Opportunism and the art of the possible


Rosa Luxemburg (September 1898)

Written: September 1898.
Source: Sachsische Arbeiterzeitung, September 30, 1898.
Transcription/Markup: Dario Romeo and Brian Baggins.
Online Version: Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2000.

Comrade Heine, as is well known, has written a pamphlet for the party conference entitled To Vote or Not to Vote? In it he comes out in favour of our participating in Prussian Landtag elections. It is not the main subject of his pamphlet that leads us to make a few necessary remarks, but rather the two terms which he mentions in his line of argument, and to which we react with particular sensitivity in consequence of the well-known events that have taken place recently in the party. The terms are: the art of the possible and opportunism. Heine believes that the party’s aversion to these trends rests entirely upon a misunderstanding of the true linguistic meaning of these foreign words. Ah! Comrade Heine, like Faust, has studied jurisprudence with zealous endeavour, but alas, unlike Faust, not much else. And in the true spirit of juridical thought, he says to himself, In the beginning was the word. If we wish to know whether the art of the possible and opportunism are harmful or useful to Social Democracy, we need only consult the dictionary of foreign words and the question is answered in five minutes. For the dictionary of foreign words informs us that the art of the possible is ‘a policy which endeavours to achieve what is possible under given circumstances’. Heine then proclaims, ‘Indeed, I ask all rational men, should a policy attempt to achieve what is impossible under given circumstances?’ Yes, we as rational men reply, if questions of politics and tactics could be solved so easily, then lexicographers would be the wisest statesman and, instead of delivering Social-Democratic speeches, we should have to begin holding popular lectures in linguistics.

Certainly our policy should and can only endeavour to achieve what is possible under given circumstances. But this not say how, in what manner, we should endeavour to achieve what is possible. This, however, is the crucial point.

The basic question of the socialist movement has always been how to bring its immediate practical activity into agreement with its ultimate goal. The various ‘schools’ and trends of socialism are differentiated according to their various solutions to this problem. And Social Democracy is the first socialist party that has understood how to harmonize its final revolutionary goal with its practical day-to-day activity, and in this way it has been able to draw broad masses into the struggle. Why then is this solution particularly harmonious? Stated briefly and in general terms, it is that the practical struggle has been shaped in accordance with the general principles of the party programme. This we all know by heart; should anyone challenge us, our answers are as clever as they always were. Now we believe that, despite its generality, this tenet constitutes a very palpable guide for our activity. Let us illustrate it briefly by two topical questions of party life – by militarism and custom policy.

In principle – as everyone is familiar with our programme knows – we are against all militarism and protective tariffs. Does it follow from this that our representative in the Reichstag must oppose all debate on bills concerning these matters with an abrupt and blunt no? Absolutely not, for this would be an attitude befitting a small sect and not a great mass party. Our representatives must investigate each individual bill; they must consider the arguments and they must judge and debate on the basis if the existing concrete relationship, of the existing economic and political situations, and not of a lifeless and abstract principle. The result, however, must and will be – if we have assessed correctly the existing relationship and the people’s interest – no. Our solution is: not a man and not a penny for this system! But, given the present social order, there can be no system which would not be this very system. Each time tariffs are increased we say that we see no reason for agreeing to the tariff in the present situation, but for us there can be no situation in which we could reach a different position. Only in this way can our practical struggle become what it must be: the realization of our basic principles in the process of social life and the embodiment of our general principles in practical, everyday action.

And only under these conditions do we fight in the sole permissible way for what is at any time ‘possible’. Now if one says that we should offer an exchange – our consent to militaristic and tariff legislation in return for political concessions or social reforms – then one is sacrificing the basic principles of the class struggle for momentary advantage, and one’s actions are based on opportunism. Opportunism, incidentally, is a political game which can be lost in two ways: not only basic principles but also practical success may be forfeited. The assumption that one can achieve the greatest number of successes by making concessions rests on a complete error. Here, as in all great matters, the most cunning persons are not the most intelligent. Bismarck once told a bourgeois opposition party: ‘You will deprive yourselves of any practical influences if you always and as a matter of course say no.’ The old boy was then, as so often, more intelligent than is Pappenheimer.[A] Indeed, a bourgeois party, that is, a party which says yes to the existing order as a whole, but which will say no to the day-to-day consequences of this order, is a hybrid, an artificial creation, which is neither fish nor flash nor fowl. We who oppose the entire present order see things quite differently. In our no, in our intransigent attitude, lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people.

Precisely because we do not yield one inch from our position, we force the government and the bourgeois parties to concede to us the few immediate successes that can be gained. But if we begin to chase after what is ‘possible’ according to the principles of opportunism, unconcerned with our own principles, and by means of statesmanlike barter, then we will soon find ourselves in the same situation as the hunter who has not only failed to stay the deer but has also lost his gun in the process.

We do not shudder at the foreign terms, opportunism and the art of the possible, as Heine believes; we shudder only when they are ‘Germanized’ into our party practice. Let them remain foreign words for us. And, if occasion arises, let our comrades shun the role of interpreter.

[A] A reference to the soldiers of General Pappenheim in the Thirty Years War.

Opportunism and the art of the possible