Rosa Luxemburg

Mass Action


Written: August 1911 in Leipzig.
Source: Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Vol.3.
Publisher: Dietz, Berlin 1973, 4th edition.
First Published: Leipziger Volkszeitung, No.199, 29th August 1911.
Translated: Dave Hollis.
Online Version: mea 1994; 1999.
Transcription: Dave Hollis/Brian Baggins.


This is one of many articles that Rosa Luxemburg wrote on and around the question of the ‘Agadir incident’.

This incident was sparked off by Germany’s attempt to spread her influence over the whole of Morocco. In view of the possibilities of a war breaking out on this issue, the French Socialists took this incident as grounds for wanting an international demonstration for Socialism. The French requested a meeting through the International Socialist Bureau of the Social-Democratic organisations of those countries involved in this incident, France, Spain, the UK and Germany. With the exception of Germany, all participants were in agreement. A full time secretary of the SPD party executive, Hermann Molkenbuhr, informed the International Socialist Bureau, however, that the Germans did not want a conference “for the time being”.

Molkenbuhr considered the Morocco incident to be of no danger. The interests of the various German Steel companies, Mannesmann on the one side, and Krupp and Thyssen in a French mining syndicate on the other, would lead the capitalists to putting on the brakes soon enough. Furthermore, he considered that taking up the issue would lead to a diversion from the internal issues and therefore damage the chances of the SPD in the coming general election.

As was often the case, the rank and file of the SPD was more radical than the leadership and saw things differently. They took up the question in the run up to the elections. In Berlin and in the large cities of Prussia the rank and file held protest meetings against the sending of the warships, Panther and Berlin, to Agadir.

Rosa Luxemburg, as a member of the International Secretariat, had received a copy of Molkenbuhr’s letter. Obviously very unhappy with its content, she published it on 24th July 1911 in the newspaper, Leipziger Volkszeitung, with a withering criticism from herself.

The publication of the letter caused an uproar in the party, published in the middle of an international crisis and before the party executive had done anything, it brought the dissatisfaction with the party executive to the boil. This revelation forced the executive on 9th August to begin the agitation on the Morocco question. It did not, however, pacify the membership.

At the Jena Conference, the party executive tried to make out of a ‘Morocco’ affair a ‘Luxemburg’ affair, accusing her of disloyalty and indiscretion. This attack backfired. The centrists sided with the ‘lefts’ around Rosa Luxemburg and the party reform went through. Two new secretary posts came into being, and the post of co-chairman went to a prominent left centrist, Hugo Haase, who replaced the deceased Paul Singer.

The article gives us a very interesting insight into Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the question of party organisation and her attitude to what has gone down in the literature as her views on ‘spontaneity’. These views are not only of historical interest but also for the current debates within the labour movement, both nationally and internationally.

The article also gives a small insight into the workings of the SPD. I suspect that it is generally unknown that the SPD was quite a centralised party. It was no accident, for instance, that the attempts by the Bolsheviks to export the Bolshevik methods of organisation, epitomised by the 21 Conditions for entry into the Third International, met with enormous resistance from those members of the CP who stemmed from the SPD. Their bad experiences with centralism led to the KPD, for a few years, being an extremely democratic party. But that is another story!

Dave Hollis

Again the Masses and Leaders

News is coming in from all sides about the meetings and demonstrations organised by our party against the foreign policy and the Morocco line. The popular masses are answering our appeal everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm, and this proves how much we have met the feelings and mood of the masses by giving them a political expression, solution and direction. Now only one opinion predominates in the whole of the party, that a mass action against the Morocco affair and an energetic agitation in the field of foreign policy was an irrefutable task of Social-Democracy and an urgent necessity.

And now the question immediately posed by this: Why was this campaign not begun one or two months ago? The dispatch of the German gunboat to Agadir, with which Germany officially intervened in the Morocco affair, took place on the 2nd of July. Already in the first week of July, the protest of the French and Spanish Socialists was in full swing. Instead of immediately initiating at that time the agitation with all one’s might, we are bringing up the rear and dragging ourselves along in the wake of events and are at least one to one and a half months too late. In this important case our political quick-wittedness has left a lot to be desired. Why?

One will answer: The party executive has showed an unfortunate lack of initiative. Its call for action was not published until the 9th of August and therefore the meetings could first begin in the second half of August. To be sure, but must the party wait for the official call of the party executive? If today everyone in the party without exception sees the necessity for action against the world politics, cannot the local party organisations do something on their own initiative, like the Stuttgart comrades have done?[1] It is extraordinarily easy to put the blame on the party executive, who for their part may really have acted with a lack of determination and energy. However, a no smaller part of the blame is to be put on those who always expect all salvation from above and even in such clear and indubitable cases shy away from a little self-activity and personal initiative. Of course campaigns of the party on this scale re quire uniformity and unity in order to be most effective, which can be best brought about from a centre. In this respect, especially the example of several old centres of the party movement, who would rouse all the remaining local organisations, would certainly not miss their mark. To be sure, also the party executive, as leading centre, would soon see itself forced to generalise every massive initiative and good beginning by making itself the mouthpiece and tool of the will of the party, instead of, as now, the other way round, the party executive viewing the great and powerful party organisations as being just an instrument for carrying out the instructions of the party executive.

It must also be said openly: only when there is a reversal of the present abnormal relations would life within the party first stand on a normal footing. It is stated in the Communist Manifesto that the emancipation of the working class can only be the work of the working class itself and it understands by the working class not a party executive of seven or twelve but the enlightened mass of the proletariat in person. Every step forward in the struggle for emancipation of the working class must at the same time mean a growing intellectual independence of its mass, its growing self-activity, self-determination and initiative. How should the capability of action and political quickwittedness of the broad popular masses develop if the vanguard of these masses, the best and most enlightened sections united in the Social-Democratic Party organisations, exhibit for their part no initiative and independence as masses, on the contrary, always be at the ready until a command is issued from above? Discipline and unity of action is a vital matter for mass movements like ours.

However, discipline in the Social-Democratic sense differs fundamentally from the discipline of the bourgeois armed forces. There it is based on the unthinking and submissive subordination of the bulk of the soldiers to the command of authority expressing an outside will. Social-Democratic discipline can only mean the subordination of every individual to the will and the thought of the great majority. Therefore Social-Democratic discipline can never mean that eight hundred thousand organised party members have to bow to the will and regulations of a central authority of a party executive but the opposite, all central organs of the party having to carry out the will of the eight hundred thousand organised social democrats. Important for the normal development of the political life in the party, a vital matter for the Social-Democracy, is therefore based on always keeping the political thought and the will of the mass of the party awake and active, and thus enabling them in increasing measure to be active. We have, of course, the yearly party conference as highest instance which regularly fixes the will of the whole party. However, it is obvious that the party conferences can only give general outlines of the tactics for the Social-Democratic struggle. The application of these guidelines in practice requires a constant, untiring thought, quick-wittedness and initiative. The decisions of the party conferences obviously do not in the slightest exhaust the regular tasks of the political struggle, for life does not stand still, and from one party conference to the other many things take place in heaven and earth to which the party must react. To want to make a party executive responsible for the whole enormous task of daily political vigilance and initiative on whose command a party organisation of almost a million passively waits, is the most in correct thing there is from the standpoint of the proletarian class struggle. That is without doubt that reprehensible “blind obedience” which our opportunists definitely want to see in the self-evident subordination of all to the decisions of the whole party.

One can often hear in our ranks complaints about the bureaucratism of our highest party authorities that is said to be killing the living political energy. These complaints are also totally justified. Just those who express them surely take little account of the fact that to a large extent the lamented state has its roots in the nature of things. Every body with daily official office work tends to fall into bureaucratism and routine. Besides, such high-ranking bodies naturally have a strongly developed feeling of responsibility that unquestionably has a strongly paralysing effect on initiative and determination. A real remedy against this bad state of affairs is only the living political activity of the entire party. The most ideal party executive of a party like the social democracy would be the one that would function as the most obedient, most prompt and most precise tool of the will of the entire party. However, the most ideal party executive would be able to achieve nothing, would involuntarily sink into bureaucratic inefficiency if the natural source of its energy, the will of the party, does not make itself felt, if critical thought, the mass of the party’s own initiative is sleeping. In fact it is more than this. If its own energy, the independent intellectual life of the mass of the party, is not active enough, then the central authorities have the quite natural tendency to not only bureaucratically rust but also to get a totally wrong idea of their own official authority and position of power with respect to the party. The most recent so-called “secret decree” of our party executive to the party editorial staffs[2] can serve as fresh proof, an attempt to make decisions for the party press, which cannot be sharply enough rejected. However, also here it is necessary to make clear: Against both inefficiency and excessive illusions of power of the central authorities of the labour movement there is no other way except one’s own initiative, one’s own thought, and the own fresh pulsating political life of the broad mass of the party.

The questions touched upon here are of more than academic interest in the current situation. It has been recognised from different sides in the party that the current state of the party executive needs to be improved, an extension and renewal of our highest party authorities is seen to be necessary. Recently our Elberfeld organ also wrote like that on the occasion of the Morocco debate:

“At least one must agree with the Leipziger Volkszeitung that the party executive should have taken the initiative for a campaign.

“Well, we are also quite convinced after a closer examination of the matter that the sin of the party executive of failing to do something must be judged more mildly. The administrative machinery of the party has become so extensive that the number of members of the party leadership is no longer enough to fulfil all the requirements that are to be made on it as seems necessary. The gap left by Comrade Singer has not been filled; if we add to this the case that a member of the party executive or even two may well be outside of Berlin for the carrying out of party business or for agitation, a further member were to be ill, a fourth and fifth were on holiday – certainly nobody would want to deny the very busy members of the party executive that – it cannot fail to happen that a small minority has to decide on sudden appearing, important questions and that these questions would have sometimes have been dealt with differently if the whole of the executive had got together. The contradiction is also certainly to be explained by this dilemma that the letter of the party executive[3] is described by the party office as being the private opinion of the letter writer while it was naturally received outside as a letter of the party executive. The Jena party conference will have to decide a strengthening of the party executive. A motion has already been put on this matter by two constituencies – Tetlow-Beeskow and Berlin I.”

The view expressed here of the necessity of strengthening the party executive is perfectly correct and the party conference must not be allowed to shirk from its important task in this field. If our party pacifies itself with the strengthening of the party executive and again passively expects all salvation from the “new men”, as for example it passively waited one and a half months for the conductor’s baton of the party executive for the unfolding of the protest action against the Morocco affair, it would merely mean wanting to come up with purely bureaucratic means against the evil of bureaucratism. No party executive in the world can replace the mass of the party’s own energy, and an organisation of a million which, at a great time and in the face of great tasks, would want to complain that it did not have the right leaders would prove its own shortcomings, because it would prove it has not understood the historical essence itself of the proletarian class struggle that consists in the proletarian masses not needing “leaders” in a bourgeois sense, that they are themselves leaders.


[1] On 15th July 1911, a protest gathering took place in Stuttgart at which Karl Liebknecht was the mover of a resolution against German imperialism’s Morocco policies, which was unanimously adopted.

[2] On 8th August 1911, the SPD party executive wrote a confidential circular to the editorial boards of the party press to try to stop them publishing criticisms of the leading trade union bodies and articles on differences in the book printers’ union that had been caused by anti-worker decisions of their executive. The party membership found out about the circular through a bourgeois paper in Saxony into whose hands the circular had fallen. The contents of the circular led to a considerable amount of displeasure in the party over the actions of the party executive.

3] The paper is refering to Molkenbuhr’s letter.

Last updated on: 12.12.2008