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Opportunism in Practice


4. Auer’s “Practicalism”.


[Ignaz] Auer himself has explained often enough that he is on tenterhooks when it comes to theory. He literally parades this about during every theoretical dispute within the party. Unfortunately, however, he has so far failed to draw the basic lines of his specific practicalism, which distinguishes him from others in the party who, after all, are not merely discussing principles either. We do not even know whether his standpoint is opportunist or revolutionary. In Hanover,[a] he protested in the strongest possible terms against being lumped together with Bernstein and others, and drew, fleetingly, but nonetheless in strong terms, lines of demarcation between himself and the Bernsteinites. Strangely enough, this did not leave any impression on the public, and Auer is still regarded as a leader of opportunism, perhaps even more than ever. So he, too, belongs to those who are misunderstood. Let us seek some clarity.

Practicalism arises from antipathy towards political speculation. It seeks to operate only with concrete conditions; it hates indeterminable quantities. However, no matter how unpleasant this may be, politics cannot do without the calculation of probabilities. Only the law of development can be established – and the Communist Manifesto has done this for capitalist development in such exemplary form that it would be fully confirmed by the following half century of capitalist history. The course of development must be followed and always be predicted anew. The practical mind, however, is aware of only what is immediately present; it finds whatever goes beyond this sphere troublesome and views it as a burden upon its thinking. It wants a clear, simple situation; and if it is not simple, it makes it simple. That is to say, it achieves the solution of the problem by ignoring its difficulties. The practical mind is not really an opponent of theory, but wants a theory that can immediately and without delay be absorbed into practice. The practical mind cannot understand how one can take as a guideline something that is variable in itself? Above all, then, the fixed form. If a theory is forced into this Procrustean bed of the practical mind, it solidifies into dogma, with which the practitioner then fashions templates for himself. But when the practical politician, who uses the theory as a schema, finds that developing conditions contradict it, he does not doubt the method of employing the theory, but the theory itself. The rigidity that he has introduced into this theory then appears to him as the essence of the theory itself, and he rages against all theorising as harmful dogmatizing and schematizing.

Hardly anyone in the party has ever represented Social Democratic principles in such a doctrinaire way as Auer did at the Berlin party congress [of 1892]. At that time, he had to speak about the cooperative system. The introduction alone is interesting. He quoted verbatim the passage of the Erfurt program which refers to the change in the form of ownership and the seizure of political power by the proletariat necessary to achieve this, and then declared: “In these sentences our goals and tasks are clearly stated. This standpoint was adopted at the beginning of the Social-Democratic agitation, we have taken it until now and must maintain it for all times, as long as the party is a Social-Democratic one. If other views emerge, and they have emerged, then this merely proves that comrades were mistaken about the nature and content of Social Democracy on this question.” So in 1892 the program was fixed for him “for all times” – but then, some years later, Auer finds that there is nothing more changeable than the programme, and dismisses as doctrinaires all those who use their knowledge to defend this programme’s formulations against a criticism that is as quick-witted as it is malicious.

Turning to the topic, Auer said: “Those who believe that forming cooperatives will contribute to solving the social question, those who believe, as was the case in Breslau [1895], that in so doing they are contributing to the regulation of production and preventing overproduction, are mistaken about the essence of socialism. The party has repeatedly taken a stand against such attempts to blur the essence of our tasks and goals. And taking another such stand today is our task.” Here, then, Auer had already pre-empted Bernstein, which, of course, is not at all surprising, since Bernstein only produces new editions of the old social-reformist phrases. It is true that, in Hanover too, Auer declared that he did not share Bernstein’s illusions regarding the cooperative system, but instead of protesting, as in Berlin, against this “blurring of our tasks and goals,” he now became its most zealous promoter. In Berlin, he declared that all those who see in the cooperatives a means of realising our social-revolutionary programme “have no idea of the essence of socialism or of our tasks.” That is all that even Bernstein’s most vicious critics have accused him of. But, with blazing pathos, in Hanover Auer turned against all those who accused Bernstein of lacking scientific knowledge. “The man who for ten years edited our central publication [Der Sozialdemokrat – BL]. . . . the man who until recently was considered to be one of the most outstanding personalities in the party’s scientific writing, the man who”. . . . etc etc.

So because the cooperatives are not yet socialism, they are said to be useless, even harmful to the workers’ movement, uselessly dissipating the energy of the proletariat in a sterile field and diverting its attention from the political struggle. There we see the [practical politician’s] template in all its rigidity and restrictiveness! The resolution passed was in line with this: party comrades should “oppose” the establishment of cooperatives and, among other things, fight the illusion that cooperatives would be able to “eliminate or even merely mitigate the workers’ political and trade-union struggle”. This was not wrong, but it was narrow and skewed: the establishment of cooperatives within the capitalist state certainly is not socialism, and it truly is silly to expect them to lead to a mitigation of the proletarian class struggle – but this is not the end of the matter. It is just one, negative aspect of the phenomenon, and the positive aspect is that, under certain economic and political conditions, cooperatives combining consumer associations and producer cooperatives greatly facilitate the cohesion of the proletariat and support it in its trade-union and political struggles. From the standpoint of our principles, we can only combat social reformism in the cooperative system, as well as the social reformist justification and use of the cooperatives, but not the cooperatives themselves, which are an economic fact. Their existence should therefore not be disputed, but understood. But the practitioner uses the programme as a collection of templates: either a phenomenon fits into the ready-made formula (paragraph no. so and so), or he does not know what to do with it. For him, the phenomenon represents a disturbance of normal, lawful development; he does not know how to use the program as a method for understanding social development.

We also encounter Auer the dogmatist, the doctrinaire, when it comes to his attitude towards the trade unions. Of course, there can be no question that Auer was an opponent of the trade union movement, he just thought for a while that he had to protect the party from the competition by the trade unions which struggled for independence as they grew. He stated this clearly:

“Whereas in former times the trade unions wanted to be, and were, regarded as an independent part, but always just as a part of the organised, class-conscious workers’ movement – just as the artillery is a special weapon in the army, but not the army itself, only a part of it – since the founding of the General Commission [of German trade unions —BL] there has been a noticeable effort to separate the unions from the political party and to treat both organisations as rival powers. I consider these efforts, which have their point of departure and support especially in the General Commission, to be most wrong and, if they were to find greater acceptance, downright fatal for the entire German labour movement”.

There is a good dose of truth here too, but it is again too narrowly conceived and crookedly emphasised. In Germany, where the political organisation of the proletariat developed surprisingly rapidly, the trade unions were for a long time dependent on the party in every respect – they were subordinate to it. But with the strengthening of the trade-union organisations, the situation had to change. The unions had to learn to stand on their own two feet. They needed their own centralisation. The more they developed along these lines, the more independent they had to feel. Their relationship to the political party could no longer remain that of a special weapon under the same high command, but had to become that of two allied armies. With the development of the trade unions, there was certainly a danger of competition between the trade unions and social democracy, who can deny that? But there was only one way for Social Democracy to counter it: to take account of trade-union interests even more than before in its parliamentary activities, in its politics, in its agitation. It had to be made clear that the strengthening of the trade unions would also provide the political representation of the proletariat with more work and, at the same time, more influence. Auer, however, took an extremely narrow view of the matter: the competition between the unions had to be stamped out, nipped in the bud; the basis of all the unions’ efforts to achieve independence was the General Commission, and so this body had to be “stripped of its skin”. He succeeded easily, thanks to the enormous authority of the political organisation and the fact that the already very weak unions were discredited as a result of the unfavourable business cycle, the big strikes that had recently been defeated, their internal organisational disputes etc. But it was a poor Pyrrhic victory. What Auer thought was a beneficial rejection of individual union leaders’ leverage became a rift between the unions and social democracy.

Auer’s mistaken tactics toward the trade unions stemmed from the same problem as his blunder with the cooperatives: he considered the political activity of the proletariat too narrowly, too separately from everything else. Take the following train of thought, for instance: we want social revolution; hence the conquest of political power; hence the political organisation of the proletariat, social democracy; everything else may bring short-term advantages – much of it is a swindle – it may also not be without value as a preparatory school for social democracy, but at any rate it takes a back seat to the political activity of social democracy and must not stand in its way. What he overlooks in this argument are the interactions between these things. If we disregard the disturbances which are inevitable in the proletarian class struggle, as in every great political movement, and which depend on manifold causes – of which the lack of insight on the part of the party leaders plays the least important role – the political activity of the proletariat promotes trade unions and cooperatives, but in no small measure it also promotes social democracy. The crux of the matter lies not in the preponderance of the political action of the proletariat, but in the fact that the social aspirations of the proletariat, in all its growing diversity and even in those manifestations that are least connected to politics, always lead to the same result: the necessity of the proletariat seizing political power.

Auer has never pursued any other politics than pure workers’ politics. Herein lies his great strength. He has never flirted with the peasantry or the craftsmen. Above all, he finds a policy of statesmanlike combinations speculative: his practical mind requires a clear, simple situation. Auer is thought to be particularly clever, but he is not at all; he only pretends to be, and the best part is that people believe him. When he publicly paraded the tremendously clever statement: “Dear Ede [Bernstein], these are the kind of things you don’t say, but just do”, he placed himself in conflict with this Machiavellian principle. He is too much of a full-blooded German to be so overwhelmingly clever. A polemicist of Ciceronian eloquence, he is most likely to be carried away by his sarcasm. In recent years, he has spoken decidedly much more than was “necessary”, and made himself out to be worse than he is.

As a practical politician, he was suspicious of theory from the outset; the way he then handled theory, as we have seen, must have disappointed him all the more; so it was that his suspicion became scepticism. It was the uniformity of his political outlook that suffered most of all from this. He has his doubts to the left and to the right, and nothing satisfies him. He no longer finds in himself the intellectual confidence to stand up ruthlessly for certain principles; he therefore no longer understands it when others do so. He sees in it only intolerance and belligerence. His doubts bring him close to opportunism, not because of its positive, but because of its negative qualities – the criticism of the principles being applied. He does not accept this criticism, but he is interested to learn how it will develop and what will become of it. So it is that Auer, one of the first to have recognised the dangers of opportunism and to have taken the strongest stand against it, has not yet become a declared opportunist, but has become the patron saint of opportunism.

Curiously, at the same time, his scepticism led him to a kind of fatalism. All theorising, in fact, was actually a useless waste of time, all speculative foresight – especially after Bebel had been mistaken about the date of the revolution – a game; what will be, will be, and we know very little about how it will be. So, above all, let’s be careful and slow, let’s not be hasty. We will arrive soon enough, if not much too soon. Let’s be prepared for the conditions, let’s not be violent. No programme, no clear tactics, except one: to apply the brakes everywhere. And here, too, the more the final goal recedes from sight, the addiction to immediate, tangible successes awakens: present-day work in the limited sense described above. In place of the critique of the conditions that drives the movement forward, there is adaptation to the conditions, breaking off the tip of every striving and covering the movement in a mildew-like substance, weighing it down and paralysing it enormously.

Even at the party congress in Frankfurt in 1894, Auer called out to the Bavarian parliamentary group, which had approved the Bavarian state budget that in many respects in fact was characterised by its lack of independence: “Have you been elected to the Landtag to support the existence of the Bavarian polity in its present form? Should you not transform it, or – pardon the expression – undermine it? Ask yourselves this question once and you will understand the crooked situation you have got yourselves into. The polity will disintegrate by itself, but it is not your business to provide the means for the maintaining and continuing it. Just leave that to the National Liberals and the Ultramontanists”. And already in 1897 in Hamburg he could not understand how one could vote against allowing the government to equip the army with weapons, since one could not “send soldiers into the field equipped with sticks”. And in 1900 in Paris he protected Millerand’s premiership and lamented poor Germany, which was still so far away from a socialist candidacy for power. What a turn of events through God’s providence!

So it is that, by detaching itself from the social-revolutionary mother soil, practicalism in workers’ politics too loses all support and gravitates towards assimilation into the capitalist state.


Explanatory Notes

[a] The 1899 Hanover Congress of the SPD. —MIA Editor’s Note

Last updated on 30 April 2023