1914: how German socialism came to betray the workers

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Of all the parties federated in the 2nd International, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) was by far the most powerful. In 1914, the SPD had more than one million members, and had won more than four million votes in the 1912 parliamentary elections:1 it was, in fact, the only mass party in Germany and the biggest single party in the Reichstag – although under the autocratic imperial regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II it had no chance of actually forming a government.

For the other parties of the 2nd International, the SPD was the party of reference. Karl Kautsky,2 editor of the Party's theoretical journal Neue Zeit, was the acknowledged "pope of marxism", the International's leading theoretician; at the 1900 Congress of the International, Kautsky had drawn up the resolution condemning the participation of the French socialist Millerand in a bourgeois government, and the SPD's Dresden Congress of 1903, under the leadership of its chairman August Bebel,3 had roundly condemned the revisionist theories of Eduard Bernstein and reasserted the SPD's revolutionary goals; Lenin had praised the SPD's "party spirit" and its immunity to the petty personal animosities that had led the Mensheviks to split the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) after its 1903 congress.4 To cap it all, the SPD's theoretical and organisational supremacy was clearly crowned by success on the ground: no other party of the International could claim anything close to the SPD's electoral success, and when it came to trade union organisation only the British could rival the Germans in the numbers and discipline of their members.

In the Second International the German ‘decisive force’ played the determining role. At the [international] congresses, in the meetings of the international socialist bureaux, all awaited the opinion of the Germans. Especially in the questions of the struggle against militarism and war, German Social Democracy always took the lead. ‘For us Germans that is unacceptable’ regularly sufficed to decide the orientation of the Second International, which blindly bestowed its confidence upon the admired leadership of the mighty German Social Democracy: the pride of every socialist and the terror of the ruling classes everywhere”.5

It was obvious therefore, as the storm clouds of war began to gather in the month of July 1914, that the attitude of the German Social Democracy would be critical in deciding the outcome. The German workers – the great masses organised in the Party and the unions, which the workers had fought so hard to build – were placed in a position where they alone could tip the scales: towards resistance, the fighting defence of proletarian internationalism, or towards class collaboration and betrayal, and years of the bloodiest slaughter humanity had ever witnessed.

And what did we in Germany experience when the great historical test came? The most precipitous fall, the most violent collapse. Nowhere has the organization of the proletariat been yoked so completely to the service of imperialism. Nowhere is the state of siege borne so docilely. Nowhere is the press so hobbled, public opinion so stifled, the economic and political class struggle of the working class so totally surrendered as in Germany.”6

The betrayal of German Social Democracy came as such a shock to revolutionaries that when Lenin read in Vorwärts7 that the SPD parliamentary fraction had voted in favour of war credits, he at first took the issue for a fake, black propaganda put out by the Imperial government. How was such a disaster possible? How, in a matter of days, could the proud and powerful SPD renege on its most solemn promises, transforming itself overnight from the jewel in the crown of the workers’ International to the most powerful weapon in the armoury of the war-mongering ruling class?

As we try, in this article, to answer this question, it might seem paradoxical to concentrate in large part on the writings and actions of a relatively small number of individuals: the SPD and the unions were after all mass organisations, capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands of workers. It is justified however, because individuals like Karl Kautsky or Rosa Luxemburg represented, and were seen at the time to represent, definite tendencies within the Party; in this sense, their writings gave voice to political tendencies with which masses of militants and workers – who remain anonymous to history – identified. It is also necessary to take account of these leading figures’ political biographies if we are to understand the weight they had in the Party. August Bebel, chairman of the SPD from 1892 until his death in 1913, was one of the Party's founders and had been imprisoned, along with his fellow Reichstag deputy Wilhelm Liebknecht, for their refusal to support Prussia's war against France in 1870. Kautsky and Bernstein had both been forced into exile in London by Bismarck's anti-socialist laws, where they had worked under Engels’ direction. The prestige, and the moral authority, that this gave them in the Party was immense. Even Georg von Vollmar, one of the leaders of South German reformism, first came to prominence as a left-winger and a vigorous and talented underground organiser, suffering repeated prison sentences as a result.

This then was a generation which had come to political activity through the years of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, through the years of clandestine propaganda and agitation in the teeth of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws (1878-1890). Of a very different stamp were men like Gustav Noske, Friedrich Ebert, or Philipp Scheidemann, all members of the right wing in the parliamentary fraction of the SPD who voted for war credits in 1914 and played a key role in the suppression of the 1919 German Revolution – and in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by the Freikorps. Rather like Stalin, these were men of the machine, working behind the scenes rather than actively participating in public debate, the representatives of a Party which, as it grew, tended more and more to resemble and identify with the German state whose downfall was still its official goal.

The revolutionary left ranged against the growing tendency within the Party to make concessions to "practical politics" and was, strikingly, in large part both foreign and young (one notable exception being the old Franz Mehring). Apart from the Dutchman Anton Pannekoek, and Wilhelm Liebknecht's son Karl, men like Parvus, Radek, Jogiches, Marchlewski, all came from the Russian empire and were forged as militants under the harsh conditions of Tsarist oppression. And of course, the outstanding figure on the left was Rosa Luxemburg, an outsider in the German Party in every possible way: young, female, Polish, and Jewish, and – perhaps worst of all from the point of view of some of the German leadership – standing intellectually and theoretically head and shoulders above the rest of the Party.

The foundation of the SPD

The Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (SAP – German Workers’ Party), later to become the SPD, was founded in 1875 in Gotha, by the merger of two socialist parties: the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (SDAP),8 led by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, and the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (ADAV), originally established by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863.

The new organisation thus sprang from two very different sources. The SDAP had only been in existence for six years; through Marx and Engels’ longstanding relationship with Liebknecht – although Liebknecht was no theoretician he played an important role in introducing men like Bebel and Kautsky to Marx's ideas – they had played an important part in the SDAP's development. In 1870, the SDAP adopted a resolutely internationalist line against Prussia's war of aggression on France: at Chemnitz, a meeting of delegates, representing 50,000 Saxon workmen, adopted unanimously a resolution to this effect: “In the name of German Democracy, and especially of the workmen forming the Democratic Socialist Party, we declare the present war to be exclusively dynastic... We are happy to grasp the fraternal hand stretched out to us by the workmen of France... Mindful of the watchword of the International Working Men’s Association: Proletarians of all countries, unite, we shall never forget that the workmen of all countries are our friends and the despots of all countries our enemies.”.9

The ADAV, by contrast, had remained faithful to its founder Lassalle's opposition to strike action, and his belief that the workers' cause could be advanced by an alliance with the Bismarckian state, and more generally through the recipes of “state socialism”.10 During the Franco-Prussian war, the ADAV remained pro-German, its then President, Mende, even pushing for French war reparations to be used to set up state workshops for German workers.11

Marx and Engels were deeply critical of the merger, although Marx's marginal notes on the programme was not made public until much later,12 Marx considering that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”.13 Although they refrained from open criticism of the new Party, they made their views clear to its leading members, and in writing to Bebel, Engels highlighted two weaknesses which, untreated, were to sow the seeds of the 1914 betrayal:

  • the principle that the workers’ movement is an international one is, to all intents and purposes, utterly denied in respect of the present, and this by men who, for the space of five years and under the most difficult conditions, upheld that principle in the most laudable manner. The German workers’ position in the van of the European movement rests essentially on their genuinely international attitude during the war; no other proletariat would have behaved so well. And now this principle is to be denied by them at a moment when, everywhere abroad, workers are stressing it all the more by reason of the efforts made by governments to suppress every attempt at its practical application in an organisation! (...)

  • as its one and only social demand, the programme puts forward — Lassallean state aid in its starkest form, as stolen by Lassalle from Buchez. And this, after Bracke has so ably demonstrated the sheer futility of that demand; after almost all if not all, of our party speakers have, in their struggle against the Lassalleans, been compelled to make a stand against this “state aid"! Our party could hardly demean itself further. Internationalism sunk to the level of Amand Goegg, socialism to that of the bourgeois republican Buchez, who confronted the socialists with this demand in order to supplant them!14

These fault-lines in practical politics were hardly surprising given the new Party's eclectic theoretical underpinnings. When Kautsky founded the Neue Zeit in 1883, he intended it to be “published as a Marxist organ which had set itself the task of raising the low level of theory in German social democracy, destroying eclectic socialism, and achieving victory for the Marxist programme”; he wrote to Engels: “I may be successful in my attempts to make the Neue Zeit the rallying point of the Marxist school. I am winning the collaboration of many Marxist forces, as I am getting rid of eclecticism and Rodbertussianism”.15

From the outset, including during its underground existence, the SAP was thus a battleground of conflicting theoretical tendencies – as is normal in any healthy proletarian organisation. But as Lenin once remarked “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice”, and these different tendencies, or visions, of the organisation and of society, were to have very practical consequences.

By the mid 1870s the SAP had some 32,000 members in more than 250 districts, and in 1878 the Chancellor Bismarck imposed an “anti-socialist” law with a view to hamstringing the Party's activity. Scores of papers, meetings, organisations were banned, and thousands of militants were sent to jail or fined. But the socialists' determination remained unbroken by the anti-socialist law. Indeed, the SAP's activity thrived under the conditions of semi-illegality. Being outlawed compelled the party and its members to organise themselves outside the channels of bourgeois democracy – even the limited democracy of Bismarckian Germany – and to develop a strong solidarity against police repression and permanent state surveillance. Despite constant police harassment, the party managed to maintain its press and expand its circulation, to the point where the satirical paper Der wahre Jacob (founded in 1884) alone had 100,000 subscribers.

Despite the anti-socialist laws, one public activity remained open to the SAP: it was still possible for SAP candidates to compete in elections to the Reichstag as unaffiliated independents. Hence a large part of the Party's propaganda centred around electoral campaigns at national and local levels, and this may account both for the principle that the parliamentary fraction should remain strictly subordinated to the Party Congresses and the Party's central organ (the Vorstand),16 and for the increasing weight of the parliamentary fraction with the Party as its electoral success grew.

Bismarck's policy was a classic "carrot and stick". While the workers were prevented from organising themselves, the Imperial state tried to cut the ground from under the feet of the socialists by introducing social insurance payments, in the case of unemployment, sickness or retirement, from 1883 onwards – a full twenty years before the French law on workers' and peasants' pensions (1910) and the British National Insurance Act (1911). By the end of the 1880s some 4.7 million workers received payments from the social security.

Neither the anti-socialist laws nor the introduction of social security achieved the desired effect of reducing support for Social-Democracy. On the contrary, between 1881 and 1890 the SAP's electoral score rose from 312,000 to 1,427,000 votes, making the SAP the biggest party in Germany. By 1890 its membership had risen to 75,000 and some 300,000 workers had joined trade unions. In 1890 Bismarck was dropped from the government by the new Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the anti-socialist laws were allowed to lapse.

Emerging from clandestinity, the SAP was refounded as a legal organisation, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD – German Social-Democratic Party), at its Erfurt Congress in 1891. The Congress adopted a new programme, and although Engels considered the Erfurt programme an improvement on its Gotha predecessor he nonetheless felt it necessary to attack the tendency towards opportunism: “somehow or other, [absolutism] has to be attacked. How necessary this is is shown precisely at the present time by opportunism, which is gaining ground in a large section of the SocialDemocratic press. Fearing a renewal of the Anti-Socialist Law, or recalling all manner of over-hasty pronouncements made during the reign of that law, they now want the party to find the present legal order in Germany adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means (…) In the long run such a policy can only lead one’s own party astray. They push general, abstract political questions into the foreground, thereby concealing the immediate concrete questions, which at the moment of the first great events, the first political crisis automatically pose themselves. What can result from this except that at the decisive moment the party suddenly proves helpless and that uncertainty and discord on the most decisive issues reign in it because these issues have never been discussed? (…) This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be ‘honestly’ meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!”.17

Engels was remarkably prescient here: public declarations of revolutionary intent were to prove impotent without any concrete plan of action to back them up. In 1914, the party did indeed find itself “suddenly helpless”.

Nonetheless, the SPD's official slogan remained "Not a man nor a penny for this system", and its Reichstag deputies systematically refused all support for government budgets, especially for military spending. Such principled opposition to any class compromise remained a possibility within the parliamentary system because the Reichstag had no real power. The government of the Wilhelmine German Empire was autocratic, not unlike that of Tsarist Russia,18 and the SPD's systematic opposition therefore had no immediate practical consequences.

In South Germany, things were different. Here, the local SPD under the leadership of men like Vollmar, claimed that "special conditions" applied, and that unless the SPD was able to vote meaningfully in the Länder legislatures, and unless it had an agrarian policy able to appeal to the small peasantry, then it would be doomed to impotence and irrelevance. This tendency appeared as soon as the Party was legalised, at the 1891 Erfurt Congress, and as early as 1891 the SPD deputies in the provincial parliaments of Württemberg, Bavaria and Baden were voting in favour of government budgets.19

The Party's reaction to this direct attack on its policy, as expressed in repeated Congress resolutions, was to sweep it under the carpet. An attempt by Vollmar to put forward a special agrarian programme was voted down by the 1894 Frankfurt Congress, yet the same congress also rejected a resolution banning any vote by any SPD deputy in favour of any government budget. As long as reformist policy could be limited to south German "exceptionalism" it could be tolerated.20

Legality saps the SPD’s fighting spirit

Soon, the experience of the working class with a dozen years of semi-illegality began to be undermined by the poison of democracy. By its very nature bourgeois democracy and individualism, which go hand in hand, undermines any attempt by the proletariat to develop a vision of itself as a historical class with its own perspective antagonistic to that of capitalist society. Democratic ideology constantly drives a wedge into workers' solidarity, because it splits up the working class into a mere mass of atomised citizens. At the same time, the party's electoral success, both in terms of votes and seats in parliament grew rapidly, while more and more workers organised in the Trades Unions and were able to improve their material conditions. The growing political strength of the SPD, and the industrial strength of the organised working class, gave birth to a new political current, which began to theorise the idea not only that it was possible to build socialism within capitalism, to work towards a gradual transition without the need of having to overthrow capitalism through a revolution, but that the SPD should have a specifically German expansionist foreign policy: this current crystallised in 1897 around the Sozialistische Monatshefte, a review outside SPD control, in articles by Max Schippel, Wolfgang Heine, and Heinrich Peus.21

This uncomfortable, but bearable, state of affairs was exploded in 1898 with the publication of Eduard Bernstein's Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (Preconditions of socialism and the tasks of Social-Democracy). Bernstein's pamphlet explained openly what he and others had been suggesting for some time: “Practically speaking, we are no more than a radical party; we have been doing no more than the bourgeois radicals do, with this difference that we hide it under a language out of all proportion to our acts and our capacities”.22 Bernstein's theoretical position attacked the very foundations of marxism in that he rejected the inevitability of capitalism's decline and final collapse. Basing himself on the booming prosperity of the 1890s, coupled with capitalism's rapid colonialist expansion across the planet, Bernstein argued that capitalism had overcome its tendency towards self-destructive crisis. In these conditions, the goal was nothing, the movement was everything, quantity was to prevail over quality, the antagonism between the State and the working class could supposedly be overcome.23 Bernstein proclaimed openly that the basic tenet of the Communist Manifesto, according to which workers have no fatherland, was “obsolete”. He called upon the German workers to give their support to the Kaiser's colonial policy in Africa and Asia.24

In reality, a whole period, that of the expansion and ascension of the capitalist system, was drawing to a close. For revolutionaries such periods of profound historical transformation always pose a major challenge since they must analyse the characteristics of the new period, and develop a theoretical framework for understanding the fundamental changes taking place, as well as adapting their programme if necessary, all the time continuing to defend the same revolutionary goal.

The rapid expansion of capitalism across the globe, its massive industrial development, the new pride of the ruling class and its imperial posture – all this made the revisionist current believe that capitalism would last forever, that socialism could be introduced from within capitalism, and that the capitalist state could be used in the interests of the working class. The illusion of a peaceful transition showed that the revisionists had in fact become prisoners of the past, unable to understand that a new historic period was on the horizon: the period of capitalism's decadence and of the violent explosion of its contradictions. Their inability to analyse the new historical situation and their theorisation of the “eternity” of the conditions of capitalism at the end of the 19th century also meant that the revisionists were unable to see that the old weapons of the struggle, parliamentarism and the trade union struggle, no longer worked. The fixation on parliamentary work as the axis of their activities, the orientation on struggling for reforms within the system, the illusion of a “crisis-free capitalism” and the possibility of introducing socialism peacefully within capitalism, meant that in effect large parts of the SPD leadership had identified with the system. The openly opportunist current in the party expressed a loss of confidence in the historical struggle of the proletariat. After years of defensive struggles for the “minimum” programme, bourgeois democratic ideology had penetrated the workers’ movement. This meant that the existence and the characteristics of social classes were put into question, an individualistic view tended to dominate and dissolve the classes in “the people”. Opportunism thus threw overboard the marxist method of analysing society in terms of class struggle and class contradictions; in fact opportunism meant the lack of any method, of any principles whatever and the lack of any theory.

The left fights back

The reaction of the Party leadership to Bernstein's text was to downplay its importance (Vorwärts welcomed it as a “stimulating contribution to debate”, declaring that all currents within the Party should be free to express their opinions), while regretting in private that such ideas should be expressed so openly. Ignaz Auer, the Party secretary, wrote to Bernstein: “My dear Ede, one does not formally make a decision to do the things you suggest, one doesn’t say such things, one simply does them”.25

Within the SPD Bernstein was opposed in the most determined manner by those forces who had not been accustomed to the long period of legality following the end of the anti-socialist laws. It is no coincidence that the clearest and most outspoken opponents to Bernstein’s current were militants of foreign origin, and specifically from the Russian Empire. The Russian born Parvus, who had moved to Germany in the 1890s and in 1898 was working as the editor of the SPD press in Dresden, the Sächsische Arbeiterzeitung26 launched a fiery attack on Bernstein’s ideas and was backed by the young revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who had moved to Germany in May 1898 and who had experienced repression in Poland. As soon as she settled in Germany, she started to spearhead the struggle against the revisionists with her text Reform or revolution written in 1898-99 (in which she exposed the method of Bernstein, refuted the idea of the establishment of socialism through social reforms, exposing the practice and theory of opportunism). In her reply to Bernstein, she underlined that the reformist trend had come into full swing since the abolition of the anti-socialist law and the possibility to work legally. Vollmar’s state socialism, the Bavarian budget approval, south-German agrarian socialism, Heine’s compensations proposals, Schippel’s position on customs and militia were elements in a rising opportunist practice. She underlined the common denominator of this current: hostility towards theory. “What distinguishes [all the opportunist tendencies in the party] on the surface? The dislike of ‘theory’, and this is natural since our theory, i.e. the bases of scientific socialism, sets our practical activity clear tasks and limits, both in relation to the goals to be attained as much as in regard to the means to be used and finally in the method of the struggle. Naturally those who only want to chase after practical achievements soon develop a desire to liberate themselves, i.e. to separate practice from theory’ to make themselves free of it.27

The first task of revolutionaries was to defend the final goal. “the movement as such without any link to the final goal, the movement as a goal in itself is nothing, the final goal is what counts.28

In a 1903 text Stagnation and progress of marxism, Luxemburg considers the theoretical inadequacy of the Social-Democracy in these terms: “The scrupulous endeavour to keep ‘within the bounds of Marxism’ may at times have been just as disastrous to the integrity of the thought process as has been the other extreme – the complete repudiation of the Marxist outlook, and the determination to manifest ‘independence of thought’ at all hazards”.

In attacking Bernstein, Luxemburg also demanded that the Party’s central press organ should defend the positions decided by Party congresses. When in March 1899 Vorwärts replied that Luxemburg’s critique of Bernstein’s position (in an article Eitle Hoffnungen – Vain hopes),was unjustified. Luxemburg countered that Vorwärtsis in the fortunate situation of never being in danger of having a mistaken opinion or changing its opinion, a sin which it likes to find in others, simply because it never has or defends an opinion.29

She continued in the same vein: “There are two kinds of organic creatures: those with a spine and which can walk upright, sometimes even run; and there are others who have no spine and therefore can only creep and cobble to something.” To those who wanted the Party to drop any programmatic positions and political criteria, she replied at the 1899 Party conference in Hannover: “If this is to mean that the party – in the name of freedom of critique – should not be entitled to take up position and declare through a majority vote. We do not defend such a position, therefore we have to protest against this idea, because we are not a club for discussions, but a political fighting party, which must have certain fundamental views.”30

The swamp wavers

Between the determined left wing around Luxemburg, and the right defending Bernstein's ideas and revisionism in principles, lay a “swamp”, which Bebel described in the following terms at the 1903 Dresden Congress: “It is always the same old and eternal struggle between a left and a right, and in between the swamp. They are the elements who never know what they want or rather who never say what they want. They are the smart-alecks, who usually first listen to see who is saying what, what is being said here and there? They always sense where the majority stands and they usually join the majority. We also have this sort of people in the party (…) the man who defends his position openly, at least I know where he stands; at least I can fight with him. He is victorious or I am, but the lazy elements that always duck out of something and always avoid a clear decision, who always say ‘we all agree, yes we are all brothers’, they are the worst. I fight against them hardest.31

This swamp, unable to take a clear position, wavered between the straightforward revisionist, right and the revolutionary left. Centrism is one of the faces of opportunism. Positioning itself always between the antagonistic forces, between the reactionary and radical currents, centrism tries to reconcile the two. It avoids the open clash of ideas, runs away from debate, always considers that “one side is not completely right, but the other side is not totally right either”, views political debate with clear arguments and polemical tones as “exaggerated”, “extremist”, “trouble-making”, even “violent”. It thinks that the only way to maintain unity, to keep the organisation intact is to allow all political tendencies to coexist, even including those whose aims are in direct contradiction to those of the organisation. It shies away from taking responsibility and positioning itself. Centrism in the SPD tended to ally reluctantly with the left, while regretting the left’s “extremism” and “violence” and effectively preventing firm measures – such as the expulsion from the Party of the revisionists – from preserving the Party’s revolutionary nature.

Luxemburg on the contrary considered that the only way to defend the unity of the Party as a revolutionary organisation was to insist on the fullest exposure and public discussion of opposing opinions:

By covering up the contradictions by the artificial ‘unification’ of incompatible views, the contradictions can only come to a head, until they explode violently sooner or later through a split (…) Those who bring the divergences of view to the fore and fight against the divergent views, work towards the unity of the party. But those who cover up the divergences work towards a real split in the party.”32

The epitome of the centrist current, and its most prestigious representative, was Karl Kautsky.

When Bernstein started to develop his revisionist views, Kautsky initially stayed silent and preferred not to oppose his old friend and comrade in public. He also completely failed to appreciate the extent to which Bernstein’s revisionist theories undermined the revolutionary foundations on which the Party had been built. As Luxemburg pointed out, if once you accept that capitalism can go on forever, that it is not doomed to collapse as a consequence of its own inner contradictions, then you are led inevitably to abandon the revolutionary goal. 33 Kautsky’s failure here – in common with most of the Party press – was a clear sign of the decline of fighting spirit in the organisation: political debate was no longer a matter of life or death for the class struggle, it had become an academic concern of intellectual specialists.

Rosa Luxemburg’s arrival in Berlin in 1898, from Zürich where she had just completed her studies of Polish economic development with distinction, and her reactions to Bernstein’s theories, were to play a major role in Kautsky’s attitude.

When Luxemburg became aware of Bebel’s and Kautsky’s hesitation and unwillingness to fight Bernstein’s views, she criticised this attitude in a letter to Bebel.34 She asked why they did not push for an energetic response to Bernstein, and in March 1899, after she had begun the series of articles which were later to become the pamphlet Reform or revolution, she reported to Jogiches: “As for Bebel in a conversation with Kautsky I complained that he won’t stand up and fight. Kautsky told me that Bebel has lost his drive, he has lost his self-confidence and no longer has any energy. I scolded him again and asked him: Why don’t you [Kautsky] inspire him, give him encouragement and energy? Kautsky replied: ‘You should do this, go and talk to Bebel, you should encourage him…”. When Luxemburg asked Kautsky why he did not react, he replied: “How can I get involved in rallies and meetings now, while I am fully engaged in the parliamentary struggle, this only means there will be clashes, where would this lead to? I do not have any time and no energy for this.”35

In 1899, in Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Eine Antikritik (Bernstein and the Social-Democratic programme – an anti-critique) Kautsky at last spoke up against Bernstein’s ideas on Marxist philosophy and political economy and his views on the development of capitalism. But he nevertheless welcomed Bernstein’s book as a valuable contribution to the movement, opposed a motion to expel him from the party and avoided saying that Bernstein was betraying the Marxist programme. In short, as Luxemburg concluded, Kautsky wanted to avoid any challenge to the rather comfortable routine of Party life, and the necessity of criticising his old friend in public. As Kautsky himself admitted privately to Bernstein: “Parvus and Luxemburg already grasped the contradiction of your views with our programmatic principles, while I did not yet want to admit this and believed firmly that all this was a misunderstanding (…) It was my mistake that I was not as farsighted as Parvus and Luxemburg, who already then scented the line of thought of your pamphlet.”36 In fact, in Vorwärts Kautsky minimised and trivialised the attack on Bernstein’s new revisionist theory, saying that it was being blown out of all proportion, in a manner typical of the “absurd imaginings” of a petty bourgeois mentality.37

Friends or class?

Out of loyalty to his old friend, Kautsky felt he had to apologize to Bernstein in private, writing: “It would have been cowardice to stay silent. I do not believe that I caused you any harm now that I have spoken. If I had not told August Bebel that I would answer your declaration, he would have done it himself. You can imagine what he would have said, knowing his temper and his callousness”.38 This meant he preferred to stay silent and blind towards his old friend. He reacted unwillingly, and only after being forced into it by the left. Later he admitted that it had been a “sin” to allow his friendship with Bernstein to dominate his political judgment. “In my life I only sinned once out of friendship, and I still regret this sin to this day. If I had not hesitated so much towards Bernstein, and if I had confronted him right from the start with the necessary sharpness, I would have spared the party many unpleasant problems.39 However, such a “confession” is of no value unless it goes to the root of the problem. Despite confessing his “sin” Kautsky never gave a more profound political explanation why such an attitude, based on personal affinity rather than political principle, is a danger for a political organisation. In reality, this attitude led him to grant the revisionists unlimited “freedom of opinion” within the party. As Kautsky said on the eve of the Hannover Party Congress: “In general we have to leave it up to every Party member to decide whether he still shares the principles of the Party or not. By excluding someone we only act against those who damage the Party; nobody has yet been excluded from the Party because of reasonable criticism, because our Party has always highly valued freedom of discussion. Even if Bernstein had not deserved so much esteem for his part in our struggle, and the fact that he had to go into exile because of his Party activities, we would not consider expelling him”.40

Luxemburg’s answer was clear-cut. “However great our need for self-criticism, and however broadly we set its limits, there must nonetheless remain a minimum of principles which make up our essence, indeed our existence, which found our cooperation as members of a Party. Within our ranks, ‘freedom of criticism’ cannot apply to these principles, which are few and very general, precisely because they are the precondition for all activity and therefore also any criticism directed at this activity. We have no reason to block our ears when these principles are criticised by somebody outside the Party. But as long as we consider them to be the basis of our existence as a Party, we must remain attached to them and not allow our members to call them into question. Here, we can only allow one freedom: to belong to our Party or not. We force no-one to march with us, but as long as he does so voluntarily, we must suppose that he has accepted our principles”.41

The logical conclusion of Kautsky’s “lack of position” was that everyone could stay in the Party and defend what he liked, the programme is watered down, the Party becomes a “melting pot” of different opinions, not a spearhead for a determined struggle. Kautsky’s attitude showed he preferred loyalty to a friend to the defence of class positions. At the same time, he wanted to adopt the pose of a theoretical “expert”. It is true that he had written some very important and valuable books (see below), and that he had enjoyed the esteem of Engels. But, as Luxemburg noted in a letter to Jogiches: “Karl Kautsky limits himself to theory”.42 Preferring to refrain from any participation in the struggle for the defence of the organisation and its programme, Kautsky gradually started to lose any fighting attitude, and this meant that he placed what he saw as his obligations to his friends above any moral obligations to his organisation and its principles. This led to a detachment of theory from practical, concrete action: for example, Kautsky’s valuable work on ethics, including in particular a chapter on internationalism, was not welded to an unwavering defence of internationalism in action.

There is a striking contrast between Kautsky’s attitude towards Bernstein, and Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude towards Kautsky. On her arrival in Berlin, Luxemburg enjoyed close relations with Kautsky and his family. But she quickly came to feel, that the great regard the Kautsky family showed towards her was becoming a burden. Already in 1899 she had complained to Jogiches: “I am beginning to flee their honeyed words. The Kautskys consider me to be part of their family.” (12/11/1899). “All these tokens of affection (he is very well meaning towards me, I can see this), feel like a terrible burden, instead of being a pleasure to me. In fact, any friendship established in adult age, and more over such a ‘party’-based one, is a burden: It imposes on you certain obligations, is a constraint etc. And precisely this side of the friendship is a handicap for me. After the writing of each article I wonder: Will he not be disappointed, will the friendship not cool down?”.43 She was aware of the dangers of an attitude based on affinities, where considerations of personal obligation, friendship, or common tastes, obscure the militant’s political judgment, but also what we may call his moral judgment as to whether a particular line of action is in conformity with the organisation’s principles.44 Luxemburg nonetheless dared to confront him openly: “I had a fundamental row with Kautsky about the whole way of looking at things. He told me in conclusion, that I would be thinking like him in twenty odd years, to which I replied that if so I would be a zombie in 20 years.”45

At the Lübeck party congress of 1901 Luxemburg was accused of distorting the positions of other comrades, an accusation she considered slanderous and demanded to have cleared up in public. She submitted a statement for publication in Vorwärts with this in mind.46 But Kautsky on behalf of Neue Zeit urged her to withdraw her demand for publication of her Statement. She replied to Kautsky: “Of course I am willing to refrain from publishing my declaration in the Neue Zeit but allow me to add a few words of explanation. If I were one of those people, who without consideration for anyone, safeguarded their own rights and interests – and such people are legion throughout our Party – or rather that is the way they all are – I would naturally insist upon publication, for you yourself have admitted that you as editor had certain obligations towards me in this matter. But while admitting this obligation, you at the same time placed a revolver of friendly admonition and request at my breast [to prevent me] from making use of this obligation and thus getting my rights. Well I am sickened at the thought of having to insist upon rights if these are only to be granted amid sighs and gnashing of teeth, and when people not only grab me by the arm and thus expect me to ‘defend’ myself but try in addition to beat me to a pulp, in the hope that I may thus be persuaded to renounce my rights. You have gained what you are after – you are free of all obligations towards me in this case.

But it would seem that you labour under the delusion that you acted solely out of friendship and in my best interests. Permit me to destroy this illusion. As a friend you ought to have said: ‘I advise you unconditionally and at any cost to defend your honour as a writer, for greater writers (…) like Marx and Engels wrote whole pamphlets, conducted endless ink-wars, when anybody dared to accuse them of such a thing as forgery. All the more you, a young writer with many enemies, must try to obtain complete satisfaction…’ That surely is what you should have advised me as a friend.

The friend, however, was soon pushed into the background by the editor of the Neue Zeit, and the latter has only one wish since the Party congress [at Lübeck]; he wants peace, he wants to show that the Neue Zeit has learned manners since the whipping it got, has learned to keep its mouth shut.47 And fur such reasons the essential rights of an associate editor and regular contributor… must be sacrificed. Let a collaborator of Neue Zeit and one at that who by no means does the worst of the work – swallow even a public accusation of forgery as long as peace and quiet is maintained! That is how things are, my friend! And now with best greetings, your Rosa.”.48

Here we see a young, determined revolutionary, and a woman to boot, insisting that the “old”, “orthodox”, experienced, authority should take personal responsibility. Kautsky replied to Luxemburg: “you see, we should not antagonise the people of the parliamentary fraction, we should not leave the impression that we are patronising them. If you want to make them a suggestion, it is better to send them a private letter, which will be much more effective.49 But Rosa Luxemburg tried to “revive” the fighting spirit in him “You must thoroughly hit out with guts and joy, and not as though it was a boring interlude; the public always feels the spirit of the combatants and the joy of battle gives resonance to controversy, and ensures moral superiority.”50 This attitude of not wanting to disturb the normal running of party life, not taking up position in the debate, not pushing for clarification of divergences, running away from debate and tolerating the revisionists, more and more alienated Luxemburg and it brought to the fore how much the fighting spirit, the loss of morality, the loss of conviction, of determination, had become the overriding trait of Kautsky’s attitude.  “I now read his [article]Nationalism and Internationalism, and it was a horror and nauseating. Soon I shall no longer be able to read any of his writings. I feel as if a nauseating spider web is covering my head…”.51Kautsky is becoming more and more brackish. He is more and more fossilising inside, he no longer feels any human concern about anybody except his family. I really feel uncomfortable with him.52

Kautsky’s attitude can also be contrasted to that of Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches. After the break-up of her relationship with Leo Jogiches in 1906 (which caused her immense pain and stress, as well as great disappointment in him as a partner) the two remained the closest comrades until the day of her assassination. Despite deep personal grudges, disappointment and jealousies, these profound emotional feelings over the break-up of the relationship never prevented them from standing side by side in the political struggle.

One might object that in the case of Kautsky this reflected the lack of personality and character of Kautsky, but it would be more correct to say that he epitomised the moral rot within the Social-Democracy as a whole.

Luxemburg was forced early on to confront the resistance of the “old guard”. When she criticised revisionist policy at the 1898 Stuttgart Congress, “Vollmar reproached me bitterly that I as youngster of the movement want to give lessons to the old veterans (...) But if Vollmar replies to my factual explanations with ‘you greenhorn, I could be your grandfather’, I only see this as proof that he has run out of arguments.”.53 As regards the weakening fighting spirit of the more centrist veterans, in an article written after the 1898 congress she declared that: “We would have preferred it if the veterans had taken up the struggle from the very beginning of the debate (…) If the debate did get off the ground this did not happen because of but despite of the behaviour of the Party leaders (…) Abandoning the debate to its fate, watching passively for two days to see how the wind is blowing and only intervening when the mouthpieces of opportunism have been forced to come out in the open, then making snide remarks about the ‘sharp tone’ of those whose point of view you then defend, is a tactic which does not cast a good light on the Party leaders. And Kautsky’s explanation as to why he has not made a public statement so far about Bernstein’s theory, because he wanted to reserve his right to say the final word in a possible debate, does not really look a good excuse. In February he published Bernstein’s article without any editorial comment in Neue Zeit, then he stays silent for 4 months, in June he opens the discussions with some compliments to the ‘new’ point of view of Bernstein, this new poor copy of the lecture-room socialist [a term used by Engels in his Anti-Dühring], then he stays silent again for 4 months, lets the Party congress begin then declares during the course of the debate that he would like to make the concluding remarks. We would prefer that the theoretician ex officio should always intervene in the debates and not just make the conclusion in such crucial matters, and that he should not give the wrong and misleading impression of not having known for a long time what he should have said.54

Thus many of the old guard, who had fought under conditions of the anti-Socialist law, had been disarmed by the weight of democratism and reformism. They had become unable to understand the new period and started to theorise instead the abandonment of the socialist goal. Instead of passing on the lessons of the struggle under the conditions of the anti-Socialist law to a new generation, they had lost their fighting spirit. And the centrist current which was hiding and avoiding the combat, by running away from an open battle with the opportunists, paved the way for the rise of the right.

While the centrists were avoiding the struggle, the left wing around Luxemburg showed its combative spirit and was ready to take over responsibility. Seeing that in reality “Bebel himself has already become senile, and lets things slide; he feels relieved if others struggle, but he himself has neither the energy nor the drive to take the initiative. K [Kautsky] restricts himself to theory, nobody takes on any responsibility.”55This means the party is in a bad way (…) Nobody leads it, nobody takes on responsibility.” The left wing aimed at gaining more influence and was convinced of the need to act as the spearhead. Luxemburg wrote to Jogiches: “Only one year of perseverant, positive work, and my position will be great. At the moment I cannot restrict the sharpness in my speeches, because we have to defend the most extreme position”.56 This influence, however, was not to be achieved at the price of a watering down of positions.

Convinced of the need for a determined leadership, and recognising that she would be facing the resistance of the hesitant, she wanted to push the party. “A person, moreover who does not belong to the ruling clique [Sippschaft], who won’t rely on anyone’s support but uses nothing but her own elbows, a person feared for the future not only by obvious opponents like Auer and Co. but even by allies (Bebel, Kautsky, Singer), a person best kept at arm’s length because she may grow several heads too tall? (…) I have no intention of limiting myself to criticism. On the contrary, I have every intention and urge to ‘push’ positively, not individuals but the movement as a whole… point out new ways, fighting, acting as a gadfly – in a word, a chronic incentive for the whole movement”.57 In October 1905 Luxemburg was offered the opportunity to participate in the editorial board of Vorwärts. She was intransigent on a possible censorship of her positions. “If because of my articles there is a conflict with the leadership or with the editorial board, then I should not be the only one to leave the editorial board, but the whole left would show solidarity and leave Vorwärts, then the editorial board would be blown up”. For a short spell the left gained some influence.

The decline of proletarian life in the SPD

The process of degeneration of the Party was not only marked by open attempts to abandon its programmatic positions, and by the lack of fighting spirit in broad sections of the Party. Beneath the surface lay a constant under-current of petty spite and personal denigration directed at those who defended most intransigently the organisation’s principles and disturbed the façade of unity. Kautsky’s attitude towards Luxemburg’s criticism of Bernstein, for example, was ambivalent. Despite his friendly relations with Luxemburg he could nonetheless write to Bernstein: “That spiteful creature Luxemburg is unhappy with the truce until the publication of your pamphlet, every day she presents another pinprick on ‘tactics’”.58

At times, as we will see, this under-current would break through the surface in slanderous accusations and personal attacks.

It was above all the right which reacted by personalising and scapegoating the “enemy” within the party. When a clarification of the profound divergences through an open confrontation was needed, the right – instead of coming forward with arguments in a debate, shied away and instead began slandering the most prominent members of the left.

Showing a clear feeling of inferiority on a theoretical level, they spread slanderous innuendo about Luxemburg in particular, making male chauvinist comments and insinuations about her “unhappy” emotional life and social relations (her relationship with Leo Jogiches was not known to the party): “this clever spiteful old maid will also come to Hanover. I respect her and consider her to be stronger than Parvus. But she hates me from the bottom of her heart.59

The right wing party secretary Ignaz Auer admitted to Bernstein: “Even if we are not equal to our opponents, because not everyone is able to play a big role, we stand our ground against the rhetoric and the rude remarks. But if there was a ‘clean’ divorce, which nobody by the way considers seriously, Clara [Zetkin] and Rosa would be left on their own. Not even their [lovers] would take their defence, neither their former nor their present ones.60

The same Auer did not hesitate to use xenophobic tones, saying that the “main attacks against Bernstein and his supporters and against Schippel were not by German comrades, and did not come out of the German movement. The activities of these people, in particular of Mrs. Rosa Luxemburg were disloyal, and not nice amongst comrades”.61 These kinds of xenophobic tones – especially against Luxemburg, who was of Jewish origin – became a permanent feature in the right’s campaign, which was to become increasingly vicious in the years leading up to World War I.62

The right wing of the party even wrote satirical comments or texts on Luxemburg.63 Luxemburg and other figures on the left had already been targeted in a particularly vile manner in Poland. Paul Frölich reports in his biography of Luxemburg, that many slanders were levelled against left figures such as Warski and Luxemburg. Luxemburg was accused of being paid by the Warsaw police officer Markgrafski, when she published an article on the question of national autonomy; she was also accused of being a paid agent of the Okhrana, the Russian secret police.64

Rosa Luxemburg started to feel sickened by the atmosphere in the party. “Each closer contact with the gang of the Party creates such a feeling of unease, that each time I am determined to say: three sea miles away from the lowest point of low-tide! After having been together with them I smell so much dirt, I sense so much weakness of character, so much shabbiness, that I rush back to my mouse hole.”65

This was in 1899, but 10 years later, her opinion of the behaviour of some of the party's leaading figures had not improved: “After all, try to remain calm and do not forget that apart from the Party leadership and the scoundrels (canaille) of the Zietz type. there are still many beautiful and pure things. Apart from the immediate inhumanity he [Zietz] appears as a painful symptom of general wretchedness, into which our ‘leadership’ has sunk, a symptom of a frightening terribly poor mental state. Some other time this rotting seaweed will hopefully be swept away by a foaming wave”.66 And she frequently expressed her indignation at the stifling bureaucratic atmosphere in the party: “I sometimes feel really miserable here and I feel like running away from Germany. In any Siberian village you care to name there is more humanity than in the whole of German Social Democracy.67 This attitude of scapegoating and trying to destroy the reputation of the left was sowing the seeds for her later physical assassination by the Freikorps, who killed Luxemburg in January 1919 under the orders of the SPD. The tone employed against her within the Party prepared the pogrom atmosphere against revolutionaries in the revolutionary wave of 1918-1923. The character assassination which gradually seeped into the Party, and the lack of indignation about it, in particular from the centre, contributed to disarming the party morally.

Censuring and silencing the opposition

In addition to the scapegoating, personalisation and xenophobic attacks the different instances of the party under the influence of the right began to censure the articles of the left, and of Luxemburg in particular. Above all after 1905, when the question of mass action was on the agenda (see below), the Party increasingly tried to muzzle her and prevent her articles on the question of the mass strike and the Russian experience from being published. Although the left had strongholds in some cities,68 the whole right wing of the party apparatus was trying to prevent her from spreading her positions in the Party’s central organ Vorwärts: “We have regretfully to decline your article since, in accordance with an agreement between the Party executive, the executive commission of the Prussian provincial organization [of the SPD], and the editor, the question of the mass strike is not to be dealt with in Vorwärts for the time being.”69

As we shall see the consequences of the moral decline and the decline in solidarity within the Party were to have a noxious effect when imperialist tensions sharpened and the left insisted on the need to respond with mass action .

Franz Mehring, a well-known and respected figure of the left, was also often attacked. But unlike Rosa Luxemburg he was easily offended, and tended to retire from the struggle when he felt he had been unjustly attacked. For example, before the Party congress in Dresden 1903, Mehring criticised Social Democrats writing in the bourgeois press as being incompatible with Party membership. The opportunists launched a campaign of slander against him. Mehring asked for a Party tribunal, which met and adopted a “mild judgement” against the opportunists. But more and more, as he came under increasing pressure from the right, Mehring tended to withdraw from the Party press. Luxemburg insisted that he should stand up to the pressure from the right and to their slanders: “You will surely feel that we are increasingly approaching times when the masses in the Party will need energetic, ruthless and generous leadership, and that without you our powers-that-be – executive, central organ, Reichstag caucus, and the ‘scientific paper’, will become continually more wretched, small-minded and cowardly. Clearly we shall have to face up to this attractive future, and we must occupy and hold all those positions which make it possible to spike the official leadership’s guns by exercising the right to criticise. (…) This makes it our duty to stick it out and not do the official Party bosses the favour of packing up. We have to accept continual struggles and friction, particularly when anyone attacks that holy of holies, parliamentary cretinism, as strongly as you have done. But in spite of all – not to give an inch seems to be the right slogan. Neue Zeit must not be handed over entirely to senility and officialdom.70

The watershed of 1905

As the new century opened, the foundation on which revisionists and reformists alike had built their theory and practice began to crumble.

Superficially, and despite occasional setbacks, the capitalist economy still appeared to be in robust health, continuing its unstoppable expansion across the last regions still unoccupied by the imperialist powers, notably Africa and China. The expansion of capitalism across the globe had reached a stage where the imperialist powers could only expand their influence at the cost of their rivals. All the great powers were increasingly involved in an unprecedented arms race, with Germany in particular engaged in a massive programme of naval expansion. Though few realised at the time, the year 1905 marked a watershed: a dispute between two great powers led to large-scale war, and the war in turn led to the first massive revolutionary upsurge of the working class.

The war, begun in 1904, was fought between Russia and Japan for control of the Korean peninsula. Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, and the strikes of January 1905 were a direct reaction against the effects of the war. For the first time in history, a gigantic wave of mass strikes shook an entire country. The phenomenon was not confined to Russia. Although not as massively and with a different background and different demands, similar strike movements broke out in a series of other European countries: 1902 in Belgium, 1903 in the Netherlands, 1905 in the Ruhr area in Germany. A number of massive wildcat strikes also took place in the United States between 1900 and 1906 (notably in the Pennsylvania coal mines). In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg – both as a revolutionary agitator and journalist for the German Party, and as a member of the SDKPiL’s Central Committee71 - had been following attentively the struggles in Russia and Poland.72 In December 1905, she felt that she could no longer remain in Germany as a mere observer, and left for Poland to participate directly in the movement. Closely involved in the day-to-day process of class struggle and revolutionary agitation, she witnessed at first hand the newly unfolding dynamic of the mass strikes.73 Together with other revolutionary forces she began to draw the lessons. At the same time as Trotsky wrote his famous book on 1905 where he highlighted the role of the workers’ councils, Luxemburg in her text Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions74 underlined the historical significance of the “birth of the mass strike” and its consequences for the working class internationally. Her text on the mass strike was a first programmatic text of the left currents in the 2nd International, aimed at drawing the broader lessons and highlighting the importance of autonomous, massive action of the working class.75

Luxemburg’s theory of the mass strike went completely against the vision of class struggle generally accepted by the Party and the trade unions. For the latter, class struggle was almost like a military campaign, in which confrontation should only be sought once the army had built up an overwhelming strength, while the Party and union leaderships were to act as a general staff with the masses of workers manoeuvring according to orders. This was a long way from Luxemburg’s insistence on the creative self-activity of the masses, and any idea that the workers themselves might act independently of the leadership was anathema to the union bosses, who in 1905 were faced for the first time with the prospect of being overrun by just such a massive wave of autonomous struggles. The reaction of the right wing of the SPD and the union leadership was simply to ban any discussion of the issue. At the unions’ May 1905 Congress in Köln they rejected any discussion on the mass strike as “reprehensible76 (verwerflich) and went on to say that “The TU congress recommends all organised workers to energetically oppose this [propagation of the mass strike]”. This heralded the cooperation between the ruling class and the SPD and unions in fighting revolution.

The German bourgeoisie had also followed the movement attentively, and wanted above all to prevent German workers from “copying the Russian example”. Because of her speech on the mass strike at the SPD’s 1905 Congress in Jena, Rosa Luxemburg was accused of “incitation to violence” (Aufreizung zu Gewalttätigkeit) and was sentenced to two months in prison. Kautsky meanwhile tried to play down the significance of the mass strikes, insisting they were above all a product of primitive Russian conditions, which could not be applied to an advanced country like Germany. He used “the term ‘Russian method’ as a symbol for lack of organisation, primitiveness, chaos, wildness”.77 In his 1909 book The Road to Power, Kautsky claimed that “mass action is an obsolete strategy of overthrowing the enemy” and contrasted it with his proposed “strategy of attrition” (Ermattungsstrategie).78

The mass party against the mass strike

Refusing to consider the mass strike as a perspective for the working class across the world, Kautsky attacked Luxemburg’s position as if it were merely a personal whim. Kautsky wrote to Luxemburg: “I do not have the time to explain to you the reasons which Marx and Engels, Bebel and Liebknecht accepted as substantive. Briefly, what you want is a totally new kind of agitation, which we have always rejected so far. But this new agitation is of such a kind that it is not advisable to debate this in public. If we publish the article you would act on your own account, as an individual person, and proclaim a totally new agitation and action, which the Party has always rejected. A single person, no matter how high her standing may be, cannot act on her own account and make a fait accompli, which would have unpredictable consequences for the Party.”.79

Luxemburg rejected the attempt to present the analysis and importance of the mass strike as a “personal policy”.80 Even though revolutionaries must acknowledge the existence of different conditions in different countries, they must above all grasp the global dynamic of the changing conditions of the class struggle, in particular those tendencies which herald the future. Kautsky opposed the “Russian experience” as an expression of Russia’s backwardness, indirectly refusing international solidarity and spreading a viewpoint imbued with national prejudice, pretending that the workers in Germany with their powerful trade unions were more advanced and their methods “superior” … i.e. at a time, when the trade union leadership was already blocking the mass strike and autonomous action! And when Luxemburg was sent to jail for propagating the mass strike, Kautsky and his followers showed no sign of outrage and did not protest.

Luxemburg, who could not be silenced by such attempts at censorship, reproached the party leadership for focussing their entire attention on preparing the elections. “All questions of tactics should be drowned out by the delirium of joy over our present and future electoral successes? Does Vorwärts really believe that the political deepening and reflection of large layers of the Party could be fostered with this permanent atmosphere of hailing future electoral success a year,, possibly a year and a hal, before the elections and by silencing any self-critique in the Party?81

Apart from Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek was the most vocal critic of Kautsky’s “strategy of attrition”. In his book “Tactical differences/ in the workers’ movement”82 Pannekoek undertook a systematic and fundamental critique of the “old tools” of parliamentarism and the trade union struggle. Pannekoek was also to be the victim of censorship and repression within the Social Democratic and trade union apparatus, and lost his job at the Party school as a result. Increasingly, both Luxemburg’s and Pannekoek’s articles were censored by the Party press. In November 1911 Kautsky for the first time refused to publish an article by Pannekoek in Neue Zeit.83

Thus the mass strikes of 1905 forced the SPD leadership to show its real face and oppose any mobilisation of the working class that tried to take up the “Russian experience”. Already, years before the unleashing of the war,, the trade union leadership had become a bulwark for capitalism. Under the pretext of taking different conditions of the class struggle into account, in reality this was used to reject international solidarity, with the right wing forces within Social Democracy trying to provoke fears and even whip up national resentment about “Russian radicalism” This was going to be an important ideological weapon in the war which started a few years later. Thus after 1905 the centre, which had been wavering until then, gradually became more and more pulled over towards the right. The inability and unwillingness of the centre to support the struggle of the left in the party meant that the left became more and more isolated within the Party.

As Luxemburg pointed out, “The practical effect of comrade Kautsky’s intervention is reduced to this: he has provided a theoretical cover to those in the Party and the unions who observe the impetuous growth of the mass movement with growing unease, and would like to bring it to a halt as soon as possible and return the struggle to well-worn and comfortable old rut of union and parliamentary activity. Kautsky has provided them with a remedy to their scruples of conscience, under the aegis of Marx and Engels; at the same time he has offered them a means to break the back of a movement of demonstrations that he supposedly wanted to make ‘ever more powerful’”.84

The threat of war and the International

The 2nd International’s 1907 Stuttgart Congress tried to draw the lessons of the Russo-Japanese war and to throw the weight of the organised working class into the balance against the growing menace of war. Some 60,000 people took part in a demonstration – with speakers from more than a dozen countries warning of the danger of war. August Bebel proposed a resolution against the danger of war, which avoided the question of militarism as an integral part of the capitalist system and made no mention the struggle of the workers in Russia against war. The German Party intended to avoid being tied by any prescriptions as to its action in the event of war, in the form of a general strike above all. Lenin, Luxemburg and Martov together proposed a more robust amendment to the resolution: “Should war break out in spite of all this, it is [the Socialist Parties’] duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”.85 The Stuttgart congress voted unanimously for this resolution, but afterwards the majority of the 2nd International failed to strengthen their opposition to the increasing war preparations. The Stuttgart Congress entered into history as an example of verbal declarations without action by most of the attending parties.86 But it was an important moment of cooperation amongst the left wing currents, who despite their differences on many other questions took up a common stand against the question of war.

In February 1907 Karl Liebknecht published his book Militarism and Anti-militarism with special attention to the international youth movement, in which he denounced in particular the role of German militarism. In October 1907 he was sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment for high treason. Yet in the same year, the leading right wing figure in the SPD, Noske, declared in a speech in the Reichstag, that in case of a “war of defence” Social Democracy would support the government and “defend the fatherland with great passion..Our attitude towards the military is determined by our view on the national question. We demand the autonomy of each nation. But this means that we also insist on the preservation of the autonomy of the German people. We are fully aware that it is our duty and obligation to make sure that the German people are not pushed against the wall by some other people.87 This was the same Noske who in 1918 was to become the bloodhound of SPD-led repression against the workers.

Selling internationalism for electoral success

In 1911 Germany’s despatch of the destroyer Panther to Agadir provoked the second Moroccan Crisis with France. The SPD leadership renounced any anti-militarist action in order to avoid putting at risk its electoral success in the upcoming 1912 election. When Luxemburg denounced this attitude, the SPD leadership accused her of betraying Party secrets. In August 1911 after much hesitation and attempts to avoid the question, the Party leadership distributed a leaflet which was meant to be a protest against the Morocco policy of German imperialism. The leaflet was strongly criticised by Luxemburg in her article “Our leaflet on Morocco”,88 unaware as she wrote that Kautsky was the author. Kautsky replied with a very personalised attack. Luxemburg fought back: Kautsky, she said, had presented her critique as “a malicious, back-stabbing, perfidious attack against [Kautsky] as a person. (…) Comrade Kautsky will hardly be able to doubt my courage to face someone in an open manner, to criticise or fight against someone directly. I have never attacked a person from ambush and I strongly reject the suggestion of comrade Kautsky that I knew who had written the leaflet and that I had – without naming him – targeted him. (…) but I would have taken care not to begin an unnecessary polemic with a comrade who overreacts with such a flood of personal vituperation, bitterness and suspicion against a strictly factual, although strong critique, and who suspects a personal, nasty, bitchy intention behind each word of critique.”89 At the Jena Party congress in September 1911, the Party leadership circulated a special pamphlet against Rosa Luxemburg, full of attacks against her, accusing her of breaching confidentiality and of having informed the International Socialist Bureau of the 2nd International of the SPD’s internal correspondence.

Kautsky deserts the struggle against war

Although in his 1909 book on The Road to Power Kautsky warned that “the world war is coming dangerously close”, in 1911 he predicted, that “everyone will become a patriot” once war breaks out. And that if Social Democracy decided to swim against the current, it would be torn apart by the enraged mob. He placed his hopes for peace on the “countries representing European civilisation” forming a United States of Europe. At the same time he began to develop his theory of “super-imperialism”; underlying this theory was the idea that imperialist conflict was not an inevitable consequence of capitalist expansion but merely a “policy” which enlightened capitalist states could choose to reject. Kautsky already thought that the war would relegate class contradictions to the background and the proletariat’s mass action would be doomed to failure, that – as he would say when war broke out – the International was only good for peace time. This attitude of being aware of the danger of war but bowing to the dominant nationalist pressure and shying away from a determined struggle disarmed the working class and paved the way for the betrayal of the interests of the proletariat. Thus on the one hand Kautsky minimised the real explosiveness of imperialist tensions in his theory of “super-imperialism” and so completely failed to perceive the ruling classes’ determination to prepare for war; while on the other he pandered to the nationalist ideology of the government (and increasingly of the right wing in the SPD also) rather than confronting it, out of fear for the SPD’s electoral success. His backbone, his fighting spirit, had disappeared.

When a determined denunciation of the war preparations was needed, and while the left wing did its best to organise anti-war public meetings which attracted participants in their thousands, the SPD leadership was mobilising to the hilt for the upcoming 1912 parliamentary elections. Luxemburg denounced the self-imposed silence on the danger of war as an opportunistic attempt to score more parliamentary seats, sacrificing internationalism in order to gain more votes.

In 1912 the threat to peace posed by the Second Balkan War led the ISB to organise an emergency special Congress held in November in Basel, Switzerland, with the specific aim of mobilising the international working class against the imminent danger of war. Luxemburg criticised the fact that the German Party had merely tail-ended the German unions who had organised a few low-key protests, arguing that the Party as a political organ of the working class had done no more than pay lip-service to the denunciation of war. Whereas a few parties in other countries had reacted more vigorously, the SPD, the biggest workers’ party in the world, had essentially withdrawn from the agitation and abstained from mobilising further protests. The Basel congress, which once again ended with a big demonstration and appeals for peace, in fact masked the rottenness and future betrayal of many of its member parties.

On June 3rd 1913, the SPD parliamentary fraction voted in favour of a special military tax: 37 SPD deputies who opposed the vote in favour were reduced to silence by the principle of the discipline of the parliamentary fraction. The open breach with the previous motto of “not a single man, not a single penny” for the system prepared the parliamentary fraction’s vote for war credits in August 1914.90 The moral decline of the party was also revealed through Bebel’s reaction. In 1870/71 August Bebel – together with Wilhelm Liebknecht (Karl Liebknecht’s father) – distinguished himself by his determined opposition to the Franco-Prussian war. Now, four decades later, Bebel failed to take up a resolute stand against the danger of war.91

It was becoming increasingly clear that not only was the right going to betray openly, but also that the wavering centrists had lost all fighting spirit and would fail to oppose the preparation for war in a determined manner. The attitude defended by the most famous representative of the “centre”, Kautsky, according to which the Party should adapt its position on the question of war following the reactions of the population (passive submission if the majority of the country assented to nationalism or a more resolute stand if there was increasing opposition to war), was justified by the danger of “isolating oneself from the bulk of the Party”. When after 1910 the current around Kautsky claimed to be the “Marxist centre” in contrast to the (extremist, radical, unmarxist) left, Luxemburg labelled this “centre” as representatives of cowardice, cautiousness and conservatism.

Their desertion from the struggle, their inability to oppose the right and to follow the left in their determined struggle, helped to disarm the workers. Thus the betrayal of August 1914 by the Party leadership came as no surprise; it was prepared little by little in a piecemeal process. The support for German imperialism became tangible in several votes in parliament to support war credits, in the efforts to curb any protests against the war, in the whole attitude of taking sides with German imperialism and chaining the working class to nationalism and patriotism. The process of muzzling the left wing was crucial in the abandonment of internationalism and prepared the repression of revolutionaries in 1919.

Blinded by numbers

While the SPD leadership had been focussing its activities on parliamentary elections, the Party itself was blinded by electoral success and lost sight of the final goal of the workers’ movement. The Party hailed the apparently uninterrupted growth in voters, in the number of deputies and in the readership of the Party press. The growth was indeed impressive: in 1907 the SPD had 530,000 members; by 1913 the figure had doubled to almost 1.1 million. The SPD in reality was the only mass party of the 2nd International and the biggest single party in any European parliament. This numerical growth gave the illusion of great strength. Even Lenin was remarkably uncritical about the “impressive figures” of members, voters and the impact of the party.92

Although it is impossible to establish a mechanical relationship between political intransigence and electoral scores, the 1907 elections, when the SPD still condemned the barbaric repression of German imperialism against the Herero risings in South-West Africa, led to an electoral “set-back”, as the SPD lost 38 parliamentary seats and was left with 43 seats ‘only’. Despite the fact that the SPD’s share of the overall vote had actually risen, in the eyes of the Party leadership this electoral set-back meant that the Party had been punished by the voters, and above all by the voters of the petty bourgeoisie, because of its denunciation of German imperialism. The conclusion they drew was that the SPD should avoid opposing imperialism and nationalism too strongly, as this would cost votes. Instead the Party would have to focus all its forces on campaigning for the next elections, even if this meant censuring its discussions and avoiding anything which might put its electoral score at risk. In the 1912 elections the party scored 4.2 million votes (38.5% of the votes cast) and won 110 seats. It had become the biggest single parliamentary group, but only by burying internationalism and the principles of the working class. In the local parliaments it had more than 11,000 deputies. The SPD boasted 91 newspapers and 1.5 million subscribers. In the 1912 elections, the SPD’s integration into the game of parliamentary politics went one step further when it withdrew candidates in several constituencies to the benefit of the Fortschrittliche Volkspartei (Progressive People’s Party), even though this party supported unconditionally the policy of German imperialism. Meanwhile the Sozialistische Monatshefte (in principle a non-Party publication, but in effect the revisionists’ theoretical organ) openly supported Germany’s colonial policy and the claims of German imperialism for a redistribution of colonies.

Gradual integration into the state

In fact the full mobilisation of the party for parliamentary elections went hand in hand with its gradual integration into the state apparatus. The indirect vote for the budget in July 1910,93 the increasing cooperation with bourgeois parties, (which had up to then been anathema), such as abstaining from nominating candidates in some constituencies in order to make possible the election of MPs of the bourgeois Fortschrittliche Volkspartei, the nomination of a candidate for the mayoral elections in Stuttgart – these were some of the steps on the road to the SPD’s direct participation in running the state administration.

This whole trend towards a growing interconnection between the SPD’s parliamentary activities and its identification with the state was castigated by the left, in particular by Anton Pannekoek and Luxemburg. Pannekoek dedicated a whole book to the Tactical differences within the worker’ movement. Luxemburg, who was extremely alert to the suffocating effect of parliamentarism, pressed for initiative and action from the rank and file: “the most ideal party executive would be able to achieve nothing, would involuntarily sink into bureaucratic inefficiency, if the natural source of its energy, the will of the Party, does not make itself felt, if critical thought, the initiative of the mass of the Party’s membership is sleeping. In fact it is more than this. If its own energy, the independent intellectual life of the mass of the Party, is not active enough, then the central authorities have the quite natural tendency to not only bureaucratically rust but also to get a totally wrong idea of their own official authority and position of power with respect to the Party. The most recent so-called ‘secret decree’ of our Party executive to the Party editorial staffs can serve as fresh proof, an attempt to make decisions for the Party press, which cannot be sharply enough rejected. However, here also it is necessary to make it clear: against both inefficiency and excessive illusions of power of the central authorities of the labour movement there is no other way except one’s own initiative, one’s own thought, and the fresh, pulsating political life of the broad mass of the Party.”94

Indeed, Luxemburg constantly insisted on the need for the mass of the Party members to “wake up” and take up their responsibility against the degenerating Party leadership. “The big masses [of the Party] have to activate themselves in their own way, must be able to develop their own mass energy, their own drive, they have to become active as a mass, act, show and develop passion, courage and determination.”95

Every step forward in the struggle for emancipation of the working class must at the same time mean a growing intellectual independence of its mass, its growing self-activity, self-determination and initiative (…) It is vitally important for the normal development of the political life in the Party, to keep the political thought and the will of the mass of the Party awake and active,.. We have, of course, the yearly Party conference as the highest instance which regularly fixes the will of the whole party. However, it is obvious that the Party conferences can only give general outlines of the tactics for the Social Democratic struggle. The application of these guidelines in practice requires untiring thought, quick-wittedness and initiative (…) To want to make a Party executive responsible for the whole enormous task of daily political vigilance and initiative, on whose command a Party organisation of almost a million passively waits, is the most incorrect thing there is from the standpoint of the proletarian class struggle. This is without doubt that reprehensible ‘blind obedience’ which our opportunists definitely want to see in the self-evident subordination of all to the decisions of the whole party”.96

Fraction discipline strangles individual responsibility

On 4th August 1914, the SPD parliamentary fraction voted unanimously for war credits. The Party leadership and parliamentary fraction had demanded “fraction discipline”. The censorship (state censorship or self-censorship?) and false unity of the Party followed their own logic, the very opposite of personal responsibility. The process of degeneration meant that the capacity for critical thinking and opposition to the false unity of the Party had been sapped. The moral values of the Party were sacrificed on the altar of capital. In the name of Party discipline the Party demanded the abandoning of proletarian internationalism. Karl Liebknecht, whose father had dared to reject the support for the war credits in 1870, now bowed to Party pressure. It was only a few weeks later, following a first regrouping of comrades who had remained loyal to internationalism, that he dared to express openly his rejection of the mobilisation for war by the SPD leadership. But the vote for war credits by the German SPD had triggered off an avalanche of submission to nationalism in other European countries. With the betrayal of the SPD the 2nd International signed its death warrant and disintegrated.

The rise of the opportunistic and revisionist current, which had appeared most clearly in the biggest Party of the 2nd International, and which abandoned the goal of the overthrow of capitalist society, meant that proletarian life, fighting spirit and moral indignation disappeared within the SPD, or at least in the ranks of its leadership and its bureaucracy. At the same time this process was inseparably linked to the SPD’s programmatic degeneration, visible in its refusal to adopt the new weapons of the class struggle, the mass strike and workers’ self-organisation, and the gradual abandonment of internationalism. The process of degeneration of German Social-Democracy, which was not an isolated phenomenon in the 2nd International, led to its betrayal in 1914. For the first time a political organisation of the workers had not only betrayed the interests of the working class, it became one of the most effective weapons in the hands of the capitalist class. The ruling class in Germany could now count on the SPD’s authority, and the loyalty it inspired in the working class, to unleash war and then to crush the workers’ revolt against war. The lessons of the degeneration of Social Democracy thus remain crucially important for revolutionaries today.

Heinrich / Jens

1 With 38.5% of the votes cast, the SPD had 110 seats in the Reichstag.

2 Karl Kautsky was born in Prague in 1854; his father was a set designer and his mother an actress and writer. The family moved to Vienna when Kautsky was aged 7. He studied at Vienna University and joined the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) in 1875. In 1880 he was in Zürich, helping to smuggle socialist literature into Germany.

3 August Bebel was born in 1840, in what is now a suburb of Cologne. Orphaned at 13, he was apprenticed to a carpenter and as a young man travelled extensively in Germany. He met Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1865, and was immediately impressed by Liebknecht’s international experience; in his auto-biography, Bebel remembers exclaiming “That is a man you can learn something from” (“Donnerwetter, von dem kann man das lernen”, Bebel, Aus Meinen Leben, Berlin 1946, cited in James Joll, The Second International). Together with Liebknecht, Bebel became one of German Social-Democracy’s outstanding leaders in its early years.

4 This is clearly visible in Lenin’s One step forward, two steps back, concerning the crisis in the RSDLP in 1903. Speaking of the future Mensheviks he writes: “Their narrow circle mentality and astonishing immaturity as Party members, which cannot stand the fresh breeze of open controversy in the presence of all, is here clearly revealed (...) Can you imagine such an absurdity, such a squabble, such a complaint about ‘false accusations of opportunism’ in the German party? There, proletarian organisation and discipline weaned them from such intellectualist flabbiness long ago (...) Only the most hidebound circle mentality, with its logic of ‘either coats off, or let’s have your hand’, could give rise to hysterics, squabbles, and a Party split because of a 'false accusation of opportunism against the majority of the Emancipation of Labour group

5 Rosa Luxemburg, The crisis in the German SocialDemocracy (better known as the Junius pamphlet), chapter 1. Luxemburg's pamphlet is required reading for anyone trying to understand the underlying causes of the First World War.

6 Luxemburg, ibid.

7 The SPD central press organ.

8 Also known as the Eisenacher party, from the city of its foundation.

9 Marx, First Address of the IWA General Council on the Civil War in France.

10 A similar tendency survived in French socialism out of nostalgia for the "national workshops" programme that had followed the revolutionary movement of 1848.

11 Cf Toni Offerman, in Between reform and revolution: German socialism and communism from 1840 to 1990, Berghahn Books, 1998, p96.

12 It is known today under the title Critique of the Gotha Programme

13 Marx to Bracke, 5th May 1875

14 Engels to Bebel, March 1875

15 Quoted in Georges Haupt, Aspects of international socialism 1871-1914, Cambridge University Press & Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.

16 The parliamentary vote for war credits in 1914 was thus in clear violation of the SPD's statutes and Congress decisions, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out.

17 Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs, Marx Engels Werke, Bd. 22, Berlin 1963, S. 233-235)

18 Though it should not be forgotten that Russian autocracy was more extreme: the Russian equivalent to the Reichstag, the State Duma, was only called under pressure from the revolutionary movement of 1905.

19 Cf JP Nettl's remarkable biography of Rosa Luxemburg, p81 (Schocken Paperback edition of the 1969 Oxford University Press abridged edition, with an introductory essay by Hannah Arendt). Throughout this article, we have quoted both from the abridged and the unabridged editions.

20 It is significant that while the Party tolerated right-wing reformism, the "Jungen" ("Youth") circle, who violently criticised the shift towards parliamentarism, were expelled from the Party at the Erfurt Congress. It is true that this group was essentially an intellectual and literary opposition with anarchist tendencies (a number of its members drifted into anarchism after leaving the SPD). It is nonetheless characteristic that the Party reacted much more harshly towards a criticism from the left than towards out and out opportunist practice on the right.

21 Cf Jacques Droz, Histoire générale du socialisme, p41, Editions Quadrige/PUF, 1974.

22 Letter to Kautsky, 1896, quoted by Droz, op.cit., p42.

23 Bernstein’s revisionist current was by no means an isolated exception. In France the socialist Millerand joined the government of Waldeck-Rousseau alongside General Gallifet, the hangman of the Paris Commune; a similar tendency existed in Belgium; the British Labour movement was completely dominated by reformism and a narrow-minded nationalist trade unionism.

24the colonial question (…) is a question of the spread of culture and, as long as there are big cultural differences, it is a question of the spread, or rather the assertion, of the higher culture. Because sooner or later it inevitably comes to pass that higher and lower cultures collide, and with regard to this collision, this struggle for existence between cultures, the colonial policy of the cultured peoples must be rated as a historical process. The fact that it is usually pursued from other motives and with means, as well as in forms that we Social Democrats condemn, may lead us in specific cases to reject it and fight against it, but this cannot be a reason for us to change our judgment about the historical necessity of colonisation” (Bernstein, 1907, quoted in Discovering Imperialism, 2012, Haymarket Books, p41).

25 Cf Nettl, op.cit., p101.

26 Parvus, also known as Alexander Helphand, was a strange and controversial figure in the revolutionary movement. After some years on the left of the Social-Democracy in Germany, then in Russia during the 1905 revolution, he moved to Turkey where he set up an arms trading company, becoming wealthy on the proceeds of the Balkan Wars, and simultaneously setting up as financial and political adviser to the Young Turks nationalist movement and editing the nationalist publication Turk Yurdu. During the war, Parvus became an open supporter of German imperialism, much to the distress of Trotsky whose ideas on “permanent revolution” he had strongly influenced (cf Deutscher, The prophet armed, “War and the International”).

27 Quoted in Nettl, op.cit., p133

28 Parteitag der Sozialdemokratie, Oktober 1898 in Stuttgart, Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd 1/1 p241

29 Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Bd 1/1, p. 565, 29.9.1899

30 Rosa Luxemburg, 1899, Ges. Werke Bd 1/1, S. 578, 9.-14. Oktober

31 August Bebel, Dresden, 13.-20.1903, quoted by Luxemburg After the Jena Party congress, Ges. Werke, Bd 1/1, S. 351

32 “Unser leitendes Zentralorgan”, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 22.9.1899, Rosa Luxemburg in Ges. Werke, Bd. 1/1, p. 558.

33 Moreover, Bernstein “began by abandoning the final aim and supposedly keeping the movement. But as there can be no socialist movement without a socialist aim he ends by renouncing the movement” (Reform or revolution, “Collapse”).

34I am very grateful for the information, which helps me to understand better the orientations of the party. It was of course clear to me that Bernstein with his ideas presented so far is no more in line with our programme, but it is painful that we can no longer count on him altogether. But if you and comrade Kautsky had this assessment, I am surprised that that you and comrade Kautsky did not use the favourable atmosphere at the congress to launch immediately an energetic debate, but that you wanted to encourage Bernstein to write a pamphlet, which will only delay the discussion much more.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, p. 210, letter to Bebel, 31.10.1898

35 Rosa Luxemburg, , Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, P. 289, letter to Leo Jogiches, 11. März 1899

36 Kautsky to Bernstein, 29.7.1899, IISG-Kautsky-Nachlass, C. 227, C. 230, quoted in Till Schelz-Brandenburg, Eduard Bernstein und Karl Kautsky, Entstehung und Wandlung des sozialdemokratischen Parteimarxismus im Spiegel ihrer Korrespondenz 1879 bis 1932, Köln, 1992.

37 Rosa Luxemburg, “Parteifragen im Vorwärts”, Gesammelte Werke Bd 1/1, p. 564, 29.9.1899

38 Laschitza, Im Lebensrausch, Trotz Alledem, p.104, 27.Okt. 1898, Kautsky-Nachlass C 209: Kautsky an Bernstein

39 Karl Kautsky to Victor Adler, 20.7.1905, in Victor Adler Briefwechsel, a.a.O. S. 463, quoted by Till Schelz-Brandenburg, p. 338).

40 Rosa Luxemburg – Ges. Werke, Bd 1/1, p. 528, quoting “Kautsky zum Parteitag in Hannover”, Neue Zeit 18, Stuttgart 1899-1900, 1. Bd. S. 12)

41 Translated from the French version, Freedom of criticism and science

42 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, p. 279, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 3. 3. 1899

43 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, p. 426, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 21.12.1899

44 Luxemburg made it a point of honour to give her entire support as an agitator (she was much in demand as a public speaker) even to those Party members she criticised most sharply, for example during the electoral campaign of the revisionist Max Schippel.

45 Rosa Luxemburg Ges. Briefe, Bd. 1, p. 491, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 7.7.1890

46 Rosa Luxemburg, Erklärung, Ges. Werke Bd 1/2 , p 146, 1.10.1901

47 At the Lübeck party congress the Neue Zeit and Kautsky as its editor had been heavily attacked by the opportunists because of the controversy over revisionism.

48 JP Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol 1, p. 192 (the quote here is taken from the unabridged edition), Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Kautsky, 3.10.1901

49 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1,. P. 565, Letter to Jogiches, 12.1.1902

50 Quoted in Nettl, op.cit., p127

51 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe Bd 3, p. 358, Letter to Kostja Zetkin, 27. June 1908

52 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe Bd 3, p. 57, Letter to Kostja Zetkin, 1.August 1909

53 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, 1/1, p. 239, p. 245, - Parteitag der Sozialdemokratie 1898 in Stuttgart, Oktober 1898

54 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke BDI 1/1, S. 255, Nachbetrachtungen zum Parteitag 12-14. Oktober 1898, Sächsische Arbeiter-Zeitung Dresden

55 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, p. 279, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 3.3.1899

56 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe Bd 1, p. 384, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 24.9.1899

57 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, p. 322, Letter to Jogiches, 1.5.1899

58 Kautsky to Bernstein, 29.10.1898, IISG, Amsterdam, Kautsky-Nicholas, C 210.

59 Laschitza, ibid, p. 129, (Ignatz Auer in a letter to Bernstein). In his Histoire générale du socialisme, Jacques Droz describes Auer as follows: “He was a ‘practical’, a ‘reformist’ in practice who gloried in knowing nothing about theory, but nationalist to the point of praising the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine before socialist audiences and opposing the reconstitution of Poland, cynical to the point of rejecting the authority of the International; in reality he cautioned line of the Sozialistische Monatshefte and actively encouraged the development of reformism” (p41).

60 Laschitza, ibid, p. 130 .

61 Laschitza, ibid, p. 136, in Sächsische Arbeiterzeitung, 29.11. 1899

62 Rosa Luxemburg was aware of the hostility towards her at a very early stage. At the Hanover party congress in 1899 the leadership had not wanted to let her speak on the question of customs. She described their attitude in a letter to Jogiches: “We had better have this sorted out in the Party, i.e. in the clan. This is the way things work with them: If the house is burning, they need a scapegoat (a Jew), if the fire has been extinguished, the Jew gets kicked out”. (Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 1, p. 317, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 27.4.1899). Victor Adler wrote to Bebel in 1910 that he had “sufficiently low instincts to get a certain amount of pleasure from what Karl was suffering at the hands of his friends. But it really is too bad – the poisonous bitch will yet do a lot of damage, all the more because she is as clever as a monkey [blitzgescheit] while on the other hand her sense of responsibility is totally lacking and her only motive is an almost perverse desire for self-justification”. (Nettl, 1, p. 432, unabridged version, Victor Adler to August Bebel, 5.8.1910),

63 The satirical weekly Simplicissimus published a nasty poem directed at Luxemburg: 

Nur eines gibt es was ich wirklich hasse:
Das ist der Volksversammlungsrednerin.
Der Zielbewussten, tintenfrohen Klasse.
Ich bin der Ansicht, dass sie alle spinnen.
Sie taugen nichts im Hause, nichts im Bette.
Mag Fräulein Luxemburg die Nase rümpfen,
Auch sie hat sicherlich – was gilt die Wette? –
Mehr als ein Loch in ihren woll’nen Strümpfen

Laschitza, 136, Simplicissimus, 4. Jahrgang, Nr. 33, 1899/1900, S. 263).

64 Frölich, Paul, “Gedanke und Tat”, Rosa Luxemburg, Dietz-Verlag Berlin, 1990, p. 62

65 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe Bd. 1, S. 316, Letter to Leo Jogiches, 27.April 1899

66 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Briefe, Bd 3 S. 89, Letter to Clara Zetkin, 29.9.1909

67 Rosa Luxemburg Ges. Briefe, Bd. 3, p. 268, Letter to Kostja Zetkin, 30.11.1910. These lines were provoked by the philistine reaction within the Party leadership to an article she had written on Tolstoy, which was considered both irrelevant (artistic subjects were not important), and undesirable in the Party press because it praised an artist who was both a Russian and a mystic.

68 Since the Party had a large number of papers, most of which were not under the direct control of the Berlin leadership, it often depended on the attitude of the local editorial board whether articles of the left current were published. The left wing had the biggest audience in Leipzig, Stuttgart, Bremen and Dortmund.

69 Nettl 1 p. 421 (unabridged edition)

70 Nettl, I, p. 464 (unabridged edition).

71 Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy – SDKPiL). The Party was formed in 1893 as the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP), its best-known leading members being Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Julian Marchlewski, and Adolf Warszawski. It became the SDKPiL following the merger with the Union of Workers in Lithuania led by Feliks Dzerzhinsky among others. One of the SDKPiL’s most important distinguishing characteristics was its steadfast internationalism and its conviction that Polish national independence was not in the workers’ interests, and that the Polish workers’ movement should on the contrary ally itself closely with the Russian Social-Democracy and the Bolsheviks in particular. This set it permanently at odds with the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – PPS) which adopted a more and more nationalist orientation under the leadership of Josef Pilsudski, later (not unlike Mussolini) to become dictator of Poland.

72 Poland, it should be remembered, did not exist as a separate country. The major part of historic Poland was part of the Tsarist empire, while other parts had been absorbed by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

73 She was arrested in March 1906, together with Leo Jogiches who had also returned to Poland. There were serious fears for her safety, with the SDKPiL making it known that they would take physical reprisals against government agents should any harm befall her. A mixture of subterfuge and help from her family managed to extricate her from the Tsarist gaols, whence she returned to Germany. Jogiches was sentenced to eight years hard labour, but succeeded in escaping from prison.

74 The full text can be found on marxists.org.

75 See the series of articles on 1905 in the International Review nos 120, 122, 123, 125.

76 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd 2, p. 347

77 Rosa Luxemburg, “Das Offiziösentum der Theorie”, Ges. Werke Bd. 3, p. 307, article published in Neue Zeit, 1912.

78 The debate between Kautsky, Luxemburg and Pannekoek has been published in French under the title Socialisme, la voie occidentale, Presses Universitaires de France.

79 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd. 2, S. 380, “Theorie und die Praxis”, published in Neue Zeit, 28. Jg, 1909/1910, in reply to Kautsky’s article “Was nun?”

80 Rosa Luxemburg, “Die Theorie und Praxis”, Ges. Werke, Bd 2, S. 398

81 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd. 3, S. 441 “Die totgeschwiegene Wahlrechtsdebatte” (“The concealed debate about electoral rights”) 17.8.1910

82 Published in English under the title Marxist theory and revolutionary tactics.

83 At the time another major voice of the left in Holland, Herman Gorter, wrote to Kautsky. “Tactical divergences often entail an estrangement between friends. In my case as far as my relationship with you is concerned, this is not true; as you have noticed. Although you often criticised Pannekoek and Rosa, with whom I agree in general (and you thus also criticised me) I have always maintained the same kind of relationship with you.” (Gorter, Letter to Kautsky, Dec. 1914, Kautsky Archive IISG, DXI 283, quote in Herman Gorter, Herman de Liagre Böhl, Nijmegen, 1973, p. 105). “Out of old love and admiration in the Tribune we always abstained as much as possible from fighting against you” (ibid).

84 In Socialisme, la voie occidentale, p123.

85 Nettl, I, p. 401 (unabridged edition)

86 One major weakness of the more militant declarations was the idea of simultaneous action. Thus the Belgian socialist youth guard adopted a resolution: “it is the duty of the socialist parties and trade unions of all countries to oppose war. The most effective means of this opposition are the general strike and insubordination in response to the war mobilisation.” (The danger of war and the Second International, J. Jemnitz, p. 17). But these means were to be made use of only if they were adopted simultaneously in all countries, in other words intransigent internationalism and antimilitaristic action were made conditional on everyone sharing the same position.

87 Fricke, Dieter, Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, 1869 bis 1917; Dietz-Verlag, Berlin, 1987, p. 120

88 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd. 3, S. 34, published in Leipziger Volkszeitung, 26.8.1911

89 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges.Werke, Bd. 3, S. 43, published in Leipziger Volkszeitung, 30.8.1911

90 Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd 3, S. 11

91I am in an absolutely preposterous situation – I have to take responsibility thus condemning myself to silence though if I followed my own wishes, I would turn against the leadership myself.” (Jemnitz,  p. 73, Letter from Bebel to Kautsky). Bebel died of a heart-attack while in a Swiss sanatorium, on 13th August.

92 In an article “Partei und breite Schicht” he wrote: “There are about a million Party members in Germany today. The Social Democrats there receive about 4,250,000 votes and there are about 15,000,000 proletarians. (...) One million – that is the party, one million in the party organisations; 4,250,000 is the ‘broad section’”. He stressed that “In Germany, for example, about one-fifteenth of the class is organised in the Party; in France about a hundred-and-fortieth part. In Germany there are four or five Social Democrats of the ‘broad section’ to every Party member; in France there are fourteen”. Lenin added: “The party is the politically conscious, advanced section of the class, it is its vanguard. The strength of that vanguard is ten times, a hundred times, more than a hundred times, greater than its numbers.... Organisation increases its strength tenfold” (September 1913, in “How Vera Sassulitch spreads liquidationism”. Lenin, Collected Works, vol 19)

93 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd 2, p. 378

94 Rosa Luxemburg, “Again on the masses and the leaders”, August 1911, originally published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung

95 Rosa Luxemburg, Ges. Werke, Bd. 3, S. 253, “Taktische Fragen”, June 1913

96 “Again on the masses and the leaders”, op.cit.


Historic events: 


Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 



World War I