The Acheron in Motion

Rosa Luxemburg on 27 November 1918

The pretty little plans of a good, tame, "constitutional" German revolution that maintains "order and peace" and regards the protection of capitalist private property as its first and most urgent task, these plans go to hell: The Acheron as started to move! While at the top, in the government circles, a mediocre, peaceful livelihood with the bourgeoisie is maintained by all means, the mass of the proletariat rises below and swings the threatening fist: The strikes have begun! There are strikes in Upper Silesia, at Daimler, etc., it is only a first start. The movement will naturally make ever wider and more powerful waves. 

     How could it be otherwise? A revolution has taken place. Workers, proletarians - in tunics or work coats - have brought it about. The government is made up of socialists, workers' representatives.

     And what has changed for the mass of workers in their daily pay, in their living conditions? Nothing or almost nothing! As soon as some miserable concessions have been made here and there, entrepreneurship, again, seeks to conjure away that little bit from the proletariat.

     The masses are comforted by the coming golden fruits, which are to fall into their laps by the National Assembly. Through long debates, talk and parliamentary majority decisions, we are to slip gently and "calmly" into the promised land of socialism.

     The healthy class instinct of the proletariat is rebelling against the scheme of parliamentary cretinism. The liberation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself, the Communist Manifesto says. And "working class," that is not a few hundred elected representatives who direct the fate of society through speech and argument, nor is it the two or three dozen leaders who occupy government offices. Working class, that is the broadest mass itself. The socialization of the economy can only be prepared through their active participation in the overthrow of the capital relationship.

     Instead of waiting for the exhilarating decrees of the government or the decisions of the famous National Assembly, the masses instinctively resort to the only real means leading to socialism: the fight against capital. The government has so far gone to great lengths to castrate the revolution into a political one, building class harmony under the clamor against any threat to "order and tranquility. 

     The masses of the proletariat quietly overturn the house of cards of revolutionary class harmony and swing the dreaded banner of class struggle.

     The beginning of the strike movement is proof that the political revolution has taken hold in the social foundation of society. The revolution reflects on its own primordial cause; it pushes aside the paper backdrop of changes in cast and decrees that have not changed the very least in the social relationship between capital and work, and even enters the stage of events.

     The bourgeoisie may feel that here their most mortal place is touched, that here the fun of government’s harmlessness stops and the terrible seriousness of the confrontation of two deadly enemies begin face to face. Hence the pale fear and the hoarse rage against the strikes. Hence the feverish efforts of the dependent trade union leaders to catch the looming hurricane in the networks of their old bureaucratic-institutional means and to paralyze and bind the masses.

     Futile effort! The small shackles of trade union diplomacy in the service of the capital rule have proved themselves excellently in the period of political stagnation that preceded the world war. In the period of the revolution, they will fail miserably. Already every bourgeois revolution of modern times was accompanied by a stormy strike movement: in France at the end of the 18th century, in the July and February revolutions as in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy. Every great social upheaval naturally causes fierce class struggles in a society based on exploitation and oppression. As long as the bourgeois class society remains in the balance of its everyday parliamentary life, the proletarian also continues to walk patiently in the treadmill of the wage relation, and his strikes, then, have only the character of weak corrections to what is considered unshakable wage slavery.

     As soon as a revolutionary storm dislocates the balance of the classes, the strikes turn from gentle wave play on the surface into threatening waves of fall; the depth itself starts to move, the slave does not merely desire against the too painful pressure of the chain, he rebels against the chain itself.

     Thus in all previous bourgeois revolutions. With the end of the revolutions, which always led to the fortification of bourgeois class society, the proletarian slave rebellion also used to collapse; the proletarian returned to the treadmill with his head lowered.

     In today's revolution, the strikes that have just broken out are not a "trade union" dispute about trifles, about the whole shebang of wage relations. They are the natural response of the masses to the violent upheaval that the capital relation experienced through the collapse of German imperialism and the brief political revolution of the workers and soldiers. It is the first beginning of a general dispute between capital and labor in Germany; they herald the beginning of the enormous direct class struggle, the outcome of which cannot be anything other than the elimination of the wage relationship and the introduction of the socialist economy. They trigger the living social force of the current revolution: the revolutionary class energy of the proletarian masses. They open the period of immediate activity of the broadest masses, that activity to which the socialization decrees and measures of any representative bodies or the government can form only the accompanying music.

     This incipient strike movement is at the same time the most succinct criticism by the masses of the chimeras of their so-called "leaders" about the "National Assembly." They already have the "majority," the striking proletarians in the factories and mines! The bumpkins! Why don't they invite their entrepreneur to a small "debate" in order then to outvote him by "overwhelming majority" and enforce all their demands smoothly and "properly"? First and foremost, these are real trifles, pure outward appearances of wage relations!

     Mr. Ebert or Haase may try this ridiculous plan with the striking coal digger of Upper Silesia, - a beating answer is certain. But what shatters like soap bubbles in the case of trifles should hold up in the overthrow of the entire social building!  

     By merely appearing on the scene of the social class struggle, the proletarian masses, have passed over all the shortcomings, half-measures and cowardice of the revolution and turned to the order of business. The Acheron is on the move, and the tots who play their little game at the head of the revolution will fall, or they will finally learn to understand the colossal format of the world-historical drama they are playing in.


First published in Die Rote Fahne (Berlin), No. 12 from November 27, 1918.

Quotes taken from Rosa Luxemburg’s Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4, pp. 419-22.

* This is a draft version translated by Manuela Koelke. 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.