First Published: Dortmunder Arbeiterzeitung, March 14th-15th, 1910.
Source: Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, edited and introduced by Robert Looker.
Translated: (from the German) W.D. Graf.
Transcription/Markup: Ted Crawford/Brian Baggins with special thanks to Robert Looker for help with permissions.
Copyright: Random House, 1972, ISBN/ISSN: 0224005960. Printed with the permission of Random House. Luxemburg Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2004.
The question of the right to vote in Prussia, which has remained in a condition of immutability for more than half a century, is today the focus of Germany’s public life. A few weeks of energetic mass action by the proletariat have sufficed to stir up the old swamp of Prussian reaction and to blow a fresh breeze through the political life of all Germany. A reform of the Prussian electoral law cannot be achieved by parliamentary means; here only a direct mass action from without, in the country, can bring about change – we are more firmly aware of this than ever, following our first experiences of street demonstrations on the one hand, and the events in the electoral commission of the Prussian Landtag on the other.
Nevertheless, if the latest impressive street demonstrations already signify a welcome innovation in the outward forms of Social Democracy’s struggle, and if at the same time they have set off a most powerful mass struggle for the right to vote in Prussia, then they for their part impose certain obligations on the party to whose initiative and leadership they are attributable. In view of the mass movement it has unleashed, our party must have a clear and definite plan of how it intends to continue the mass action which it has already begun. Street demonstrations, like military demonstrations, are usually only a prelude to the battle. There are cases in which demonstrations alone attain their end by intimidating the enemy. But apart from the undeniable fact that the enemy, in this case the unified reaction of the Junkers, haute bourgeoisie and monarchists in Prussia and Germany, is not in the least inclined to give in demonstrations can exert an effective pressure only when they are backed up by the firm resolve and readiness to resort, if necessary, to stronger methods of doing battle. Above all we must be clear about what we intend to do if the street demonstrations prove inadequate to achieve their direct end.
The necessity of complete lucidity and determination in this regard has been proven by the party’s experience until now. Two years ago we made the first attempts at street demonstrations in Prussia. Even then the masses proved equal to the situation, and enthusiastically followed the Social-Democratic rallying cry. Among the aroused masses one could sense a fresh breeze, a hope for new and more effective forms of struggle, a resolve not to be intimidated or to shrink from any sacrifice. And what was the end result? The party advanced no new demands and the action was not extended and continued. On the contrary, the masses were tacitly warned to desist, the general agitation ebbed away forthwith, and the whole affair in fact ran aground.
This first experiment might be an indication and a warning to our party that mass demonstrations have their own logic and their own psychology; to take these into account is an urgent necessity for politicians who wish to master them. For the expressions of the masses’ will in the political struggle cannot be held at one and the same level artificially or for any length of time, nor can they be encapsulated in one and the same form. They must be intensified, concentrated and must take on new and more effective forms. Once unleashed, the mass action must go forward. And if at the acknowledged moment the leading party lacks the resolve to provide the masses with the necessary watchwords, then they are inevitably overcome by a certain disillusionment, their courage vanishes and the action collapses of itself.
We had a small but clear warning in this direction right at the beginning of the present campaign. When the party leadership in Berlin arranged those sixty-two meetings in January and failed to combine them with street demonstrations, in reality we experienced a set-back. As is well known, these meetings were very poorly attended, despite our increased agitation, and only on February 13th, when we had planned from the outset for processions through the streets, did the masses follow the party’s rallying cry enthusiastically and in vast multitudes. It is obvious that the scheme of neatly and efficiently going through the whole catalogue from beginning to end, from meetings without street demonstrations to meetings with street demonstrations, and so on, simply cannot he done in practice. The proletarian masses in Berlin, and in most of the great industrial centres of Prussia, have already been so strongly aroused by Social Democracy that the form of mere protest meetings against the injustice of the Prussian electoral system, with its usual passing of resolutions, is no longer enough for them. Street demonstrations are today the least action which can correspond to the resentful masses’ thirst for action and to the tense political situation.
But for how long? One would have to be well out of touch with the intellectual life of the party masses across the country not to perceive clearly that the street demonstrations, especially after their initial advances of recent weeks, have created a frame of mind through their inner logic, and at the same time have objectively created a situation on the battlefield which leads past the demonstrations themselves and which sooner or later makes further steps and stronger methods unavoidably necessary.
The proceedings in the electoral law commission and in the plenary session of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, the fact that even the most demagogic of all parties, the Centre, did not hesitate to unite with the Junkers to block the electoral law, thus destroying all hope for a serious reform of this law – all this, coming as an answer to the large-scale demonstrations in all Prussia, is a slap in the face for the demonstrating masses and for Social Democracy at their head, a blow which cannot go unreturned. Now that the open struggle has been taken up, it must unfold in rapid succession from the relentless iron logic of this struggle itself. Now that the reaction has rejected the mass demonstrations by subverting the electoral reform bill in the commission and in the plenary session, the masses, under the leadership of Social Democracy, must reject this subversion by attacking anew. In a situation such as this, to hesitate for long, to extend the pause between each battle, to be indecisive in choosing the method and strategy of the further struggle, means virtually to lose the battle. It is necessary to keep our opponents under pressure and not to let them develop the illusion that we would not dare to go further than we have already gone, or that we would not have the courage to accept the consequences. On the other hand, the street demonstrations will soon no longer be enough for the psychological need, the combative frame of mind, of the masses, and if Social Democracy does not resolutely advance one step further, if it lets the right political moment for giving a further watchword slip by, then it can scarcely succeed in sustaining the street demonstrations for any length of time. The action will then finally grow tired and, as two years ago, collapse. This experience is confirmed by the examples of analogous struggles in Belgium, in Austria-Hungary, in Russia – struggles which also exhibit the inevitable intensification and progression of the mass action and which, just because of this intensification, obtained a political result.
One other fact serves as a clear sign that for Social Democracy street demonstrations alone will soon be overtaken by the wave of events. Today there are bourgeois democrats, Leftist radical elements of the bourgeoisie, who organize street demonstrations! Of course the courage of these homeless politicians, as anyone can see, dates from the Social-Democratic initiative. And of course the meetings and street processions arranged by these retired officers without armies are filled largely by none other than Social-Democratic workers. The very fact, however, that the street demonstrations have become a method of political struggle and a necessity for the democratic bourgeoisie shows that they can no longer be methods of struggle adequate for the requirements of the Leftist front, Social Democracy. In this case, Social Democracy can do justice to its mission of encouraging all elements opposed to the propertied classes only by forcing the action of all elements to a head, by constantly taking the lead and pointing the way with its resolute slogans. If street demonstrations have become a method of doing battle for even Breitscheid, Liszt and Co., then it is high time that Social Democracy considered what its next method of struggle is to be.
Thus the party finds itself confronted on all sides with the question: what is the next step? And since the last party congress in Prussia avoided this question, with a gesture unfortunately rather more spectacular than political, it must now be settled by a discussion in the press and at public meetings. The mass of party comrades in the country must consider and decide what the next step is to be. Only then, only as the expression of the mass of the party, can our tactics of further struggle acquire the necessary vigour and impetus.
The answer has already been given in a number of resolutions and statements of the Social-Democratic workers in various centres of our movement. In Halle, in Bremen, in Breslau, in the agitation district of Hessen-Nassau, in Königsberg, our comrades have loudly named the method of struggle which the present mass struggle compels the party to employ; it is the mass strike.
In principle our party endorsed the political mass strike by formal party resolution at the Jena Congress five years ago, as a method of struggle applicable in Germany. To be sure, when this resolution was passed, the party had in mind the possible necessity of protecting the existing right to vote for the Reichstag, that is, the party was thinking of a defensive action. However, in view of the close connection between internal Prussian politics and national politics, in view of the latest provocations and threats of a coup d’etat by the Prussian Junkers in the Reichstag, and in view of the entire situation, it is obvious that in the present struggle it is not just the right to vote in Prussia, but ultimately the right to vote in the Reich, which is at stake. If the Junkers and their accomplices triumph over the workers in the matter of the right to vote in Prussia, this will without doubt swell their courage to deprive them of their right to vote for the Reichstag at an opportune moment. And, conversely, a vigorous and successful mass offensive on the question of suffrage will be the best and most secure guarantee of the right to vote in the Reichstag elections.
The mass strike recommends itself especially to the present campaign because it occurs to some extent automatically, as the natural and inevitable intensification of a mass action which has already begun and is spreading further. The notion of a mass strike shot from a pistol, ‘made’ one beautiful morning by a simple party directive, is only a childish fantasy, an anarchistic chimera. However, a mass strike resulting from a demonstration movement of the vast working masses, lasting several months and taking on increasingly large dimensions, creates a situation in which a party of three million is confronted with the dilemma of either pushing forward at any price or of seeing the mass action collapse unsuccessfully. Such a mass strike is born of the inner need and of the resoluteness of the aroused masses, and simultaneously of the concentrated political situation, and it is both its own justification and the guarantee of its own effectiveness.
Of course the mass strike is not a miraculous method guaranteeing success under all circumstances. In particular, the mass strike must not be regarded as an artificial, unique and mechanical method, a neatly applicable way of exerting political pressure according to regulations and commands. The mass strike is merely the external form of an action which has its own inner development, logic, intensification and consequences, and these are most closely connected with the political situation and its further progress. The mass strike, especially as a brief; single demonstrative strike, is certainly not the final word of the incipient political campaign. Rather it is the campaign’s first word at its present stage. And though the further course, the duration, the immediate success, and indeed the costs and sacrifices of this campaign cannot he written down beforehand with pen on paper, as can the cost-estimates of a stockbroking operation, there are nevertheless situations in which it is the political duty of a party which is the leader of millions to give resolutely the watchwords which alone can spur on the struggle that that party has begun.
A party, such as German Social Democracy, which upholds the principle of organization and party discipline in an unprecedented manner virtually eliminates the initiative of the unorganized masses and their spontaneous and, as it were, improvised ability to act -which until now has been an important and often decisive factor in all great political struggles. To such a party falls the inescapable duty of pointing out the value to great actions of this highly developed organization and discipline, and their applicability to forms of the struggle other than parliamentary elections. A decision must be made as to whether German Social Democracy, which is supported by the strongest trade-union organization and the greatest army of voters in the world, can bring about a mass action (which has been done at various times with great success in little Belgium, in Italy, in Austria-Hungary, in Sweden – not to mention Russia), or whether in Germany a trade-union organization numbering two million members and a powerful, well-disciplined party is just as incapable of giving birth to an effective mass action at the crucial moment as were the French trade unions, which had been crippled by anarchist confusion, and the French Socialist party, which had been weakened by internal disputes.
It is evident of course that an action of the character and significance of the mass strike cannot be undertaken by the party alone without the trade unions. Only a common, unified operation by both organizations can kindle a huge action across the entire country, the only kind of action which can succeed in Germany. Now from the trade unions’ point of view, various factors come into consideration. On the one hand, the western coal-mining regions have for some time been involved in a violent upheaval and are preparing for a great economic struggle. On the other hand, the situation in the various branches of production, for example in the building trade, has been so tense that the bosses are only waiting for a suitable pretext to initiate a large-scale lock-out. At first sight both cases might appear to be a reason for considering a political mass strike as inopportune from the standpoint of the trade unions. But only at first sight. If one looks more closely, the coincidence of large-scale mass strikes in the coal-mining industry with a political strike movement could be only useful to both the trade union and the party. In any great mass movement of the proletariat, a great number of political and economic factors coincide. To attempt to peel these away from each other in an artificial manner, to attempt to keep them separate from one another in a pedantic fashion, would be a vain and detrimental start. A healthy, viable movement, such as the present Prussian campaign, must and should draw its sustenance from all the accumulated inflammatory social material. On the other hand, the success of the narrower cause of the miners can only be furthered if they enter into a broader political cause, thereby imbuing their opponents – the coal magnates and the government – with greater fear. Their opponents would then see themselves all the more compelled to satisfy the miners with concessions and to attempt to isolate them from the political tidal wave. But as far as the threatening lock-outs are concerned we all know on the basis of countless experiences that when the interests of the entrepreneur and of his master-in-my-own-house standpoint so require, he has never lacked the pretexts for a brutal mass lock-out, nor has any absence of semi-justified pretexts ever prevented him from carrying out his violent acts. Whether or not a political mass strike is effected, there will be no shortage of lock-outs, so long as they suit the bosses’ purposes. That these lock-outs coincide with a great political movement can only have the effect of raising the proletariat’s idealism, its readiness to make sacrifices, its energy and ability to resist, and of making the workers more resistant to the partial sufferings occasioned by these lock-outs.
For all that, the most important consideration from the trade unions’ standpoint is as follows: a great mass-strike action in every case involves a strong risk to the existence of the trade-union organization and its financial position. Can and should the trade unions assume such a risk? For the moment we will not dispute that there is a risk. But which struggle, which action, which purely economic strike does not involve a risk to the workers’ fighting organizations? Should the powerful consolidation, the numerical strength of our German trade unions be a reason for their taking greater account of such dangers in their struggles (as do weaker trade unions in other countries, for example in Sweden and Italy), then this would be a dangerous argument against the trade unions themselves. For this would lead to the peculiar conclusion that the greater and stronger our organization, the less capable of action, the more hesitant we become. The purpose of even the strongest consolidation of trade unions would thus be called into question, since we need the organizations as a means to an end, as the tools for the struggle, and not as ends in themselves. But fortunately this question cannot even arise. In reality the danger, the risk that our trade-union organizations run is only an external one. In reality, healthy, strong organizations prove themselves only in bitter struggles; they arise from each trial of strength with renewed powers and are again equal to the task. Let the initial consequences of a general political mass strike be a weakening or damaging to a number of trade unions – after a short time not only will the old organization again flourish, but the great action will arouse new groups of the proletariat and will bring the organization’s ideas into new circles which have hitherto been immune to a peaceful, systematic trade-union organization. Or this great action will win over multitudes of the proletariat who until now have been under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, the Centre Party, the Hirsch-Dunekerites,[A] the Lutherans. A healthy, large, bold mass action will always bring with it gains which outweigh the losses. At this very moment we are witnessing an instructive example of how, under certain circumstances, the most cautious trade-union movement can be caught up in a situation in which it becomes a necessity, a matter of honour, for it to plunge into a great struggle without timidly weighing all the chances of winning against those of losing. This example is revealed to us in Philadelphia. Now the trade-union organization in that city might well be considered as the least revolutionary, foolhardy and rash in the whole International. It is an organization headed by Gompers, a lukewarm politician full of scorn for Social-Democratic ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘revolutionary slogans’. This organization, now entering the political battle, will perhaps proclaim a comprehensive general strike in the immediate future aimed at safeguarding the freedom to organize of six hundred tramway employees. That this violent trial of strength against capitalism, which is growing hourly, involves the American trade unions in a great risk, is beyond doubt. However, who will condemn the measures taken by Gompers in this case, and who will not understand that this great trial of strength can in the final analysis have only the most beneficial consequences for the American labour movement as a whole ? Similarly, when the balance is drawn up, the German trade unions as a whole can only profit if they once make their power felt vis-Ã -vis an arrogant and united capitalism.
From the political standpoint, one more factor comes into consideration. In 1912, we shall have the Reichstag elections, in which we shall be expected to give our general consent to the ‘Hottentot Elections’.[B] Admittedly our opponents have paved the way admirably for us with their finance reform. For our part, however, we cannot create a more splendid situation than to arrange a great preliminary political mass action on a scale which Germany has not yet witnessed. By arousing the broadest masses, by increasing their idealism and by channelling their fighting energy as much as possible, we can achieve a degree of enlightenment and understanding which will make the coming elections a stunning Waterloo for the ruling system.
From both the trade unions’ and the political stand-point, then, we are impelled to: first look, and then leap!
A political mass strike in Germany – in this case, of course, it is not Prussia alone which comes into consideration; the party masses in the rest of the Reich will surely hasten to us with their enthusiastic and spontaneous support – a German mass strike would exert a far-reaching, long-range effect on the International. It would be a fact which would enhance immeasurably the courage, the belief in socialism, the confidence, the readiness for sacrifice of the proletariat in all countries. To be sure, considerations of this kind cannot be a reason for German Social Democracy and the German trade unions to decide to apply the mass strike; such a strike must be a product of the internal situation in Germany itself. However, in drawing up the profit and loss columns of the balance-sheet of a possible application of the mass strike, such considerations should also be included. German Social Democracy has until now provided the International with the great model in the areas of parliamentary struggle, organization and party discipline. Perhaps it will soon provide a shining example of how all these advantages can be combined with a resolute and intrepid mass action.
Nevertheless it most not be anticipated by any means that one fine day the supreme leadership of the movement, the Party Executive and the General Commission of the trade unions, will give the ‘command’ to commence the mass strike. Corporate bodies which bear the responsibility for millions are naturally hesitant to pass resolutions which, after all, must be carried out by others. Beyond this, the decision to undertake a direct mass action can originate only in the mass itself. The liberation of the working class can only be the work of the working class itself – this guiding principle from the Communist Manifesto has also the specific meaning that, even within the class party of the proletariat, any great, decisive movement must originate not in the initiative of a handful of leaders, but in the conviction and solidarity of the mass of party supporters. Again, the decision to fight the present struggle for the right to vote in Prussia, and to fight in accordance with the pledge of our Prussian party conference – ‘with all the means at our disposal’, that is, with the means of the mass strike – can be taken only by the broadest groups in the party. It is a matter for our comrades in the party and the trade unions in every city and every district to state their position on the questions raised by the present situation and to express clearly and openly their views, their will, so that the opinion of the organized working masses can make itself heard as a whole. And having done this, our leaders will be as secure in their posts as they have ever been.
[A] A trade-union organization set up in the 1850s under the aegis of the liberal bourgeoisie and opposed to any political ties between unions and parties.
[B] The name given to the 1907 Reichstag election campaign when the Chancellor, von Bülow, campaigned on an imperialist platform designed to brand the Social Democrats as traitors to the nation.
Last updated on: 3.12.2008