A Pyrrhic Victory*

Rosa Luxemburg on 21 December 1918

The first conference of the Reich Congress of Councils is over. Surveying its accomplishments as externally presented in its debates and resolutions, we can see that they are a victory for the Ebert government and a victory for the counter-revolution in every respect. Locking out the revolutionary “street”, nullifying the political power of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, convening the National Assembly, giving dictatorial power to the December 6th cliquewhat more or better could the bourgeoisie desire in the current situation? “The dictators don’t want to know anything about the dictatorship that has been thought up for them,”1 says the Freiheit, that sad organ of political ambiguity, rejoicing.

              Naturally, the self-proclaimed organ of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, instead of seizing political power for the business of the Revolution, which was its mission, has committed suicide and surrendered the political power entrusted to it.

              This reflects not merely the general inadequacy of the first unripe stage of the Revolution, but also the particular difficulty of this proletarian revolution, the specificity of its historical situation.

              The fighters of all previous revolutions bore their colors openly when they went into battle: class against class, program against program, buckler against buckler. And while there have been intrigues, plots and tricks in every revolution, they were precisely the notorious intrigues, plots and tricks of the counter-revolution, the royalists, the aristocrats, the reactionary military. They were always the supporters of the overthrown or threatened system, taking counter-revolutionary measures for the sake of and to save this system. It was enough to drag the compromised shields and coats of arms out of the dark to the light – then the crowd, with a loud halloo, would pick the old scarecrows to pieces.

              In today’s revolution, the defensive troops of the old order do not go into battle under the shields and coats of arms of the ruling classes, but under the banner of a “social democratic party”. If the Ebert-Haase government were to honestly and openly call themselves Heydebrand, Gröber and Fuhrmann, then not a single person from the Workers’ and Soldiers’ delegates would have risked following them. If the main question of the revolution were openly and honestly stated as capitalism or socialism, doubt and vacillation would be impossible today in the great mass of the proletariat.

              History alone will not make it so simple or so easy for us. The class rule of the bourgeoisie is fighting its last world-historical fight today under another’s flag, under the flag of the revolution itself. It is a socialist party, it is a creature of the workers’ movement’s and the class struggle’s own making that has turned itself into the most forceful instrument of the bourgeois counter-revolution. Its core, tendency, politics, psychology, methods – all these are perfectly capitalist. Only its signs, its apparatus and phraseology are left over from socialism. And signs, apparatus and phraseology are enough to deceive the broad masses as to its political core and content, to degrade the delegate council of the revolutionary proletariat to a counter-revolutionary detachment of Mamluks!

              That is the school of German social democracy, that is the record for the last 25 years of its activity. The ghost of August 4 1914 reigns over the conference hall of the Congress of Councils. The old pre-revolutionary Germany of the Hohenzollerns, of Hindenberg and Ludendorff, of martial law and mass executions in Finland, in the Baltic and the Ukraine, was still intact in the hall of the Parliament – despite the collapse on the battlefields of France and despite the 9th of November!

              And even so: that Germany no longer exists. That is the miraculous secret of all inwardly ripened, historically necessary social revolutions, that a day of revolution changes the countenance of the society, and makes the old into the past for ever and ever.

              The eruption of the 9th of November – however weak, however inadequate, however convoluted it was – created a rift between yesterday and today which can no longer be bridged. As a little snowflake suffices to bring massive avalanches into motion and to bury boulders, valleys and villages underneath them, so did the weak stimulus of November 9th suffice to throw the class conditions in Germany off balance and to cause a general swaying and shaking in its foundations.

              The process of destabilizing and overthrowing bourgeois class rule can result in nothing other than the triumph of social revolution, because there remains no way out of the bankruptcy of imperialism, no salvation other than in socialism.

              The situation becomes more urgent every day, every day chisels away more bluntly and more mercilessly at the world-historical dilemma.

              The mass of soldiers flooding back is transforming gradually into the mass of the workers, taking off the livery of imperialism and putting on the overalls of the proletariat — the soldiers are coming back into contact with the nurturing soil where their class consciousness is rooted, and tearing the threads that tied them passingly to the ruling classes.

              At the same time, we see the rise of the enormous problems of unemployment, economic struggles between capital and labor, and the financial bankruptcy of the state. The inward denouement of the capitalist economy is revealing its Medusa head. Its economic antithesis can be seen in the hot forge from which new embers flare up out of the class struggle every day.

              And with this it is assured that the revolutionary tension and the revolutionary consciousness of the masses is becoming more acute and sharper every day. The Council Congress has just done its best towards a clarification and training of the masses through the rough and abrupt contrast in which it faces their situation and spirit. In the few days of its deliberation it has demonstrated to the proletariat and the soldiers that fighting tooth and nail against the counter-revolutionary government is an inevitable and vital issue.

              Only a lack of clarity and half measures, only veils and fog are dangerous to the cause of the revolution. Every bit of clarity, every revelation adds fuel to the fire of the revolution.

              The Congress of Council has accomplished such a rigorous, complete labor in these few days, has so thoroughly cast aside all the veils from the heart of the counter-revolution, that its conference must rouse the conscience of the proletarian masses like a mine blast.

              Starting from the moment when the council delegates finished speaking, the right to speak is with the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils all over Germany and the working masses. They will speak, and they will act. The victory of the Ebert government will remain – like all the victories of the counter-revolution – a Pyrrhic victory.


1 “...and we have always emphasised that the fight for the dictatorship of the councils is irrelevant because the dictators have not wanted to know anything about the mission that has been thought up for them.” (“A Hot Day.” In: Die Freiheit [Berlin], No. 65 from December 20, 1918.

First published in: Die Rote Fahne (Berlin), No. 36 from 21 December 1918.

Quotes taken from: Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4., August 1914 bis Januar 1919, Berlin, S. 468-471.

* This is a draft version translated by Zachary Murphy King. The final translation will appear in the publication of the fifth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Peter Hudis and forthcoming in 2020 from Verso Books with the support of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.