Red Letter
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Conquest of Power
by Rosa Luxemburg
Estimated Reading Time: 11 min

The fate of democracy is bound up, we have seen, with the fate of the labor movement. But does the development of democracy render superfluous or impossible a proletarian revolution, that is, the con­quest of political power by the workers? Bernstein Marxist Journalist Edward Bernstein (1850-1932) was one of the leading members of Germany's Social Democratic Party. Luxemburg's Social Reform or Revolution was a tightly-written, vigorous polemic against his ideas. settles the question by weighing minutely the good and bad sides of social reform and social revolution. He does it almost in the same manner in which cinnamon or pepper is weighed out in a consumers' cooperative store. He sees the legislative course of historic development as the action of "intelligence," while the revolutionary course of historic development is for him the action of "feeling." Re­formist activity he recognizes as a slow method of historic progress, revolution as a rapid method of progress. In legislation he sees a me­thodical force; in revolution, a spontaneous force.

We have known for a long time that the petty bourgeois reformer finds "good" and "bad" sides in everything. He nibbles a bit at all grasses. But the real course of events is little affected by such combi­nation. The carefully gathered little pile of the "good sides" of all things possible collapses at the first fillip of history. Fillip: noun, something which acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity. Historically, leg­islative reform and the revolutionary method function in accordance with influences that are much more profound than the consideration of the advantages or inconveniences of one method or another.

In the history of bourgeois society, legislative reform served to strengthen progressively the rising class till the latter was sufficiently strong to seize political power, to suppress the existing juridical sys­tem and to construct itself a new one. Bernstein, thundering against the conquest of political power as a theory of Blanquist violence,Blanquism isthe doctrine of socialist revolution through conspiratorial armed insurrection by small groups on behalf of the working class, as opposed to the Marxist concept of mass working-class self-activity. Named for the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881). has the misfortune of labeling as a Blanquist error that which has always been the pivot and the motive force of human history. From the first appearance of class societies having the class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes. Here is the starting point and end of every historic period. This can be seen in the long struggle of the Latin peasantry against the financiers and nobility of ancient Rome, in the struggle of the medieval nobility against the bishops, and in the struggle of the artisans against the nobles in the cities of the Middle Ages. In modern times, we see it in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism.

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legisla­tive reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation, while legisla­tion is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for reform does not contain its own force, independent from revolution. During every historic period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as the impulsion of the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more con­cretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Here is the kernel of the problem.

It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long-drawn-out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of ref rms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ accord­ ing to their duration but according to their content. The secret of his­toric change through the utilization of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality, or to speak more concretely, in the passage of a historic period from one given form of society to another.

That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer, and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we ar­rive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the eco­nomic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realiza­tion of socialism, but the reform of capitalism: not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.

Does the reciprocal role of legislative reform and revolution apply only to the class struggle of the past? Is it possible that now, as a re­sult of the development of the bourgeois juridical system, the func­tion of moving society from one historic phase to another · belongs to legislative reform, and that the conquest of state power by the prole­tariat has really become "an empty phrase," as Bernstein puts it?

The very opposite is true. What distinguishes bourgeois society from other class societies—from ancient society and from the social order of the Middle Ages? Precisely the fact that class domination does not rest on "acquired rights" but on real economic relations—the fact that wage labor is not a juridical relation, but purely an economic relation. In our juridical system there is not a single legal formula for the class domination of today. The few remaining traces of such formulas of class domination are (as that concerning servants) survivals of feudal society.

How can wage slavery be suppressed the "legislative way," if wage slavery is not expressed in laws? Bernstein, who would do away with capitalism by means of legislative reform, finds himself in the same Sit­uation as Uspensky's Gleb Ivanovich Uspensky (1843-1902) was a Russian populist writer, author of realist novels of peasant life. Russian policeman who says: "Quickly I seized the rascal by the collar! But what do I see? The confounded fellow has no collar!" And that is precisely Bernstein's difficulty.

"All previous societies were based on an antagonism between an oppressing class and an oppressed class" (the Communist Manifesto). But in the preceding phases of modern society, this antagonism was expressed in distinctly determined juridical relations and could, espe­cially because of that, accord, to a certain extent, a place to new rela­tions within the framework of the old. "In the midst of serfdom, the serf raised himself to the rank of a member of the town community" (the Communist Manifesto). How was that made possible? It was made possible by the progressive suppression of all feudal privileges in the environs of the city: the corvee, the right to special dress, the inheritance tax, the lord's claim to the best cattle, the personal levy, marriage under duress, the right to succession, etc., which all together constituted serfdom.

In the same way, the small bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages suc­ceeded in raising itself, while it was still under the yoke of feudal absolutism, to the rank of bourgeoisie (the Communist Manifesto). By what means? By means of the formal partial suppression or complete loosening of the corporative bonds, by the progressive transforma­tion of the fiscal administration and of the army.

Consequently, when we consider the question from the abstract viewpoint, not from the historic viewpoint, we can imagine (in view of the former class relations) a legal passage, according to the re­formist method from feudal society to bourgeois society. But what do we see in reality? In reality, we see that legal reforms not only did not obviate the seizure of political power by the bourgeoisie, but have, on the contrary, prepared for it and led to it. A formal social-political transformation was indispensable for the abolition of slavery as well as for the complete suppression of feudalism.

But the situation is entirely different now. No law obliges the pro­letariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. Poverty, the lack of means of production, obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. And no law in the world can give to the prole­tariat the means of production while it remains in the framework of bourgeois society, for not laws but economic development have torn the means of production from the producers' possession.

And neither is the exploitation inside the system of wage labor based on laws. The level of wages is not fixed by legislation, but by economic factors. The phenomenon of capitalist exploitation does not rest on a legal disposition, but on the purely economic fact that labor power plays in this exploitation the role of merchandise pos­sessing, among other characteristics, the agreeable quality of produc­ing value—more than the value it consumes in the form of the la­ borer's means of subsistence. In short, the fundamental relations of the domination of the capitalist class cannot be transformed by means of legislative reforms, on the basis of capitalist society, because these relations have not been introduced by bourgeois laws, nor have they received the form of such laws. Apparently Bernstein is not aware of this for he speaks of "socialist reforms." On the other hand, he seems to express implicit of this when he writes, on page 10 of his book, that "the economic motive acts freely today, while formerly it was masked by all kinds of relations of domination, by all sorts of ideology."

It is one of the peculiarities of the capitalist order that within it all the elements of the future society first assume, in their development, a form not approaching socialism but, on the contrary, a form moving more and more away from socialism. Production takes on a progres­sively increasing social character. But under what form is the social character of capitalist production expressed? It is expressed in the form of the large enterprise, in the form of the shareholding concern, the cartel, within which the capitalist antagonisms, capitalist exploita­tion, the oppression of labor power, are augmented to the extreme.

In the army, capitalist development leads to the extension of obligatory military service, to the reduction of the time of service and, consequently, to a material approach to a popular militia. But all of this takes place under the form of modern militarism, in which the domination of the people by the militarist state and the class character of the state manifest themselves most clearly.

In the field of political relations, the development of democracy brings—in the measure that it finds a favorable soil—the participation of all popular strata in political life and, consequently, some sort of "people's state." But this participation takes the form of bourgeois parliamentarism, in which class antagonism and class domination are not done away with, but are, on the contrary, displayed in the open. Exactly because capitalist development moves through these contra­dictions, it is necessary to extract the kernel of socialist society from its capitalist shell. Exactly for this reason must the proletariat seize political power and suppress completely the capitalist system.

Of course, Bernstein draws other conclusions. If the development democracy leads to the aggravation and not to the lessening of capitalist antagonisms, "the social democracy," he answers us, "in order not to render its task more difficult, must by all means try to stop so­cial reforms and the extension of democratic institutions." Indeed, that would be the right thing to do if the social democracy found to its taste, in the petty bourgeois manner, the futile task of picking for itself all the good sides of history and rejecting the bad sides of history. However, in that case, it should at the same time "try to stop" capital­ism in general, for there is no doubt that the latter is the rascal placing all these obstacles in the way of socialism. But capitalism furnishes be­sides the obstacles also the only possibilities of realizing the socialist program. The same can be said about democracy.

If democracy has become superfluous or annoying to the bour­geoisie, it is on the contrary necessary and indispensable to working class. It is necessary to the working class because it creates the political forms (autonomous administration, electoral rights, etc.) that will serve the proletariat as fulcrums in its task of transforming bourgeois society. Democracy is indispensable to the working class, because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task.

In a word, democracy is dispensable not because it renders superfluous the conquest political power by the proletariat, but because it renders this conquest of power both necessary and possible. When Engels, in his preface to the Class Struggles in France, revised the tactics of the modem labor movement and urged the legal struggle as opposed to the barricades, he did not have in mind—this comes out of every line of the preface—the question of a definite conquest of political power, but the contemporary daily struggle. He did not have in mind the attitude that the proletariat must take toward the capitalist state at the time of the seizure of power, but the attitude of the proletariat while in the bounds of the capitalist state. Engels was giving directions to the prole­tariat oppressed, and not to the proletariat victorious.

Conquest of Power
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