First published: Die Gleichheit, No.18, 1913, pp.275-77.
This translation: Weekly Worker, No.752, 15 January 2009.
Translated: Ben Lewis.
Copied with thanks from the CPGB/Weekly Worker Website.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
“Hutten’s error was merely that of all prophetic natures: namely to view and desire at once a shining ideal, which humanity can only achieve step by step and bit by bit after centuries of struggle.”
With these words, David Friedrich Strauss closes his novel Hutten. And what applies to Hutten also applies to Lassalle in the same degree. Of course, centuries do not come into consideration in the speedy development of contemporary capitalist development. But what Lassalle managed to wrestle from history in two years of flaming agitation needed many decades to come about. Yet it is precisely this optical illusion – which all prophetic natures succumb to, and causes them like giants from the top of their mountain to imagine the far away horizons to be within their grasp – we must thank for the bold deed from which German social democracy emerged.
The emergence of an independent class party of the proletariat was an historical necessity, stemming from the capitalist economic system and the political nature of the bourgeois class state. German social democracy would have arisen with or without Lassalle, just as the class struggle of the international proletariat would have become the predominant factor of recent history with or without Marx and Engels. Yet the fact that the German proletarian class party already appeared at the gates with such radiance and splendour 50 years ago, more than two decades before all other countries, and acted as a role model for them, is thanks to Lassalle’s life work and his maxim: ‘I dared!’
Class struggle has been the driving force at the core of world history ever since private property separated human society into exploiters and exploited. The modern proletariat’s struggle is merely the last in the series of class struggles running like a red thread through written history. And yet the last 50 years offers something that world history had not seen before: for the first time the spectacle of the great mass of the exploited emerging in an organised and purposeful struggle for the liberation of their class. All previous revolutions were those of minorities in the interest of minorities. And, as the first movements of the proletariat in England and France initiated modern class struggle, the masses would step onto the stage only for a few moments and then melt away in the revolutionary downturn and become absorbed in bourgeois society over and over again.
Brought into existence by Lassalle, German social democracy was the first historic attempt to create a permanent organisation of the masses, the majority of the people, for class struggle. Thanks to Lassalle’s political action and thanks to Marx’s theory, German social democracy has radiantly solved this new task. Its 50-year history has proved that on the basis of proletarian class interests it is possible to unite the ultimate goal of revolution with patient day-to-day struggle, to unite scientific theory with the most sober praxis, to unite tight and disciplined organisation with the mass character of the movement, to unite insight into historic necessity with conscious, dynamic will. The present-day size and power of social democracy is the fruit of this unity.
The history of social democracy hitherto can be quickly summarised as the utilisation of bourgeois parliamentarianism for the enlightenment and centralisation of the proletariat into its class party. On this track, from which it never allowed itself to be lured either by brutal emergency laws or demagogic cunning, our party has advanced decade after decade to become by far the strongest political party in the German empire and the strongest workers’ party in the world. In this sense, the last 50 years have seen the implementation of Lassalle’s action programme, which was concentrated on two closely linked aims: the creation of a class organisation of the workers, independent of the liberal bourgeoisie; and the achievement of universal suffrage, in order to put it to the service of the workers.
The construction of this organisation and the systematic utilisation of universal suffrage – this was more or less Lassalle’s legacy, and the lifeblood of social democracy over the last 50 years.
This programme has just about been pushed to its limits, where, according to the law of the historical dialectic, quantity must transform into quality, where the unstoppable growth of social democracy, on the ground of and in the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism, must eventually transcend this.
Germany’s capitalist development, like that of the entire world economy, has now reached a point where the conditions in which Lassalle accomplished his great task appear as a clumsy child. Whereas back then in Europe, the framework of bourgeois national states was still being fashioned to suit the unrestricted rule of capital, today the last non-capitalist lands are being swallowed up by the imperialist monster, and capital is crowning its world dominance with a chain of bloody expansionist wars.
From its birth onwards, bourgeois parliamentarianism on the European continent was ridden with impotence through fear of the red spectre of the revolutionary proletariat. Today, it is being crushed by the iron hooves of rampantly galloping imperialism; it becomes a hollow shell, degraded to an impotent appendage of militarism.
In 50 years of exemplary work, social democracy has pretty much taken everything it could from the now stony soil in terms of material profit for the working class and class enlightenment. The most recent, biggest electoral victory of our party  has now made it clear to all that a 110-person-strong social democratic faction in the era of imperialist delirium and parliamentary impotence, far from achieving more in terms of agitation and social reforms than a faction the quarter of its size in the past, will achieve less.
And the hopeless foundering of the hub of Germany’s internal political development today – voting rights in Prussia – has destroyed all prospects of parliamentary reform through mere pressure of electoral action.
Both in Prussia and in the empire, social democracy in its entire force is rendered powerless as it comes up against the barrier which Lassalle already foresaw in 1851:
“A legislative assembly never has overthrown and never will overthrow the existing order. All that [such an] assembly has ever done and ever been able to do is proclaim the existing order outside, sanction the already completed overthrow of society and elaborate on its individual consequences, laws, etc. Yet such an assembly will always be impotent to overthrow the society which it itself represents.” 
We, however, have arrived at a level of development where the most pressing and imperative defensive demand of the proletariat – the right to vote in Prussia and the people’s militia in the empire – signify an actual overthrow of existing Prussian-German class relations. If the working class wants to pursue its life interests in parliament today, then it has to carry out this actual overthrow “outside”. If it wants to make parliamentarianism fertile again, then it has to lead the masses themselves onto the political stage through non-parliamentary action.
The last decade – with the mass strike resolution in Jena under the influence of the Russian Revolution and the campaign of street demonstrations in the struggle for the right to vote in Prussia three years ago – clearly shows that the transition from purely parliamentary to unstoppable mass action will force its way through – even if the consciousness of the party in Germany, as elsewhere, only follows this path unevenly, encountering many setbacks.
The 50th anniversary of German social democracy represents a proud, victorious completion of Lassalle’s political testament. Yet simultaneously it is also a warning to the socialist proletariat to become fully conscious that nothing would be more contrary to Lassalle’s spirit than following its well-worn routine at its usual steady pace and stubbornly clinging to a tactical programme which has already been overtaken by the course of history.
Lassalle’s great creative work consisted in recognising the correct task of the proletariat at the right historical hour and daring to fulfil this with bold action. What is today the just continuation of Lassalle’s work? Not clinging to Lassalle’s political programme, but rather recognising the new great tasks of the contemporary situation and boldly tackling them at the right moment. Then, in the spirit of Lassalle, it can also say of itself: ‘I dared!’
1. F. Mehring (ed.), Der Literarische Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels und Ferdinand Lassalle, Vol.4, Stuttgart 1902, p.38.
2. The resolution passed at the SPD conference from September 17-23 1905 in Jena characterised the most extensive use of the mass withdrawal of labour as one of the most effective working class methods of struggle, but nevertheless restricted the use of the political mass strike to a considerable extent to defending the right to vote to the Reichstag and freedom of assembly.
Last updated on: 20.1.2009