Rosa Luxemburg

Our Program and the Political Situation

(December 1918)

Delivered: December 31, 1918
Source: German: Politische Schriften, II (Frankfurt: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1966), pp.171-201; English: Selected Political Writings Rosa Luxemburg, 1971, edited by Dick Howard.
Translated: (from the German) Dick Howard.
Transcription/Markup: Ted Crawford/Brian Baggins.
Proofread: Andy Pollack
Copyright: Monthly Review Press © 1971. Printed with the permission of Monthly Review. Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2004.

This is the text of a speech to the Founding Congress of the Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus League), made on December 31, 1918. Notations of audience response are from H. Weber, Der Grundungsparteitag der KPD, pp.172-201.

Comrades! Our task today is to discuss and adopt a program. In undertaking this task we are not motivated solely by the formal consideration that yesterday we founded a new independent party and that a new party must formulate an official program. Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has come when the entire Social Democratic socialist program of the proletariat has to be placed on a new foundation. Comrades! In so doing, we connect ourselves to the threads which Marx and Engels spun precisely seventy years ago in the Communist Manifesto. As you know, the Communist Manifesto dealt with socialism, with the realization of the ultimate goals of socialism as the immediate task of the proletarian revolution. This was the conception advocated by Marx and Engels in the Revolution of 1848; and it was what they conceived as the basis for international proletarian action as well. In common with all the leading spirits in the proletarian movement, both Marx and Engels then believed that the immediate task was the introduction of socialism. All that was necessary, they thought, was to bring about a political revolution, to seize the political power of the state in order to make socialism immediately enter the realm of flesh and blood. Subsequently, as you are aware, Marx and Engels undertook a thoroughgoing revision of this standpoint. In their joint Preface to the republication of the Communist Manifesto in 1872, they say:

No special stress is to be laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section II. That passage would, in many respects, be differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of modern industry during the last twenty-five years and of the accompanying progress of the organization of the party of the working class: in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two months, this program has in some aspects been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, namely, that the “working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

What is the actual wording of the passage which is said to be dated? It reads as follows:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to gradually wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie: to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning this can only be effected by means of despotic interference into property rights and into the conditions of bourgeois production; by measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, go beyond themselves, necessitate further inroads into the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of revolutionizing the whole mode of production.

The measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries, the following will be generally applicable:

1) Abolition of landed property and application of all land rents to public purposes.
2) Heavy progressive taxes.
3) Abolition of the right of inheritance.
4) Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5) Centralization of credit in the hands of the state by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6) Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
7) Increase in the number of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally, in accordance with a social plan.
8) Equal obligation upon all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9) Unification of agricultural and manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country.
10) Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Unification of education with industrial production, etc., etc.

As you see, with a few variations, these are the tasks that confront us today: the introduction, the realization of socialism. Between the time when the above program was formulated and the present moment, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the dialectical movement of history has brought us back to the conception which Marx and Engels had abandoned in 1872 as erroneous. At that time, there were good reasons for believing that their earlier views had been wrong. The further development of capital has, however, led to the fact that what was incorrect in 1872 has become truth today, so that our immediate task today is to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to accomplish in 1848. But between that point in the development, that beginning, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole development not only of capitalism but also of the socialist labor movement, above all in Germany as the leading land of the modern proletariat. This development has taken a peculiar form.

When, after the disillusionments of the Revolution of 1848, Marx and Engels had given up the idea that the proletariat could immediately realize socialism, there came into existence in all countries Social Democratic socialist parties inspired with very different conceptions. The immediate task of these parties was declared to be detail work, the petty daily struggle in the political and economic realms, in order, by degrees, to form the armies of the proletariat which would be ready to realize socialism when capitalist development had matured. The socialist program was thereby established upon an utterly different foundation, and in Germany the change took a very typical form. Until the collapse of August 4, 1914, German Social Democracy took its stand upon the Erfurt Program, by which the so-called immediate minimal aims were placed in the forefront, while socialism was no more than a distant guiding star, the ultimate goal. Far more important, however, than what is written in a program is the way in which that program is interpreted in action. From this point of view, great importance must be attached to one of the historical documents of our labor movement, to the Preface written by Friedrich Engels to the 1895 republication of Marx’s Class Struggles in France. It is not on mere historical grounds that I now reopen this question. The matter is one of extreme immediacy. It has become our historical duty today to replace our program upon the foundation laid by Marx and Engels in 1848. In view of the changes brought about by historical development, it is our duty to undertake a deliberate revision of the views that guided German Social Democracy until the collapse of August 4. This revision must be officially undertaken today.

Comrades! How did Engels envisage the question in that famous Preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, written in 1895, after the death of Marx? First of all, looking back upon the year 1848, he showed that the belief that the socialist revolution was imminent had become obsolete. He continued as follows:

History has shown that we, and those who thought like us, were all mistaken. It has shown that the state of economic development on the continent was then far from being ripe for the abolition of capitalist production. It has proved this by the economic revolution which since 1848 has taken place all over the continent. Large-scale industry has been established in France, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and, recently, in Russia. Germany has become a first-rank industrial country. All these changes have taken place upon a capitalist foundation, a foundation which therefore in the year 1848 was still capable of an enormous extension.

After summing up the changes which had occurred in the intervening period, Engels turns to the immediate tasks of the party in Germany:

As Marx predicted, the war of 1870-1871 and the defeat of the Commune provisionally shifted the center of gravity of the European labor movement from France to Germany. Naturally, many years had to elapse before France could recover from the bloodletting of May 1871. In Germany, on the other hand, in the hothouse atmosphere produced by the influx of the French billions, industry was developing by leaps and bounds. Even more rapid and more enduring was the growth of Social Democracy. Thanks to the agreement in virtue of which the German workers have been able to avail themselves of the universal suffrage introduced in 1866, the astounding growth of the party has been demonstrated to all the world by the testimony of figures whose signficance no one can deny.

Thereupon followed the famous enumeration showing the growth of the Party vote in election after election until the figures swelled to millions. From this progress, Engels drew the following conclusion:

The successful employment of the parliamentary vote, however, entailed an entirely new mode of struggle by the proletariat, and this new method has undergone rapid development. It has been discovered that the political institutions in which the domination of the bourgeoisie is organized offer a fulcrum by means of which the proletariat can combat these very political institutions. The Social Democrats have participated in the elections to the various Diets, to municipal councils, and to industrial courts. Wherever the proletariat could secure an effective voice, the occupation of these electoral strongholds by the bourgeoisie has been contested. Consequently, the bourgeoisie and the government have become much more alarmed at the legal than at the illegal activities of the labor party, dreading the results of elections far more than they dread the results of rebellion.

Engels appends a detailed critique of the illusion that under modern capitalist conditions the proletariat could possibly expect to gain anything by street fighting, by revolution. It seems to me, however, that today, inasmuch as we are in the midst of a revolution, a revolution characterized by street fighting and all that it entails, it is time to put into question the conception which guided the official policy of German Social Democracy down to our own day, the views which share responsibility for our experience of August 4, 1914. [Hear! hear!]

By this, I do not mean to imply that, on account of these declarations, Engels must share personal responsibility for the whole course of the development in Germany. I merely say that this is a classical documentation of the opinions prevailing in German Social Democracy opinions which proved fatal to it. Here, comrades, Engels demonstrates, using all his knowledge as an expert in military science, that it is a pure illusion to believe that the working people could, in the existing state of military technique and of industry, and in view of the characteristics of the great cities of today, bring about and win a revolution by street fighting. Two important conclusions were drawn from this reasoning. In the first place, the parliamentary struggle was opposed to direct revolutionary action by the proletariat, and was frankly considered as the only means of carrying on the class struggle. The logical conclusion of this critique was the doctrine of “parliamentarism-only.” Secondly the whole military machine, precisely the most powerful organization in the class state, the entire mass of proletarians in military uniform, was declared, in a remarkable way, on a priori grounds, to be immune and absolutely inaccessible to socialist influence. When the Preface declares that, owing to the modern development of gigantic armies, it is insane to suppose that proletarians could stand up against soldiers armed with machine guns and equipped with all the latest technical devices, the assertion is obviously based upon the assumption that anyone who is a soldier is thereby a priori, once and for all, a support of the ruling class.

It would be absolutely incomprehensible, in the light of contemporary experience, that a man who stood at the head of our movement could have committed such an error if we did not know the actual circumstances in which this historical document was composed. To the honor of our two great masters, and especially to the credit of Engels, who died twelve years later than Marx, and was always a faithful champion of its great collaborator’s theories, the well-known fact that the preface was written by Engels under the direct pressure of the parliamentary delegation must be stressed![1] During the early 1890’s after the [anti-]socialist law had been repealed, there was in Germany a strong left-radical current within the German labor movement which wanted to save the Party from a total absorption in the parliamentary struggle. In order to defeat the radical elements theoretically, and to neutralize them in practice; in order to keep their views from the attention of the masses through the authority of our great masters, Bebel and comrades (and this was typical of our situation at the time: the parliamentary delegation decided theoretically and tactically the destiny and the tasks of the Party) pressed Engels, who lived abroad and had to rely on their assurances, to write that Preface, arguing that it was absolutely essential to save the German labor movement from anarchist deviations. From that time on, the tactics expounded by Engels dominated German Social Democracy in everything that it did and in everything that it left undone, down to the appropriate end, August 4, 1914. The Preface was the proclamation of the parliamentarism-only tactic. Engels died the same year, and had therefore no chance to see the practical results of this application of his theory.

I am certain that those who know the works of Marx and Engels, those who are familiar with the living, genuine revolutionary spirit that inspired all their teachings and their writings, will he convinced that Engels would have been the first to protest against the debauch of parliamentarism-only, against the corruption and degradation of the labor movement which was characteristic of Germany before the 4th of August. The 4th of August did not come like thunder out of a clear sky; what happened on the 4th of August was the logical outcome of all that we had been doing day after day for many years. [Hear! Hear!] I am certain that Engels and Marx, had he been alive – would have been the first to have protested with the utmost energy, and would have used all his forces to keep the vehicle from rolling into the swamp. But Engels died in the same year that he wrote the Preface. After we lost him in 1895, the theoretical leadership unfortunately passed into the hands of Kautsky. The result of this was that at every annual Party congress the energetic protests of the left wing against the policy of parliamentarism-only, its tenacious struggle against the sterility of such a policy whose dangerous results must be clear to everyone, were stigmatized as anarchism, anarcho-socialism, or at least anti-Marxism. What passed officially for Marxism became a cloak for all the hesitations, for all the turnings-away from the actual revolutionary class struggle, for every halfway measure which condemned German Social Democracy, the labor movement in general, and also the trade unions, to vegetate within the framework and on the terrain of capitalist society without any serious attempt to shake or throw that society out of gear.

But today we have reached the point, comrades, when we can say that we have rejoined Marx, that we are advancing under his flag. If today we declare in our program that the immediate task of the proletariat is none other than – in a word – to make socialism a truth and a fact, and to destroy capitalism root and branch, in saying this we take our stand upon the ground occupied by Marx and Engels in 1848, and from which in principle they never swerved. What true Marxism is has now become plain; and what ersatz Marxism, which has so long been the official Marxism of Social Democracy, has been is also clear. [Applause] You see what Marxism of that sort leads to – to the Marxism of those who are the henchmen of Ebert, David, and company. These are the representatives of the doctrine which was trumpeted for decades as true, undefiled Marxism. No, Marxism could not lead in this direction, could not lead to counter-revolutionary activities side by side with men such as Scheidemann. True Marxism fights also against those who seek to falsify it. Burrowing like a mole beneath the foundations of capitalist society, it has worked so well that the better part of the German proletariat is marching today under our banner, the stormy banner of revolution. Even in the opposite camp, even where the counter-revolution still seems to rule, we have adherents and future comrades-in-arms.

Comrades! As I have already noted, the course of the historical dialectic has led us back to the point at which Marx and Engels stood in 1848 when they first unfurled the banner of international socialism. We stand where they stood, but with the advantage that seventy additional years of capitalist development lie behind us. Seventy years ago, to those who reviewed the errors and illusions of 1848, it seemed as if the proletariat still had an infinitely long distance to travel before it could hope to realize socialism. Naturally no serious thinker has ever been inclined to fix a definite date for the collapse of capitalism; but the day of that collapse seemed to lie in the distant future. Such a belief too can be read in every line of the Preface which Engels wrote in 1895. We are now in a position to draw up the account. In comparison with the class struggles of the past, was it not a very short time? The progress of large-scale capitalist development during seven years has brought us so far that today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. No, still more; today we are not only in a position to perform this task, its performance is not only a duty toward the proletariat, but its solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction. [Loud applause]

Comrades! What has the war left of bourgeois society beyond a gigantic heap of ruins? Formally, of course, all the means of production and most of the instruments of power are still in the hands of the ruling classes. We are under no illusions on this score. But what our rulers will be able to achieve with these powers over and above frantic attempts to re-establish their system of exploitation through blood and slaughter will be nothing more than anarchy. Today matters have reached a point at which mankind is faced with the dilemma: either collapse into anarchy, or salvation through socialism. The results of the World War make it impossible for the capitalist classes to find any way out of their difficulties while still maintaining their class rule and capitalism. We are living today, in the strictest sense of the term, the absolute truth of the statement formulated for the first time by Marx and Engels as the scientific basis of socialism in the great charter of our movement, in the Communist Manifesto: Socialism will become an historical necessity. Socialism has become necessary not merely because the proletariat is no longer willing to live under the conditions imposed by the capitalist class but, rather, because if the proletariat fails to fulfill its class duties, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down together to a common doom. [Prolonged applause]

Here, comrades, you have the general foundation of the program we are officially adopting today, whose outline you have to read in the pamphlet What Does the Spartacus League Want? Our program is deliberately opposed to the standpoint of the Erfurt Program; it is deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate, so-called minimal demands formulated for the political and economic struggle from the socialist goal regarded as a maximal program. In this deliberate opposition [to the Erfurt Program] we liquidate the results of seventy years’ evolution and above all, the immediate results of the World War, in that we say: For us there is no minimal and no maximal program; socialism is one and the same thing: this is the minimum we have to realize today. [Hear! Hear!]

I do not propose to discuss the details of our program. That would take too long, and you will form your own opinions on matters of detail. I consider my task to he merely to sketch and formulate the broad principles which distinguish our program from what has hitherto been the so-called official program of German Social Democracy. I regard it, however, as more important and more pressing that we should come to an understanding in our estimate of the concrete circumstances, of the tactics we have to adopt, and of the practical measures which must be undertaken in view of the political situation, of the course of the revolution until now, and of the probable further lines of its development. We have to judge the political situation according to the outlook I have just tried to characterize from the standpoint of the realization of socialism as the immediate task which guides every measure and every position that we take.

Comrades! Our Party Congress, the Congress of what I may proudly call the only revolutionary socialist party of the German proletariat, happens to coincide with a turning point in the development of the German revolution. “Happens to coincide,” I say; but in truth the coincidence is not an accident. We may assert that after the events of the last few days, the curtain has gone down upon the first act of the German revolution. We are now in the opening of the second act, a further stage in the development, and it is our common duty to submit to self-criticism. We shall be guided more wisely in the future, and we shall gain additional impetus for further advance, if we examine critically all that we have done and created, and all that we have left undone. Let us, then, carefully examine the events of the now-ended first act in the revolution.

The movement began on November 9. The Revolution of November 9 was characterized by inadequacy and weakness. This is not surprising. The revolution followed four years of war, four years during which, schooled by Social Democracy and the trade unions, the German proletariat had behaved with intolerable ignominy and had repudiated its socialist obligations to an extent unparalleled in any other land. We Marxists and socialists, whose guiding principle is a recognition of historical development, could hardly expect that in the Germany which had known the terrible spectacle of August 4, and which during more than four years had reaped the harvest sown on that day, there should suddenly occur on November 9, 1918, a glorious revolution inspired with definite class consciousness and directed toward a conscious aim. What we experienced on November 9 was more the collapse of the existent imperialism than the victory of a new principle. [Hear! Hear!]

The moment had come for the collapse of imperialism, a colossus with feet of clay, crumbling from within. The sequel of this collapse was a more or less chaotic movement, one practically devoid of a conscious plan. The only source of union, the persistent and saving principle, was the motto: “Form Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.” That was the key notion in this revolution which, in spite of the inadequacy and weakness of the opening phases, immediately gave it the stamp of a proletarian socialist revolution. We should not forget this when we are confronted by those who shower calumnies on the Russian Bolsheviks, and we must answer: “Where did you learn the ABC’s of your present revolution? Was it not from the Russians that you learned to demand workers’ and soldiers’ councils?” [Applause] Those pygmies who today, as heads of what they falsely term a German socialist government, make it one of their chief tasks to join with the British imperialists in a murderous attack upon the Bolsheviks, also formally base their power on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, thereby admitting that the Russian Revolution created the first mottoes for the world revolution. On the basis of the existing situation, we can predict with certainty that in whatever country, after Germany, the proletarian revolution may next break out, the first step will be the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. [Murmurs of assent]

Precisely here lies the bond that unites our movement internationally. This is the slogan which completely distinguishes our revolution from all earlier bourgeois revolutions. And it is characteristic of the dialectical contradictions in which the revolution, like all others, moves that on November 9, the first cry of the revolution, as instinctive as the cry of a new-born child, found the watchword which will lead us to socialism: workers’ and soldiers’ councils. This was the call which rallied everyone – and that the revolution instructively found the word, even though on the 9th of November it was so inadequate, so feeble, so devoid of initiative, so lacking in clarity as to its own aims, that on the second day of the revolution nearly half of the instruments of power which had been seized on November 9 had slipped from the grasp of the revolution. We see in this, on the one hand, that our revolution is subject to the all-powerful law of historical necessity which guarantees that, despite all difficulties and complications, and notwithstanding all our own errors, we shall nevertheless advance step by step toward our goal. On the other hand, comparing this splendid battle cry with the insufficiency of the practical results which have been achieved through it, we have to admit that these were no more than the first childish and faltering footsteps of the revolution which has many arduous tasks to perform and a long road to travel before fully realizing the promise of the first watchwords.

Comrades! This first act, between November 9 and the present, has been filled with illusions on all sides. The first illusion of the workers and soldiers who made the revolution was: the illusion of unity under the banner of so-called socialism. What could be more characteristic of the internal weakness of the Revolution of November 9 than the fact that at the head of the movement appeared persons who a few hours before the revolution broke out had regarded it as their chief duty to agitate against it [Hear! Hear!] – to attempt to make revolution impossible: the Eberts, Scheidemanns and Haases. The motto of the Revolution of November 9 was the idea of the unity of the various socialist trends in the general exultation – an illusion which was to be bloodily avenged. The events of the last few days have brought a bitter awakening from our dreams. But the self-deception was universal, affecting the Ebert and Scheidemann groups and the bourgeoisie no less than ourselves. Another illusion was that of the bourgeoisie at the end of this stage, believing that by means of the Ebert-Haase combination, by means of the so-called socialist government, they would really be able to bridle the proletarian masses and to strangle the socialist revolution. Yet another illusion was that of the Ebert-Scheidemann government, that with the aid of the soldiers returned from the front, they would be able to hold down the working masses in their socialist class struggle.

Such were the multifarious illusions which explain recent events. One and all, they have now been dissipated into nothingness. It has been shown that the union between Haase and Ebert-Scheidemann under the banner of “socialism” serves merely as a fig leaf for the veiling of a counter-revolutionary policy. We ourselves have been cured of our self-deceptions, as happens in all revolutions. There is a definite revolutionary method by which the people can be cured of illusion, but unfortunately, the cure must be paid for with the blood of the people. In Germany, events have followed a course characteristic of earlier revolutions. The blood of the victims on the Chausseestrasse on December 6, the blood of the sailors on December 24, brought the truth home to the broad masses of the people. They came to realize that what has been pasted together and called a socialist government is nothing but a government representing the bourgeois counter-revolution, and that whoever continues to tolerate such a state of affairs is working against the proletariat and against socialism. [Applause]

Comrades! Dissipated too are the illusions of Messrs. Ebert and Scheidemann that with the aid of the soldiers from the front they will be able to keep the workers in subjection permanently. For what has been the effect of December 6 and 24? We have all seen a profound disillusionment among the troops, and the beginning of a critical attitude toward those gentlemen who wanted to use them as cannon fodder against the socialist proletariat. This too lies in the working of the law of the necessary objective development of the socialist revolution, that the individual troops of the labor movement gradually learn through their own hitter experience to recognize the correct path of revolution. Fresh masses of soldiers have been brought to Berlin as cannon fodder for the subjection of socialist proletarians – with the result that from different barracks there comes a demand for the pamphlets and leaflets of the Spartacus League. This, comrades, marks the close of the first act. The hopes of the Ebert-Scheidemanns that they would be able to subjugate the proletariat with the aid of reactionary elements among the troops have already to a large extent been frustrated. What they have to expect within the very near future is an ever clearer revolutionary conception in the barracks as well. Thereby the army of the fighting proletariat will be augmented and the forces of the counter-revolution will be weakened. In consequence of these changes, yet another illusion will have to go, the illusion which animates the bourgeoisie, the ruling class. If you read the newspapers of the last few days, the newspapers issued since the incidents of December 24, you cannot fail to perceive plain manifestations of disillusionment and indignation: The servants who sit in the seats of the mighty have shown themselves to be inefficient. [Hear! Hear!]

It had been expected that Ebert-Scheidemann would prove themselves strong men, successful lion tamers. But what have they achieved? They have suppressed a couple of trifling putsches, following which, however, the hydra of revolution has raised its head more resolutely than ewer. Thus disillusionment is mutual on all sides! The proletariat has completely lost the illusion which had led it to believe that the Ebert-Scheidemann-Haase union would be a socialist government. Ebert-Scheidemann have lost the illusion that with the aid of proletarians in military uniform they could permanently keep down proletarians in work clothes. The bourgeoisie have lost the illusion that by means of Ebert-Scheidemann-Haase they could deceive the entire socialist revolution of Germany as to its goals. All these things leave a negative balance, nothing but the rags and tatters remain of destroyed illusions. But it is a great gain for the proletariat that nothing but these rags and tatters remain from the first phase of the revolution, for there is nothing so destructive for the revolution as illusions, whereas nothing is of greater use than clear, naked truth. I may appropriately recall the words of one of our classical writers, a man who was no proletarian revolutionary, but a spiritual revolutionary of the bourgeoisie. I refer to Lessing, who in one of his last writings, as librarian at Wolfenbuttel, wrote the following which has always aroused my sympathetic interest:

I do not know whether it be a duty to sacrifice happiness and life to truth ... But this much I know, that it is our duty, if we desire to teach truth, to teach it wholly or not at all, to teach it clearly and bluntly, unenigmatically, unreservedly, inspired with full confidence in its powers ... For the cruder the error, the shorter and more direct is the path leading to truth, whereas a highly refined error is likely to keep us eternally estranged from truth, and the more readily so in proportion as we find it difficult to realize that it is an error ... One who thinks of conveying to mankind truths masked and painted may well be truth’s pimp, but has never been truth’s lover.

Comrades! Messrs. Haase, Dittmann, etc., have wished to bring the revolution, to introduce socialism, covered with a mask and smeared with paint. They have thus shown themselves to be the pimps of the counter-revolution. Today we are free of these ambiguities, and what was offered is disclosed in the brutal and sturdy forms of Messrs. Ebert and Scheidemann. Today, even the stupidest among us can make no mistake: What is offered is the counter-revolution in all its repulsive nudity.

What are the further perspectives of development, now that the first act is over? It is, of course, not a question of prophecy. We can only hope to deduce the logical consequences of what we have already experienced, and to draw conclusions as to the probabilities for the future, in order that we may adapt our tactics, our means of struggle, to these probabilities. Comrades! Where does the road lead? Some indications are given by the latest declarations of the Ebert-Scheidemann government, declarations free from ambiguity. What is likely to be done by this so-called socialist government now that, as I have shown, all illusions have been dispelled? Day by day the government increasingly loses the support of the broad masses of the proletariat. In addition to the petty bourgeoisie there stand behind it no more than poor remnants of the proletariat, and it is extremely dubious whether they will long continue to stand behind Ebert and Scheidemann. More and more, the government is losing the support of the masses of soldiers, for the soldiers have entered upon the path of criticism and self-examination. True, this process may be slow at first, but it will lead irresistibly to their acquiring a complete socialist consciousness. Ebert and Scheidemann have lost credit with the bourgeoisie, for they have not shown themselves strong enough. What can they do now? They will soon make an end of the comedy of socialist policy. When you read these gentlemen’s new program, you will see that they are sailing under full steam into the second phase, that of the declared counter-revolution, or, as I may even say, that of the restoration of the earlier pre-revolutionary conditions.

What is the program of the new government? It proposes the election of a president who is to have a position intermediate between that of the King of England and that of the President of the United States. [Hear! Hear!] He is to be, as it were, King Ebert. In the second place, they propose to re-establish the federal council [Bundesrat]. You may read today the independently formulated demands of the south German governments which emphasize the federal character of the German state. The re-establishment of the good old federal council, and naturally of its appendage, the German Reichstag, will come in only a few weeks. Comrades, in this way Ebert and Scheidemann are moving toward the simple restoration of the conditions that existed prior to November 9. But they have thus entered upon a steep incline, and are likely before long to find themselves lying with shattered limbs at the bottom of the abyss. For, the re-establishment of the condition that had existed before the 9th of November had already become out of date on the 9th, and today Germany is miles away from such a possibility. In order to secure support from the only class whose true class interests the government really represents, from the bourgeoisie – a support which has in fact notably diminished owing to recent occurrences – Ebert and Scheidemann will find themselves compelled to pursue an increasingly counter-revolutionary policy. The demands of the south German states, as published today in the Berlin papers, are a frank expression to the wish to secure “enhanced safety” for the German Reich. In plain language they desire the declaration of a state of siege against “anarchist,” “putschist,” and “Bolshevist” elements, that is to say, against socialists. The circumstances will force Ebert and Scheidemann to the expedient of dictatorship, with or without the declaration of a state of siege. But this, however, as an outcome of the previous development, by the mere logic of events and through the operation of the forces which control Ebert and Scheidemann, will imply that during the second act of the revolution a much more pronounced opposition of tendencies and a greatly accentuated class struggle will take place. [Hear! Hear!] This intensification of conflict will arise, not merely because the political influences I have already enumerated, dispelling all illusion, will lead to a declared hand-to-hand fight between the revolution and the counter-revolution; but rather because the flames of a new fire are spreading upward from the depths of the totality, the flames of economic struggles.

Comrades! It was characteristic of the first period of the revolution, which I have described, until December 24 we might say, that the revolution remained exclusively political. We must be fully conscious of this. This explains the uncertain character, the inadequacy, the half-heartedness, the aimlessness of this revolution. It was the first stage of a revolutionary overthrow whose main tasks lie in the economic field: to make a fundamental conversion of economic conditions. Its steps were as naive and unconscious as those of a child groping its way without knowing where it is going; for at this stage, I repeat, the revolution had a purely political character. Only in the last two or three weeks have strikes broken out quite spontaneously. Let us be clear: it is the very essence of this revolution that strikes will become more and more extensive, that they must become more and more the central focus, the key aspect of the revolution. [Applause] It then becomes an economic revolution, and therewith a socialist revolution. The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, breast to breast against capitalism, in every factory, by every proletarian against his employer. Only then will it be a socialist revolution.

Certainly, the thoughtless had a different picture of the course of events. They imagined it would be only necessary to overthrow the old government, to set up a socialist government at the head of affairs, and then to inaugurate socialism by decree. Once again, that was an illusion. Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.

What is the external form of struggle for socialism? It is the strike. And that is why the economic phase of development has to come to the front in the second act of the revolution. I would like to stress here that this is something on which we may pride ourselves, and no one will dispute that we of the Spartacus League, of the Communist Party of Germany, are the only ones in all Germany who are on the side of the striking and fighting workers. [Hear! Hear!] You have read and witnessed again and again the attitude of the Independent Socialists [USPD] toward strikes. There was no difference between the outlook of Vorwärts and that of Freiheit. Both journals sang the same tune: Be diligent; socialism means much work. Such was their position while capitalism was still in control! Socialism cannot be established in that way, but only by an energetic struggle against capitalism. Yet we see the claims of capitalism defended, not only by the most outrageous intriguers, but also by the Independent Socialists and their organ, Freiheit. Our Communist Party stands alone in supporting the workers. This suffices to show that, today, all those who have not taken their stand with us upon the platform of revolutionary communism fight persistently and violently against the strikes.

The conclusion to be drawn is not only that during the second act of the revolution strikes will become increasingly frequent but, further, that strikes will become the central feature and the decisive factor of the revolution, thrusting purely political questions into the background. You understand that the inevitable consequence of this will be that the economic struggle will be enormously intensified. The revolution will thus come to the point at which it will be no joke to the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are quite agreeable to mystifications in the political domain, where masquerades are still possible, where such creatures as Ebert and Scheidemann can pose as Socialists; but they are horror-stricken where profits are concerned. When it comes to that, they will present the alternative to the Ebert and Scheidemann government: Either put an end to the strikes, stop this strike movement which threatens to strangle us: or we have no more use for you. I believe, indeed, that the government has already damned itself pretty thoroughly by its political measures. The Ebert-Scheidermanns are distressed to find that the bourgeoisie has little confidence in them. The bourgeoisie will think twice before they decide to cloak in ermine the crude parvenu Ebert. If matters go so far, they will say: “It does not suffice for a king to have blood upon his hands; he must also have blue blood in his veins.” [Hear! Hear!] Should matters reach this pass, they will say: “If we want to have a king, we will not have a parvenu who does not know how to comport himself in kingly fashion.” [Laughter]

Thus, comrades, Ebert and Scheidemann are coming to the point at which the counter-revolutionary movement will extend itself. They will be unable to quench the rising fires of the economic class struggle, and at the same time their best efforts will still not satisfy the bourgeoisie. They will either disappear, leaving in their stead an attempt at counter-revolution collected around Groener or perhaps an unqualified militarist dictatorship under Hindenburg, or perhaps they will have to bow before other counter-revolutionary powers.

It is impossible to speak more precisely or positively as to details of what must come. But we are not concerned with matters of external form, with the question of precisely what will happen, or precisely when it will happen. It is enough that we know the broad lines of coming developments. These imply: after the first act of the revolution, the phase in which the political struggle has been the leading actor, there will succeed a phase predominantly characterized by an intensification and strengthening of the economic struggle which will sooner or later cause the government of Ebert and Scheidemann to take its place among the shades.

It is equally difficult to say what will happen to the National Assembly during the second act of the revolution. It is possible that if the Assembly comes into existence, it may prove a new school of education for the working class. But, on the other hand, it seems just as likely that the National Assembly will never come into existence. One cannot make predictions. Let me say parenthetically, to help you understand the grounds on which we were defending our position yesterday, that our only objection was to limiting our tactics to a single alternative. I will not now reopen the whole discussion, but will merely say a word or two lest any of you should falsely imagine that I am blowing hot and cold with the same breath. Our position today is precisely that of yesterday. We do not want to base our tactics in relation to the National Assembly upon what is a possibility but not a certainty. We refuse to stake everything upon the belief that the National Assembly will never come into existence. We want to be prepared for all possibilities, including the possibility of using the National Assembly for revolutionary purposes should it ever come into being. Whether it comes into being or not is a matter of indifference, for whatever happens, the success of the revolution is assured.

What will then remain of the ruined Ebert-Scheidemann government, or of any other alleged Social Democratic government which may happen to be in charge? I have said that the masses of proletarians have already slipped away from them, and that the soldiers too are no longer to be counted on as counter-revolutionary cannon fodder. What will the poor pygmies be able to do? How can they hope to save the situation? They still have one last chance. Those of you who read today’s newspapers will have seen where the ultimate reserves are to be found that the German counter-revolution proposes to lead against us should worse come to worst. You all have read that the German troops in Riga are already marching shoulder to shoulder with the English against the Russian Bolsheviks. Comrades, I have documents in my hands which enable us to survey what is now going on in Riga. The whole thing comes from the headquarters’ staff of the Eighth Army, which is collaborating with Mr. August Winnig, the German Social Democrat and trade-union leader. We have always been told that the unfortunate Ebert and Scheidemann are victims of the Entente. But for weeks, since the very beginning of the Revolution, it has been the tactic of Vorwärts to suggest that the suppression of the Russian Revolution is the earnest desire of the Entente and it was only in this way that the Entente itself got the idea. We have here documentary evidence how all this was arranged to the detriment of the Russian proletariat and of the German Revolution. In a telegram dated December 26, Lieutenant Colonel Burkner, chief of the general staff of the Eighth Army, conveys information concerning the negotiations which led to this agreement at Riga. The telegram reads as follows:

On December 23 there was a conversation between the German plenipotentiary Winnig, and the representative of the British government, Mosanquet, formerly consul-general at Riga. The interview took place on board the bHMS Princess Margaret, and the commanding officer of the German troops or his representative was invited to be present. I was appointed to represent the Army command. The purpose of the conversation was to assist in carrying out the armistice conditions. The conversation took the following course:

English: The British ships at Riga will supervise the carrying out of the armistice conditions. Upon these conditions are based the following demands:

1) The Germans are to maintain a sufficient force in this region to hold the Bolsheviks in check and to prevent them from extending the area now occupied.


3) A statement of the present disposition of the troops fighting the Bolsheviks, including both the German and the Lettish soldiers, shall be sent to the British staff officer, so that the information may be available for the senior naval officer. All future dispositions of the troops carrying on the fight against the Bolsheviks must be communicated through the same officer.

4) A sufficient fighting force must be kept under arms at the following points in order to prevent their being seized by the Bolsheviks, and in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from passing beyond a line connecting the places named: Walk, Wolmar, Wenden, Friedrichstadt, Pensk, Mitau [Mitaua].

5) The railway from Riga to Libau [Liepaja] must be safe-guarded against Bolshevik attack, and all British supplies and communications passing along this line shall receive preferential treatment.

A number of additional demands follows. And then comes the answer of the German plenipotentiary, Mr. Winnig:

Though it is unusual that one should wish to compel a government to retain occupation of a foreign state, in this case it would be our own wish to do so (says Mr. Winnig, German trade-union leader), since the question is one of protecting German blood (The Baltic Barons!). Moreover, we regard it as a moral duty to assist the country which we have liberated from its former state of dependence. Our efforts, however, would likely be frustrated, in the first place, by the condition of the troops, for our soldiers in this region are mostly men of considerable age and comparatively unfit for service and, owing to the armistice, desirous of returning home and having little will to fight. In the second place, owing to the attitude of the Baltic governments (the Lettish government is meant) by which the Germans are regarded as oppressors. But we will endeavor to provide volunteer troops, consisting of men with a fighting spirit. Indeed, this has already in part been done.

Here we see the counter-revolution at work. You read not long ago of the formation of the Iron Division expressly intended to fight the Bolsheviks in the Baltic provinces. At that time there was some doubt as to the attitude of the Ebert-Scheidemann government. You know now that the initiative in the creation of such a force actually came from the government.

Comrades! One more word concerning Winnig. It is no chance matter that a trade-union leader should perform such political services. We can say without hesitation that the German trade-union leaders and the German Social Democrats are the most infamous and greatest scoundrels that the world has ever known. [Vociferous applause] Do you know where these fellows, Winnig, Ebert, and Scheidemann, ought to be by right? According to the German penal code, which they tell us is still in force, and which continues to be the basis of their own legal system, they ought to be in jail! [Vociferous applause] For, according to the German penal code, it is an offense punishable by imprisonment to enlist German soldiers for foreign service. Today, at the head of the “socialist” government of Germany stand men who are not merely the Judases of the socialist government and traitors to the proletarian revolution, but who are jailbirds, unfit to mix with decent society. [Loud applause]

In connection with this point, at the end of my report I will read a resolution which I hope you will adopt unanimously so that we will have sufficient force to punish these persons who, for the present, direct Germany’s destiny.[2]

Comrades! To resume the thread of my discourse, it is clear that all these machinations, the formation of Iron Divisions and, above all, the above-mentioned agreement with British imperialism, signify nothing but the ultimate reserves with which to throttle the German socialist movement. But the cardinal question, the question of the prospects of peace, is intimately associated with this affair. What can such negotiations lead to but a fresh outbreak of the war? While these scoundrels are playing a comedy in Germany, trying to make us believe that they are working overtime in order to make peace, and declaring that we are the disturbers of the peace who are making the Entente uneasy and retarding the peace settlement, they are themselves preparing a rekindling of the war, a war in the East on which a war on German soil will follow. Once again we have a situation which cannot fail to bring on a period of fresh conflict. We will have to defend not only socialism and the interests of revolution but also the interests of world peace. This is precisely a justification of the tactics which we Spartacists have consistently and at every opportunity pursued throughout the four years of the war. Peace signifies the world revolution of the proletariat! There is no other way of really establishing and safeguarding peace than by the victory of the socialist proletariat! [Prolonged applause]

Comrades! What general tactical considerations must we deduce from this in order to deal with the situation with which we will be confronted in the immediate future? Your first conclusion will doubtless be a hope that the fall of the Ebert-Scheidemann government is at hand, and that it will be replaced by a declared socialist-proletarian-revolutionary government. For my part, I would ask you to direct your attention not to the leadership, not above, but to the base. We must not nourish and repeat the illusion of the first phase of the revolution, that of November 9, thinking that it is sufficient to overthrow the capitalist government and to set up another in its place in order to bring about a socialist revolution. There is only one way of achieving the victory of the proletarian revolution. We must begin by undermining step by step the Ebert-Scheidemann government through a social, revolutionary mass struggle of the proletariat. Moreover, let me remind you of some of the inadequacies of the German revolution which have not been overcome with the close of the first act of the revolution and which show clearly that we are far from having reached a point when the overthrow of the government can ensure the victory of socialism. I have tried to show you that the Revolution of November 9 was, above all, a political revolution, whereas it is necessary that it become in addition and mainly an economic revolution. But further, the revolutionary movement was confined to the cities, and up to the present the rural districts remain practically untouched. It would be a folly to realize socialism while leaving the agricultural system unchanged. From the standpoint of socialist economics in general, manufacturing industry cannot be remodeled unless it is amalgamated with a socialist reorganization of agriculture. The most important idea of the socialist economic order is the abolition of the opposition and the division between city and country. This division, this conflict, this contradiction, is a purely capitalist phenomenon which must be eliminated as soon as we place ourselves upon the socialist standpoint. If socialist reconstruction is to be undertaken in real earnest, we must direct attention just as much to the open country as to the industrial centers. Here, unfortunately, we are not even at the beginning of the beginning. This is essential, not merely because we cannot bring about socialism without socializing agriculture, but also because while we may think that we have reckoned with the last reserves of the counter-revolution against us and our efforts, there remains another important reserve which has not yet been taken into account: the peasantry. Precisely because the peasants are still untouched by socialism they constitute an additional reserve for the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. The first thing our enemies will do when the flames of the socialist strikes begin to scorch their heels will be to mobilize the peasants, the fanatical devotees of private property. There is only one way of making headway against this threatening counter-revolutionary power. We must carry the class struggle into the country districts; we must mobilize the landless proletariat and the poorer peasants against the richer peasants. [Loud applause]

From this consideration follows what we have to do to insure the presuppositions of the success of the revolution. I would summarize our next tasks as follows: First and foremost, we have to extend in all directions the system of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, especially those of the workers. What we undertook on November 9 are only weak beginnings, and not even that. During the first phase of the revolution we actually lost extensive forces that were acquired at the very outset. You are aware that the counter-revolution has been engaged in the systematic destruction of the system of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. In Hesse, the councils have been definitely abolished by the counter-revolutionary government; elsewhere, power has been wrenched from their hands. Therefore, we have not merely to develop the system of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, but we have to induce the agricultural laborers and the poorer peasants to adopt this council system. We have to seize power, and the problem of the seizure of power poses the question: what does each workers’ and soldiers’ council in all Germany do, what can it do, and what must it do? [Bravo!] The power is there! We must undermine the bourgeois state by putting an end everywhere to the cleavage in public powers, to the cleavage between legislative and executive powers. These powers must be united in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

Comrades, that is an extensive field to till. We must prepare from the base up; we must give the workers’ and soldiers’ councils so much strength that the overthrow of the Ebert-Scheidemann or any similar government will merely be the final act in the drama. Thus, the conquest of power will not be effected with one blow. It will be a progression; we shall progressively occupy all the positions of the capitalist state and defend them tooth and nail. In my view and in that of my most intimate associates in the Party, the economic struggle, likewise, will be carried on by the workers’ councils. The direction of the economic struggle and the continued expansion of the area of this struggle must be in the hands of the workers’ councils. The councils must have all power in the state.

We must direct our activities in the immediate future to these ends, and it is obvious that, if we pursue this line and pursue these tasks, there cannot fail to be an enormous intensification of the struggle in the near future. It is a question of fighting step by step, hand-to-hand, in every province, in every city, in every village, in every municipality in order to take and transfer all the powers of the state bit by bit from the bourgeoisie to the workers and soldiers councils. But before these steps can be taken, the members of our own Party and the proletarians in general must he educated. Even where workers’ and soldiers’ councils already exist, there is still a lack of consciousness of the purposes for which they exist. [Right!] We must make the masses understand that the workers’ and soldiers council is in all senses the lever of the machinery of state, that it must take over all power and must unify the power in one stream – the socialist revolution. The masses of workers who are already organized in workers’ and soldiers’ councils are still miles away from having adopted such an outlook, and only isolated proletarian minorities are clearly conscious of their tasks. But this is not a lack, but rather the normal state of affairs. The masses must learn how to use power by using power. There is no other way to teach them. Fortunately, we have gone beyond the days when it was proposed to “educate” the proletariat socialistically. Marxists of Kautsky’s school still believe in the existence of those vanished days. To educate the proletarian masses socialistically meant to deliver lectures to them, to circulate leaflets and pamphlets among them. No, the school of the socialist proletariat doesn’t need all this. The workers will learn in the school of action. “ [Hear! Hear!]

Our motto is: In the beginning was the act. And the act must be that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils realize their mission and learn to become the sole public power of the whole nation. Only in this way can we mine the ground so that it will be ready for the revolution which will crown our work. This, comrades, is the reason, this is the clear calculation and clear consciousness which led some of us, and me in particular, to say yesterday, “Don’t think that the struggle will continue to be so easy.” Some comrades have interpreted me as saying that they wanted to boycott the National Assembly and simply to fold their arms. It is impossible in the time that remains, to discuss this matter fully, but let me say that I never dreamed of anything of the kind. My meaning was that history is not going to make our revolution an easy matter like the bourgeois revolutions in which it sufficed to overthrow that official power at the center and to replace a dozen or so persons in authority. We have to work from beneath, and this corresponds to the mass character of our revolution which aims at the foundation and base of the social constitution; it corresponds to the character of the present proletarian revolution that the conquest of political power must come not from above but from below. The 9th of November was an attempt, a weak, half-hearted, half-conscious, and chaotic attempt to overthrow the existing public power and to put an end to class rule. What now must be done is that with full consciousness all the forces of the proletariat should be concentrated in an attack on the very foundations of capitalist society. There, at the base, where the individual employer confronts his wage slaves; at the base, where all the executive organs of political class rule confront the object of this rule, the masses; there, step by step, we must seize the means of power from the rulers and take them into our own hands. In the form that I depict it, the process may seem rather more tedious than one had imagined it at first. It is healthy, I think, that we should be perfectly clear as to all the difficulties and complications of this revolution. For I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy. On the contrary, the greater the task, the more will we gather all of our forces. And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed. I make no attempt to prophesy how much time will he needed for this process. Who among us cares about the time; who worries, so long only as our lives suffice to bring it to pass. It is only important that we know clearly and precisely what is to be done; and I hope that my feeble powers have shown you to some extent the broad outlines of that which is to be done. [tumultuous applause]


[1] This same point is made above in Social Reform or Revolution against Bernstein’s use of Engels’ Preface to justify his revisionist theory. Rosa Luxemburg did not, however, know the full details of the falsification of Engels’ work. It was not Engels who wrote the seemingly revisionist views cited here. The Party leaders, arguing that because the Reichstag was considering passage of a new anti-socialist law it would be dangerous to give them grounds to attack Social Democracy, eliminated all the passages in the Preface which seemed too radical. Engels protested, but died before any changes could be made. The original version of the manuscript, with the editorial changes of the Party leaders, was discovered after the war by D. Ryazanov, editor of Marx’s and Engels’ works. Thus, to give only one example here, after Engels had discussed the strategic reasons which made barricade struggles seem antiquated (new weapons, the construction of wide streets in the new workers’ quarters, etc.), the following passages were omitted:

“Does this mean that in the future street fighting will no longer play a role? Definitely not. It means only that since 1848 conditions have become less advantageous for the civilian fighters, more advantageous for the military. A future street fight can thus only be won when this unfavorable situation is counterbalanced by other moments. Thus, street fighting will occur less in the beginning of a great revolution than in the further development of such a revolution, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These forces, however, will then, as in the whole French Revolution, on September 1 and October 31 in Paris, prefer open attack to the passive barricade tactics.”

[2] In the discussion following this speech, it was agreed that the section of the speech concerning Winnig and the German anti-Bolshevik activity be distributed as a leaflet.

Rosa Luxemburg’s resolution was not printed as part of this speech, and has only recently been rediscovered. It reads:

“The national conference indignantly takes note of the actions in the East of the German government. The unification of German troops with those of the Baltic barons and English imperialists signifies not only the vile betrayal of the Russian proletariat; it also signifies the confirmation of the world league of the capitalists of all lands against the fighting proletariat of the whole world. In reference to these monstrosities, the Party Congress again declares: The Ebert-Scheidemann government is the deadly enemy of the German proletariat. Down with the Ebert-Scheidemann government!”

Last updated on: 13 February 2012