Gregory Zinoviev

The Social Roots of Opportunism III


Source: New International, Vol.8 No.4, May 1942, pp.121-126.
Written/First Published: 1916 (approximately) in The War and the Crisis in Socialism
Transcription: Daniel Gaido & Ted Crawford.
Mark-up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The most far-sighted of the German reactionaries knew long before the war that the official organizations of the German social democracy had become thoroughly “bourgeoisified.” And they said quite openly that at the critical moment they would appeal to the leaders, to the heads of the social democratic party against the laboring masses, In this connection a well-known conservative politician and historian, Hans Delbreuck, the publisher of the influential Preussische Jahrbücher, offers us a striking example of candor. He is one of the most cultured, one of the shrewdest politicians of the German ruling class and has been pursuing for decades, with unrelenting attentiveness, the evolution of the social democracy. And it is precisely in the greatest electoral victory of the German social democracy, that of 1912, that this most foresighted of the conservative politicians sees the most gratifying results for the bourgeois and junkers.

Delbrueck has been giving public lectures on the subject of Spirit and Mass in History. In the course of his dissertation our honorable historian “proves” that the “mass” as such is incapable of action, and that only the organization, i.e., the spirit, makes the mass capable of action. (Hans Delbrueck, Regierung und Volkswille, Berlin 1914, p.80). Translated into simple language that means: We need not fear the victorious four million votes of the social democracy; for the “organization” and “spirit” of the German Social Democracy are drenched in bourgeois customs and habits. At the decisive moment the leaders will be with us and drag the masses behind our triumphal chariot.

Franz Mehring immediately (in a critical analysis of Delbrueck’s printed speech) unmasked the real significance of this speech: Delbrueck replied:

“Because I described how powerless the masses are when left to themselves, Mehring is of the opinion that I mean to convey the idea that we need not fear them since it is possible to reach agreement with the organization; that some sort of settlement can be made with the leaders in one way or another. I did not actually draw these conclusions, nor was I acquainted at the time with Michels’ book (the reference is to the Sociology of Party Structure by Michels, which deals with the German Social Democracy) but Mehring has, indeed, read my thoughts not half badly. (L.c., p.81.)

“How all the patriots paled when this election outcome became known in 1912! I can truly say that I did not permit myself to be thus deceived. I refer all those that wish, to look up the Preussische Jahrbuecher, where I wrote even at that time that the new Reichstag is more favorable in its composition than it has ever been before.” Can greater frankness be asked for? Who can deny that Delbrueck was right in regarding the official leaders of the Social Democracy as his people, when he evaluated the official organization of the German Social Democracy as a counter-revolutionary factor inimical to the workers?

Another example! In an article written in April, 1915, Professor Schmoller says:

“Since 1890 the educated and highly cultured leaders of the Social Democracy had given up one after the other the most important elements of the Marxist credo. Three-quarters of the total number of social democratic voters are not social democrats. The number of members of the Social Democratic Party is slightly more than one million; the free trades unions have three million members. The annual income of the Social Democratic Party amounts to about a million marks. The annual income of the free trade unions to some eighty to ninety million marks. In the political organization, an aristocracy and bureaucracy of from five to ten thousand well-paid leaders has been formed which, without wanting to and without being conscious of it, has reduced the ultra-democratic principle in the party ad absurdum. The normal development of the coöperatives likewise tends to make their members constantly more forgetful of the ideals of the class struggle. In short, the Marxist workers’ party in Germany has become involved in a process of bourgeois transformation – no matter how insistently it may deny this fact itself.” (Der Weltkrieg und die deutsche Socialdemokratie, Schmollers Jahrbuch, 39 Jahrgang, III, p.7ff.)

Schmoller goes on to say:

“The party functionaries who joined the general mutual aid society increased from 433 in 1902 to 2,948 in 1911; among the latter are also many trade union officials, but the majority of them have not joined up. The core of the party has thus become, in a certain sense, a uniformly run functionaries’ machine. Their leaders are those who, by election and by their achievements in the party, have risen to the top, drawing constantly increasing salaries of from 2,500 to 8,000 marks ... (and) in part, become well-to-do and even wealthy people.

“Almost higher than the party leaders stand the leaders and higher ranking officials of the trade unions, as, for example, the directors of the larger federations, such as Schlicke, who heads the gigantic federation of metal workers, and Leipart, who heads that of the wood workers, They administer properties worth several dozen million marks, have some third or half million workers behind them and occupy an almost identical place. insofar as organizational talent, power and influence are concerned, as the heads of our great trusts and corporations.”

This is the evaluation made by the ideologists of the bourgeoisie – and from their point of view they are entirely correct.

The Tendency of Labor Bureaucratism

Naturally, the socialists long ago recognized the reactionary role of the labor bureaucracy, but not quite so clearly as they did after the salient lesson of August 4, 1914. One of the leaders of the German trade union movement, the chairman of the bookbinders’ union, once declared quite openly and honestly before a conference of the trade union leadership, not so much as a complaint but rather as a self-evident fact, that he must say that all those present were much more interested in the establishment of a new system of society when they were still on the workbench and had to be content with low wages, than they were now. The minutes carry a notation on this point, that the speaker was interrupted with numerous heckles directed against the opinion he expressed. But one particular heckler called out from his seat: “That is even far more true of the party functionaries.”

Wilhelm Liebknecht was fully conscious of the fact that the labor aristocracy predominated among the party leaders. “You who sit here,” he once turned to say to the delegates at a party convention, “are also, most of you, aristocrats, to a certain extent, among the workers – I mean in so far as incomes are concerned. The laboring population in the mining regions of Saxony and the weavers in Silesia would regard such earnings as yours as the income of a veritable Croesus.” (Protokoll des Berliner Parteitags, 1892, p.122.) August Bebel often underscored the change of mentality among the leaders once they have attained the living standard of the bureaucracy, of the officialdom, of the aristocrats of labor. At the Dresden convention of the party Bebel said that the majority of the party functionaries were people who considered the positions attained by them as, in some way, the culmination points of their careers.

The honest revisionists also openly pointed out the dangers threatening orthodox socialism from these quarters. None other than Wolfgang Heine wrote in connection with the case of the Reverend Goehre: “Here is revealed the inception of a danger which unfortunately relates to all public administrations, namely, that in place of genuine popular sovereignty, an omnipotence of committees develops.” (Wolfgang Heine Demokratische Randbemerkungen zum Fall Göhre, Sozialistische Monatshefte, VIII Jahrgang 1904, Vol.I, p.284.) Actually Germany has long known the phenomenon of a constantly greater number of functions, previously discharged by the electoral associations, i.e., by large organizational units, being turned over to much narrower committees. But for the leaders even that is too democratic. Even several of the leaders of the “radical” wing of the social democracy were of the opinion, before, that democratic procedure must not be extended too far. (See, for example, the article by Hans Block, Überspannung der Demokratie, Neue Zeit, Vol.XXVI, No.8, p.264. On the role of the bureaucracy in the German workers’ movement see also: Ed. Bernstein, Die Demokratie in der Sozialdemokratie, Sozialistische Monotshefte 1908, 18/19, l909.)

Bureaucracy and the Mass

In 1911 Robert Michels, a former member of the Social Democracy and today a “socialist” professor in Turin, published. a book under the title The Sociology of the Party Structure in Modern Democracies. His investigation is confined mainly to facts in the life of the German Social Democracy. The author has no uniform view of his own. He vacillates back and forth between vulgar reformism and quasi-revolutionary syndicalism. Many of his generalizations are often premature and cannot stand up even against feeble criticism. Thus, for instance, the author tends to hold the absolutely false conception that the emergence of a putrified upper bureaucratic stratum is an inevitable phenomenon in every democracy. The author believes, in his fatalism, that this phenomenon is inherent in the essence of democracy itself. But his observations, and the material which the author has collected, are of great interest.

Michels has graphically described the rule of the upper bureaucratic stratum over the entire mass of members and followers of the German Social Democracy in the following manner.






Attendance at membership meetings


Party members



The base of this pyramid is formed by the mass of four million social democratic voters. Then follows the still quite numerous stratum of party members, numbering close to a million. After that, those who attend the membership meetings, a considerably smaller number. Above them stands a small group of party functionaries and the top of the pyramid is constituted finally, by the narrow caste of the most important party functionaries – the committees. (Die Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersuchungen über die obligatorischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens, by Robert Michels, Leipzig 1911, p.53.)

Thus the powerful apparatus that exerts such a tremendous influence on the course of affairs in the German Social Democracy lands in the hands of the committees, i.e., stands uncontrollably at the disposal of an oligarchic group of a few thousand officials.


The well known Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek, who was active for a long time in the ranks of the German Social Democracy, has characterized the present situation of the party as follows:

“The German social democracy ... is a firmly established, gigantic organization, which exists almost as a state within the state, with its own officials, with its own finances, its own press; within a certain spiritual sphere of its own, with an ideology all its own ... The entire character of this organization is suited to the peaceful pre-imperialist epoch; the human agents of this character are the functionaries, the secretaries, the agitators, the parliamentarians, the theoreticians, form a caste of their own, a group with separate interests which dominates the organizations both materially and ideologically. It is no accident that all of them, with Kautsky at their head, wanted to have nothing to do with a real struggle against imperialism. Their whole interest in life is of a nature inimical to the new tactic, a tactic which endangers their existence as functionaries. Their quiet work in the offices and in the editorial chambers, in conferences and in councillor committee meetings, in the writing of erudite and not so erudite articles against the bourgeoisie and against one another – all this peacefully business-like activity is being threatened by the storms of the imperialist epoch ... The whole bureaucratically scholarly apparatus ... can only be saved by being removed outside the bounds of this boiling pot, outside of the revolutionary struggle, outside of the real the main stream of life (and consequently into the service of its own bourgeoisie – G.Z.). If the party and the leadership were to adopt the tactic of mass action, the state power would immediately swoop down upon the organizations – the basis of their entire existence and of all their activity in life – and perhaps destroy them, confiscate their treasuries, arrest the leaders, etc. Naturally, it would be an illusion to believe that the power of the proletariat can thus be broken: the organizational power of the workers resides not in the form of their corporative associations, but in the spirit of solidarity, in discipline, in unity; by these means the workers could create better forms of organization. But for the functionaries that would mean the end, for the particular organization form in their entire world, without which they could not exist or function. The urge toward self-preservation, the group interests of their craft, must of necessity force upon them the tactic of avoiding a struggle with, and of giving way to, imperialism.” (Anton Pannekoek, Der Imperialismus und die Aufgaben des Proletariats, in Vorbote, Internationale Marxistische Rundschau, January 1916.)

Of course, all this must not be over-simplified. Objectively, the labor bureaucracy – the so-called leaders – betrayed the cause of the workers in Germany on August 4th. And not only in Germany. But that must not be taken to mean that every one of these leaders said to himself at the decisive moment: I had better go over to the side of the bourgeoisie, else I am going to lose my bread and butter, my position in public life, etc. Not at all! Subjectively, many members of this caste are still convinced to this day that they have been acting exclusively in the interests of the working class, that their conduct was dictated by their better understanding of the proletarian interests. When we speak of the “treachery of the leaders” we do not means to say by this that it was all a deep-laid plot, that it was a consciously perpetrated sell-out of the workers’ interests. Far from it. But consciousness is conditioned by existence, not vice versa. The entire social essence of this caste of labor bureaucrats led inevitably, through the outmoded pace set for the movement in the “peaceful” pre-war period, to complete bourgeoisiefication of their “consciousness.” The entire position into which this numerically strong caste of leaders had climbed over the backs of the working class made of them a social group which objectively must be regarded as an agency of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

The Needs and Dangers of an Apparatus

In his dispute with the leader of the opportunists, von Vollmar, Bebel repeatedly pointed out that the social position of the former (von Vollmar belonged to the upper strata and was fabulously rich) prevented him from understanding the, griefs of the working class and therefore made him into an opportunist tending toward a nationalistic, liberal policy. Although this may not always be true in the case of an individiual person (an individual can raise himself above the milieu of his class, above his social group), it is absolutely true for the entire social stratum of the labor bureaucracy.

The rise of an entire, numerically strong stratum of labor bureaucrats – as well as the mass influx of electoral camp-followers – is, at one and the same time, a symptom of strength as well as of weakness in the labor movement. Of strength because it testifies to the numerical growth of the movement. An organization with only a few thousand members can get along without paid functionaries. When it begins to have hundreds of thousands and millions of members it necessarily needs a big and complex organizational apparatus. But the rise of this stratum becomes a symptom of weakness in the movement when the leaders of the workers’ organizations degenerate into officials in the worse sense of the word, when it begins to lack the broad proletarian impetus necessary to the given stage of development. Every people. so the saying goes, have the kind of government it deserves. This can be amplified by adding that every labor movement also has the kind of leadership it deserves.

At the time of the crisis on the eve of the war, the labor bureaucracy played the rôle of a reactionary factor. That is undoubtedly correct. But that does not mean that the labor movement will be able to get along in the future without a big organizational apparatus, without an entire stratum of people devoted especially to the service of the proletarian organization. We do not want to go back to the time when the labor movement was so weak that it could get along without its own employees and functionaries, but to go forward to the time in which the labor movement itself will be something different, in which the stormy movement of the proletariat will subordinate the stratum of functionaries to itself, in which routine will be destroyed. bureaucratic corrosion wiped out; which will bring new men to the surface, infuse them with fighting courage, fill them with a new spirit.

The corporation of the “leaders” has dealt a heavy blow to the cause of the workers. Not only those labor leaders who hail from the bourgeoisie but also those who hail from the working class, who were elected by the workers and who owe their positions to working class democracy. That is undoubtedly true. But that does not mean that the idea of democracy has therefore collapsed – as the German conservative, Delbrueck, seeks to prove, convinced as he is that the solution for all evils lies in the Prussian monarchist principle. That does not mean that the vacillations of the semi-reformist, semi-syndicalist, Robert Michels, are justified; he also tends to ascribe the entire collapse of the German social democracy to causes which are inherent in every organization built upon a democratic basis. The poisonous weed of labor bureaucracy grew on the soil of the “peaceful” epoch, not because of, but despite the democratic organization. Only opportunism – a form of expression corresponding to this epoch – and not the democratic organizational principle, has suffered bankruptcy. New times will come and we shall hear new songs. As soon as the masses themselves enter the historical arena they will put an end to the uncontrollable labor bureaucracy. The coming new epoch will bring forth a new generation of leaders and new forms of control on the part of the working masses over their deputies and plenipotentiaries.

The Opportunist Caste

We do not at all wish to contend that the entire crisis can be explained by the treachery of the leaders. The treachery of the leaders in itself can only be explained by more profound causes inherent in the epoch. But not everything can be unshouldered on this epoch. The fact of the betrayal by the leaders must not be passed over in silence. Treachery has been committed. It is necessary to call things by their name. It is our task not only to explain the causes of opportunism but also to combat opportunism. It is our duty not only to trace down the causes of the “treachery,” but also to unmask the traitors and to render them harmless. The betrayal by the official leaders of the German Social Democracy, the counter-revolutionary role of the party and trade union bureaucracy during the war, was so infamous that in the periodical of the people forming the Social Democratic “center,” in the Neue Zeit of 1916, may be found such lines as the following, the pen products of Kautsky’s co-thinker, the lately deceased Gustave Eckstein:

The leaders were constrained to remain radical in words, in order to hold the masses behind them. In actuality, however, they aimed in the immediate period to obtain petty reforms which, however, could not be gotten without great struggles. Out of habit the leaders developed an oracular smile: The organization became more and more of an end in itself, which ever more and more dislodged the thought of achieving the final goal from their heads and from their hearts.”

After two years of war the honest representatives of the “center” also had to admit that the present official organization of the German Social Democracy hart become a counter-revolutionary factor, that the leaders had become “oracles.” That is exactly what Rosa Luxemburg had said in her polemics against Kautsky as far back as 1912.

Robespierre in his time attempted to differentiate between representatives of the people (“représentants du peuple”) and plenipotentiaries of the people (“mandataires du peuple”). Representation of the people, according to his opinion, cannot be realized: “Will cannot be represented (la volonté ne peut se représenter).” Robespierre recognized only plenipotentiaries of the people. The plenipotentiaries of the people carry out the mandate given them by the people.

The caste of opportunist leaders of the labor movement still consists today, unfortunately, of formally recognized “representatives” of the working class. But in its essence this caste has become the tool of an enemy class. The members of this caste who formally possessed full power in the working class are in reality the emissaries of bourgeois society in the camp of the proletariat.


Until very recently the question of the labor aristocracy and its conservative role in the labor movement has been treated as a problem almost unique to the British labor movement. The epoch of the latest form of imperialism, the events in the labor movement of the entire world in connection with the Worid War, have posed this question on a much wider scale. It has become one of the most basic questions of the labor movement in general. The victory of opportunism and social chauvinism in Germany – and not in Germany alone – is intimately bound up with the victory of the narrow, corporate interests of the relatively small group of labor aristocrats over the genuine interests of the many millions strong laboring mass, which constitutes the working class.

For many years England was the Promised Land of bourgeois influence upon the proletariat and consequently the Promised Land of the opportunists. It has become commonplace in socialist literature to recognize this circumstance as being conditioned by the monopolistic position of England on the world market. The surplus profit which the British bourgeoisie has derived, thanks to this monopolistic position, has enabled it to bribe “its” workers and thereby to tear them loose from the socialist movement. But it would be false to believe that the magnanimity of the British capitalists was extended in equal measure to the entire working class. No, with these crumbs they bought off mainly the upper stratum of the working class – the labor aristocracy. That sufficed in order – under otherwise favorable conditions for the bourgeoisie – to demoralize the British labor movement.

Among the great masses of the unskilled proletariat undescribable poverty prevails even in England. Their condition has not been much better than the condition of their brothers in other countries. Even in the heyday of British capitalism there were in England considerable strata of unskilled workers who lived in circumstances not much better than those described by Frederick Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England.

In one of his well-known works, published in 1902 (Die soziale Revolution und Am Tage nach der sozialen Revolution), Kautsky deals with the economic conditions of the working class in England in the second half of the nineteenth century. He distinguishes clearly between the minority of the skilled, and the majority of the unskilled, workers. Kautsky analyzes the tables compiled by the bourgeois economist. E.L. Bowley, who contends that in the 30 years between 1860 and 1891 the wages of the British workers rose by 40 per cent (the reference is to nominal wages) and he comes to the conclusion that this 40 per cent rise in wages in. the period from 1860 to 1891, which Bowley assumes to hold true for the entire working class of England, does not even hold true for all the strata of the labor aristocracy. Kautsky contends that the author simply assumes that the average general condition of the working class improved to the same extent as the condition of the workers organized in the trade unions; the latter, however, do not constitute more than a fifth of all the workers. Kautsky proves that Bowley’s figures are greatly exaggerated, that even the wages of the excellently organized workers in the British iron industry rose only by 25 per cent in the period of time mentioned.

That is undoubtedly what really happened. The great mass of the unskilled workers led a lamentable existence. But the minority of the aristocrats of labor were bribed with small crumbs. Thus the bourgeoisie beheaded the movement of the British proletariat, so to speak. In England organized workers and skilled workers for a long time were synonymous. In the epoch of the old trade unionism the better situated skilled workers constituted the main mass of the trade union membership. But even in the epoch of the new trade unionism this state of affairs has remained the same by and large. The British trade unions still do not embrace more than a fifth of all the workers today. Many millions of women workers and of the most poorly paid unskilled workers are still unorganized, still outside the trade unions.

In 1902 Kautsky wrote, in characterizing the “upper strata of the British working class” (i.e., the labor aristocracy), that these workers are today hardly anything else but little bourgeois who differ from the others only by a somewhat greater lack of culture, and whose most exalted ideal consists in aping their masters, in imitating their hypocritical respectability, in admiring wealth no matter how attained, in their lifeless manner of killing time. The emancipation of their class is only a foolhardy dream in so far as they are concerned. On the other hand, football, boxing, horse racing, wagering of all sorts are matters which stir them profoundly and occupy all their free time, all their mental powers, all their material means (Kautsky: Die soziale Revolution, Berlin 1907, p.63).

The Many Forms of Bribery

These “little bourgeois” – the labor aristocracy – served the big bourgeoisie as the best means of introducing bourgeois ideas into the laboring mass. By throwing down to these “little bourgeois” a few crumbs from their richly decked imperialist table, the big bourgeoisie made of them faithful watchdogs of the capitalist system. With the aid of a thin golden thread it bound them firmly to the bandwagon of imperialism, made them into agents of the bourgeoisie, destined to demoralize systematically the labor movement and to inculcate it with the virus of opportunism. The “little bourgeois” became the most reliable advance guards of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the camp of the working class.

When Kautsky speaks of the bourgeois “respectability” of these “little bourgeois,” he is only continuing in the tradition of Marx and Engels. Both of the founders of scientific socialism, who lived in England for a long time and therefore had the opportunity of acquainting themselves at first hand with the reactionary role of the labor aristocrats, advised their disciples continually to make just such an evaluation of the “little bourgeois” as we have found in Kautsky’s passage above.

“What is most repulsive here (in England) is that bourgeois ‘respectability’ which has grown deep into the skin of the workers. Socially, the dissection of society into innumerable, indisputably recognized gradations, of which each has its own pride but also its own innate respect before its ‘betters’ and ‘superiors’ is so time-honored and firmly established that the bourgeois still make use of all this as easy bait. I am by no means certain that John Burns, for instance, is not much prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor, and the bourgeoisie in general, than of his popularity with his own class. Champion – an ex-lieutenant – years ago rubbed shoulders with the conservative element, preached socialism at a parish church congress, etc. And even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of them, likes to tell people that he is going to lunch with the Lord Mayor.”

This is what Fredrick Engels wrote as far back as 1889. (Briefe und Auszüge aus Briefen von J.P. Becher, Jos. Dietzgen, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, u.a. an F.A. Sorge, etc., p.324.)

Even earlier, in 1883, Engels wrote in a letter to Kautsky, which is devoted especially to the question of the attitude of the British workers toward colonial policy, as follows:

“You asked me what the British worker thinks of colonial policy? Well, just about what he thinks of politics in general. There is no ‘workers’ party here. There are only conservatives and liberal radicals, and the workers partake light-heartedly of their share in England’s monopoly on the world market and in the colonies.”

Here we see a direct indication of the fact that the bourgeoisie bribes the workers by leaving them little tidbits from among the multitude of benefits which the British monopoly on the world market and in the colonies nets them. (K. Kautsky: Sozialismus und Kolonialpolitik, 1907, p.79.) In 1877 Marx speaks of the “shameful trade union congress at Leicester .… where the bourgeois played the patron saints, among them a certain Mr. Th. Brassey, a multimillionaire ... and the son of the notorious Brassey of the railroads, whose ‘enterprise’ is Europe and Asia.” (Briefe an Sorge, p.156.)

In 1893 Engels upbraids the “socialist” Fabians in the following words:

“The Fabians here in London are a brand of careerists, who have sufficient sense to be able to foresee the inevitability of the social upheaval, but who nevertheless find it impossible to entrust this gigantic work to the raw proletariat and are therefore disposed to place themselves at its head. Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle ... their tactic: not to combat the liberals resolutely as opponents but to impel them forward to socialist conclusions; ergo, to maneuver with them, to permeate liberalism with socialism ... These people naturally have a large bourgeois following and therefore, money …. It is a critical period for the movement here ... For a moment it was close to landing .... under Champion’s wings ... the latter works, consciously or unconsciously, just as much for the Tories, as the Fabians do for the Liberals. But ... socialism has penetrated the masses in the industrial regions enormously of late, and I count upon the masses holding their leaders in check.”

These were the views of Marx and Engels on the “little bourgeois,” the labor aristocracy. They stigmatized the anti-revolutionary position of these strata unsparingly, whether it expressed itself in the policies of trade unionism or in the socialist organization of the Fabians. From every word uttered by Marx and Engels on this question, it is clearly evident how fatal for the cause of the workers, how disastrous for the socialist struggle of the proletariat, they considered the specific point of view of the labor aristocracy.

Bureaucracy as a World Phenomenon

Marx and Engels derived their generalizations regarding the role of the labor bureaucracy mainly from their observations of the process of development of the working class in England. It was in England, moreover, that Marx made his studies of capitalism in general. In his Capital, also, Marx cites above all else, from the experiences of British capitalism. But a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then. The conservative role of the labor aristocracy may be observed today, not only in England, but in a large number of other countries. Let us take Holland, for example. Here is a small country that does not dream today of dominating the world market. But in this country there is a bourgeoisie bursting with wealth, whose few remnants of past colonial grandeur still bring it annually a golden shower of irrationally big profits. Of these unheard-of profits of the Dutch imperialist bourgeoisie, only the “upper” strata of the workers enjoy a crumb or two, but that suffices to constitute them into a labor aristocracy, which becomes, in turn, a conservative, counter-revolutionary element.

And in America? Do we not witness the spectacle there of a tiny group of labor aristocrats rising on the backs of a millions – strong mass of oppressed workers – particularly of immigrants and Negroes – and bought out and nurtured by the financial oligarchy? Are not Gompers and Co. agents of the bourgeoisie in the circles of the “aristocrats of labor,” and are not the latter, in turn, agents of Gompers in the camp of the working class? On the one hand, workers are shot down in the course of purely economic strikes; on the other, Gompers and the other “stainless knights of labor” are decorated with ever greater honors, almost with titular decorations.

Or in Australia. The social-liberals treasure Australia as the Promised Land, in which a coal miner can become a minister. But what has actually happened? Here too, a small parasitic band of labor leaders – the Messrs. Fisher, Hughes and Co. – rise upon the shoulders of the oppressed mass of unskilled workers and brought to the surface by a little group of labor aristocrats, are betraying the interests of the working class with a cynicism unprecedented in history. The crisis created by the outbreak of the World War has thrown a particularly strong light upon this despicable treachery of the “labor leaders.”

This self-same sort of bribery took place among the “upper strata” of the workers in Germany as well. Under different conditions, in a somewhat different form, it ran its course in the land of the “classic Social Democracy.” But the historic sense of the transformation undergone by the heads of the German working class, in the persons of the leaders of their trade unions and of their so-called social democratic party, is the same. There is no serious difference between Legien, Gompers, Fisher and Henderson. Legien is not a Minister as yet, but for reasons entirely independent of his own person. In the period immediately ahead of us he may not get any further than the ministerial antechamber. The Prussian Junkers will continue to extend only one finger at a time to him. But he is, nevertheless, only a “labor lieutenant of the capitalist class.” And not only Legien, but naturally also Scheidemann and Suedekum, as well as all their carbon copies, whose manner of speech, alone, differs from the former’s ...


The process of the transition of the German labor aristocracy to the side of the bourgeoisie naturally did not begin yesterday. The corruption of the labor aristocracy began with the entrance of German imperialism into the world arena. The more far-sighted of the ideologists of the German bourgeoisie have given (and still give) an excellent account of this social phenomenon, so all-important for the bourgeoisie. Professor Schmoller tells us that the German bourgeoisie had made peaceful overtures to the “fatherlandish labor movement” as far back as the beginning of the nineties. The Social Democracy, he says, did not, however, take the extended hand at once. “Only a wise politician like Herr von Vollmar was ready at that time to make the turn and thus to lend an impulse to revisionism.” (Schmollers Jahrbuch, 1915. Vol.3: Der Weltkrieg und die deutsche Sozialdemokratie, by G. Schmoller.)

It was not the social democrats alone who did not want to make peace, however, The extremists among the ruling classes, the Junkers, the bitterest reactionaries, also resisted. They saw in the German Social Democracy a revolutionary danger and relied more and more on exterminating it by means of reprisals. The voices of the more sensible bourgeois were drowned out by the howls of the reactionaries. “The voices of the non-partisans, who .... denied .... the alleged danger of revolution .... were not given a hearing.” Professor Schmoller today complains against the irreconcilables.

In any case, the conflict inside of the ruling classes has now been settled. There isn’t a single Purishkevitch (notorious reactionary deputy in the Russian Duma – trans.) in Germany today who doesn’t understand that it is necessary to make certain “concessions” to well-meaning workers. The danger of revolution has proved to be an “alleged” danger. The system of “bribery” has withstood the test brilliantly.

Speaking in retrospect, the well known bourgeois professor, Dr. Herkner, the author of Labor Problems, writes:

“Only in the course of the last ten to fifteen years, views have gradually come forward, in the columns of the revisionist Sozialistische Monatshefte, to be precise, which herald a distinct return to more forceful nationalistic political ideas . Considerable strata of labor have achieved such a remarkable improvement in their social conditions and have found the advantages accruing also to them, due to the powerful boom in German economic life, of such immediate promise, that they themselves have displayed a most intense interest in this boom. The old slogans of internationalism, such as that the workers had no fatherland or that they had nothing to lose but their chains, are no longer taken seriously by even the most rabid of the comrades.” (Dr. Heinrich Herkner, Sozialdemokratie and Auslandspolitik, Preussische Jahrbücher, September, 1915, p.397.)

However, this question has been dealt with in similar fashion by the most influential representatives of German imperialism, not only at the present time, after 1914, but long before the war. In the very scholarly work of the prominent German conservative, Freiherr von Walterhausen, devoted to the question of capital exports, a number of pages deal especially with the problem of the extent to which workers are “interested” in the imperialism of their country. “Both capital and labor are equally concerned about territorial and maritime defenses,” writes this erudite Freiherr, “... the laboring population is, moreover, participating directly in the dividends derived. In so far as that serves for the consumption of those benefiting therefrom, it brings about a substantial demand for goods and services on the internal market and thus helps raise the wages of workers and servants. If the dividends accrue to the domestic enterprises in the form of a greater accumulation of capital, then the latter also experience the need to employ more labor power.” (A. Sartorius, Freiherr v. Walterhausen: Das volkwirtschaftliche System der Kapitalanlage in Auslande, p.439.) These few words – although the expressions used are rather unusual – contain the entire theory of social chauvinism.

Regarding the situation in England, Sartorius von Walterhausen writes as follows:

“The immense national wealth accumulated in England in the course of the last century has become – although industry itself has retrogressed – a protection for the class of skilled workers.”

And he quotes Schulze-Gaevernitz approvingly:

“The skilled and well-paid force of British heavy industry has realized today that the high standard of living it has achieved with such difficulty, stands and falls with England’s political power.”

This is plain talk. The British imperialists bribe a part of their labor aristocracy. We, the German imperialists, must also learn to buyout “our” labor aristocracy. The learned representative of German Junkerdom sees very clearly the connection between “labor” opportunism and “labor” imperialism, between imperialist victories and the transition of the labor aristocracy to the side of the bourgeoisie. Regarding England, he maintains that no social democracy could arise there as long as the British imperialists had the means of bribing their workers. The example of Germany proves, however, that this is not entirely correct: a social democracy can exist also under such conditions; not a revolutionary, but rather a counter-revolutionary social democracy a la Suedekum. There is one more thing that Mr. Sartorius von Walterhausen has forgotten; namely, that a genuine social democracy aims to be, not the party of the labor aristocracy, but rather the party of the working class as a whole. He has overlooked the fact that the skilled and better-paid workers form only a minority of the working class – a minority which, when it goes over to the side of the imperialists at the critical moment, can deal the socialist movement quite a blow, to be sure, but never uproot it.


Hartenstein, Switzerland
August 4, 1916.

Last updated: 17.6.2008