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Studies in Socialism/Liebknecht on Socialist Tactics





Liebknecht considered that the general tactics of the party were necessarily variable and dependent on circumstances. That method of procedure which of late years has gone by the somewhat insulting name of Socialist opportunism has never been more energetically formulated. I translate:

“We have now finished with general considerations. Before we begin on details, let us briefly sum up what has been said.

“We have seen that it is impossible to decide beforehand on tactics for our Party which would hold good in every case. Tactics must depend upon circumstances. The interest of the Party is our only law, our only rule.

“We have seen that the ends of the Party should be wholly distinct from the means it adopts to gain those ends.

“The ends are inalterable; it being of course clearly understood that we may look for a scientific extension, a perfecting of the programme. On the other hand, the means of combat and the use that is made of them can change and ought to change.

"We have seen that the Party, in order to be capable of the highest possible degree of effective organisation and of action, ought to have before all things a clear idea of the essence of our movement, and that it must never neglect the essential for the non-essential,

"The essential thing, as we understand it, is that the unalterable principles of Socialism shall be put into practice in the State and in society as rapidly as possible.

"The non-essential question is how they shall be put into practice. Not that we wish to lessen the importance of tactics. But tactics are only a means of obtaining an end; and whereas the end presents itself before us firm and immovable, we can argue about tactics. Questions of tactics are practical questions and should be absolutely distinguished from questions of principle.

"We have seen, especially, that it is absolutely unjustifiable to consider that the tactics of force are the only revolutionary tactics, and to say that he is a poor revolutionist who does not unconditionally approve these tactics. We have shown that force itself is not in its essence revolutionary, but rather belongs to the counter-revolution.

"We have seen the necessity of emancipating ourselves from the bondage of certain catch-words, and of developing the power of the Party in the direction of clear thought and brave and methodical action, instead of displaying it in phrases of revolutionary violence, which too often only serve to hide a lack of precise thought and vigorous action."

This is great teaching. But if questions of tactics are really of such secondary importance, what is the obstacle to a wide Socialist unity? All Socialists agree as to the aim: the establishment of Socialism, the necessity for a social organisation of property with the object of abolishing all tolls upon the product of labour and of assuring the full development of every human personality.

They disagree as to the means, as to the tactics. Some, who share Liebknecht's opinion, have thought that during the period of the slow dissolution of the capitalist system and of the slow elaboration of the Socialist régime, the Socialists would necessarily be called, at one time or another, to help form a government. Others have thought differently. It is a question of tactics, not an essential question. Some, eager to multiply the barriers, have insisted that a constant, systematic, and unconditional refusal to vote the budget was the necessary and authentic hallmark of Socialism. Others have quietly maintained that the party ought not to be bound, and that if a budget included important reforms, and if on that account it was opposed by the reaction, the Socialists, in opposing it also, would be playing the game of the reaction. Here again we have a question of tactics, which will be decided by the very necessities of life and by the social and political evolution that will inevitably occur, a question hardly serious enough to call forth mutual recriminations and schisms in the party.

And just as tactics are subject to change, the programme, which is after all a part of the tactics, can be modified, revised, and completed. For my own part, I think it utterly incomplete and strangely inadequate. I think that it does not correspond any longer to the degree of development of the proletariat, and that it ought to be supplemented by a whole series of measures gradually admitting the working class to power and beginning half-communism in peasant production. Some, on the other hand, object violently to any plan of action which would, as they express it, run the risk of weakening the class-consciousness of the proletariat by giving it a definite place in the present organisation. We may look for much controversy on this point whenever both sides are willing to think clearly. But here again we are dealing with a question of tactics, that is, as Liebknecht says, a question naturally open to controversy. A schism on this subject is therefore harmful and unnecessary.


If Liebknecht was in the right, if the appeal to force runs the risk of being counter-revolutionary in character, if we can and ought to succeed by means of propaganda, organisation, clear thinking, and a vigorous manipulation of the law, we ought not to rest content after we have repeated Liebknecht's ideas; we must apply them with method and consistency. Those who talk alternately of the vote and the rifle, those who, when universal suffrage favours them, give it their allegiance, and when it goes against them, reject it, trouble the forward march of the party by the incoherence of their thought.

And when I say this I accuse myself as much as any one else. We all, or almost all, have confused ideas on the subject of tactics and our action is thereby hampered and weakened. By our constant use of republican lawful methods and of universal suffrage, we weaken the instinct of revolt and the classical revolutionary tradition of an appeal to force. By our intermittent and purely rhetorical appeals to force, to the rifle, we weaken our hold on universal suffrage. We undoubtedly ought to make a decision, to ask ourselves whether it serves any useful purpose for us to mark the votes cast legally into the ballot-box with a few grains of powder, that, moreover, never explode.

Do we need the majority, and can we win it over to our side? There lies the problem. If the answer is yes, then an appeal to force is, as Liebknecht says, counter-revolutionary. Well, Liebknecht answers Yes.

I translate again:

"We have pointed out, finally, that the Party, in order to put the Socialist ideas into practice, must conquer the power that is indispensable, and that it should do this first of all by means of propaganda.

"We have shown that the number of those whose interest forces them into the ranks of our enemies is so small that it is becoming almost negligible, and that the immense majority of those who have a hostile or at least hardly a friendly attitude toward us only take this position through ignorance of their own situation and of our efforts, and that we ought to exert all our strength to enlighten this majority and win it over."

Liebknecht, then, has stated the problem exactly, literally, as I state it. What steps ought we to take to win over the national majority to the full Socialist ideal, through methods of propaganda and lawful action?


Liebknecht is so anxious to find a broad basis on which he can begin by uniting all the nation, with the idea of then lifting it up, step by step, to complete Socialism, that he considers even the compulsory insurance laws proposed by Bismarck as a preparation for Socialism. Although, in his eyes, the law dealing with accidents is hardly more than a flimsy paper toy, he sees in it a first recognition of Socialist thought.

"It embodies in a decisive manner the principle of State regulation of production as opposed to the laissez-faire system of the Manchester school. The right of the State to regulate production supposes the duty of the State to interest itself in labour, and State control of the labour of society leads directly to State organisation of the labour of society."

That was what Liebknecht said about the law dealing with accidents, which of all the insurance laws is the most superficial, the least intimately connected with the conditions of labour. How much more true is his criticism of the compulsory insurance against old age and sickness, which in fact creates a new right for the working class, and which constitutes a patrimony for the proletariat at once collective and personal; and how especially true it would be of insurance against non-employment, which is both necessary and possible, and which would introduce the proletariat into the very heart of the productive system.


Liebknecht considers the fact that almost all the parties are obliged to support this proposed legislation, as one of the surest signs of the growth of Socialism in Germany.

"All the parties," he writes, "with the exception of the most old-fashioned Manchesterian anarchists, who wish nothing less than to resolve the State into atoms and deliver society to the 'free' exploitation of the owning classes, rival each other in their solicitude for the 'poor man' and for the working class; and there is no doubt that Prince Bismarck, if he wants to, can command a majority in the present Reichstag for his State Socialism. That the Protestant and Catholic clergy, the small farmers and great landed proprietors, should accommodate themselves to the State Socialism—the priests call it Christian Socialism—is after all not so very astonishing.

"But the most striking phenomenon, and one without analogy in modern times, is the attitude of the National Liberals. Split into factions and discredited though they may be, they are an essential part of the German bourgeoisie, they are themselves the typical bourgeois, and they have reconciled themselves to State Socialism."

In other words, since the pressure of events and the growing organisation of the Socialist party and the proletariat have finally induced even those classes and those parties which would be naturally most opposed to them to accept the projects of social legislation "which will lead inevitably straight to Socialism"; since the immense majority of the nation has allowed itself to be started in the direction of Socialism, and, one might say, lifted up to the first step of social organisation, we may conclude that in the same way the immense majority of the nation can be lifted step by step, by means of an ever more active and definite propaganda, by an ever more energetic proletarian influence, and an ever more effective mechanism of reforms, to the level of our ultimate ideal.

This is Liebknecht's strong and firm conclusion. The great majority of the nation can be won over to our side by propaganda and lawful action, and led to complete Socialism, The whole nation, with the exception of a few refractory but powerless elements, will rise, if we are determined that it shall, by the roads that lead up from bourgeois individualism to State Socialism, and from State Socialism to Communistic, human, and proletarian Socialism.

The majority can and ought legally to be ours.