MIA > Archive > Wilhelm Liebknecht > Voices of Revolt
Written: As as speech in German, delivered November 30th, 1893. [Note]
Published in English: 1928.
Translated by: Unknown (name not provided).
Source: Voices of Revolt: Speeches of Wilhelm Liebknecht. International Publishers, first edition, 1928, New York, USA. 96 pages.
Transcription and Markup: Bill Wright for marxists.org, November, 2022
(From a speech delivered in the Reichstag, November 30, 1893, in the discussion of the Imperial Budget.)
What is the internal situation of Germany? We are told many things about distress. No doubt there is distress; but there are two kinds of distress: there is a distress of the rich, of the sated; and there is a distress of the starving.
The distress of the rich, of those who have eaten their fill, but who are “insatiable”, and therefore “cry out”—“cry out”—“cry out” — because they always want more — we know all about that. We Socialists have no compassion with this distress.
But there is another distress, a poverty that expresses itself in the statistics of unemployment — not gathered by the state, by the way — and in the reports of the trade union offices and chambers of commerce — a distress that must be evident to any man who looks at the newspapers, or ever sees the streets of the city — the distress of those with the “weak shoulders”, on whom the new taxes are to be placed, the distress of those who are about to be sacrificed to militarism.
I recall the Congress of Tobacco Workers to which you were all invited: there you might have seen poverty; there you might have heard the cry of distress of the despairing poor,— a distress gnashing its teeth when even the last vestiges of subsistence are taken from under its feet and when unemployment is artificially brought about for thousands and thousands of persons. This was real distress; the cry of poverty was genuine; and furthermore, you had been invited; but the Imperial Chancellor and the gentlemen of the Bundesrat and the high imperial officials — not one of these men appeared at the congress, with the exception of the Social-Democratic deputies. And then you say we are the demagogues, who are inciting the people!
Why did you not go to the Congress and prove by your presence that you have a heart for the people? There, you might have heard the voice of the people. What you read in the official reports, and what your dignitaries tell you, these things are not the truth. Between you and the people there is a magic wall, a wall through which you can hear nothing. At the congress, you might have heard the mutterings of anger at your attempt to depress a class of the poorest persons, the tobacco workers — already receiving starvation wages — to a zero point, a famine point, below which there is no possibility of living at all,— to destroy this class economically by means of the taxes in favor of militarism. There you could have heard the people protest against the taxes which it is now proposed to lay on weak shoulders! And the remarkable — though quite natural — thing is that everything that has been said thus far in favor of the government’s policy has been a conscious effort to show that the poor alone must bear these taxes, that the rich are too poor to bear them.
This is what we always hear when the imperial inheritance tax or an imperial income tax is to be combated as impractical or unjust, and when we are told: “This will not do; it will destroy property; it is of no use to the heirs, etc.” But, why should you impose taxes on the shoulders of the poor? The proposed new taxes are as if calculated to lighten the burden of the rich. By the proposed tobacco tax you are not only placing a far greater percentage on the shoulders of the poor than on those of the rich, but you are incidentally destroying a great number of workers, at least fifty thousand, who are now engaged in the tobacco industry.
No doubt, he who knows only the interests of the rich, and who believes that the poor exist not only to create wealth for the rich, but also to pay his debts and taxes for him, will consider it quite reasonable to have the taxes destined to cover the military budget imposed upon the mass of the poor. We protest with all our might against so outrageous an injustice and hope — although it is a hope against hope — that those who, with a “reluctant heart”, as they say, voted in favor of the military budget in the first short session of this Reichstag, with the reservation that the costs should be distributed upon shoulders that could bear them — will remain faithful to their promise and vote against this “bouquet of taxes”.
But we may be asked: “Where shall we get the money for the army?” Our answer is: “If you have made a law without providing means for defraying its expenses, if your militarism has jumped into the water together with its military budget, as it were, and if we are now expected to save it from the water — you are really expecting too much from us. Save your militarism yourself! Let it drown, for all we care!” If the military budget could be rendered nugatory by lack of taxes to cover it, I should use every effort to secure as unanimous a vote as possible in this session of the Reichstag against these taxes.
But, of course we shall see. You will make an effort to secure some other remedy; if this Reichstag is not tractable, you will probably dissolve it. The word has been spoken. Go on! You have twice appealed to the German people and twice it has declared itself against militarism, the third time you will not have only a majority of a million and one hundred thousand votes against militarism, but this majority will increase with the force of an avalanche, and the system will be swept away with the energy of the elements!
Similar conditions were witnessed somewhat more than a century ago in a neighboring country. The ancient system there had also come to the end of its rope, to the end of its money, of its credit; the notables, i.e., the rich, were convoked. At that time also, there were persons with broad shoulders and persons with weak shoulders. The broad-shouldered fellows were in the government — they still are — and they said: “We shall pay no taxes; let the misera contribuens plebs, the poor tax-paying people with the weak shoulders pay all the taxes.” And they continued running the country for a while by this method; there arose a subterranean muttering and finally came the day of judgment. The men with the weak shoulders, upon whom the state burdens had been imposed, cast them off, took muskets in their hands, and conquered the state power. They overthrew the men with the broad shoulders. This was the French Revolution, and it was “made” by the misguided men with broad shoulders, who became its victims.
The representatives of our government themselves admit that the conditions are not promising; they admit that the people are heavily burdened; but they are all at sea when they face the true conditions of distress. They have no understanding for the situation and the movement among the people. We have a remarkable evidence of this in a document that came to our editorial desk only a few days ago, a decree by Eulenburg.[a]
I have not now the time to discuss this document at length. But if I would write a commentary on the famous words of the great Imperial Chancellor of Sweden, Oxenstjerna:[b] “It is remarkable with how little wisdom the world is governed”, and attempt to justify this saying, I think it would be sufficient merely to reprint this document. There could be no better or more striking justification for the epigram in question. The document admits that the Social-Democracy is continuing to make progress; it shows understanding for the fact that the advances of the Social-Democracy are due to the general discontent. It is admitted that the social and economic conditions are favorable to socialism; and yet, it is desired to obstruct and force back the Social-Democracy; the authorities are called upon to proceed energetically against it; the provincial officials, the police, the gendarmerie, all the forces of the present-day state are set in motion by a secret memorandum, destined if possible to destroy this redoubted and hated Social-Democracy.
This shortsightedness, characteristic of the whole document, expressed in its every sentence, is almost incomprehensible in a period like ours. There is not the slightest indication of a higher point of view, not a suspicion of the laws operative in society, not a trace of the causes, the nature and the aims of so gigantic a movement as the Social-Democratic movement, a movement which is really an international cultural movement, a claim which it may genuinely put forth, while the anti-Semitic movement may only put it forth dishonestly, and not an artificial product of demagogical agitation and propaganda. There is not a trace of understanding for the movement, for the currents of the time, for the conditions — and therefore no sign of an effort to deflect it into other channels. There is nothing but discomposure and blindness and a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of the present-day state, of which there has never been a clearer and crasser expression by any government.
This document reminds me of an anecdote that is told in England: An old lady who had been told — she lived by the seaside — that the tide was rising and threatening to surround her house, ran quickly to the window with a bucket in order to bale out the inflowing waters. But you are trying to bale out the ocean of the Social-Democratic movement, not with buckets, but with spoons, a movement which constitutes the pinnacle, the consequence, of the entire modern economic and cultural tendency! One can only laugh at you or pity you. . . .
I have spoken concerning the socialist bacillus which you are unable to shut out of any of your barracks. You will not be able to keep this socialist bacillus out of any workshop, or office, or ministerial department; the bacillus is there; it is everywhere. . . .
We have incurred such a difficult and unwholesome situation in Germany, that things cannot continue in the present strain. Our persistence on the path of militarism will necessarily lead us to bankruptcy. Our army system is already so top-heavy, that the resources at the disposal of the German people can no longer afford any increase or enhancement of it. Fortunately, militarism is slaughtering itself, like the machines which it has placed in its service, and which become useless by reason of their own exaggerated efficiency. The German people demands that we break with this system.
There is another principle which is generally recognized in theory: “Solus republicæ lex suprema”, the welfare of the commonwealth is the supreme law. The welfare of a specific class, of a specific group, is of no importance — although a righteous and humane state is obligated to consider the interest of all its members. And how shall the totality find expression in any modern state? Through the majority of the people! In cases in which minority and majority are opposed to each other, in which two different principles are defended, one by a minority, the other by a majority, it is proper not for the majority to yield to the minority, but for the minority to yield to the majority, and the German people has declared by a tremendous majority that it is opposed to militarism.
If you have any doubts, dissolve the Reichstag, but our watchword is: “Populi voluntas lex suprema”, the will of the people is the highest law. Any one opposing this law is a rebel, a traitor to the majesty of the people. This will of the people must be put through, it will be done; if you (the speaker addresses the Right) will have it so, in a peaceful, legal way, the way of reform and gradual transition, opportunity for which must be afforded by the powers above. If you wish it otherwise, the thing will come in another way — as it came in France more than a century ago. Governments and parties that will not learn must suffer.
I have finished my address (shouts of: “Bravo!”). You flatter me; I only hope you will learn something. I conclude with our old slogan: Not a man and not a penny for this system! And I add, no new taxes! Neither good ones nor bad ones!
[*] This is most likely an editorial title; the first known use of this slogan in writing comes from a January 1887 election leaflet titled “Dem Militarismus keinen Mann und keinen Groschen!” (“Not One Man and Not One Penny for Militarism!”, available in German on the Marxists Internet Archive.)
[Note:] The original source and delivery date of this speech was mistakenly placed in front of The Eighteenth of March in the English translation; based on consultation with the original 1925 German pamphlet, we have moved the first line to its proper place and changed the date accordingly.
One more noteworthy insight from the original German pamphlet: Liebknecht’s slogan “Not a Man and Not a Penny for this System!” is emblazoned in stylized text on the back cover, showing it was chosen as the one slogan that best exemplified Wilhelm Liebknecht’s legacy. These stylized back cover quotes were not carried over to the English-language releases of the series. —Bill Wright, July 2023.
[a.] Eulenburg, Count Botho (1831-1912): Prussian reactionary; advocated the exception laws against Socialists.
[b.] Oxenstjerna, Count Axel (1583-1654): Chancellor of Sweden under and after Gustavus Adolphus.
Last updated on 08 July 2023