In 1898, German Social Democratic Party (SPD) member, Max Schippel, wrote two articles for the party press, “Did Friedrich Engels Believe in the Militia?,” and “Friedrich Engels and the Militia System,” wherein he challenged the Party’s position from the right. Schippel, a follower of Eduard Bernstein, sparked off a lively debate, eliciting several critical responses, including three from Karl Kautsky, alone, and Luxemburg’s perspicacious rejoinder, “Militia and Militarism.”
What would appear at first glance to simply be a counter-argument laying out a Marxist perspective on a major question of the day, “Militia and Militarism” allowed Luxemburg—a relatively new member of the German socialist movement at the time—the space to elaborate on other fundamental questions, many of which retain their salience. Socialists reading this will likely identify the issues Luxemburg confronted. In essence, a debate on “militarism,” a term synonymous with what we would now refer to as the “military-industrial complex,” became a broader question about the nature of intra-party debate in a large, multi-tendency organization (SPD), developing into an explication on the primacy of group democracy. All of these questions were masterfully threaded into a polemic foregrounding the priority of fighting what was then an incipient German imperialism.
Luxemburg believed debate was crucial to the functioning of a democratic organization. More importantly, it was needed to develop a political perspective, locate mistakes, and push the movement forward. Luxemburg begins “Militia and Militarism” by praising criticism of the SPD program from within party quarters: “In itself, criticism cannot be sufficiently welcomed.” But Luxemburg stresses it’s important how the criticism is made; and by “how,” Luxemburg does not mean the tone, or examinations of procedure, nor by scrutinizing the motivation animating such critique. Rather, politics is the grounds upon which socialists’ should think and act. “The general basis of the critique, the specific worldview” expressed therein, should be the focus of discussion and disagreement. Moreover, Luxemburg stressed the primacy of aiming one’s fire, not at the individual expressing the ideas, but at the ideas being expressed by the individual.
Furthermore, Luxemburg regarded the individual interventions in a debate as constituting more than mere philosophical expression. In the context of an organization where the goal is to transform the world, public statements regarding program and tactics are a political act, and must be answered in kind.
No one can accuse Luxemburg of being bad at polemics, either. Paul Frolich, in his biography on the Polish revolutionary, wrote, “Schippel had received such a drubbing at her hands in economic and military questions that, in his utter confusion, he got more and more entangled in his own cloudy thinking.” Luxemburg’s strength, Frolich wrote, lay in thinking through questions to their logical conclusion, and being “prepared to accept the final consequences” in the domain of strategy. Moreover, time-tested Marxist precepts, or “principles,” that had been borne out as necessity through successive iterations of struggle—such as working class political independence—were life and light for the socialist movement. Their abandonment, Luxemburg wrote, “should provoke a crisis of conscience in every thinking socialist.”
So, where was Luxemburg aiming fire in this instance? Schippel’s interventions were centered around a defense of the military status quo in Germany, the standing army, and a “crusade against the demand for a militia” (arming of the people) contained in the SPD program. Schippel defended his arguments on technological, social, and economic grounds. For one, he argued it would be impossible to eliminate the standing army and arm the people for simple financial reasons. In this case, Schippel could not conceive of something as simple as taxing the rich to pay for it. But, what Luxemburg took issue with mostly was the contention that militarism in Germany was necessary because it had beneficial economic effects for the working class—by siphoning off “excess productive capacity,” creating jobs, and defending against reduction in wages. This justification for a rising German imperialism was characteristic of an extreme economic reductionism among the Bernsteinian set in the German SPD.
It is important to foreground the “three distinct and interrelated moments” in which Luxemburg defined working class politics: the labor struggle for the workers’ standard of living; the political struggle for the social and democratic conditions upon which the organization and consciousness of the working class can grow; and the revolutionary struggle for power, which provides the “historical dimension” to socialist consciousness. Because of the nature of the capitalist system taken as a whole, none of these “moments,” Luxemburg wrote, were sufficient on their own. Only the unity of the three could provide the basis for a socialist victory. Because the power of the state and the ruling class are “crystallized in militarism,” this made the fight against imperialism of the utmost importance, and this was the lens through which Luxemburg read Schippel’s criticism.
Luxemburg described Schippel’s reductionist view as only taking account of workers’ direct economic interests, and not their broader social interests. Just as sections of the building trades today are proponents of Trump’s energy policies because they see them as protecting a handful of temporary union construction jobs, even though the environmental ramifications of such a policy fly in the face of the labor movement’s long-term social interests, Schippel defended German militarism along similar lines. While the German military system may have provided jobs, it also propped up a powerful state that was used to keep workers in a perpetual state of exploitation.
Insofar as Schippel equated any economic advantage for capital as an economic advantage for the working class—a la “what is good for General Motors is good for America”—he took as his starting point the harmony of interests between capital and labor. Moreover, In the process of defending the capitalist state as a positive good, he would sacrifice the long-term aims of the socialist movement for what he perceived to be momentary practical successes. This was the essential characteristic of what Luxemburg labeled “opportunism.”
Partly what animated Schippel’s point of view was a passive evolutionism, which saw militarism as a natural outgrowth of German capitalism—a stage through which society must invariably pass on the road to socialism. Luxemburg agreed with Schippel that militarism was an objective social development, but Luxemburg argued that this “merely gives us the preconditions of a higher level of development,” and that without the “conscious interference” of the working class on the political stage, such developments, be they the people’s army, or socialism itself, will never come to fruition.
This meant that while Schippel and Bernstein’s broadsides on the party’s Marxist theory were an “ominous manifestation,” their calling into question the movement’s immediate goals was incomparably more dangerous:
Skepticism concerning our final goals can always be fought off by the movement itself, as long as the movement is healthy and strong in its practical struggles. But as soon as the immediate goals, that is, the practical struggle itself, are called into question, then the entire Party and movement, including its final goals, become—not only in the subjective perception of this or that Party philosopher, but also in objective reality—“nothing.”
Only by carrying out the broadest possible discussion in the movement, Luxemburg wrote, could the spread of detrimental ideas be prevented. But this presupposed the existence of sufficient democratic spaces—something that Luxemburg argued was being hampered by certain dynamics in the SPD.
One problem concerned the increasingly unaccountable nature of the party’s parliamentary delegation. Years later, the German Free Trade unions would come to have virtual veto power—in practice—over almost any resolution that was produced by a Party congress; but even as early as the turn of the twentieth century, electoral politics was producing a pronounced conservatism in its day-to-day practices, and engendering bureaucratic impediments to the free flow of information.
Luxemburg argued that while SPD elected representatives operated independently in relation to parliament, which was a positive necessity, it was also operating in a way that was walled off from the SPD membership itself:
Apparently Social Democracy [SPD] has perhaps unconsciously and involuntarily taken on many of the mores of a parliamentarianism which cannot be brought into full accord with the democratic character of the Party.
While capitalist politics typically involve “the uninspiring form of “horse-trades and log-rolling,” socialist politics, Luxemburg asserted, cannot afford to “shun the light of publicity.” It was not enough to know which way a socialist in parliament voted on a particular issue, but it was also the discussion itself; the “clarification” of the issues leading to the vote, that must be made clear to the membership. In effect, the “open proceedings” of the Party’s political representation must help aid the rank-and-file in coming to the necessary positions on major political questions.
The dynamics that Luxemburg describes so adroitly in “Militia and Militarism” aren’t alien to socialists organizing on the Left today. As Dick Howard wrote in a selection of Luxemburg’s political writings: while “it is “new” in many ways,” in a sense “the New Left is “old,” insofar as it involves a spiritual heritage of class struggle spanning generations.
While there is no shortage of novel dilemmas that must be dealt with today, Luxemburg shows that history can also be a political intervention.
Militia and Militarism (1899) – Rosa Luxemburg
This is not the first time, and hopefully not the last, that critical voices concerning particular points in our programme and tactics have been heard from the party’s rank and file. In itself this cannot be welcomed enough. However, the most important thing is how the criticism is made, and by this we do not mean the ‘tone’ which it has unfortunately become fashionable to employ in the party in calling for a show of hands on every occasion. Rather, we mean something far more important – the general basis of the criticism, the specific Weltanschauung that is expressed in the criticism.
In fact Isegrim-Schippel’s [‘Isegrim’ was a pseudonym for Schippel] crusade against our demand for a militia and in favour of militarism rests upon a very consistent socio-political Weltanschauung.
The most general standpoint upon which Schippel bases his defence of militarism is his belief in the necessity of this military system. Using all possible arguments of a technical, social and economic nature, he demonstrates the absolute necessity of a standing army. And from a certain point of view he is quite correct. A standing army and militarism are indeed indispensable – but for whom? For the present-day ruling classes and the contemporary governments. Now what can one conclude from this other than that, from the class standpoint of the present government and ruling classes, doing away with the standing army and introducing the militia, i.e. arming the people, must appear to be an impossibility, an absurdity? And if Schippel, for his part, likewise regards the militia as an impossibility and an absurdity, then he is only revealing that he himself shares the bourgeois point of view on the question of militarism, and that he views it through the eyes of the capitalist government or the bourgeois classes. This is also demonstrated clearly in each of his individual arguments. He claims that to equip all citizens with weapons, which is a basic tenet of the militia system, would be impossible because there is not enough money for this. ‘Culture suffers enough as it is,’ he says. He bases his argument simply on the present Prusso-German public economy; he cannot imagine a different economy, for example one which makes use of progressive taxation of the capitalist class in order to finance the militia system.
Schippel considers the military training of youth – another basic tenet of the militia system – as undesirable because, he says, the non-commissioned officers as military trainers would exert the most corruptive influence on youth. Here of course he bases his argument on the present Prussian non-commissioned barracks-officer and simply extrapolates him as an educator of youth into his imaginary militia system. Schippel’s view of the situation is a vivid reminder of Professor Julius Wolf,1 who sees an important objection to the social order of socialism in that under its rule, according to his calculations, the general rate of interest would rise …
Schippel considers the militarism of the present day to be economically indispensable because it ‘relieves’ the economic pressure on society. Kautsky makes every conceivable effort to guess how the Social Democrat, Schippel, might have conceived that this militarism could ‘release’ of pressure. Kautsky then accompanies each possible explanation with an excellent refutation. It seems, however, that Schippel has not taken up the matter as a Social Democrat, nor from the point of view of the working people at all. When he speaks of a ‘release’ of pressure, it is obvious that he is thinking of capitalism. And in this he is of course correct: for capitalism, one of the most important forms of investment is militarism; from capitalism’s point of view, militarism is indeed a ‘release’ of pressure. That Schippel here speaks as a real advocate of the interests of capitalism is revealed by the fact that he has found a qualified authority to support him in this point.
‘I claim, gentlemen,’ someone said in the Reichstag session of January 12th, 1899, ‘that it is quite incorrect to say that the Reich’s debts of two million concern only unproductive expenditures, and that these are not offset by productive income of any kind. I claim that there is no investment more productive than expenditures for the army.’ To be sure, the minutes of that session report ‘Mirth on the Left’ … The speaker was Baron von Stumm. [A major German industrialist and armaments manufacturer.]
It is characteristic of all Schippel’s claims that not only are they intrinsically wrong, but they are also based on the perspectives of bourgeois society. Thus, considered from a Social-Democratic viewpoint, everything that Schippel says seems to be upside down: the standing army is indispensable, militarism is economically beneficial, the militia is impracticable, etc.
One is struck by the similarity between Schippel’s perspective on the question of militarism and his attitude to another important question of the political struggle, namely customs policy.
Firstly, and most strikingly, we find in his treatment of both questions a refusal to recognize their connection with positions on the issue of democracy and reaction. If we are to believe Schippel’s lecture at the Stuttgart Party Conference, the claim that free trade is identical with progress and that protective tariffs are identical with reaction is wrong. Long and broad historical experience, he continues, proves that one may well be simultaneously a freetrader, and a reactionary or, on the other hand, a supporter of protective tariffs and an ardent friend of democracy. We are now informed, in almost the same words, that: ‘There are militia enthusiasts who afflict our working life with endless disruptions and interruptions, and who themselves seek to transplant the non-commissioned officer’s mentality into our boys and young lads right down to the lowest school grades – which is much worse than the present militarism. There are opponents of the militia who are mortal enemies of each and every extension of this kind of military intrusion and requisition.’ [Die Neue Zeit (1898-9), 580-81]
The fact that in these, as in all questions, the bourgeois politicians do not adopt a position based on principle, that they follow a policy of opportunism, leads the Social Democrat, Schippel, to conclude that he too has the same right. He therefore necessarily fails to appreciate the inner reactionary core of protective tariffs and of militarism, and, conversely, the progressive significance of free trade and of the militia; that is, he too fails to adopt a position based on principle towards the two questions.
In the second place, we find in his position on both issues an opposition to the individual evils involved in the policy of protective tariffs and of militarism, with a determined refusal to combat both phenomena as such in their entirety. In Schippel’s lecture in Stuttgart we were informed of the necessity of combatting excessive individual protective tariffs, but at the same time we were warned not to ‘commit’ ourselves, not to ‘tie our hands’, which meant not to oppose the protective tariff always and everywhere. Now we are informed that, although Schippel would not reject ‘the struggle, carried on in parliament and through agitation, against concrete military demands’ [ Sozialistische Monatshefte, November 1898, p.495.], he warns against ‘taking purely external chance occurrences and very incidental, but admittedly also very conspicuous reactions (of militarism) in the remaining social spheres to be the essence and the core of militarism’. [Die Neue Zeit (1 no.19)]
Thirdly and finally, the foundation of the two viewpoints mentioned above is in both cases the evaluation of the phenomena exclusively from the point of view of the previous bourgeois development, that is, from their historically conditioned progressive aspect, while disregarding completely further imminent developments which reveal their reactionary aspect. For Schippel the protective tariff remains what it was at the time of the late Friedrich List, more than half a century ago: a great advance beyond the medieval-feudal economic fragmentation of Germany. That today universal free trade already represents the same necessary progression beyond the national economic structure to a unified global economy, thus making today’s national tariff barriers reactionary – this fact, as far as Schippel is concerned, does not exist.
The same is true of the question of militarism. He still approaches it from the point of view that it is the same great step forward as was the standing army based on universal and compulsory conscription vis-à-vis the former enlisted army and feudal army. But here the development stops as far as Schippel is concerned; history does not progress beyond the standing army, except for a further extension of universal conscription.
What then is the significance of these characteristic positions which Schippel adopts on both the tariff and military questions? They signify, firstly, an ad hoc policy rather than one based on principle. Secondly, and connected with this, they attack merely the abuses of the tariff and military systems rather than the system itself. But what is this policy other than our well-known acquaintance from recent party history – opportunism?
Again ‘practical politics’ celebrate their triumph in Isegrim-Schippel’s open renunciation of the militia postulate, one of the basic points in our whole political programme. From the party’s point of view, the real significance of Schippel’s appearance lies herein. This most recent Social-Democratic proclamation in favour of militarism can be judged and evaluated correctly only in connection with this whole current and from the view-point of the general foundations and consequences of opportunism.
The most fundamental characteristic of opportunistic policy is that it always and consistently leads to the sacrifice of the movement’s ultimate goal, namely the liberation of the working class, to its most immediate, indeed imaginary interests. That this is the case with Schippel’s policy can be demonstrated clearly by one of his main tenets on the question of militarism. The most important economic reason which, according to Schippel, compels us to retain the system of militarism is that this system is a ‘release’ of economic pressure on society. Let us set aside the fact that this peculiar claim ignores the simplest economic facts. On the contrary, let us assume for a moment, in order to characterize this point of view, that this preposterous claim is true, that militarism does in fact ‘release’ the pressure on society created by surplus productive forces.
How can this phenomenon operate on behalf of the working class? Ostensibly in such a way as to rid it of a part of its reserve army, i.e. those who force down wages, by maintaining a standing army; in this way its working conditions improve. And what does this mean? Only this: in order to reduce the supply in the labour market, in order to restrict competition, the worker in the first place gives away a portion of his salary in the form of indirect taxes in order to maintain his competitors as soldiers. Secondly, he makes his competitor into an instrument with which the capitalist state can contain, and if necessary suppress bloodily, any move he makes to improve his situation (strikes, coalitions, etc.); and thus this instrument can thwart the very same improvement in the worker’s situation for which, according to Schippel, militarism was necessary. Thirdly, the worker makes this competitor into the most solid pillar of political reaction in the State and thus of his own enslavement.
In other words, by accepting militarism, the worker prevents his wages from being reduced by a certain amount, but in return is largely deprived of the possibility of fighting continuously for an increase in his wage and an improvement of his situation. He gains as a seller of his labour, but at the same time loses his political freedom of movement as a citizen, so that he must ultimately also lose as the seller of his labour. He removes a competitor from the labour market only to see a defender of his wage slavery arise in his place; he prevents his wages being lowered only to find that the prospects both of a permanent improvement in his situation and of his ultimate economic, political and social liberation are diminished. This is the actual meaning of the ‘release’ of economic pressure on the working class achieved by militarism. Here, as in all opportunistic political speculation, we see the great aims of socialist class emancipation sacrificed to petty practical interests of the moment, interests moreover which, when examined more closely, prove to be essentially illusory.
The question arises, however, as to how Schippel arrives at his seemingly absurd idea of declaring that, even from the standpoint of the working class, militarism is a ‘release’. Let us recall how the same question appears from the point of view of capitalism. We have demonstrated that for capitalism, militarism creates the most profitable and indispensable kind of investment. Now it is evident that the same monies which the government acquires through taxation serve to maintain militarism. Had they remained in the people’s hands, however, they would have represented an increased demand for foodstuffs; or, had the State used these monies on a larger scale for cultural purposes, a corresponding demand for social works would have been created. It is also evident that militarism is by no means a ‘release’ of pressure on society as a whole. This question takes on a different aspect only from the view-point of capitalist profit-making, from the entrepreneur’s point of view. For the capitalists, there is indeed a difference as to whether a certain demand for products comes from isolated private buyers or from the State. The State’s demand is distinguished by the fact that it is certain, that it orders in enormous quantities, and that its pricing is favourable to the supplier and usually monopolistic – all of which makes the State the most desirable customer and makes supplying it the most alluring business for capitalism.
But what makes supplying the military in particular essentially more profitable than, for example, State expenditures on cultural ends (schools, roads, etc.), is the incessant technical innovations of the military and the incessant increase in its expenditures. Militarism thus represents an inexhaustible, and indeed increasingly lucrative, source of capitalist gain, and raises capital to a social power of the magnitude confronting the worker in, for example, the enterprises of Krupp and Stumm. Militarism – which to society as a whole represents a completely absurd economic waste of enormous productive forces – and which for the working class means a lowering of its standard of living with the objective of enslaving it socially – is for the capitalist class economically the most alluring, irreplaceable kind of investment and politically and socially the best support for their class rule. Therefore, when Schippel abruptly declares militarism to be a necessary ‘release’ of economic pressure, not only does he apparently confuse societys interests with that of capitalism’s interests, thus – as we said at the outset – adoptng the bourgeois point of view, but he also bases his argument on the principle of a harmony of interests between capital and labour by assuming that every economic advantage to the entrepreneur is necessarily an advantage to the worker as well.
Schippel takes the same familiar perspective on the tariff question. Here, too, he has come out in favour of the protective tariff in principle, since, as he claims, he desires to protect the worker as producer against the ruinous competition of foreign industry. In this policy, just as in the military bill, he sees the worker’s immediate economic interests and overlooks his other social interests which are connected with the general social progress towards free trade or towards the abolition of the standing army. And in both cases, he assumes uncritically that the interest of capital is also the immediate economic interest of labour, since he believes that all that is advantageous to the entrepreneur is also advantageous to the worker. To sacrifice the ultimate ends of the movement to practical and momentary success, and to evaluate our practical interests from the viewpoint of a harmony of interests between capital and labour – these two principles are indeed interconnected harmoniously, for they are the essence of all opportunistic politics.
At first glance one might be surprised that an advocate of this policy finds it possible to invoke the authors of the Social-Democratic programme and in all seriousness (since his authority in the military question is Baron von Stumm) to consider Friedrich Engels as his authority in the same question. Schippel presumes to share Engels’s insight into the historical necessity and the historical development of militarism. This, however, only proves once again that, just as before with badly digested Hegelian dialectics, now the badly digested Marxist interpretation of history leads to the most hopeless confusion in one’s head. Once more it is demonstrated that both the dialectical method in general and the materialist philosophy of history in particular, however revolutionary they may be when understood correctly, produce dangerously reactionary consequences the moment they are comprehended wrongly. If one reads Schippel’s quotes from Engels, especially those from Anti-Dühring, concerning the development of the military system to the point where it dissolves itself and becomes a people’s army, it is at first glance unclear where the difference between Schippel’s and the party’s usual interpretation of the question actually lies. We regard militarism in its very essence as a natural and inevitable product of social development – so does Schippel. We believe that the further development of militarism leads to the people’s army – so does Schippel. Where then is the difference which can lead Schippel to his reactionary opposition to our demand for a militia? The answer is very simple: whereas we share Engel’s view that the logic of the development of militarism into the militia must entail the dissolution of militarism, Schippel believes that the people’s army of the future will grow of its own accord, ‘from within’ the present military system. Whereas we, supported by the material conditions given us by the objective development (namely the extension of universal conscription and the decrease in the length of service), aspire to bring about the militia system by means of political struggle, Schippel relies on the intrinsic development of militarism with its consequences, and brands as fantasy and hot-house politics every conscious intervention aimed at effecting the militia.
What he arrives at in this way is not Engels’s interpretation of history, but Bernstein’s. Just as for Bernstein the capitalist economy ‘grows into’ a socialist economy automatically, step by step and without a sudden transition, so for Schippel the people’s army automatically grows out of contemporary militarism. Both Bernstein and Schippel – the former with regard to capitalism as a whole, the latter with regard to militarism – fail to understand that objective developments merely provide us with the pre-conditions for a higher developmental stage; that, without our systematic intervention, without the political struggle of the working class for the socialist revolution or for the militia, neither will ever be realized. However, since the facile notion of a ‘natural growth’ is merely a chimera, an opportunistic subterfuge to avoid the resolute revolutionary struggle, the social and political changes attainable in this manner shrink into a wretched bourgeois patchwork. Now in Bernstein’s theory of a ‘gradual socialization’, all that we understand by the concept of socialism ultimately disappears, and socialism becomes ‘social control’, that is, a number of harmless bourgeois social reforms; in the same way Schippel’s notion of the ‘people’s army’ transforms our goal of a free people in arms, itself deciding on war and peace, into a system of universal conscription extending to all citizens fit for active service, modelled on the present system of the standing army, but with a shorter term of service. If applied to all the aims of our political struggle, Schippels concept leads directly to the abandonment of the entire Social-Democratic programme.
Schippel’s support for militarism is a palpable illustration of the whole revisionist current in our party and at the same time an important step in its development. Earlier we learned from a Social-Democratic deputy in the Reichstag, Heine, that under certain circumstances one might grant military requisitions to the capitalist government. But this was intended merely as a concession to the higher purposes of democracy. At least according to Heine, cannons were to serve only as objects of value to exchange for popular rights. Now Schippel declares that the cannons are necessary for their own sake. If in both cases the result is the same, namely support for militarism, at least in Heine’s case it rests upon a false conception of the Social-Democratic method of struggle, while in Schippel’s case it originates in his altering the object of struggle. The former proposes not Social-Democratic but bourgeois tactics, but the latter brazenly substitutes a bourgeois programme for the Social-Democratic programme.
Schippel’s ‘scepticism’ concerning the militia represents the logical conclusion of ‘practical politics’. They cannot become more reactionary, but can only extend into the other points in the programme; ‘practical politics’ can then only cast aside the remaining Social-Democratic garments with whose tatters they have draped themselves and stand revealed in their classical nakedness – as Pastor Naumann. [National Social Party in imperial Germany, advocate of ‘Christian Imperialism’]
If Social Democracy were a club for discussing socio-political questions, it could consider the case of Schippel as closed after a theoretical argument with him. Since it is a party of political struggle, however, it does not consider that demonstrating the theoretical errors involved in Schippels point of view solves the problem, but rather only raises it. Schippel’s publication on the militia is not only an expression of a certain idea, it is also a political act. Thus the party must answer it not only by refuting its views, but also through political action. And this action must correspond to the significance of Schippel’s remarks.
During the course of the past year, the absolute validity of virtually all the postulates which until now have been considered as the cornerstones of Social Democracy has been shaken by attacks from our own ranks. Eduard Bernstein declared that the ultimate goal of the proletarian movement meant nothing to him. Wolfgang Heine demonstrated with his proposals for compensation that the established Social-Democratic tactics in fact mean nothing to him. Now Schippel proves that he too is superior to the political programme of the party. Virtually not a single principle of the proletarian struggle has been spared from being dissolved into nothing by a few deputies of the party, On the face of it, this is hardly a gratifying picture. However, one must differentiate among these very significant proclamations as regards the party’s interest. Bernstein’s critique of our theoretical assets is without doubt portentous. Practical opportunism, however, is incomparably more dangerous to the movement. So long as it is strong and healthy in its practical struggle, the movement can itself simply shrug off any scepticism concerning its ultimate goal. However, the moment the immediate goal, that is, the struggle itself, is called into question, then the whole party with its ultimate goal and movement – not only in the subjective interpretation of this or that party philosopher, but also in objective reality – becomes nothing.
Schippel’s attack is directed at only one point in our political programme. But this single point, in view of the fundamental significance of militarism to the present state, means in fact a renunciation of Social Democracy’s whole political struggle.
In militarism, the power and rule of both the capitalist state and the bourgeois class are crystallized; just as Social Democracy is the only party which opposes them in principle, so too, inversely, is the opposition in principle to militarism part of the nature of Social Democracy. To abandon the struggle against the military system amounts in fact to the same thing as renouncing the struggle against the present social order in general. We stated at the conclusion of the previous section that it remained only for opportunism to extend Schippel’s position on the military question to other points of the party programme in order to abjure Social Democracy completely. We were thinking only of the subjective, conscious development of the supporters of this policy. Objectively, considered in terms of the facts, this development is consummated in Schippel’s statement.
One more aspect of the recent opportunist pronouncements, and especially of Schippel’s contribution, is deserving of attention, at least in view of its symptomatic value. This is the playful ease, the imperturbable calmness, indeed even the serene grace with which principles are undermined, principles which must have entered the flesh and blood of every comrade who does not interpret the party’s good in a wholly superficial manner, and which, when they are shaken in this way, should occasion at least a serious crisis of conscience on the part of every sincere Social Democrat. Apart from everything else, these are unmistakable signs that a nadir in the revolutionary level has been reached, that the revolutionary instinct has been blunted – phenomena which in themselves might be unintelligible and inessential, but which are without doubt essential to a party such as Social Democracy, which is forced to rely at present largely not on practical but on abstract successes, and which necessarily makes great demands on its members’ individual intellectual level. Opportunism’s bourgeois manner of thinking is suitably complemented by its bourgeois manner of perception.
The implication of Schippel’s pronouncement, extending as it does in all directions, necessitate a corresponding counter-pronouncement by the party. What can and must this counter-action be? Firstly, a clear and unambiguous stand on this question by the entire party press, and a similar discussion of the matter at party congresses. If the party as a whole is not in agreement with Schippel’s point of view (according to which public meetings are merely occasions when one throws the bones of ‘slogans’ into the starving crowd so that at the right time it will elect its political ‘superiors’ to the Reichstag), then it also cannot regard the discussion of the most important party political principles as a ‘preserve of the nobility’, meant only for the selected few and not for the great mass of comrades. On the contrary, only when the discussion is carried into the broadest groups of the party can the possible spreading of Schippel’s views be successfully prevented.
Secondly, and even more important, the Social-Democratic Reichstag fraction must state its opinion. It above all is qualified to give the definitive word on the Schippel affair because, on the one hand, Schippel is a deputy of the Reichstag and a member of the fraction, and on the other, the question with which he deals is one of the major objects of its parliamentary struggle. We do not know whether or not the fraction has done anything in the matter. Since soon after the publication of Isegrim’s article it was an open secret as to whose name the pseudonym concealed, the parliamentary party has in all probability not looked on idly while one of their members has made a mockery of their own activity.
And, if they had not done so before, they could have made up for lost time after Kautsky had stripped Schippel of his wolf’s clothing. Regardless of whether or not the Reichstag fraction has taken a stand on Schippel’s case, the result is roughly the same so long as it has not informed the whole party of its stand. Forced to operate on the parquet floor of a bourgeois parliamentarism which is alien to its real nature, Social Democracy has apparently unwillingly and unconsciously adopted many of the customs of parliamentarism which cannot properly be made to agree with its democratic character. Among these, in our opinion, are included, for example, the parliamentary party’s behaving as a unanimous corporate body not only towards the bourgeois parties (which is entirely necessary), but also towards its own party – which can lead to an unhealthy situation. The parliamentary representatives of the bourgeois parties, whose parliamentary struggle is fought out largely in the insipid form of wire-pulling and bartering, have every reason to avoid the light of publicity. By contrast, the Social-Democratic parliamentary fraction neither needs nor has reason to consider the results of its deliberations as an internal matter the moment party principles or more important tactical questions are involved. To settle such questions only in secret meetings of the parliamentary party would be sufficient if we, like the bourgeois parties, were concerned solely with ultimately achieving a certain unanimous show of hands by the parliamentary party in the Reichstag. For Social Democracy, however, the parliamentary struggle of its Reichstag fraction is far more important from the point of view of agitation than practical activity; it is a question not of a formal majority decision by the parliamentary party, but of the discussion itself, of clarifying the situation. For the party it is at least as important to know what its representatives’ opinions on the parliamentary questions are as to know how they vote en bloc in the Reichstag. In a party which is democratic through and through, the relationship between voter and deputy may under no circumstances be considered as fulfilled by the act of voting and by the more outwardly formal and summary reports given at party conventions. Rather the parliamentary party must maintain as lively and continuous a contact as possible with the party masses, and this in particular will become the simple imperative of self-preservation, in view of the opportunistic currents which have recently come to light precisely among our party parliamentarians. A public stand on Schippel’s statements by the parliamentary party was and is necessary because the party masses, however much they might wish to, simply do not have the physical possibility of expressing their opinion as a whole on this question. The parliamentary faction is an appointed political representative of the whole party and should have helped the party indirectly, by taking the lead, to articulate its necessary position.
Thirdly and finally, the party as such must give direct expression to its views concerning the case of Schippel, and this it must do in the sole form at its disposal – at the next party congress.
In the discussion in Stuttgart concerning Bernstein’s articles, it was said that the party conference could not vote on theoretical questions. But now, in the case of Schippel, we have a purely practical question. It was said that Heine’s compensation proposals were only inopportune castles in the air which the party need not take into consideration. Now in Schippel’s case we have castles on the ground. Indeed, in Schippel’s stand on the militia question, the policy of opportunism, as already stated, is taken to its logical conclusion, and has become ripe for decision. It seems to us that the party must undertake the urgent task of drawing the correct conclusions from this development and must take a clear and unambiguous stand on it.
It has every reason for doing this. It is a question of a Reichstag deputy, a political representative of the party, who is, by virtue of his office, supposed to serve the party as a sword in its struggles and whose action should act as a dam against attacks by the bourgeois State. If, however, the dam can at any moment become transformed into papier mache and if the sword breaks in battle as though it were made of cardboard, may not the party for its part say to this policy:
Away with the pap,
I have no need of it!
No swords will I forge with paste!
 A leading social scientist of the time, and Luxemburg’s teacher at the University of Zurich, Wolf always symbolized for her the most arid aspects of bourgeois academicism.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at email@example.com. And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:Donate
Tim Goulet is a member of the Tempest Collective and Teamsters Local 810 in NYC.