Alexandra Kollontai September 1915

Why Was the German Proletariat Silent in the July Days?

Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: Kommunist Switzerland, Nos. 1-2, 1915, pp. 159-161;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.

Many people still cannot understand how or why it could be that the German proletarians were suddenly transformed from class fighters into an obedient herd going with heads bowed to certain death. For many people it is still a mystery why these masses – and we are talking of the broad masses and not the leaders – did nothing to defend their previous positions of principle when the guns began to roar in Europe, but gave up their worker fortresses to the class enemy without a struggle. Any protest, any opposition might have been suppressed from the very start, but why did discontent not seethe and boil among the people, leading to spontaneous demonstrations and mass resistance? Was not the education of the workers of Germany guided by a political party which, in its theoretical schooling, served as the model for the proletariat of the whole world? Does this mean that socialist education does not yield the fruit we are entitled to expect?

Thus query the sceptics. Others, including certain Russian social-chauvinists, germanophiles, are ready to see this as an example of the 'political awareness' of the German workers: the masses realised in time that it was a question of the further unimpeded development of the productive forces of Germany, which closely affects the success of the workers' movement, and decided, in the 'national interest', not to hinder the valiant work of German arms.

However, both those who in pain and confusion criticise the German working masses, and those who hasten to their defence are both alike slandering the masses. They are looking only at the visible result and overlooking the fundamental, internal cause of the silence and inactivity of the masses in the historic days of July and August. The inactivity of the masses at that critical moment came as a surprise only to those whose knowledge of the German workers' movement is based on the impressive figures quoted in its annual reports, on its 'workers palaces' and the growing number of workers who are deputies in local and central government. For those who were familiar with the 'everyday life' of the German movement, this silence and inactivity on the part of the broad masses was not unexpected. However, it is not the masses who are to blame. The cause goes far deeper and is to be found in the nature, the spirit of the German workers' movement over recent years.

If the working masses are to be able not only to understand the political events taking place, but also actively respond to them without waiting to be told by their leaders, the proletariat must be accustomed to public action, must have faith in its own forces, must have that which is called 'revolutionary experience'. However, this was precisely the kind of experience that was avoided in Germany. The party resembled a teacher of the old school: on the one hand it developed class thinking, but on the other it did all it could to restrain and brake any manifestation of revolutionary will, of mass activity... The workers were taught how, in theory, to recognise and understand the significance and benefit of revolutionary struggle. Their heads were filled with historical examples, with facts... However, that the workers should be given the opportunity to measure their strength against that of their class enemies, temper their spirit and will by experiencing the vagaries and sacrifices of mass action and revolutionary struggle, was something that their 'sober-minded' leader-guardians did not wish to permit.

Take the sphere of trade union struggle. The dizzy successes achieved by German industry over the previous 20 years had created an atmosphere conducive to the pursuit of compromise tactics. In order to avoid open conflict, which is often damaging for the capitalist and always fraught with consequences, the employers willingly tossed sops to the workers, and the trade union centres eagerly seized them and entered into talks with the bosses to find a 'peaceful compromise'. Is it not characteristic of the situation that, while the absolute number of conflicts is rising, the relative number of conflicts that result in a strike is decreasing. Many see in this proof that the power and importance of trade union organisations are increasing. The masses can stay inactive, the masses may confidently entrust their interests to their centres - these centres know how to find a way out of every conflict, know how to influence the boss!...

However, if one considers that the majority of the conflicts resolved without the participation of the mass of the workers, without strike action, end with a compromise, and, moreover, a compromise in favour of capital rather than in favour of labour, one is obliged to take a different view of this phenomenon...

How often have the workers and their leaders clashed on this very issue! One has only to recall the strike by the Hamburg iron and steel workers, which was sabotaged by their own centres.

In assessing similar phenomena with regard to the activity of English trade unions (in particular up to the wave of mass strikes in 1911-1912), revolutionary Marxists always pointed to the danger such opportunist tactics present for the revolutionary working-class movement. However, few of those looking on from outside noticed that, in their methods of solving conflicts by 'peaceful means', the German trade unions outdid even their English teachers.

Not only the trade unions, however, 'sinned' in the sense of lowering the activity of the broad working-class masses. The political party also trod the same path. One would have thought that a party which bases its tactics on the principle of the revolutionary conquest of political power should strive to use every opportunity for political struggle in order to develop and test the revolutionary energy of the masses and accustom them to mass action.

In practice, however, particularly over recent years, the centres of the party movement have been concerned to do just the opposite... This was pointed out quite categorically by the left opposition elements within the party, but their voices were drowned by the recognised authorities, by the representatives of the upper echelons. Whether it was the struggle against the rising cost of living or the question of achieving rights for workers in the Prussian Landtag, the party sought legal methods of struggle wherever possible. If it was suggested that the struggle might be taken outside closed meetings and given a more active, more revolutionary character, the centres threw up their hands in fear.

'Experiment? God forbid !... We are still not strong enough. We still do not have enough party workers. Defeat would lead to enormous losses in the next elections.'

'Nur immer langsam voran!' The morale of the masses crumbled; the masses grew accustomed to passivity; the revolutionary will of the masses stagnated; the initiative of the masses was not developed, and they never developed the habit of responding actively to events without waiting for the order from their leader.

Is it surprising, therefore, that in July 1914, at a moment when history demanded that it be uncompromising and capable of revolutionary action, the German proletariat, taught to respect only 'peaceful', legal methods of struggle, proved incapable of an independent, active response to events? The masses trustingly awaited the word 'from above', but those above, pointing to the inactivity of the masses, shrugged their shoulders helplessly and jumped to the conclusion that the masses, clearly, were for war!

They did not seek to verify this conclusion either by a referendum (a measure that the much-vaunted organisation of the party by no means renders impossible), or by a call for decisive revolutionary opposition to the plans of the class authorities. The upper echelons, the centres, did not appeal to the militancy of the workers, did not turn to party democracy for support in determining their tactics on an issue that was not only a question of life and death for hundreds of thousands, for millions of their comrades, but also a question of vital importance for the whole of the workers' International.

The leadership, leaving the masses to their own fate, simply lowered the revolutionary banner without resistance or battle... How many conscious workers were thrown into confusion by the behaviour of the leadership! Accustomed to follow their centres obediently, without criticism, the workers cast aside or smothered the doubts that tormented them.

'Our elected representatives are voting for war, Vorwärts advises us not to give way to our emotions and not to do anything rash that would serve as a pretext for excesses... Clearly they, our elected representatives, see and know that which escapes our understanding?' And the workers, those who worked among the masses, went to their battle posts, went to certain death, convinced that their leaders knew for what they were to sacrifice their lives...

Would such an abnormal, damaging phenomenon have been possible if the masses had been taught to respond actively and independently to events, if the party had not carefully extinguished every spontaneous protest, every manifestation of popular implacability? If the masses remained silent at a moment of momentous historical importance, the blame lies entirely with those who, in their deference to peaceful means, to legal methods of struggle, in their hatred of all that is revolutionary, principled and uncompromising, had for years brought up the workers in the spirit of 'peaceful growth', had for years soothed the energetic, creative upsurges of class rebelliousness. Illegal appeals, manifestoes, unauthorised meetings in workshops, on streets and squares, the revolutionary call: 'Onto the streets in the battle against war!' – all these means of self-defence, all these methods that emerge spontaneously in the upsurge of revolutionary fervour, lay, during the days of July, beyond the reach of a working class brought up in the framework of strict legality and unquestioning subordination to its own leadership. The approaching menace of world war was not to be averted by the customary demonstrations supervised by the police or theoretical discussions of the causes and the significance of war. The 'god of war' would give way only before the 'red spectre', aroused into energetic action...

However, the habit of using only legal methods, only 'permissible', peaceful means of self-defence, bound the German proletariat hand and foot and tossed it thus bound under the wheels of the chariot of war.

This lesson will not go unheeded by the proletariat of the world. This bloody age, this age that reveals all the ills hidden within individual, socialist parties, clearly shows that the theory of 'adaptation' by the workers' movement to the capitalist system of its own country, the theory of 'peaceful struggle' for class supremacy, is one of the greatest dangers facing the international, revolutionary-class liberation movement of the workers.

Let those who condemn the German workers for lack of action, and those who see in this inaction the proof of their 'political maturity' remember that the masses will be able to find their voice in moments of historical importance only when the proletarian vanguard, the socialist parties in every country, having thrown off the benumbing shakles of social-reformism, boldly advance every means, every way, every method of struggle prompted by revolutionary creativity...