Open main menu

Studies in Socialism/"To Expand, not to Contract"





Liebknecht's thought is full of contradictions. I imagine that his mind, like that of many of the early Socialists, was divided between the uncompromising dogmas of the first days and the new necessities of the larger party, and that he was not always able to balance these conflicting tendencies.

Liebknecht had begun by being an anti-parliamentary revolutionist. He had declared and had written that Parliament was a swamp in which Socialist energies would be engulfed. He had said that the open tribune of Parliament would be useless even as a means of spreading propaganda, because one could preach better in the country itself. And even after the pressure of events and the growth of the party had forced Liebknecht to discard those formulas, and when he and his friends had entered Parliament, he still kept a memory of his early uncompromising attitude. He reminds us, in the fragment quoted in Vorwärts, that he had objected to a representative of the Socialist group becoming one of the "steering committee" that regulates parliamentary work. His colleagues did not follow his advice, and they were perfectly right; because what good would it have done to enter Parliament, if, on the pretext of not wishing to compromise themselves, the Socialists had held aloof from the detailed work that alone makes parliamentary action effective?

I only notice this small trait because it symbolises a state of mind. Hampered by the definite words he had spoken in the past, Liebknecht at one time took the attitude of being in Parliament as if he were not in it. When, on the other hand, be was considering the conditions under which Socialism could be put into practice, when he tried to read the future in all sincerity and seriousness, he arrived at a very broad-minded conception: he saw Socialism penetrating the democracy little by little, and, by partial and successive conquests, imposing itself even on the government of middle-class society in the transition stage. Then he was troubled and recaptured by his early habits of uncompromising opposition. And all the doubts and disturbances, the chaos of our modern Socialism, come from the same contradiction between old formulas which are no longer true, but which we do not dare to renounce specifically, and new needs which we are beginning to realise, but which we do not dare to confess openly. An example of this sort of contradiction is the fact that Liebknecht, in the very same manuscript in which he foresees the governmental collaboration of Socialism with other democratic factions, nevertheless repeats and seems to agree with the phrase so vigorously condemned by Marx: "From the Socialist point of view, all the other parties form only a single reactionary body." And this is also in direct opposition to the practice of the German Socialists themselves, who do not hesitate to support the liberal bourgeoisie in their struggle against the small land-owners and the remnants of agrarian feudalism. But Liebknecht atoned for the breadth, comprehensiveness, and elasticity of his contribution to the theory of Socialist action by the dogmatism of this narrow formula.

As a matter of fact, his definition of the working class is of the broadest:

"We must not limit our conception of the term 'working class' too narrowly. As we have explained in speeches, tracts, and articles, we include in the working class all those who live exclusively or principally by means of their own labour and who do not grow rich through the work of others.

"Thus, besides the wage-earners, we should include in the working class the small farmers and small shopkeepers, who tend more and more to drop to the level of the proletariat—in other words, all those who suffer from our present system of production on a large scale.

"Some maintain, it is true, that the wage-earning proletariat is the only really revolutionary class, that it alone forms the Socialist army, and that we ought to regard with suspicion all adherents belonging to other classes or other conditions of life. Fortunately these senseless ideas have never taken hold of the German Social Democracy,

"The wage-earning class is most directly affected by capitalist exploitation; it stands face to face with those who exploit it, and it has the especial advantage of being concentrated in the factories and yards, so that it is naturally led to think things out more energetically and finds itself automatically organised into 'Battalions of workers.' This state of things gives it a revolutionary character which no other part of society has to the same degree. We must recognise this frankly.

"Every wage-earner is either a Socialist already, or on the highroad to becoming one. The wage-earners of the national workshops in France, whom the middle-class government of the February Republic wished to make use of against the Social proletariat, went over to the enemy at the crucial moment. In the same way we see how those trades-unions that were started by the agents of the German middle class to oppose the Socialist workmen, either have maintained only the shadow of an existence or have in their turn been swept into the current of Socialist ideas. The wage-earner is led toward Socialism by all his surroundings, by all the conditions in which he finds himself. He is forced to think by the very conditions of his life, and as soon as he thinks he becomes a Socialist.

"But if the wage-earner suffers more directly and visibly under the system of capitalist exploitation, the small farmers and shopkeepers are as truly affected by it, although in a less direct and obvious manner.

"The unhappy situation of the small farmers almost all over Germany is as well known as the artisan movement. It is true that both small farmers and small shopkeepers are still in the camp of our adversaries, but only because they do not understand the profound causes that underlie their deplorable condition: it is of prime importance for our party to enlighten them and bring them over to our side. This is a vital question for our party, because these two classes form the majority of the nation. It would be both stupid and ingenuous to exact that we should have a majority sealed and ready in our pockets before we began to apply our principles. But it would be still more ingenuous to imagine that we could put our principles into practice against the will of the immense majority of the nation.

"This is a fatal error for which the French Socialists have paid dear.

"Is it possible to put up a more heroic fight than did the workmen of Paris and Lyons? And has not every struggle ended in a bloody defeat, the most horrible reprisals on the part of the victors, and a long period of exhaustion for the proletariat? The French proletariat has not yet fully grasped the importance of organisation and propaganda, and that is why up to the present moment it has been beaten with perfect regularity.

"The lesson of the Commune seems, happily, to have served a useful purpose in educating the proletariat. Our French comrades are hard at work perfecting their organisation and are spreading propaganda, especially in country districts.

"The German Socialists, on the contrary, have long understood the importance of propaganda and the necessity of winning over the small shop-keeping class and the small farmers.

"A tiny minority alone demands that the Socialist movement shall be limited to the wage-earning class.

"The frothy and theatrical phrases of the fanatic supporters of the 'Class-Struggle' dogma were at bottom a cover for Machiavellian schemes of reactionary feudalism.

"The hyper-revolutionary dress-parade Socialism, that addresses itself exclusively to 'the horny-handed sons of toil,' has two advantages for the reaction. First, it limits the Socialist movement to a class that in Germany at least is not large enough to bring about a revolution; and besides this, it is an excellent way of frightening the main body of the people who are half indifferent, especially the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie, who have not yet organised any independent political activity."

And Liebknecht put the finishing touch to this thought by the following vigorous words:

"We ought not to ask, 'Are you a wage- earner?' but 'Are you a Socialist?'

"If it is limited to the wage-earners, Socialism cannot conquer. If it includes all the workers and the moral and intellectul élite of the nation, its victory is certain.

"Why are we forced to stand by now while our friends are persecuted? Why do we have to submit to the most indecent outrages? Because we are still weak. Why are we weak? Because a small part of the people alone understands the Socialist doctrine.

"And shall we, who are feeble, become still more feeble by excluding thousands of men from our movement on the pretext that chance has not made them members of a given social group? Stupidity would in this case become treason to the Party.

"Not to contract, but to expand, ought to be our motto,—the circle of Socialism should widen more and more until we have converted most of our adversaries to being friends, or at least disarmed their opposition.

"And the indifferent mass, that in peaceful days has no weight in the political balance, but becomes the decisive force in times of agitation, ought to be so fully enlightened as to the aims and the essential ideas of our Party, that it will cease to fear us and can be no longer used as a weapon against us.

"All the legislative measures which we shall support if the opportunity is given us, ought to have for their object to prove the fitness of Socialism to serve the common good, and to destroy current prejudice against us."

Thus Liebknecht imagines a whole period of legislative action during which Socialism will have the opportunity of proving its large view of things, when the blindest will be forced to see in it the party of the common good, and during which it will accustom all the finest minds and the noblest consciences, and all the petty bourgeoisie and peasants, to follow it without fear and without shrinking, even to the complete application of its theory and its ideal.

The propaganda of action will in this way supplement the propaganda of speech.