Rosa Luxemburg

The Socialist Crisis in France


Introductory Note

This work of Rosa Luxemburg was originally published under the title, The Socialist Crisis in France in 1900-01 in Neue Zeit, the chief theoretical organ of German social democracy. It was written during the “Millerand Crisis” in the Second International, caused by the entry of Alexandre Millerand, the French socialist, into the “cabinet of republican defense” formed by Waldeck-Rousseau in 1899. This was the first time a socialist leader had accepted a portfolio in a bourgeois ministry. Supported by Jaurés, Millerand justified his action on the grounds that the Third Republic was threatened by a coup d’état from monarchist and nationalist camps. Luxemburg’s brilliant demonstration that the working class cannot defend its democratic claims by joining forces with their class enemies has, unfortunately, been of timely interest ever since she originally wrote it years ago.

The present work was re-issued as a pamphlet by the Communist party in Germany in 1922 when the rank and file of the independent Socialist party were hesitating between following their leaders into the reformist social democracy (then practising the same sort of class collaboration as Millerand and Jaurés had practised two decades earlier) or breaking away and joining the Third International. “The pamphlet,” writes Frölich, editor of Luxemburg’s Collected Works, “proved of immense value in winning over decisive sections of the Independent Socialist party membership.”

The basic question dealt with here by Luxemburg once more presents itself in the America of 1939, different in form but identical in content. Today the rationalisaton advanced by the Stalinists, the social Democrats, and the other left-wing fellow-travellers of the New Deal is neither royalist coups nor Junker plots but the equally remote threat to our democratic institutions from the armed attack of fascist powers on other side of the Atlantic. The names and details change, but the essence remains same. Waldeck-Rousseau must be supported because the Republic is in danger! Ebert and Scheidemann must be supported because the Republic is in danger! Franklin Roosevelt must be supported because the Republic is in danger! Rosa Luxemburg’s remark makes its first appearance in English at an especially appropriate moment in our history.

Luxemburg’s analysis must be understood in relation to the historical background of Third Republic at the turn of the century. The republic of 1791 and the republic of 1848 were the children of successful revolutions, but the Third Republic was born of the disastrous defeat of the Empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. Its first move was the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the mass execution of some 30,000 Communards. A creation of military defeat, consolidated on the corpses of the most politically advanced workers of France, the Third Republic was for long a sickly growth. For the first twenty years, its existence seemed to hang by a thread. For a time, the monarchists actually had a majority in the National Assembly, and only the fact that they were split between Legitimists and Orleanists prevented an immediate overthrow of the Republic. Their influence declined steadily, however, partly because of the ineptness of their leadership but chiefly because, as Luxemburg points out, the Republic soon proved itself to be an even better tool of the bourgeoisie than the monarchy had been.

Although there were constant alarms of monarchist plots and coups the chief danger to the Republic came not from outside but from its own instability, and especially from its corruption. A series of terrible governmental scandals, like the Oustric and Stavisky affairs in our own time, encouraged the reactionaries to hatch conspiracies against the weakened Republic. Typical was the vague but threatening movement led by the military adventurer, General Boulanger, whose popularity increased as the Republican politicians sank deeper into scandal, and who was looked to by the monarchist-nationalist coalition as their “Man on a White Horse”. The “Wilson Affair”, which involved the son-in-law of the President in selling, among other things, the Legion of Honor, gave Boulanger a great opportunity, which he let slip. He was finally forced into exile in 1889, and committed suicide two years later.

Even more serious than the Boulanger affair, and in fact the situation which Millerand used to justify his entry into a bourgeois ministry, was the long drawn-out struggle of the Dreyfus Case. “The republic now has a corpse in its house – the Dreyfus Affair,” Luxemburg wrote, “and since it cannot get rid of it by its own strength, it is in danger of suffocating in the polluted air.” There is space here for only the salient points in this long and tortuous business. In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the General Staff, was convicted by secret court-martial of selling military secrets to a foreign power and was sent to Devil’s Island for life. It soon became clear to impartial observers that Dreyfus had been framed in order to hide the guilt of an aristocratic (and non-Jewish) fellow officer, and that the highest circles of the Army command had taken part in the conspiracy. The agitation for his release, led by Zola and Clemenceau, grew more violent as the Army high command refused to take action, and then, when its hand was forced, resorted to new frame-ups. The chief of the military intelligence staff was degraded when he insisted on presenting proofs Dreyfus’ innocence. His successor complaisantly forged documents to prove Dreyfus’ guilt, and cut his throat when the forgery was detected. The affair drew ever wider sections of French society into its orbit, as rabid partisans of one side or the other. Against Dreyfus were ranged the Army, the Catholic clergy, the monarchists and the old aristocracy. The liberal bourgeoisie and the section of the socialist movement led by Jaurés came to the defense of Dreyfus. It was not until Waldeck-Rousseau, one of the ablest leaders the French bourgeoisie has ever had, became premiert in 1899 that the dangerous tensions of the Affair were somewhat relaxed by the pardon of Dreyfus.

Another intelligent move of Waldeck Rousseau was to offer the ministry of commerce in his “cabinet of republican defense” to Millerand. The excuse Millerand made for accepting was the monarchist threats over the Dreyfus Case, but, as Luxemburg shows, this was – an excuse. The monarchists were never a serious threat: in the national elections of the year before, they had polled only 12% of the vote, to the 20% polled by socialist candidates. This latter fact undoubtedly worried Waldeck-Rousseau as much as the Dreyfus Case. There was also a considerable increase in strikes at this period – another indication of a growing workers’ movement. The inclusion of Millerand in the cabinet – he took his seat alongside General Gallifet, the executioner of the Communards in 1871, who became minister of war – obviously had its utility, to the Third Republic if not to the Second International. As to what happened once Millerand was seated alongside General Gallifet at the council table, let the dry phrases of the Encyclopaedia Britannica tell the story: “His program included the collective ownership of the means of production and the international association of labour but when in June 1899 he entered Waldeck-Rousseau’s cabinet of ‘republican defense’ as minister of commerce, he limited himself to practical reforms ... the improvement of the mercantile marine ... the development of trade ... technical education ... the postal system ...” In a few year even Jaurés was disillusioned and broke sharply with Millerand, who was expelled from the Socialist party, as were Briand and Vivian who had followed his path from the socialist movement into the cabinet. Wise too late, Jaurés denounced all three as “traitors who had let themselves be used to serve the interests of capitalism”.

But at the time Millerand made his move he did it with the full support of Jaurés. The result was a crystallization of the right and the left wings of the French socialist movement. The majority were persuaded by Jaurés, ably backed by the oratory of Briand and Viviani, to approve Millerand’s step. They formed the French Socialist party (Parti Socialist Français) in 1900, around the nucleus of the Independent socialists, a group of left-wing bourgeois radicals who in 1893 had come out for socialism. In 1901 the Socialist Party of France (Parti Socialist de France) was formed by a merger of the Socialist Revolutionary party, a Blanquist group led by the Communard Vaillant, and the French Workers Party, which Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and others had founded in 1880. If the Jaurés group could be described by wits as “socialists on leave of absence”, the Guesde group was revolutionary and “Marxist” to the point of sectarianism.

Jaurés’ reformist and pacifist illusions were all the more tragic because of his great qualities as a leader of the masses.

“Jaurés was the real leader of the French working class,” writes Paul Frölich. “He outstripped the inflexible Marxist, Guesde, in political activity, and quickly took a place in the leadership of the Second International second only to Bebel. A political leader of great ability, he was the best type of working class parliamentarian. Although he was not so deeply rooted in the proletariat as Bebel, he won its confidence with his tireless activity, his sacrifices, and his undying enthusiasm. But his practise showed a strange contradiction between a crystal-clear understanding of political tactics and a deep insight into the real purposes of bourgeois politics, on the one hand, and, on the other, a childish faith in bourgeois democracy and a visionary optimism as to the triumph of pacifism.

“A disciple of Kant and Hegel, Jaurés also considered himself a Marxist – though he had only glanced into the front yard of Marxism. He accepted historical materialism, but declared that this did not contradict an idealistic interpretation of history ... Lacking all understanding of the nature of the state, he glorified bourgeois democracy ... At the same time, he considered himself an opponent of the revisionism of Bernstein, which he rejected in theory only to accept in practice. Jaurés stood for class collaboration, and sought a common ground on which to reconcile proletariat and bourgeoisie. From this viewpoint, his experiments in ministerialism seemed highly successful. For Jaurés, the conquest of one cabinet post after another – that was the conquest of power!”

The line which each wing of the French socialist movement took towards the Dreyfus Case was characteristic. Guesde and his followers steadfastly refused to take either side – “ni l’un ni l’autre”, neither the well-to-do Jewish officer nor the Generals and the Jesuits. Why all this fuss about a single officer unjustly condemned when 30,000 workers had been massacred in 1871 without any bourgeois voice being raised in their defense? What concern of the workers was this squabble between various sections of the exploiting class? Jaurés, on the other hand, leaped into the fray and worked energetically alongside Zola and Clemenceau. He plunged in so deeply, indeed, and fought for Justice with such simple-hearted idealism as to make his agitation indistinguishable from that of Clemenceau and the bourgeois liberals.

“Rosa Luxemburg accused both tendencies,” writes Frölich, “of failing to grasp the problem of all proletarian tactics: the relationship between the daily struggle and the final goal. The followers of Guesde remained passive and therefore neglected the task of the hour – the fight against militarism. The followers of Jaurés sailed in the center of the flotilla of one group of the bourgeoisie, fighting under the battleflag, ‘Eternal Truth and Justice’, without regard for either distance or direction.

“The result was the isolation and exclusion of one Socialist party from the political life of the country, and the binding of the destinies of the other to those of the bourgeois Republicans. Thus the split in the socialist movement grew still wider. Further effects were: ministerialism, Millerand’s coalition politics, the bankruptcy of the Socialist party and its policy, and the withdrawal of disillusioned proletarian masses from the political arena.”


Last updated on: 29.11.2008