< Rosa Luxemburg: A question of tactics (6 July 1899)

Rosa Luxemburg

A question of tactics

(6 July 1899)

Originally published: Leipziger Volkszeitung, 6 July 1899.
German Version: Rosa Luxemburg, Eine taktische Frage, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 1.1, S. 483–486.
French Version: Une question de tactique.
Translation from French: Adam Buick.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The entry of Millerand into the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet merits study from the point of view of tactics and principles by foreign as well as French socialists. The active participation of socialists in a bourgeois government is, in any event, a phenomenon that goes beyond the framework of the usual activity of socialism. Is it a question of a form of activity that is as justified and opportune for the proletariat as, for instance, activity in parliament or a municipal council, or is it, on the contrary, a break with the principles and tactics of socialism? Or again, is the participation of socialists in a bourgeois government an exceptional case only, admissible and necessary under certain circumstances, and to be condemned and even harmful in others?

From the point of view of the opportunist conception of socialism such as it has manifested itself recently in our party and particularly in the theories of Bernstein – i.e., from the point of view of the progressive introduction of socialism into bourgeois society – the entry of socialist elements into the government must appear as desirable as it is natural. If it is possible to infiltrate socialism little by little and in small doses into capitalist society, and if the capitalist State can imperceptibly change itself into a socialist State, then the piecemeal admission of socialists into the government would be the normal consequence of the progressive development of the capitalist State; which corresponds completely with their claimed evolution towards a socialist majority, in legislative bodies.

While the ministerial participation of Millerand thus conforms to opportunist theory it is no less in accordance with opportunist practice. Given that the obtaining of immediate and tangible gains, no matter by what means, is the main orientation of this practice, the entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government must appear to the “practical politicians” as an inestimable success. What will a socialist minister not be able to achieve in terms of little improvements, palliatives and social patching-up!

The question is posed differently if, on the contrary, you start from the point of view that you can only consider introducing socialism after the ruin of the capitalist order and that at present socialist activity boils down to the objective and subjective preparation of this moment by means of the class struggle. Certainly, it is clear that Social-Democracy, if it wants to act effectively, must occupy all the positions in the present State that are accessible, and gain territory everywhere. But on one condition: that these positions must allow the class struggle, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its State, to be waged.

But, in this respect, there is an essential difference between legislative bodies and the government of a bourgeois State. In parliaments, when the elected representatives of the working class can not win their demands, they can at least continue the struggle, maintaining an oppositional attitude. The government, on the other hand, which has for task carrying out the laws, has no place in its sphere of activity for an opposition on principle; it must be active constantly, and through each of its organs. It must, consequently, even when it is composed of representatives of different parties, as are the coalition ministries in France of recent years, constantly have a basis in common principles which allow it to act, i.e., the basis of the present order, in other words, that of bourgeois society. The most extreme representative of bourgeois radicalism can in general govern alongside the most backward conservative. Whoever positions himself as an adversary of the present order, on the contrary, faces the following alternative: either carry on a ceaseless opposition to the bourgeois majority in the government, i.e. not be in fact an active member of this government, which is evidently an untenable state of affairs which must inevitably lead to the ejection from the government of the socialist minister. Or, collaborate, carry out daily the functions needed for the conservation and smooth running of the State machine demand at any moment, i.e., to not be a socialist in fact, at least not within the framework of his governmental functions.

Certainly, the programme of Social Democracy contains many demands which could – in theory – be accepted by a bourgeois government and parliament. It can thus at first sight be imagined that a socialist could, in government as well as in parliament, serve the cause of the proletariat by striving to extract in their favour all that it is possible to obtain in the field of social reforms. But, here again, appears a fact which the policy of opportunism always forgets, that in the struggle which Social-Democracy carries on, it is not what but how that is important. When the Social-Democrat representatives in legislative bodies seek to achieve social reforms they have the full possibility by their opposition at the same time to bourgeois legislation and government as a whole – which finds its clear expression, for example, in the rejection of the budget – to give to their struggle for bourgeois reforms equally a socialist and principled character, that of the proletarian class struggle. By contrast, a Social-Democrat who sought to introduce the same social reforms as a member of the government, i.e. in at the same time supporting the bourgeois State, in fact reduces his socialism (at the very best) to a bourgeois democratism or to a bourgeois workers’ policy. Thus, while the progress of Social-Democracy in representative assemblies leads to the strengthening of the class struggle, their penetration into the government can, on the contrary, only bring corruption and trouble to the ranks of Social-Democracy. The representatives of the working class, if they are not to deny their raison d’être, can only enter the bourgeois government in a single case: to seize control of it and transform it into the government of the working class in control of political power.

No doubt in the evolution, or rather in the decline of bourgeois society, moments could occur when the final capture of power by the representatives of the proletariat is not yet be possible but when their participation in the government appears necessary: if it were to be a question, for example, of the freedom of the country or of democratic conquests such as the Republic, at a moment when the bourgeois government would be precisely too compromised and already too disorganised to get the people to follow it without the support of the workers’ members of parliament. In such a case of course the representatives of the working people would not have the right, from an abstract love of principles, to refuse to defend the common cause. But, even in this case, the participation of Social-Democrats in government would have to be practised in forms that left neither the bourgeoisie nor the people in the least doubt as to the temporary character and the limited objective of their action. In other words, the participation of socialists in government should not, even then, go so far as general solidarity with the activity and existence of this government. It does not seem that precisely such a situation has occurred at the present moment in France. The socialist parties had already declared themselves from the start ready to support any sincerely republican government. But today, since the entry of Millerand into the ministry, which in any case occurred without the assent of his colleagues, giving such support now partly frightens the socialists.

Whatever the case, for us it is not a question of judging whether the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet is a special case, but to deduce from our basic principles a general line of conduct. From this point of view, socialist participation in a bourgeois government appears to be an experiment which can only end in great harm to the class struggle.

The role of Social-Democracy, in bourgeois society, is essentially that of an opposition party. It can only enter on scene as a government party on the ruins of bourgeois society.

Last updated on: 19 August 2020