Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Tactics of Revolution”

Today marks 150 years since the birth of Polish-Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. In this 1906 article, published by Jacobin in English for the first time, she drew on the ongoing revolution in the Russian Empire to explain the working class’s power to overthrow the capitalist order.

Rosa Luxemburg. (Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung / Flickr)

When considering how to educate Social Democracy about the electoral activities of the bourgeoisie in this country [Poland], one comes up against the general issue of proletarian tactics for the present season. The course and the result of the revolutionary struggle largely depend on how consciously the working class wages the war, and on how thoroughly it realizes the nature, conditions, and purpose of its tactics.

That is to say, it is important that the front ranks that lead the fight become fully aware of the difference in the tactics of the proletariat between times of peace and times of revolution. Ignorance of this difference may explain why one hears certain statements repeated in some Social-Democratic circles, such as in one part of our sister party in Russia [i.e., divided between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks].

Such statements include the claim that to hamper bourgeois parties as they prepare for and try to realize the elections to the tsar’s Duma is to adopt “non-Social Democratic” tactics — that such tactics are a kind of “terror” that the working masses do not understand. If this were the case, it would constitute the sole reason the working masses still do not sufficiently understand what revolution is and how it places certain obligations on the fighting proletariat.

The tactics of Social Democracy are always revolutionary both in their essence and in their significance. This arises from the final goal, the very program of Social Democracy, which illuminates the path for every step of the fight. The goal is a complete social coup — the complete toppling of the present capitalist system and the establishment of an entirely new order, a socialist one. And this is the path to the working-class seizure of political power — that is, the path to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

With this in mind, the typical popular gathering in Germany, at which workers calmly hear speakers out over a pint of beer to make themselves conscious of the goals and program of Social Democracy, is an act no less revolutionary than the last collective uprising in Moscow. The tactics of Social Democracy, which is to say the forms their daily struggle takes, are always revolutionary in nature in that they consciously aspire to realize the party program, since the program of Social Democracy is itself revolutionary.

Nevertheless, with respect to their form, proletarian ways of fighting must be and are different in times of revolution and in times of peace. Naturally, this difference does not consist in there being “beatings and blood flowing in the streets” during revolution, while times of peace see markedly more “civilized forms” of class struggle, as the bourgeoisie and the police think. The difference lies much deeper.

Both in peacetime and in periods of revolutionary upheaval, the essence of Social Democratic tactics is constituted in the class struggle of the proletariat. But in peacetime, this struggle takes place within the framework of political rule by the bourgeoisie. In each case, a country’s existing laws determine limits and forms for worker struggle. Thus, for example, in Germany, when the working class agitates and puts up a political fight, it must stay within the bounds of the existing laws governing elections, assembly, and the press; in its economic struggle, it must hold to the existing laws governing coalitions such as unions; and so forth.

It must do so even though all the laws, regulations, and restrictions that impose certain restraints and forms on the working class from above and throw up walls around its activity are the work of bourgeois parliaments, the fruits of legislation efforts in which the bourgeoisie has a majority, and the effects of laws enforced, without exception, so as to maintain the political dominance of the bourgeoisie. To return to the example of Germany, Social Democracy is admittedly fighting tirelessly to expand electoral laws, union laws, and so on for the benefit of the proletariat, in addition to making use of already existing political rights, but again, it does not put up this opposition to the political control of the bourgeoisie through means that are not basically in line with laws already in existence.

In this way, “bourgeois legality” — that is, law that keeps watch over bourgeois power — forms a sort of iron cage in which the class struggle of the proletariat must take place. This is why the result of struggle in times of peace mainly consists in accumulating consciousness and organizing the proletariat; struggle in peacetime can only very seldom attain positive results in the order of new gains and political rights. German Social Democracy, for example, managed to gather more than three million adult men to its banner, but none of this force is in a position to move on protective legislation or coalition legislation, since the parliament and government are currently, as ever, in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Under the tsar, before the revolution, the “legal” cage around proletarian struggle was the omnipotent reign of “the tsar’s law” — that is, the lash.

A locomotive overturned by strikers at the Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) railway depot during the 1905 revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Times of revolution rend the cage of “legality” open like pent-up steam splitting its kettle, letting class struggle break out into the open, naked and unencumbered. Of course, economically and socially, the bourgeoisie still reigns during the revolution, as before, since the means of production remain in its hands and all public life still revolves around it. Politically and legally, however, the rule of the governmental authority up to that moment — absolutism — is destroyed, and the struggle of the proletariat can manifest its full might.

The revolution may look like a clash between the ruling powers’ brute physical force and the rebelling people. In reality, while the physical power of the revolutionary proletariat is itself only a result and expression of its political consciousness, this consciousness and political power emerge during revolution without having been warped by, tied down to, and overpowered by the “laws” of bourgeois society. The class power of the proletariat clashes with the power of the authorities and the ruling classes, and the interests of the proletariat with the interests of the oppressors. The clash is simple and direct, free of walls and limits of “legality” to block it.

In revolution, in the face-to-face grapple of class interests, is formed what Lassalle called the essence of constitutions — that is, the actual relations of class forces. Based on this, the actual ground the proletariat manages to conquer in today’s revolutionary battlefields will form the basis of the constitution written later, the laws that will later specify the position and conditions of the working class, perhaps for decades. The greater the political force the proletariat manifests and musters now, during the revolutionary upheaval, the greater will be its share of the law, and the more beneficial its position, under the subsequent peaceful reign of the bourgeoisie after the revolution.

That is why now, in times of revolution, the guiding light of our tactics should be for the true proletariat to take complete control, for the proletariat to strive after its intended form of political “dictatorship,” not, indeed, to enact a socialist coup, but to realize the goals of the revolution. The entire revolutionary movement marches toward this guiding light. In the preliminary phase of the revolution, the rallying cry of workers in Russia was for the government to call a constitutional assembly.

Today, no conscious proletarian believes it either possible or desirable for the rotting corpse of absolutism to call a constituent assembly. The revolutionary people must itself achieve the final victory by expelling the remains of the government’s carcass. Only then can it produce a summons to a meeting of representatives of the people, announce a republic throughout the land, including autonomy for Poland, and establish the eight-hour workday.

But this revolutionary “dictatorship” — that is, the victory of the proletariat — cannot be picked from a tree at the desired hour or caught falling from the sky. It can only occur as the end result of the proletariat’s gradual, continual march toward power. The only road to this end is for the will and interests of the conscious proletariat to be realized boldly, step by step — for power to be won for the proletariat in every domain, at all costs.

Let us take two examples that show the difference in tactics between times of peace and times of revolution. In Germany, workers are leading an unceasing and tireless fight for the improvement of working conditions, and in the course of this fight and for its advancement they have created powerful trade organizations which today already number more than a million strong. In their economic struggle, however, they are severely hindered by the existing German law on coalitions, which, for example, denies agricultural workers and rail and postal employees the right to organize themselves.

Besides this, as a matter of fact, the government hinders opposition and trade organization even for industrial workers in government plants, as do the police and the courts in private factories at every opportunity, as do the high and mighty kings of capital in the other large businesses, and finally as do the “cartels” — that is, the great unions of industrial capitalists. All these powers work together to ensure the factory owner preserves his rights as “master of the house” in his factory. German workers arm themselves against such forces only by making diligent use of existing union laws and by campaigning for expansions to their rights at rallies on election day and in parliament.

Nowhere in their fight, however, do they try to break or sidestep these laws. For example, they make no bold, sweeping attempt to create agricultural or state labor unions, which are forbidden by law. Such an action would be both impossible and pointless in the Germany of today. Impossible because, in times of peace, such an action would be unlikely to so artificially trigger the fighting energy and resolve that could spur the proletarian masses to take what belongs to them by storm, disregarding the potential sacrifices and dangers of battle. Pointless because, without the momentum gained through militant action by the entire proletariat — a momentum only created by revolution itself — isolated branches of the proletariat who attempted to break free of the laws of the current bourgeois state would only be able to make gains for a very short time at most and would soon be forcibly suppressed.

Władysław Skoczylas, “Street demonstration 1905,” 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)

For workers in Russia and Poland, the tactics required by the revolutionary situation are completely different. Here the power of the proletariat’s trade organizations and its achievements in the fight against capital depend not on formal “laws” but on the actual power and consciousness of the working class. In its current fight to improve working conditions under tsarism, the proletariat does not and should not know any boundaries other than the limits of actual possibility.

Where possible, workers should also aspire, in their struggle over the workplace, to break the capitalist’s all-powerful grip on the factory and attain an agreement in which workers are the “master of the house” — not, admittedly, with respect to economic power, since the ownership of capital and the ability to profit stay in the hands of the capitalist, but at least with respect to legislating the working conditions and internal organization patterns of the factory.

The guiding vision of the current labor struggle must be for labor organizations to gain the highest degree of freedom and influence within the factory that can be achieved by wage-earning victims of capitalist exploitation, and crucial for such attainment is that the proletariat exert sufficiently strong pressure by means of every manifestation of the consciousness and the will of the working masses.

The same principle applies to the political battlefield. In times of peace such as the present — in Germany, for example — existing legal and political relations prevent the conscious proletariat from expressing its will and defending its interests. Even though Social Democracy is the most powerful party in Germany, the allied bourgeois parties together constitute a parliamentary majority, which they use to pass law after law intended to clean out and enslave the working class. The only ways German Social Democracy fights this oppression are peaceful protest and organization and electoral opposition, in the hope of winning over a majority of the entire working populace to the party’s goals; indeed, in the current situation no other plan of action is feasible.

Under the tsar, the current goal of our activities must be not only to raise the consciousness of the broadest possible swath of the proletariat, but also for the proletariat to achieve real influence over social relations — for the proletariat to forcibly achieve the actual ability to rule over society. Whereas, in peacetime, the proletariat must patiently endure the tyranny of the bourgeois parties, limiting itself to the role of publicly criticizing their politics, in times of revolution, it can and certainly should try to thwart the bourgeois reaction when it tries to bring down its iron heel. The proletariat can and should try to block the actions of bourgeois groups hostile to it. One such necessary action, especially here in our country, is to stifle the National Democracy’s actions and electoral attempts in the Duma through the decisive application of force by the conscious working masses.

The fighting proletariat obviously cannot have any illusions about the stability of its rule over society. After the current revolution ends, after society returns to “normal” conditions, the bourgeoisie, reigning over both the factory floor and the country, will surely waste no time in sweeping up and tossing out the majority of the current revolutionary struggle’s achievements. But the proletariat can make a crucial difference now by launching the most forceful attacks on current social relations, such that it revolutionizes as much as possible the conditions in the factories and society as a whole.

The more Social Democracy is able to drive the revolutionary tide toward the political dictatorship of the proletariat, the less the bourgeoisie will be able to reverse its achievements the day after the revolution. The proletariat’s aspiration to have its wishes realized wholesale — for them to be “forced on society,” as National Democracy complains — is the quickest way for the working masses to achieve class consciousness and maturity, which are the most valuable and permanent accomplishments of revolution and a guarantee of further progress for socialism in times of peace.

Our proletariat has already made a great effort to master these tactics, particularly in revolutionary times, in the period from the end of October to the beginning of last November in the Dąbrowa Basin [site of a major sit-down strike by miners], where Social Democracy was for a time the force controlling and regulating social relations in accordance with the interests of the proletariat.

The same main goal should continually guide proletarian action throughout the entire country and the entire state. Revolutionary times are not restricted to moments in which bloody battles against the military are fought in the street; they also include every moment and every seemingly peaceful day in the current revolutionary period. That is why Social Democracy should, with iron determination, hold to its tactics of revolution, always mindful that revolution is not a time to debate the opposition but to block it and strike it down with conscious action by the proletarian masses. It is a time for the proletariat to implement its will by force.