Karl Radek

The Unity of the Working Class

(March 1909)

Karl Radek, Unity of the Working Class, Social Democrat, Vol. 13, no. 6, June 1909.
Originally from Neue Zeit, March 12 1909, pp. 268–277.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I. The Problem

On January 2 the Leipziger Volkszeitung published an article by its Belgian correspondent entitled, Unity in Confusion, in which the writer expresses his ideas concerning the tactics of Social-Democrats towards the labouring masses who, without being socialistic, are creating various organisations independent of the bourgeoisie. In his opinion it is most practical, in such situations, where as yet no unified Social-Democratic Party exists, to unite all such organisations into one Labour Party, and he regards it as the duty of the Marxists, not to found an independent Social Democratic Party, but to enter the ranks of the general Labour Party. If thereby clearness of principle has to be sacrificed by the Social-Democrats this will be made up for by the fact of the masses being roused to independent political action; the experience they gain by such action will lead them to Socialism.

In Vorwaerts comrade M. Beer, in his discussion with our English comrade Askew (December 30, 1908, The British Labour Party and Socialism) expresses the same thought still more forcibly as follows: “The unity of the working class seems to me the most important condition on which the victory of Socialism depends. And if I had to choose between a small and efficient Socialist Party and a large non-Socialist, but politically and economically independent working class, I should decide, without hesitation in favour of the latter.”

The Belgian comrade prophesies that any other way than the one he recommends must lead to the formation of an orthodox sect. This opinion is shared by comrade Beer; although he describes the sect euphemistically as a “small but efficient Social Democratic Party,” the efficiency could surely, according to his opinion, only consist in its theoretic principles, it would obviously bring forth many words, but no deeds.

The problem brought forward by both comrades is of great practical weight for the international Labour movement. It faces the American Social-Democrats; it has already faced the English Socialists for more than two decades; it plays a great part in the vexed question of the relations of the French Socialist Party to the trade union movement; it is the basis upon which the controversy about the neutrality of the trade unions in Germany can theoretically be fought out; it may, in the near future, be of importance for the Social-Democrats of Russia, and was already touched upon there two years ago in the discussion regarding the convening of a “General Workers’ Congress.”

It is, therefore, of importance to approach this weighty problem. Though it is impossible for me now to go into all its theoretical depth, with reference to the most varied historic situations in which it has faced the leaders of the working class, I nevertheless think that even these brief remarks are not out of place, all the more so as, according to my opinion, not only the two comrades alluded to, but many well-known German Social-Democrats, when it is a question of the unity of the Labour movement in England, express opinions and defend tactics the ideas underlying which they would not listen to if practical questions concerning the German Labour movement were involved.

The English and Belgian conditions dealt with here are only given in order to illustrate the general observations.

The question we must first answer is, Is a united Labour Party – which is not Socialist – possible? We say, No. Without Socialism the working class is a heterogeneous mixture of different categories, some of which have independent, varying interests, sometimes opposed to each other. Between the various categories the uniting bond of Socialism is wanting; it is not until it is present that the unity of their interests becomes apparent, and that they realise that they are sacrificing their permanent interests if they let the momentary differences – which are bound to disappear under the equalising influence of social development – prevent their uniting. The as yet non-Socialist mass of workers found economic and political organisations – the trade unions and the Labour parties; but neither the unions nor the political Labour parties, as long as they hold aloof from Socialism, constitute an abiding organisation of the class. In the unions the workers organised divide up into the groups of the trades to which they belong. Their class solidarity is not expressed at all in these organisations if they are not permeated with the spirit of Socialism, and the trade unions may – as the history of their development in England shows – exist for decades without uniting the working class as a whole. Political Labour parties, if they do not have Socialism for their starting-point, only arise in order to reach a concrete goal. No permanent general interests unite the workers who belong to those parties in the political struggle, for these interests do not exist in the consciousness of the masses as long as they are not Socialist; once, therefore, the concrete object is attained for which the party was constituted the uniting bond disappears, and with it the party itself. This was, for instance, the reason why none of the attempts to found a Labour Party in England after the bankruptcy of Chartism, until the constitution of the Social-Democratic Federation, led to any result. The attempts to unite the working classes were always based upon concrete causes; when the objects were obtained, or the workers divided by the realisation of a part of their demands, the organisation simply disappeared. I do not, of course, mean to say that if a Socialist Party had been constituted in England at the time of the “International” a mighty mass of workers would at once have united under its banner; several objective circumstances would have prevented this, but there is no doubt that such a party would have formed the rallying point for all more conscious elements, which would thus have formed for the English Labour movement the Socialist nucleus round which the rest could crystallise.

Some one may argue: It may indeed be impossible to attain a permanent union of the mass of the workers without Socialism. But the masses which have joined a Labour Party in order to attain certain concrete demands become permeated, thanks to the experience gained in the struggle, by the thought of the solidarity of their interests, and this accelerates their development in the direction of Socialism. “Such masses,” writes comrade Beer, “can only be convinced of the correctness of the Labour Party idea by legislative successes and electoral victories.” This thought is false in this abstract form, although it contains a grain of truth. Bebel put this grain into the right shape when he once said: “The confidence of the people is only to be won by means of practical work, solid and hard work, through the aspiration to seize every advantage for the benefit of the workers.” That is, that the Social-Democracy will not win over the masses of workers by mere abstract propaganda of their principles; they must take part in the political and economic struggle of the working class for the raising of its position. But Bebel was certainly not of opinion that this “practical” work, without the illumination of the real value of the gains, of the causes of our victories and defeats, will bring us to Socialism sooner than the activity to which he has devoted his whole life. Legislative successes may, under certain circumstances, prove to be the mess of pottage for which the working class at times may have to pay, not only with its aspiration towards Socialists, but even with the existence of its independent political organisation. These circumstances are as follows: When, thanks to some special contingency, the bourgeoisie is in a position to be able to satisfy the most pressing needs of some categories of workers – as it happened in England for a time in the last century – and when, thanks to the social-political conditions the class contrasts are not reflected in the consciousness of the workers. But if the conditions are such that the bourgeoisie, from its own point of view, is obliged to adopt a stern and antagonistic position towards the workers, if it does not grant the reforms willingly and these have to be wrenched from it inch by inch in a bitter struggle, if it cannot be sufficiently magnanimous to content the working class and put it to sleep, then it is self-evident that the successes attained in the struggle strengthen the self-confidence of the workers and help to win them over to independent Labour policy; but it is also comprehensible that in such a situation the failures which follow make the working class inclined to realise the insufficiency of the reforms, and the limits of all reform in a capitalist State. And here we reach the most important point in judging the question.

It is clear that in a situation such as that last mentioned, the ground is very favourable to the rapid growth of the Social-Democracy. Life provides material for its agitation which makes its general views comprehensible to the masses. In such a situation every economic struggle, even the smallest, becomes a school for the class struggle, if the party consistently illumines all its incidents from one point of view, if it flies its flag openly in the air. Then greater masses will rally each day round the Social-Democracy, and it becomes a political factor in public life, which the bourgeoisie and the Government have to take into account. But this growth cannot all at once get rid of the effects of previous development. If a Labour movement, on a bourgeois basis, has hitherto existed in the country where the new movement is awakening it will certainly not disappear all at once. Every social organisation which is rooted in life still lasts a long time, even after the conditions from which it drew its strength have changed in a manner unfavourable to it. And (this point we will return to) a bourgeois Labour movement is brought into existence by lasting, not passing, conditions. How is this movement influenced by the presence of a consistent Social-Democratic Party? The political action of the Social-Democracy, its criticism of the bourgeoisie and the Government and their allies in the working class, constitute, on the one hand, an element of disintegration for the bourgeois Labour movement, and, in the second place, urges the latter on the road of the struggle against capital, though, it must be noted, that struggle remains hesitating and full of contradictions. If there is one thing which renders it possible to strengthen the class-war element in the bourgeois Labour movement, and to embody parts of it in the Socialist movement, it is the ceaseless war against that movement. This applies, not only to various organisations founded by the bourgeois parties-for instance, in Germany to the Christian and Hirsch-Duncker trade unions – not only to those which are, like the trade unions in England, independent, but also to all those which appear in Socialist clothing, but are of bourgeois origin. This policy, which momentarily divides the proletariat, prepares for its subsequent unity under the banner of Social-Democracy, as the only lasting organisation.

But what are the results of the tactics which are represented by our Belgian comrade and comrade Beer as the only right way? Let us first consider the question from the general point of view. Supposing the Socialists join this mixed party. They have the best will in the world to agitate and propagate their point of view in that sphere. But the consequences of their entry soon begin to show themselves. They do not wish to frighten away those elements which are opposed to Socialism; they did not enter the party with that intention. Therefore, by fearing to make bad blood, they “sacrifice their clearness of principle to the unity of action of the awakening working class” – to use the words of our Belgian comrade. Instead of the Social Revolution, they agitate for the vague “workers’ cause.” But – to quote comrade Beer – what are words? They believe in deeds! A Labour party is not a debating club, it is a party of action. The uncertainty of its theories does not, of course, fail to influence its attitude towards political questions. The enmity of such a party towards Socialism does not mean that the members are only prejudiced against it because they do not know it; it means that they are possessed of bourgeois ideas, and wish to determine their policy accordingly. And the leaders of such a mass – as the Shackletons and Crooks’s – are not little lambs whom a Keir Hardie can lead by a string. They let themselves be led indeed, but only by the bourgeoisie, for this is in accordance with their views. Thus in such a Labour Party there can be no question of independent policy. It begins to practise opportunism, and turns now to the right, now to the left. It goes without saying that the Social-Democrats who have sacrificed their clearness of principle cannot afterwards paralyse all action by a breach of discipline, and so they have to take part in the St. Vitus’s dance.

How does this affect the Labour movement? The mass of workers, as yet non-Socialist, is retarded in its development towards Socialism. The Social-Democrats who join such a party in order to make way for the objective tendencies which are likely to lead the masses to the Social-Democratic standpoint, and to give free action to the movement, are paralysing another tendency which is of great importance for the object they are seeking to reach, namely, the conscious Socialist agitation. Instead, therefore, of accelerating the development of the whole mass in the direction of Socialism, they are retarding it.

And what is the effect of such a policy upon the Social-Democratic elements? The leaders become demoralised, the policy of compromise cuts away every solid foundation from under their feet, for such a foundation can only be formed by a principle; they become confused; that which was to be a clever trick in order to accelerate events, becomes their real point of view. And those of the workers who had already become Socialists sink back from the heights they have reached into the morass of “Labour politics.” The Social-Democratic conviction for the mass of workers is not a sword that one can hang on a nail when it is not wanted and take down again later when the whole masses are “ripe,” for the sword will have become blunt and rusty. The conviction of the working class depends on its daily struggle, and the Social-Democratic workers cannot wander through the morass with the others without losing their convictions.

Here are a few illustrations to the above:–

Our Belgian comrade himself, in his article, gives examples of the effects of the “collective” policy in which the Belgian Social-Democrats took part in 1885. They did not even attain to unity of action. He informs us, “that no Labour movement presents a greater diversity and splitting up of tendencies than that of Belgium ... in every question of practical policy there have, therefore, hitherto been deeply rooted differences of opinion, which gave rise to repeated conflicts.” Thus the unity was only apparent – says the writer of the article – but the confusion was real. “The theoretic confusion in its interior (the Belgian Labour Party which consisted of Social-Democrats, Proudhonists, Co-operative Associations and bourgeois quacks) is hardly less, in fact, it seems almost to have become more diversified. ... Many comrades who understand enough of scientific Socialism to be convinced of the need for an intense permeation of the Belgian Labour movement with the spirit of modern Social-Democracy, that is, of Marxism, have in the spirit of the Congress of 1885, thoroughly sacrified clearness of principle in theory to the unity of action, or, more correctly, to the appearance of that unity.” And the final result: “The struggle of tendencies always went to aggravate the piece-meal character of action in practice, but hardly ever to increase the insight of the comrades into the theoretic basis of the struggle of opinions.”

Of course, I cannot here examine as to whether the entrance of the Marxists into the Belgian Labour Party was influenced by the absence of any Marxist organisation, nor whether it would do to come out of it now. The English experiences are still worse. To the facts published by the London correspondent of the Leipziger Volkszeitung in his article on January 4, 1909 (Die Ausartung der englischen Arbeiterpartei), I should like to add two quotations from the New Age which comrade Th. Rothstein includes in his most remarkable article Englische Wandlungen (Neue Zeit, October 2, 1908).

“I think,” writes comrade Hobson, a well-known member of the Fabian Society and ILP, in this young Fabian weekly, “no observant looker-on will be able to deny the fact that the Labour Party becomes more moderate and reactionary every week.” There is no question that this is caused by the absence of a consistent line of action in opposition to it on the part of the Socialist Parties. But what does Hobson say about the results of this policy of the diplomatists of the Socialist ILP going hand-in-hand with the Labour Party? “... They expected to control the trade unionists, but their expectations have not been fulfilled ... They preach Socialism in public meetings, but in Parliament they may not speak freely.” The effects of this policy on the views of the members of the Socialist Independent Labour Party are, indeed, not yet apparent, as the Labour Party is still young and is hardly more than a gathering together of the heads of independent organisations, which fact weakens the effect; and, one must add, the ILP has not much to lose, because ... it has itself some very twisted ideas. This, then, is the result of the attempt (in the words of comrade Beer) “to unite the workers in one whole before winning them for conceptions which are still in advance of their intelligence.”

III. The Sect

Our Belgian comrade puts the question like this: The Social-Democrats either follow the path the mistakenness of which we think we have proved above, or they must “turn their back upon it (the Labour movement), and limit themselves, as a strictly orthodox sect, to make propaganda from outside for their ideas.” This is clearly not the case.

In what does a sect consist? In considering its belief and views as the last word of wisdom, and trying to force them on to people by means of propaganda, without giving an answer to the questions put by life. What Marxist has ever preached such tactics? What Marxist ever advocated holding aloof from the Labour movement? Above all, the sectarian character of the English Social-Democracy, of the French Guesdists, and of the Russian Social-Democracy has been cited. It will suffice for me to deal with the first example, the English Social-Democracy, against whom this reproach was levelled by no less a person than Friedrich Engels: “The Social-Democratic Federation,” he wrote in 1893 to Sorge, “shares with the German-American Socialists the distinction of being the only parties which have managed to reduce the Marxian theory of development to a strict orthodoxy, to which the proletarians are not to work themselves up by means of their own class feeling, but which they are to swallow at once and without development as an article of faith.” I cannot in this article go into the question as to what circumstances gave rise to such a judgment on the part of Engels, but I think he was wrong. It is also unnecessary to prove that the English Social-Democracy had no such ideas, for the best proof of that is its deeds.

The Social-Democratic Federation took part in all the political and economic struggles of the English working class; it took pains to bring Socialist views home to them, not only through agitation and propaganda, but also by actions. The part it took in Parliamentary and municipal elections, in the unemployed movement, etc., shows that there was no idea of a turning away from the Labour movement. That is not to say that we agree with all its tactics (for instance, towards the trade unions, the Conservatives, etc.). But let us hear what is said by an opponent of the Federation, comrade William Sanders, a member of the ILP, in a lecture upon The Present Position of the Socialist Movement in England, which he gave at Fürth on September 18, 1908, and which was published in Nos. 230-236 of the Fränkische Tagespost, of last year.

“The Social-Democratic Federation, or Party, is the pioneer of modern Socialism among the English workers. It stands on a strictly Marxist foundation and its policy makes for the realisation of Socialism. In many ways it has done great service to the workers’ cause. Although it always lays great stress on its revolutionary character, it has always entered the field for the so-called palliatives and contributed a great deal towards attaining them.

“It was, for instance, the Social-Democratic Federation. which first raised the question of meals for children at the public cost; they pressed this demand all over the country, till at last the Government which is now in power passed a law giving the school authorities the right of introducing free feeding where it is necessary. Other measures, as, for instance, the legal enactment of the Eight Hours Day, were in former times first brought forward by the SDF and the Eight Hours Bill for miners which has been introduced by the present Government and is now before Parliament is doubtless due to a great extent to the energetic agitation of the Socialist Party. It is just on the field of agitation that the SDF has done its best work. In the eighties and early nineties of last century, its influence was much greater than its numbers, which, at that time, were very small and have remained so till the present day. Without the keen, indeed fanatical, agitation of the SDF the ground would not have been ploughed in which is sown the seed of the Socialist movement in England.”

That the Social-Democratic Federation has not developed into a mighty labour party is due, not to its defective tactics, but to the fact that in England, owing to the special economic and political conditions often alluded to in Marxian literature, it was impossible even for a labour movement, politically and economically independent of the bourgeoisie, let alone a Socialist Labour movement, to arise. The best proof of this is given by that Independent Labour Party, so greatly praised by Engels, which has followed the tactics approved by him, and which is in agreement with the views of our Belgian comrade. The ILP cannot point to any great successes resulting from its 15 years’ work. At the end of last century the SDP numbered 5,000 to 6,000 members, and the ILP 10,000 to 12,000; last year the Social-Democracy had 13,000, and the ILP 20,000 members. The good tactics have not brought the large-hearted Socialists any great advance over the “sect” of Social-Democracy.

If the SDF did show signs of sectarianism, it would be easily explained by the English conditions, which retarded the rise of a broad Labour movement, thereby forcing a sectarian character on the work of the Federation, which was limited to small groups, and calling forth sectarian views in some of its members. In general, if signs of sectarianism do appear in a Socialist Party, these are only the products of the absence of a broad Labour movement in the country. There is no antagonism – here broad Labour movement, there Marxist sect – but where a “broad” Labour Party is possible, there a consistent Marxian mass-party can arise. And we think we are not mistaken in prophesying that the Social-Democratic Party of England is progressing towards a healthy development, if it continues its energetic, consistent, Social-Democratic policy, without letting itself in for the policy of alliances.

IV. The Unity of the Working Class and Socialism

Comrade Beer writes: “The unity of the working class appears to me to be the most important condition for Socialism ... What is the real hindrance to the German Social-Democracy? Is it the Prussian-German constitution? Is it the ‘Junkers’? Is it, as the Revisionists say, Marxism, or, as the Marxists say, revisionism? [1] No. None of all these. It is the separation of the working class into ‘Zentrums’ [2] workers, Liberal workers, indifferent workers, that constitutes the real hindrance to the progress of the German Social-Democracy. Were they to form one single modern army of workers we should speedily overcome all the other hindrances. We should ride upon the whirlwind and rule the storm. It is the same in France, Italy, etc.” And Beer draws the conclusions from his view, and recommends to the German Social-Democracy tactics the incorrectness of which it is not necessary to prove here: “If I could influence the tactics of the German Social-Democracy,” he writes in the Fränkische Tagespost, of February 1, 1909, “I would influence them in the following direction: Friendly or antagonistic independence towards the bourgeois parties and elements, according to their attitude towards progress and democracy, but charitable tolerance and temporary and local agreements with the honest non-Socialist working-class organisations according to the degree of their proletarian feeling.”

From his first remarks he seems to be of opinion that the disappearance of the whole bourgeois labour movement would be possible before the social revolution. Even if this were the case it would not yet prove that the heterogeneous policy which Beer desires would be the best means of accelerating that process. But we, in any case, deny this possibility.

Two circumstances principally determine the rise of the bourgeois labour movement: on the one hand the bourgeoisie proceeds to found labour organisations as ramparts to protect themselves against the Socialist labour movement; on the other hand, there awakens in the breasts of those parts of the working-class consisting of newly proletarised categories or such as have just come from the country, an instinct towards organisation for the purpose of improving their condition. These two circumstances are for ever crossing each other and influencing each other; on the one side the aspirations of the bourgeoisie awaken many still sleeping categories of workers, while, on the other side, the instinct of the awakening workers towards organisation forces the bourgeoisie to get the rising organisations into their hands, in order that they should not come under the influence of the Social-Democrats. This process will last as long as the process of proletarisation lasts. And as we are not of the dogmatic opinion that the hour of the social revolution will only strike when the last petty bourgeois wanders into the factory, we believe that the welding together of the whole working class into one labour army will only take place in the days of the Social Revolution itself, if, indeed, it precedes Socialism at all.

From this point of view comrade Beer’s opinion as to the divisions in the working class being the real hindrance to Social-Democracy in Germany, France, Italy, etc,, would mean – the true hindrance to the International Social-Democracy is that we are not yet standing in the midst of the Social Revolution! If that is what comrade Beer meant to say, then we thoroughly agree with him. [3]

Finally, a qualification. These remarks are not intended to convey the impression that we under-estimate the importance of the unity of the working class. We only wished, in the first place, to examine the methods of its partial attainment, and, in the second, to emphasise the impossibility of its completion in existing conditions.

As regards the first question, we consider the method of uniting-policy, “collecting-policy,” to be unsuitable, and to be dangerous to the Social-Democracy; as regards the second, we believe that whoever lets himself be taken captive by illusions on this point is riding, not the storm-wind, but the clouds, from which he might easily fall down into the current of a feeble opportunism.

KARL RADEK, in the Neue Zeit, March 12


1. It is hardly necessary to say that the Marxists have not been guilty of such an assertion, Perhaps comrade Beer will lay a specimen on the table of a miserable Marxist whose intellectual properly such views might be. Still, we would refrain from reproachirg comrade Beer – as he does comrade Askew – with not yet being sufficiently advanced to give an inclusive and far-seeing, judgment on the state of the international Socialist Labour movement.

2. Catholic Clerical Party.

3. I can, of course, spare myself entering into the question of what the “hindrance” of the German Social-Democracy is, for after the well-known expression about the “impotence” of the German Social-Democracy was coined by Jaurès at the Amsterdam Congress it was thoroughly discussed in the Radical portion of the party press.

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