Two Worlds (1910)

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Much has been written in all the newspapers about the Magdeburg Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party. All the main events of this Congress, all the vicissitudes of the struggle are sufficiently known. The outward aspect of the struggle of the revisionists with the orthodox, the dramatic episodes of the Congress overmuch engaged the attention of the readers, to the detriment of a clarification of the principles involved in this struggle, the ideological and political roots of the divergence. Yet the debates in Magdeburg—above all on the question of the Badenites voting for the budget—provide exceedingly interesting material for characterising the two worlds of ideas and the two class tendencies within the Social-Democratic Labour Party of Germany. The voting for the budget is but one of the manifestations of this division into two worlds, a division which is so deep that it is undoubtedly bound to be expressed on much more serious occasions, much more profound and important. And now, when, as everybody can see, a great revolutionary storm is impending in Germany, the Magdeburg debates should be regarded as a small review of forces covering a small fraction of the army (for the question of voting for the budget is only a small fraction of the fundamental questions of Social-Democratic tactics) before the beginning of the campaign.

What has this review shown as to how different sections of the proletarian army understand the tasks that confront them? How, judging by this review, will these different sections of the army conduct themselves when the time comes?—these are the questions on which we intend to dwell.

We will begin with one minor (at first glance) clash of opinion. The leader of the revisionists, Frank, strongly insisted, like all the Badenites, that although the Minister, von Bodman, had originally denied “parity of rights” of the Social-Democrats with the other, bourgeois, parties he had subsequently retracted this “affront”. Bebel in his report made the following reply on this point:

“If the minister of a modern state, a representative of the existing state system and social order—and the purpose of the present-day state, as a political institution, is to defend and support the existing state system and social order against all attacks from the Social-Democratic camp, to defend it by force too in case of need—if such a minister declares that he does not recognise parity of rights of the Social-Democrats, then he is quite right from his own point of view.” Frank interrupted Bebel with the cry “outrageous!” Bebel continued in reply to him: “I find this quite natural.” Frank again exclaimed “outrageous!”

Why was Frank so indignant? Because he is thoroughly imbued with faith in bourgeois “legality”, in bourgeois “parity of rights”, without understanding the historical limits of this legality, without understanding that all this legality must inevitably be cast to the four winds when the fundamental and cardinal question of the preservation of bourgeois property is affected. Frank is steeped in petty-bourgeois constitutional illusions; that is why he does not understand the historical conditionality of constitutional institutions even in a country like Germany; he believes in the absolute value the absolute power of the bourgeois (more correctly: bourgeois-feudal) constitution in Germany, and is sincerely affronted when a constitutional minister does not wish to recognise his, Frank’s, “parity of rights” as a member of parliament, as a man who acts in strict accordance with the law. Intoxicated by this legality, Frank goes so far as to forget the implacable hostility of the bourgeoisie towards the proletariat and, without noticing it, adopts the position of those who regard this bourgeois legality as something eternal, who think that socialism can be fitted inside the framework of this legality.

Bebel brings down the question from these constitutional illusions, which are characteristic of bourgeois democrats, to the firm realities of the class struggle. Can we allow our selves to be “affronted” because we, the enemies of the whole bourgeois order, are not accorded parity of rights on the basis of bourgeois law by a champion of this order? Why the very admission that this could affront me, would show me to be unstable in nay socialist convictions!

And Bebel tried to drive Social-Democratic views into Frank’s head by concrete examples. We could not be “affronted”, Bebel told Frank, by the Anti-Socialist Law; we were filled with anger and hatred, “and if it had been in our power at that time, we would have flung ourselves into battle, as we were longing to do heart and soul, we would have smashed to smithereens everything that stood in our path” (here the verbatim report records loud cries of approval). “We would have been traitors to our cause not to have done so” (Hear, hear!). “But it was not in our power.”

I take it as an affront that a constitutional minister does not recognise the parity of rights of the socialists, argues Frank. You must not be affronted, says Bebel, because your parity of rights has been denied by a man who not so long ago was strangling you, riding roughshod over all “principles”, whose duty it was to strangle you in defence of the bourgeois order who will put a stranglehold on you tomorrow (Bebel did not say this, but he hinted at it broadly enough; we shall explain in the proper place why Bebel so cautiously confines himself to hints). We would have been traitors if, having the opportunity, we had not throttled these enemies of the proletariat.

Two worlds of ideas: on the one hand, the point of view of the proletarian class struggle, which in certain historical periods can proceed on the basis of bourgeois legality, but which leads inevitably to a denouement, an open collision, to the dilemma: either “smash” the bourgeois state “to smithereens” or be defeated and strangled. On the other hand, the point of view of the reformist, the petty bourgeois who cannot see the wood for the trees, who cannot, through the tinsel of constitutional legality, see the fierce class struggle, who forgets in the backwoods of some diminutive state the great historical problems of the present day.

The reformists imagine themselves to be realist politicians, doers of positive work, statesmen. It is in the interests of the masters of bourgeois society to encourage these childish illusions in the ranks of the proletariat, but the Social-Democrats must destroy them ruthlessly. The talk of parity of rights is “nothing but meaningless phrases”, said Bebel. “Anyone who can take in a whole socialist faction with these phrases is certainly a statesman,” said Babel, amid general laughter from the Party Congress, “but those who let themselves be taken in are anything but statesmen.” This is a home thrust at all the opportunists in the socialist movement who let themselves be taken in by the National Liberals in Germany and the Cadets in Russia. “Negators,” said Bebel, “often achieve far more than those who stand for so-called positive work. Sharp criticism, sharp opposition always falls on fertile ground if this criticism is just, as ours unquestionably is.”

The opportunist phrases about positive work mean in many cases working for the liberals, in general working for others, who hold the reins of power, who set the course of the given state, society, community. And Bebel drew this conclusion frankly, declaring that “in our Party there are no few National Liberals of this kind, pursuing a National-Liberal policy”. As an example he mentioned Bloch, the well-known editor of the so-called (so-called is Bebel’s word) Socialist Monthly (Sozialistisehe Monatshefte). “National Liberals have no place in our Party,” declared Babel outright, to the general approval of the Congress.

Look at the list of contributors to the Socialist Monthly. You will find there all the representatives of international opportunism. They cannot find praise high enough for the behaviour of our liquidators. Are there not two worlds of ideas here when the leader of the German Social-Democrats calls the editor of this journal a National Liberal?

Opportunists throughout the world favour the policy of a bloc with the liberals, now openly and outrightly pro claiming and implementing it, now advocating or justifying election agreements with the liberals, support of their slogans, etc. Babel has time and again exposed the sheer falsity, the sheer mendacity of this policy, and we can say without exaggeration that every Social-Democrat should know and remember his words.

“If I, as a Social-Democrat, enter into an alliance with bourgeois parties, It is a thousand to one that the bourgeois parties will gain by it, not the Social-Democrats. We shall be the losers. It is a political law, that wherever the Rights and Lefts enter an alliance, the Lefts lose, the Rights win....

“If I enter into a political alliance with a party whose principles are hostile to mine, I must of necessity modify my tactics, i.e., my methods of struggle, in order not to break this alliance. I can no longer criticise ruthlessly, I cannot fight for principles, because this would give offence to my allies; I have to keep quiet, cover up a lot of things, make excuses for the inexcusable, gloss over matters that cannot be glossed over.”

Opportunism is opportunism for the very reason that it sacrifices the fundamental interests of the movement to momentary advantages or considerations based on the most short-sighted, superficial calculations. Frank pathetically declared in Magdeburg that the ministers in Baden “want us, Social-Democrats, to work together with them”!

We must look not above but below, we said during the revolution to our opportunists who were repeatedly led astray by various prospects held out by the Cadets. Babel, with the Franks arrayed before him, said in his closing remarks at Magdeburg: “The masses cannot understand that there are Social-Democrats who support with a vote of confidence a government which the masses would much prefer to do away with altogether. I often get the impression that a section of our leaders has ceased to understand the sufferings and afflictions of the masses (thunderous applause), that the position of the masses has become alien to them.” Yet “all over Germany an enormous resentment has accumulated among the masses”.

“We are living through a time,” said Babel in another part of his speech, “when rotten compromises are particularly impermissible. Class contradictions are not subsiding, but growing more acute. We are on the threshold of very, very grave times. What will happen after the forthcoming elections? We shall wait and see. If matters coma to the outbreak of a European war in 1912 you will see what we are in for, where we shall have to take our stand. It will probably not be where the Badenites are standing today.”

While some people are becoming smugly content with the state of affairs which has become customary in Germany, Bebel himself turns all his attention to the inevitable change which is impending and advises that the Party’s attention should be turned to it. “All our experiences so far have been skirmishes at the outposts, mere trifles,” said Bebel in his closing remarks. The main struggle lies ahead. And from the standpoint of this main struggle, the whole tactics of the opportunists are the height of spinelessness and short-sightedness.

Bebel only speaks in hints about the coming struggle. Never once does he say outright that revolution is impending in Germany, although such, undoubtedly, is the, idea in his mind—all his references to the aggravation of contradictions, the difficulty of reforms in Prussia, the inextricable position of the government and the classes in command, the growth of resentment among the masses, the danger of a European war, the intensification of the economic yoke as a result of the high cost of living, the amalgamation of the capitalists in trusts and cartels, etc., etc.—all are clearly intended to open the eyes of the Party and the masses to the inevitability of a revolutionary struggle.

Why is Bebel so cautious? Why does he confine himself to pointed references? Because the maturing revolution in Germany encounters a special, peculiar political situation that does not resemble other pre-revolutionary periods in other countries and for that reason requires from the leaders of the proletariat the solution of a somewhat new problem. The chief feature of this peculiar pre-revolutionary situation consists in the fact that the coming revolution must inevitably be incomparably more profound, more radical, drawing far broader masses into a, more difficult, stubborn and prolonged struggle than all previous revolutions. Yet at the same time this pre-revolutionary situation is marked by the greater (in comparison with anything hitherto) domination of legality, which has become an obstacle to those who introduced it. There lies the peculiarity of the situation, there lies the difficulty and novelty of the problem.

The irony of history has brought it about that the ruling classes of Germany, who have created the strongest state known in the whole second half of the nineteenth century, who have consolidated conditions for the most rapid capitalist progress and conditions for the most stable constitutional legality, are now most unmistakably coming to a point when this legality, their legality, will have to be shattered—so that the domination of the bourgeoisie may be preserved.

For about half a century the German Social-Democratic Labour Party has made exemplary use of bourgeois legality, haying created the best proletarian organisations, a magnificent press, having raised to the highest pitch (that is possible under capitalism) the class-consciousness and solidarity of the proletarian socialist vanguard.

Now the time is drawing near when this half-century phase of German history must, by force of objective causes, be replaced by a different phase. The era of utilising the legality created by the bourgeoisie is giving way to an era of tremendous revolutionary battles, and these battles, in effect, will be the destruction of all bourgeois legality, the whole bourgeois system, while in form they must begin (and are beginning) with panicky efforts on the part of the bourgeoisie to get rid of the legality which, though it is their own handiwork, has become unbearable to them! “You shoot first, Messieurs the Bourgeoisie!”—with these words, spoken in 1892, Engels summed up the peculiarity of the position and the peculiarity of the tactical problems of the revolutionary proletariat.[1]

The socialist proletariat will not forget for a moment that it is confronted, inevitably confronted, with a revolutionary mass struggle that must sweep away all the legalities of the doomed bourgeois society. But, at the same time, a party which has magnificently utilised a half-century of bourgeois legality against the bourgeoisie has not the slightest reason to renounce those conveniences in the struggle, that advantage in battle afforded by the fact that the enemy is caught in the toils of his own legality, that the enemy is compelled to “shoot first”, is compelled to shatter his own legality.

There lies the peculiarity of the pre-revolutionary situation in modern Germany. That is why old Bebel is so cautious, fixing all his attention on the great struggle which is to come, exerting all the power of his vast talent, his experience and authority against the short-sighted, spine less opportunists, who do not understand this struggle, who are not fit to lead it, who during the revolution will probably find themselves degraded from the leadersto the led or even cast aside.

In Magdeburg these leaders were remonstrated with, they were censured, they were given an official ultimatum as the representatives of all that was unreliable that had accumulated in the great revolutionary army, of all that was weak, infected with bourgeois legality and stupefied by pious prostrations before this legality, before all the limitations of what is one of the eras of slavery, i.e., one of the eras of bourgeois supremacy. In condemning the opportunists, threatening them with expulsion, the German proletariat thereby expressed its condemnation of all the elements in Its mighty organisation personifying stagnation, diffidence, flabbiness and inability to break with the psychology of moribund bourgeois society. In condemning the bad revolutionaries in its own ranks the vanguard class held one of the last reviews of its forces before entering upon the path of social revolution.

* *


While the attention of all revolutionary Social-Democrats throughout the world was concentrated on seeing how the German workers were preparing for action, selecting the moment for action, keeping a watchful eye on the enemy and purging themselves of the weaknesses of opportunism—the opportunists throughout the world were gloating over the differences which had arisen between Luxemburg and Kautsky in their estimate of the present situation, on the question whether one of those turning-points like the Ninth of January in the Russian revolution was due now or not just yet, this very minute or the next. The opportunists gloated. They did their utmost to make a burning issue of these differences, which were not of prime importance, in the columns of Socialist Monthly, Golos Sotsial-Demokrata (Martynov), Zhizn, Vozrozhdeniye and suchlike liquidationist papers and Neue Zeit (Martov)[2] . The shabbiness of these methods of the opportunists in all countries was indelibly registered in Magdeburg, where differences of opinion among the revolutionary Social-Democrats of Germany did not play any appreciable role. The opportunists however gloated too soon. The Magdeburg Congress adopted the first part of the resolution proposed by Rosa Luxemburg, in which there is direct reference to the mass strike as a means of struggle.

  1. Lenin quotes F. Engels’s article “Socialism In Germany (Marx/Engels/Lenin, Zur Deutschen Geschichte, Band II, 2. Halbband.., Berlin, 1954, S. 1140-1141).
  2. In Neue Zeit Martov was met with an emphatic rebuke from Comrade Karsky. —Lenin