Rosa Luxemburg

The Socialist Crisis in France

Part I

Jaurès and his adherents justified Millerand’s entry into the Cabinet on three grounds: The Republic must be defended. It would be possible to put through social reforms of benefit to the working class. And, finally, the development of capitalist society into socialism must give birth to a transition period in which the political power is wielded in common by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and finds its outward expression in the participation of socialists in the government.

After a time, the reference to the defense of the Republic became the chief argument.

The Republic is in danger! That is why it was necessary for a socialist to become the bourgeois Minister of Commerce. The Republic is in danger! That is why the socialist had to remain in the cabinet even after the massacre of the striking workers on the Island of Martinique and in Chalon. The Republic is in danger! As a result, inquiries into the massacres had to be blocked, the parliamentary investigations of the horrors perpetrated in the colonies had to be discarded, and the amnesty law accepted. All acts of the government, all positions and votes of the socialists are based upon a concern for the threatened Republic and its defense. It is time to analyze the situation calmly, undisturbed by the uproar of the daily struggle and its slogans. It is time to answer the question: just what do this danger and this defense consist of?

Despite violent class and party struggles, we do not hear of dangers threatening the republican form of government in the United States of America. This is entirely understandable, since the republic in America was won simultaneously with national independence. The Americans have never experienced monarchal rule as an independent nation. In France, on the contrary, the fears for the welfare of the Republic appear just as understandable, since it was twice established through violent struggle, only to be twice, after a short existence, overthrown by the monarchy. We, therefore, have these past experiences casting their ominous shadows on the present situation – shadows which conceal the vistas of historical development that lie between past and present.

Coup d’état : 1799 and 1851

Although the two Napoleonic coups d’état – the Eighteenth Brumaire of 1799[1] and December 2nd of 1851 [2] – were produced by specific and immediate political situations, their roots went far below this surface. The First and the Second Empires alike were the direct products of preceding revolutions. They marked the extreme point of rest of the receding revolutionary wave and were supported in both cases by two powerful classes of bourgeois society, the big bourgeoisie and the peasantry.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire, we have a bourgeoisie in the period of the revolution’s ascent, seeking to check it and lead it back to its starting point in order to strangle it, because it had been carried beyond the point they fixed for it – the creation of a constitutional bourgeois state – and was threatening the very foundations of this state. Hand in hand with this bourgeoisie went a peasantry, liberated and in possession of the land, fearing every new change as much as the return of the old regime, and anxious to consolidate its conquests through a government that was hostile to both the revolution and the legitimate monarchy. Facing these two classes across the barricades was a working class which during its short rule had frightened the petty bourgeoisie and driven it into the arms of reaction, but at the same time had shown that it did not yet possess an independent, practical program of action and had, therefore, been grinding itself to pieces in the revolutionary struggles. Finally, the threat offered by the anti-Jacobin coalition of feudal-reactionary Europe caused the internal contradictions and struggles to be pushed into the background and concentrated everything upon the necessity for a strong, external front.

In the coup d’état of December 2, 1851, we have a bourgeoisie in power, which, like the big landowners, is frightened by the revolutionary uprising of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. It secures the help of the petty bourgeoisie to trample the proletariat underfoot in the June massacre, and then, in order to finish with the petty bourgeoisie, strengthens the state power more and more at the expense of popular representation. In doing this, it finally places its own neck in the noose, with the greater resignation since it, from the beginning, is monarchically minded, and only finds fault with the monarchy of Bonaparte because it would have preferred that of the house of Orleans or the Bourbons. Next to this bourgeoisie, we have a peasantry, which has been devoted to the Napoleon tradition since the First Empire. In the Second it sees a means of establishing order with the bayonets of the army, and of controlling the turbulent city population it hates and fears.

The pattern of the coup d’état is, therefore, the same in both cases: on the one hand, the positive economic and political interests of the dominant classes in society tied to the monarchy; on the other, the working class, by now rendered incapable of action, as the only real republican force. Finally, in both cases, the monarchy finds its foundation prepared in advance by the march of the counter-revolution, which has already created posts combining the supreme civil and military powers: the life-long consulships and the plebiscite-elected President.[3] Whatever the coup d’état conquered, therefore, had already dropped into the lap of the Republic as a ripe fruit of the counter-revolution. The coup d’état did not establish a new state of affairs. It merely recognized the new situation and gave it its name.

The Bourgeois Republic

The events in France during the Dreyfus affair were fundamentally different. Those who interpreted the treason of certain generals and the rise of the Nationalists. as omens of a third coup d’état modelled after the two previous ones, disregarded the entire social development of France in the last thirty years. The profound alterations in the social structure of France during this period may be summed up as follows. In 1799 and in 1851, the Republic was arrested and executed by the coup d’état before it had a chance to rid itself of its revolutionary baggage. The Third Republic, however, has been able to last long enough to enter a normal period of existence and prove to the bourgeoisie that it knows how to adapt itself to their interests, and much better than any monarchy in the world could possibly do.

The main body of the bourgeoisie achieved undivided political rule for the first time in the Third Republic and, has wielded it since the end of the 1870’s almost continuously through the cabinets and parliamentary majorities of the opportunist petty-bourgeois parties. The French colonial policy and militarism, as well as the resulting gigantic state debt, have shown to the bourgeoisie that the Republic can compete with any monarchy in these most lucrative projects of the bourgeoisie. The Panama Canal and the South Railroad affairs[4] have finally proved that Parliament and the Republican administration are tools no less adaptable to the lords of high finance than the political apparatus of the Orleanist monarchy.

The Third Republic, furthermore, has proved to be fertile soil for the petty bourgeoisie. A huge crop of small state creditors and state officials sprang up from the growing national debt and the continuously expanding bureaucracy. The entire existence of this army was dependent upon the peaceful stability of the Republic.

And finally, the Republic’s oldest and most bitter enemies, the landowners – the small and even more the big – have been showered with golden fruits from the Republic’s horn of plenty. If, at the time of the coup d’état of the second Napoleon, one section of the peasantry was already progressive enough to break with monarchal rule in a series of brutally suppressed revolts, it now had abundant opportunity to still further revise its views of the Republic. A whole series of important measures have been carried through in the last two decades that benefited most directly the wealthier peasants, the old support of Bonapartism. The reduction of land taxes alone since 1897 amounts to nearly 25 million francs. Despite the great increase of the government’s net income, the tax burden of the landowners has decreased by one-sixth! The system of protective tariffs, particularly on cattle and grain, has above all added to the wealth of the landowners. Then there are the additional expenditures of hundreds of millions of francs for technical improvement, for the construction of roads, further reduction of freight rates on the products of the soil, etc.

In general, we note the nearly complete cessation of effective social reforms and the trend towards drawing the state income almost entirely from indirect taxes which bear most heavily on the masses. Between 1865 and 1897, while the population has remained constant, the income from the tariff has increased 183%, the proceeds of the tobacco monopoly by 49%, liquor taxes by 84%. All of this indicates a very obvious material gain for all the possessing classes, the costs of which are largely borne by the only non-possessing class – the proletariat.

It must be added that the Republic in its foreign affairs, was in its internal policies, gives ample proof of its usefulness by its alliance with Czarist Russia, the chieftain of European reaction. Once its greatest enemy, Russia today is the Republic’s benevolent patron and ally.

The last thirty years have not passed over the stage of history without leaving their mark. They have transformed the Third Republic from the much-feared spectre of revolutionary upheaval into the normal form of existence of bourgeois society.

Today the Republic has the support of the main body of the bourgeoisie and of the peasantry – the suspicions of this one-time chief opponent having been disarmed by the Republic’s proving itself a kindly protector. And the working class too, still loyal despite its being treated like a step-child, is no longer the same as in the days of the first and second coups d’état. Politically trained, clarified, organized, even if split into factions, the socialist proletariat of France, whose parties polled nearly a million votes in the last elections to the Chamber, commands respect today as firm bulwark of the Republic.

Grand Alliance in Bedlam

It is clear that in this milieu monarchism is reduced to a wholly different role than it formerly played. During the Dreyfus affair, everybody regarded the nationalist camp as the headquarters of the coup d’état purely because of the slogans of the daily struggle, even as every reactionary like Méline, Barthous, or Ribot was considered a monarchist without further thought. Closer and calmer examination, however, revealed that the Nationalists presented anything but an internally united and homogeneous political front. On the contrary, this camp was rather a rendezvous of heterogeneous elements with the most varied goals and interests.[5]

In the center, we see the compromised top ranks of the army, the general staff, and its adherents. It is true that these, in their fear of being called to trial before the Republican civil authorities, were driven to rebel against this authority. But fundamentally, they have no serious interest in the reconstitution of the monarchy. On the contrary, it was just in the Third Republic that the army was glorified as never in the past, because of the spread of an idiotic chauvinist cult and through various reforms and special privileges. And the Dreyfus affair itself has best shown that the military heads have, from their own viewpoint, found the Republic to be a paradise. It can easily be demonstrated that a despotism and autocracy of the military chiefs such as existed under the wing of the opportunist Republic cannot be so easily conceived of under a monarchist regime. The military chiefs could not seriously feel a longing for the tight reins of the monarchy. Their anti-republicanism, in this case, was only the natural form of self-defense of swindlers who were unmasked and caught by the Republic.

Next we have the clergy, which has always been on guard under the Republic, watching for an opportunity to strangle it. No doubt the clerics exercized an enormous influence on public opinion, but they were incapable of any action, appearing only as the stage managers and prompters, and not as the actors.

Thirdly, we find a strong anti-Semitic tendency in the petty bourgeoisie, a natural development in France, the land of small enterprises and a Jewry active in the financial world. The agitation against the “Dreyfusards”, as with every reactionary current, provided them with favorable grounds for a nationalist demagogy. But they had no need to declare their allegiance to a Caesarian coup d’état, nor, in fact, did they declare such an allegiance.

Finally, there are the real monarchists. Some represent the peasantry in the most backward regions of France. Others are aristocrats who were forced, during normal times, to conclude an open peace with the Third Republic as “monarchal republicans” – or at least to accomodate themselves quietly to the situation – but who now, taking heart from the crisis, appear on the political scene with their entourage of journalists and littérateurs.

It is to be expected that these elements, impotent by themselves, should, shoulder to shoulder with the papist hierarchy, at once group themselves around the hard-pressed generals, pushing them forward as the storming party and generally using the crisis for their own purposes. Nor is it to be wondered at that this circumstance, together with the rebellious attitude of the compromised general staff, should give the entire camp a tinge of Caesarism. The monarchist tendencies, injecting themselves into the Nationalist camp from without, really found no point of contact whatsoever. Not only was there no important movement in their direction from any class in society, but there was not even a focal point in the form of a seriously regarded pretender to the throne. The one, a First Lieutenant in the Russian Army, leads his obscure existence in a garrison of a provincial city of the Czar’s Empire, and can no longer refer to Austerlitz and Jena as proof of his legitimacy, but must rely on Sedan and Metz. The other, a nonentity who idles about in foreign countries, has a following of a couple of hundred gray-haired men and women whose entire “agitation” consisted of gathering at an annual banquet as they lately did once more to give expression in hackneyed speeches to their hopes in the “course of events”.

Under such circumstances, the united action of this camp had to content itself with whipping up a chauvinist delirium, with Jew-baiting, and with a glorification of the army it surpassed all previous performances. But nearly everything was missing for a serious political act, like the overthrow of the Republic. They lacked internal cohesiveness. organization, a program of action, and above all, an internal development of social conditions which, as in the previous cases, carried the monarchy in its womb and awaited but a coup d’état to give it birth. The Dreyfus affair provided an issue to rally around. It could supply the basis for a monarchist agitation, it could even furnish the political motive for the execution of a coup d’état, but it could not supply the positive forces which were lacking for an overthrow. Monarchism provided the outward coloration, not the content of the crisis.

The Independent role of the Army

The latter lay in a completely different direction. Even as the Third Republic was evolving into the final form of the political rule of the bourgeoisie, it was also simultaneously developing all its internal contradictions. One of these fundamental contradictions is that between a Republic based upon the rule of a bourgeois parliament and a big standing army adapted to the needs of colonial and world politics. In a strong monarchy, the army is reduced, as a matter of course, to an obedient tool in the hands of the executive power. However, in a parliamentary republic, with its momentarily changing government composed of civilians, with an elected chief-of-state whose post may go any one of the “rabble”, whether formerly a tanner’s apprentice or a slick-tongued lawyer, the army, with its outspoken caste-spirit, naturally shows the tendency to become an independent power, only loosely tied to the state apparatus as a whole.

The cultivation of “pressure group” politics on the part of the bourgeoisie of France has gone so far as to result their falling into separate groups, which, without any feeling of responsibility for the whole, have made the government and parliament a plaything of their special interests. This development has, on the other side, given rise to the army developing from an instrument of the state into an independent “pressure group” of its own, prepared to defend its interests without regard for the Republic, despite the Republic, and against the Republic.

The contradictions between the parliamentary Republic and the standing army can be solved only through the dissolution of the army into the civil population and the organization of the civil population into the army. This would mean changing the army from an instrument of conquest and colonial rule into an instrument of national defense In short, the solution must be found in replacing the standing army by a militia. As long as this is not done, the internal contradictions will continue to result in periodic crises, in clashes between the Republic and its own army, which the obvious results of the army’s growing independence, its corruption and insubordination, become ever more prominent.[6]

The mutiny of the military heads was one as of their attempt to assert their independence of the republican civil authorities. It by no means indicated a desire to lose this independence entirely through the establishment of monarchy. Hence the farcical character of the actions of the monarchists. A stormy pillow-fight in the press, an ear-splitting tumult by the anti-Semitic rowdies, the appearance of cheering crowds before the offices of the Nationalist press, and the noisy shattering of windows in the offices of the pro-Dreyfus papers, the insulting of innocent passers-by, the attempt to heat up the president at the race track ... but in the midst of this electrically-charged, nerve-wracking atmosphere – not a single serious political movement to carry through a coup d’état . The ferment came to a head in that great historical moment when the extravagant buffoon, Deroulede, grabbed General Roget’s bridle as he was leading his troops into the barracks and, with an emphatic pose, sought to lead him against the President’s palace in the Elysee, without having the slightest notion what General Roget was expected to do once he got there, nor what was to result from the whole adventure. The rogue in military uniform proved wiser than the fool in civilian clothes and a sword stroke across Deroulede’s fingers was the answer to the beau geste of the anti Semitic leaders. Thus ended the sole attempt at a monarchist coup d’état.[7]

Comedians – Monarchal and Socialist

Events in a word were considerably different than they appeared on the surface. Here, as ever, the security of the Republic did not depend on individual “saviors”, above all not on a minister’s seat, but upon the whole internal relationship of the economic and political conditions of the country. It is easy to understand how the danger of a coup d’etat in France could appear to be serious and great in the midst of the-tumult of the daily struggle, where an investigation of the social background of the phenomena is very difficult, virtually impossible for the participants, and where, as a matter of course, the events and facts assume exaggerated dimensions. An energetic action was natural on the part of the republicans to hold the nationalist mob and the General Staff in check – and an action outside of parliament was an even more crying need.

But to adhere to such views born in the daily struggle today, after the crisis is over and when it can be seen from a distance, and to celebrate in all seriousness the cabinet of Millerand as the true “saviors” of the French Republic, is nothing else but an example of that vulgar historical method, which, as a counterpart of vulgar economics, presents the events merely as they present themselves on the surface of political life and understands history to be the work of ministers and other “important” people, instead of understanding its true internal relationships. Millerand’s salvation of the Republic is to be taken just as seriously as the monarchist threat presented by Deroulede.

[1] With the coup d’état of the Eighteenth Brumaire (November 9), 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte assumed supreme power. Returning from Egypt a national hero, he had no trouble in putting an end to the Directorate, dissolving the Council of Five Hundred at bayonet point, and forcing the Council of Elders to appoint him First Consul, the other two consuls being mere figureheads. The stream of the Great French Revolution, lost for years in the stagnant marshes of the Directorate, was dammed up for good by the Eighteenth Brumaire. – D.M.

[2] Louis Napoleon – “Napoleon the Little”, the nephew of Napoleon I – was elected president of the newborn Second Republic in 1848, a few months after the insurgent workers of Paris had been crushed in the “June Days”. After three years of parliamentary rule, on December 2, 1851, the anniversary of Austerlitz, he dissolved the Chamber illegally, had the party leaders arrested, and, a few weeks later, had himself re-elected president in a national plebiscite. “On December 3” writes Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “the February Revolution is conjured away by a card-sharper’s trio!” – D.M.

[3] Luxemburg seems to be thinking here of the final transition to a monarchal regime rather than the first seizure of power. The Eighteenth Brumaire led to the lifelong consulate, which was conferred on Napoleon in 1802, after a plebiscite in which 3,568,885 voters answered Yes and 8,374 answered No to the question: “Is Napoleon Bonaparte to be made consul for life?” The life consulate, in turn, prepared the way for the final crowning of Napoleon as Emperor of the French in 1804. So, too, Louis Napoleon was elected president by plebiscite on December 20, 1851, three weeks after his initial coup. This set the stage for another plebiscite, on December 2, 1852, which gave him supreme power and the title Emperor Napoleon III. – D.M.

[4] Two of the many governmental scandals of this period of the Third Republic. The Panama Canal affair was especially serious. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer of the Suez Canal, in 1880 organized a company to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The French public invested $250,000,000 in the scheme, but no work was done of any importance, and the company went bankrupt. In 1892 the suicide of Baran Reinach, a banker closely connected with De Lesseps, precipitated a “Stavisky Crisis” in the government. Over one hundred members of the two national chambers were involved, including the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who admitted he had received $60,000 for his services. The affair caused the fall of two cabinets. – D.M.

[5] Cf. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1lth Edition, on this situation: “The opposition to the government was heterogeneous. It included the few monarchists left in the Chamber, the nationalists ... and a number of ... republicans ... The ablest leaders of the opposition were all malcontent republicans. . . The most conspicuous opponents of the cabinet were three ex-prime ministers: MM. Méline, Charles Dupuy, and Ribot.” – D.M.

[6] It should be remembered that this paragraph was written forty years ago. It has long been clear   and, no doubt, became clear enough Luxemburg herself during the war – that “democratization” of the army means little so long as it is used to defend the bourgeois state, and that the content of “national defense” has evaporated in the period of imperialism. As an example of how revolutionary thinking has changed on this point, it is interesting to compare with Luxemburg’s reasoning, section 43 of the war resolution adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928: “In imperialist States the attitude of the proletariat towards armies is determined by the following: No matter what their form of organization may be, armies are a constituent part of the bourgeois State apparatus, which the proletariat, in the course of its revolution, must not democratize, but break up. This attitude must be maintained equally towards standing armies and democratic militia, for both these forms of military organization represent the armed forces of the bourgeoisie directed against the proletariat.

Section 45 also has some sentences to the present point: “Bourgeois militia, universal military service, the military training of youth, etc. were all at one time advocated by revolutionary democracy. At the present time, however, they serve as ordinary reactionary instruments for oppressing the masses and for preparing for imperialist wars.” – D.M.

[7] This farcical attempt at a coup was connected with the Dreyfus Case. President Faure, who was violently anti-Dreyfus, died early in 1899. His successor was M. Loubet, who was known to be sympathetic to the Dreyfusards and who, in fact, a few months later granted a pardon to Dreyfus, at the suggestion of the new premier, Waldeck-Rousseau. The “attempt to beat up the president at the race track” was directed against Loubet at Auteuil in June, 1899. The “great hysterical moment” took place during the funeral of President Faure. Deroulede was a poet who dabbled in politics and who some years earlier, as president of “The League of Patriots”, had been involved in General Boulanger’s conspiracy against the Republic. Deroulede, naturally, was an anti-Dreyfusard, as was General Roget – but the latter, as Luxemburg remarks, was less of a fool and so refused to march. – D.M.

Last updated on: 29.11.2008