Constituent Assembly or Council Government?*

Rosa Luxemburg on 17 December 1918

Thus reads the second point of the agenda of the Reich Conference of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils,1 posing what is in reality the primary question of the Revolution in the present moment. Either a Constituent Assembly or all power to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, either the renunciation of socialism or the fiercest class struggle of the fully equipped proletariat against the bourgeoisie: This is the dilemma.

              It is an idyllic plan, this: to realize socialism by way of parliament, through simple majority rule! What a shame that this dreamy fantasy plucked from the sky takes no account whatsoever of the historical experience of bourgeois revolution, let alone the specifics of proletarian revolution.

              How did things fare in England? That is the cradle of bourgeois parliamentarianism, that is where it had its earliest and strongest development. When the hour of the first modern bourgeois revolution struck there in 1649, the English parliament could already look back on more than three hundred years of history. Thus the parliament became the center, the bulwark, the headquarters of the revolution from its very outset. The celebrated Long Parliament, which bore and nurtured all the phases of the English Revolution, from the first skirmish between the Opposition and King’s forces to the trial and execution of Charles Stuart, this parliament was an unrivaled, compliant tool in the hands of the emerging bourgeoisie.

              And what did it produce? This same parliament had to create a special “parliamentary army”, selecting parliamentarian generals from its own womb to go into the field and defeat feudalism and the royalist army of the Cavaliers in a long, tough and bloody civil war. The fate of the English revolution was not decided in the debates of Westminister Abbey — though it may have contained the intellectual center of the revolution — but on the battlefields of Marston-Moor and Naseby, it was brought into being not by brilliant parliamentary speeches but by peasant cavalry which made up Cromwell’s Ironsides. And its path, starting from parliament and civil war, led to parliament being “purified” twice and, finally, to Cromwell’s dictatorship.

              And in France? That was were the idea of the National Assembly was first born. It was a world-historical intuition of genius on the part of Mirabeau and others when they declared in 1789: From now on, the three previously separate “estates” of the nobility, the clergy and “the third estate” will gather together as a National Assembly. This Assembly was, in fact, a tool in the class struggle of the bourgeoisie, precisely due to the fact that the estates’ met together. From the very beginning, the “third estate”, that is, the revolutionary bourgeoisie, had a compact majority in the Constituent Assembly alongside the strong minorities of the two upper classes.

And what did this produce? The Vendée , the emigration, the treason of the generals, the intrigues of the clergy, the revolt of fifty departments, the coalition wars of feudal Europe, until at last the only means of securing the victory of the Revolution: the dictatorship, and, as its final form, the reign of terror!

              The parliamentary majority was hardly useful in the fight for the bourgeois Revolution! And then indeed, what is the difference between the bourgeoisie and feudalism when measured against the yawning chasm separating labor and capital today! What was there in terms of class consciousness on either side of the opponents facing off in 1649 or 1789, in comparison with the deadly, inextinguishable hatred raging today between the proletariat and the capitalist class! It was not without reason that Karl Marx held the light of his science up to the most hidden forces driving the economic and political gears of bourgeois society. It was not without reason that he illuminated its peculiar doings and affectations right up to the finest venation of its feeling and thought, as products of the basic fact it lives by feeding vampirically from the blood of the proletariat.

              It was not without reason that August Bebel concluded his celebrated speech at the Dresden party conference with the cry, “I am and will remain the mortal enemy of bourgeois society!”2

              This is the last great battle, a matter of whether exploitation is to be or not to be, of a turning point in the history in humanity, a fight in which there can be no excuses, no compromise, no mercy.

              And this last battle, surpassing all its predecessors in the enormity of its mission, is supposed to complete what no other class struggle or revolution has ever completed: it is supposed to dispel the death struggle of two worlds in the gentle whisper of a parliamentary battle of words and majority votes!

              Even parliamentarianism was an arena in the class struggle of the proletariat, as long as the quiet everyday life of bourgeois society continued: It was the tribune where the masses gathered around the flag of socialism to be trained for the fight. Today we stand at the half-way point in the proletarian Revolution, and today we must take the axe to the tree of capitalist exploitation ourselves. Bourgeois parliamentarianism, like the class rule of the bourgeoisie which is its exclusive political goal, has forfeited its right to exist. Now the class struggle is coming to its limits in its undisguised, naked form. Capital and labor have nothing more to say to each other, they can only seize one another with an iron embrace in a final fight to determine who will be thrown to the ground.

              Lassalle’s words are more valid today than ever: The revolutionary act is always to express what is. And what is means: On the one side is labor – on the other, capital! Without any hypocrisy about amiable agreements when it is a question of life and death, without any victories of common ground where the only concern is that of ‘both sides’. The proletariat, constituted as a class, must gather all political power in its own hands with clarity, openness, honesty, and, thanks to its clarity and honesty, powerfully.

              The greater and lesser prophets of bourgeois rule have chanted “political equality, democracy!” at us for decades.

              And today the stooges of the bourgeoisie, the Scheidemanns, are chanting “political equality, democracy!” in their wake, like an echo.

              Yes, they just need to be made into reality first. For the word “political equality” will only become flesh when economic exploitation has been destroyed root and branch. And “democracy”, government by the people, only begins with the seizure of political power by the working people.

              It is essential to develop the practical critique of historical actions through the words misused by the bourgeois classes for centuries. We must make “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, proclaimed by the French bourgeoisie in 1789, into the truth for the very first time – by abolishing the class rule of the bourgeoisie. And it is essential, as the first act of this saving deed, to proclaim loudly before the whole world and before centuries of world history: What was considered equality and democracy until now: parliaments, national assemblies, equal ballots, was a pack of lies! Full power in the hands of the working masses, as a weapon for smashing capitalism to pieces – this is the only true equality, this is the only true democracy!

1 See p. 450, footnote 2.

2 See p. 221, footnote 1.

First published in: Die Rote Fahne (Berlin), No. 32 from 17 December, 1918.

Quotes taken from Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4., August 1914 bis Januar 1919, Berlin, S. 460-463.

* 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.