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Opportunism in Practice


6. The Achievements of Opportunism.


I will pass over the fourth intellectual species of opportunism.

Our subject in this article is the tactics of opportunism and their relation to the party’s activity up until now.

The essential features of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has hitherto been the focal point of Social Democracy’s revolutionary politics, can be summarised as follows: the proletariat, which already forms the numerical majority of the nation and whose interests are also tied to those of the artisans and peasants ruined by capital, takes possession of political power. In addition, the state is reorganised in political and military terms in a way that ensures the most extensive rule of the people and prevents any abuse of state power, so that it can no longer impose the will of an economically ruling minority on the masses. Then one branch of production after another will pass into state ownership, which under these conditions will be transformed from a machinery of government, a tool for the oppression of the people, into an administrative organism; the development of communal property, communal enterprises and cooperatives will be encouraged by all the political and economic means of power at the state’s disposal. Private ownership of the means of production will disappear and the capitalist mode of production will make way for socialism.

As is well known, it is the dictatorship of the proletariat that opportunism criticises most. It does not directly deny the possibility of realising it, but it doubts it, it pushes it as far as possible into the distance, and above all wishes to eliminate it from present-day political considerations. The conditions, it claims, are still so unripe that they are not yet ready for it. The conditions, claims opportunism, are still so unripe that if the proletariat were to get hold of the machinery of the state, it would only disgrace itself by its legislation and the whole thing would end in a colossal defeat for the proletariat. So, for the time being, we leave the running of the state to those who already do so: the Junkers, the stock exchange and industry. And we must regard with trepidation every electoral victory as a step that brings us closer... to our defeat. But due to the inconsistency on which opportunism depends, it of course avoids drawing this conclusion from its premise. But what does it offer us instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which it no can no longer countenance as a political guideline? How is the proletariat to abolish capitalist exploitation if not by conquering political power? What should be done, how should the working class act in order to achieve this goal? In short, what constitutes the content of the much-lauded “Realpolitik” of opportunism? Let us attempt to find the answer to this question by looking at the practice of opportunism.

It is only logical that opportunism, having abandoned the hope of the political rule of the proletariat, should seek to mediate between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Where socialism has hitherto uncovered the fiercest class antagonisms, opportunism seeks points of agreement. It pursues a policy of compromise. It wants to break off the peaks, to bridge over the antagonisms. This is how the theories of adaptation, of growing over into socialism, arose, with which opportunism seeks to conceal the hopelessness of its standpoint from itself and from the world. Let us now look at the results opportunism achieves when it tries to put these theories into practice.

You would think that the idea closest to opportunism would be that of nationalisation. This would be a way of reaching an agreement in which nothing happens without the consent of the capitalist class and yet production is withdrawn from the private ownership of the capitalists. This is, after all, the basis on which the “socialism of the chair” [Kathedersozialismus] is based. But it is precisely the idea of nationalisation that our opportunists dare to pursue least of all. Why? The reason is clear: they fear the state. They repeat at every turn the idea the state will continue to become more and more democratic, but in practice they shrink from the consequences of their theoretical thinking.

So, nationalisation – no. Perhaps municipalisation then? Opportunism makes a big deal of this, but one will try in vain to establish what in fact opportunism practically proposes in this direction. Social Democracy has developed its municipal policy without violating its social revolutionary principles in the slightest. On the contrary, its activity in the municipalities only furnishes it with new proof of the need for change both in the capitalist organisation of the state and in the capitalist system of property ownership. Whether it comes to housing, electricity work, street cleaning, putting up a few more lanterns in a working-class district and so forth, one is always confronted by the question of land rent in municipal politics. The landlords exploit all progress, all improvements, to raise the rent. If they are taxed, then they pass on the taxes to the tenants. But whereas the revolutionary socialist purposefully seeks to emphasise those very factors that place municipal politics in contradiction with the capitalist system of property ownership, to the opportunist they are only a ballast that leadenly restricts his movements, an obstacle to his “positive work”. He is unable to resolve the contradiction, therefore he seeks to avoid it by setting himself tasks that are as insignificant as possible and where the antagonisms are expressed less sharply. But the less the practical value of his activity, the bolder he becomes in the theoretical speculations he attaches to it. The revolutionary politician in the municipalities cannot feel satisfied by anything: he has a sharp eye for all the shortcomings and inadequacies of local politics and for this very reason becomes a driving force. The opportunist, by contrast, always has his hands full with “positive work”, moves about busily like a mole and, like that animal, remains confined to the narrowest circles, makes a great thing of every piece of rubbish and believes that he has laid the foundation for socialism when he builds public baths and toilets.

The opportunist believes that he can transform capitalism through municipal politics. But in reality, municipal politics fails and is piecemeal and fragmentary because of capitalism. It is not only restricted by conditions under capitalism, but is transformed by it, and often in such a way that the opposite of what was intended occurs. For example, water pipes and sewers are brought to a suburb, a tramway is built, etc. to make things more comfortable for the workers living there, and the outcome is that the workers are driven out of their homes, since civil servants, teachers, officers, pensioners and so on now move to the suburb and increase the rent.

Proletarian municipal policies thus cannot replace proletarian state policies. On the contrary, in order to develop fully, the former requires a fundamental change in the economic structure of society, and this cannot be carried out without the dictatorship of the proletariat. By no longer reckoning with this factor, opportunism undermines the basis of any practical activity with aspirations that go slightly beyond those of the renowned socio-political mayors.

Another favoured topic of the opportunists is the cooperatives, especially the consumer associations. And again one falls into the greatest embarrassment when trying to establish what particular practical proposals opportunism has to make for them. Certainly, the party’s standpoint on these matters was one-sided and limited for a while, but not only did it not hinder the development of the consumer associations, it actually encouraged it. The party is pleased with this development, but does not need to be under any illusions about the economic scope and socio-political significance of the consumer associations or the cooperatives associated with them. The party has always vigorously opposed the attempts of middle-class politicians to strangle the consumer associations through fiscal legislation – not exactly because they are socialist formations, but all the more so because such moves represent a consumer tax on the people. But apart from general propaganda, the party cannot do much else in favour of the consumer associations. Opportunism itself is far from calling on the party to establish consumer associations across the board, for that would very quickly lead to a “colossal defeat”.

With this we now leave behind the discussion of those measures which, with varying prospects of success, do not aim at changing the economic structure of society or the fundamental conditions that cause exploitation. What opportunism has yielded in this regard is extremely poor: no change in the form of property ownership by political means; no nationalisations; municipal politics that are condemned to remain piecemeal and patchwork; and then the consumer associations. All this is nothing that the party has not already considered without becoming opportunistic, nothing that should drive the party further forward in these areas more than it has already been: they are but mere utopian follies and illusions. And this calls itself “Realpolitik”! The only difference is this: while the party does one thing without abandoning the other, and, for example, pursues energetic municipal politics without neglecting the conquest of political power, which would give it the possibility of changing the overall conditions at the state level, opportunism engages in municipal politics in order to cover up the fact that it lacks a social-revolutionary standpoint and, as a result of this absence, it dissolves municipal politics itself into a colourless reformist activity in the shallowest bourgeois sense of the term.

Opportunism may call itself socialist or even social-revolutionary, but the fact is that, in practice, under its watch any fundamental change in the economic structure of society recedes into the background. In this case, socialism becomes at best an article of faith that is only habitually recited without any serious thought of putting it into practice in life. That is why opportunists are so fond of giving socialism the status of propaganda: talk about socialism as much as you like, but in practice it is nothing: “Realpolitik” must be pursued. Altering the principles? Heaven forbid! It is just that the principle is one thing and the tactics are another: something completely different and diametrically opposed to the principles!

The more the opportunist relegates socialism to the farthest reaches, to the realm of fantasy, the more he learns to subordinate himself to capitalist conditions. This is quite different than conforming to the conditions in order to exploit them all the more effectively for pre-established aims. The difference is particularly evident when it comes to worker-protection legislation.

In drawing up its demands for workers’ protection, Social Democracy is guided by the general conditions of capitalist production. As far as restrictions on exploitation are concerned, factory legislation stands and falls with capitalism. Social Democracy goes even further and takes into account the general industrial conditions of the country when drafting its legislative proposals. But all this is still not enough for opportunist “Realpolitik”. Since this is a matter of legislation, the opportunist primarily wonders about the constellation of the parliamentary parties. What will the bourgeois parties say? What will the government’s position be? And the opportunist scales down his legislative demands, although he is convinced of the economic possibility of them being implemented, in order merely to obtain the necessary number of votes in parliament and the government’s approval. This is how the sham legislation, of which Millerand’s Normal Working Day and his Strike Regulation Bill are the most characteristic examples, came into being. Instead of exerting pressure on the parliamentary parties from the outside, instead of influencing the composition of parliament, in short, instead of bending parliament to its own will, opportunism panders to the bourgeois parliamentary majority from the outset.

If this opportunist tactic takes the place of a policy that pushes political antagonisms to the extreme, it may at first achieve some small successes. Then the bourgeois parties are glad about the tension easing and therefore show willingness to make some concessions. Opportunism, therefore, does not owe those successes to itself, but merely liquidates what it has inherited and cashes in for small change the capital that social-revolutionary agitation has accumulated over many years. It is most understandable that opportunism, which has nothing ahead of it, no political perspectives, no final goal, which makes socialism a vague, utopian ideal by removing the social-revolutionary context from its field of vision, should seek immediate, “positive” successes, for the sake of which it sacrifices both the past and the future. But this political waste ends even more quickly and ignominiously than any other form of waste. The bourgeoisie, which at first rejoices at the fact that Social Democracy agrees to compromise, becomes increasingly reluctant as its adversary becomes increasingly willing to make concessions. The bourgeois is too good a businessman not to realise when he has an advantage. The less energetic that Social Democracy is in its activity, the less respect it is shown. In the same measure, the kindness with which it is treated increases. “The Anti-Socialist Law? For God’s sake, no: you only make martyrs of the leaders and irritate the masses! And why have such a law anyway? After all, they are quite nice people worth talking with and they are well disposed towards the raison d’état. Social policies? Yes, of course, that is a justified demand of the workers. But let’s not do it all at once. The state and the government have a lot to do as it is. What a worry things in faraway East Asia are causing by themselves! The support for the Boers in South Africa, who are our blood relatives, and the agreements with our cousin across the Channel! Soon something will happen in Central America, then in Turkey! We must pursue world politics. Plus militarism, the navy, tank-building too, by the way – and employment for workers and social policy too! So just wait patiently, with time, maybe later on – why not? After all, we are modern in our thinking! After all, you also say that development will take care of itself... and that it always proceeds slowly. We also pass some social policies now and again, but now we have to raise the food tariffs!”

No one longs for the time when the party was under the “law of shame” [the Anti-Socialist Law, 1878-1890 —BL]. But let us not forget that the German Social Democracy overthrew the Socialist Law not by licking the hand that cracked the whip over it, but through stubborn resistance. This law was dropped not because Social Democracy had reconciled itself to the capitalist state, but because it had become a fearsome power under it. And this wholesome fear [heilsame Furcht] of social democracy is also the main motivating force behind the worker protection legislation. For this we have Bismarck’s classic testimony, which serves our agitators so well: “If it were not for the fear of social democracy, we would not have the little bit of social reform that we have”. That is why social revolutionary agitation and social reform go hand-in-hand. When the proletariat prepares to unhinge the whole capitalist social order, the bourgeoisie gives it worker protection laws to calm it down. When the proletariat leaves the economic foundations alone and modestly demands the ten-hour working day, it is not granted so as not to make it too desirous, but it is granted the empty promise of the eleven-hour working day. Quite apart from the exploiter interest, even the hostile indifference of the capitalist class in all things beneficial to the workers can only be broken by the pressure of the masses. The indifference of the capitalist class, let alone its exploiter interests against all things beneficial to the workers, can only be broken through the pressure of the masses. The opportunist may prove to the capitalist, in a learned or eloquent fashion, that reducing working hours would not reduce the daily output of the workers, but the business owner will stick to the old working hours unless he is forced to do otherwise. But precisely by adapting his proposals for worker protection to the bourgeois parliamentary majority, the opportunist reduces their appeal to the working class. He demands, for example, not the eight-hour day but the ten- or eleven-hour day, because he hopes to push this through parliament more easily.

But precisely by adapting his workers’ protection proposals to the bourgeois parliamentary majority, the opportunist reduces their appeal to the working class. He demands, for example, not the legal eight-hour day, but the ten- or eleven-hour day, because he hopes to push this through more easily in parliament; in this way he pushes aside the most advanced strata of the industrial workers, who already have the nine-hour working day, and for whom the ten-hour day is no longer of any practical interest; the reduced interest of the working masses is naturally also expressed in public; parliament sees itself as less under pressure from outside and as a result does not even grant the eleven-hour working day. The argumentation which the opportunist uses to defend the short normal working day, this most significant demand of workers’ protection that is on the agenda, is also quite remarkable. Above all, he wants to prove to business that the reduction of working hours would not harm it, but rather benefit it. Now it is certainly important to reject the capitalists’ exaggerations of the disturbing effects of the worker protection laws, but we are not of the view that we only favour those factory laws under which capitalist interests do not suffer any losses. Otherwise we would have never achieved prohibition of child labour, night work, and so on. This consideration for the interests of the capitalists also reduces the agitational impact on the workers, whose interests can never be consistently realised without infringing upon the interests of the exploiters.

So when it comes to worker-protection legislation too, opportunism’s attempts to reach an understanding that cuts across class antagonisms only leads to paralysing the political action of the proletariat. Capital, which is the ruling class and therefore only has to defend existing state relations, can only benefit from reducing the intensity of the class struggle or when – in other words – the opposition to its ruling status diminishes. This explains capital’s desire for “social peace”.

The trade unions! While the bourgeois press, even deep among the ranks of the high bourgeoisie, sees in the trade unions workers’ organisations which make themselves at home on the soil of the capitalist social order, representing certain interests without questioning the foundations of capitalism, opportunism maintains that the development of the trade unions leads to the strangulation of the capitalist class, to the gradual elimination of capitalist private property. This idea is not original; it is the old phrase which the capitalist likes to throw at strikes in order to stir up public opinion against the workers: the trade union wants to be the “master of the house” instead of him! Both views are exaggerations. The trade unions are by no means harmless, they are proletarian organisations of struggle that turn their swords against capitalist exploitation.

Although they are organisations of struggle, they are not in themselves capable of overturning the economic structure of capitalist society, but their activity merely proves the necessity of those political and economic changes that will be introduced by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Nobody now disputes the connection between trade-union activity and worker-protection legislation, but we have just shown how opportunist points of view impede the development of worker-protection legislation. But the opportunist point of view turns out to be an obstacle to trade-union practice in general. In their struggles, they say, the trade unions must take into account the industrial situation, competition and other capitalist conditions, because these factors have a large influence on the outcome of the struggle; but when the situation is favourable, the trade unions dare to attack capital even if industrial development or competition itself suffers. With the exception of those strikes provoked by the employers, the greater and longer a strike is, the greater damage it does to industry, the more difficult it is to repair this damage. But to all such charges by the entrepreneurs, the trade unions reply: “We want conditions under which we can lead a decent existence (this is, for example, the principle behind the living wage)!” In other words, “If we wanted to base ourselves fundamentally on capitalist interests then we would never get out of misery; we therefore oppose our human interest to the interest of capital accumulation, competition, etc.; if capitalist society cannot satisfy our demands, then away with this form of society.” From the commodity of labour power a human voice rises up protesting against the economic dependence of humanity and thereby against the entire economic structure, in which the human being, this indispensable component, is a commodity. But here, too, opportunism takes the most account of capitalism’s inadequacies. It is apprehensive about the the interests of industry and is therefore most readily at hand to prevent a strike or to condemn trade-union action in the interests of industrial development. Here we need only recall Bernstein’s attitude towards the great machine builders’ strike in England. That is why here too the opportunist seeks to reconcile, to coalesce, and places so much emphasis on the collective bargaining associations and mediation panels. By holding back and blunting the trade-union struggle more than is necessary, he imagines that he can thereby put an end to capitalism.

In everything that opportunism initiates, we always find the same outcome: since it practically no longer reckons with the possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat or of social revolution, it assumes that the capitalist mode of production will last for an unforeseeable amount of time. As a result, he is helpless. He does not seek a way out when he encounters obstacles that stand in the way of the realisation of workers’ interests that arise from the exploitative character of capitalist production, i.e., that are to be found in its very essence. That is why opportunism’s “Realpolitik” is nothing other than continuously applying the brakes to the proletarian class struggle, of holding back all of its manifestations.

But those who place themselves on the soil of the capitalist mode of production must also accept the capitalist state. Just as opportunism marks its capitulation to the capitalist mode of production by a theoretical blurring of the boundaries between capitalism and socialism, so it seeks to cover its submission to the capitalist state by pointing to its continuing democratisation. But the democratic form does not eliminate the class character of the state. This is the experience of opportunism at every turn. As it increasingly limits its workers’ policies, the more it finds itself obliged to pursue capitalist state policies too.

How, for example, is the opportunist to fight colonial policy in principle, when he knows – and from his study of Marx knows all too well – that the capitalist state must pursue colonial policy if it is not to collapse under the burden of overproduction? So it is that he confines his criticism to trivialities and ultimately lives only at the mercy of the colonial bandits and scoundrels who conduct the “colonial atrocities” and thus facilitate opportunism’s oppositional stance. That aside, however: why shouldn’t Germany not take possession of Kiautschou?[a] Why should the Russians or the English have everything? Why shouldn’t “we” also have our share? Whoever cannot come to terms with this line of thought will soon be able to reel off the entire litany of colonial policy. And even if he continues to protest against individual colonial atrocities, he will soon learn to turn a blind eye to the policy of blood and iron as a whole. For what is colonial policy? It is the attempt to impose capitalist exploitation by force onto peoples living in natural conditions and who oppose with body and soul being brought into the yoke of capital. And this is achieved more by the whip and the shotgun than by speeches in parliament.

But if there is some choice as to whether to go along with colonialism or not, there is no such choice when it comes to militarism. Strip a modern capitalist industrial state of its army and it ceases to exist. The people’s militia? This will never be sanctioned by the capitalist class. The truth is that the only reason for this is that capital needs the army against the enemy within, and this fact throws all democratic rhetoric and all the opportunist nonsense about harmony to the winds. But it is nonetheless a fact that the precondition of the transformation of the standing army into a people’s militia in the capitalist industrial states is the conquest of political power by the proletariat; since the opportunist no longer reckons with the dictatorship of the proletariat in practice, as a Realpolitiker there is nothing left for him to do but reconcile himself with the standing army. And so we see how he sets out on the path of approving the army budget. Admittedly, it is here that he least of all dares to draw the consequences of his standpoint. He would not be averse to voting for new, improved military equipment, but he makes a distinction between armament bills and purely military bills that call for an increase in military presence. This distinction is unsound. The decisive factor in modern warfare is not only weapons, but also their number. If one adopts the standpoint of military expediency, one will soon have to convince oneself that a small army, even if well equipped, is just as likely to perish as a large army that is poorly equipped. So, if one wishes to be consistent, there must first be weapons for the soldiers, then soldiers for the weapons.

But whoever approves militarism must also approve taxation.

Opportunism does not end with policies aimed at the workers. It is also present in its attitude towards democracy and leads to a complete assimilation into capitalist state politics. This is also most understandable. The peasant and the artisan oppose capitalism from the standpoint of certain forms of production that are ruined by it. What becomes of capitalism itself is of no concern to them. The proletariat is different. It fights not for the past, but for the future. It can fight capitalism only from the standpoint of social revolution. If it abandons this standpoint, there is nothing left but to submit to the structure of the capitalist social order. Unlike the artisan, it cannot call a declining social order back to life. The proletariat can only be either the gravedigger of capital or its underling. But after a century of social-revolutionary struggle, it is no longer conceivable that the proletariat will willingly submit to capitalist bondage. The conclusion for opportunism is self-evident.

Opportunism means a slackening of political energy in all fields, a general diversion, confusion and helplessness. It even reaches beyond what it is compelled to do by the abandonment of the social-revolutionary standpoint. This was particularly evident in the tariff question. Here we have been able to observe in recent years not just how capitalist influences have obscured the social-revolutionary point of view, but even how the cry for protective tariffs, which runs counter to the capitalist development of Germany, has found favour in Social-Democratic literature.

Opportunism within Social Democracy is nothing other than a national liberalism adapted to the special conditions of a parliamentary workers’ party.


Explanatory Note

[a] A Chinese peninsula that became a German colonial possession in the late 1890s. —BL

Last updated on 26 April 2023