Marxism and Democracy by Lucien Laurat 1940

Chapter Two: The Evolution of Marxism

What is regarded today as ‘Marxism’ includes, in addition to the original fund of ideas formed by Marx and Engels, the contributions of their disciples. These contributions are much more important than is generally thought by those for whom Marxism is nothing but a collection of stereotyped formulas endlessly repeated by the faithful, and approved by the ‘guardians of orthodoxy’. We can hardly stress too much that Marxism is a church only in the eyes of hostile critics and ignorant followers, and that a real Marxist orthodoxy is inconceivable without heresy. Writing eight years ago, we pointed out that the dialectical method, which is the basis of Marxist teaching, leads to an inversion of the conceptions of orthodoxy and heresy. We may be permitted perhaps to quote ourselves:

It is dialectics which saves Marxism from stagnating in a mere repetition of the same formulas. Marxism can only remain Marxism providing that it always analyses contemporary reality, which constantly develops and causes Marxism to develop in its turn. A Marxist cannot be orthodox unless he continually questions even the truths he has already acquired, including the words of Marx himself. A Marxist is a heretic if he confines himself to repeating mechanically the phrases, the counsels and the slogans of Karl Marx, that is to say, if he is orthodox in the way the church understands the word. A Marxist can remain orthodox only at the price of continual ‘heresy’. However, this heretical orthodoxy implies precisely the preservation of the fundamental basis of Marxism, the dialectical method. Once you abandon this method you will be either heretic or orthodox in the common, vulgar, religious sense of the words. But if you preserve the dialectical method, orthodoxy becomes heresy, and heresy becomes orthodoxy. [1]

And so, before proceeding to our examination of Marx’s doctrine, we must take a look at the contribution of his disciples. It goes without saying that this contribution is intimately bound up with the evolution of capitalism since the death of Marx in 1883 and the death of Engels in 1895. Marxism has developed hand in hand with the evolution of capitalism.

Friedrich Engels died at the opening of the period known to us as ‘imperialist’, a period characterised simultaneously by an aggravation of the expansive tendencies of the Great Powers and by a considerable modification of the internal structure of capitalism in the more highly developed nations. It was only towards the end of the last century that the progress of the Socialist parties became more rapid both in numbers and influence with regard to those institutions founded on universal suffrage. To the new problems raised by the expansion of capitalism and by the increasing strength of Socialist organisations was added the birth of Socialist movements in backward countries, where the belated development of capitalism gave rise to an independent proletarian movement even before these countries had gone through their full bourgeois evolution.

The elements which determine the evolution of Marxism are thus many and varied. In various circles — differing from each other to the extent to which capitalism, and with capitalism the workers’ movement, spread themselves over the world — the militant elements of the proletarian movement armed themselves theoretically from the arsenal of Karl Marx, and strove to apply his teachings to their particular situation. And in accordance with their circumstances — widely differing from each other — they arrived at differing if not antagonistic conclusions. More than one controversy which looked like a mere scholastic dispute was in reality nothing but a reflection of the changed conditions in which the struggles of the twentieth century were taking place.

We must continually bear this in mind if we are to have any hope of understanding the evolution of Marxism since the death of its founders.

Our presentation of that evolution in this chapter will appear incomplete from more than one point of view. We do not propose to discuss the national, colonial or agrarian questions. In all these fields the contributions of Marx’s disciples add nothing to the fundamental principles of Marxism, but proceed from these principles in order to determine the tactics of the movement in the given circumstances. What interests us within the limits of his book is the principles themselves and not their particular application.

And for the rest we can speak only in passing of the important contributions to the economic theories of Marxism in the same period from Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer and others. This book does not aspire to be a history of economic doctrines, and to our great regret we must, therefore, pass over in silence controversies which aroused passionate interest (and some of which still do) amongst Marxist economists, touching upon them only when the study with which we are at present occupied obliges us to do so.

I: The Kautsky–Luxemburg–Bernstein Controversy

Two years after the death of Engels, Eduard Bernstein opened the still celebrated controversy on the fundamental principles of Socialist theory and on the tasks of Social-Democracy, a controversy destined to drag on for years throughout the international Socialist movement. [2]

Bernstein launched an attack against the very fundamental principles of scientific Socialism. He denied the intensification of the internal contradictions of capitalism, which, according to Marx, would one day inevitably lead to the collapse of capitalism and to the Socialist revolution. In a series of institutions developing within the capitalist system (cartels; the credit system; working-class economic organisations such as the trade unions and the cooperatives; municipal Socialism; and the extension of social legislation) he saw the ‘means of adaptation’ thanks to which capitalism would progressively succeed in solving the contradictions which undermined it. At the same time these institutions seemed to him to be the germs or embryos of a Socialist order, whose development by means of long-term reformist action should be the primary, if not exclusive aim of the Socialist party.

To further this development it would be in the interests of Socialist parties, he contended, to abandon their idea of a violent revolution and to renounce both the theory and practice of the class struggle in order to find a common basis of agreement for collaboration with the democratic bourgeois parties. [3] For Germany Bernstein had the Liberals in view. Such a tactic seemed particularly commendable to him because he was extremely sceptical of the political maturity of the working class, and greatly feared the premature accession of Socialism to power.

Bernstein’s theories were vigorously opposed by Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. We do not propose to deal here with their criticism of his views on the economic development of capitalism, its inherent contradictions, and the efficacy of its ‘means of adaptation’. We shall deal with it in the following chapter when examining the predictions put forward by Marx himself. The 40 years of actual development which have unrolled since the opening of that controversy will enable us to see whether the facts confirm or refute Bernstein’s ideas, which were so strongly condemned by Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

Apart from the economic side of this controversy and the purely theoretical criticisms made by Bernstein (with regard to dialectics, historical materialism and the theory of value), the point at issue concerns above all the practical action of the working-class movement and its party. Bernstein declared himself in favour of methodical and patient reformist action, and in favour of adopting the more immediate demands of the Erfurt Programme. In this he was in no way in disagreement with either Karl Kautsky or Rosa Luxemburg. No Socialist has ever been opposed to a struggle for reforms. But whilst Marxism regards the daily struggle for reforms as a means of preparing conditions for the achievement of the final aim of Socialism, Bernstein, sceptical concerning the prophesied collapse of capitalism, abandoned this Socialist aim altogether and regarded the reforms as ends in themselves. Whilst Marxism regards reformist action as calculated to prepare the proletariat for the conquest of power, Bernstein expressed the liveliest reservations towards this objective. Whilst Marxism believed that no reforms could be obtained without the class struggle of the proletariat, Bernstein repudiated the class struggle altogether and the conception of Social-Democracy as an autonomous class party.

The differences referred less to the objectives of daily practical action than to the spirit in which this action should be carried on.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky remained convinced that the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system would inevitably result in its final dissolution, though they did not hazard any detailed prophecies as to the form this dissolution was likely to take — very comprehensible caution to anyone who knows the difference between scientific and utopian Socialism. Thus Socialist action, whilst struggling to obtain reforms within the framework of the existing order, must not lose sight of the distant perspective of the collapse of capitalism and the necessity of the working class taking power in order to establish a new social system.

The political party of the proletariat, Kautsky declared, ‘cannot remain a party of democratic Socialist reforms, it must become the party of social revolution’. [4]

And Kautsky explains in greater detail what he means by this:

It is naturally not a question of a revolution in the sense in which the police use the word, that is to say of an armed revolt. A political party would be insane which decided in favour of violent methods on principle when other surer and less costly methods were at its disposal. In this sense of the word the Socialist party has never been revolutionary on principle. It is revolutionary only in the sense of knowing that on the day it obtains political power it can use it in no other way but to destroy the mode of production upon which the social order of today rests... Since the days of Lassalle the Socialist party has been at pains to establish clearly the difference between a revolution with pitchforks and flails and a social revolution, and to proclaim itself in principle in favour of the latter. [5]

Kautsky adds: ‘I blush to have to repeat such commonplaces.’ Today, more than 40 years after the opening of the controversy, we are compelled to blush again because we must repeat them not only for the benefit of those enemies of Marxism who seek to foist the ‘pitchfork-and-flail’ conception of revolution on Marx, but also for the benefit of certain Socialists in whose eyes the social revolution is synonymous with armed insurrection.

When Bernstein condemned the idea of proletarian dictatorship, Kautsky replied: ‘I do not affirm that the supremacy of the proletariat must inevitably take on the form of a class dictatorship.’ [6]

And Rosa Luxemburg expresses her point of view in the following words:

As to the well-known phrase of Marx concerning the agrarian question in England, upon which Bernstein also relies for support, ‘we should probably attain our aim more easily by buying the land from the landlords’, this phrase refers to the attitude of the workers only after their victory and not before. It is obviously quite clear that there can be no question of buying the property of the dominant classes unless the working class is in power. What Marx had in mind here was the peaceful exercise of proletarian dictatorship, and not the replacement of the dictatorship by capitalist social reforms. The absolute necessity of the conquest of political power by the proletariat was never at any time left in doubt either by Marx or Engels. It remained to Bernstein to proclaim the back door of bourgeois parliamentarism the instrument destined to bring about the greatest social transformation of all time, that is to say, the transition from capitalist to Socialist society. [7]

This passage calls for some comment. First of all we observe with interest that Rosa Luxemburg, who can certainly not be suspected of ‘reformism’, is not in the least horrified at the idea of buying up the property of the possessing classes. The Marxist theory must thus have suffered deterioration in the course of being popularised before present-day Socialists, and not always those of the ‘left wing’, could reject the idea of socialisation with compensation.

Secondly, Rosa Luxemburg accepts the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat, [8] but assumes that it may be peacefully exercised, wherein her views approximate to those of Kautsky, who speaks of proletarian ‘supremacy’. The following passage shows clearly that what is of more importance to her than the formula is the fact of the conquest of political power, which, for her, represents the beginning of the social revolution, whereas Bernstein envisages the social revolution only in the form of ‘capitalist social reforms’. The last phrase of the passage we have quoted is open to various interpretations. Rosa Luxemburg passes a very unfavourable judgement on bourgeois parliamentarism, but not on parliamentarism as such. We shall have occasion to return to this subject when dealing later with present-day problems: what is now called ‘the crisis of parliamentarism’ is precisely one of these problems. [9]

With regard to the fear that Socialism might come to power prematurely, a fear due to Bernstein’s disbelief in the maturity of the working class, which he expressed on several occasions, Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg replied in almost identical terms that then there would be only one logical and practical conclusion for Social-Democracy to draw from this scepticism, and that was ‘to throw its hand in’. Kautsky also stresses the point that as far as political maturity is concerned, the working class can well stand comparison with any other social class:

Everywhere we find only an élite fighting in the front ranks, whose political capacities are decisive for the maturity of the class. In each class part of the mass follows the lead of this élite without taking the initiative itself, and part remains indifferent to the fight altogether. The political rule of the proletariat thus at first means nothing but the rule of its élite — as we observe in the case of the bourgeoisie, of the aristocracy, and of all ruling classes. [10] And we cannot expect the Socialist party to come to power until that élite, together with the masses following it, has become strong enough to conquer power. [11]

And on the question of a premature taking of power, Rosa Luxemburg expresses opinions which are sufficiently interesting to justify a short summary of their essentials here. After having pointed out that the cases in which power might fall into the lap of the proletariat by default, ‘like derelict property abandoned by everybody’, [12] are exceptional, and having repudiated Blanquist coups carried out by an active minority, Rosa Luxemburg declares the conquest of political power by ‘the great enlightened mass of the people’ nothing but ‘the product of the decomposition of bourgeois society’ and this decomposition as ‘the economic and political legitimation’ of the conquest of power. She continues:

Thus, although the conquest of political power by the working class cannot take place ‘too soon’ from the standpoint of social preconditions, it must, on the other hand, necessarily take place ‘too soon’ from the standpoint of political effect: the maintenance of power. The premature revolution, the fear that keeps Bernstein awake, threatens us like the sword of Damocles, and neither prayers nor supplication, fear nor trembling can help us. And that for two very simple reasons.

First of all, such a great transformation as the passage from capitalist to Socialist society is inconceivable at one blow, by a victorious coup on the part of the proletariat. To think this possible would only be to relapse into real Blanquist notions. The Socialist transformation presupposes a long and persistent struggle, whereby in all probability the proletariat will be thrown back more than once, so that the first time, from the standpoint of the final outcome of the struggle, it must necessarily come to power ‘too soon’.

Secondly, the ‘premature’ conquest of state power will also be impossible to avoid because these ‘premature’ attacks of the proletariat are themselves a factor, and a very important factor too, in creating the political conditions for final victory. Only during the course of the political crisis accompanying its seizure of power, only in the fire of long and persistent struggles, will the proletariat attain the necessary degree of political maturity which will permit it to carry out the final great transformation. Thus, these ‘premature’ attacks of the proletariat on the political power of the state reveal themselves as important historical factors which help to bring about and determine the moment of final victory. [13]

The passages we have quoted seem to us to be important, even extremely important. For the first time a Socialist author sets out to show us in a more definite manner how the taking of power by the proletariat is to be accomplished. It is not the methods, either peaceful or violent, but the very essence of the revolutionary process, that in its rise to power the working class ‘will be repulsed more than once’. Today, 20 years after the beginning of the period of revolutions opened up by the World War, we find that the opinions expressed almost 40 years ago by the great theoretician of international Socialism have been completely confirmed by the facts. Irrespective of the methods employed, parliamentary or insurrectionary, whether in the advance of the proletariat towards power or in its retreat, and irrespective of the countries involved, for 20 years now we have witnessed incessant advances and retreats, in the course of which the working class has undoubtedly acquired greater experience and political maturity.

These prophetic views of Rosa Luxemburg show, besides, that since the end of the nineteenth century the great theoreticians of Marxism by no means envisaged the accomplishment of the social revolution from one day to the next, as though by magic, from which it logically follows that there can be no clear-cut division between the old society and the new. Those who cast a retrospective glance at past centuries can clearly see that this century or that period of several decades represents a definite division between two epochs. However, as far as the contemporary witnesses of the transformation in question are concerned, the division fills the whole of their lives. Here Rosa Luxemburg develops for the political revolution what Marx had already developed with regard to the economic transformation. [14]

Unlike other commentators on the Kautsky–Luxemburg–Bernstein controversy, we do not propose to set ourselves up in sovereign judgement to determine who was ‘right’ and who was ‘wrong’. We are content to leave this office to the facts, and we propose to give them the floor in the following chapters. For the moment let us content ourselves with striving to discover what new light has been thrown on the problems of scientific Socialism by this controversy.

Let us enumerate first of all the points on which Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg on the one hand and Bernstein on the other were in agreement. All declared themselves in favour of reformist action on the part of the working class within the framework of existing society, contrary to certain ideas which we have seen develop since, and particularly after the World War. Their principal upholder was the Italian Amadeo Bordiga. They were also in agreement in believing that the Socialist transformation of society would be a long and arduous task and could not be carried out at one blow, that the revolution would not necessarily be accompanied by violence, that the supremacy of the proletariat need not necessarily take the form of a Jacobin dictatorship, and finally that democracy was an indispensable instrument to the proletariat, and the basis of its emancipation. In all these matters Bernstein’s objections burst already open doors, and it was primarily Kautsky who pointed this out.

However, there is certainly disagreement between Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg on the one hand, and Bernstein on the other concerning the guiding aim of everyday reformist action, and concerning tactics. For the class struggle Bernstein proposed to substitute the cooperation of all classes interested in progress. He contended that this cooperation would be the best safeguard of democracy, whilst Rosa Luxemburg maintained that the bourgeoisie, even the liberal bourgeoisie — at least in Germany — was turning more and more away from democracy.

This brief summary is sufficient to enable us to realise in what respects certain terms have changed their meaning since the opening of that controversy. Today the term ‘reformist’ is applied indiscriminately to whoever refuses to believe in the necessity of a violent revolution under all circumstances and accords only a relative value to the formula ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, to whoever proclaims his support of democracy, to whoever thinks that Socialism cannot be brought about from one day to the next, and believes in the necessity of compensation for the expropriated capitalists. On all these points Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg are just as ‘reformist’ as Bernstein. However, it was by no means for his acceptance of these ideas that Bernstein was called a ‘reformist’ in his day.

The differences between Bernstein and his adversaries, differences which are of the essence of reformism, must be sought elsewhere. They lie in the fact that Bernstein abandoned the aim of Socialism and the theory of the class struggle, a proceeding which necessarily leads to the complete abandonment of the idea of classes. His idea of the gradual transformation of society and its economic system, more or less rapid according to given circumstances, is a rational one and borne out by all historical experience. It becomes absurd only because he robs it of its dynamic principle, the class struggle, and with the class struggle he also abandons the dialectical method.

It was undoubtedly a merit of Bernstein’s that he insisted more than anyone else upon the importance of the cooperatives and trade unions as embryonic forms of Socialism, just as it was a merit of Rosa Luxemburg’s that she sought to define the limits of these institutions and their possibilities within the framework of the capitalist system. [15] Perhaps these limits seemed narrower to Rosa Luxemburg than they were in reality, but armed with the dialectical method, which Bernstein refused to use, she saw things which escaped him altogether:

The productive relations of capitalist society are approximating more and more to the productive relations of Socialist society, whilst, on the other hand, its political and juridical relations are raising a higher and higher wall between capitalist and Socialist society.

In order to break down this wall we must, according to her, use ‘the hammer blow of the revolution, that is to say, the conquest of political power by the proletariat’. [16] We shall discuss this idea at greater length in the latter part of this work. In the same way we shall reserve for later a closer study of the relations between the working class and the so-called middle classes. On this question there are serious if not irreconcilable differences of opinion between Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg on the one hand, and Bernstein on the other. Neither side was in a position to appreciate sufficiently certain elements of capitalist evolution which became visible only in the twentieth century.

II: Mass Organisation and Mass Spontaneity

Whilst the controversy with Bernstein was concerned to a great degree with the autonomy of the political organisation of Socialism as against the petty-bourgeois and even bourgeois elements, [17] the controversies of the first decade of the twentieth century dealt above all with the relations between the proletarian organisation, whether political or trade union, and the proletarian mass itself, and also, therefore, between the party and the trade unions.

These controversies took place in widely differing circles and historical conditions. In France it was a conflict between the political and the trade-union organisation, and it arose about the middle 1880s. In Russia the split which took place in 1903 between the Menshevists and the Bolshevists raised the question of the respective roles of the mass and the ‘cadre’ in all its aspects. And in Germany, finally, under the influence of the Russian Revolution of 1905 on the one hand, and the increasingly reactionary and imperialist tendencies of capital on the other, a dispute arose concerning the relations between the trade unions and the party in connection with the problem of the ‘mass strike’.

In the following treatment we propose to sacrifice chronological to logical sequence. We shall deal first of all with the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Party, where the principal question was the relation between the masses and the ‘cadres’, a more general problem than that which deals with the respective functions of the trade union and the political movement.

Whilst the controversy provoked by Bernstein does not go beyond the circle of ideas generally regarded as the inalienable patrimony of scientific Socialism, the controversies with which we are now about to deal tend to develop new ideas. The controversy between Kautsky and Luxemburg on the one hand and Bernstein on the other raged around and illuminated existing ideas. The discussions which we are about to examine are concerned with problems hardly touched upon by Marx and Engels, but they seek to find solutions for these problems on the basis of Marxist principles.

(a) The Masses and the ‘Cadres’: The differences which finally led to the split of the Social-Democratic movement in Russia into Bolshevists and Menshevists in 1903 were concerned with tactics and organisation. On the eve of an expected revolution ought one to follow the strict letter of the recommendations contained in the Manifesto of the Communist Party and support bourgeois liberalism, seeing that the revolution at that time could be nothing but a bourgeois revolution? Or was it better to work towards an alliance with the masses of the Russian peasantry, whose revolutionary dynamism had remained intact, unlike the situation in Western Europe in 1848? We do not propose to deal with this latter point, where it was a question of applying Marxist methods to the analysis of a given situation, and where the differences proceeded not from matters of principle but from a different estimate of social reality.

In the discussion on organisation, on the other hand, the disagreement concerned principles themselves. The Menshevists, together with Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky, believed that Russian Social-Democracy should be a party with a democratic structure, and that its leadership should be determined by the collective will of its adherents freely expressed. Lenin, [18] on the other hand, the spokesman of the Bolshevists, declared himself in favour of an authoritarian structure which would give a central committee all power, including the power to dissolve and reconstitute, without possibility of appeal, all the local organisations, ‘so that, in the last resort’, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, ‘the central committee would be able to determine at will the composition of the highest authoritative body of the party, its national congress’. [19]

It is quite certain that in this discussion the ideas of Marxism were put forward by the Menshevists, by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. Martov, Axelrod and their friends stressed the Blanquist character of Lenin’s ideas. Lenin himself described the Social-Democrat as ‘a class-conscious Jacobin indissolubly wedded to the organisation of the proletariat’, which is unquestionably an echo of the bourgeois revolution, in which the Jacobin was the hero. The essence of Blanquism is its conviction that the proletarian revolution must be modelled on the revolution of 1789, and in this sense there are undoubtedly traces of Blanquism in the Manifesto, just as more than one passage of its economic section is definitely more Sismondian than Marxist. It must be remembered in this connection that the first volume of Capital was published 20 years after the Manifesto. The development of Marx and Engels from the Manifesto to their later writings seems to have escaped Lenin. The Hungarian Marxist philosopher, György Lukács, [20] explains the rigidity of Lenin’s ideas on the question of organisation by reference to what he calls the ‘topicality’, and what we should call the ‘imminence’, of the revolution. This explanation is attractive, but it fails to satisfy us. It is certainly true that whoever believes in the imminence of a revolutionary period is bound to prepare for it, and part of that preparation must be the creation of appropriate instruments; but then both Menshevists and Bolshevists were agreed upon the interpretation of the many signs which heralded the approach of the 1905 revolution. Anyone who denies the neo-Bolshevist thesis, according to which Lenin was always right and always infinitely superior to his adversaries, must refuse to admit that this imminence of the revolution, which was the preoccupation of all, inspired only Lenin, and at that with absolutely faultless conclusions.

When Lukács speaks of the imminence of the revolution, he neglects to specify what revolution, bourgeois or proletarian. For the latter Russia was undoubtedly not ripe. She was then on the eve of her ‘89, not even of her ‘48, though her economic system was more advanced than that of Western Europe in the middle of last century. In the approaching revolution it was reasonable to expect a much stronger and more vigorous proletarian element than in that of 1848; nevertheless, according to all the evidence, Russia was still farther away from a Socialist revolution than the countries of Western Europe. The theory of Lukács would have been better founded if, instead of speaking of the imminence of the revolution as such, he had spoken of the imminence of the bourgeois revolution. Lenin’s position and the anti-Marxist character of his ideas would then be perfectly explicable.

If we remember that at that time Russia was on the eve of her bourgeois revolution, it is clear that we can expect no greater degree of maturity on the part of the Russian proletariat than the very modest one corresponding to the historical situation in which the social struggles of that day were proceeding. It naturally follows from this that the Russian working-class movement was ripe for Jacobinism and Blanquism, but not yet ripe for Marxism. The form of organisation proposed by Lenin was thus quite in accordance with the given circumstances — circumstances in which it was impossible for Marxism to obtain a foothold in the Russian working class.

The Menshevists, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky were absolutely right when they opposed Lenin’s definition of a Social-Democrat as ‘a Jacobin wedded to the organisation of the proletariat’, with their own, very Marxist, definition: ‘In reality Social-Democracy is not wedded to the organisation of the working class, it is the very working-class movement itself.’ [21] This definition, although the actual formula itself is not to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, is undoubtedly inspired by their spirit. The passages which we quoted in Part III of the preceding chapter of this book admit of no doubt on this point. But the democratic form of organisation which naturally flows from these principles, Marxist though it was, was not suited either to the epoch or to a proletariat not yet ripe for Marxism. Both Bolshevism and Menshevism were prisoners and victims of a situation in which Marxism as a living movement could be conceived of only in the mind. Under the pressure of circumstances, and taking into account the revolutionary realities of the situation, Bolshevism abandoned Marxism in the organisational question because the situation was not yet ripe for a democratic organisation of the working class, any more than it was about the year 1848 in Western Europe. [22]

On their part the Menshevists and their allies, wishing to take into account those democratic necessities which are the sine qua non of the emancipation of labour, remained faithful to the spirit of Marxism, and under its influence repudiated the primitive, Blanquist forms of organisation advocated by Lenin. But in practice their organisation, too, was that of an élite, because the masses were not yet ripe for any form of organisation. [23] The Menshevist organisation, however, had this advantage over Lenin’s organisation, that it permitted free selection and safeguarded intellectual liberty, whereas Bolshevism did exactly the opposite: it killed all individual initiative, and finally handed over the control of the movement to mediocre spirits who were mere executive organs of a central committee dominated by one individual. [24]

Marxism had therefore to suffer from the aberrations of the existing Russian political situation. Marxism appeared as a premature graft, not perhaps in all respects, but certainly in what concerned the organisational idea. The conception adopted by Bolshevism was a lapse into pre-Marxist sectarianism which Marxism had already overcome. It was in striving to apply Marxism to the particular situation of the Russian movement that one of the Marxist parties, the Bolshevists, itself lapsed into pre-Marxist Socialism.

We feel ourselves compelled to drag this controversy out of the oblivion into which it has fallen — most Socialists of our day know nothing at all about it — because it undoubtedly led to a development of Marxist ideas. What Marx and Engels left as a mere sketch takes on infinitely more precise contours in the hands of Rosa Luxemburg and the Menshevists. The relations between the masses and the ‘cadres’, or, if you prefer, between the masses and their leaders, are defined as clearly as they possibly can be. In an article written in this period Rosa Luxemburg declares:

In all the class struggles of the past, carried through in the interests of minorities, and in which, to use the words of Marx, ‘all development takes place in opposition to the great masses of the people’, one of the essential conditions of action was the ignorance of those masses with regard to the real aims of the struggle, its material content, and its limits. This discrepancy was, in fact, the specific historical basis of the ‘leading role’ of the ‘enlightened’ bourgeoisie, which corresponded with the role of the masses as docile followers. But, as Marx wrote as early as 1845, ‘as the historical action deepens the number of masses engaged in it must increase’. The class struggle of the proletariat is the ‘deepest’ of all historical actions up to our day, it embraces the whole of the lower layers of the people, and, from the moment that society became divided into classes, it is the first movement which is in accordance with the real interests of the masses. That is why the enlightenment of the masses with regard to their tasks and methods is an indispensable historical condition for Socialist action, just as in former periods the ignorance of the masses was the condition for the action of the dominant classes. [25]

Rosa Luxemburg concludes from the foregoing that in the Socialist movement ‘the relation between the masses and their leaders is reversed’ as compared with the revolutionary movements of the past. The task of the leaders is no longer to impose their will upon the masses, but ‘to enlighten the masses concerning their historic mission’. It is the masses themselves who must lead the movement with their own means, and their leaders are only ‘the executive organs of the conscious action of the masses’. Rosa Luxemburg writes further in her polemic against Lenin:

The only ‘subject’ which the leaders of the movement today have to do with is the collective ‘I’ of the working class, which resolutely demands the right to make its own mistakes, and to learn the dialectic of history by its own experience. And finally let us say bluntly that the mistakes committed by a really revolutionary working-class movement are, historically, infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best central committee.

However, she is well aware that the role which she assigns to the working class is in large measure an anticipation — not only for the Russian working class, but also for the working class of Western Europe, because reality did not then correspond to that ideal. In the article published in Die Neue Zeit from which we have just quoted, she makes the following reservation:

Without doubt, the transformation of the masses into confident, enlightened and lucid ‘leaders’, the fusion of science and the working class dreamt of by Lassalle, is not and cannot be anything but a dialectical process, seeing that the working-class movement uninterruptedly absorbs new proletarian elements as well as recruits from other social classes. [26] In any case, such is and will remain the dominant tendency of the Socialist movement: the abolition of both ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ in the bourgeois sense, the abolition of the historical basis of all class domination.

In her polemic against Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg had already pointed out that the indispensable arrival at consciousness and lucidity on the part of the masses would be a long and difficult process. The proletarian movement, she declared, had not yet become Social-Democratic even in Germany, but ‘it is every day becoming so’.

The Russian dispute on the organisational question thus permitted Marxism to define what ought to be the relations between the masses and their leaders. It clarified the ideas expressed by Marx and Engels regarding what we called in the previous chapter ‘history conscious of itself’. However, the tendency involved here is closely connected with the given degree of maturity of the working class. So long as the working class has not achieved the necessary degree of maturity, the knowledge of ‘the real aims of the struggle, its material content and its limits’ must remain the property of a minority of leaders, and the reactions of the masses resemble those which characterised bourgeois revolutions. Hence came the Russian dilemma: to recognise frankly the lack of maturity of the masses, and advocate an organisation of a Jacobin–Blanquist type, thus turning one’s back on Marxism, which is what Lenin did, or remain faithful to Marxist organisational principles, and try to create a democratic organisation, thus reducing the practical efficiency of the immediate action of the movement, which is what the Menshevists did.

Although she was in agreement with the Menshevists, Rosa Luxemburg strove to resolve the dilemma by developing her theory of spontaneity. However, this in itself is nothing but the corollary of the Blanquist theory of organisation held by Lenin; both the one and the other rest on the historical basis given by the immaturity of the masses.

The general conclusion which results from this is that Marxism cannot take hold of the masses until there has been a sufficient development of capitalism to prepare the ground for it, and this was not the case in Russia or even in Western Europe, though there it was more advanced. This also leads us to the more particular conclusion that the ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘dictatorial’ faults which certain left-wing elements take delight in denouncing in the political and trade-union movements of the democratic working classes of Western Europe are a sufficiently reliable indication of the lack of maturity on the part of the masses.

We are not referring here to lack of maturity in general — that goes without saying — but to the lack of that maturity necessary for a Socialist revolution. What is often termed ‘the dictatorship of party and trade-union bosses’ — seeing that these ‘bosses’ have no means of repression at their disposal, such as an OGPU, or ‘polit-isolators’, or execution squads — rests solely on the consent of the masses. If at certain moments the leaders of the movement have to take decisions themselves, instead of leaving it to the masses, it would be better perhaps to attack the indifference of the masses rather than the ‘dictatorship’, almost always imaginary, of the leaders, because the trade-union and Socialist organisations to which we are referring are not at all of the Blanquist type advocated by Lenin.

The degree of democracy which exists in free working-class organisations is the outcome of the given degree of enlightenment and maturity on the part of the masses, and this is itself, but not exclusively (there are other factors involved), the outcome of the given degree of capitalist development.

(b) The Political and the Economic Movement: The question of the relations between the political and the economic working-class movements has always been different in France as compared with Germany. Superficially the disputes between the trade unions and the parties which played such a large role for several decades before and after 1900 in the history of the French working-class movement would seem, it is true, to be very similar to the controversy which took place in Germany during the decade which preceded the outbreak of the World War. On the one side of the Rhine, as on the other, the dispute was concerned with the question of which of the two movements, the political or the economic, should take precedence over the other. However, the historic conditions in which these two controversies took place were fundamentally different, as were the solutions to which they finally led. Whereas the French controversy took place outside the Marxist sphere (with the exception of the Guesdists), the German controversy was concerned with conflicting interpretations of Marxist doctrine. However, both the one and the other undoubtedly contributed to the enrichment of the Marxist doctrine by clarifying and developing ideas which Marx and Engels had merely sketched.

Let us begin with a brief examination of the position taken up by the founders of scientific Socialism towards the problem of the economic and political struggle of the working class. As early as 1845 Engels stressed the importance of the economic movement. [27] And one year later we find Marx himself vehemently attacking Proudhon for his hostility to the trade unions and to strikes. According to Marx the degree of development of the trade-union movement in a given country indicates the position occupied by that country in the hierarchy of the world market. Marx also attacked the liberal economists and the Socialists of the day who condemned the trade unions, and he criticised ‘the transcendental disdain’ shown by them towards ‘strikes, combinations and other forms in which, before our eyes, the proletarians effect their organisation as a class’. [28] His notes on wages made in 1847 also show the importance attached by him to the economic movement, and in 1865, before the General Council of the International Working-Men’s Association, we find him defending the trade unions against the Owenite Weston. [29]

The resolution on trade-union activity adopted by the Geneva Congress of the International Working-Men’s Association in 1866 was drawn up by Marx himself.

During a discussion with Socialist working men in Hanover in 1869 Marx made a number of important observations to Hamann, the treasurer of the Metalworkers Union, the most important of which we give here:

The trade unions must never be associated with or dependent upon a political group. Otherwise they would never be able to fulfil their task, and they would receive a mortal blow. The trade unions are the schools of Socialism. In the trade unions the workers become Socialists because they see every day before their own eyes the struggle against capital. Political parties, whatever they may be, can arouse the enthusiasm of the working masses only temporarily, for a time only, whilst the unions hold their loyalty much more securely, and it is only these unions which can be a real working-class party and erect a bulwark against the power of capital.

These declarations are sufficiently pertinent to occasion some surprise at the manner in which Pierre Boivin describes the attitude of Marx towards the trade-union question:

Marx was not exactly interested in trade unionism; he always considered it as a means of assembly and agitation to be subordinated to the political party, and not to be substituted for it in revolutionary action. [30]

Well knowing the intellectual integrity and the scientific exactness of which Boivin has always given proof, we can see only one explanation of his manifestly false interpretation of Marx’s attitude, and that is that Boivin, like many others, has confounded the ideas of certain Marxists, and of many Guesdists in this particular connection, with the authentic ideas of Marx. The Guesdists, and Jules Guesde himself, have, in fact, expressed themselves on more than one occasion in favour of the subordination of the trade unions to the political parties. [31] However, this attitude is far from being shared by all Marxists — very far from it, in fact. Writing on the eve of the World War, the Austrian Marxist Gustav Eckstein comments as follows on the Geneva Resolution of 1886 drawn up by Marx:

The Geneva Resolution declares, it is true, that it is the duty of the trade unions to support all social and political movements tending towards the complete emancipation of the working class. However, it places the accent on the second part of the phrase, that is to say, that they must consider themselves pioneers and representatives of the working class as a whole. It is obvious that Marx’s attitude was determined by his experiences in England. One of the principal causes of the defeat of Chartism was the lack of an alliance between the political and economic movements. [32]

In an historical study published in 1922 by a German Communist author at a time when the Communist parties had not yet fallen victim to their ‘Bolshevisation’, we read the following concerning the observations made by Marx to Hamann on the subject of the independence of the trade-union movement towards political parties:

This warning... foreshadows all the dangers which threaten trade-union organisations founded as a ‘nursery’ for a party. The sort of organisation founded by Schweitzer, the federation of syndicates and corporative groups in France founded by the Guesdists, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance inspired by the Socialist Party of America, have confirmed this warning in all respects. [33]

Although the position of Marx in the trade-union question is clear enough for us to see that he quite definitely repudiates the ‘domestication’ of the trade unions by a political party, it does not offer us any positive solutions. Marx and Engels always insisted that the character of the class struggle was both economic and political, but they did not leave us any definite practical plan for the relations between the economic and political organisations in this struggle. And that is easily explained. In their day both the political and economic working-class movements were in an immature state. Seeing that they were opposed to utopian Socialism and all its cut-and-dried schemes, Marx and Engels were obliged to await the practical evolution of things before deciding upon the concrete forms of development of the growing working-class movement. In as far as we find contradictions in their expressed views, these contradictions are the outcome of an interpretation of still embryonic and fragmentary phenomena, not yet arrived at maturity. It was therefore left to their disciples to finish what they had merely sketched.

However, one idea does appear with undoubted clarity from all the writings of Marx — namely, the class struggle of the proletariat is one; it manifests itself simultaneously on all fields; it is at the same time economic and political. [34] Though, of course, Marx was well aware of the necessary division of labour between political and economic action, the capitalism of that day, as well as the working-class movement, was insufficiently developed to permit any definite shaping of the methods and forms of coordination, despite the fact that the need for the division was already apparent. In any case, these methods and forms developed practically according to the traditions and particular situation of each country. [35] In England the political movement seemed for a long time to be merely a reflection of the trade-union movement. In Central Europe and in Scandinavia, on the other hand, it was political action which gave the decisive impulse to the economic movement. During the final decade of the nineteenth century the trade unions and the Social-Democratic Party in Germany did not experience those conflicts which were at that period convulsing the French working-class movement, because the persecution to which they were being subjected had the effect of drawing them together. [36]

In France, on the other hand, the repression which followed on the defeat of the Paris Commune diminished after 1880. The memory of the persecutions and of the solidarity to which they gave rise gradually faded. We must bear in mind, too, that the German working class was intellectually not so far developed as the French working class, which was steeped in all the traditions of a glorious Socialist and revolutionary past. We must not forget that Socialist ideas flourished in France long before Karl Marx, and that it was in France that the working class had fought battles with the forces of capitalism which had shaken Europe to its foundations.

Up to that time the proletariat had played a comparatively subordinate role in Germany, and it was therefore easier to set up a single organisation there, whereas in order to do the same thing the French proletariat would have had to divest itself of its sectarian influences and its pre-Marxist Socialist traditions. The divisions and schisms of its political organisations, due as much, if not more, to the sectarian dogmas of the past as to the quarrels caused by contemporary problems, reacted in a disastrous fashion on the economic movement in France and caused it to turn its back ‘on the quarrels of the politicians’.

However, even the Syndicalist movement in France was not free from a heritage of sectarianism, represented in this connection by Bakuninist and Anarchist tendencies. The survival of all these dogmas was favoured by the slowing down of economic development in France from the Treaty of Frankfort up to the World War. The French economic system remained essentially agricultural, and the concentration of industry proceeded only slowly, with the result that the dispersion of the working class among innumerable small enterprises provided these old ideas with a soil particularly well suited to their survival.

It is this insufficient centralisation of industry which must be held responsible in the first place for the fact that French Syndicalism remained for such a long time the concern of an élite, and failed to draw in the great masses of the wage workers. [37] A movement of the élite is necessarily more impetuous than one which embraces the broad masses. Discussing this period, Leon Jouhaux declares quite rightly:

This was the period of ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ of which, however, we should not speak too slightingly because it was useful to a movement which was still weak and yet had to call attention to itself. [38]

The hostility existing between the Syndicalist and the political movement in France was exacerbated by the entry of Millerand into the Waldeck–Rousseau Ministry. The collision between the Syndicalist movement and the French Socialist parties took on more and more the form of a conflict between two working-class tendencies, the one ‘revolutionary’, the other ‘reformist’, and in the opinion of the Anarcho-Syndicalists the latter included even the Guesdists. The whole process of development which led to and found its culmination in the Charter of Amiens in 1906 may be summed up as follows: opposition to the attempts of the Socialist party or parties to capture the trade unions, and the independence of the trade unions in the name of revolutionary principles. [39] However, the revolutionary principles of a large fraction of the Anarcho-Syndicalists were open to considerable suspicion, and, together with the ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ to which Jouhaux refers, they were made up to a large extent of these old utopian views.

The idea of the general strike as a synonym for the social revolution, conceived according to the Anarchist scheme of Domela Nieuwenhuis, is the worst of all utopian plans, an utterly senseless formula. [40] The repudiation of parliamentary action, the only possible form of political action at that time, was equivalent to the repudiation of political action altogether. The Anarcho-Syndicalists refused to admit glaring truths — that is to say, that the conquests obtained by direct action could not be consolidated except by legislation. Long before it was proclaimed they followed the famous tactic of ‘class against class’, with which in the years 1928-34 the French Communist Party did so much harm to the French working class and to French democracy.

The Anarcho-Syndicalists refused to recognise the class struggle except on the economic field, and they were quite incapable of seeing that it was also taking place on the political field. They represented the opposite pole of the worst exaggerations of certain Guesdists. Faithful to the principle of ‘active minorities’ they seemed, despite their Anarchistic ideas, a Western counterpart of Bolshevism: they wanted to act above the heads of the masses and they trampled democratic law under foot even within the trade-union organisations. [41]

However, gradually these illusions died, and the absurd idea of purely economic action was abandoned. If the Anarcho-Syndicalists refused to coordinate trade-union action with the action of the Socialist party, then, unless they were willing to remain prisoners of their Anarchist absurdities for ever, they were forced to resolve on political action themselves, and in fact, addressing the Congress of Amiens in 1906, Latapie declared:

The very repercussions of Syndicalist action point to the necessity of an action for the complete transformation of society. We are thus obliged to engage in politics, not electoral politics, but politics in the broad sense of the term...

This declaration takes up again the idea expressed by Marx in the trade-union chapter of his Poverty of Philosophy: ‘The struggle of class against class is a political struggle.’

Subsequent practical development proved to be stronger than the utopian ideas of that time. After the close of the World War the tendency of the French CGT towards political action ‘in the broad sense of the term’ became more pronounced. Its adhesion to the Popular Front was a political act. And the fact that the CGT no longer confines its activities strictly to the economic field does not prevent the maintenance of its independence, or the division of labour with the parties specialising in the political struggle, or the coordination of its actions with those of the political parties for the attainment of specific objectives.

The arguments of the ‘apolitical’ Anarchists of 30 or 40 years ago were highly suspect, but their practical action had the undoubted merit of safeguarding the independence of the CGT and placing it on a footing of equality with the political movement. That meant a lot. It was even in our opinion the essential thing. From the theoretical point of view it represented a considerable practical development of one of the least developed points in the Marxism of Marx.

Whilst the affirmation of the independence of the trade-union movement appeared in France as the result of the opposition of the revolutionary tendency to the opportunist tendency, the same opposition in Germany led to left-wing Socialists putting forward the theory that the political party should dominate the economic movement.

Whereas French Syndicalism, which had remained a Syndicalism of the élite, neglected positive action up to the opening of the World War, the German trade-union movement, which had rapidly attracted great masses of workers, [42] ended by going to the other extreme. The revisionist tendencies of the German trade-union federation (ADGB) became more and more evident from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards. Most of the trade-union leaders who appeared at the conferences of the German Social-Democratic Party came forward as spokesmen of the extreme right wing. They were completely preoccupied with the immediate advantages to be obtained, they bothered their heads less and less with the final aim of the Socialist movement, and they pursued a tactic of compromise modelled upon that generally practised at that time by the British trade unions. This attitude caused vigorous reaction in the German Social-Democratic Party, and the conflict between the party and the unions intensified to such an extent that it made itself clearly felt at all the conferences, etc, of the German working-class movement of the day, whether political or trade union.

It would obviously be absurd to make the individual trade-union leaders responsible for this development. Unless we are prepared to adopt that primitive ‘conception’ of history according to which everything evil can be explained by the ‘treachery’ of individuals, we are compelled to look for the causes in economic evolution itself.

The numerical growth of any working-class organisation creates, whether we like it or not, a state of mind preoccupied chiefly with safeguarding its power and fearing to compromise its existence by engaging lightly in any struggles. Parallel with the development of trade-union organisations grows a sense of responsibility amongst their leaders, who realise that their decisions may affect the lives of millions of wage-workers. [43] This feeling of responsibility leads, by a curious psychological phenomenon, to the movement’s becoming for certain people an end rather than a means. Socialists and Syndicalists, both desirous of avoiding this danger, began to ask themselves whether political and economic working-class organisations with enormous memberships, high dues and well-filled coffers were really a desirable thing. [44] In our opinion the question is badly formulated. It is not the organisation as such which must be blamed, but the circumstances in which it is called upon to act, and the circumstances which existed at the beginning of the present century in Germany undoubtedly favoured the opportunist development of the German trade-union movement in the worst sense of that term. The expansion of German imperialism made it possible for the German working class to gain advantages by adopting a tactic of class collaboration. [45]

A period of prosperity, interrupted by two very short crises in 1900 and 1907 respectively, facilitated this evolution. Bernstein seemed to triumph in practice after having been beaten in theory. [46] At the same time, however, the political situation became more grave. Frightened by the electoral successes of Social-Democracy, the reaction set about reducing the political rights of the German working class, though they were already meagre enough. The aggressive policy of Prussian militarism swallowed up larger and larger sums of money and greatly increased the financial burdens which pressed upon the working class. The threat of war came nearer and nearer. German Social-Democracy, particularly after the Belgian general strike in 1902, began to envisage the possibility of recourse to a general strike, but the German trade-union leaders put a veto even on the discussion of the possibility.

It was in this situation that the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke out. In 1906 Rosa Luxemburg summed up the lessons of these events — in which, by the way, she had taken an active part in Warsaw — and she wrote a pamphlet [47] to give Western European Socialism the benefit of Russia’s experiences. Firstly, her dialectical conception of the ‘mass strike’ was opposed to the rigid conception of the ‘general strike’ advocated by Anarcho-Syndicalism and repudiated by opportunism; secondly, her conception of the ‘spontaneity of the masses’ was opposed to the totalitarian views of Lenin; and thirdly, her conception of the relations between the party and the trade unions approximated to the Guesdist point of view.

According to Rosa Luxemburg (and to all other Marxists), the Russian Revolution of 1905 definitely and practically refuted the Anarchist conception of the general strike as a synonym, or even as a vehicle of the social revolution. It confirmed what Engels had put forward against the Bakuninists in 1873: either the proletariat as a whole does not yet possess organisations and well-filled coffers, in which case it cannot carry out a general strike, or it is already powerfully enough organised, and in that case it has no need of a general strike. The events of 1905 showed that the most ardent appeals for a general strike remained without response, whereas mass strikes spread spontaneously like wildfire. This proves in the first place for the general strike what Marxism always affirmed for the revolution itself — that is to say, that it could not be made to measure and to order. [48]

At the same time this also proves that when conditions are ripe, nothing can stop it. At a given moment in social development the situation is such that the tension in the social and political atmosphere bursts into conflagration, and then waves of strikes breaking out spontaneously are its supreme expression. According to Rosa Luxemburg, these waves of mass strikes:

... have nothing whatever to do with the ‘general strike’ of the Anarchists, a synonym for the ‘Great Day’, a sort of Swedish knife which can be carried, ‘just in case’ in the pocket, or opened and flourished at will.

It cannot be prepared for in advance for a fixed date; it is a natural, elementary product of social antagonisms when they have arrived at a certain degree of acuteness.

For Rosa Luxemburg the mass strike is ‘the first, natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary action of the proletariat’:

The principal form of other days in bourgeois revolutions, barricade fighting, the open clash with the armed forces of the state, is nothing but a culminating point for the revolution of our day, a moment in the whole course of the proletarian mass struggle. And this is the new form of the revolution in which that ‘civilisation’ and that ‘mitigation’ of the class struggle prophesied by the opportunists of German Social-Democracy is brought about! [49]

Rosa Luxemburg regards the mass strike ‘not so much as the last ramification of old bourgeois revolutions, but rather as the first harbinger of a new series of proletarian revolutions’. She regards it as the specific form of these revolutions, which, she believed, would lead in Germany to the dictatorship of the proletariat. [50]

It can readily be seen how far removed is this conception both from that of Lenin and that of the French Syndicalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. To the idea of ‘active minorities’, dear to Lenin and to the French Syndicalists, Rosa Luxemburg opposes the spontaneous action of the mass; against the ultra-centralism of Lenin, who desired that the central committee should set itself up as the ‘schoolmaster’ of history, she puts forward the fruitfulness of the working-class struggle itself; against the non-political attitude of the Anarcho-Syndicalists she insists upon the importance of the part to be played by the Socialist party, whose task it is, according to her, to take over the leadership of revolutionary events, not in the technical sense, but in the sense of general political direction. [51]

In striving to draw practical conclusions from the revolution of 1905 for the struggle of the German proletariat, Rosa Luxemburg finally adopts an attitude which approaches very near to that of the Guesdists:

The trade-union struggle concerns the immediate interests of the working class, whilst the Socialist struggle concerns its future interests... The trade unions represent only the interests of groups and of a stage in the development of the working-class movement. Socialism represents the working class and the interests of its emancipation as a whole. The relation of the trade unions to the Socialist party is therefore the relation of a part to the whole, and the popularity of this theory of ‘equal rights’ as between the trade unions and Social-Democracy is due to a fundamental misconception of the unions and the part they should play in the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class. [52]

It is quite certain that this attitude of Rosa Luxemburg was determined by the opportunist tactic of the German trade-union federation, compared with which Social-Democracy, placing the accent more on the final aim of the struggle (which the unions had lost sight of), appeared like the incarnation of complete working-class emancipation. The fight against opportunism led in France and Germany to diametrically opposed conclusions. In France it led to the repudiation of political action, happily only a temporary repudiation, and one which has now ended in the return to what in our opinion is the perfectly justifiable principle of trade-union independence. In Germany it led to the unions being proclaimed (purely theoretically) subordinate to the German Social-Democratic Party.

Both these conclusions are very far removed from the views expressed by Marx. The fact that the class struggle is at the same time both political and economic must express itself in a division of labour, wherein the best solution is cooperation on an equal footing whatever the practical forms and methods may be.

A brief indication of the economic arguments with which Rosa Luxemburg justified her thesis of the necessary subordination of the unions to the party may perhaps prove useful. She stated them first in her polemic against Bernstein and his followers, [53] and developed them later in a course of lectures delivered at the Social-Democratic party school in Berlin. [54] Rosa Luxemburg bases her arguments on the ‘fall in relative wages’ on which Marx dwelt in more than one passage of his Capital, and later in his Theories of Surplus Value. [55] Seeing that the share of the wage-workers in the total product is measured by the value of labour-power compared with the value of the product, the increase in the productivity of labour, by lowering the value of the commodities consumed by the wage-earning class, and lowering to that extent the value of labour-power, leads to the lowering of wages in relation to surplus value.

According to Rosa Luxemburg, the working class may, in its struggles on the economic field, be successful in raising the nominal and the real level of wages, but it is powerless to arrest the decline in relative wages. This is an inexorable consequence of an economic system based upon capitalist property, upon the exclusion of the working class from the ownership of the means of production. The fall in relative wages, the intensification of capitalist exploitation, cannot be ended except by the abolition of capitalist property, and the first condition for this is the conquest of political power, and, in its turn, this is the task of the political party.

Rosa Luxemburg’s reasoning suffers from two defects, the one economic, the other political. From the economic point of view she overlooks the shortening of the hours of labour, which to a certain extent, though not completely, because it is accompanied by an intensification of labour, makes up for the decline in relative wages. Further, the shortening of the hours of labour leads from the economic to the political field because it becomes the subject of legislative enactments. From the political point of view Rosa Luxemburg’s reasoning is faulty because she regards trade-union action as absolutely synonymous with economic action. Although it is true that the struggle against the fall in relative wages goes beyond the economic sphere, it does not follow that it goes beyond the trade-union sphere, or that it does not lie within the competence and functions of trade unionism, which may, as has been practically demonstrated more than once, play a political role.

Rosa Luxemburg’s reasoning unquestionably confirms the theory put forward by Marx in his Poverty of Philosophy, according to which the economic struggle is at the same time a political struggle. Rosa Luxemburg vigorously condemns the ‘non-political’ utopian views of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, but she completely fails to demonstrate that the political struggle, which is indispensable if any check is to be placed on the fall in relative wages, must of necessity be carried on exclusively by the political party.

It remains for us now to examine more fully her ideas on the mass strike considered as the specific form of proletarian revolution in our day. We shall return to them later and discuss them in the light of the historical events of the last 20 years. [56]


1. Lucien Laurat, Bilans. Cent Années d'économie mondiale (Éditions du Carrefour, Paris, 1931), p 205.

2. Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism (Independent Labour Party, London, 1909).

3. It is possible that Bernstein even had an organisational fusion in mind. In any case, in his book Der Marxismus und sein Kritiker Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, both ascribed this idea to him, and Bernstein made no protest against this interpretation of his viewpoint.

4. Karl Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm (Dietznachf, Stuttgart, 1899).

5. Karl Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm (Dietznachf, Stuttgart, 1899), p 181.

6. Karl Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm (Dietznachf, Stuttgart, 1899), p 181. The italics are ours. Kautsky judiciously draws a distinction here between ‘supremacy’ and ‘dictatorship’. This, we observe, is far away from the ‘axiom’ of Paul Louis.

7. Rosa Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? (Vulkanverlag, Leipzig, 1919), the italics are Rosa Luxemburg’s.

8. Later on we shall see how she interprets this in her criticism of the Russian Revolution.

9. Kautsky’s opinion of parliamentarism was not shared by Rosa Luxemburg. Writing to Franz Mehring on 8 July 1893, Kautsky declares: ‘In my opinion we in Germany do not suffer from too much, but from too little parliamentarism, and it is incumbent on the proletariat to do now what the German bourgeoisie in its cowardice left undone — to create a real parliamentary regime... For the proletarian dictatorship I can still see no other form but a vigorous parliament on the English model with a Social-Democratic majority based on a strong and enlightened working class.’ (Quoted by Paul Frölich in his preface to Volume 3 of the Collected Works of Rosa Luxemburg (Berlin, 1925), p 23) In her criticism of the Russian Revolution she condemns the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolshevists, and in this her views seem once again to approximate to those of Kautsky.

10. In his later writings Karl Kautsky makes, and in our opinion very justly, a still clearer distinction between the dominant classes of the past and the proletariat. See in particular his book Die proletarische Revolution und ihr Programm, published in 1922. In order to forestall any erroneous interpretations which might be made by totalitarian minds, let us note here that Kautsky speaks of the ‘rule’ and not the ‘dictatorship’ of the élite.

11. Karl Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm (Dietznachf, Stuttgart, 1899), p 194.

12. Rosa Luxemburg quotes as an example the Paris Commune. Today we can add the Finnish Commune of 1918 and the Hungarian Commune of March to July 1919.

13. Rosa Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? (Vulkanverlag, Leipzig, 1919).

14. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, published in 1875, Marx throws into relief the characteristics of the first phase of the Socialist transformation of the economic system.

15. It was left to Karl Renner 25 years later to make an original and much more profound contribution.

16. Rosa Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? (Vulkanverlag, Leipzig, 1919).

17. Writing against Bernstein, Kautsky declares: ‘The question is whether the Socialist party should render itself serviceable to the needs of non-proletarian classes.’ (Der Marxismus und sein Kritiker Bernstein)

18. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

19. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Organisational Questions of Russian Social-Democracy’, an article published in 1904 in Iskra and then in Die Neue Zeit.

20. György Lukács, Lenin (Arbeiterbuchhandlung, Vienna, 1924).

21. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Marxism, Reformism and Leninism’.

22. If Western Europe around the year 1848 had known a proletariat as concentrated as the Russian at the beginning of the twentieth century, the question of organisation would have presented itself in practice to Marx and Engels at the time and they would have found themselves involved in the same contradictions as the Russian Social-Democrats at a later date.

23. ‘The Social-Democrats [Menshevists and Bolshevists together — LL] did not represent according to the most generous calculation more than a hundredth part, not counting the intellectuals, of the three million individuals making up the industrial proletariat of Russia.’ (Boris Souvarine, Stalin, Plon et Nourrit, Paris, 1935) That is, 15,000 Menshevists and 8,000 Bolshevists.

24. In his illuminating work Stalin (Plon et Nourrit, Paris, 1935), Boris Souvarine very justly observes: ‘A striking illustration of the original sin of Bolshevism: without Lenin there was no Bolshevism. This was not because his group did not attract capable men, but because the Bogdanovs, and the Krassins, had to withdraw one after the other, as Trotsky and then Plekhanov had to do before them, leaving Lenin surrounded with ‘supers’ incapable of dealing alone with an unforeseen political situation.’

25. An article published in Die Neue Zeit, 1903-04.

26. Let us keep well in mind the idea expressed in this phrase because it excellently explains many of the social eddies of our day. We shall have occasion to deal with this point later.

27. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (Allen and Unwin, London, 1892).

28. Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy (translated by H Quelch, Twentieth Century Press, London, 1900), p 159.

29. Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit (Allen and Unwin, London, 1931).

30. Georges Lefranc, Histoire du mouvement syndical français (Librairie syndicale, Paris, 1937), p 162. The chapter devoted to Marx is written by Boivin.

31. See Léon Jouhaux’s book, La CGT, ce qu'elle est, ce qu'elle veut (Gallimard, Paris, 1937), pp 63-78.

32. G Eckstein, Der Marxismus in der Praxis (Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung Brand, Vienna, 1918), p 61. The following is the passage of the Geneva resolution to which Eckstein refers: ‘Apart from their original aims, the trade unions must henceforth learn to act in a more conscious fashion as vital sources of working-class organisation in the powerful interest of complete working-class emancipation. They must support all social and political movements which tend to this aim. In considering themselves, and in acting as pioneers and representatives of the whole class, they will necessarily succeed in attracting to themselves those who are still outside the trade-union movement.’ (The italics are ours — LL)

33. N Auerbach, Marx und die Gewerkschaften (Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten, Berlin, 1922), p 51.

34. See in particular the final chapter of Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy (translated by H Quelch, Twentieth Century Press, London, 1900).

35. See Lewis Lorwin, L'internationalisme et la classe ouvrière (Gallimard, Paris, 1933), Chapter 3; and Léon Delsinne, Le mouvement syndicale en Belgique, Part 1 (Castaigne, Brussels, 1936).

36. N Auerbach points out very correctly in his book Marx und die Gewerkschaften (Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten, Berlin, 1922), p 109: ‘The Anti-Socialist Laws, which made no distinction between the party and the trade unions in Germany, so imbued both movements with the spirit of solidarity that less than ever did Germany represent a favourable field for the development of an independent trade-union movement, along, for example, English lines.’

37. See Fritz Sternberg, Der Imperialismus (Malik-Verlag, Berlin, 1926), pp 532-35.

38. Léon Jouhaux, La CGT, ce qu'elle est, ce qu'elle veut (Gallimard, Paris, 1937), the italics are ours — LL.

39. We have insufficient space in this book to discuss the details and vicissitudes of this evolution. Georges Lefranc’s excellent book Histoire du mouvement syndical français (Librairie syndicale, Paris, 1937) does this very thoroughly. See also Paul Louis, Histoire du socialisme en France de la Révolution à nos jours: 1789-1936 (Rivière, Paris, 1936) , Chapter 9.

40. Georges Lefranc observes very correctly that from 1902 onwards Jouhaux tried to create a real understanding of the position to replace this hollow phraseology by showing ‘that the success of a general strike will always depend on given conditions’ (Georges Lefranc, Histoire du mouvement syndical français (Librairie syndicale, Paris, 1937), p 269).

41. Georges Lefranc, Histoire du mouvement syndical français (Librairie syndicale, Paris, 1937), pp 240-42.

42. Whilst in 1913 the Bureau of the International Federation of Trade Unions registered 592,000 members for the French trade-union movement, the German unions had 580,000 in 1899, passed the million mark in 1904, and reached two and a half million in 1913 (Wladimir Woitinsky, Die Welt in Zahlen, Volume 2 (Rudolf Mosse, Berlin, 1925), pp 102, 114).

43. N Auerbach, Marx und die Gewerkschaften (Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten, Berlin, 1922), pp 131-32. To the above considerations the author hastens to add: ‘But this tactic loses all justification when these leaders declare that they are safeguarding the interests of the working class as a whole and waging the struggle of the working class.’

44. Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists, imbued with the idea of ‘active minorities’, always reply to this question in the negative. After the disaster met with by the German Social-Democratic and trade-union organisations in 1933, the question was again raised by a number of militant Socialists in a discussion in the columns of the Populaire. The enormous increase in the membership of trade-union and Socialist organisations in France since 1936 faced these people with a fait accompli, demonstrating once again that living history mocks the hopes of the one and the fears of the other. The emancipation of labour is impossible without organisation, and we must travel along this road whether we like it or not and whatever real or imaginary hardships may face us.

45. In his book Der Weg zur Macht (Buchhandlung Vorwärts, Berlin, 1909) Kautsky shows how little substance there was in these advantages. However, they were sufficient to satisfy not only the leaders of the German trade unions, but also the immense majority of their members.

46. See Lucien Laurat, L'évolution doctrinale du socialisme (Édition de l'Églantine, Brussels, 1934), pp 6-11.

47. Rosa Luxemburg, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions, Dubber, Hamburg, 1906).

48. As early as 1893 Karl Kautsky wrote in Die Neue Zeit: ‘Social-Democracy is a revolutionary party, but not a party which makes revolutions.’

49. Rosa Luxemburg, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (Dubber, Hamburg, 1906).

50. Rosa Luxemburg, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (Dubber, Hamburg, 1906).

51. Rosa Luxemburg, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (Dubber, Hamburg, 1906).

52. Rosa Luxemburg, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (Dubber, Hamburg, 1906). Let us compare these views of Rosa Luxemburg with the declaration made in 1906 at the Congress of Limoges by Jules Guesde: ‘The abolition of the proletariat is not a matter for trade-union organisation and action. Under capitalist conditions, trade-union action, which confines itself to the framework of capitalism, without attempting to break it, is necessarily reformist in the good sense of the term.’ And on 2 December 1911, Compère-Morel declared to the Chamber: ‘Trade-union action, taking place within the framework of capitalism, does not touch at all, and cannot touch, the capitalist order... With trade-union action we can achieve only reforms; we cannot break the capitalist system.’ Like Rosa Luxemburg, Guesde and Compère-Morel both forget that trade-union action is not necessarily limited to the economic field, and the history of the working-class movement records cases in which the trade unions showed themselves more faithful to the final collectivist aim than certain workers’ parties.

53. Rosa Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? (Vulkanverlag, Leipzig, 1919).

54. Rosa Luxemburg, Einführung in die Nationalökonomie (Laub’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin, 1925), pp 268-74, the edition edited by Paul Levi after the death of the author.

55. The idea of relative wages goes back to David Ricardo: ‘One of the greatest merits of Ricardo is to have understood relative wages.’ (Marx in Theories of Surplus Value) However, it was left for Marx to provide a clear demonstration of the cause of this fall.

56. The framework of this book does not permit us to analyse the purely economic contributions of certain Marxists, such as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding and Otto Bauer, to the development of the Marxist theory beyond the original fund of ideas of Marx and Engels. On this subject we must refer our readers to our Histoire des doctrines économiques (Centre Conféderal d'education ouvrière, Paris, 1937).