Letter From Karl Liebknecht

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 10. April 1917. Pages 610-612.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

It is of the utmost importance that the American workers should have as near as possible a clear understanding of the different groups of Socialists in Germany. It has been almost a common practice in the Socialist press and in Socialist meetings to mention only the existence of a Right Wing and a Left Wing in Germany.

The Right Wing, which includes the by far greater majority of the delegates in parliament and practically all of the "leaders" in the labor union movement and in the bureaucracy of the Socialist party of Germany, is criticized by most of our speakers and writers in the United States. This group is here generally known as the "Scheidemanns" and we are supposed to thank God that we have not sunk so low.

Very little, however, is published about the fact that what is called here the "Left Wing" really consists of two different groups: the Liebknecht group, including among the parliamentary representatives only Rühle and outside of that group, fighters such as Rosa Luxemburg, Klara Zetkin, Pannekoek (now in Holland), and Mehring. Between this Left Wing and the Right Wing, however, is a middle group with eighteen representatives in parliament, generally called the "Haase-Ledebour group," the most prominent representative outside of parliament being Kautsky. This group voted on December 21, 1915, against the fifth war credit, but in doing so, declared that this was on account of the favorable military situation of Germany and the fact that there was no danger of invasion at that time. This not only made their action practically worthless, but it directly played into the cards of the French warlords by strengthening the French Socialists in their support of the Capitalist Government, their country being invaded.

When this group of eighteen voted against another special war budget on March 24, 1916, on the same grounds, it caused a formal uproar in Parliament in which the Right Wing Socialists participated and which resulted in the expulsion of this group, the so-called "Arbeits gemeinschaft" [sic] from the official parliamentary Socialist caucus. This caused a sensation among German workers and strengthened the illusion that the Haase Ledebour group could be relied upon as Left Wing opposition.

For a better understanding of the real "Left wing" tactics as advocated by Liebknecht and his friends and endorsed in our "Manifesto," including uncompromising opposition against any kind of capitalistic war and the advocating of militant mass action, it is a great advantage that we have a letter from Karl Liebknecht dealing with this subject and giving a firm and clear condemnation of the tactics of the middle group, which is considered even more dangerous to the future of the proletariat than that of the Scheidemanns.

The letter, as smuggled from Germany by Comrade Wittman, follows in translation:

"What was the meaning of March 24, 1916?

"The eighteen delegates who finally decided on December 21, 1915, to vote against the fifth war credit, voted on March 24th openly against the proposed special war-budget. While in December they issued a 'declaration,' they now gave the motives for their vote in a speech. The content of this speech, however, did not go beyond the declaration of December. Even the excuse that Germany was safe against invasion was again brought forward. What was it then that caused a sensation on March 24th? It was the wild uproar of the Socialist majority, together with the bourgeois parties, the infamous attitude of the president, the expulsion of the eighteen from the official Socialist parliamentary group. But in this action the eighteen were object and not subject; this action was forced upon them and they disliked a rupture so much that they tried their best to avoid, still in January, 1916, an open break with the treacherous majority, as well as tumultous [sic] scenes against bourgeois parties. And even now on March 24, 1916, they play the part of offended innocence rather than that of showing the clinched fist of rebellion.

"What is the meaning of March 24th?

"A true opinion can only be formed in connection with the general situation. The new 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft' are the same eighteen, the 'neither flesh nor fish' policy of whom proved a failure in December and again in the submarine issue on March 22d, and again in the discussions on March 23d. Could you expect the lambs of yesterday to have become all of a sudden lions?

"Just now the so-called 'losen blätter' (loose leaflets) are published by comrades affiliated with the group of the eighteen. These leaflets do not even mention the important fundamental problems, which are at stake. Direct taxes instead of indirect ones is about the highest wisdom of the program on taxation of the eighteen in the midst of the world war! They do not show any deeper insight in the problem of taxation. They do not even see, as was stated in the resolution of the convention in Chemnitz, that direct taxes can as well be saddled upon the masses and that the decision as to what part of the burden will rest on each class, finally, is a problem of political power, not a problem of tax reforms; that it depends upon the political and economic situation as a whole, the tax policy being an organic part of the general policy. They do not even see that the best possible direct tax on top of a system of indirect taxes may easily become a figleaf of the system and a barrier against a thoro reorganization of the system of indirect taxes. Under the heading 'How Long Will It Last?' the loose leaflets of the eighteen talk about war in sentimental language without saying a word about the Imperialistic causes of the war. The war is considered due to stupidity of the rulers! They give as highest wisdom the theory that Imperialism has led to a deadlock out of which the Governments cannot find an escape, so that they need the advices of the loose leaflets—a pitiable mixup indeed.

"And what about the stand of the 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft' in the first test in the budget committee? Two days prior to the expulsion this group did not take any decisive stand in the submarine issue. Now the delegate in the budget committee advanced humanitarian arguments about the horror of the war, against the sinking of vessels without warning. No understanding was shown that the submarine issue is first of all decided by the ultimate aim of the war, as the result of a struggle of groups of capitalists for the control of the war-policy according to their different interests. This struggle means at the same time sharpening of the war political situation, and a fight for political power in home policy, in which the scene was carefully prepared to stage Bettman Holweg as a liberal and moderate Imperialist, in order to facilitate the treacherous policy of the leaders of the party and labor unions. The delegate of the eighteen even went so far as to advocate again the abolition of the right of confiscation on the high seas, which means to concentrate the attack on the English capitalists instead of on the German Government at a moment in which this latter government capitulated before the most unscrupulous war fanatics and needed the most energetic opposition. This policy means a continuance of the Baralong policy of Ledebour on January 15th.

"Whether all of the eighteen and all of the 'official' opposition in Berlin accept the responsibility for the loose leaflets and the policy of their delegates or not—a group, leaders of which express such opinions, are very far from a policy on principles, although they may claim so loudly. The formal combinations of all kinds of indefinite oppositional feelings and motives is always a great danger, especially so in a time of world changes. This means confusion and dragging along on old lines, it sterilizes and kills the militant elements, which get into this mixed company. What must be the conclusion from all this?

"The warning against uncritical overestimating of the action of the eighteen and of the events on March 24th. The warning, to keep your eyes open, not to forget that if we should join the eighteen unconditionally, this would mean the surest way to make the new group a shield to cover the governmental policy, and to make the 24th of March a mere phantom, just as December 21st has already become a ghostly historic event. In so far as March 24th means a progress, this is to a great extent due to the uncompromising critics of all half-heartedness; it confirms the efficiency of these critics on the strengthening of the oppositional spirit.

"The tactic of endless consideration and avoiding of conflicts and decisions is damned by the events on March 24th. In the turmoil of a world war all compromising breaks miserably together. Whoever tries to move around between warring armies will be shot from both sides, unless he saves his life in time by joining one party or the other, where, however, he will be received not as a hero, but as a fugitive. The way of the eighteen was a roundabout way, and not a pleasant one either. Not one advantage worth while to a serious man in this serious period has been gained by this delay.

"The masses were ripe for the test already at the beginning of the war. They would not have failed. The only result of the hesitation and doubt has been the strengthening of poisonous opportunism.

"Clear cut principles, uncompromising fighting, wholehearted decisions!

"Uncompromising Socialistic fight against the war, against those who caused it, who profit by it, who want to continue and to support the war! Also against the supporters of the supporters who slander the name of social democrats. Against the policy of the majority, against the national committee and the executive committee of the party, against the general committee of the labor unions and all instances of the party and the unions that carry this treacherous policy. To counteract this policy with all means is now the main issue of the war against war. A struggle to gain the majority of the party, not a struggle against the party as misstated by the demagogues of the majority. A struggle for democracy in the party, for the rights of the masses of the comrades, against the failing and treacherous leaders, who form the main supporters of the war. Against all of those who in peace time have played into the cards of militarism by opposing mass action in favor of law and order, and who now hang around in the waiting rooms of the army headquarters and the imperial ministers.

"Now is the moment to throw away all formal considerations. The party machinery is used ever more unscrupulously by the bureaucrats to enforce their policy. Autocratic decisions are a standard feature in the party. After the methods of von Puttkamer, power is used to force the opposition, the meanest methods of Prussian-Russian police brutality are used by the party leaders against the minority. The independence of the party press is disregarded with growing brutality by the so-called party majority. Even the censorship of martial law is beaten by the docile scholars of the military autocracy and military terror of the official Socialist party. War against this party all along the line, to conquer the party for the party! War against the traitors and usurpators, who must be driven from their jobs loaded with the disgust of the workers!

"Reconquering of the party from the bottom up thru revolt of the masses, who will have to take their organizations into their own hands! Not only words, but deeds! Away with all doubt and cowardice! Away with a compromise policy! Away with half friends, feeble-mindedness and sentimentalists! Those are out of place where the fight is heart against heart. The struggle for a decision in the party is on! It must be fought without any consideration for the sacrilegists, the traitors, the deserters from Socialism.

"To the present system of party politics, no man and no cent, but a fight to a finish. Those who are not with us in this fight will be considered against us."