Rosa Luxemburg

Lassalle and the Revolution

(March 1904)

Originally written for a volume commemorating Ferdinantd Lassalle. [1*]
This version: Weekly Worker, No.752, 15 January 2009.
Translated: Ben Lewis.
Copied with thanks from the CPGB/Weekly Worker Website.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Lassalle’s immediate relationship with the March [1848] revolution has remained a mere fragmentary, almost fleeting, one.

This is partly because of his still relatively young age, but above all because of the peculiar concatenation of circumstances in his life which – for almost a decade – chained him to the individual fate of a woman badly abused by the dominant feudal powers and which have made his energy to the service of the revolution highly disputed in this period. [1] Not until the November crisis of 1848 was Lassalle able to play an exemplary part in the revolutionary struggles of the Rhineland. Immediately, however, he was snared by the Prussian judiciary, which only released him when the revolution was over.

But Lassalle’s historical connection with the March revolution does not end with his direct agitation during the ‘great year’: it was not even the main thing about it. Rather, it was the fact that Lassalle put into practice the most important historical consequence of the March revolution by finally releasing the German working class from the political conscription of the bourgeoisie and organising it into an independent class party.

As is well known, the specific manner in which Lassalle carried out this immortal task has been met with sharp and often well deserved criticism from Marx.

“He made big mistakes,” wrote Marx to Schweitzer in 1868. “He allowed himself to be influenced too much by the immediate circumstances of the time. He made the minor starting point, his opposition to the dwarf-like Schulze-Delitzsch, the central point of his agitation – state aid versus self-help. The ‘state’ was, therefore, transformed into the Prussian state. He was thus forced to make concessions to the Prussian monarchy, to Prussian reaction (the feudal party) and even to the clerics.” [2]

Yet Lassalle’s great deed – accomplished both in spite of and through these mistakes – is not reduced, but actually grows in significance with the historical perspective from which we observe it. That Lassalle understood how to see through the inner misery of bourgeois liberalism and to expose this ruthlessly and almost brutally in front of the working class – especially at a time when this liberalism was still, after all, daring to engage in something akin to a struggle with the crown and the Junker reaction – this service will in this sense be ever greater in the eyes of the historians and the politicians, for since then the bourgeoisie has achieved the miracle of sliding, year on year, further down beyond the depths where it stood even back then.

And if still today, until quite recently, if only sporadically and fleetingly, illusions in a new upswing, an Indian summer of bourgeois liberalism, the cooperation and common struggle of the proletariat were conceivable, the more groundbreaking Lassalle’s noble deed will become, as he did not hesitate for a second in showing the German proletariat the way to independent class politics through the rubble of liberalism stemming from the time of conflict – a liberalism that, of course, towers above the liberalism of today.

In his tactics of struggle, Lassalle certainly did make mistakes. Yet emphasising mistakes in a great life’s work is the trite pleasure of petty peddlars of historical research. Far more important in judging someone’s personality and the impact of their work is to ascertain the actual cause or the specific source from which both their errors and virtues resulted. In many cases, Lassalle transgressed in his tendency to ‘diplomacy’ or ‘ploys’, such as in his deals with Bismarck on the introduction from above of general suffrage or in his plans for cooperatives funded with state credit. In his political struggles with bourgeois society, as well as in his judicial struggles with the Prussian judiciary, he happily fought on the enemy’s territory, appearing to make concessions in his point of view. A sassy, noble acrobat, as Johann Phillip Becker wrote, he often dared to jump right to the edge of the abyss that separates a revolutionary tactic from collaboration with reaction.

But the cause that led him to these audacious leaps was not inner insecurity, an inner doubt of the strength and practicability of the revolutionary cause that he represented, but on the contrary an excess of confident belief in the unconquerable power of this cause. Lassalle sometimes went over to the ground of the opponent in the fight, not in order to relinquish something of his revolutionary goals, but, on the contrary, in the deluded belief that his strong personality would suffice to wrest away so much from his opponent for those revolutionary goals, that the ground beneath his opponent’s feet would cave in.

When, for example, Lassalle grafted his idea of cooperatives funded by state credit onto an idealistic, unhistorical fiction of the ‘state’, the great danger of this fiction was that in reality he merely idealised the wretched Prussian state. But what Lassalle wanted to impose on it in terms of the tasks and duties of the working class would not only have shaken the miserable shack that is the Prussian state, but the bourgeois state in general.

The wrong – one might say the opportunistic – aspect of the Lassallean tactic was that he aimed his demands at the wrong audience. Yet his demands did not as a result diminish and disintegrate in his hands: they grew more and more. And if he preferred to reduce the whole fight to a few militant slogans – on the general right to vote and the productive associations, for example – then it was not an excess of patience, which would have meant abandoning the sea of socialist demands for piecemeal bourgeois reforms, but his impatience, on the contrary, which drove him to concentrate all forces on one or a few particular points of attack in order to cut short the long historic process.

So the mistakes of Lassallean tactics are those of an aggressive attacker, not a ditherer. They are those of a daring revolutionary, not a fainthearted diplomat.

In every period there are people – and there are also such people today – who only believe in the possibility and the timeliness of a revolution when it has already happened. Such people grasp world history not by observing its face, so to speak, but its behind. Lassalle belonged to that great generation, at the top of which Karl Marx shone, in which belief in the revolution was alive in all its power. Not merely in the sense that in the 1850s Lassalle, like Marx and Engels, still confidently expected the return of the March revolutionary wave in Europe, but above all in the sense that he lived in the rock-solid conviction of the validity and inevitability of the proletarian revolution.

He constantly listened to the ‘the march of worker-battalions’ in the historical storming of the bourgeois order of society, right in the middle of the everyday struggle and the guerrilla war with the Prussian judiciary and police. And he knew perfectly well that the only adequate guarantee of the victorious course of this struggle lay in the proletarian mass itself. Even if he did not arrive at this conclusion by way of historical materialist research, as Marx did, but rather by way of philosophic-idealistic speculation, he provided the German working class, in complete harmony with Marx’s teaching, with one of its most important signposts in their class struggle when he, in contrasting parliamentary reformism to revolutionary mass action, said:

“A legislative assembly never has overthrown and never will overthrow the existing order. All that [such an] assembly has ever done and ever been able to do is proclaim the existing order outside, sanction the already completed overthrow of society and elaborate on its individual consequences, laws and so forth … Spoken more realistically, in the last instance revolutions can only be made with the masses and their passionate devotion” (my emphasis – RL). [3]

In a few months, on August 31, to be precise, 40 years will have passed since Lassalle’s death. He and his life’s work, judged for so long in a varied and sometimes contradictory manner, are now available for the German working class in full and exhaustive clarity – and indeed both in mortal and immortal forms – in Bernstein’s commentary and in Mehring’s works.

Had his sudden death not taken him away after such a short and bright life, it is doubtful whether Lassalle would be have been able to orient himself in today’s movement and claim his position as a leading and powerful spirit in this completely changed environment. “Events”, he wrote shortly before his death, “will develop very slowly, I fear, and my glowing soul takes no pleasure in these children’s illnesses and chronic tasks.” [4] Yet history has hardly ever suffered from a more disgusting infantile illness than the current period of bourgeois-feudal parliamentarianism, which the modern proletariat in Germany and all capitalist countries is damned to wade through and penetrate if it is to overcome it. Lassalle’s personality was simply not made for this period of the struggle.

But the contemporary proletarian mass movement needs that “glowing soul”, which shone in Lassalle and still breathes in each of his written words, all the more today. That soul, in Lassalle’s words, will alone be able to “clench the whole power into a fist”, and, at the crucial moment, overcome bourgeois society and achieve victory.


1. This refers to Sophie Gräfin von Hartzfeld, who sought to divorce her cheating husband. Lassalle met her at the age of 20 and took up her case in 36 court cases between 1846 and 1854.

2. Marx to J.B. Schweitzer, October 13, 1868.

3. F. Mehring (ed.), Der Literarische Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels und Ferdinand Lassalle, Vol.4, Stuttgart 1902.

4. E. Bernstein (ed.), Lassalles Reden und Schriften, Vol.1, Berlin 1892, p.179.

Note by Weekly Worker

1*. This March 1904 article was written for a volume commemorating Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64). He founded the General German Workers’ Association in 1863, the first German workers’ party. This organisation merged with the Social Democratic Workers Party headed by Willhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel in 1875, later becoming the Social Democratic Party

Last updated on: 23.1.2009