Rosa Luxemburg

Theory & Practice

An Attrition or Collision

In conclusion, a little historical reminiscence – yet one which is not without agreeable parallels to the present. Comrade Kautsky rejects, for Prussia, the examples of other lands where the mass strike has recently been used. Russia counts for nothing as an example, neither does Belgium or even Austria. For it is “out of the question to appeal to the examples of other lands in the present situation in Prussia.” [Kautsky, What Now?, p.36.] But in search of the fitting model for our tactic, Comrade Kautsky himself goes back to the old Romans and Hannibal. Here he finds an example for the edification of the German proletariat in Fabius the Procrastinator, with his allegedly victorious “strategy of attrition.”

To me, going back to the antique Romans seems rather far fetched: but since Comrade Kautsky has already done so, I would like to demonstrate that, here too, the facts are not quite correct. The fable of the necessary and victorious strategy of the Cunctator was destroyed by Mommsen, who proved that from the beginning “the natural and correct employment” of Roman military forces was a resolute attack, and that the Fabian procrastination (which Mommsen calls “methodic do-nothing”) was not the expression of some deep strategic plan dictated by the situation, but flowed from the conservative and senile politics of the Senate.

“Quintus Fabius,” says Mommsen, “was a man well on in years, of a circumspection and determination which appear to have been nothing less than procrastination and obstinacy; a zealous worshipper of the good old days, the political omnipotence of the Senate, the magistral authority; for the salvation of the state he looked first to sacrifices and prayers, then to methodic military leadership.” “A leading statesman in command of the interconnection of events must have come to grief here,” he says in another place, “where everywhere either too little or too much had already been done. Now the war began, in which the enemy had been allowed to decide the time and place; and in their well-founded consciousness of military superiority, they were at. a loss for a goal and direction for their first operations.” An offensive in Spain and Africa was first commandment of tactics, “but they heeded the command of interest as little as that of honor.”

That through this hesitation the Spanish allies of Rome would be sacrificed for the second time, could have been foreseen as easily as the hesitation itself could have been avoided.

However wise it may have been for the Romans to remain on the defensive and expect their chief success through cutting off the enemy’s means of subsistence, yet it was surely a strange system of defense and of “starving them out” when the enemy – under the eyes of a numerically equal Roman army – was allowed, with Central Asian indifference, to lay the land waste unhindered and in great measure to adequately provision himself for winter through systematic foraging.

Finally, it could not be said that the Roman army forced this conduct of the war upon it general. To be sure, it was composed in part of militia recently called-up: but its core was the veteran legions from Arminium. Far from being demoralized by the recent defeats, they were embittered over the dishonorable task alloted them by their general, “Hannibal’s lackey, “ and clamorously demanded to be led against the enemy. There were violent demonstrations in the popular assemblies against the obstinate old man.

In this vein, Mommsen goes a good deal further. “Rome was not saved by the ‘Procrastinator,’” says Mommsen, “but by the firm union of the federation – and equally, perhaps, by the national hatred with which the occidental welcomed Phoenician Man.” This was so notorious that finally even “the majority of the Senate, despite the quasi-legitimization which recent events had given the procrastinating system of Fabius, resolved to dismiss the military leadership which was slowly but surely leading the state to ruin.” [Theodor Mommsen’s Roman History, 3rd ed., 1856, vol. 1, pp.551-577.]

This is what it looks like, Fabius Cunctator’s victorious “strategy of attrition.” It is in fact, a legend preached at high school students in our schools to drill them in conservative spirits, and warn them against, “rashness” and “revolutionizers” – to drum into them, as the spirit of world history, the motto to which the Home Guard marches: “Forward, ever slowly.” That this legend should be served up to the revolutionary proletariat today, in this situation – that is one of the unforeseen decrees of fate.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that an element in our ruling Senate of the party and the unions is adequately depicted here: that element of the noble Quintus Fabius, who looked first, to sacrifices and prayers, and then to methodic military leadership for the salvation of the state. From lack of procrastination, from youthful exuberance and rashness in our party leadership, we have not to my knowledge suffered greatly. As Comrade Adler said at the German-Austrian party convention in Granz:

A touch of the whip always does good; and I confess that at a party convention, exclamations lamenting that nothing is being done please me far more than those advising discretion and prudence. We take good care of you indeed, prudence – better, perhaps, than we should. We don’t need you for brakes!

So, more or less, I think it is with us. That Comrade Kautsky lent his pen and his historical knowledge to advocating the Cunctator strategy was a waste, to say the least. For brakes, Comrade Kautsky, we don’t need you.

Last updated on: 11.12.2008