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The New International, January 1943

Rosa Luxemburg

Archives of the Revolution

The Program of the Spartacists

(December 1918)


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 1, January 1943, pp. 28–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The German internationalists organized under the banner of Spartacus met for the first time openly a few weeks after the overturn of the Hohenzollern dynasty. At their Berlin Congress, on December 30, 1918, called to found the Communist Party of Germany, it was only natural that their gifted leader and theoretician, Rosa Luxemburg, should deliver the programmatic address. In this magnificent outline of the problems of the revolutionary movement in Germany and the Marxian method of solving them, Luxemburg showed her truly great stature as a leader of the militant proletariat. In the light of what was great and durable in her views, the errors in judgment, and even the mistakes in theory that she made, cast very small shadows. Still smaller are the shadows of 99 per cent of the little puppies that have always, down to our own day, snarled at her heels, because they could reach no higher from the ground. We are proud to present it to our readers – to most of them we are sure for the first time – on the anniversary of the abominable murder of Rosa and her comrade, Liebknecht, which followed this address by only a few days. The translation is from the pen of Eden and Cedar Paul. – Editor

I – Back to the Communist Manifesto

Comrades! Our task today is to discuss and adopt a program. In undertaking this task we are not actuated solely by the consideration that yesterday we founded a new party and that a new party must formulate a program. Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist program of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago. As you all know, the Communist Manifesto dealt with socialism, with the realization of the aims of socialism, as the immediate task of the proletarian revolution. This was the idea represented by Marx and Engels in the revolution of 1848; it was thus, likewise, that they conceived the basis for proletarian action in the international field. In common with all the leading spirits in the working class movement, both Marx and Engels then believed that the immediate introduction of socialism was at hand. All that was necessary was to bring about a political revolution, to seize the political power of the state, and socialism would then immediately pass from the realm of thought to the realm of flesh and blood. Subsequently, as you are aware, Marx and Engels undertook a thoroughgoing revision of this outlook. In the joint preface to the re-issue of the Communist Manifesto in the year 1872, we find the following passage:

No special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section two. That passage would, in many respects, be differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of modern industry during the last twenty-five years and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the “working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

What is the actual wording of the passage thus declared to be out of date? It runs as follows:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy: to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie; to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state., i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.

The measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all land rents to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of the right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state: the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally, in accordance with a concerted plan.
  8. Equal obligation upon all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Coordination of agriculture with manufacturing industries: gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population throughout the rural areas.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc.

With a few trifling variations, these, as you know, are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above program was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint which Marx and Engels had in 1872 abandoned as erroneous. At that time there were excellent reasons for believing that their earlier views had been wrong. The further evolution of capital has, however, resulted in this, that what was error in 1872 has become truth today, so that it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition of the socialist labor movement. Above all, there have intervened the aforesaid developments in Germany as the leading land of the modern proletariat. This working class evolution has taken a peculiar form. When, after the disillusionment! of 1848, Marx and Engels had given up the idea that the proletariat could immediately realize socialism, there came into existence in all countries socialist parties inspired with very different aims. The immediate objective of these parties was declared to be detail work, the petty daily struggle in the political and industrial fields. Thus, by degrees, would proletarian armies be formed, and these armies would be ready to realize socialism when capitalist development had matured. The socialist program was thereby established upon an utterly different foundation, and in Germany the change took a peculiarly typical form. Down to the collapse of August 4, 1914, the German social democracy took its stand upon the Erfurt program, and by this program the so-called immediate minimal aims were placed in the foreground, whilst socialism was no more than a distant guiding star. Far more important, however, than what is written in a program is the way in which that program is interpreted in action. From this point of view, great importance must be attached to one of the historical documents of the German labor movement, to the preface written by Fredrick Engels for the 1895 re-issue of Marx’s Class Struggles in France. It is not merely upon historical grounds that I now reopen this question. The matter is one of extreme actuality. It has become our urgent duty today to replace our program upon the foundation laid by Marx and Engels in 1848. In view of the changes effected since then by the historical process of development, it is incumbent upon us to undertake a deliberate revision of the views that guided the German social democracy down to the collapse of August 4th. Upon such a revision we are officially engaged today.

How did Engels envisage the question in that celebrated preface to the Class Struggles in France, composed by him in 1895, twelve years after the death of Marx? First of all, looking back upon the year 1848, he showed that the belief that the socialist revolution was imminent had become obsolete. He continued as follows:

History has shown that we were all mistaken in holding such a belief. It has shown that the state of economic evolution upon the Continent was then far from being ripe for the abolition of capitalist production. This has been proved by the economic revolution which since 1848 has taken place all over the continent. Large-scale industry has been established in France, Austria-Hungary, Poland and, of late, Russia. Germany has become a manufacturing country of first rank. All these changes have taken place upon a capitalist foundation, a foundation which in the year 1848 [1] still had to undergo an enormous extension.

After summing up the changes which had occurred in the intervening period, Engels turned to consider the immediate tasks of the German Social-Democratic Party.

As Marx had predicted [he wrote], the war of 1870–71 and the fall of the Commune shifted the center of gravity of the European labor movement from France to Germany. Many years had naturally to elapse ere France could recover from the blood-letting of May 1871. In Germany, on the other hand, manufacturing industry was developing by leaps and bounds, in the forcing-house atmosphere produced by the influx of the French billions. Even more rapid and more enduring was the growth of social democracy. Thanks to the agreement in virtue of which the German workers have been able to avail themselves of the universal [male] suffrage introduced in 1866, the astounding growth of the party has been demonstrated to all the world by the testimony of figures whose significance no one can deny.

Thereupon followed the famous enumeration, showing the growth of the party vote in election after election until the figures swelled to millions. From this progress Engels drew the following conclusion:

The successful employment of the parliamentary vote entailed the acceptance of an entirely new tactic by the proletariat and this new method has undergone rapid development. It has been realized that the political institutions in which the dominion of the bourgeoisie is incorporated offer a fulcrum whereby the proletariat can work for the overthrow of these very political institutions. The social democrats have participated in the elections to the various diets, to municipal councils, and to industrial courts. Wherever the proletariat could secure an effective voice the occupation of these electoral strongholds by the bourgeoisie has been contested. Consequently, the bourgeoisie and the government have become much more alarmed at the constitutional than at the unconstitutional activities of the workers, dreading the results of elections far more than they dread the results of of rebellion.

Engels appends a detailed criticism of the illusion that under modern capitalist conditions the proletariat can possibly expect to effect anything for the revolution by street fighting. It seems to me, however, that today we are in the midst of a revolution, a revolution characterized by street fighting and all that entails, that it is time to shake ourselves free of the views which have guided the official policy of the German social democracy down to our own day, of the views which share responsibility for what happened on August 4, 1914. [Hear! Hear!]

I do not mean to imply that, on account of these utterances, Engels must share personal responsibility for the whole course of socialist evolution Germany. I merely draw your attention to one of the classical pieces of evidence of the opinions prevailing in the German social democracy – opinions which proved fatal to the movement. In this preface Engels demonstrated, as an expert in military science, that it was a pure illusion to believe that the workers could, in the existing state of military technique and of industry, and in view of the characteristics of the great towns of today, successfully bring about a revolution by street fighting. Two important conclusions were drawn from this reasoning. In the first place, the parliamentary struggle was counterposed to direct revolutionary action by the proletariat, and the former was indicated as the only practical way of carrying on the class struggle. Parliamentarism, and nothing but parliamentarism, was the logical sequel of this criticism. Secondly, the whole military machine, the most powerful organization in the class state, the entire body of proletarians in military uniform, was declared on a priori grounds to be absolutely inaccessible to socialist influence. When Engels’ preface declares that, owing to the modern development of gigantic armies, it is positively insane to suppose that proletarians can ever stand up against soldiers armed with machine guns and equipped with all the other latest technical devices, the assertion is obviously based upon the assumption that anyone who becomes a soldier becomes thereby once and for all one of the props of the ruling class. It would be absolutely incomprehensible, in the light of contemporary experience, that so noted a leader as Engels could have committed such a blunder did we not know the circumstances in which this historical document was composed. For the credit of our two great masters, and especially for the credit of Engels, who died twelve years later than Marx, and was always a faithful champion of his great collaborator’s theories and reputation, I must remind you of the well-known fact that the preface in question was written by Engels under strong pressure on the part of the parliamentary group. At that date in Germany, during the early ’nineties after the anti-socialist law had been annulled, there was a strong movement toward the left, the movement of those who wished to save the party from becoming completely absorbed in the parliamentary struggle. Bebel and his associates wished for convincing arguments, backed up by Engels’ great authority; they wished for an utterance which would help them to keep a tight hand upon the revolutionary elements. It was characteristic of party conditions at the time that the socialist parliamentarians should have the decisive word alike in theory and in practice. They assured Engels, who lived abroad and naturally accepted the assurance at its face value, that it was absolutely essential to safeguard the German labor movement from a lapse into anarchism, and in this way they constrained him to write in the tone they wished. [2] Thenceforward the tactics expounded by Engels in 1895 guided the German social democrats in everything they did and in everything they left undone, down to the appropriate finish of August 4, 1914. The preface was the formal proclamation of the nothing-but-parliamentarism tactic.

Engels died the same year and had, therefore, no opportunity for studying the practical consequences of his theory. Those who know the works of Marx and Engels, those who are familiarly acquainted with the genuinely revolutionary spirit that inspired all their teachings and all their writings, will feel positively certain that Engels would have been one of the first to protest against the debauch of parliamentarism, against the frittering away of the energies of the labor movement, which was characteristic of Germany during the decades before the war. The fourth of August did not come like thunder out of a clear sky; what happened on the fourth of August was not a chance turn of affairs, but was the logical outcome of all that the German socialists had been doing day after day for many years. [Hear! Hear!] Engels and Marx, had it been possible for them to live on into our own time, would, I am convinced, have protested with the utmost energy, and would have used all the forces at their disposal to keep the party from hurling itself into the abyss. But after Engels’ death in 1895, in the theoretical field the leadership of the party passed into the hands of Kautsky. The upshot of this change was that at every annual congress the energetic protests of the left wing against a purely parliamentarist policy, its urgent warnings against the sterility and the danger of such a policy, were stigmatized as anarchism, anarchizing socialism, or at least anti-Marxism. What passed officially for Marxism became a cloak for all possible kinds of opportunism, for persistent shirking of the revolutionary class struggle, for every conceivable half-measure. Thus the German social democracy, and the labor movement, the trade union movement as well, were condemned to pine away within the framework of capitalist society. No longer did German socialists and trade unionists make any serious attempt to overthrow capitalist institutions or put the capitalist machine out of gear.

(To be continued)

Notes by ETOL

1. In the printed version “1948”, which is obviously incorrect.

2. Luxemburg was unaware that Engels’ preface had been drastically edited and distorted by the executive of the SPD. Engels protested vehemently against this distortion of his views but died shortly afterwards and the published version became the official testament of Engels’ views on insurrection. However, even a glance at Engels’ unedited version reveals that his apparent rejection of insurrectionary tactics was merely a reflection on the necessary tactical response to the development of modern weaponry and the inadvisability of simply throwing up barricades and defending them as had been done in revolutionary upheavals up to the time of the Paris Commune.

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