Gustav Eckstein in the "Neue Zeit"

Democratic and Syndicalist Illusions

Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 1., No. 4. April, 1912, pp.178-184, (words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
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II.— (Continued).

Democracy awakens the illusion that all the citizens of the State have indeed equal rights, and that, therefore, it is impossible for a minority to tyrannise over a majority. If this does, in ex­ceptional cases, happen, it must be the fault of the majority them­selves, they must have neglected their own interests. It is only a question of getting the right men in sufficient numbers on to the representative bodies, especially into Parliament, and that they, when there, should do the right thing, especially that they should only demand that which is in the interest of the majority of the people, and which the people will, therefore, support. Thus voting becomes not only the central point of all political life, it becomes the paramount interest; and from the point of view of bourgeois demo­cracy, for whom the law is the result and expression of the popular will, and at the same time the determining force in social and political life, this conception is only consistent. But its instability shows itself more and more distinctly.

In the first place the fact is often overlooked that in the great democratic republics of to-day the legislation does not depend alone upon the Parliamentary bodies which are elected by general and direct suffrage, and therefore alone have the right to be looked upon as representatives of the popular will. That which is done in France by the Senate is in America the business of the Supreme Court. These cleverly-contrived institutions make it possible for the bourgeois parties who, are, respectively in Congress and in the Chamber, dependent on the “will of the people,” to make a show of the most popular and radical policy, to decide upon the most popular laws, without fear of having to be responsible for the results. The wicked Senate, and the Supreme Court, which arbitrarily steps in, they alone bear the blame for the rejection of all the well-meant popular measures, and the struggle against these odious institutions gives the “people’s parties” a new glamour, increases their popularity. Further, the bourgeois-demo­cratic conception overlooks the fact that just the most important, the fundamental political rights are surrounded with legal guarantees which make their alteration by legislative means an impossibility. But even more important is this: that not only have the ruling classes made all the existing laws to serve their own interests, but have also adapted the rules for their alteration to the needs of their own class rule. And they still hold the control of the legislature in their grasp, and can thus at any time change these rules in a legal manner, close the road to their opponents, and make it more difficult for those who refuse to do their will.

But even should the Opposition succeed in attaining a majority in Parliament and in forming the political laws according to their own needs, what would they have gained? The State-force is an entirely different thing to-day from what it was in pre-capitalist times. The gigantic growth of the armies and navies has not only given a colossal military power into the hands of the Governments, on which Parliament, even in “democratic” Republics, has prac­tically no influence, but it has also given the Governments an excessive economic power, which is further strengthened by their control over the most important means of transit: the railways, telegraphs, telephones, over the post, which to-day is also every­where a powerful banking institution, over the mines, arsenals, docks, etc. But not only has the Government by this means at its disposal whole armies of proletarian and officials who are quite at its mercy, but, by granting concessions, by favouritism, in the bestowal of offices, by making use of the financial means at its disposal, for which has been found in high tariffs a very prolific source, free from the changing Party combinations, it creates a widely spread net of dependencies, which, whether “ordained by God” or not, are incomparably more secure than the bands of feudalism ever were. These make the Governments more and more independent of Parliament, making them indeed, and the cliques from which they come, almost absolute lords. And really the struggle of the bourgeois Parties in Parliaments of those States where capitalism is highly developed is no longer directed towards the conquest of political power, but towards gaining the highest possible post in the Government. What is it which to-day still divides the politics of the great bourgeois political Parties? Is it difference of principle? Their differences are ridiculously superficial. Or class antagonisms? These were generally a de­termining factor in the formation of the parties, and have stamped their character upon them, and even to-day they are the most weighty determining factors in the party policy; but their charac­ter has changed; now all the class antagonisms of the bourgeois world are sunk in the general antagonism to the proletariat. At Parliamentary elections the sharpness of the division does not yet show itself completely, as the Parliamentary struggles do not centre round purely class questions, and the representatives of the prole­tariat often have to assist in the conquest of rights which are not demanded by their class alone. But in the struggles for the purely class demands of the proletariat, thus first and foremast is the trade union struggles, the only sharply defined line of demarcation is between the proletariat and the united bourgeoisie. The struggle of the bourgeois parties is no longer directed towards getting hold of the reins of government, but to the question out of what classes and circles the officials shall be chosen, what interests the taxation and commercial policy shall serve, who shall be patronised in ordering army supplies, etc. The expression, “the one reactionary mass”, is now coming true; for, as Hilfer­ding says:—[1]

“Through the separation of ownership from the function of the management of production, as seen in the joint-stock com­panies, there arises the possibility, and, with the rise in the rent of land on the one hand, and the rise in industrial extra profits on the other, the actual realisation of a solidarity of the propertied interests.

“The same interests (as expressed in antagonism to the demands of the proletariat) ensure to the middle class the support also of the landed class, and so the old antagonism between bour­geoisie and petty bourgeoisie is disappearing, and the latter is becoming a political bodyguard for large capital.”

But it is not only the mutual need of protection by the State-force, nor the more or less clear-consciousness of the impossibility of getting real power over the Government by means of the Parlia­mentary struggle and bargaining, that causes the bourgeois parties to give up the struggle for power in Parliament. Not only is Parliament becoming weaker as the Government becomes stronger, but the upper bourgeoisie to-day no longer needs Parliament in order to control the Government. For it is just the enormous extension of the field for the economic power of the State that has again made the latter dependent upon the powers which exercise almost sovereign control over the economic operations — that is, upon the largest combinations of employers and upon the large banks. Their power is much greater in all modern States to-day than that of the Parliaments. In so far as class antagonisms are still manifest in the latter, they do not express themselves so much in struggling for the control of the Government force as for its favour.

For this reason the conquest of political power in Parliament would not by a long way mean the actual control of the Government force. But even the complete control over the legislative machinery would not by any means suffice, say, to satisfy the needs of the proletariat. For the dependence under which the proletariat labours is not so much political as economic. The laws of property do not permit themselves to be decreed away, nor can the wage system be abolished by a Ukase or convention, if the economic conditions are not yet ripe for such a revolution, if the proletariat has not yet attained the economic and social influence and independence to be able itself to take over the carrying-on of production, and that at an advanced stage of development. The Communist rising in Paris was doomed to failure even if it had not been choked in blood by the Versaillese.

Thus political life itself has shown how deceptive are the bourgeois-democratic illusions. But it is precisely in the “demo­cratic” Republics that large sections of our Party incline towards these illusions, thereby calling forth a violent opposition, which wishes to reject political action altogether, and which sees in trade union action alone the means of conquering the capitalist-State, and converting it into a Socialist Commonwealth. This is Syndicalism.


Syndicalism originally arose from the circumstances in France, for there the two fundamental conditions to which it owes its growth are most strongly marked and most united. The existence of democratic illusions among the workers, and the weakness of the trade union movement. The more evident the decrepitude of this bourgeois-democratic self-deception becomes, and the stronger the power of the employing class over the trade unions, the more certain is Syndicalism to follow on opportunism as closely as its shadow. The English Labour Party and the English trade unions will now have to show whether they are equal to the situation, whether they are in a position to extend their framework sufficiently for it to contain the tremendous movement that is now agitating the economic and political life of England. If they adhere to their policy of conciliation, of coming peaceably to an understanding with the employing class, they will be paving the way for the pro­paganda of a Tom Mann, and then Syndicalism in England will extend rapidly in every direction, as it is already doing in America, where it has already for the most part drawn the Industrial Workers of the World into its magic circle, and seems also to be gaining ground in the Socialist Party.

Syndicalism is directed sharply against the democratic illusion; but its criticism does not penetrate beneath the surface. To the Syndicalist the political struggle appears only in the form of the Parliamentary machinery, and he regards that as the incorporation of political action, takes the electoral struggle for the whole poli­tical struggle. And because “intellectuals” are often the political leaders of the Socialist Parties, he puts down these Parties them­selves as bourgeois, or takes the forms in which opportunism shows itself in the Party to be intrinsically bound up with all political action. It was because the French Parliamentarians for a long time held the view that they were only responsible for their votes in the Chamber to their electors and not to the Party, and because the Party organisations were not strong enough to be able to bring their Parliamentary representatives to reason, that the Syndicalists declared the Parliamentarians to be nothing but repre­sentatives of the medley of voters and not of the proletariat, and they could not but be strengthened in this opinion by the eternal compromising, and the great eagerness with which the deputies raised and pushed to the front demands which had very little to do with the class struggle.

To the teaching that the law is the expression of the will of the people the Syndicalists oppose the principle of the class-struggle. But this, according to their conception, cannot be fought out on the political field nor with political weapons, but only on the economic field and with economic weapons. But the trade union struggle is always carried on directly against individual employers or against free combinations of employers, not against the employing class as such, nor against the bourgeois order of society. If the latter is to be overthrown, the struggle must not be limited to certain undertakings, nor even to certain industries, it must become general. The idea of the general strike, not as a means of exercising pressure against a Government, but as a means of breaking up bourgeois society, is the natural result of the Syndicalist train of thought.

But now the trade union movement in its struggles is con­tinually coming into conflict with the State-force, which takes the part of the employers, and assists them with its enormous resources. Syndicalism, therefore, turns with special bitterness against the State, but not as the expression and tool of class-rule, but against the State as such, against the “government of man by man,” which they repudiate in the name of the general inde­pendence and freedom. The State as such is, therefore, the principal enemy to be fought against. But Syndicalism expects nothing from the political struggle; that is at best a very subordi­nate auxiliary to trade union action. Not by means of Parlia­mentary or other representatives can the great struggle be fought out, they would only adulterate it; but directly, through the workers themselves, by “direct action.” The latter has to oppose itself to everything that is bourgeois, and, above all, to everything connected with the State. But how can the worker make a direct attack on the State? By setting himself in opposi­tion to its laws, by breaking and disrespecting them. In this way Syndicalism comes, quite logically, to a glorification of illegality, as mistaken as the glorification of legality on the part of the opportunists.


To the Social-Democracy, as the Party of the revolutionary class-struggle, the Syndicalist conception would appear to lie nearer at any rate than that of opportunism, and it is thus com­prehensible that so many of our American comrades have come out on the side of Haywood’s very syndicalistically coloured ex­pressions of opinion. With them, however, and surely especially for comrade Haywood himself, the very natural feeling played a great part, to which Joseph Dietzgen gave expression in a similar situation, when he, at the time when the waves of the struggle in Chicago were highest, in April, 1886, actively took the part of the persecuted Anarchists, and wrote to his friend Sorge “If the one lot (the Anarchists) have mad barbarians among them, the others (the Socialists) are, on the other hand, well provided with timid persons. For that reason I like one lot as well as the other.”

But feelings must not obscure our judgment. It is certain that the Social-Democracy as the party of the class-struggle, which is out to conquer the State-Power in order to use it for the liberation of the proletariat, has no holy reverence for the laws which regulate and protect bourgeois property, nor does it believe that this order of property can be abolished from the world by merely exercising the vote. But in the contention which turns around Haywood’s speech and pamphlet, it is a very different matter; the decisive question here is not as to whether we aspire to a violent change in the present laws, but whether in order to reach this goal we consider illegal actions, infractions of the bourgeois rights of pro­perty by individuals, to be useful and to the point. That mass-actions cannot, and should not, always adhere strictly to every­thing that masquerades under the name of law goes without say­ing; but that is not the point here. That round which the contention turns in America to-day is not a question of concerted mass-action, but of the act of individuals. Now, according to our conception, the existing laws always correspond, on the whole, to the amount of power in the hands of the struggling classes. The proletariat, which is growing in strength, forces from the bourgeoisie a number of reforms. The longer this struggle lasts the hotter it becomes, the more obstinately the combatants fight for each inch of ground, to protect what they have already acquired, and to advance step by step. And then we are asked to believe that the action of the individual leads more quickly to the goal than the obstinate fight of the organised mass. How can such a conception ever have arisen?

Where the political and economic associations of the proletariat are on a solid basis and well organised, where they are filled with class-consciousness, there is no room for Syndicalism. There neither its doctrine of the fruitlessness of the political struggle, nor its recommendation of violent action by individuals, will find an echo. Those ideas only flourish on the soil of a weak organisation. Where Socialist policy arises without self-consciousness, where it permits itself to be controlled by passing incidents and circumstances, and especially where the trade unions are too weak to oppose a consolidated body to the employing class, despair of the power of organisation is bound to creep in. The active, energetic individual comes to believe that he is only hindered by the great mass, and could attain more by acting independently.

But whatever one may call these militant tactics of despair — propaganda by deed, violent sabotage, expropriation, or what not — it is always poison for the organisation. For the latter seems then to be valueless, as it is the active small minorities on whom the result of the struggle depends. But besides this, such tactics bring elements into the movement which are bound to wreck any organisation. On the one hand there are the agents-provocateurs, and their entrance soon causes paralysing fear and mutual distrust. On the other hand these tactics attract the unsocial elements who break the bourgeois laws, not in order to serve the proletarian cause, but merely to cover their own crimes in a revolutionary mantle. If the revolutionist becomes a robber, the robber pro­claims himself to be a revolutionist.

While the Terrorist in this way weakens the ranks of his own comrades, he strengthens those of his enemy. His deeds not only unite them in defensive action, but actually drive them by their brutal force to take refuge behind police and military absolutism. And the rule of brute force must always be injurious to the proletariat as long as it is the weaker party. And as soon as it becomes the stronger, it no longer needs these violent deeds on the part of individuals, for it then organises and advances for the great decisive struggle, and if it is obliged to make use of force in carrying out that struggle, then possibly deeds of violence by indi­viduals and against individuals may be unavoidable. These will then be the inevitable accompanying phenomena of the great struggle, not its substitutes.

It is true that terrorist actions on the part of individuals are not only comprehensible and justifiable from a human point of view; they may be the result of the noblest motives, they may have the effect of a moral liberation. But these are the deeds of a few which humanely, morally, perhaps even aesthetically, may be of great value. But politically they are for the most part futile and mischievous.

The Social-Democracy is the Party of the masses; and it is only in the mass that the proletariat has influence, weight, and importance, only as a mass can it succeed. The individual who rushes violently on ahead of the rest, or turns off after “short cuts,” may all too easily lose his course. He who set out as a hero ends too often as a marauder.

1. “Finance-Capital,” pages 437, 442