The article below was written in 1898 and was part of Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against the creeping reformism that was overtaking the German revolutionary movement. It appeared in Sachsische Arbeiterzeitung, September 30, 1898. It was transcribed by Dario Romeo and Brian Baggins in 2000 for the Marxist Internet Archive. The Rosa Luxemburg section of the MIA can be accessed here.
The issues that Rosa deals with are highly relevant in NZ today. Like Germany in her time, NZ is an imperialist player and the mass of the population, including most of those who identify as ‘left-wing’, are essentially what we might call ‘kiwi nationalists’. They support economic nationalism in particular, as shown by campaigns against ‘foreign control’ and free trade agreements, agreements which the NZ ruling class favours because it benefits from them.
It’s important to remember when reading this that, at the time, Social Democracy was the name often used by Marxists. When WW1 broke out, however, most social-democrats in the imperialist world sided with their own rulers against the workers of other countries. Social Democracy became, in Rosa’s memorable phrase, ‘a stinking corpse’. Unfortunately, the corpse survived and continues to stink up the labour movement, while trying to manage the working class on behalf of capital.
by Rosa Luxemburg
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 (more…)