Class collaboration? - Rudolf Hilferding

Rudolph Hilferding

Article against the collaboration of classes, 8 October 1915.

(I translate only the first half of this article from Der Kampf: Sozialdemokratische Monatsschrift (Vienna), p.321-329. Original title: Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Klassen? )

If there should still be someone who believes that the war has removed the ground from the old antagonism between opportunism and radicalism in the labor movement, the facts could have long taught them better. For it is exactly the opposite in reality. Precisely in the last period before the war it could have seem as if the distinctness of the social and political development of this antagonism, which always, albeit in varying forms was present in the working-class movement of all countries, had increasingly dulled. The war has radically changed this situation. Though not in the sense that it would permanently alleviate the social contradictions within existing society - these illusions the period after the war will soon destroy - rather, the war has helped opportunist ideology to an undreamed victory, so that the labor movement today everywhere stands under the dictatorship of the Right within the party. And it is only natural that the favorable opportunity is utilized by these politicians who already before the war were anxious to change the party tactics and advocated a policy which in its implications would convert a fundamentally revolutionary movement, whose aim was the complete reorganization of society, in a reformist one, whose task would be the adjustment of the labor movement to capitalist society, the fundamental recognition of the existing authorities, in particular the current state power, in short the incorporation also of the working class into the existing social and political order. Whoever denies this antagonism and pretends that the policy during the war is only a passing episode, which with the war will be overcome, so that a return to the old tactic stands nothing in the way, deceives himself or wants to deceive others about the size and significance of the antagonism. For the position toward the war, since herein lies a decision of world historical importance and effect, is precisely the touchstone of the intellectual toughness of the social democratic conviction against the dominant ideology and the measure of the intellectual independence of the working class, which forms the precondition for their political and social emancipation. But the victory of opportunist ideology is also therefore a danger for the future of the labor movement, because thereby certain tendencies of capitalist development are supported, that stand in the way of the realization of socialism.


Social development in all the essentials has taken place in those forms which the prophetic vision of genius already foresaw in the Communist Manifesto, the necessity of which was then proved in "Capital." But the social-psychological impact of this development on the behavior of the working class could - just because it is the subjectivist, i.e. not easy clearly recognizable reflection of objective tendencies - not be detected with the same sharpness. Marx saw and could see in his time nothing else than especially the revolutionary tendencies of capitalism. What he has underestimated (and we later still long with him), are the adjustments that exactly the struggle of the working class, the social democratic and trade union movement have created in capitalist society. The intellectual, moral and material elevation, which the labor movement of the oppressed, in the deepest misery vegetating class has brought, the advance of the worker from a "talking tool" to a human, has at the same time made capitalism more bearable for the working class, made it thus even able to exist. It has strengthened the working class as such intellectually and physically, made it more combat-capable and confident than an oppressed class ever, but at the same time mitigated the direct revolutionary drive, the sheer intolerance of a life-unworthy existence. From the capitalism of infanticide and starvation, the workers' movement in unremitting political and trade union struggles has made a capitalism, the realization of whose worst impoverishment tendencies became impossible, and has preserved it thus of a revolution of desperate (but also depressed and uncultured) masses. To say it as paradox: the counter-revolutionary effects of the labor movement have weakened the revolutionary tendencies of capitalism.

The latest phase of capitalist development generates out of itself other conservative tendencies. The rapid development of world capitalism since the mid-nineties of the last century, reduced the periods of depression, mitigated the chronic unemployment. The most developed countries of capitalism - Germany and the United States - since that time have no industrial reserve army in the old sense, they require for agriculture and industry continually the supply of foreign workers, on whom then also in the first place pressure of crises is loaded. Finance capital - the mastery of monopolistic organized industry by the small number of big banks - has the tendency to mitigate anarchy of production and contains germs of a conversion of anarchic capitalism into an organized capitalist economic order. The unheard strengthening of state power, which finance capital and its policies brought forth, acts in the same direction. In place of the victory of socialism a society of an although organized, yet controlling, not democratically organized economy appears possible, at whose head stood the combined forces of monopolies and the state, under which the working masses would act in hierarchical structure as functionaries of production. Instead of overcoming capitalist society through socialism there stepped in a to the immediate material needs of the masses better than previously adapted society of organized capitalism.

And the war events can - if one abstracts from the democratic-proletarian counteraction - only reinforce these trends. What one calls war socialism - and what in reality is only a tremendous gain of capitalism through the power of its organization - acts in this direction. And the likewise through war in its strength, and especially in its self-confidence enormously increased state power will already for financial reasons (state monopolies!) promote these trends.

And now we see arise in the leadership of the working class an ideology, which also would promote such a development. It preaches the working class a commonality of their interests with those of the ruling classes, but in particular with those of the state. It steps back - especially under the overbearing impression of the enormous strength of state power - from the idea of an opposition between imperialist power-politics and the democratic transformation of the entire internal and external politics, to a hope of meeting the immediate material interests through social reform measures. In other words: the struggle for democracy1 resigns and its implementation seems, like that of socialism itself, to stop being a directly practical aim of proletarian policy. And this at a time when the fundamental importance of democracy against the ruling power-politics as a condition of peace between the peoples not only, but also for the maintenance and restoration of the International emerges more apparent than ever, and the question of democracy becomes so much more burning, since on its solution immediately depends the other, whether the future will belong to organized state capitalism or to democratic socialism. One sets democracy in the back and social policies in the front, since one expects that this satisfaction of immediate material interests of proletarian daily life will encounter less resistance, as it does not directly change in principle the fabric of today's society and the power-relations of classes. And there can be no doubt that this policy of resignation or a wrongly understood harmony of interests also finds its support in the German working class.

But if that is the way things are, then contention with this policy is the most urgent task within the party to be performed, and those prove a disservice to the working class who want to prevent or limit the attainment of this most serious, historically important conflict, which since the beginning of the labor movement has occurred, or who from the outset poison the discussion by those irrelevant, up to Reichsverband-methods2 erratic insinuations of motive.

In doing so it would however be unmarxist to imagine that one can merely by theoretical arguments or by an appeal to the democratic conviction reach a decision. We know how the bourgeois democracy and liberalism in Germany after the satisfaction of the material needs of the bourgeoisie has perished. When we cherish the hope that we will manage to preserve proletarian democracy from a similar fate, this hope is not based on the superiority of our arguments, not the passion of our conviction of the necessity of democracy, which now burns hotter than ever in us, but primarily in the insight that just by the effects of the war again tendencies (which we at present however cannot show) will arise, that will convince the working class that the principled policy and tactics that we represent, alone accord to their true and lasting interest.

If therefore socialist opportunism represents, whatever its more or less consistent representatives may imagine and entirely independent of their consciousness, all the capitalist-preserving efforts, everything, which is directed to the adaptation of the working class to capitalism and to the adaptation of capitalism to the immediate basic material interests of the working class, so to us Marxists falls back the function, which Marx set us in the Communist Manifesto: against the momentary interests of the proletariat to represent the constant interests, to be the propulsive element of the labor movement. And we do not doubt that the decision of the masses will eventually fall for us and hence for democratic socialism, because we represent nothing else - it would be hypocritical not to say what has remained our pride and our dignity even after the most depressing experiences - than the theoretical consciousness of their true interests, the knowledge of the historical necessity and the world-historical mission of the working class.


One becomes properly aware of the size of the contradiction which exists between the opportunist and the principled conception about the next tasks as well as about the spirit of proletarian politics in general, when we consider a peculiar literary apparition in which ten professors and ten socialists write about "The workers in the new Germany."3 The writing is thus a kind of literary harbinger of the future cooperation between the classes. The editor, Dr. Friedrich Thimme, library director of the Prussian House of Lords, and comrade Carl Legien, chairman of the General Commission of trade unions of Germany, say in their preface:

"Again and again the desire at this time has been expressed that the unity and harmony of the whole German people which has revealed itself so gorgeously in the world storm, may be continued from the war-distress into the time of the future peace. But also doubts have been expressed as to whether such enduring unity of the nationality under the multiple economic and social contradictions, the differences of classes and parties, especially the deep divide between the bourgeois classes and social democracy were possible at all. About hope and doubt ultimately only the future will be able to decide. But nothing can be more important than today to become clear about the possibility and the conditions of an intellectual collaboration between the bourgeois and socialist intellectual world. To this insight the present work owes its origin."

However none of the collaborators had known something about the other.

"It is obvious that the individual collaborators who of the essays of others consistently had no knowledge, are responsible only for their own articles; the two editors do not want and cannot vouch for everything that is said from one side or the other. They have, as far as it regards opinions and views in the articles, given the authors a completely free hand and held only that polemic against other parties or individuals be avoided."

Now one will definitely not have to take this rejection of responsibility literally of course. If men, whose names have resonance in the labor movement, support a literary enterprise through their cooperation, and thereby certainly work for its spread, then they plainly carry responsibility for the whole and it is their personal recklessness, when they have not made sure beforehand, for what they have used their support. But this responsibility is easy to carry, because the editors are very satisfied with the success. Yet the whole, so say Mr. Dr. Thimme and comrade Legien in the preface, "produces, this impression no one will escape, the first on such scale attempted collaboration between bourgeois and socialist writers with such degree of mutual understanding, in all natural diversity of views, that the hope for a common, prosperous cooperation in and around the new Germany can only be revitalized."

So let us also try to achieve such understanding. The Germans famously did not make their bourgeois revolution in reality like the English and French, but in philosophy. So it corresponds only to our whole prior history, when now socialist reformism does not send ministers in the government as in France and England, but, for the beginning at least, together with professors produces a book. That it are professors and are not bourgeois politicians, of course reduces the value of the collaboration. For actually one would think that professors have to accomplish their achievements in their specific science, but our comrades in politics, and the collaboration seems to us more understandable when not bourgeois professors but bourgeois politicians had staked out the joint area. One would know more about how things stand, when instead of professors, the Messrs. Heydebrand, Zedlitz, Spahn and Bassermann showed what binds them with social democracy. For whatever the views of professors in the field of politics may be, they certainly have the disadvantage that in the hard world of political facts they do not carry all that much weight. But in return they have the advantage of a standpoint, which is quite beyond the ordinary politician. "One knows," already Börne said," how heavenly good it is for all German scholars on a very high point; because there above in the clouds no police exists."4 And when the wicked justification of Börne today certainly is no longer true, the police rather has long risen to the high point of the professors, and thus become ubiquitous, a collaboration that finds only the agreement of professors would remain entirely in the clouds, were the professors not and precisely in the main point to represent a quite real policy; in this point they certainly are the spokesmen also of bourgeois politics and therefore the writing deserves political attention.


Now what is this crucial point, what is it that stands out as the common thread throughout all the contributions of the bourgeois scholars? What fills them with that feeling of happiness, of which the historian at the University of Berlin, professor Meinecke so excitedly speaks? It is the belief that social democracy, as professor Onken expresses, never will be able to lose again the insight that the strength of the German worker is tied to the strength of the German state. In the bond of the historically authoritarian powers of the state with the trends and needs of the masses precisely in Germany, Onken says, lay "all progress of classes and the further realization of this problem will also belong in the future. The idea of the state will then also in social democracy overcome the anti-state mindset and the international orientation of pure Marxism."

Section III went on to extensively quote the view of Gerhard Anschütz. The last section (IV) quoted Gustav Noske and August Winnig.

  • 1. Cf. Hilferding's remark in 1927 at the party congress in Kiel: "Now there walk people in the world who yell: beware of democratic illusions! [...] But is it not a mealy intellectual-belief, that we, to the worker, who daily in the factory for 8 and 10 hours long with his own body feels, that political emancipation still does not mean the same as economic emancipation, must constantly warn for the illusion of bourgeois democracy?"
  • 2. The Reichsverband gegen die Sozialdemokratie aimed at fighting the influence of socialism. Its leader Eduard von Liebert later joined the NSDAP.
  • 3. Die Arbeiterschaft im neuen Deutschland (1915). The socialist contributors included also Philipp Scheidemann and Paul Lensch.
  • 4. Menzel der Franzosenfresser (1837). Also Engels was among the fans of Börne, writing once that "the task of our age is to complete the fusion of Hegel and Börne." On Ludwig Börne see Raphael Hörmann's "Writing the Revolution: German and English Radical Literature, 1819-1848/49" (2011; thesis 2007, Glasgow) p.233-251: Börne's Shifting Perspective on Proletarian Social Revolution.