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Rosa Luxemburg

Theory & Practice

Part 6

Let us return to Prussia.

At the beginning of March, in view of the voting rights campaign which had begun and the mounting demonstration movement, I declared that if the party wished to lead the movement farther forward it must make the slogan of the mass strike the order of the day, and that a demonstration mass strike would be the first step toward this in the present situation. I considered that the party faced a dilemmas it would either raise the voting rights movement to sharper forms or, as in 1908, the movement would go back to sleep after a short time. Indeed, this was what summoned Comrade Kautsky to the field of battle against me.

And what do we see? Comrade Kautsky points out that, me to the contrary, we have certainly not experienced a hint of a mass strike; he triumphs that the situation has struck my initiative “dead as a doornail.” Now it seems that in his polemic zeal, Comrade Kautsky has completely overlooked something else that has unfortunately been struck “dead as a doornail”: namely the demonstrations, and with them the voting rights movement itself.

Comrade Kautsky argues against me that an intensification of the demonstrations is entirely unnecessary, that the party faces no dilemma, that the main thing is “to bring about the wider employment of street demonstrations – not to slacken in this, but on the contrary to make them ever mightier.” [What Now?, Neue Zeit, 15 April 1910, p.71.] Well, since April the street demonstrations have totally ceased. And not, indeed, through some lack of enthusiasm and fighting spirit among the masses: their inner creativity has not gone to sleep. No, the street demonstrations were simply called off by the leading party authorities in the face of the struggles and endeavors of the provinces, as the 1st of May has shown, as the May demonstrations in Breslau and Braunschweig have further shown – deliberately called off. Just as I wrote in my first reply in the Neue Zeit, even at the end of March – without awaiting the further course of events and of the situation – under pressure of the mood of the provinces, they arranged the April 10 demonstration with the feeling: An end to this at last! And an end has been made. No demonstrations, not even meetings take up the voting rights question, the storm-breathing rubric of the voting rights struggle has disappeared from the party press. And this circumstance can serve as surest symptom that the thing, for the time being, is over and no longer actual: that our leading central organ Vorwärts began to concern itself with tactics in the voting rights struggle. “The popular movement in the grand style” is meanwhile sent back home.

What does Comrade Kautsky say to this? Does he who brought “Jest, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning” [the title of a comedy by Christian Dietrich Grabbe.] to bear on me venture the slightest word of reproach to the “higher authorities” who, despite his warning “not to slacken in the street demonstrations,” have plainly killed the demonstration movement? On the contrary: here Comrade Kautsky is all admiration, he can find only words of wonder for “the latest demonstration campaign” which “was the model of a successful strategy of attrition.” Quite right. This is just how it looks in practice, this “strategy of attrition” which, “worn down” by two bold steps forward, rests on its laurels and lets the crashing overture of the “popular movement in the grand style” run down into the gentle purring of preparations for Reichstag elections.[a]

So the voting rights movement is again brought to a standstill for one, perhaps two years: and what is more, at such a well-chosen moment that we have rendered the government the greatest service anyone could have possibly done it.

The withdrawal of the suffrage bill by Bethmann-Hollweg was the decisive moment. The government was in a tight corner. The parliamentary patchwork of electoral reform and the parliamentary horse-trading were bankrupt. The enemy was at the end of his rope. If we really were serious about practicing the “voting rights storm,” about the slogan “no peace in Prussia,” about the great words of the Prussian party convention, then the collapse of the government bill was the given moment to immediately launch a general, grandiose attack out of this fiasco of parliamentary action with the cry “Give us a new bill!”, with street demonstrations across the whole country which would then have led to a demonstration mass strike and mightily driven the struggle forward. Comrade Kautsky, who has most graciously proposed to acknowledge such brain storms as “armed” assembly in Treptower Park[B] as the application of my “strategy,” has here a clear example of what “my strategy” really calls for. Not childish Don Quixoteries like those Comrade Kautsky demands of me, but political exploitation of the enemy’s defeat as the only victory – which, moreover, is not so much the discovery of some “new strategy,” but rather the ABC of every revolutionary, yes, of every serious battle tactic.

That was the party’s task. And I am not here pronouncing the party’s unqualified duty to open a “revolutionary period” every Monday and Thursday. But I feel that if the party begins an action, if it has summoned up the storm and called its men-at-arms, the people, to the field of battle, if it has spoken of a “popular movement in the grand style” and attack “by all forces” – then it dare not, after two advances, suddenly scratch its head, gape about, and declare: “Never mind ... we didn’t mean it seriously this time ... let’s go home.” In my opinion such storm-mongering on approval and at word of command is unworthy of the party’s greatness and the seriousness of the situation, and inclined to discredit the party in the eyes of the masses. Further, the voting rights and demonstration movement which had begun was an excellent opportunity for arousing and enlightening the indifferent masses, and for winning unsympathetically-minded circles of workers as our regular agitation is not in the least in a position to do. By deliberately stopping the movement short, the party has left this splendid opportunity unexploited after the most beautiful beginning.

But further, and above all, political points of view come into question. It is most short-sighted to mechanically divide the question of Prussian electoral reform from the question of Reichstag voting rights and to declare that our big guns won’t go into action over the Prussian voting rights struggle, that we’ll save them in case Reichstag voting rights are annulled after the Reichstag elections. Plainly, one must deliberately close one’s eyes to the actual interconnections not to see that in the present situation, struggle for Prussian electoral reform is essentially nothing other than struggle for Reichstag voting rights. It is clear that an energetic and victorious campaign for Prussian voting rights is the surest way to parry, in advance, a blow against Reichstag voting rights. The resolute and persistant follow-through of the voting rights struggle would simultaneously have been a defensive action against the reaction’s hankering for a coup d’etat – an action which would have had all the advantages of an offense over a forced defense.

Now Comrade Kautsky objects – and this is his last trump – that since the mass strike has not, as we see, broken out, that is the best proof how little it flowed from the situation and how mistaken my standpoint was:

But the very fact that it is still being debated shows that the situation is still not this ripe. As long as one can still dispute and investigate whether or not the mass strike is opportune, the proletariat as a collective mass is not filled with that mass exasperation and sense of strength which are necessary if the mass strike is to be accomplished. If the necessary mood for it had been present in March, then a dissuasive voice like mine would have been smothered under a protest, of raging anger.

Here Comrade Kautsky shows an interesting oscillation between extremes: now the mass strike is a coup carefully hatched in the inner sanctum of the war council, secretly prepared in whispers; now it is “an elemental upheaval whose commencement cannot be brought about at will, which one can await but not arrange.” I feel that the task of the Social Democratic Party and its leadership consists neither the secretive hatching of “great plans” nor the “awaiting” of elemental upheavals. Mass’’ strikes – as I clearly stated in my first article in the Dortmund Arbeiter-Zeitung – cannot be “made” by an order from the “supreme command,” they must arise from the masses and their advancing action. But politically, in the sense of an energetic tactic, a powerful offensive, to so lead this action forward that the masses are ever more conscious of their tasks – that the party can do, and that is also its duty. Social Democracy cannot artificially create a revolutionary mass movement; but, circumstances permitting, it can certainly cripple the finest mass action through its wavering, feeble tactics. Proof is furnished by the aborted, or rather, the immediately countermanded voting rights mass strike of 1902 in Belgium.[C] How effectively the party can prevent a mass strike, this “elemental upheaval,” by putting on the brakes under certain circumstances, even when the masses are battle-ready to the highest degree – Comrade Kautsky himself has reported this with regard to Austria. “But even though,” he tells us:

Even though conditions in Austria favor a mass strike far more than they do here, and even though the Austrian masses were temporarily aroused to a level from which we in Germany remain far distant, to such an agitation that they could only be held back from launching into a mass strike by the utmost exertion of all forces; and finally, even though repeatedly and in the most positive way “threatened” with the mass strike, the comrades responsible for the tactics of the party have violently put on the brakes and prevented one up till now. [Neue Zeit, XXIV, 2, p.856.]

It is self-explanatory that this obstructive role of the party leadership could appear most actively in Germany, in view of the extraordinarily developed organizational centralism and discipline in our party. As I earlier wrote in my article “What Next?”:

In a party where, as in Germany, the principle of organization and party discipline is so unprecedentedly cherished, and where in consequence the initiative of unorganized popular masses -their spontaneous, so to speak improvised capacity for action, such a significant, often decisive factor in all previous great political struggles – is nearly ignored, then it is the inescapable duty of the party to demonstrate the worth of this so highly developed organization and discipline event for great actions, and their worth even for other forms of struggle than parliamentary elections.

The past fate of the Prussian voting rights movement almost seems to demonstrate that our organizational apparatus and our party discipline prove themselves better, just now, at braking than at leading great mass actions. When even in advance the street demonstrations are timidly and reluctantly worked out; when every necessary opportunity to raise the demonstrations to a higher power – like March 18, like the 1st of May – is embarrassingly shunned: when our own victories like the conquest of our right to the streets on April 10, as well as the defeats of the enemy like the withdrawal of the government bill are left totally unexploited; when finally the demonstrations are put back on the shelf after all and the masses are sent home; in short, when everything is done to hold back, to cripple the mass action, to deaden the militancy: then obviously that tempestuous movement cannot arise from the masses, which must vent itself in a mass strike.

Naturally the obstructive effect of such leadership is most nearly decisive when the action is still in its initial stages – as is the case with us in Germany, where it is just taking its first steps. If once the revolutionary period is fully unfolded, if the clouds of battle are already rising high, then no brake-pulling by the party leaders will be able to accomplish much, for the masses will simply shove aside their leaders who set themselves against the storm of the movement. Thus could it also happen in Germany, one day. But in the interest of Social Democracy, I find it neither necessary nor desirable to steer that way. If we in Germany unquestioningly wait with the mass strike until the masses, with “raging anger,” storm right over their brake-pulling leaders, this obviously can happen only at the expense of the influence and prestige of Social Democracy. And then it could easily appear that the complicated organizational apparatus and the strict party discipline of which we are justly proud are, unfortunately, only a first-rate makeshift for the parliamentary and union daily routine; and with the given disposition of our leading circles they are a hindrance to the mass action in the grand style, to what is demanded by the coming era of violent struggles.

And in the same connection, another especially weak point in our organizational relations could have a disastrous effect. If the union leaders had publicly come out on their own against the slogan of the mass strike in the latest voting rights campaign, it would only have clarified the situation and sharpened the critique of the masses. But that they didn’t have to do this, that instead through the medium of the party and with the aid of the party apparatus they could throw the total authority of Social Democracy into the balance to put the brakes on the mass action – that has brought the voting rights movement to a standstill, and Comrade Kautsky has merely provided the theoretical music.

Yet in spite of all this our cause moves forward. The enemy works for us so unceasingly, it is through no merit of our own that we’re in the clover both in and out of season. Yet in the end it is not the task of the class party of the proletariat simply to live on the sins and errors of its enemies despite its own errors, but to accelerate the course of events through its own energy and to release, not the minimum, but the maximum of action and class struggle in that impulse.

And when in the future the mass action again arises, then the party will face exactly the same problem it did two years ago and last spring. After these two trials, the broad circles of our party comrades must from now on clearly understand that a real mass action in the grand style can only be kindled and at length maintained when treated, not as a dry practice piece played to the time of, the party leadership’s baton, but as a great class struggle in which all significant economic conflicts must be utilized to the full and all forces which arouse the masses must be guided into the vortex of the movement, and in which one doesn’t shun a mounting intensification of the situation and decisive struggles, but goes to meet them with resolute, consistent tactics. Perhaps the present discussion will contribute its part to this.

[A] Luxemburg is alluding to a passage from Section 3 of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. “But the revolutionary threats of the petty bourgeoisie and their democratic representatives are merely attempts to intimidate the opponent. And when they have run themselves up a blind alley, when they have so compromised themselves that they are forced to act out their threats, then this is done in an ambiguous way that shuns nothing more than the means to the end and snatches at pretexts for defeat. The crashing “overture which proclaimed the struggle dies down into a gentle purring as soon as the struggle is supposed to begin, the actors cease to take themselves au drieux, and the performance falls as flat as an air-filled balloon pricked with a pin.”

[B] Berlin police chief Traugott von Jagow had banned street demonstrations with his “public notice” of February 13, 1910: “The ’right to the streets’ is being proclaimed. The streets exclusively for the purpose of commerce. Resistance to state authority will result in the use of weapons. I warn the curious.” Berlin Social Democracy called a demonstration in Treptower Perk on March 6, 1910 for democratic voting rights; as the police were waiting there in force it was redirected to the Berlin zoo, where 150,000 demonstrated for free, equal, and universal suffrage before the police arrived.

[C] On April 14, 1902, a mass strike began in Belgium in which over 300,000 workers took part. It was broken off on April 20 by the General Council of the Belgian Workers’ Party, although the demands for changes in suffrage and the related constitutional amendment had been rejected on April 18 by the Belgian chamber.

Last updated on: 3.12.2008