To the Barricades*

Rosa Luxemburg on 15 December 1918

Tomorrow, the Central Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’  Councils will gather from all over Germany;1 the meeting of a body in which, at least in organizational terms, the revolutionary proletariat, be they workers or soldiers, will glimpse the finest blooms of the developing tree of the revolution.

              One would like to have imagined this gathering differently. One would like to think that, as soon as the first rising wave of the proletarian movement brought us the Central Council, the stars of the revolution would shine brightly from that very first hour of its birth, so that on November 9 it would bring light to the proletariat in its terrible night of war and bondage.

              In those first hours the Central Council was not to be found. In its place came a replacement: The Executive Council of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council took the duties of the Central Council in its own hands – in its all-too-weak hands.2

              And so the Central Council convened at an hour when the revolution had lost its first meteoric gleam, that gleam which was dulled by all the revolution’s opponents in those first days and – unfortunately – by its supporters as well. Even they had so often believed that, with the miracle brought by November 9th, the business of the revolution would be over. Now all of them have recovered their sight. Those who believed that the old historical powers, the ruling classes who had reigned a thousand years, would be terrified by cheering crowds, waving soldiers and the fluttering of red flags under the linden trees: today they all see how the counter-revolution and capitalism are coming back to life. Capitalism had only feigned death for a few days, like a bedbug. But it already seems to have found the moment and the chance to suck new blood.

              The machinations of the counter-revolution are perfectly obvious. Even at that hour they managed to appoint Ebert-Scheidemann to act as their agents in the government, and from there to block the energy of the revolution and to redirect it onto the path of the counter-revolution.

              What hasn’t this “socialist” government accomplished? Every day a new decree: a decree restoring the old state authorities; a decree that attempted to restore the scattered, cowering, hunted rural councils, police chiefs and majors; a decree declaring private property to be untouchable; a decree declaring the courts, the institution of “class justice”, to be “independent”, giving them carte blanche for maintaining justice for the sake of a single class; a decree ordering taxes to be paid as before. Nulla dies sine linea, not a day without a decree putting another little brick back into the rotten edifice of capitalist rule, another brick that was threatening to fall out.

              Who would hold it against the bourgeoisie, under such inviting circumstances, for thinking itself strong enough to cast aside its agents and the Ebert-Scheidemann-Haase government and take the lost reigns back into its own hands? It is moving forward at a leisurely pace, step by step. First it convinced its agents to transfer power back to it through the detour of the Constituent Assembly. The Ebert-Scheidemann government pounced on their task with the zeal of renegades: working towards the Constituent Assembly day and night, on every street and every square, striving with all their power for the sake of the bourgeoisie, organizing coups d’etat and allowing proletarians to be shot down, bowing and scraping for the military and saluting the black, white and red flag – and even after all this they still haven’t earned the thanks of their patrons, of capitalism.

              Their master has grown impatient, he tires of his servant, time is short and he believes his moment has come again and he doesn’ give a damn about the Constituent Assembly: He wants the old Reichstag back.

              So the hour has arrived when the Central Committee convenes for Germany. Renewed, fortified, capitalism stands ready to act.

              And what about the Revolution? We shouldn’t deceive ourselves: if the Revolution had gone into the revolutionary institutions created in its first days, into the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, their status and importance would be the gauge of the status and importance of the Revolution, and the Revolution would be in a bad way.

              A massive smear campaign was launched against the Workers’ and Soldiers’ councils. Every small error which happens as a matter of course in such troubled times, errors which were the most everyday occurrence and practice under the old regime, and which today result from inexperience, were exaggerated into capital crimes and used as conclusive evidence for the unsuitability of the council system.

              And then the shadow of the coalition was evoked to finally put the Councils to an end. Mister Ebert was the first: He was the one who voluntarily offered the Councils on a silver platter to America in exchange for food supplies, he begged that the food only be delivered in exchange for the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.3 Ebert, Scheidemann and Haase’s government raised the specter of famine in Germany; they hammered their message into everyone’s head: either the Councils – or bread.

              Then the news came that, supposedly, the coalition was threatening to march into Germany, every day a new report on this: The coalition is closing in, the coalition threatens, a diplomatic note is immanent, Clemenceau has declared –, Lloyd George has declared –, every day a new report and every day a new lie.

              For everything was a lie. Not a word of it was true. Every printed word had been invented by the Foreign office and in the Reichskanzlei. Here it even outdid the old regime: not even it had deceived the people with such impudence, determination, shamelessness and contempt as this new government.

              And the councils did not understand the need to oppose this. They left the entire apparatus for influencing “public opinion” in the hands of the government, of the counter-revolution, and they merely watched in silence as this government, this counter-revolutionary club attempted to set fire to their house on a daily basis.

              But the Councils’ weakness is not the weakness of the Revolution. It cannot be trapped or eliminated by such paltry measures. It continues to grow and will soon become what it is: the proletarian revolution. Strikes are spreading across the country like wildfire. The proletariat is rising up: yesterday Upper Silesia, today Berlin, tomorrow in the Rhineland and Westphalia, in Stuttgart, in Hamburg; proletarians are breaking all the chains forged to bind them by the government, the party and the trade unions, they are meeting face to face with their enemy, capitalism. The noise about “democracy”, made so exquisitely for many a pseudo-socialist in the first days of the Revolution, is behind us, and the Revolution is rising up in its naked, massive form and is flexing its muscles: for smashing the old world and building the new.

              These are the forces which the assembled Central Councils can lean on, whom they must simultaneously serve and dynamically lead. This is the only spring from which their strength and vital energy can flow.

              The Revolution will live on without the councils. The councils will die without the Revolution.

              Much has been neglected. The councils have made their way gropingly and timidly, self-conscious amid a flood of party slogans, its gaze artificially hemmed in by clichés and catchphrases which work to obscure the significance of its role in what took place, the power of what took place.

              The Central Council can make up for all these omissions by taking the following pressing measures and thus securing the position it deserves:

  1. It must clear the nest of the counter-revolution, the place where all the threads of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy converge: it must eliminate the Ebert-Scheidemann-Haase cabinet.
  2. It must demand the disarming of all the front-line troops who do not recognize the of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils unconditionally as the highest authority and who will become the personal bodyguards of the Ebert- -Haase cabinet.
  3. It must demand the disarming of all officers and the White Guard formed by the Ebert-Haase government and create a Red Guard.
  4. It must reject the Constituent Assembly as attempt on the life of the Revolution and the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.

By taking action on these four steps immediately, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils can still take command of the Revolution: the proletariat wants them to lead, as long as the Councils are willing to be a strong leader against capitalism, the proletariat is ready to give the councils its all and to lift them to the highest height, shouting:

              All power to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils!

1 The First GENERAL Congress of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Germany met in Berlin from the 16th to the 21st of December 1918, during which the representatives from the SPD dominated. On January 19th the congress approved a plan to carry out the election of a Constituent Assembly which would maintain legislative control, and the election of a Central Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils which would only be granted the power of advising on important legislative proposals. With this the congress decided in favour of the bourgeois state in the central question of the revolution: power to the councils or to a Constituent Assembly.

2 On this see pp. 435-439.

3 See p. 428, footnote 2.

First published in: Die Rote Fahne (Berlin), No. 30, December 15, 1918.

Quotes taken from Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4., August 1914 bis Januar 1919, Berlin, S. 450-454.

* 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.