V. I.   Lenin

What Should Not Be Copied from the German Labour Movement

Published: Prosveshcheniye No. 4, April 1914. Signed: V. I.. Published according to the text in Prosveshcheniye.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 20, pages 254-258.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Joe Fineberg
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Proofread: Bill Wright, September 2023.
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

Karl Legien, one of the most prominent and responsible representatives of the German trade unions, recently published a report of his visit to America in the form of a rather bulky hook entitled The Labour Movement in America.

As a very prominent representative of the international as well as German trade union movement, K. Legien gave his visit the nature of a special occasion, one of state-importance, one might say. For years he conducted negotiations on this visit with the Socialist Party of America and the American Federation of Labour, the labour-union organisation led by the famous (or rather infamous) Gompers. When Legien heard that Karl Liebknecht was going to America, he refused to go at the same time “so as to avoid the simultaneous appearance in the United States of two spokesmen whose views on the party’s tactics and on the importance and value of certain branches of the labour movement did not entirely coincide”.

K. Legien collected a vast amount of material on the labour-union movement in America, but failed to digest it in his book, which is cluttered up with patchy descriptions of his journey, trivial in content and trite in style. Even the labour-union rules of America, in which Legien was particularly interested, are not studied or analysed, but merely translated incompletely and without system.

There was a highly instructive episode in Legien’s tour, which strikingly revealed the two tendencies in the inter national and particularly in the German labour movement.

Legien visited the chamber of deputies of the United States, known as the Congress. Brought up in the police-ridden Prussian state, he was favourably impressed by the democratic customs of the Republic, and he remarks with understandable pleasure that in America the government provides every congressman not only with a private office fitted with all modern conveniences, but also with a paid secretary to help him cope with a congressman’s manifold duties. The simplicity and easy manners of the congressmen and the Speaker of the House were in striking contrast with what Legien had seen in European parliaments, and especially in Germany. In Europe, a Social-Democrat could not even think of delivering to a bourgeois parliament at an official session a speech of greeting! But in America this was done very simply, and the name of Social-Democrat did not frighten anybody... except that Social-Democrat himself!

We have here an example of the American bourgeois method of killing unsteady socialists with kindness, and the German opportunist method of renouncing socialism in deference to the “kindly”, suave and democratic bourgeoisie.

Legien’s speech of greeting was translated into English (democracy was not in the least averse to hearing a “foreign” language spoken in its parliament); all two hundred odd congressmen shook hands in turn with Legien as the “guest” of the Republic, and the speaker expressed his thanks.

The form and content of my speech of greeting,” writes Legien, “were sympathetically received by the socialist press both in the United States and Germany. Certain editors in Germany, however, could not resist pointing out that my speech proved once again what an impossible task it is for a Social-Democrat to deliver a Social-Democratic speech to a bourgeois audience. Well, in my place, these editors would, no doubt, have delivered a speech against capitalism and in favour of a mass strike, but I considered it important to emphasise to this parliament that the Social-Democratic and industrially organised workers of Germany want peace among the nations, and through peace, the development of culture to the highest degree attainable.”

Poor “editors”, whom our Legien has annihilated with his “statesmanlike” speech! The opportunism of trade union leaders in general, and of Legien in particular, has long been common knowledge in the German labour movement, and has been duly appraised by a great many class-conscious workers. But with us in Russia, where far too much is spoken about the “model” of European socialism with precisely the worst, most objectionable features of this “model” being chosen, it would be advisable to deal with Legien’s speech in somewhat greater detail.

When he addressed the highest body of representatives of capitalist America, this leader of a two-million-strong army of German trade unionists—namely, the Social-Democratic trade unions—this member of the Social-Democratic group in the German Reichstag, delivered a purely liberal, bourgeois speech. Needless to say, not a single liberal, not even an Octobrist, would hesitate to subscribe to a speech about “peace” and “culture”.

And when German socialists remarked that this was not a Social-Democratic speech, this “leader” of capital’s wage-slaves treated them with scathing contempt. What are “editors” compared to a “practical politician” and collector of workers’ pennies! Our philistine Narcissus has the same contempt for editors as the police panjandrums in a certain country have for the third element.[1]

These editors” would no doubt have delivered a speech “against capitalism”.

Just think what this quasi-socialist is sneering at! He is sneering at the idea that a socialist should think it necessary to speak against capitalism. To the “statesmen” of German opportunism such an idea is utterly alien; they talk in such a way as not to offend “capitalism”. Disgracing themselves by this servile renunciation of socialism, they brag of their disgrace.

Legien is not just anybody. He is a representative of the army of trade unions, or rather, the officers’ corps of that army. His speech was no accident, no slip of the tongue, no casual whimsy, no blunder of a provincial German office clerk overawed by American capitalists, who were polite and revealed no trace of police arrogance. If it were only this, Legien’s speech would not be worthy of note.

But it was obviously not that.

At the International Congress in Stuttgart, half the German delegation turned out to be sham socialists of this type, who voted for the ultra-opportunist resolution on the colonial question.[2]

Take the German magazine Sozialistische (??) Monatshefte[3] and you will always find in it utterances by men like Legien, which are thoroughly opportunist, and have nothing in common with socialism, utterances touching on all the vital issues of the labour movement.

The “official” explanation of the “official” German party is that “nobody reads” Sozialistische Monatshefte, that it has no influence, etc.; but that is not true. The Stuttgart “incident” proved that it is not true. The most prominent and responsible people, members of parliament and trade union leaders who write for Sozialistische Monatshefte, constantly and undeviatingly propagate their views among the masses.

The “official optimism” of the German party has long been noted in its own camp by those people who earned Legien’s appellation of “these editors”—an appellation contemptuous from the point of view of the bourgeois and honourable from the point of view of a socialist. And the more often the liberals and the liquidators in Russia (including Trotsky, of course) attempt to transplant this amiable characteristic to our soil, the more determinedly must they be resisted.

German Social-Democracy has many great services to its credit. Thanks to Marx’s struggle against all the Höchbergs, Dührings, and Co., it possesses a strictly formulated theory, which our Narodniks vainly try to evade or touch up along opportunist lines. It has a mass organisation, newspapers, trade unions, political associations—that same mass organisation which is so definitely building up in our country in the shape of the victories the Pravda Marxists are winning everywhere—in Duma elections, in the daily press, in Insurance Board elections, and in the trade unions. The attempts of our liquidators, whom the workers have “removed from office”, to evade tho question of the growth of this mass organisation in Russia in a form adapted to Russian conditions are as vain as those of the Narodniks, and imply a similar intellectualist breakaway from the working-class movement.

But the merits of German Social-Democracy are merits, not because of shameful speeches like those delivered by Legien or the “utterances” (in the press) by the contributors to Sozialistische Monatshefte, but despite them. We must not try to play down the disease which the German party is undoubtedly suffering from, and which reveals itself in phenomena of this kind; nor must we play it down with “officially optimistic” phrases. We must lay it bare to the Russian workers, so that we may learn from the experience of the older movement, learn what should not be copied from it.


[1] Lenin is referring to the tsarist bureaucracy’s attitude towards the democratic Zemstvo personnel —doctors, technicians, statisticians, teachers, agriculturists, etc., called the “third element” in a speech made in 1900 by the Samara Deputy Governor-General Kondoidi. The expression was subsequently used in literature to designate the Zemstvo democratic intelligentsia.

[2] Lenin refers to the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart (the Seventh Congress of the Second International) held in August 1907. One of the principal items on the agenda was the colonial question, over which a sharp struggle was waged at the Congress. The opportunist section of the Congress moved a resolution justifying colonial conquests. The Dutch “socialist” Van Kol made a statement to the effect that in future socialists should go to “the savage peoples” not only with machines and other achievements of culture, but with weapons in their hands. The opportunist draft resolution was supported by the majority of the German delegation. Only as a result of the efforts of the Russian and Polish socialists, a small part of the German, French and British socialists, as well as of all the socialists of the small countries owning no colonies, was this resolution defeated, and amendments adopted to it which practically changed its whole tenor. The resolution on the colonial question adopted by the Congress plainly and unreservedly condemned every kind of colonial policy.

[3] Sozialistische Monatshefte (Socialist Monthly)—the chief organ of the German opportunists and a mouthpiece of international revisionism, published in Berlin from 1897 to 1933. During World War I (1914–18) it took a social-chauvinist stand.

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