Analysis of unorganised mass action.
Die Aktion der Masse. Source: Die Neue Zeit, Jahr. 30 (1911–12), 1. Bd., H. 2 (13 October 1911) pp. 43–9, H. 3 pp. 77–84 and H. 4 pp. 106–17. Overhauled version of a translation by K.O.
This article was later criticised by Anton Pannekoek, to which Kautsky in turn replied: https://libcom.org/library/new-tactic-karl-kautsky
1. The nature of the mass
It has become a truism that the political and economic struggles of our time are increasingly becoming mass actions. The technical development, especially the growth of modern transport brings ever increasing numbers of people together into closest literary, political and economic connection. Just as it relentlessly expands the scope of the army and fleet, so too does it increase the membership of the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions, it transforms local trade unions into national or international ones, trade associations into industrial federations, it leads eventually to united actions of party and trade union. On the other hand, the powers of government also increase, the bourgeois parties unite into blocks, there is an expansion of the single industrial and commercial companies, their combination into business associations, their domination by single giant banks.
In this way the political and economic struggles are increasingly becoming actions of the great masses.
This has been known for a long time and today is generally recognised. It will not be dealt with here. I mention this phenomenon only because it is often lumped together with another one of an entirely different nature and whose steady growth in modern society is not at all generally acknowledged, rather vigorously disputed. This other phenomenon is the spontaneous political or economic action of the unorganised mass of the people, who occasionally coalesce and then disperse thereafter, the "street."
This type of mass action is something entirely different from the aforementioned type. To note that political and economic actions are becoming evermore mass actions, by no means signifies that one recognises that this particular type of mass action, known as street action, is also called on to play an increasingly larger role. Some among us dispute this, others hold it to be the case. The reasoning of the latter is based mostly on the throwing together of both types of mass actions, so that they imagine that with the necessity of the one they have already proved that of the other.
The matter however is not so simple, and it is worth precisely now, after the unrests in England, France, Austria, to dissect it a bit.
In the following we thus will deal not with the organised political or unionised mass, but with that mass, which occasionally, driven by certain causes, finds itself together for a specific struggle against factors aggrieving it. Organised groups can be a part of this, indeed they are rarely absent, but they do not make up its majority.
Such was the case during the French Revolution, it was the case in 1848, in 1871 and most recently during the Russian Revolution (1905). This would apply also today in Germany should the entire mass of people there undertake such an action. In the 1907 census one found almost 12,000,000 wage labourers and salaried employees in industry and commerce – we ignore here agriculture. Next to this a half million employed in household services, 1,700,000 in State and municipal services, 3,400,000 without profession. A large part of these elements is to be counted to "the people," to the mass, which in moments of excitement crowds the streets and gives them its physiognomy. But next to this also many of the "self-employed" belong not to those layers, that seclude themselves from the people in such moments, homeworker, small craftsman and vendor etc. We have considered here only the working population. To the people, who rush onto the streets in mass actions, must however be counted also the great mass of the women of the poorer population, not employed but occupied at home.
Even when we exclude the agricultural population and children we can still count on about thirty million as possible participants in mass actions in Germany. Of these about one tenth are unionised, taking into account not just the free trade unions but also Christian, the Hirsch-Dunkersch1 and other independent unions. Even today an action by the great mass would predominantly consist of unorganised elements and it will remain so for a long time, perhaps for as long as the capitalist mode of production lasts. Even if the number of organised was doubled or tripled the unorganised elements would still significantly predominate in the mass.
So here certainly the question becomes relevant: What can this unorganised mass achieve? What can we expect from it?
To most observers the mass appears as a mysterious creature; depending on their outlook, they consider it either as the devil incarnate or the true god, who will redeem mankind. An Italian professor, follower of Lombroso, Scipio Sighele, has studied in a book the Psychology of crowds and crimes of masses2 and found, that the individual, when she is a part of a mass, is inclined to the worst crimes and lets herself easily be infatuated for these, which would, when detached from the mass, never occur to her. Almost at the same time as this book another one appeared on The crowd: A study of the popular mind (Psychologie des foules, 1895) by one Dr. Gustave Le Bon, which accentuated less the criminality of the masses, in turn however portrayed their intelligence in the worst light: the mass, he maintains, is without reason, is whipped up by passions, suggestions, random events to the craziest deeds. Even highly intelligent individuals become mindless, when they find themselves part of a crowd.
Therewith the learned doctor thought to hit specifically the proletarian masses, but he expands his harsh judgement to include any gathering, even if it consists of just a dozen people. Parliaments and sworn juries do not get a much kinder judgement from him than the mass, so that one would have to assume, that intelligence is something, which is switched off with almost all human activity, since nearly everyone acts in society with several people and not in solitude.
These dismissive judgements about the mass stand opposite however also just as glorifying ones, held especially by French and Russian revolutionaries. It are the experiences of the great revolution, which led to their exuberant celebration of the mass. The most recent expression of this can be found in the, by the way masterfully written, history of the French Revolution of Peter Kropotkin, which has this celebration as its leitmotif. In contrast to Le Bon, Kropotkin declares that the mass possesses a far more reliable intelligence than the individual politician.
At every point one finds in his book the following such judgements:
The people had always had a true inkling of the situation, even though they could not express it exactly nor support their premonitions by learned arguments; and the mass of the French people guessed, infinitely better than the politicians, the plots which were being hatched in the Tuileries and in the châteaux of the nobility. (Chapter 32)
This is exactly the opposite, of what Messrs. Sighele and Le Bon have found. However, in one thing all observers of the mass are in agreement: They recognise in it a far greater force than the sum of individuals who compose it. Or to put it more accurately, the individual develops forces in a crowd which extend far beyond his capacities in isolation. When acting in the mass, the individual is braver, more selfless but also more reckless and more excitable than when acting alone.
This is a property, which is not inherent in humans alone. It is shared with other social animals, as has long been known. Thus remarked Espinas in his book Animal societies3 :
The fury of wasps grows with their numbers. The effects of number on living beings are very strange. It is now known that the human in solitude neither feels nor thinks the same as when in a group, and a famous critic has frequently made the observation, that in theater the spectators merely by the crowd become entirely different, as each would be for themselves alone ... In each collective of sentient beings it is not just the movement of one which is shared with all, but also the general movement becomes stronger, the greater the crowd is. (pp. 345–47)
He then cites (François-Alphonse) Forel, who observed:
In the same way the courage of each ant increases in direct proportion to the number of its companions or friends, and similarly decreases depending on how isolated it is. Each inhabitant of a highly populated ant colony is much more daring than an otherwise very similar specimen from a smaller population. Yet as soon as this worker ant, which is ten times more likely to kill in the presence of its comrades, finds itself alone a mere twenty paces from its colony it shows itself to be extraordinarily timid in the face of the slightest danger and will even flee from a far weaker ant.
Espinas relates these observations to all "living beings," there are however about this only reports for social animals, and they can naturally refer only to these. Predators, who are solitary wanderers, already due to their living conditions have to develop by themselves the maximum of moral and physical force of which they are capable. For such animals an approaching associate is not a helper, but a competitor for prey, who will be regarded with mistrust and ill-will – if it does not for instance belong to the opposite sex. Only among social animals, which due to their living conditions are directed to help each other, to defend each other, can the mass be uplifting, inspiring and stimulating.
These biological factors, which operate in the mass, are further amplified by the special historical circumstances, under which they come into action. The crowd of individuals, who usually throng the streets and of whom each has a different goal, is not yet an acting mass. For it to become such, it is necessary that all the individuals that gather together are animated by the same will. Where does this agreement come from in case of an unorganised mass of people, who absolutely do not know each other, have not harmonised themselves, and come together from the most diverse places? This agreement of will or this suffocation of each individual particular will by the mass-will appears to the despisers of the mass as a specially noteworthy sign of its baseness.
So according to Le Bon:
The maiming of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the determination of action through suggestion and contagion by sensations and ideas of equal type, the tendency to immediately act upon the suggested sensations, such are the characteristic traits of the individual in the mass. He is no longer himself, he is an automaton, who is no longer led by his own will.
Thus man descends several steps on the ladder of civilisation, due to the simple fact of his being part of an organised mass.4 He is perhaps a cultivated (cultivé) individual, but when a part of the mass he is a barbarian, one who is led by instinct. (p. 20)
The unity of will of the active masses can supposedly be explained by suggestion and contagion. When however one inquires as to the source of this suggestion and contagion, who is doing the suggesting and infecting, then our profound mass-psychologist suddenly grows silent.
The contagion, says Le Bon, is a phenomenon which is easy to note, but is unexplained, one must put it in the context of hypnotic phenomena, which we want to examine next.
From this examination however merely comes out, that mental contagion represents an effect of suggestion. The latter appears to Le Bon as the most important cause of the mental peculiarity of the mass. When however we want to learn where this suggestion comes from, then we are curtly fobbed off that it is a 'consequence of emissions, that are released (par suite des effluves, qui s’en dégagent) or from some other cause, which we do not know.'
In other words, contagion and suggestion are in this context nothing more than pseudo-scientific figures of speech, containing not even the slightest knowledge. Mass-suggestion and the unified will of the mass, are just two words for the same thing. Le Bon explains, that this unified will comes out of the unified will, which can come out of magnetic emissions or other causes. The meaninglessness of this explanation remains hidden only because the reader believes that behind the word suggestion stands a particular wisdom.
There is indeed nothing more fatuous than this sort of conception of the word mass-suggestion. Every experimentally ascertained suggestion is based on the personal influence of one individual on another one. From where would this influence in the mass come? From a speaker? But even when a speaker talks from a tribune, in the open air he is only understood by those standing nearby. We find however a mass acting by a united will also in situations, where it was totally impossible for individual speakers to address the mass. How could one individual there have hypnotised all those present? Or did many individuals simultaneously hypnotise into the same belief those present? But whence the agreement of these many hypnotisers? The word suggestion explains nothing at all.
And yet the explanation is not difficult to find, if one treats the matter not medically, but historically, looks at all those occasions, where masses acted with unified will. The unified will of the mass arises from the conditions, under which an unorganised mass can become an acting one. Or, to put it another way, where those conditions are absent, which cause a unified will of the mass, there it will not come into action.
When we consider the occasions, where it came to actions of unorganised masses, we always find, that a series of huge events anteceded, which stirred everyone most deeply, until when an event occurred, that tipped this excitation to boiling point. Such events are for example the outbreak of a war, the constant physical and moral suffering that it imposes. If then a news report comes, that a decisive battle has been lost, the enemy is marching on the capital, perhaps threatening it with looting and destruction, then no-one can endure it at home anymore, all excitably flood together, to air their worries, to discuss means of defence.
We have seen above, that due to biological reasons a gathered crowd of social beings is more easily stirred than as single individuals. Now however we find, that it comes to the formation of an unorganised mass in a civilised society only then, when the separate individuals at home are already most vividly stirred. The get-together in mass amplifies the excitement, it is not however its first cause.
All the people, converging together now, are intellectually and emotionally approximately similarly constituted. If they furthermore come from similar or proximate classes, if they have the same education, the same means of information, the same enemies and friends, then it is also obvious, that among them an agreement of will arises, especially in negative sense. Usually it is a great suffering, that brings them together, after a long time most terribly aggrieving them. They have all suffered under the same institutions or persons, feel themselves momentarily injured or threatened by the same opponent: nothing is easier then that their anger should readily turns itself against this opponent, his instruments, his means of power, the kingship, the aristocrats, the Bastille or whatever the historic situation may offer as object of wrath.
Like the great excitation, so also the unity of the will of the mass is explained simply from the historical conditions, under which alone actions of unorganised masses arise. Fundamentally this harmony of the will does not come from some mystical, unexplainable suggestion, but from the fact, that similar causes always beget similar effects, that the same incident makes the same impression on all normal people living under similar conditions, causing in all the same thoughts, feelings and will.
Of course, though all normal people in essence are physically and mentally constituted similarly, their harmony is not a total one. Even simple structures, crystals or leaves, display individual differences. No specimen is ever completely like another. This holds even more for such a complicated being as man. So also in the will of persons there can be formed individual differences, in degree or even in direction. However, the larger the mass – statistics show this – the more the average prevails, the more too however must in the given case the average of the will of all others determine that of the individual. Insofar one can indeed talk about a suggestion, however not one that the masses are subject to, but one that they themselves practice. The more the individual sees that those around him are animated by a similar will, the more this massiveness of the same will effects him, the more he loses the independence of his own will, the more he is not only physically, but also morally carried away with the mass, even when, isolated, with calm reflection, he would have come to quite different intent and action.
Although the mass consists only of individuals, its action only represents the action of individuals, the individual still fully goes under in it, in it any regard for her is lost, even any regard of the individual for herself.
Thus that unity of will emerges, which without delay or hesitation ruthlessly storms towards its goal and gathers a momentum, that greatly exceeds the weight of the united mass of its individual components. Hence the powerful effects of the mass there, where those historical conditions are given, which from an unconnected crowd of individuals weld together a closed body with one will and one goal.
2. The achievements of the mass
Now that we have familiarised ourselves with the nature of the unorganised and yet unitedly acting mass, it is not difficult, to come to an understanding, of what it can achieve.
'The mass can only destroy,' declares Le Bon and believes thereby to have condemned it. But Kropotkin, the glorifier of the mass, also knows to say nothing different of the hitherto actions of the mass. His ideal of the mass is the one which acted in the French Revolution. He summarises its action as follows:
For (various) reasons the ideas of the masses were expressed chiefly by simple negations. “Let us burn the registers in which the feudal dues are recorded! Down with the tithes! Down with `Madame Veto' (the queen)! Hang the aristocrats!” But to whom was the freed land to go? Who were to be the heirs of the guillotined nobles? Who was to grasp the political power when it should fall from the hands of “Monsieur Veto,” the power which became in the hands of the middle classes a much more formidable weapon than it had been under the old régime?
This want of clearness in the mind of the people as to what they should hope from the Revolution left its imprint on the whole movement. ... But if the people's ideas were confused on constructive lines, they were, on the other hand, extremely clear on certain points in their negations. (Chapter 3)
Kropotkin distinguishes himself from Le Bon by the fact, that he locates the inability of the mass for "positive" creation, merely in its theoretical unclarity. If it were taught better, then it could have operated also positively.
Is this so?
First it should be noted that this ignorance and unclarity of the mass is no accident. Note, we are talking about the unorganised mass. The actions of organised masses have their particular laws, with which we do not deal here. Where the mass of people is not organised, it is not caused by a lack of need for organisation, but because they either do not recognise the value of organisation or, and this is more often the case, they are prevented by political and economical pressure from organising themselves. In the one as in the other case, the mass of the people live in conditions that immensely impede their enlightenment and education. When such masses step into action, they will be necessarily ignorant and unclear.
But even when the peculiar case would arrive, in which it would be impossible to give them a clearer insight into the social conditions, and it would be simultaneously impossible, to organise them, the action of the mass would have to limit itself to mere destruction – destruction of course not in the physical, but in the social sense, as destruction of institutions.
We saw in the preceding chapter, that the unity of the will of the mass is by no means a mystery. It would however certainly be a mystery, if it could express itself positively. In a popular mass, threatened by unendurable pressures or great dangers, the unity of will can easily arise without long deliberation, to remove those persons or institutions, who are the most visible bearers of that pressure or these dangers.
It is not so easy by contrast, to put in place of such a person or institution new ones. Especially in the case of the latter, so many details come into consideration, so many deliberations are called for, that the mass, if it wanted to do work, would have to immediately transform itself from an acting into a deliberative and decision making assembly. But this is already impossible on physical grounds. Already in a assembly of a thousand persons, with a president, secretaries, fixed rules of procedure, penetrative objective deliberation is hardly realisable. No parliament in the world counts so many members. How then could an unorganised mass deliberate and decide, that it is so numerous, that it is able to get rid of ruling persons and state institutions, which comprise perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. Even the slightest attempt, to bring such a mass to positive work, must miserably fail, even if it were theoretically very clear and fully united, which after all is as good as impossible.
But there is more. The "positive work" demands not just a small, closed collegium of deliberators, it also demands time. One cannot create a new law or build a new organisation within the space of a few hours without any preparation.
Time however is just what the mass lacks. It lives from hand to mouth, and no one works on its behalf. It cannot remain together for very long. It does not remain in any constant connection either. After all, it is not organised. It must disperse after a few hours since its constituent individuals require nourishment, sleep, income, to scrape a living together; all those things they will not find so long as they are gathered together in a mass. In addition each must return to their own home or wherever. Thereby however the mass ceases to exist, the individual pursuits, influences and living conditions assert themselves. Completely unpredictable conditions decide whether, when and for what purposes these individuals will again come together as mass for collective action.
In each particular case the mass can only achieve, what can be accomplished within a few hours, and that can only be an act of destruction.
However this in no way constitutes a condemnation of every mass action. And especially the despisers of the mass have no cause to play out the fact against it, that it can only destroy, since these same despisers of the mass are themselves the greatest admirers of an institution created by themselves and maintained at the greatest cost, solely for the purpose of destroying, and can do absolutely nothing else, than destroying: the army.
The despisers of the mass see the army as the noblest institution of the state. The monarchs are first and foremost leaders of the army. Upright patriots should therefore be wary of claiming that a crowd of people which can only destroy, is thereby already branded as harmful.
One will perhaps retort that the army effects positive uses, in that it defends the fatherland. But even if we wish to overlook the fact that therewith the interests of the fatherland are largely synonymous only with those of its exploiters, one can still reply that also the mass seeks to provide similar positive uses. It protects the rights of the people. This however does not change anything from the fact, and it is about that now, that army like mass can only achieve their purpose through destruction. And with the army this destruction on top of everything is exclusively one of physical murder and incineration. In contrast, the action of the mass of the people often achieves its purpose, the removal of despised persons or institutions, often already through mere moral pressure.
Whether its action furthers or hinders social progress, whether it is in this sense useful or harmful, cannot be said on a one-size-fits-all basis, just as it cannot be said about warlike actions. There certainly have been many wars which have hindered the development of society, but there have been others which have furthered it; for example, the wars of the French republic, and earlier already the war of the Dutch against the Spanish, many of the wars against the Turks (excluding the present freebooter-expedition of the Italians) etc.
So it would be also an absurdity, to say from the outset that the mass can only have a damaging effect, since it is only capable of destruction. But just as little does it follow to assume, as its admirers do, that the mass, to speak with Kropotkin, 'always has a true inkling of the situation' and only ever destroys that, which deserves to be destroyed in the interests of social development.
As long as there is a civilisation, the mass of the people will at any time be so exploited and oppressed, that it always has reason, to rebel, will always encounter persons and institutions, which it hates, whose disposal it must wish. But this state of affairs alone is not sufficient to cause the mass to act. In the normal course of events those individuals who make up the people stand hopelessly, discouraged and isolated against the ruling classes and their means of power. Only when exceptional events stir them in the extreme, bring them together, evoke doubt in the strength or security of their oppressor or evoke their own sheer courage of desperation, can it come to an action of the mass. This grows out of certain events and not for instance from a particular ingenuity of the mass, which after all as mass does not even exist yet and cannot unleash its particular superior forces, as long as the events have not torn numerous individuals away from their isolation and gathered them together.
Most likely it are defeats in war and famine which agitate and make rebellious the masses. The causes of the agitation are often those, of which the rulers are personally innocent, for example a crop failure. But the rulers are the beneficiaries of the existing system of oppression and exploitation and in any case are held responsible for the misery that occurs.
Each system of government, whether feudal, capitalist, conservative or liberal, has until now been associated with the hardship and misery of the popular mass. This misery within any of these systems can through war, crop failures, crises be aggravated to such an extent, that it leads to outbreaks of rebellion and mass action against the existing system of government. If it is a backward system, then they will cause progress. If it is a progressive system, then they can develop reactionary tendencies.
It would be paying homage to a mystical teleology were one to assume, that the mass always comes into action right there and then when it is needed in the interests of social development, and that its entrance always serves that purpose. Since the masses are always oppressed, always have reason to turn against the existing rulers, whoever they happen to be, in whatever direction they may be working, and since the fact of their revolt depends on conditions, which have nothing to do with the progressive or backward character of the ruler, actions of the mass can be as reactionary, indeed virtually pointless, as they are capable under circumstances of being the engines of greatest social progress.
The admirers of the mass see for the most part only events of this last type during the French Revolution, and yet in that era also events occurred, that evinced the opposite. Nine years before the storming of the Bastille there was a violent outbreak of popular anger in London, which for many days fell into the hands of the mass. This revolt, the so-called Gordon Riots, certainly grew out of the unbearable situation of the people, just like the revolt of the Parisians. But the object, against which they turned themselves, were only the Catholics, who since 1778 were treated a little less grimly than they had been up to that point. But also this purpose became lost in the course of the uprising, which in the end became merely an orgy of plundering and intoxication, that the military ended with bloodshed. Not so senseless, but absolutely reactionary was the raging popular uprising, that broke out in 1808 in Spain. It turned against the French, who had begun to introduce progressive reforms after putting an end to a miserable regime of priests, gentry and courtiers that had ruined the land. That uprising chased out the reformers and once again created a space for the old reactionary rabble. If one requires further examples of reactionary mass movements of our time then we need just look at the pogroms in Russia, or the lynching of Negroes and Japanese in America etc.
One can see therefore that not every mass action serves the cause of progress. Those, which it destroys, are not always the worst obstacles to development. Whenever it has been victorious, it has helped as often reactionary as revolutionary elements into the saddle.
Therewith we encounter an additional disadvantage, which always adheres to the action of the mass: it is to be sure capable under circumstances of winning, but never to reap for itself the fruits of victory, since it is capable only of destruction. Just as the army can fight successfully and then, after a peace treaty, hand the spoils of victory over to the diplomats and statesmen who observed the bloody struggle at their leisure, so is it also the case that the mass has always until now been condemned to pick the chestnuts out of the fire for others. This is connected to the fact that the mass to be sure can fight, but cannot, as a mass, make laws or manage the affairs of state. It must always leave this to smaller groups, who consistently dedicate themselves to these tasks, either people, who as exploiters have the required time to do so, or specially for this paid representatives or officials.
The historical outcome of the action of the mass hence does not merely depend, on whether and to what extent it wins, which persons or institutions it pushes back or sweeps away, but also on the nature of those elements, for whose rule the victory of the mass made place.
Through the nature of this outcome will also be determined, how the action of the mass ricochets on it or rather on the individuals who constitute it, after both this action and therewith the mass itself has ceased to exist. When it are revolutionary elements who are lifted into the saddle, elements, that go on to dismantle the sources of oppressive grievances, carry out urgent demands of the mass, pave the way for social progress and with that rouse everywhere the most optimistic expectations, then all those who participated in the action and thus created the new situation feel themselves elevated thereby.
Yes what is more, it becomes obvious to every member of the popular mass, whether he co-operated with the action or not, what powerful effects it can have by his participation. Self awareness, feelings of strength, lively political interests and understanding, but also easy excitability, the urge, to repeat the action as soon as dangers or hesitations threaten these reforms – all this is increased within the popular mass to the highest degree. In this way the mass resembles that ideal derived from the experience of the great revolution.
By contrast should the mass action fail due to internal instability, to unsoundness of its purposes, or should its victory empower not revolutionary, but a reactionary elements, then this action will not lead to further development of the existing, but rather to a renewed consolidation of the already hitherto existing pressure. Then the feeling of powerlessness and self doubt seizes the individuals of the popular mass; demoralisation, hopelessness, apathy effectuate, that even the strongest means of agitation will for a long time no longer influence them.
The outcomes and manifestations of mass actions can thus be of manifold nature. They are difficult to predict, since the conditions, upon which they are dependent, are themselves of a most complicated nature. They are almost always either surprising, exceeding all expectations, or disappointing.
However, even more than for their nature or the degree of their effects, this holds true for their mere occurrence. We have already seen that it is not superior ingenuity of the mass, but a convergence of certain conditions, that calls forth its action. These conditions cannot be willfully created, and they do not always occur when an action of the mass in its own interests were suitable. Many of these actions have come very untimely, when they were more damaging than useful, conversely however many have been absent precisely in situations where their presence would have been most sorely needed.
As we saw, Kropotkin – and many others before him – has claimed, that in the French Revolution the people had always very correctly judged its situation. But he himself must a few pages before he makes this statement, tell, how from 17 July 1791 until the spring of 1792 the mass remained inactive and left the reaction, or more accurately, the bourgeoisie free rein, so that Danton, Marat and many others already doubted the revolution itself. Kropotkin explains this thereby, that the people was constrained by its leaders. These wanted however still also later to hear nothing of the action of the mass. When no great actions of the masses occurred between 1791 and 1792, a big part of this must lie in the fact, that those moments, that had stirred them in 1791, were temporarily disabled: famine and the threat of armed counterrevolution. The harvests of 1789 and 1790 had been plentiful, and no one threatened the National Assembly. The work of the Legislative Assembly seemed to bode well for the people. It was not the "leaders," but the war, which was declared in April 1792, which brought the action of the mass again into movement in the year 1792.
On the other hand, when on 9 Thermidor (27 July) 1794 Robespierre was overthrown by the bourgeois counterrevolution, the mass again failed to show. From then on began the downfall of the petty bourgeois democratic regime.
And as back then so it has often turned out since, most recently in the Russian Revolution (1905). At the decisive moment when the revolution was most seriously threatened by counterrevolution, the appeal of the revolutionaries to the masses, to strike that December, precisely at the center of the movement, in St. Petersburg, remained without sufficient response.
The commencement of an action of the unorganised masses is an elementary event, that one to be sure can, if one has recognised its conditions, estimate with some probability in a given period, which complies by these conditions, but one cannot arbitrarily bring it about and also not with full certainty schedule it at a fixed point in time. Opposition parties can to be sure in times of great agitation of the popular mass prepare themselves, in order to take advantage of a possible mass action. But in nine cases out of ten they will suffer a wretched shipwreck, if they build their politics on the expected commencement of such an action at a specific time, threaten therewith, to publicly commit themselves to it.
The unpredictability of actions of unorganised masses has often become disastrous for opposition and specifically revolutionary movements and parties. And yet this is precisely the source of the strength of such actions and the possibility of their victory. For the physical means of power of the mass are usually small, in no way matched to those of the government. It is successful where the unity and the ruthlessness of its will proofs to be superior, where it encounters uncertainty, heedlessness, fear. These properties it generates in a morally already weakened government by the suddenness and force of its for both friend and foe alike surprising occurrence.
In situations where the government is not surprised by mass action – which is almost always the case where mass action is prearranged and not spontaneous – or where it has even provoked such an action itself, its resources are usually enough to beat down the mass. It is a tried and trusted method of governments, who feel threatened by a groundswell of popular discontent, to provoke public outrage through violent measures, to then choke them in their own blood. It was in this fashion that the June battle in 1848 was provoked. Similarly Bismarck planned to drive the German Social Democrats to street fighting, when all other methods to suppress their ascent failed. But the German proletariat does not lend itself as easily as that of other nations to unorganised mass actions. And it is not lastly due to this, when the rise of our party has for a long and unbroken period hitherto met with no decisive defeat, as has been the case every so often for socialist movements in other large countries.
However it would be wrong to conclude from this that each opposition party must under all circumstances scorn on principle any action of the unorganised mass. May its action very often be untimely, on the other hand very often fail to show then when it would have been useful, nevertheless its failing to show no more than its occurrence depends on our discretion. If its conditions are met, then it unavoidably occurs, without regard for whether the governments or revolutionaries have decreed that every mass action should be avoided. Elementary events do not allow themselves to be willfully directed. There is nothing stranger than the discussion about whether we Social Democrats wish to conquer political power through the general vote, through the parliament or through mass actions. As if it depended on our will! We might as well debate whether or not it will rain hailstones tomorrow.
It is another question, whether the conditions, from which occasional mass actions hitherto sprang, still exist also today and are guaranteed to continue to exist: whether they have not been in fact reduced or have ceased to exist altogether: in short, it is not whether we actually want the action of the "street," but whether we can expect, that it will once more play an historical role.
This question cannot be resolved in a few words. It will occupy us in a concluding article.
3. The historical transformations of the mass action
We have acquired our views of the nature and potential of the mass from history. This is the only way to study it.
But our society is undergoing constant and rapid change. What was yesterday the case can be already out of date today. Historical experience offers us the only method to research social and political factors. Therefore before we can apply the results of these experiences, we must continually test whether the conditions of historical experience have not changed. This applies also to the subject that we are dealing with here – the spontaneous action of the unorganised mass.
In the last forty years two events have significantly changed things and made mass action, in the sense that we are dealing with here, much more difficult: the transformation of the military and the granting of popular rights. Modern warfare dates from the wars of 1866 and 1870. Right around that time however also the popular mass in most European states won lasting rights. In 1867 equal universal suffrage was granted in the North German Confederation and soon after in the German Empire. At the same time came the right to coalition and freedom of association and assembly. In 1867 a liberal regime came to power in Austria. At the same time a great part of the English working class won the right to vote, the Empire in France was overthrown, the republic proclaimed, and Italy was unified as a country.
With all this, new relations were created, which were completely unknown at that time, in which the by us examined spontaneous unorganised mass actions exerted their great historic effects. Are such actions today still possible or still promiseful?
That is the question.
Already Engels had pointed to the transformations of the nature of the military in his oft-cited foreword to Marx's The Class Struggles in France: the destructive power of firearms has increased enormously, simultaneously the use in battles of serviceable weapons has become more than ever a monopoly of the army. The design of modern cities with their wide straight streets makes any barricade fight impossible, and the railways enable the rapid deployment of troops.
With all this Engels however merely wanted to show the impossibility of an armed uprising. This did not apply to every mass action, since the armed uprising is just one form of action, albeit one of the most decisive and potent. And also the moral effect of peaceful mass actions, mere demonstrations, is considerably reduced, if the government is always sure on being able to disperse with armed violence any manifestations which discommode it.
The historical role of mass actions is certainly restricted by these military developments, though it is not totally outmoded. And this restriction itself for Engels was only a temporary one.
He concluded from this: 'The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.' It is quite another matter when the vast majority of the population is part of the revolutionary camp. The same development which made the military unbeatable at the barricades, has changed it itself internally, has enforced the Prussian system of compulsory military service throughout almost all of Europe and shortened the time of service. Thus the soldier is brought into closer contact with the people, making it ever more difficult to deploy him against them. The more revolutionary the people become, the less likely it is that their sons in military or police uniforms will be able to be used.
On the other hand the advantage of the quicker concentration of the military through railways is lost where mass action is not limited to isolated parts of the empire, but is happening everywhere.
In short, Engels thought, a revolution would become again possible, yes it would become by itself irresistible, growing over the heads of the ruling powers, as soon as the great mass of the population in the entire country is revolutionary minded. Until then the progressive growth of the movement should be maintained by avoiding any decisive test of strength, such was the conclusion, which he drew from his conception.
It does not at all declare any mass action, but only the barricade fight, at least for the foreseeable future, to be hopeless. Precisely just before Engels died however a new form of mass action arose, which was much more energetic than all the others, with the exception of the barricade fight, and under the favourable circumstances has already had much success: the mass strike.
The development of militarism thus does not remove the conditions for mass action, but only those for one of its forms: admittedly for its most forceful one.
Many expect the end of unorganised mass actions from the effect of peoples rights, much more than from militarism. The organisation of large masses of the population into political and trade associations is making rapid progress. The number of people joining lasting organisations is growing all the time. With that, the ground for spontaneous outbreaks of the unorganised popular mass is ever more restricted.
That is correct. The action of organised masses is totally different from that of the unorganised. It is lead according to a preconceived plan and it sets its goals and its means of achieving them firmly and from the outset. It is not able to completely eliminate the unexpected, but it can minimalise it. It brings therewith a greater steadiness in the class struggle of the lower classes, avoids devastating defeats, has admittedly also not such glowing victories to show as the spontaneous actions of the unorganised great popular mass. But it is fully capable of exploiting every victory that it wins. Since, in contrast to the unorganised mass, the organised have their institutions, representatives and officials, who constantly work to secure victory while the unorganised mass must always surrender any exploitation of their victories to others.
The growth of proletarian organisations of struggle thus certainly changes significantly the character of the political and economic mass struggle. However, we should not expect that this will succeed in completely removing the conditions of unorganised spontaneous mass actions.
We saw already at the beginning of our explanation, that the number of organised is always still only a small fraction of the total mass of the people, despite the rapid growth of organisations, and that even a doubling or a tripling of this number would still leave it in a minority.
It cannot even enter the mind, to in the foreseeable future organise the total mass of the population; probably within the capitalist system of production it will never come this at all, since capital always seeks new groups of unorganised workers to set against the organised ones, is always opening up new grounds for recruiting unorganised workers. The rural population still supplies enough of this, and on top of that evermore foreign workers are pulled in. On the other hand the pressure builds up on individual categories of workers, for example on the ever increasing number of workers in state owned industry, making their organisation much more difficult.
Admittiedly the trade union and political organisations of the proletariat have not yet reached the limit of their growth. There is no fixed limit for this in any case. Working class layers, whose organisation just yesterday seemed hopeless, can today through some unexpected movement arrive at such a feeling of strength, that they become able to unite in strong and lasting organisations. However, in general one can say, that the difficulties, of gaining new areas for the organisation of the popular mass, grow all the more, the more areas it has already gained. All the greater is the resistance of capital and of the capitalist state, which become fearful by the growth of their enemy and use ever stronger methods of terrorism or corruption, to block its progress. The smaller however also is the energy and the ability to fight in those still to be gained areas. It is obvious that the most powerful and most militant layers of workers are the first to organise themselves. The longer a layer stays closed off to organising, the weaker and more discouraged it will be, and this weakness and despondency are not merely causes, but also outcomes of the lack of organisation. For the more that capital is strengthened, the deeper it degrades all those proletarian elements, who do not manage to organise themselves.
On the other hand it is certainly to be noted, that the influence of a proletarian organisation is not restricted to its members. Precisely with respect to mass actions it exerts an effect far beyond this milieu. The effect can be of a twofold nature. It can happen, that the organised absolutely do not care about the unorganised, yes that they erect an impenetrable partition between them. In doing this they take from the unorganised the very last bit of strength and self-consciousness, that these possessed. Spontaneous mass actions of these latter elements become reduced there to isolated helpless outbursts of despair. This was the case in England for some time.
Organised elements operate in a different way, when they are socialist minded, when they represent the class interests of the entire proletariat, not just their narrow professional interests. Here the organised ones attempt to raise the unorganised up, enable them to become organised and in certain circumstances bring them to action. Also this method works against spontaneous mass outbreaks, however not because the unorganised masses become incapable of any action, but because any action, also when unorganised people take part in it, is lead and determined by the organised and becomes imbued by their spirit of discipline – the best method to lead also the unorganised into the organisation.
But, however large the percentage of organised individuals within the total mass of the population is and however strong its influence on it may become, thereby spontaneous mass actions do not become impossible, within which organisations as such do not play a part, even if also many organised individuals do.
In general the organisation will intervene in cases, which have been foreseen. The more extensive the organisation, the more it embraces the hundreds of thousands in the whole empire, the more cumbersome its mechanism becomes, the more difficult it becomes, to step into action instantly, when sudden unexpected events drive the total mass of the population to the greatest agitation and push them to immediate actions. In such situations the conditions for spontaneous mass action arise again which under circumstances could sweep away an entire system of government. The most suitable ground for this is offered by war, which after all declares permanent the unexpected and the incalculable. But also already a giant strike, which grinds the entire society to a standstill, can bring powerful surprises over night. In such cases the authorities pour fuel on the fire, when they dissolve the proletarian organisations, which they deem dangerous and arrest their leaders. All the more quickly then will mass actions acquire the character of a spontaneous unorganised action, which can easily become revolutionary.
The growth of proletarian organisations thus does not in any way remove either the possibility or even only the probability of all encompassing spontaneous mass actions, but merely restricts them significantly in normal times. The same applies to universal suffrage. This too should work against spontaneous mass actions, as it gives the masses opportunity, in legal and regulated manner, without endangering themselves or others, to effectively proceed against all those political institutions and persons by which they feel themselves oppressed.
Herein lies no doubt likewise much truth. However also by this factor, just as by the expansion of organisation, the causes of spontaneous mass action are merely limited, not completely removed. And still far less than organisation can suffrage (the right to vote) render spontaneous actions redundant in sudden unexpected situations. While a gigantic organisation under circumstances cannot immediately have a slogan ready to each event of the day or even hour, it is a priori impossible, that suffrage affords expression of also only each excitation of the masses in a year. The time between the elections is long, the dissolving of the representative bodies in meantime is mostly at the discretion of governments, and they will guard themselves from unnecessarily appealing to the voters precisely in the times of great popular agitation. During the interim period between elections the urge to mass action is in no way removed by universal suffrage.
The right to vote, as it exists in the modern state, affords however even during the election not the whole mass of the population the opportunity to have its voice heard. Women, who as a rule play a very energetic role in spontaneous mass actions, have up until now been excluded from elections everywhere, with individual exceptions. Indeed a large part of men are similarly excluded. In England the right to vote is still a limited one and bourgeois radicalism, despite all its wonderful speeches, does not intend on widening it. The poorest parts of the population are excluded from voting. In all of Great Britain in 1906 a mere 16.64% of the population possessed it, as opposed to 22% in Germany. Had England applied German standards then there would have been 9,600,000 instead of 7,300,000 enfranchised – 2,300,000 more. That is how many men it excludes from voting, who with mass actions on the street will not be the last join.
However also with the German Reichstag suffrage in no way can every person be active, who with a mass action would participate. The suffrage is not just a highly unequal weighted voting system (Pluralwahlrecht) that due to the growing diversity in the population number of the electoral districts has become detrimental to the industrial proletariat, it also excludes a large part of the male population from the vote. Whereas in England for example voting eligibility begins at 21 years of age, the German Imperial Constitution sets it at 25 years.
In the year 1900 the German Imperial Statistics counted 2,026,096 men aged 21–25 years. Since then their numbers have still significantly increased. It is mainly the industrial proletariat, which through their exclusion from voting is disadvantaged. In the census of 1907, out of every 10,000 male workforces in the respective sector, 887 in the agricultural sector and 1,314 in the industrial sector were aged 21–25 years. In turn, in agriculture out of 10,000 (male + female) workforces 7,089 were over 25 years old, in industry only 6,774.
The ratio is even worse if we compare not industry and agriculture, but the self-employed and wage labourers. For every 10,000 male self-employed (in industry, agriculture and trade) 159 are aged 21–25, as against 1,501 for the male wage labourers, a ratio of almost ten to one. The absolute figures are even more drastic. 70,555 self-employed males were aged 21–25, whereas the number for wage labourers stood at 1,712,981, thus 24 times more.
In addition to these disenfranchised classes come into consideration also still the foreigners, who do not take part in elections, on the other hand cannot be excluded from mass actions on the street. Their number is especially large in the most democratic state in Europe, Switzerland, where they made up almost 12% of the population already in 1900, and 15% in 1910. They are most present in the large cities. In Zürich in 1909 they constituted already almost a full third of the population. And their number is rapidly growing. In 1888 they there did not yet make up a quarter (22 percent). Of these the majority are male. While foreigners in general accounted in 1909 for 32.67% of the Zürich population, for males it was 34.58% of the male population. More than one third of the male population are excluded from voting in Zürich, almost all of whom are industrial wage labourers! Even larger than in Zürich is the number of foreigners in Basel (38% in 1910) and in Geneva (41% of the entire population in 1910). One can see then why, under these circumstances, the worker population in Switzerland in elections does not express itself as forcefully as with its mass street actions on the street, for example the 1 May demonstrations.
However, even if the suffrage were to be successfully extended to every adult in the land without discriminating against sex or ancestry, the proletariat would still not be able to deploy its full power.
The power of the proletariat lies in its great number, in its mass. United in masses, it deploys its greatest self consciousness. Isolated the worker feels weaker, is more easily influenced. To the voting booth however he goes as a loner. Here it is much easier to intimidate or bribe him than it is in a mass action, if there is no membership of a strong organisation to lend him moral backbone or empower him. The secret ballot alleviates this situation somewhat, but does not fully overcome it either, as experiences in America, England, France show. Also in Germany we could write a whole book on election terrorism. If electoral corruption does not yet play such a role in the Reichstag elections as it does in more democratic states, this stems merely from the great powerlessness of the Reichstag. But everywhere the efforts of the propertied classes are growing, through all manner of intimidation, oppression, lies and bribery to restrain the march of the masses to Social Democracy and to compel the weak, the gullible or the timid in their midst to follow them. All this does not make electoral victories for Social Democracy impossible; indeed they will be all the more glorious and impressive since the greatness and significance of the victory will be judged not by the spoils that the victor takes, but by the strength of the opponent that he had to overcome.
But the more the efforts of our opponents to falsify election results through treachery and violence grow, the less do the vote-counts and even the mandates, which Social Democracy gains, express the full measure of power that the proletariat possesses, and all the more can it express this full measure only in spontaneous mass rallies.
Proletarians, who let themselves be used as strike breakers or vote against Social Democracy, do not do so, because they are content, because things are going well for them, because they wish to maintain the status quo, but because they are too weak and despondent, because they lack confidence in themselves and their own class, because they imagine that they will only progress through groveling, and because they have not understood the meaning of the actions of party and trade union. Just these elements, who are quite unenlightened and to whom no organisation has given footing and steadiness, are as a rule the most oppressed and degraded. If they get into a mass action that gives them the feeling of strength and (that) is addressed directly against an institution or person oppressing them, which they readily understand, then they do not just easily go along, but will be here inclined soonest to ecstasy.
In moments of great national excitement spontaneous mass actions can thus to a much higher degree than an election campaign unite the entire mass of the working people, both organised and unorganised, voter and non-voter, Social democrat and fellow-traveler of bourgeois parties into a single great massive phalanx.
Sure enough only then, when these rallies encompass the entire empire. Until now that has hardly been the case. The great mass actions, which from 1789 to 1871 called forth historical effects, were always limited to single localities, usually the capital city.
The election campaign under universal suffrage is in modern states the first simultaneous action of the entire people in all parts of the country. However many proletarians may still be excluded from this process, there previously has never been brought simultaneously into traction such a great mass by any mass action of another kind. Irrespective of the rights, which the law grants to the voters and which make their action more or less politically meaningful, already by this fact alone in the last decades the election campaign has become the most powerful mass action of the proletariat, and it will remain so, aside from the rare moments, in which the entire population simultaneously through some event or other is aroused to boiling point, without an election campaign as safety valve preventing the explosion. Alongside modern transportation it is precisely the universal suffrage itself, that creates the conditions for such encompassing mass actions, as it awakens even in the remotest corners of the empire political interests and promotes the welding of great masses together in an expansive, all-state encompassing party organism, in which particular as well as craft separations are overcome, and that to the highest degree influences the entire mass of voters in all parts of the country.
Therewith spontaneous mass actions of a scope and a power become possible, as they previously were unheard-of. Universal suffrage removes thus neither the possibilities nor the impetus to mass actions. Like the organisation of the mass, it can only restrict the ground for actions of this kind, limit the conditions which lead to them, but not fully remove them.
A complete removal of spontaneous mass actions could occur only under the assumption, that universal suffrage and proletarian organisation were able, to remove the basic cause, which in the present capitalist production system leads to such mass actions. This is the constant tendency to immiseration of the masses, which it does without pause, continually embittering them, so that it requires just greater, more rousing instigations, if they in fierce actions are to try to cast off the pressure. The capitalist mode of production necessarily generates in the capitalist class the urge to oppress the popular mass ever more, to impoverish (verelenden) them, as the word is called which one uses for this. With equal necessity develops the counteraction of the proletariat, the struggle against this misery. From this arises the inevitability of the class struggle, which becomes all the more bitter the longer it lasts, the more adept at fighting its opponents become in and through struggle, and the more pronounced the differences of their life situations, the more the capitalists raise themselves up over the proletariat through increased exploitation.
It is not always herewith really its misery that grows, but to be sure its excitation, its need to cast off the pressure, which it ever more painfully senses.
Herewith though the capitalist mode of production generates also with necessity individual situations, in which the misery of the people becomes acute. That are situations in which all the conditions for large mass actions meet and these often unexpectedly and quickly achieve a momentum of their own. Such situations are created by crises with extended unemployment, taxation pressure, inflation and war.
When in the decades after 1871 spontaneous mass actions no longer played such a large role as they did in the previous hundred years, it was not exclusively because then political rights and the possibility of organisation were granted to the popular mass in Western Europe. It was due also much more and primarily to the peculiar economic relations, which have occurred in the meantime and which could for some time awake the belief, that these immiserating tendencies of capitalism and the particular generator of mass excitation, inflation, crisis and war, were completely overcome.
Shortly after 1871 the foodstuffs competition overseas and in Russia began, which made the price of foodstuffs fall. This was in the seventies and eighties further paralysed by the enormous then prevailing crisis, which also further caused unrests in various countries – riots in Vienna in 1884, the fights about Trafalgar Square in London 1887 etc. With the beginning of the last decade of the previous century there began an era of prosperity, only interrupted by short crises, which brought on an increase in wages, meanwhile food prices either sank or at least did not constantly rise. And therewith Europe for a span of forty years stayed fully spared from the horrors and devastation of a war.
We all know now, that this era was not the beginning of an ongoing transformation of capitalism to milder forms, but only a short interlude, brought about by the coalescence of different circumstances, which since a few years makes place again to all horrors of the dark drama of capitalist exploitation.
The main cause of the apparent mitigation of circumstances since 1871 was the extension of the railway system in the United States, through which an enormous region of untamed territory of the world was opened for capitalism, on which private property of land practically did not exist yet. This communist mitigation of capitalism could however not last forever under its rule. Today practically all land in the United States is private property and with that the impoverishing tendency of capitalism again fully set in.
The prices of foodstuffs have continually increased in the last half dozen years, and this increase threatens to be a permanent one.
The price-raising effect of private ownership of land in America is further exacerbated by the consequences of overharvesting in Russia and America, by the growth of producers' and traders' associations, and perhaps also by the revolutionising of gold production. Technical progress and the discovery of new sources of gold possibly have lowered the production costs and with that the value of gold more rapidly than the value of foodstuffs, since the productivity of agriculture only slowly increases due to the obstacles of the private ownership of land, the maintaining of technically backward small business and the rural depopulation of the workers. If to all this we add further the growing protective tariffs as well as the tax increases of the last years, then we have pretty much the causes of the rise in prices. They are all of permanent nature. The ruling classes will not voluntarily relinquish either the agricultural tariffs or tax increases, they are the inevitable consequence of the imperialist colonial and armament mania, that has seized capitalism.
The latter has become master of the entire planet in the last forty years, countless industries arise outside Europe, the crises grow again, and the urge of individual industrialised states grows ever stronger to secure markets, zones of influence and supplies of raw material for themselves; on the one hand there arises the modern tariff politics, on the other imperialism, the maritime arms race5 , growing tax pressure and the uninterrupted threat of war, which is further increased by the awakening of the Orient.
Therewith are intensified not only the class contradictions and the class struggle, therewith arise also again in higher degree since long the conditions for enormous, spontaneous mass actions. It is a particular irony of history that the new period of the mass actions for Western Europe in this year (1911) was inaugurated by England, the country, which because of its proletarian organisation and democratic rights, was thought to be more immune to such actions than any other place, and which in this respect was praised as example by all admirers of a peaceful development.
War and inflation were the great levers of the mass actions in the French Revolution. Inflation and the threat of war are again the themes of our times, soon perhaps war itself of an even more devastating type than one hundred years ago. With that also spontaneous mass actions promise again to play a great historic role. If that happens then political and social development will considerably lose in steadiness, again become erratic, unpredictable; it can deliver us surprising, powerful victories, though also at times painful defeats.
But however powerful one may imagine the mass actions to be, which can arise from this situation, they will no longer entirely retain the character that they once had. Forty years of political democracy and proletarian organisation have not simply passed by without leaving their mark. The number of organised and enlightened elements in the mass has become too great, for them not to assert themselves also in spontaneous outbreaks, however sudden these might arrive, however powerful the excitation, from which these spring, however much also any planned management in these may be disabled.
It appears excluded, that such outbreaks could in the countries with strong Social Democracy and strong trade unions ever again take on a senseless or reactionary character, as happened in England during the Gordon Riots in 1780 or the Spanish revolt in 1808. Even in Russia the socialist minded proletariat has already in 1905 made pogroms impossible in places, where it dominated. They could only occur in places where the revolution was defeated.
However not only in the setting of the goal, but also in the formulation of the methods of action must the influence of the organised and more advanced elements strongly assert itself over the unorganised, by mere instincts and needs driven masses, to guide them away from purposeless action and hopeless beginnings, to warn them of set traps and treacherous provocations, to let them break off their action in an orderly fashion should it threaten to fail.
So we dare hope that failures, which have so often been the lot of spontaneous mass actions, no longer take such devastating forms, as it mostly was the case in the past.
Should a defeat nevertheless occur, then the workers, those whose life in the organisation has been infused with prudence, discipline and confidence, know how to steadfastly endure the disaster and engage in an orderly retreat without panic or despair and to quickly reassemble and remain in contact. Also this has an effect on the unorganised mass and strengthens their moral posture.
When however the mass action succeeds, if it happens with such an overwhelming force, such great excitation and ruthlessness of the masses, such enormous breadth of its scope, such surprising suddenness in such unfavourable situation for our enemy, that it is irresistible, then the mass today can exploit this victory in a very different way than in the past. We already saw that the victories of the organised mass, in contrast to those of the unorganised mass, are not short lived or only gained for others. It has its institutions, its officials and representatives, who by treaties, laws etc. stipulate the victory for it. The interests of the unorganised and the organised are however the same. The institutions of Social Democracy and of the socialist non-craft trade unions work for them all. In places where these organisations have planted roots, the times have passed, when the proletariat has by its victories in spontaneous mass actions taken the chestnuts out of the fire only for individual opposition factions of its enemy. It will henceforth be able to consume them itself.
When the organised and unorganised classes co-operate in large sudden actions they can take on unheard-of and previously unknown forms. The most recent riots in England have already displayed very unique characteristics. But about this really nothing can be told in advance.
The more that all-embracing spontaneous mass actions would assume an historic role again, the more they would bring a completely unpredictable element into our political life, which for us all would bring with it the greatest surprises, of joyful as well as painful nature. The development would assume a catastrophic character once again, just as it did between 1789 and 1871 in Europe.
Whether this is inconvenient to us or not, would not change the matter itself.
This interpretation has nothing to do with the so-called Marxist theory of catastrophe. Marx never proposed such a theory. Yes he even assumed, in a country like England the proletariat could without catastrophes attain political power.
Neither Marx nor his pupils erected a special theory about the forms which the proletarian class struggle would assume in its various phases. If we view the immanent political and social situation today as pregnant with catastrophes, then this springs from our interpretation of this particular situation, not from a general theory.
Does however the particular nature of the situation give rise to the necessity of a particular, a new tactic? Some of our friends contend so and would like to revise our tactic.
One could talk more deeply about this first, when they would come up with more defined proposals. That has until today not happened.
Above all one must know, whether one desires new tactical principles or new tactical measures. Particular situations certainly demand particular measures. But these cannot be fixed in advance, they must arise out of the given situation. If this is the case already in general, then it applies most of all to events which, like spontaneous mass actions, are completely unpredictable, of which one really can say nothing specific in advance, of which not just the nature and time of commencement, but the commencement itself are completely uncertain.
One can do nothing else in the face of such events than try to ensure that they do not catch us completely off guard. We will deal with them much more purposefully and quickly, the stronger and more competent of action our organisation is and the clearer our insight, the better we understand state and society, the more precisely we are informed about the intentions and means of power of our opponents as well as about the moods and means of power of the proletariat.
The development of the organisation, the conquest of all positions of power, which we are capable of seizing and maintaining through our own strength, study of State and Society and enlightenment of the masses: other tasks we also today cannot yet consciously and orderly set ourselves and our organisations. Concerning the unpredictable we can merely reflect, but not a priori agree on tactical provisions.
Those tactical tasks, which we can and must set ourselves today, signify least of all a new tactic, but rather a continuity and strengthening of those, which have lead our party from victory to victory over the last four decades.
- 1a contemporary rival liberal association
- 2La folla delinquente, 1891. Psychologie des Auflaufs und der Massenverbrechen, 1897. La foule criminelle, 1901.
- 3Die tierischen Gesellschaften, 1879. Des sociétés animales, 1877.
- 4In defining the organised mass, Le Bon's understanding is not the commonly held view, a mass, that is held together through the bonds of an organisation, but rather a mass which is ruled by the same spirit, in contrast to a crowd of individuals, who, animated by the most diverse interests and motives, find themselves together in a location by coincidence.
- 5between the German and British empires