Anton Pannekoek 1912
Source: Le Socialisme, November 16, 1912;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitch Abidor.
If it were necessary to believe the words of the spokesmen of the bourgeoisie, the working class has no worse enemies than the socialists. “For they speak out against the vices of current society,” they say, “ and lament the unhappy lot of the workers, but instead of thinking to bringing them immediate assistance they show the proletarian, in the future, a socialist society that, incidentally, will never be realized. Only those who, like us, place themselves on the terrain of the current order and who hold it to be eternal can dedicate themselves with ardor to the improvement, through means of reforms, of the conditions that exist today. And this is why all of us, liberals and anti-Semites, progressives and Catholic Christians, we are indefatigable friends of reform and ceaselessly preoccupied with improving the lot of the workers. As for them, socialists take things easy: instead of putting themselves to work they only give men one consolation: the future. They reject the reforms we propose under the pretext that they are a mockery of worker demands, or they contain dispositions so-called hostile to the workers. They take an attitude exclusively negative. And this is entirely natural; if all evils could be suppressed within the framework of the current world and if, consequently, the causes of discontent were to disappear, there would be nothing to do in a future society.”
Social-democracy has always easily unmasked the bluff of these friends of the worker. It has said: “Please, Messieurs, just once demonstrate zeal for reform! Taken together you are the majority in parliament, so make the vices of capitalism disappear!” And in order to explain its own position vis-à-vis reforms it only had to recall its doctrine, its practice and its program.
Our doctrine tells us that socialism can’t be built on the ruins of the existing society by a revolt of starving beggars in rags. It can only result from the powerful forward march of an army of organized proletarians, fighting to conquer every position, every progress. Practice has shown that socialists are the most indefatigable champions of every reform, of every improvement in the interest of the exploited masses, while bourgeois parties always reject their proposals with the words: “Impossible! Exaggerated pretensions!” And the proof that these proposals aren’t made by chance with the sole goal of creating popularity, that they are necessarily born of our fundamental concept, is furnished by our program. A logical system of reforms for the improvement of the capitalist world can be found there. We propose this program to bourgeois parties to test their reformist ardor. When all this is realized, then we can talk.
But they don’t want this: “These are nothing but impossible demands,” they exclaim, “ perhaps appropriate for an ideal society composed only of angels and brothers, but not for our capitalist world of today where men, differing in properties, talents, and goals pursued, dominated exclusively by egoism, fight among themselves and must be held in check by a strong political power.” They are wrong in this: our program contains nothing that is incompatible with capitalism. It allows exploitation itself and class opposition to remain in place, and only proposes to suppress, for the proletariat, every excess of oppression and depression, its lack of political rights, its enslavement to the yoke of militarism, the bad education of its children, and the senseless waste of its labor power.
Let’s see what there is in these “impossible” demands. In the first position is: Universal suffrage, equal and direct, its extension to women, proportional representation, the election of magistrates by the people, and communal autonomy. There is nothing there that is impossible, proof of this being that these demands have been partially realized in other countries. Next comes the general arming of the people, replacing the current militarism. An infinite number of experiences demonstrate that for the defensive value of a nation the system of militias is as good, and perhaps better, then an army having behind it long training in a barracks. Nothing impossible could be found in declaring religion “a private affair,” in the amelioration of the education of the people, in the establishment of solid judicial guarantees. As for progressive taxation of fortunes, with the suppression of all indirect taxes, these for a long time have been in the program of bourgeois politicians. Where could the impossibility possibly reside in the demand for legislation that protects labor, covering the fixing of the work day, the prohibition of child and night labor, the precautions taken for the safety and hygiene of the workers or even a well constituted workers’ insurance.
As we can see, all of these are immediate demands for the present; nothing that supposes a social order other than the current one.
We don’t demand the total abolition of armies, for we know that under the capitalist regime wars are sometimes inevitable. We don’t demand higher scientific education for all children; instruction serves life, and conditions of the workers in capitalist society only demand a good elementary instruction. We don’t demand the extinction of unemployment: capitalism cannot suppress this principal source of worker poverty. Our demands are all made on the terrain of capitalism. But there is more. Their realization alone will truly fulfill the fundamental principles of bourgeois society: the equality of rights between all men as sellers of merchandise, and the right for the workers to only give their labor power, receiving in exchange the full value of that labor power.
So it can be asked why do the bourgeois parties want to know nothing of these demands, whose realization would be part of normal capitalism. The thing is terribly simple: socialism’s development also depends on the normal nature of capitalism, its most intimate essence. Nevertheless, of this development as well that want to hear nothing. They want an abnormal capitalism, unnatural, a capitalism that would be made to endure eternally. To realize our immediate demands — which would strengthen the working class physically and mentally, which would put political power in the hands of the majority of the nation — would be to open the way to a peaceful and imperceptible passing of society to socialism. As the proletariat matures and the masses become conscious of the causes of their sufferings they could, in expropriating the great monopolies of exploitation as well as in realizing appropriate and effective social reforms, oppose an ever stronger barrier to the power and distress they suffer from, and thus lead capitalism to its ruin.
This is just what the owning class doesn’t want. This is why it tries to maintain workers in a state of degradation, to leave them ignorant and deprived of political rights, in the senseless illusion that they thus forever block evolution. It doesn’t see that the only result they have obtained is that evolution must take place through violent catastrophes. It only thinks of its momentary power.
This is how things are. Our immediate demands would be quite easily realizable, but they come up against the obstinate resistance of the dominant class. Anything, rather than to allow its power and its profits to be reduced even a little. Let the oppression, poverty, and injustice and exploitation that the people suffer from continue forever!
We well know that as long as capitalism lasts only a few modifications can be made in it. It’s not our party, it’s the bourgeoisie that places the hope of the workers in a future society. It’s as if they said to them: “If you want to be happy you have to begin by suppressing capitalism.” It will thus do the contrary of what it desires. By its reactionary opposition to reforms it pushes the working masses into our ranks and forces them to conquer via an energetic revolutionary struggle what it isn’t peacefully given.