Social Democracy and Parliamentarism


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Rosa Luxemburg (1904)

Once again the Reichstag has convened under very characteristic circumstances. On the one hand, there are renewed and brazed attacks by the reactionary press – of the caliber of the Post – against the universal franchise, and on the other, clear signs of a ‘parliamentary weariness’ in the bourgeois circles themselves; together with this, there is the government’s evident intention to defer the convocation of the Reichstag until shortly before the Christmas holiday – all this presents a crass picture of a rapid decline of the supreme German parliament, and of its political significance. It is now obvious that in the main the Reichstag convenes only to endorse the budget, a new army bill, new credits for the colonial war in Africa, the inevitable new naval demands beckoning in the background, and the trade treaties – nothing but faits accomplis, the results of the extra-parliamentary influence of political managers on the Reichstag which then acts as an automatic rubber stamp to approve the recovery of the expenses incurred by these extra-parliamentary political groups. A classic demonstration of the extent to which the bourgeoisie consciously and devoutly acquiesces in the deplorable role assigned to its parliament is given in a statement made by Left-liberal Berlin paper. In view of the exorbitant new military requisitions, which mean an increase in its size of more than 10.000 men and in its expenditure of 74 million marks in the coming quinquennial [one-fifth of a year], and which are accompanied with the usual threat, field like a pistol on the Reichstag’s head, to re-introduce the three-year term of service, this newspapers predict with a resigned sign that since the representatives of the people cannot desire [the three-year term of service], one might as well already regard the army bill ‘as approved’. And this heroic liberal prophecy will be as outstandingly correct as any account that takes as its starting-point the disgraceful self-renunciation of the bourgeois Reichstag majority.

In the fate if the German Reichstag we seen an important episode in the history of the bourgeois parliamentarism in general, and it is entirely in the interests of the proletariat to understand thoroughly its tendencies and inner connections. The illusion held by a bourgeoisie struggling for power (and even more by a bourgeoisie in power), namely the its parliament is the central axis of social life and the driving force of world history, is not only historically explicable but also necessary. This is a notion which naturally flowers in the splendid ‘parliamentary cretinism’ which cannot see beyond the complacent speechification of a few hundred parliamentary deputies in a bourgeois legislative chamber, to the gigantic forces of world history, forces which are at work on the outside, in the bosom of social development, and which are quite unconcerned with their parliamentary law-making. However, it is this very play of the blind elementary forces of social development toward which the bourgeois classes themselves unknowingly and unwillingly contribute, which leads to the inexorable undermining not only of the imagined, but also of the real significance of bourgeois parliamentarism.

For here – and this can be examined more conclusively in the fate of the German Reichstag than in any other country – it is the twofold effect of the international and the domestic developments which is bringing about the decline of the bourgeois parliament. On the one hand global politics, which in the past ten years have become increasingly powerful, are forcing the entire and economic and social life of the capitalist countries into a vortex of incalculable, uncontrollable international actions, conflict and transformations, in which bourgeois parliaments are tossed about powerlessly like logs in a stormy sea.

On the other hand, the internal development of classes and parties in capitalist society is paving the way for and bringing to maturity the pliancy and impotence of the bourgeois parliament vis-à-vis this destructive clash of global politics, of militarism, of naval growth, of colonial politics.

Parliamentarism is far from being an absolute product of democratic development, of the progress of the human species, and of such nice things. It is, rather, the historically determined form of the class rule of the bourgeoisie and – what is only the reverse of this rule – of its struggle against feudalism. Bourgeois parliamentary will stay alive only so long as the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the feudalism lasts. If the stimulating fire of this struggle should go out, then from the bourgeois standpoint parliamentary would lose its historical purpose. For the past quarter-century, however, the universal feature of political development in the capitalistic countries has been a compromise between the bourgeoisie and feudalism. The obliteration of the difference between the Whigs and Tories in England, between the republicans and the clerical-monarchist nobility in France, is the product and manifestation of this compromise. In Germany this compromise stunted the growth of the emancipation of the nascent bourgeois class, choked its starting-point – the March Revolution – and left German parliamentarism with the crippled figure of a misfit hovering constantly between death and life. The Prussian constitutional conflict was the last time the class struggle of the German bourgeoisie flared up against the feudal monarchy. Since then, the foundations of parliamentarism has not been, as in England, France, Italy and United States, the congruity of popular representation with governmental power in such a way that the government is drawn from the current parliamentary majority. Instead, parliamentarism has been founded on the opposite method, one which correspond with the special Prussian-German wretchedness: every bourgeois party that achieves power in the Reichstag becomes, eo ipso, the governing party, that is, the instrument of feudal reaction. Consider only the fate of the National Liberals and the Centre Party.

The perfected feudal-bourgeois compromise has, even from the historical standpoint, made parliamentarism into a rudiment, an organ deprived of all function, and, with compelling logic, has also produced all the streaking features of parliamentary decline today. So long as the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the feudal monarchy lasts, its natural expression is the open party struggle in parliament. But when the compromise has been perfected, bourgeois party struggles in parliament are useless. The conflict of interest among the various groups of the dominant bourgeois-feudal reaction are no longer settled in parliamentary trials of strength, but in the form of string-pulling in the parliamentary back-rooms. What remains of open bourgeois parliamentary struggles is no longer class and party conflicts, but at most, in backward countries such as Austria, brawls between nationalities, i.e. between cliques; their appropriate parliamentary form is the scuffle, the scandal. The dying out of bourgeois party struggles also means the disappearance of their natural adjuncts: the prominent parliamentary personalities, the famous orators and the powerful speeches. The battle of speeches is useful as a parliamentary method only to a fighting party which is seeking popular support. To give a speech in parliament, essentially, is always to ‘talk through the window’. From the standpoint of the string-pullers in the back-rooms – whose method is the normal way of setting conflicts of interest on the basis of the bourgeois-feudal compromise – speech-making is futile, indeed it only defeats their purpose. Hence the bourgeois parties’ indignation at ‘to much talking’ in Reichstag; hence the crippling, exhausted sense of their own uselessness which encumbers the speech-making campaigns of the bourgeois parties like a leaden blanket and which transform the Reichstag into a house of lethal intellectual desolation.

And finally, the bourgeois-feudal compromise has called into question the cornerstone of parliamentarism – universal suffrage itself. But from the bourgeois point of view, this too is significant historically only as a weapon in the struggle between the two great factions of the propertied classes. The bourgeoisie needed the universal suffrage in order to lead ‘the people’ into the battle against feudalism. And feudalism needed it to mobilize the countryside against the industrial city. After the conflict itself had ended in compromise, and a third force – neither liberal nor agrarian troops but Social Democracy – arose from the two attempts, universal suffrage became senseless from the viewpoint of the ruling bourgeois-feudal interests.

Bourgeois parliamentarism has thus completed the cycle of its historical development and has arrived at the point of self-negation. Social Democracy, however, has taken up its post in the country and in parliament as, simultaneously, the cause and effect of this fate of the bourgeoisie. If parliamentarism has lost all significance for capitalist society, it is for the rising working class one of the most powerful and indispensable means of carrying on the class struggle. To save bourgeois parliamentarism from the bourgeoisie and use it against the bourgeoisie is one of Social Democracy’s most urgent political tasks.

Thus formulated, the task seems to be intrinsically contradictory. But, says Hegel, ‘contradictions leads to progress’. The contradictory task of Social Democracy vis-à-vis parliamentarism gives rise to the party’s duty of protecting and supporting this ruinous decay of bourgeois-democratic splendour, a duty which at the same time accelerates the ultimate decline of the whole bourgeois order and the seizure of power by the socialist proletariat.


In our own ranks one frequently hears the predominant view that a candid description of the inner decay of bourgeois parliamentarism and an open and severe criticism of it is a politically dangerous beginning, since in this way one disillusions the people in their belief in parliamentarism and thus facilitates reactionary efforts to undermine universal suffrage.

The error of such an approach will be immediately obvious to everyone who is inwardly sympathetic toward and engrossed in Social Democracy’s ideas. The real interests of Social Democracy – indeed those of democracy in general – can never be furthered by concealing the actual relationship from the great masses of the people. Artful diplomatic dodges might well be of value here and there for the petty parliamentary chess moves of bourgeois clique. The great historical movement of Social Democracy can practise only the most ruthless frankness and sincerity toward the working masses. After all, Social Democracy’s real nature, its historical calling, is to impart to the proletariat a clear consciousness of the social and political motive forces of bourgeois development, both as a whole and in all their details.

Especially with regard to parliamentarism, it is absolutely necessary to recognize as clearly as possible the real causes of its decline, as they follow from the logic of the bourgeois development, in order to warn the class-conscious workers against the destructive illusion that any moderation of Social-Democratic class struggle could artificially breathe new life into bourgeois democracy and into the bourgeois opposition in parliament.

We are witness to the most extreme consequences of applying this method of salvaging parliamentarism in Jaurès’s ministerial tactics in France. These tactics rest on a twofold artifice. On the one hand the workers are given the most exaggerated hopes and illusions regarding the positive achievements the might expect from parliament in general. The bourgeois parliament is praised not merely as the competent instrument of social progress and justice, of the elevation of the working class, of world peace and of such wondrous things; it is even represented as the agent competent to realize the ultimate goal of socialism. Thus all the expectations, all the efforts, all the attention of the working class, are concentrated on parliament.

On the other hand, the behavior of the socialist ministers in parliament itself is directed exclusively at bringing about the rule of, and keeping alive, the sad and inwardly lifeless remnants of bourgeois democracy. For this purpose the class conflict between proletariat and bourgeois-democratic policy is completely disavowed and socialist opposition abandoned; ultimately the Jaurès socialists’ own parliamentary tactics resemble those of the purely bourgeois democrats. These disguised democrats are distinguishable from the genuine thing only by their socialist label – and their grater moderation.

More cannot be done, it would seem, toward self-renunciation, toward sacrificing socialism upon the altar of bourgeois parliamentarism. And the results?

The disastrous effect of Jaurès’s tactic on the class movement of the French proletariat is well known: the dissolution of the labour movement, the confusion of ideas, the demoralization of the party deputies. But this is not what concerns us here, for we are interested in the consequences to parliamentarism itself of the tactics described, and these are fatal in the extreme. Not only were the policies of the bourgeois democrats, the republicans, the ‘radicals’, not strengthened and regenerated, but, on the contrary, these parties lost all the respect and fear for socialism that had once, as it were, stiffened their backbones. Much more dangerous, however, is another symptom which has made its appearance in the recent days: the increasing disillusionment of the French worker concerning parliamentarism. The exaggerated illusions of the proletariat, fed by Jaurès’s phrase-making policy, had to lead to a violent reaction; and indeed they have led to a situation in which today a large number of French workers no longer want to know anything not only of Jaurèsism but also of parliament and politics in general.

The organ of the young French Marxists, the Mouvement Socialiste, which is usually so intelligent and useful, has just published a surprising series of articles preaching a rejection of parliamentarism in favour of a return to pure trade unionism, and seeing the ‘true revolutionism’ in the purely economic struggle of the of the worker. At the same time, one provincial socialist paper, the Travailleur de l’Yonne, puts forward an even more original idea when it explains that for the proletariat, parliamentary action is completely unproductive and that it corrupts us – which is why it would be better to forgo the election of socialist deputies from now on and to send only, say, bourgeois radicals into parliament.

These then are the beautiful fruits of Jaurès’s attempts to rescue parliamentarism: an increasing popular aversion to every parliamentary action and a revision to anarchism – which, in a word, is the greatest real danger to the existence of parliament and even of the republic in general.

In Germany, under existing conditions, such deviations in socialist practice from the basis of the class struggle are of course unthinkable. However, the extreme consequences of this tactic in France serve as a clear warning to the entire international movement of the proletariat that this is not the way to pursue its task of supporting a declining bourgeois parliamentarism. The real way is not to conceal and abandon the proletarian class struggle, but the very reverse: to emphasize strongly and develop this struggle both within and without parliament. This includes strengthening the extra-parliamentary action of the proletariat as well as a certain organization of the parliamentary action of our deputies.

In direct contrast to the erroneous assumptions on which Jaurès’s tactics are based, the foundations of parliamentarism are better and more securely protected in proportion as our tactics are tailored not to parliament alone, but also to the direct action of the proletarian masses. The danger to universal suffrage will be lessened to the degree that we can make the ruling classes clearly aware that the real power of Social Democracy by no means rests on the influence of its deputies in the Reichstag, but that it lies outside, in the people themselves, ‘in the streets’, and that if the need arise Social Democracy is able and willing to mobilize the people directly for the protection of their political rights. This does not mean that, for example, it is sufficient to keep the general strike, as it were, at the ready, up our sleeves in order to believe ourselves equipped for any political eventuality. The political general strike is surely one of the more important manifestation of the mass action of the proletariat, and it is entirely necessary that the German working class accustom itself to regarding this method (which until now has been tested only in the Latin countries), without any arrogance or doctrinaire preconceptions, as one of the forms of the struggle which might possibly be attempted in Germany. More important, however, is to organize our agitation and our press in such a general way as to make the working masses increasingly aware of their own power, their own action, and not to consider parliamentary struggle as the central axis of political life.

Very closely connected with this are our tactics in the Reichstag itself. That which always so facilitates our deputies’ lustrous campaigns and outstanding role is – and we must be completely aware of this – the absence in the German Reichstag of any bourgeois democracy and opposition worthy of the name. Social Democracy has an easy time of it vis-à-vis the reactionary majority, since the party is the sole consistent and reliable advocate of the interests of the people’s prosperity and of progress in all areas of public life.

This same unique situation, however, give rise to the difficult task for the Social-Democratic parliamentary party of appearing not merely as the representative of an oppositional party, but also as the representative of a revolutionary class. In other words, the task that arises is not merely to criticize the policy of the ruling classes from the standpoint of the people’s present interests, that is, from the standpoint of the existing society itself, but also to contrast existing society as its every move with the socialist ideal of society, a ideal which goes beyond the most progressive bourgeois policy. And if the people can convince themselves at each Reichstag debate of how much more intelligently, more progressively, economically more advantageously the conditions in the present State would be arranged if the wishes and proposal of Social Democracy were met each time, then the Reichstag debates should now convince them more then ever how necessary it is to overthrow the whole order in order to realize socialism.

Discussing the Italian election in an article in the latest issue of the Sozialistiche Monatshefte, the leader of the Italian opportunists, Bissolati, writes, ‘In my opinion, one indication of the backwardness of political life is when the struggle between individual parties revolves around basic tendencies instead of around individual questions which originate in the reality of daily life and through which these tendencies can be articulated.’ It is obvious that this typical opportunistic line of reasoning turns the truth upside down. As Social Democracy develops and grows stronger, it becomes increasingly necessary, especially in parliament, that it is not submerged in individual questions of daily life and thus only carries on political opposition. Instead, Social Democracy must stress ever more energetically its ‘basic tendency’: the endeavour to seize political power with the help of the proletariat, for the purpose of achieving the socialist revolution.

The more the fresh and bold agitation of Social Democracy resound in the Reichstag in extreme dissonance to the trivial-insipid tone and the dull, business-like mediocrity of all the bourgeois parties, advocating not only its minimal programme but also its ultimate socialist goal, then the more will be the great masses’ respect for the Reichstag increase. And the more secure will be the guarantee that the masses of the people will not stand idly by and allow the reaction to snatch this tribune and the universal suffrage from them.

Social Democracy and Parliamentarism