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Studies in Socialism/Some Sayings of Liebknecht

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On the 7th of August, 1901, the first anniversary of Liebknecht's death, Vorwärts published some very important fragments by him.

Like most journalists who are in the fighting line, Liebknecht was forced to scatter his thoughts, to deal with the daily problems one by one as they presented themselves. But, like many of that profession, too, he cherished the ambition of embodying his essential ideas in a lasting and serious work. His friends found an incomplete manuscript among his papers, written in 1881, in which he had begun to formulate an answer to the great question: How shall Socialism be put into practice? This work gives proof of an indomitable courage in its author, because it was at the very moment when the régime of the state of siege and Bismarck's still undiminished power were weighing most heavily on the Socialist party, that Liebknecht asked himself, not whether Socialism would triumph, but how it would triumph. And this work shows at the same time his vivid sense of the difficulties to be overcome and the necessary transition and evolution to be gone through with.

Here is a fragment of prime importance: “The Practice of Socialism; what measures ought the Socialist party to adopt if, in the near future, it obtains an influence on legislation?

“I want to answer a question that has been asked,” he writes. “But in order that a question may be answered properly, it must first be asked properly. Well, the preceding question has not been well put, at least it is not definite enough. Of course the steps to be taken depend essentially on the circumstances under which the Socialist party has obtained an appreciable influence on legislation. It is possible, and even likely, that Prince Bismarck, if he lives a while longer and keeps his power, will come to the same end as his model and master, Louis Napoleon of France. Some catastrophe for which he is responsible may break up the mechanism of the State, and call our party to govern or at least to share in the government.”

I translate as literally as possible. This means that Liebknecht foresaw, after a great national catastrophe, the total or partial assumption of power by the Socialist party.

“This castastrophe may come as the result of an unsuccessful war or an outburst of discontent which the ruling system will no longer be able to suppress. If either one of these alternatives occurs, our party will naturally take other measures and follow other tactics than if it had obtained an appreciable influence without the aid of such a catastrophe.

"We may even imagine, though we can scarcely count on it, that the danger will be understood by those in the upper circles, and that they will attempt to avert a catastrophe, otherwise inevitable, by introducing intelligent reforms. In this case, our party will be necessarily asked to participate in the government, and will be called upon especially to reform the conditions of labour. It is not necessary to go into further details as far as possibilities are concerned; those that we have imagined are enough to show that the kind of action we shall undertake will depend on the circumstances in which we shall have obtained 'an appreciable influence.'

"But what do we mean by appreciable or sufficient influence? Are we talking about an exclusive influence, of the possibility of our being able to apply our principles, without other limitations than those imposed upon us by economic conditions themselves? In other words, does the question take for granted that we shall have the governing power in our own hands?

"Or does it simply mean that we shall have an influence over a government formed entirely or very largely by the other parties? It is evident that we should act very differently in the two cases.

"And within each of the two possibilities we have suggested there are endless degrees and shades of difference, each one of which would call for a different kind of action."

According to Liebknecht, then, writing in 1881, there are two main hypotheses which can be legitimately formed when we are considering the possibility of the German Socialist party's attaining power.

First it might be called upon to act after a great crisis, a national cataclysm, a disastrous war, or outburst of misery—by reason of some profound disturbance, in short, which would sweep away the old forces and would necessarily make way for the new. In this case, it is certain that the action of the Socialist party would be particularly energetic. It would rise up full of power and self-confidence on the ruins of the Imperial order and of the Imperial parties. And undoubtedly, with the aid of this great upheaval, it would be able to accomplish more for the people and the proletariat from the very beginning, than it could do at first if it obtained limited control as a result of the gradual evolution of the institutions of the Empire toward a policy of reform.

But even then, even if a great internal or external storm were to uproot the conservative forces and raise up the power of the people, Liebknecht is not certain that the Socialist party will have complete control. "Events," he says, "will call it to govern or to share in the government (an oder doch in die Regierung)." It may possibly be able to obtain complete control. On the other hand, even after a revolutionary crisis, it may be forced to share the power with other democratic parties. After the German 4th of September, the Socialist party will have a much more considerable share of power in Germany than it had in France after the French 4th of September. But Liebknecht does not feel certain that it will have complete control, that it will be free to govern. It is possible that the bourgeois democracy will insist upon its share. And where will class-government be then ?

But there is another hypothesis: that in which the ruling powers in Germany, feeling the danger, avert the catastrophe by a policy of reform.

"In this case," says Liebknecht, "our party would be necessarily asked to participate in the government, and especially called upon to reform the conditions of labour."

Liebknecht is not, then, considering a complete assumption of power by the Socialist party, in this hypothesis of political and social evolution. Liebknecht could not imagine and in fact he did not imagine that under the Empire, under William I., William II., or William III., the Socialist party would obtain from the beginning all the power, nor even that it would be able to grasp it the day after the fall of the Empire. No, according to him, a share only of the power, a place in the government, will be confided to the Socialist party by those in the "upper circles." But this Liebknecht considered an imperative necessity. For the policy of reforms to be possible, for it to be efficacious, for it to inspire the confidence of the German people, the Socialist party must be called upon to direct it. The party must be represented and given an active part in the government. Liebknecht even goes to the length of almost suggesting what place in the cabinet it should occupy, and his suggestion bears a strong resemblance to the Ministry of Labour proposed by Citizen Vaillant or the Ministry of Commerce occupied by Citizen Millerand. And Liebknecht says rightly that there will be shades of difference, degrees, and numberless forms, of this Socialistic participation in the government. As the Socialist party is more or less powerful and well organised, as it is able to exercise a more profound influence or inspire more real apprehension, its share of power will be more or less extended, more or less effective; its action on all the non-Socialist members of the government with which it will be associated will be more or less decisive, and the reforms themselves will have a more or less marked Socialistic tendency, a more or less distinct proletarian character.


The future has never been interpreted in a broader-minded or more liberal spirit; and I consider the publication of these posthumous pages of Liebknecht an event of capital importance in the political and social life of Germany and the life of universal Socialism.

It is important to understand that Liebknecht foresaw that the Socialist party would obtain partial control of the government even under the Imperial régime. In 1881, during the state of siege instituted by Bismarck, in spite of the coalition of almost all the other parties united in their hatred of Socialism, Liebknecht, whose spirit was both bold and serene, foresaw that the Socialists would be called to take office, and that the emperors themselves would be constrained to call them; and he foresaw that the Socialists would not refuse this partial vindication, that they would not refuse to undertake this partial work. Holding themselves ready to profit fully by the Revolution if it should break out as a result of a national cataclysm, they would also, he predicted, be ready to enter into the evolutionary process if destiny decreed that evolution was to be the method of advance. They would be ready, in the interest of the nation and the interest of the proletariat, to become ministers of the Kaiser.

By what extraordinary phenomenon, by what inexplicable contradiction, did the man who pondered upon and wrote these carefully worked-over pages in 1881, in the full excitement of the revolutionary struggle, by what prodigious upheaval of ideas did this same man condemn as bitterly as he did the entrance of a French Socialist into a bourgeois government?[1]

I only hazard the guess that his error in the Affaire Dreyfus had upset his judgment on all the events that resulted from it. Almost alone among the German Social Democrats, he was mistaken about the very essence of the affair, and misunderstood its political and social meaning. From the moment he had entered upon a certain line of thought he persevered in it with an inflexibility which was aggravated by his very isolation. The more he found himself alone, the more he persisted in the conviction that he was right. It was the inevitable other side to his sovereign qualities of firmness, of energy, and self-confidence. Naturally, then, he suspected or disapproved of everything that was historically associated with an agitation he had opposed. Since the application of the method he had approved in 1881 was made in France under circumstances that irritated him, he did not even recognise the embodiment of his own thought in the progress of events.

Does the fact that he did not publish this work give any one the right to say that it has no value? Involved in the whirlpool of activity, overwhelmed by the business of every day, he had not finished it. But he neither destroyed nor disavowed it. Perhaps he had decided that it would be imprudent to surrender his secret thought to the enemy, to tell him the tactics he had planned for the future. Perhaps, too, he was somewhat disconcerted by the events that followed the fall of Bismarck. The great enemy of the Chancellor had always magnified and, one might say, satanised his part. He thought that Bismarck was going to drag the Empire down to the depths, that he would hurl it into some national catastrophe. Well, Bismarck was dismissed in his old age without having compromised the peace of Europe or the solidity of the Empire by a single imprudent act. Liebknecht supposed that Bismarck personified not only the danger but the strength of the Empire. Once Bismarck fallen, he imagined that the Imperial institution would have no further support and would weakly adopt a régime of compromise under which the Socialist and popular forces would use their strength to such good purpose that they would attain political power. But William II., having dismissed Bismarck, was able to preserve the Empire in its autocratic and conservative character, and the Socialist party remained in violent and uncompromising opposition. What point was there then in tracing a programme of action, of Socialist reorganisation, at a time that was still a period of war to the death, offensive and defensive? That is probably the explanation why Liebknecht had not published this important work, which reveals one whole aspect of his thought. I confess that when I read the strong clear lines I regretted that they had not been known at the time of the International Congress of Paris in 1900. That Congress hailed the great memory of Liebknecht with a sort of pious fervour; perhaps some bitter words would have been softened if it had been known that they struck at Liebknecht himself.

  1. Millerand was Minister of Commerce in the Waldeck-Rousseau Cabinet. See Introduction.