Rosa Luxemburg

Speech to the Hanover Congress

(October 1899)

Spoken: October 11, 1899
Source: German: Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, II (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1951), pp.78-86; English: Selected Political Writings Rosa Luxemburg, 1971, edited by Dick Howard.
Translated: (from the German) John Heckman
Transcription/Markup: Ted Crawford/Brian Baggins
Proofed: by Matthew Grant
Copyright: Monthly Review Press © 1971. Printed with the permission of Monthly Review. Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2004.

Comrades, it would be like carrying water to the sea if I were to address myself to the theoretical side of the problem after Comrade Bebel’s excellent presentation. Bebel handled these questions so thoroughly and brought so many new facts to bear against Bernstein that it would be superfluous to say any more about it. Still, I must speak to answer some of David’s comments, which were in part aimed at me. I shall not concern myself with his remarks on agriculture. The question of artificial fertilizer played such an important role in his presentation that I couldn’t help thinking of the speech of an old Pomeranian farmer in an agricultural club meeting, in which he said: “I think you will all agree with me when I close my presentation with the words: Manure is the soul of agriculture.” [Great amusement and “Oho”]

The weakest side of Bernstein and his followers’ theoretical conception is their theory about the so-called economic power which the working class must first achieve within the framework of today’s social order before it can successfully carry out a political revolution. David and Bernstein’s other followers often reproach us with using empty phrases and having a predilection for models. But, as I shall prove, on the question of the seizure of economic power they are the ones who use phrases and models.

It is well known that Marx proved that specific economic relations lie at the base of every political class movement. Marx showed that all previous historical classes rose to economic power before they arrived at political power. And now the Davids, the Woltmanns, and the Bernsteins slavishly apply this model to contemporary relationships. This proves that they understand neither the essence of earlier struggles nor the essence of current struggles.

What does it mean to say that previous classes, namely the Third Estate, took economic power before their political emancipation? Nothing else but the historical fact that all previous class struggles can be traced to the economic fact that every new ascendant class also created a new form of property on which it finally based its class dominance. The artisans’ struggle against the city nobility in the first part of the Middle Ages depended on the fact that, as opposed to the property of the nobility which consisted in land, they created a new form of property which depended on labor. That was a new economic creation which finally burst the political chains and reshaped in its own image the remnants of feudal property, which had become meaningless. The same thing was repeated at the end of the Middle Ages when the middle classes led their fight against feudalism, when new capitalist property, which depended on the exploitation of outside labor, was created and finally brought the Third Estate into political as well as economic power.

Now I ask: can this model be applied to our situation? No. Precisely those people who prattle on about the economic power of the proletariat overlook the huge difference between our struggle and all previous class struggles. The assertion that the proletariat, in contrast to all previous classes, leads a class struggle not in order to institute the rule of one class, but to do away with the rule of any class, is no empty phrase. It has its basis in the fact that the proletariat creates no new form of property, but only extends the form of property created by the capitalist economy by turning it over to the possession of society. Thus, it is an illusion to believe that the proletariat could create economic power for itself within current bourgeois society; it can only take political power and then replace capitalist forms of property. Bernstein criticizes Marx and Engels for applying the schema of the great French Revolution to our situation. Yet he and other adherents of “economic power” apply the economic schema of the great French Revolution to the struggle of the proletariat.

David has presented a whole theory on undermining capitalist property. I don’t know whether his conception of socialist struggle in fact leads to undermining anything: I strongly doubt it. But it is beyond any doubt that such a conception presupposes that we have holes in our heads. [gaiety, protestations]

David and Bernstein’s adherents look at our position on trade unions and cooperatives from the point of view of economic power. We are accused of seeing them as a necessary evil. Now I am convinced that there is not a single comrade among us – even among the so-called politicians, as those who want to distinguish artificially between politicians and union men would express themselves – no one who does not clearly see that in the area of trade-union organizing the greatest part of our job remains to be done and that we must put all our energies into this task. All of us clearly see that if trade-union fights were to be taken away from us or if such fights could not be continued, then the political struggle would also suffer greatly; for the first prerequisite [to taking power] is educating a broad mass to the necessity of class struggle, and fights around trade unions are the best means to that end. But in a certain sense, those who accuse us of being only halfway friendly toward trade unions are perhaps correct, particularly when by “friendly” they mean furthering illusions in relation to trade unions. If the trade unions are presented not only as a means of winning workers to the class struggle, of enlightening them, and of improving their current situation; if it were thought that trade unions can also serve directly to transform capitalist property into socialist property, to undermine it then not only might we not approve, but rather we must disown any support for such a conception. [“Quite right!”] In its struggle, the working class has no greater enemy than its own illusions. Fundamentally, those who support such a view of the role of the trade unions are not at all friends of the trade unions, for they are necessarily working toward a later disillusionment.

Notions along that line are even more false in relation to cooperatives. I will make only a few observations here. It has become popular to put cooperatives on the same level of importance as trade unions, or even to say that they are a form of political struggle. No, cooperatives are of wholly different cloth. Even when we look only at their positive meaning, their significance for the working class, one thing remains: cooperatives are not class struggle. [“Quite right!”]

Secondly, those who imagine that the cooperatives already contain the seed of a socialist order forget an important factor in the contemporary situation: the reserve army [of the unemployed]. Even if we suppose that cooperatives gradually put all capitalist enterprises out of business and replace them, we certainly cannot entertain the fantastic notion that, given the current market relationships, the demand for goods could be filled without a general plan to determine production relationships. The question of the unemployed would remain open, as before.

And one more thing. I don’t know which cooperatives people think of as an ideal, as an abstract scheme. I only know that the English cooperatives, which have been trotted out as models for the cooperative movement, do not at all realize socialist ideals in their process of production. [Shouts: “Our models are the Belgian ones!”] At the [English] trade-union congress, a tailors’ union demanded that the union’s parliamentary committee should cooperate with the Corporations to force its members to abide by the wages and working conditions which had been determined by the parliamentary committee: so capitalist exploitation has not been done away with at all.

The Bernstein faction’s theory about the general socialization of capitalist society is connected with this economic conception. After David’s speech, it would indeed be superfluous to refute extensively every expression of this idea. For, among other things, he even gave the example of tariff unions as a partial socialization of capitalism. Those comrades obviously conceive of socialism in the following way: all practical policies would remain just as they are now, with the possible exception of greater attention to cooperatives, and then everything is quite simple: just stick the label “socialism” on them, and there you are! They only forget that, as Engels once said, if you classify a clothes brush as a mammal, it won’t grow breasts for quite a while. [Amusement. Shout: “But that is quite true!”]

One more observation, on the so-called breakdown theory. Of course, if we called everything we are already doing socialism, it would be completely superfluous to drag in a breakdown. But those comrades who believe such a crazy notion [Fendrich calls: “More respect.” The President rings for order] excuse me, I didn’t mean to offend, I meant “mistaken”. Those comrades who hold such a mistaken notion of socialism conceive of the theory of evolution in a way that, with a small correction in the dialectical conception of history, history is once again a smooth and straight path. They just snip the concept of a breakdown, of a social catastrophe, out of the pattern of evolution as Marx and Engels conceive it, and get a nice comfy notion of evolution: just what an [Academic Socialist like] Herr Brentano would want. If we want to learn from history, we see that all previous class struggles have gone as follows: through legal reforms and small steps forward, the rising class grew stronger within the limits of the old society, until it was strong enough to cast off its old shackles by means of a social and political catastrophe. It had to be done that way, in spite of the fact that the rising class could develop its economic power to its highest point within the womb of the old ruling class. For us that upheaval will be ten times more necessary. Comrades who think they can lead society into socialism peacefully, without a cataclysm, have no historical basis in fact. By revolution we do not have to mean pitchforks and bloodshed. A revolution can also take place on a cultural level, and if ever there were any prospect of that, it would be in the proletarian revolution, since we are the last to take up violent means, the last to wish a brutal, violent revolution on ourselves. But such matters do not depend on us, they depend on our opponents. [“Quite right!”] We must put aside the question of the form through which we will take power; that is a question about conditions which we cannot predict. We are interested in the essence of the process, and that is that we are striving for a complete transformation of the ruling capitalist economic order, which can be attained only through seizing state power and never on the path of social reform within the confines of existing society. Those who give in to such a hope take a stand which is based either on ignorance of the past, or on optimism about the future.

Now, another, more practical question. Bebel polemicized brilliantly for six hours against Bernstein. I ask: would that have happened if we could suppose that Bernstein was the only one among us who believed these theories, if the differences of opinion stemmed from the realm of abstract theory? We are a practical, fighting political party, and if nothing else had happened except a theoretical deviation from the usual party line on the part of one man, however important and worthy, then such a speech by Bebel would never have been made. But we have in our Party a number of comrades, who take the same position, and the differences of opinion do not relate only to theory, to abstractions; they relate also to practice. It is a generally known fact that for over a decade we have had within our ranks a fairly strong tendency in sympathy with Bernstein’s notions, who want to present our current practice as being already socialism, and thus – unconsciously, of course – to transform the socialism for which we are fighting, the only socialism which is not an empty phrase or a figment of the imagination, into a mere revolutionary slogan. Bebel was correct in saying disparagingly that Bernstein’s notions are so confused, so full of implications, that they cannot be grasped in a clear outline without his being able to say that he has been misunderstood. Previously, Bernstein did not write that way. This lack of clarity, these contradictions, should not be attached to him personally, but to the tendency, to the content of his essays. If you follow Party history over the last ten years, and study the transcripts of the Party congresses, you will see that the Bernstein tendency has gradually gotten stronger, but has not yet completely matured. I hope it never will. In its current stage, it is impossible for it to be clear about itself; it cannot find the right language to express itself. That is how Bernstein’s lack of clarity must be understood. To see how this Bernsteinian tendency would lead to making a pile of nonsense out of our socialism, let me take a small example from the last few days. At a Munich meeting which was to take a position about this Congress, a speaker who was talking about the Schippel case said the following: “Schippel was speaking about the militia, whereas our program talks about a people’s army” – a distinction which completely escapes me, but let that be. Then he said: “In defense of Schippel one can say that this passage of our program actually says that for the present we must work for a reduction in the time of military service!” I don’t want to anticipate the debate about the militia which will come in the next few days, but rather give the example as typical of the method. Our minimal program has a very specific meaning. We know that socialism cannot be introduced all at once, as if it were shot from a pistol, but only if we force small reforms from the existing order by leading a sharp class struggle on an economic and political basis in order to increase our economic and political strength, to take power, and finally to wring the neck of today’s society. To that end our minimal demands are tailored to the present. We will take everything they give us, but we must demand the entire political program. [“Quite right!”] But instead of point three, which explicitly contains a demand for the militia, the comrade in Munich put forth a demand for the reduction in the length of military service as the party’s practical demand. If we were, in this fashion, to make a small fraction of our minimal program into the real practical minimal program, then what we now see as our minimal program would become out ultimate goal, and true ultimate goal would be entirely cut off from reality and would indeed become merely “revolutionary sloganeering”. [Lively applause]

Last updated on: 28.11.2008