Kautsky: 'Guidelines for a socialist action programme'

The renegade holds out the hand of friendship to the right, while trying to justify his past

On November 9 1918 the German proletariat conquered political power. Its large majority stands on the programme that German social democracy decided upon at the Erfurt congress of 1891.

Now it is time to go about carrying out this programme as quickly as possible. But in order to do so in a united and consistent fashion, the general ideas in the programme are not sufficient. This requires the formulation of a specific action programme. The settlement of all truly social democratically-minded workers on such a programme has become an urgent necessity if the proletariat is to exercise its political power as one, to maintain this power where it is threatened, or eventually to win this power back, should it temporarily slip from its hands. We are presenting the guidelines of such an action programme for discussion.


On November 9 the German people conquered the democratic republic. The democratic republic is the indispensable political basis of the new commonwealth we wish to construct. We must hold steadfastly to the democratic republic; we must consistently develop it in all directions.

In a letter on the Paris Commune dated April 12 1871, Marx declared: “I say that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the continent.”[1]

That is our task too. It requires the speediest dissolution of the standing army and the complete abolition of the dominant position hitherto assumed by the officer corps both in the army and in the state.

Instead of a standing army, there should be a people’s militia with a short training period of two to three months for each man. The officers of the lower ranks should not be professional soldiers either, but should receive training alongside their civilian occupation. Only the instructing officers and those of the higher ranks should remain professional soldiers. When off duty, no officer or solider should wear uniform or carry weapons. Nor should superiors be entitled to any power of command over their subordinates.

If an international agreement on disarmament comes into existence, then the size of the people’s militia must be adjusted accordingly.

The power of the centralised government bureaucracy must be broken by subordinating it to a national assembly elected by free and democratic suffrage, and by immediately granting the right of extensive self-government (within the framework of state laws) to the municipalities, administrative districts and provinces. The state must also hand over policing powers to the municipalities and districts. The highest representatives of this self-government should be democratically elected assemblies in the municipalities, districts and provinces. The state can also hand over some of its functions, such as tax collection, to the administrative bodies that will be appointed and monitored by these assemblies.

It goes without saying that the democratic rights that have been won - such as the freedom of the press, assembly and association - should be defended.

Raising production

The German republic should become a democratic republic. Yet it should be even more than that. It should become a socialist republic - a commonwealth in which there is no longer any place for the exploitation of man by man.

However, the question of production itself is an even more urgent one than that of the mode of production. The war has forcibly interrupted production. Our most urgent task is to revive it again, to get it up and running. That is the precondition of any attempt to socialise production.

Production requires labour and the means of production. The state authority’s next task is to procure from abroad any food that is lacking, in order to make the worker fit for work. The state authority should also supply industry with raw materials. Wherever it is not possible to supply sufficient raw materials to all the factories in a branch of industry, then above all it is the technically superior factories that should be supplied. For this, the state should use existing laws that allowed factories to be closed during the war.

As for the workers, an employment agency must be established alongside unemployment benefit. This employment agency should stretch across the whole empire, consisting of equal numbers of workers’ representatives, employers’ representatives and representatives of the republic. The agency must have the right to set minimum wages, maximum working hours and working conditions for every branch of production and every region. It will refuse to allocate workers to firms which reject those arrangements. On the other hand, a worker will lose his right to unemployment benefit if he refuses - without compelling reasons - to accept a job which he is trained to do and which is carried out under the working conditions set by the employment agency.

In a state where authority is in the hands of the capitalist class, striking is an indispensable tool of the workers to defend themselves against capitalist oppression and to eke out better living conditions. But this tool is a destructive one - like weapons in war. A state where political power lies in the hands of the workers must strive to introduce other methods to protect workers’ rights in all those branches of production where it cannot yet get rid of capital economically. These methods should not inhibit and disrupt the process of production as much as strikes do. This is particularly important today. After the war has so infinitely impoverished Germany, every strike can cause real devastation.

In as far as they are suited to it, we demand that the state syndicates all those branches of production which cannot be immediately socialised. This syndicate should procure raw materials, distribute products and oversee the conditions of production. This syndicate also has the right to close down superfluous or inefficient factories. Its elected leadership will consist of: a quarter of representatives from industry, a quarter of elected representatives from the workers’ councils, and another quarter of representatives from the organised consumers of the particular branch of production. So if the branch produces the means of production, then these will consist of industrialists. If the branch produces consumer goods, then these will consist of representatives of the consumer cooperatives and districts. The final quarter will consist of representatives of the state, who represent the interest of the whole.

Within individual factories, workers’ committees or workers’ councils will work alongside the industrialists in order to oversee the implementation of the syndicate’s decisions and to make sure they are carried out in the most expedient way and in compliance with the interests of the workers. Even workers who are not employed in those factories and are financially independent of the industrialist can be elected onto these workers’ councils - for example doctors or employees of workers’ organisations. Similar workers’ councils should be set up in the non-syndicated factories.

Alongside this activity within the individual branches of production, the state must promote social policy through general worker protection laws. Thus, the eight-hour day must be expanded to all areas of industry, including the transport sector, the railways and the catering industry. There should also be a ban on women and young men working night shifts. In agriculture, these provisions are to be adapted depending on the size of the enterprise.


But the proletarian state must not only attempt to make the class struggle between capital and labour less destructive. It must also strive to remove the basis of this class struggle - a struggle which inhibits and disrupts production - by socialising production: instead of the worker confronting a boss who owns and controls the means of production, he confronts society, of which he is also a part.

This is the most important, the actual, task of the democratic republic, which is dominated by the proletariat. Socialisation will transform it into a social republic, instigating a new era in the history of humanity. But precisely because of the importance of this task, it cannot be carried out in the blink of an eye, but only gradually, following a careful examination of actual relations and preparation of the new order.

The main tool of socialisation - though not the only one - is the nationalisation of the ownership of the means of production. Land is the most important means of production and the easiest to nationalise - if, as is already the case in England, one differentiates between the land and the enterprises that are set up on it. Provided that it is farmed by large enterprises, land can be nationalised without further ado, and those enterprises can initially be allowed to carry on as they did before. This will not disrupt production in the slightest. The proprietors will simply be transformed from landowners into tenants.

Once peace has been concluded and clarity has been achieved over what extent the German people can preside over its state and national property, nothing stands in the way of nationalising all mines, forests and large estates (roughly, those over 100 acres), as well as all municipal land (excluding the houses built on it). This should occur in return for compensation - a figure to be set in the future. No compensation is required for land ownership stemming from feudal times - like free tail estates and princely possessions, which were not acquired through purchase. Neither is compensation required for lost income generated from this land (for example, charges for mining).

Enterprises operating on state land holdings would initially remain private enterprises, though they would be state tenants. Gradually they could be socialised. Forests could be socialised without further ado. Mines and large agricultural enterprises could also be socialised without much preparation. Such state enterprises would not be mere copies of the state enterprises set up by the centralised bureaucracy. Those would have to be reformed; their management must be granted the greatest independence possible.

If possible, whole branches of industry should be nationalised, not individual firms. In line with a bill on socialisation drafted by our German-Austrian comrades, for whose rich suggestions I am grateful, each of these branches of industry could be managed by a council, in which only a third of its members are made up of representatives of the state administration. The second third should consist of the workers’ representatives of this branch of production, the final third of representatives of its organised consumers.

Here the interests of the workers and consumers clash to a certain extent: the former strive for higher wages and shorter hours; the latter for lower prices. This contradiction can only be overcome by progressing to a higher productivity of labour. Both parties have an equal interested in this. It is the only way that both of them can advance. Otherwise they can only paralyse each other. The common interests of the workers and consumers will replace the sting of increased productivity, which under capitalism is formed by the capitalist’s drive for profit.

Within an individual nationalised company, production can then be regulated similarly to private companies (as described above). The only difference is that the manager is not a private owner or his representative, but an official deployed by the relevant industrial council. Bonuses and profit-sharing can serve to keep management and workers interested in carrying out the most diligent and attentive work possible.

The owners of the nationalised enterprises should be compensated. Those deciding on the amount of compensation should firstly take into account the value of the means of production, buildings, machinery and raw materials they encompass. Then they should consider the enterprise’s current profitability after the general social reforms have been implemented.


One branch of production after another should be socialised in this manner. The various branches of production should be brought into an increasingly systematic connection with each other.

In agriculture we cannot quite proceed as we do in industry. It would not be practical to expropriate farmers’ land. For the time being it is sufficient for the state to retain the right of first refusal when land is sold, so that gradually it can get all property holdings into its hands.

As I have already said, the forests could be taken over by state enterprises without further ado. Taking over the large estates and managing them in accordance with the rules I have set out for industry would cause no major problems either. Nor would the syndication of the remaining large agricultural enterprises. The pace and nature of further socialisation of the large agricultural enterprises would have to be contingent upon the experiences on the large estates.

Breaking up large enterprises into tiny plants would be a retrograde step and of no use at all. People are not being pulled from the town to the country. On the contrary, both large and small agricultural enterprises suffer from a lack of people. In agriculture it is urgently necessary to replace human labour with machinery, not to return to primitive working methods. The state must provide the village communities with a sufficient amount of agricultural machinery and promote its communal use.

But it is no less essential to raise the level of culture in the country in order to reduce the disparity between town and country, and with it the attraction of town over country. The reforms we must immediately set to work on are: improving schools and teachers’ incomes, increasing the number of doctors, improving the means of communication and building extensive, individual housing for agricultural workers.


Nationalisation of the branches of production is the most important means of socialisation, but it is not the only one. Socialism means the democratic organisation of economic life. This is prepared by large-scale production and the organisation of the producers. The organisation of the consumers also helps to move things in this direction, though not quite to the same extent. The former increasingly encompasses the manufacture of productive goods. The latter does the same for consumer goods.

As an institution of socialisation of the latter kind, the consumer cooperative is able to be effective wherever it encompasses large masses of consumers. However, the municipality will become even more significant in this regard, once it takes on the character of a consumer cooperative. As such, it can, for example, socialise bread production for itself alone, or it can do so in connection with the consumer cooperatives. This is also true of the pharmacies, or in supplying the city with milk and vegetables, etc. It can become one of the factors in the socialisation of agriculture.

Alongside this, the municipality (and similarly the district) must advance socialisation by taking over local monopolies - like the trams, for example.

Finally, it falls to the municipality to socialise the production of housing, to build and manage sound and cheap housing for the masses. How this will be best carried out depends on the maturity and organisation of the workers. The municipality might have to use private contractors and ensure that they adhere to good working conditions. Or it might construct the buildings itself. Alternatively, it might instruct the organisations of construction workers to build them according to its plans and under its management.

If the municipality seizes the city’s monopolies; if it builds sound and cheap flats and produces cheap bread; if it builds enough schools which not only provide the children with education, but with food; if it finally provides the mass of the people with places of assembly, recreation and further education, then it can play an active part in the process of socialisation.

Tax policy

We have already pointed out that the expropriation of socialised enterprises has to occur through compensation, not confiscation.

This is not just a question of justice: confiscation would only hit a few of the capitalists, not the majority of them - and it would not only hit capitalists, but smaller business people, too. There are also economic reasons: at a time when the productive process requires the utmost protection, confiscation would most greatly alarm and disrupt the productive capitalists. Compensation would best occur by issuing government bonds at a moderate rate of interest.

Similar factors militate against simply cancelling war loans. Alongside reasons of justice it should also be noted that, before socialisation is completely carried out, capitalist enterprise will continue to exist. Further, we are still surrounded by capitalist states, whose food and raw materials we need. Initially, these can only be acquired through loans. The integrity of credit thus forms an important condition of our economic life.

Interest on war loans and debt repayments will require large sums of money, which should be acquired by taxing the propertied class. The technicalities of such a move are difficult. However, as this does not require the production of new value, but simply transferring already existing value, it is not difficult economically.

If, for instance, five billion has to be raised every three months to cover interest payments, then the propertied class will pay this in September and the state will repay it in October - although not to the same people. Neither the state nor the capitalist class will become richer or poorer for it.

Things are different when it comes to interest that has to be paid to foreign countries in war compensation or in new loans. These payments leave the country, never to return. If the capitalist class has to pay them, then these payments signify a reduction in that class’s income - and that of the state. Paying off these debts will become urgently necessary, something that will require new tax burdens.

On top of the state’s normal administrative costs come the costs of supporting the unemployed and those injured in war. Some of this could be offset by reductions in spending. Above all, military expenditure must be reduced to a minimum - both by abolishing the standing army and by stopping all new armaments. This is not merely a political demand of the democracy, but also an economic one: this is a national economy threatened by bankruptcy.

Despite all those savings, enormous demands remain that must be covered by the country’s income. Producing paper money will not do. It would simply drive up prices and increase instability in the monetary system to unbearable levels.

In the first instance, the empire’s income should be made up of direct, progressive taxes on property and on the wealthy classes’ income. Inheritance law can be restricted to a considerable extent. Yet we must not forget that if these taxes are to provide a significant yield, then this presupposes considerable property ownership and substantial income - the precondition of which is regulated production.

The basis of any sound fiscal policy is thriving production, which delivers a surplus of products. Only from these surpluses can taxes be paid without damaging the state and the population. They are to be paid by those classes who initially take possession of the surplus products. The strictest tax laws on the rich do not yield anything if production stagnates.

On the other hand, it runs contrary to purpose to burn the candle at both ends. The state is not in a position to take large tax sums from the capitalist class if the workers have previously abolished profit and interest through increases in their wages. The workers have to be clear about this: the more they succeed in reducing the surplus value scooped up by capital, the more of their own income will have to be taxed, if the state is to acquire the income needed for its survival.

The next source of the state’s income should come from its own enterprises. This amount should not be set too high during the process of socialisation and compensation. Socialisation does not occur for fiscal purposes, but in the interests of the workers and consumers. If we do not want to damage this process, then we will initially be unable to attain increased income from those enterprises.

Eventually, however, all increases in income through higher rents or an increase in transactions at slowly rising costs - like on the railways - will accrue to the state. But this is for the future. In the immediate term, state enterprises can only generate increased income (without doing any damage to the workers or the consumers), if nationalisation reduces their overheads, such as by eliminating the costs incurred by competition between different enterprises, by closing unprofitable factories or by concentrating production.

Such profitable nationalisations (for example, in the creation of electric power) are desirable not just from a socialist point of view, but also from a fiscal one.

Of more concern are monopolies that are nothing more than disguised indirect taxes, and which rip off the great mass of consumers. Yet even amongst them there are manifold differences. Monopolies that increase the price of the necessities of life should be viewed quite differently from monopolies that produce non-essential or even harmful products like tobacco and alcohol. Socialising the coal industry and the coal trade is urgently needed, though a fiscal monopoly on coal with the aim of achieving great profits should be decisively rejected. One would rather put up with a monopoly on spirits than that. In its present state, the German people cannot cope with a fiscal monopoly on the necessities of life, just as it cannot cope with tariffs on such articles.

Under any circumstances, the state’s most important income will have to consist of direct taxes on income, wealth and inheritance. Again and again it must be stressed that these taxes will only yield a greater return if production is vibrant and delivers rich surpluses. That is the name of the game, both in the policy of socialisation and in fiscal policy.

Foreign policy

Alongside democratisation and socialisation, a proletarian government has yet another task: internationalisation.

In his inaugural address to the International of 1864, Marx proclaimed that part of the working class’s struggle for emancipation was the struggle for a foreign policy, where the simple laws of morality and justice that govern the lives of individuals should equally provide the best basis for the laws governing the interaction of nations!

It is now our task to champion such a policy. Both in our foreign and in our domestic policy, openness and truth must prevail. Down with all secret diplomacy, down with all the tools of secret agents and secret press corruption. Down with all diplomats who work with such methods, and down with all diplomats who hitherto saw their main task as courtly representation. Our foreign policy demands a fundamental departure from the old methods. It must no longer be directed towards gaining the alliance of this or that government so that it falls out with another. Instead, it must be aimed at establishing the league of all peoples, in which the German people can participate as equals amongst equals - with full self-determination and with the enthusiastic recognition of this right for other nations too.

Our policy must strive to win, above all, the trust of the democracy and the proletariat in other countries. The strength of our position abroad must be based on our trust in the strength of the proletariat abroad and, no less, the strength of our own proletariat.

Shoulder to shoulder with our brothers abroad, we will enthusiastically champion democratisation and socialisation across the whole word. But to this end we also reject using the old methods of secret diplomacy. We reject attempts to promote world revolution through secret agents or the secret use of state money.

In friendship with all peoples, we will express our international solidarity through joint international acts of peace and social progress.


  1. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_17.htm