Wilhelm Liebknecht

No Compromise – No Political Trading

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The following pamphlet is not an address, as was my first one on Tactics;[1] but it is occasioned by an address which I delivered this summer, at the request of my Berlin constituents, on the last Bavarian legislative elections in particular and on compromises in general. For some time past and from different directions persistent efforts have been made to bring our party nearer to the other political parties; this, together with the incessant demand for taking part in the Prussian legislative elections, has aroused in a part of the Berlin voters, as well as among the comrades all over Germany, an apprehension that there may exist in the party certain tendencies which, though not having that aim, nevertheless must have the result, of leading the Social Democratic party over into the field of spoils politics, pure and simple. This apprehension was nourished by Bernstein’s book of repentance, a solemn renunciation of social democratic principles by a comrade who up to that time had been considered a guardian of our principles, and by his recantation of the social democratic heresy and his reconfession of faith in the bourgeois philosophy as the only means of salvation. Bernstein’s pamphlet in itself is insignificant and contains not a single new, original idea, but merely acknowledges as correct what the enemies of the Social Democracy for decades past have said against it a hundred times; yet, taken in connection with the confusing agitation for taking part in the Prussian legislative elections and with the unfortunate Isegrim articles against the militia system and in favor of militarism, the pamphlet, considered as a symptom, acquired an importance which could not be ignored.

The party was engaged in a fight against the penitentiary bill, and other attempts at coercion on the part of the dominant reactionists, and was just beginning to forget Schippelism and Bernsteinism, expecting from the next party convention a thorough shaking up and cleaning out, when suddenly the report came of the political “cow-trade” or log-rolling in Bavaria. We have been accustomed to Bavarian peculiarities for years; we know that Bavarian affairs, and in general South German affairs, are not to be measured according to the North German standard; and no one can be more tolerant than the Berlin comrades who, in front of the gates of the Imperial Capital, have to deal with peculiarities which, though of a different kind, are quite as striking as the Bavarian possibly can be. We know particularly that where the religious element cuts a figure in politics and the clerical Center party prevents a normal political development, class-consciousness is easily crowded out by other considerations. And also outside of Bavaria we have heard of some very strange campaign alliances. Nevertheless, what happened this time in Bavaria was in its way an innovation. A formal alliance was entered into, not underhanded, not over the heads of the mass by particular comrades, but by one party with another party, by the leaders of the Social Democracy in Bavaria, with the leaders of the Center party in Bavaria.

This event stirred up a great commotion and caused the most intense anxiety everywhere in party circles. At first the astonishment, the disapproval, found no expression. As the legislative elections in Bavaria are indirect, one could not immediately raise a protest, for in so doing one would only have embarrassed the Bavarian comrades, who were then in the midst of the fight, and would perhaps have incurred a grave responsibility. Therefore, the Bavarian supporters of the political cow trade had the field to themselves for the time being. Under such circumstances, it is easy to understand that the apprehensions of comrades, who thought they saw indications of a designed and methodical stagnation of the party, were aroused to the utmost. Berlin comrades turned to me. I explained why the Vorwaerts had not yet taken a stand towards the Bavarian cow trade, but made no secret of the fact that my views on compromises were not the same as those of the editorial staff; I wrote an article, which in spite of its unusually calm tone, was looked upon by the Bavarian comrades as a grievous attack; I also explained my views in a meeting of the voters’ club of the Sixth Berlin election district. Although, for the sake of sweet peace, I prevented a vote of censure for the Bavarian comrades, nevertheless both myself and the Berlin comrades were, on account of this meeting, violently attacked by the Bavarian party members, and not always in elegant terms. One who feels that he is in the wrong generally makes up for the weakness of his case by the violence of his speech. I have always taken the insolence of my opponents as an involuntary compliment, and never bothered myself about it.

About the time of the Bavarian cow trade the entrance of a socialist – Millerand – into a reactionary bourgeois cabinet took place in France and was the cause of a split in the French Social Democracy. The ablest of our French comrades, – Guesde, Lafargue and Vaillant, the founders of the modern socialist movement in France, – protested against the entrance of Millerand into the cabinet of the reactionary capitalist, Waldeck-Rousseau, and of Gallifet, the butcher of the Communists; they withdrew from the socialist group, which they were convinced had abandoned the platform of the class struggle.

Here we could see the dangers of a compromise policy in their life-size and entire outlines. In the meantime an article appeared in Vorwaerts, in the issue of July 28, entitled Momentary Alliances, which sought to justify the compromise policy. I therefore determined, at the request of comrades in Berlin and vicinity, to write a pamphlet and express myself, as I know, in harmony with an overwhelming majority of the Berlin comrades, on the question of tactics, especially on compromises and alliances; and thus, so far as in my power lies, afford the party an opportunity, before the party convention is held, to realize in their proper connection and in their entire extent the consequences which an abandonment of the time-tried policy of our party would bring about.

When I speak here of our policy, I use the word without regard to anything immaterial and superficial, but in the sense which since the beginning of the party it has had for us in contrast to all other parties, – in the sense of the policy of the class struggle, which has very often changed in form, but in substance has remained the same, – our unique proletarian class policy, which separates us from all other political parties in the world of bourgeois society and excludes us from intercourse with them.

The pamphlet is a vacation task. It was written on the move in the true sense of the word, in house and field, on mountains, in the cars, here and there. This, of course, necessarily marred its unity, but shows also how seriously I took the matter, to sacrifice for it the quiet of my vacation.

W. Liebknecht

August, 1899



The question of compromises has, in one form or another, engaged the attention of our party ever since its entrance into the political arena. But I have not now the time nor is this the place for a complete historical presentation of the subject. The present state of party law in reference to the compromise question is expressed in the resolutions of the party conventions held at Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart. The resolution of the Cologne convention, passed October 28, 1893, is as follows:

“Whereas, The three-class electoral system of Prussia, which, according to Bismarck’s own expression, is the most wretched of all systems of election, makes it impossible for the Social Democracy to take an independent part in the elections for the Prussian legislature with any prospect of success; and whereas, it contradicts the principles heretofore followed by the party in elections to enter into compromises with hostile parties, because this would necessarily lead to demoralization and to strife and dissension in the ranks of the party; therefore, resolved, that it is the duty of the party members in Prussia to abstain from participation in the election for the legislature.

And whereas, the electoral systems in the separate states constitute an excellent specimen of reactionary election laws and particularly the plutocratic character of the three-class electoral system in Prussia makes it impossible for the laboring class to send its own representatives to the legislature; therefore, the convention calls upon the party members to begin a systematic and energetic agitation in all the separate states for the introduction of universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage in elections for the legislature as demanded by our party platform.”

Four years later, on October 9, 1897, the Hamburg convention passed the following resolution:

“The resolution of the Cologne convention forbidding the Prussian members of the party to participate in the legislative elections under the three-class system of voting, is repealed. Participation in the next Prussian legislative elections is recommended everywhere where the conditions render it possible for the party members to do so. Just how far it is possible to take part in the elections in the separate election districts must be decided by the party members of each election district according to local circumstances.

Compromises and alliances with other parties must not be entered into.”

The repeal of the Cologne resolution was passed by 160 votes against 50. The entire resolution was passed by 145 votes against 64, one delegate not voting.

After the vote on the separate parts of the resolution and after the vote on the whole, in order to prevent any question from arising as to the practical meaning of the Hamburg resolution, the chairman, Singer, with the express consent of Bebel, who had offered the resolution, and without objection by anyone, and with unanimous consent, entered on the minutes, made the following announcement:

“I wish to state that the convention is unanimous in the view that under the resolution adopted here no participation in the elections can take place except by putting up social democratic candidates.”

That comrades should, in the first instance, vote for candidates of the liberal party was, as Bebel remarked, absolutely excluded, and would belong under the head of compromises and alliances with other parties.

In spite of the clear language of the resolution and of the clear and authoritative interpretation thereof on a point susceptible of different constructions, the convention had hardly adjourned when differences of opinion began to be expressed. In sharp contradiction to the facts and to the record of the proceedings, it was denied that voting in the first instance by our party for candidates of the liberal party would be a compromise; and the claim was even made that the convention had been bulldozed by Singer.

Last year’s convention was held at Stuttgart immediately before the elections for the Prussian legislature. There was such a difference of opinion that it was not possible to think of disposing of the matter, especially as the order of business before the convention was overloaded without that. So nothing could be done but leave the final disposition of the matter for a future convention, and for the present pass an emergency resolution.

On October 5, 1898, the Stuttgart convention adopted unanimously the following resolution, agreed upon by a committee, to wit:

“Participation in the Prussian legislative elections under the three-class electoral system cannot be regarded, as is the case in elections for the Reichstag, as a marshaling of forces; it is not a means of attaining a moral effect by the number of our votes, but is only a means of attaining certain practical results, especially warding off the danger of allowing the most hide-bound reactionists to get a majority in the legislature. Proceeding from this view, the convention declares that participation in the Prussian legislative elections is not required in all election districts, the less so as the shortness of the time which remains before the Prussian legislative elections makes it impossible to bring together the widely divergent views now existing within the party on this question, so to make harmonious action by the party possible. Under these circumstances the convention leaves it to the comrades of the separate election districts to decide on the question of participation. If it is decided in an election district to take part, and if a proposition is made to support candidates of our political opponents, then the candidates must pledge themselves, in case of their election to the legislature, to work for the introduction of the universal, equal, direct and secret ballot, for the elections to the legislature, the same as it now exists for the elections to the Reichstag, and to resist energetically all measures in the legislature which tend to diminish or abolish the existing rights of the people in the separate states. All propositions introduced under the head of ‘Prussian Legislative Elections’ shall be considered disposed of by the adoption of this resolution.”

This was the Stuttgart resolution. As can be seen, it is only temporary and leaves the question of tactics exactly on the basis of the Hamburg resolution. In spite of that, the comrades of some election districts considered themselves justified in making, contrary to this resolution, arrangements with other parties which were clearly compromises within the meaning of the Hamburg resolution. And the latest events in Bavaria, the alliance with the Center party, which was characterised as a cow trade by the comrades themselves, who took part in it, has shown that when once the thin end of the opportunist wedge has forced itself into the policy of the party the thick end soon follows.


For our party and for our party tactics there is but one valid basis: the basis of the class struggle, out of which the Social Democratic party has sprung up, and out of which alone it can draw the necessary strength to bid defiance to every storm and to all its enemies. The founders of our party, – Marx, Engels and Lassalle, – impressed upon the workingmen the necessity of the class character of our movement so deeply that down to a very recent time there were no considerable deviations or getting off the track. The Cologne resolution was called forth by a proposal made by Edward Bernstein, then living in London, and as editor of the Social Democrat honored by the members of the party.

Till the year 1893 there never was any talk in public about the possibility or advisability of taking part in the Prussian legislative elections. In the beginning of the ’80s, the co-operation of the Social Democracy with the political democrats was advocated on the quiet by the democrats of Frankfort for the purpose of gaining a socialist and a democratic representative for Frankfort in the legislature; but the proposition was declined, also on the quiet, without getting noised abroad. What turned the scale was this consideration, viz.: That the class character of the party would be weakened by an alliance of this kind; and that the advantage of gaining a representative would be far more than offset by the disadvantage of an alliance in a legislative election with a party which we are compelled to fight in the Reichstag election. The importance of a seat in the Prussian legislature was not overlooked by anyone. But it was looked upon as more important that the representatives of the party should depend exclusively upon the strength of the party, and not upon an alliance with parties which might have momentarily a common interest with us, but which in their political make-up are hostile to us and will remain permanently hostile.

Bernstein’s proposal, which contemplated a participation of the Social Democracy in the Prussian legislative elections, found little response and no advocates; so that the resolution introduced and supported by Bebel against such participation was adopted unanimously.

That the question of taking part in the Prussian legislative elections should come up again after many years and even lead to quite animated debates, appears at first sight unintelligible. But it is explained by two circumstances which I will here set forth.

First. In reference to the Prussian three-class electoral system the views of many of the comrades had in the course of time undergone a change. It had escaped the memory of some of them, here and there, that the logically and cunningly realized purpose of the three-class electoral system was to exclude with hermetic sealing all democratic thought and sentiment, and that the capitalistic era, which began about the same time with the introduction of the “most wretched of all electoral systems,” had by creating a class conscious proletariat rendered the vote of the socialist masses more insignificant than the vote of the democratic masses had been originally. How badly many of the speakers (both men and women) at the Hamburg convention deceived themselves as to the working of the three-class electoral system is clear from the fact that some of them entertained the delusion that the reform of the Prussian legislative elections could be used as the means of a grand arousing of the masses. In the jubilation over the success which had been achieved under other non-democratic laws regulating legislative elections, especially in Saxony, many had forgotten that the Prussian three-class system made the publicity of the ballot obligatory, and thereby in advance practically disfranchised all who were dependent, either economically, socially or politically, that is, the great majority of the population, and by this means alone rendered it impossible for the masses to take part in the election or get up any general enthusiasm.

The optimistic self-deception in regard to the three-class electoral law went so far that not a few of the comrades imagined in all seriousness that we social democrats would be in a position by our own strength without fusion or even an alliance with other parties, to win a number, if only a small number, of seats. To-day no one is laboring under this delusion any longer. To-day everybody knows that we cannot win a single seat in the Prussian legislature without a compromise or an alliance. It was different two years ago when the party convention, its majority being under the curse of optimistic self-deception, pronounced in favor of taking part in the Prussian legislative elections. Fortunately, however, the heads and supreme council of the party bethought themselves of the origin and nature of the party and by an unqualified prohibition of all compromises and alliances with other parties sought to prevent the self-deception from causing steps which might injure the party and lead it astray into wrong paths.

The Hamburg resolution has been called contradictory and illogical. True, if the party the same as before rejected all compromises and alliances with other parties, then there was no sense in repealing the Cologne resolution. The contradiction is explained, as already indicated, by the fact that a portion of the party deceived itself or was deceived as to the nature of the Prussian three-class election law. But from this contradiction to conclude, as has actually been done, that the party had more at heart its desire to participate in the Prussian legislative elections than its aversion to compromises, and that therefore, as a contradiction existed, it must be solved by unqualifiedly advocating participation in the elections and by repealing the prohibition against compromises and election alliances; such a conclusion gives evidence of just as little logic as of regard for the principles and history of the party.

Second. This brings me to the second reason why the question of participation in the legislative elections could become a matter of serious party strife. In certain circles there exists an inclination, or let us say an effort, to desert the platform of the class struggle and enter into the common arena of the other parties. As all the other parties stand upon the basis of a political state, therefore their field of activity is necessarily confined to the spoils of politics. I do not say that the advocates of the new tactics all wish this: as to some of them I am convinced that they do not wish it. But others wish it; and it is no mere accident that it was just Bernstein who first proposed the participation of the social democracy in the Prussian legislative elections. This tactics corresponds perfectly with Bernstein’s program which aims at the politicalization of the Social Democracy; whereas, it is decidedly illogical from the standpoint of those who do not wish to deny or destroy the militant character of our party as carrying on a class struggle.


I do not hesitate to repeat my former declaration that a practical surrender of our party principles appears to me far more dangerous than all of Bernstein’s theoretical will-o’-the-wisps put together. It has been claimed that in the spoils parties political nerve has died out; that they have lost the spirit of freedom and justice. The claim certainly does not lack foundation, and yet that condition is no recent matter. Disregarding short periods, the German bourgeoisie never did have what is understood by “political nerve.” But however that may be, it cannot be denied that we are now living under the influence of politico-economic conditions which tend to sharpen in the highest degree the economic and political antagonisms on the one hand, and yet on the other hand tend towards an opportunist relaxation of principles. In addition to that we must take into consideration the political backwardness of the bourgeoisie in Germany, which is the cause of the fact that there does not exist here a really liberal party, to say nothing of a democratic party. This fact has this as its natural result: that the honestly liberal and democratic elements of the bourgeoisie gravitate more and more towards the side of the Social Democracy as the only party which is fighting for democratic principles in Germany. But these democratic elements do not thereby become Socialists, though many believe they are socialists. In short, we have now in Germany a phenomenon which has been observable in France for half a century and longer, and which has contributed much to the confusion of party relations in France, viz.: that a part of the radical bourgeoisie rallies around the Socialist flag without understanding the nature of socialism. This political socialism, which in fact is only philanthropic humanitarian radicalism, has retarded the development of socialism in France exceedingly. It has diluted and blurred the principles and weakened the socialist party because it brought into it troops upon which no reliance could be placed in the decisive moment.

Marx in his articles on the class struggles in France[2] characterized for us this political socialism. And it would be an unparalleled case of flying the track and going astray if the German Social Democracy, which has had such wonderful success and such a wonderful growth for the very reason that it has marched ahead unterrified on the basis of the class struggle, should suddenly face about and plunge into mistakes, the avoidance of which has been the power and pride of our party, and has put the German Social Democracy at the head of the international social democracy of all countries.

The disappearance of fear and aversion to us in political circles of course brings political elements into our ranks. As long as this takes place on a small scale it causes no apprehension because the political elements are outnumbered by the proletarian elements and are gradually assimilated. But it is a different thing if the political elements in the party become so numerous and influential that their assimilation becomes difficult and even the danger arises that the proletarian socialist element will be crowded to the rear. This danger of politicalization threatens the German Social Democracy from two sources on account of the backwardness of our bourgeoisie. First, the democratic elements of the bourgeoisie, which find no political satisfaction in their own class, flow to us in greater numbers than in countries with a normally developed bourgeoisie; second, the bureaucratic, though capitalistic, spirit of our governments tends towards a state socialism which, in fact, is only state capitalism, but which is dazzling and misleading for those who are easily deceived by external similarities and catch words. The German, or more accurately the Prussian, state socialism whose ideal is a military, landlord and police state, hates democracy above everything else. The Kanitzes and their followers claim to be out and out radical socialists, but will have nothing to do with democracy. Democracy is their enemy. It is to them something inherently political. But all politics is diametrically opposed to what is socialist. So by this trick logic we arrive at the conclusion which has gained footing here and there, even in social democratic circles, that democracy as savoring of politics has nothing in common with socialism, but on the contrary is opposed to it. Certain errors, for example the opposition to the militia system, can be traced to this piece of sophistry, as also at one time the false teachings of von Schweitzer. But the truth is that democracy is not a thing that is specifically political, and we must never forget that we are not merely a socialist party, but a social democratic party because we have perceived that socialism and democracy are inseparable.


As Prince Bismarck, in the ’60s, wanted to move the “Acheron” of socialism, and through the intervention of Brass offered to me the editorship of the North German Gazette, and then later through Bucher offered to Marx even the editorship of the Staats Anzeiger, in both cases with full freedom to advocate socialism unreservedly, clear down to its ultimate consequences, it was of course not love for socialism or knowledge of socialism that led Prince Bismarck to do this. He understood nothing about socialism at that time, and never did understand anything about it down to his death; in fact, he never had any conception of the moving forces of political and social life at all. There probably never lived at any time in any country a “statesman” who was less scientific, who had less knowledge, and who relied so purely on experience and a sort of half-gambler, half-peddler cunning, as Bismarck. Those offers to socialists place in the clearest light the untruthfulness of Prince Bismarck’s claim that he always regarded the social democracy as incompatible with the existence of the state. Bismarck wanted to use socialism for the purpose of breaking up and dissolving the bourgeois liberal opposition, especially the Progressive party. This, in itself, is the most conclusive proof that he had no conception of the real nature of socialism. Of course the fate of the boy magician was repeated. The elemental force which was conjured up grew over the head of the dabbler, and he did not get the best of socialism; socialism got the best of him.

The question of tactics came up then in our party for the first time. Should we, in consideration of certain concessions to the laborers, aid Bismarck against the Progressive party and other opponents of his policy in the expectation of being then after that strong enough for a successful struggle against him and against the landlord, police and military state embodied in his person? Or did prudence and party interest demand that we, taking advantage of Bismarck’s quarrel with the Progressive bourgeoisie and the other opponents of his policy, contest the Bismarckian policy and organize the proletariat into an independent political party for the purpose of preparing it for the conquest of political power?

For a while the proletariat wavered, but after a few years the tactics, advocated principally by Herr von Schweitzer, of drawing closer to the Bismarckian policy, was given up and the tactics was everywhere accepted which has ever since been in force for the party down to the present day. This tactics consists in keeping clear the class character of the socialist party as a proletarian party; to train it by agitation, education and organization for the victorious completion of the emancipation struggle; to wage a systematic war against the class state, in whose hands the political and economic power of capitalism is concentrated, and in this war to draw advantages as far as possible out of the quarrels and conflicts of the different political parties with each other.


In Germany the bourgeoisie has never attained political power as in France and England. Though the English bourgeoisie two and a half centuries ago, and the French bourgeoisie more than a century ago, cleared away all the medieval rubbish, the German bourgeoisie has never yet been in the position to bring about a political revolution and to realize in the state what is called political liberty. The loss of the world’s commerce in consequence of the discovery of America, and in connection with that the stunting of industrial activity; the political splitting up and ruin of Germany; the paralysis of the national spirit bordering almost on death; the rise of dynastic interests hostile to the people and to enlightenment; all these prevented the growth of a strong citizenry. As in 1848 a belated opportunity was offered, the German people even then did not have the strength for a political revolution. After a brief revel of freedom it bowed its head again under the old yoke. From fear of the laborers, in whom it scented a new and dangerous power, it became reactionary, without ever having been revolutionary; it did penance for its dreams of freedom, which appeared to it as youthful indiscretions, and threw itself into the arms of political reactionism, filled with but one remaining ideal, viz.: to get rich. The citizen disappeared from the political arena and became either politically indifferent or else capitalistic. And to be capitalistic means to recognize and support the government unconditionally, provided it is a class government and represents and promotes exclusively the interests of capitalism.

To prevent misunderstandings and wrong impressions, we must become fully conscious of the difference between “political” and “capitalistic.” These two ideas, which because of the ambiguity of the German word “Buerger” are very easily confused by us, must be clearly separated from each other. In France the word “bourgeois,” which in the middle ages had the same meaning as our “Buerger,” in the course of time and of economic development gradually assumed the meaning of “great-capitalist;” whereas we Germans for this latter idea borrow the French word “bourgeois,” but also use concurrently the German words “Buerger,” and “buergerlich” without noticing the difference. So there arises a confusion of language which is anything but conducive to clearness of conception. We speak of “buergerlich” society, and mean modern capitalistic bourgeois society. We speak of “buergerlich” spirit, “buergerlich” freedom, and mean a democratic spirit of freedom such as the citizenry had in former times when it was fighting the priests and feudal landlords, which spirit, however, is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the capitalistic, and hence reactionary, landlord and priest coddling citizenry, or bourgeoisie of to-day.

The correctness of the so-called materialistic conception of history, which considers the political development as dependent on the economic, cannot be brought more strikingly and convincingly to the mind than by the change which in the course of the Nineteenth century has been wrought in the bourgeoisie. It can be demonstrated with the greatest precision how with the change in the productive relations a change of political view and attitude has taken place in the bourgeoisie. Every step forward in economic development has been a step forward in the development of class antagonisms and a step in the approach of the bourgeoisie towards its old enemies, the landlords and priests, and a step in drawing away from the rising proletariat, which in order to effect its emancipation, must advocate equal rights for all men and the democratic principles formerly supported by the bourgeoisie. The moment the proletariat steps forth as a class separate from the bourgeoisie and having interests opposed to it, from that moment the bourgeoisie ceased to be democratic. In the states of the European continent this reaction falls in a characteristic manner just in a period which is usually called the revolutionary period par excellence – in the period of the February and March revolutions. The contradiction is only an apparent one. The February revolution was a tardy victory of bourgeois idealism which stirred up the material interests of bourgeois realism to contradiction, to opposition and to reaction. The premature outbreak of the proletarian revolution (in the battle of June, 1848, at Paris), which followed upon the heels of the belated outbreak of the bourgeois revolution, drove the bourgeoisie over to the side of its hereditary enemy, because it foresaw in the victory of the proletariat the downfall of capitalism. In France Napoleon was elected President, and in Germany the bourgeoisie even in the honeymoon of the March revolution longed for a deliverer which would down the red specter. Thus the “black reaction,” which in 1849 followed our revolution, was in fact simply the true character of this revolution, stripped of its fantastic deceptive dress of gilded phrases. Under the rule of capitalism the bourgeoisie was forced to become politically reactionary so far as it was capitalistic or stood under capitalistic influence. The “black reaction” which half a century ago spread over the European continent, was just as much a historical necessity as the still blacker reaction of the present zigzag policy of penitentiary bills which capitalism in a fit of desperation has forced upon us.


In Germany where capitalism was developed later than in England and France, and where it was not preceded, as in those two countries, by an era of economic prosperity for the bourgeoisie as well as of political supremacy by it, the whole political development was obliged to take on a different character. There a soil cleared of medieval mould and undergrowth; here, the most modern of modern conditions, as modern as in France and England, in between medieval mould and undergrowth; the healthy growth entwined with ivy which sucks the life out of everything that it clasps with its tendrils; which only lives from death and rottenness and which most be torn off and grubbed up to prevent the healthy and growing from being sacrificed to the dead. The German bourgeoisie, which was sleeping the sleep of impotence at the time when in other lands the bourgeoisie impressed upon the state its bourgeois character, does not even now possess the strength to tear away and extirpate the romantic and death-bringing parasitic ivy of landlordism and medieval semi-barbarism.

The political impotence of the German citizenry in past and present is what distinguishes the political life of Germany from that of the other advanced countries, and has assigned to the German proletariat the mission not only of solving its own strictly proletarian problem, but also of accomplishing the work left undone by our bourgeoisie. Tactics is determined by the nature of the conditions. So far as the bourgeoisie is capitalistic, we have to fight it; so far as the bourgeoisie opposes capitalism and the reactionism which it shields and assists, we have either to support it positively or at least not assume a hostile attitude towards it, unless it gets in our line of fire, as for example, in the elections for the Reichstag where a bourgeois and a social democratic candidate are running against each other.

Disregarding the von Schweitzer episode, the German Social Democracy has consistently and consciously followed the tactics prescribed in the Communist Manifesto, to direct its main attack against political reactionism and to lend aid to the bourgeoisie, so far as it is liberal or democratic, in its struggle against political reactionism and in no case to throw itself on the side of political reaction in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is necessary to emphasize this, because Bernstein in his polemic written against the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and which has been so suspiciously praised and recommended, has accused us of something which is a favorite old legend of Eugene Richter’s, viz.: that we blindly opposed the German bourgeoisie to the advantage of political reactionism and repelled and terrorized it so much that in its alarm it took refuge under the wings of a reactionary landlord, police and military state. It is not possible to slap the truth squarer in the face than is done by saying this.


At the time of the great constitutional struggle in the ’60s there was no socialist party worth speaking of. In 1864, at the time Lassalle was killed in a duel with the Wallachian noble Rakowitz, the Universal German Working Men’s Union numbered in all Germany 5,000 or 6,000 members on paper; in reality still fewer. This little band could not have scared the German Progressive party out of its wits, even though we measure the latter’s valor by the microscopic scale of rabbit courage, befitting the German bourgeoisie. Yet it surrendered to Bismarck; and after the success of the civil war of 1866 it granted him indemnity and bowed itself under the Caudine yoke which he set up. To claim that the Social Democracy is to blame for that is simply ridiculous. It is true that Lassalle had attacked the bourgeoisie very bitterly, but in so doing had found very little sympathy among German workingmen. And although Lassalle in his opposition to the Progressive party occasionally got perhaps somewhat too close to the Bismarckian reactionary policy, still it must not be forgotten that at the beginning of the constitutional struggle he had stood on the side of the Progressive party and only separated from it after it had obstinately refused to carry on the struggle in earnest in spite of his repeated demands that it do so.

The German bourgeoisie – and this is the key to its otherwise unaccountable conduct – did not have in 1862 any more than it had in 1848 and earlier, the stuff for a political revolution. It feared – as I told one of the leaders of the Progressive party to his face in the beginning of the year 1863 – it feared a revolution more than a reaction. And Bismarck with his cynical contempt of men and his horse-trader cuteness, soon brought out that fact. The Progressists did not strike him as “imposing;” and the more impudent he was in his intercourse with them the easier he curled them around his finger. To hold the German Social Democracy responsible for the treason to liberty committed by the Prussian Progressive party is not only an insult to historical truth; it indicates also a complete misunderstanding of the role which the German bourgeoisie has played since the middle ages.

I simply put the two facts side by side: In the period of the constitutional struggle when the Progressive party stood at the height of its power and had the people behind it, Bismarck, then in the beginning of his career, turned it down with the greatest ease. In the period of the anti-Socialist law, when Bismarck stood at the height of his power and with all the resources of capitalism was exercising a bourgeois dictatorship, he was turned down by the Social Democracy with the greatest ease, though it had all the political parties against it. That shows who can fight reactionism in Germany and who can not.

The wretchedness of the German bourgeoisie does not, however, release us front the duty of assisting it, wherever it does earnestly oppose reactionism, provided our own interests do not thereby suffer. And this has been done without exception ever since the German Social Democracy entered the arena as an independent party. For myself, I need only to mention the fact that in 1865 I was expelled from Prussia because I foiled Bismarck’s attempt to crush the Progressive party with the aid of the Socialists as between two millstones. I can say with a good conscience that in all my struggles against the Bismarckian reaction I have fought for political liberty. And in my oft-quoted pamphlet on the political attitude of the Social Democracy I emphasized the democratic character of our movement not less than has been done recently by Bernstein, who recommends to us as brand new wisdom what we have already been practicing for thirty-odd years.


I must here say a word about my above mentioned pamphlet on tactics. The speech out of which it arose was delivered in the year 1869 at the time of the North German Confederation; this was a temporary arrangement which could not possibly last and which would have to end either with the breaking down of Bismarck’s Great-Prussian policy or with its victory by a union with the South German States, excepting Austria. In this temporary state or interim the tactics forced upon us by the logic of the facts was that of opposition at any price. Bismarck had introduced a universal suffrage of the Napoleonic pattern, not to establish the sovereignty of the people, but to cover up his despotic dictatorship. As Napoleon through his prefects directed the universal suffrage as he pleased, so Bismarck thought he could do the same through his local counsellors. It seemed to him an instrument easier to handle than the three class electoral system, which the bourgeoisie had got control of, and in the first two classes of which it had created for itself an impregnable stronghold.

The history of the Prussian three class electoral system is interesting because it shows so plainly how the most craftily planned political schemes of reactionists can be overthrown by economic development and temporarily turned so as to have an opposite effect from that intended. Designed with cunning shrewdness to bar out all democratic or opposition elements, it answered this purpose perfectly for a decade, until one fine day the bourgeoisie, having grown economically strong and being provoked by the disgusting orgies of landlord and police stewardship began to feel its political strength; it came upon the idea that it only needed to will the thing in order to obtain a majority in the first two electoral classes, and thereby win a victory in the election of the deputies. The idea was made a reality, and Prince Bismarck damned the machinery which so outrageously refused to work as it was expected to; the three class electoral system then became the “most wretched of all electoral systems; “ but on the other hand, universal, equal and direct suffrage, this God-be-with-us of the “frantic year” 1848, and which in Napoleonic France had shown such splendid results, now beamed as a brilliant salvation of the state and of society through Caesarism.

So we got the universal franchise; and for another reason as well. The dynastic-feudal revolution from above which topped off Bismarck’s “national” policy, would have hung in mid-air unless there had been given to it at least the appearance of a revolution from below. He needed the people even though only for a dummy; and there was no better bait than the universal franchise of 1848. It united the Bismarckian revolution from above with the ‘48er revolution from below and put the unthinking masses in the delusion that Prussia, enlarged at the expense of Germany and turned into a landlord, police and soldier state, was the realization of German democracy. To-day we know how deep this delusion had taken root; it required decades of brutal misgovernment to root it out again.

But in one thing Bismarck miscalculated, viz.: in the strength of the revolutionary idea. What was possible in France after the battle of June, which drove the whole bourgeoisie into the wildest reactionism, was not possible in Germany where the power of the state was not so closely centralized and where, fed by the development of capitalism, a healthy workingmen’s movement grew up which was determined to exploit the national and dynastic crises and struggles in the interest of the proletariat; to make socialism the decisive power in Germany and to help it on to victory and supremacy. The German proletariat had the advantage of being able to draw practical lessons from the labor movement in other countries which were (and are) ahead of Germany in political and economic development. It also had the extraordinary good fortune to be led into the field of political action by its great teachers, Marx, Engels and Lassalle, right at the beginning of its career. It was thereby spared from the errors of pure and simple unionism on the one hand, and of aimless, planless, through and through bourgeois-anarchistic plotting and bawling for revolutions on the other hand. Though the German working-class in 1867, when the universal franchise went into effect, was only to a very small extent filled with class consciousness, it was nevertheless the only class, and the socialist party was the only party, which clearly saw the meaning of voting and the value of the franchise. There was even a slight overestimation of it, but this was useful because it increased the enthusiasm.

If Prince Bismarck entertained the hope that the universal franchise could be exploited in Napoleonic style and that the Reichstag would remain what I called it in 1887, the figleaf to partly cover the naked figure of absolutism, the political basis of this hope was overthrown by the expansion of the North German Confederation into the German Empire. The highest triumph of Bismarckian politics carried its downfall and bankruptcy within it. What the stiff Prussian military and police spirit could perhaps have prevented for an indefinite time within the limits of the North German Confederation, viz.: the rise and growth of an independent popular movement, this could not be prevented on the larger field of the German Empire. The power of the people could not be suppressed, and the jealousy of the “Federal Princes” at Prussian supremacy helped along, so that the trees of Bismarck’s feudal Caesarism could not shoot up as high as the trees of Napoleon’s prefect-Caesarism. It was not possible by any allurements to take from the workingmen the recognition of the inseparability of socialism from democracy and of democracy from socialism.

“The question” (thus I began my speech in 1869), “what attitude should the Social Democracy take in the political struggle, is answered with ease and certainty if we have attained a clear conception of the inseparability of socialism and democracy. Socialism and democracy are not the same, but they are only different expressions of the same fundamental idea. They belong to each other, round out each other, and can never stand in contradiction to each other. Socialism without democracy is pseudo-socialism, just as democracy without socialism is pseudo-democracy. The democratic state is the only possible form of a socialistically organized society.”

This truth, the inseparableness of democracy and socialism, served for the German working class as a sure guide amidst the greatest confusion of political issues, so that the dangerous shoals of state socialism were avoided towards which the Prussian reaction was headed even in the ’40s; for the ideal of the garrison and police state was of course a garrison and police socialism, which is euphemistically called state socialism. The sophisms of Wagener and von Schweitzer that democracy has something bourgeois about it, and that socialism, being directed against bourgeois society, must consequently be anti-democratic, did, it, is true, confuse many a man in von Schweitzer’s time; but it never found acceptance among the mass of laborers. This pseudo-logic bobbed up again recently in the well known militia debate, but has no longer any significance.


Before we go farther we must get a clear idea of the meaning of the word “compromise,” otherwise every debate on it will be completely without aim and without result, because every one will have in mind something different and consequently no one will meet the arguments of another. If compromise is understood as a concession of theory to practice, then our entire life and activity is a compromise and all human history and the history of the race from the life of the individual up to that of nations and of mankind is an endless, unbroken chain of compromises. That conception of history according to which tabula rasa, i.e., a clean sweep, is temporarily made and must be made in order to start a new administration and system free from the old, is in the highest degree unscientific and stands in the most direct contradiction to experience. The clean sweep theory is a spook which exists to-day only in the heads of police politicians who accuse us of wanting to “ruinate” everything that does not fit into our scheme. These gentlemen thereby give judgment against themselves, for they think they are the ones who possess this magical power of being able to “ruinate” anything and everything which Time’s eternal loom has woven and is weaving, if perchance it has been done without first getting a permit from the chief of police. The framers of the anti-socialist law and penitentiary law display by their foolish activity only their bottomless ignorance. The organic laws according to which political and social development goes on, cannot be arbitrarily changed or nullified, just as little as this can be done with the laws under which an animal or a plant grows and develops. Whoever interferes there with violence can only disturb and destroy; this has always been the effect wrought by the police politicians. What these fuddlers, who call themselves “statesmen,” say against us social democrats, viz.: that we cannot create anything, but only destroy is simply the reflection of their own actings and doings; there is not among the innumerable sins and vices, of which they accuse us, a single one which they have not taken from themselves.

To add one new example to the old ones, I will simply refer to the charge, which has been stereotyped for twenty years, viz.: that the Social Democracy has for its object a proletarian dictatorship. The truth is that since the battle of June at Paris, that is for fifty-one years, we have actually had on the continent of Europe the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. A dictatorship which has been exercised with fire and sword against the working class; which, after the battle of June, brought us the horrible butcheries of the Commune, and hundreds of smaller butcheries of laborers; a dictatorship which extends to the disfranchisement of the working class and deprives the proletariat of the enjoyment not only of political rights, but also of simple legal rights; a dictatorship which has expressed itself in dozens of exceptional laws and force laws and which we Germans have to thank for the Anti-Socialist law, the penitentiary bill and class law decrees such as the Loebtau judgment and the perjury trial at Essen. And if “King Stumm,” who is now king in the realm of “social reform,” should accomplish his purpose of annihilating every organization of workingmen, what in comparison with such a dictatorship would be the dictatorship of a Marius or a Sulla or of the French convention of 1792-1794? The political power which the social democracy aims at and which it will win, no matter what its enemies may do, has not for its object the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but the suppression of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Just as the class struggle which the proletariat carries on is only a counter struggle in self defense to resist the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat; and the end of this struggle by the victory of the proletariat will be the abolition of the class struggle in every form.

We Social Democrats know that the laws according to which political and social evolution goes on can no more be changed or stopped by us than by the authorities of capitalistic society. We know that we can no more introduce at will socialistic production and a socialist form of society than the German Kaiser nine years ago could carry out his February proclamations against the representatives of the capitalistic class struggle. Therefore we were able to watch with smiling indifference the attempt of our opponents to crush the labor movement by force. We were and still are sure of our success, as sure as of the solution of a mathematical problem. But we know also that the shifting of relations, though it goes on unceasingly, yet goes on gradually because it is an organic movement; and it goes on, too, without destruction of the existing relations (the removal of the dead is not destruction). The destruction of the existing, of the living, is in general impossible. We saw that plainly in the French revolution, which was probably the best planned and most energetically carried out of all political upheavals; but nevertheless after the “golden period” of ideological groping around and of phantastic and utopian illusions was past, it was compelled to take things as they were and fit the new on to the old. In the first rush it may be possible occasionally to crowd out the living; but history teaches us that the most revolutionary and despotic governments were finally compelled by the logic of facts to yield and to recognize perhaps in another form, that which was unnaturally and mechanically abolished. In short, viewed historically, the present is, as a rule, a compromise between the past and the future.

Therefore to reject a compromise in this sense would be unscientific folly. And practical folly it would be for a political party to fail to draw advantages out of the opportunities of political life and utilize for itself the quarrels of the different opposing parties. Prudence demands this; principles do not come into the question; no obligations are assumed and not to do what prudence demands would be stupidity. That we, Social Democrats in the Reichstag sometimes on a socio-political question vote with the Conservatives for the government, and on political and commercial questions sometimes vote with the Radicals against the government, that is a common requirement of political warfare. Though it is undoubtedly a compromise between theory and practice, it has nothing at all in common with the compromises against which the party has repeatedly declared itself distinctly and expressly. What the party had in mind and what it by formal resolutions made the duty of the members, was the avoidance of alliances, agreements, arrangements, contracts or whatever they might be called, which would involve a surrender of principles or in general a change in the relation of our party towards the bourgeois parties in a manner injurious to us. This last point must be especially emphasized, because the question hinges principally on this. In the debate on taking part in the Prussian legislative elections the question at issue was exclusively this last point; for none of those who advocated participation had the slightest idea of sacrificing party principles in an alliance with the Progressive party, though it must not be overlooked that questions of tactics very easily shift into questions of principle.

If the circumstances and necessities of the situation demand coöperation with other parties, this can always be accomplished without a compromise. I take for example Belgium. The Liberal party had there a common interest with the Socialist party in fighting the Clericals. The two parties united and worked together up to a certain point. That would have been done even without any fusion. But it was done by fusion, and what was the results? Quarrel and strife. Fusions have shown themselves to be entirely superfluous. When that point is passed up to which community of interests existed and up to which the community of interests, without any fusion, would have induced united action, then united action ceases. If class consciousness is not strong enough among laborers, it certainly is among the gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, in whom the class instinct is much more active than in laborers. And this is true even in countries with democratic laws and institutions. I refer to the separation between bourgeois democrats and socialists in Switzerland, Bernstein’s Eldorado, where, according to Bernstein’s doctrine, class antagonism should properly have entirely disappeared; but we know it exists there just as strong as in less democratic countries. But it is not denied that the acuteness of class struggles is lessened by democratic institutions.

In Belgium with its free institutions on one hand and its priest-ridden government on the other hand, election alliances between the Social Democracy and the bourgeois parties have heretofore found a fertile soil. At any rate, in all alliances which it formed there our party had the advantage of being in the lead. It could not be exploited nor deceived. And yet the Belgium comrades have found a drawback in compromises. Comrade Vandervelde, writing in the Wiener Arbeiterzeitung, welcomes the introduction of the proportional system in Belgium as the end of election alliances. “In future,” he writes, “secondary factors will no longer enter into the class struggle; the confusing side issues will disappear which render it so difficult for the masses to grasp the truth of the class struggle.” Friend Vandervelde has therefore found out that compromises, even there where they take place under conditions and circumstances the most favorable for the laborers, have an injurious effect because “they render it difficult for the masses to grasp the truth of the class struggle;” in other words, alliances by removing the laborers from the ground of the class struggle take away from them the possibility of developing their full power and making it count. This they are only able to do on the platform of the class struggle.

The harm of a compromise does not consist in the danger of a formal selling out or side-tracking of party principles. That has probably never been intended by any one in our party. Even when our comrades in Essen in the election before the last voted for the “cannon king” out of spite, they had no idea of surrendering even one iota of our program. The danger and root of the evil does not lie here. It lies in giving up, keeping in the background or forgetting the class struggle basis, for this is the source of the whole modern labor movement. It is necessary here to distinguish sharply, and not be misled by catchwords; in short, we must have an emancipation from phrases, as I said decades ago, with reference to the phraseology of anarchism, which poses as revolutionary, but in fact is only small bore reactionism, merely a late-arrival caricature of the bourgeois ideal of freedom and a theatrical masquerade of commercial free competition.


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[1] On the Political Stand of the Social Democracy, especially with Reference to the Reichstag, Berlin, 1893. Vorwaerts Publishing House.

[2] The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50, with an Introduction by Frederick Engels, Berlin, 1895. Vorwaerts Publishing House.


Last updated on 10 June 2023