who merely represents the interests of typesetters, hatters or metalworkers, can behave very radically in relation to various questions, such as in an angry atheism, but his radical behaviour will remain that of a mere pot caster in the pub, like the philistine who has become agitated and flails around in a ‘revolutionary’ fashion. His actions will have no influence on the transformation of society in the proletarian sense.

The formation and activity of a specifically workers’ party, which seeks to conquer political power for the working class, already presupposes highly developed class-consciousness amongst one section of the workers. But the activity of this workers’ party is the surest means of awakening and promoting class-consciousness amongst the mass of the workers. The party only recognises objectives and tasks which concern the proletariat as a whole; it has no place for the jealousies of individual specialised organisations.6 Purely economic organisations, being merely sectional organisations, can only set themselves goals within the present-day mode of production. However, as the representative of the class interests of the proletariat as a whole, the workers’ party - if it is not grounded in a social democratic outlook from the outset - must sooner or later inevitably come to fight against the current mode of production, within which the emancipation of the proletariat is impossible. If the trade union activist is conservative even when he acts in a radical fashion, then each and every independent political workers’ party is by its nature always revolutionary, even if it is ‘moderate’ in appearance and even in the eyes of its members.

Thus we revolutionary socialists do not have the slightest reason to wish that the “parties should go under in the nation”, as Victor Considerant7 demands and, to the extent that direct legislation by the people has this kind of effect, it will merely inhibit the proletariat’s efforts towards emancipation.


This is not to say, however, that direct legislation by the people (of course, in those of its forms in which it can at all be realised) is under all circumstances reprehensible in today’s society, a society of class and party contradictions. That would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In our view, from what has been said above it follows that referenda and the initiative do not belong to those democratic institutions which can be demanded by the proletariat everywhere and under all circumstances in the interests of its emancipation. The referendum and the initiative are institutions which under certain circumstances can be quite useful, even though these effects must not be overestimated, because on occasion they can also cause great harm. We should thus not aim to introduce the referendum and the initiative everywhere and in all circumstances, but only where certain preconditions are fulfilled.

Amongst these preconditions we include the absence of the contradiction between city and country, which is almost the case in Switzerland, or - even more advantageously - the predominance of the urban population over the rural population, something which has hitherto only been achieved in England.

Another prerequisite is an advanced political party life that has gripped the great mass of the population, so that the effect direct democracy has in dissolving parties and in bridging the opposition between parties can no longer be feared.

But the most important condition is the absence of an overly centralised independent state administration that stands opposed to parliament.

Wherever such a system exists, wherever parliamentarism is only a sham parliamentarism - and still today this is true of the great majority of European states - the weakening of parliamentarism in the form of direct legislation by the people does not benefit the people, but the government; quite apart from the fact that under the rule of a ‘strong government’ direct legislation could only be implemented in a form where the people are merely called on whenever it suits the government. Under a government of this kind, which actually has the entire immense apparatus of the modern state unconditionally at its disposal in order to influence the population, the downsides of direct legislation mentioned above - the favouring of the reactionary countryside at the cost of the revolutionary cities, the degradation and blurring of the parties - must be expressed in the worst manner. ‘People’s legislation’ now becomes a ‘plebiscite’, and what this means has been shown by the French empire.

In bureaucratic-military states, where the government is confronted by the mere shadow of a parliament, not a real one, then it is not the task of the emerging, revolutionary classes to remove this shadow’s last vestiges of power; that would be suicide and they would thereby carry out the government’s work for it. Rather, their task is to enliven the shadow, to give it blood and to make it capable of resisting the government.

We understand perfectly well why party comrades in Switzerland advocate direct legislation so enthusiastically. Nowhere are the preconditions for it as fully developed as in the Swiss confederation. And the current situation forces them towards this activity. In Switzerland, a sort of equilibrium has set in between the classes: no class is able to undertake a great action on its own. On the other hand, when it comes to political rights, our Swiss comrades are fortunate enough to have already for the large part everything that can be demanded. If they want to have a positive effect, if they want to be active practically, if they do not wish to limit themselves to agitation and gestures, then they cannot do much else than make this or that small improvement to the political edifice, which is by and large finished.

But one size does not fit all. We Germans and Austrians have different things to do. We have to engage in the great and bitter struggle against militarism and absolutism. The burden of this struggle falls almost entirely on social democracy. The bourgeoisie has long ceased to see parliament as the chosen instrument of its rule - as an instrument that is safe under all circumstances. It feels that it has become impossible to keep the proletariat away from it, and that the hour is approaching where the proletariat in Austria will conquer universal suffrage and where in Germany it will conquer parliament with the aid of universal suffrage. The bourgeoisie feels that it is lost if parliamentarism becomes a truth; it no longer seeks salvation in this system, but in militarism and absolutism.

In the 1850s and 60s, when the bourgeoisie in parliament - to the extent that there were parliaments - ruled without restriction, it was possible to believe that the proletariat’s struggle for political power would be one that would involve the elimination of parliament. Today increasingly shows that, in eastern Europe at least, this struggle is becoming one for parliamentarism and against absolutism and militarism.

Indeed, the bourgeoisie in Europe east of the Rhine has become so weak and cowardly that it seems that the regime of the bureaucrat and the sabre cannot be broken until such a point when the proletariat is able to conquer political power, that the overthrow of military absolutism will lead directly to the proletariat’s encroachment on political power.

One thing is for sure: in Germany as in Austria - indeed, in most European countries - the preconditions that are necessary for the beneficial functioning of legislation by the people, the necessary democratic institutions, will not become a reality before the victory of the proletariat.

Before this, legislation by the people can perhaps have a certain application in the United States, in England and in the English colonies - and in certain circumstances in France - but for us eastern Europeans it is part of the inventory of the ‘state of the future’.



1 . For an overview of the text as a whole and some of its core arguments, see B Lewis ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.

2  . ‘The initiative’ refers to the process whereby, if a certain number of signatures are gathered regarding an issue, then parliament is obliged to discuss drafting a law pertaining to it.

3  . In Marxist writings of this period, ‘the bourgeois democracy’, ‘the democracy’ or here ‘the radical democracy’ means the party or trend of leftwing liberals and radicals.

4. Eg, where the votes of the propertied are worth more than those of the propertyless.

5 . Ie, a pro-Vatican administration.

6  . Kautsky’s original footnote: “America - where individual workers’ organisations conduct bitter war against each other and on occasion do not hesitate to engage in labours of love for the capitalists if this means dealing a blow to another workers’ organisation opposed to them - shows where a trade union movement can lead if it does not go hand in hand with a powerful, independent political workers’ movement.”

7 . Victor Prosper Considerant (1808-93) was a French utopian socialist.