The history of an argument

Issue: 105

Chris Harman

The issue of entering a bourgeois government first raised its head in the international socialist movement in the years 1899 to 1902.

French society had been shaken in the 1890s by agitation by the anti-Semitic and monarchist far right centred around the notorious Dreyfus Affair—the imprisonment of a Jewish army officer on trumped up charges of treason. A group of socialists around a recent convert from radicalism, Jean Jaurés, played a key part in fighting back against this agitation and building the movement that demanded Dreyfus’s release. In June 1899 the conservative lawyer politician Waldeck-Rousseau tried to bring the episode to a close and restabilise France’s institutions by inviting one of Jaurés’s socialist associates, Millerand, to join his government as minister of commerce. Alongside him in the government was General Gallifet—who had overseen the massacre of workers in the Paris Commune in 1871 and who had supported the continued imprisonment of Dreyfus.

Jaurés justified entry into the government on two grounds. First, it was necessary to ‘defend the republic’ against the monarchist right. Secondly, it constituted a ‘transitional stage in the development of capitalist society, a stage at which political power was being wielded jointly by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the participation of a socialist in the government was the political expression of this stage’.1

Such arguments were popular with the majority of the socialist movement in France. Although the leaders of the Marxist wing of the movement, Jules Guesde and Karl Marx’s daughter and son in law, Laura and Paul Lafargue, opposed the entry into the government, they faced widespread opposition ‘within their own rank and file’.2 When the Second International met in September 1900 in Paris, it too showed sympathy with the ‘minsterialist’ position. Its main theoretician, Karl Kautsky, refused ‘to denounce minsterialism on the grounds of principle’ (despite his polemics against Bernstein’s revisionism in Germany) and delegates rejected banning participation in governments.3

Rosa Luxemburg, however, was in no doubt that Jaurés had made a fundamental mistake by endorsing entry in the government. She wrote a series of articles in the German socialist paper Leipziger Volkszeitung that tore his arguments to pieces and pointed to the extreme danger of the course he was following.

In part her criticism was that he had analysed the nature of the right wing agitation of the 1890s wrongly. Its purpose was to increase the influ¬ence of the right within French politics and to enhance the power of militarism. But there was no possibility of a successful monarchist coup d’etat since, she insisted, the main sections of the French bourgeoisie had long since embraced the Republic.

But she had a more fundamental argument—that entering the government would not change the nature of French society or of the state:

From the standpoint of an opportunistic conception of socialism, as it is currently known in our party, especially in the theories of Bernstein, that is from the point of view of the piecemeal introduction of socialism into bourgeois society, the entry of socialist elements into a government must appear as desirable and natural. If it is possible to smuggle socialism gradually into cap¬italist society, and if the capitalist state can transform itself of its own volition into a socialist one, the progressive admission of socialists into bourgeois gov¬ernment is actually a natural result of the progressive development of bourgeois states…4

The very nature of bourgeois government excludes the possibility of socialist class struggle. It’s not that we fear for socialists the dangers and the difficulties of ministerial activity; we must not back away from any danger or difficulty attached to the post in which the interests of the proletariat place us. But a ministry is not, in general, a field of action for a party of the struggle of the proletarian classes.

The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organisation of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.

The social reforms that a minister who is a friend of the workers can realise have nothing, in themselves, of socialism; they are socialist only insofar as they are obtained through class struggle. But coming from a min¬ister, social reforms can’t have the character of the proletarian class, but solely the character of the bourgeois class, for the minister, by the post he occupies, attaches himself to that class by all the functions of a bourgeois, militarist government.

While in parliament, or on the municipal council, we obtain useful reforms by combating the bourgeois government; while occupying a ministerial post we arrive at the same reforms by supporting the bourgeois state. The entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government is not, as is thought, a partial conquest of the bourgeois state by the socialists, but a partial conquest of the socialist party by the bourgeois state.5

For this reason, she insisted:

Within bourgeois society the role of social democracy [the socialist movement] as an opposition party is prescribed by its very essence. It can come forward as a ruling party only on the ruins of the bourgeois state.6

Had there been a real threat of a coup against the republic, she argued, the behaviour of the Waldeck-Rousseau government would not have stopped it. It operated within the institutions of the republic, which meant not challenging the military hierarchy’s right to operate indepen¬dently of any democratic control. Jaurés’s socialists, instead of challenging this situation, caved in to it in order to hold the government together.

The radical cabinet of Waldeck-Rousseau…in a series of equivocal manoeuvres in the course of 19 months…accomplished nothing, absolutely nothing… Finally after much ado it declared that the republic was not in a position to do anything about the band of military rogues… Was it for this that the collaboration of a socialist was necessary in the cabinet?7

If the danger [of a military coup] was great and serious, then the sham actions of the cabinet were a betrayal of the Republic and the parties that placed their hopes in it.8

As it was, the government balked at the one great issue that was behind the popular support for a socialist joining it—the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the government was formed, it was clear not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but also that leading army officers were guilty of lying to keep him in prison and of victimising those who spoke out in his favour. The rationale of Millerand joining the government was to ensure that those in the military who had conspired against Dreyfus were brought to justice, while his name was completely cleared. Instead the government simply pardoned Dreyfus (implying that he might have been guilty but was being let off) and by trying to draw a line under the whole affair let the military conspirators go. In other words, Jaurés’s socialist was prepared to drop the demand of full justice for Dreyfus if that was the price of staying in the government. It was not until four years later that further revelations forced a different government finally to admit the truth about the whole Dreyfus business.

Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to socialists joining a bourgeois gov¬ernment did not mean she was against campaigning for issues short of revolution. She believed revolutionaries had a role to play in the struggle for reforms—including the struggle using parliamentary institutions. Like the Lafargues, she believed that it had been a mistake of the group of French revolutionary socialists led by Jules Guesde to refuse to campaign against the injustice to Dreyfus. She would have agreed with Lafargue when he com¬plained that it was ‘the absurd and inconceivable conduct’ of Guesde and his collaborators that had enabled the position of Jaurés and Millerand to become so popular.9

She wrote:

The Dreyfus affair has wakened all the latent forces of reaction in France. The old enemy of the working class, militarism, stood completely exposed and it was necessary to direct all spears against it. The working class was called for the first time to fight out a great political battle.10

Jaurés had been quite right to take up that struggle in the mid-1890s. But, as she saw it, he sabotaged it by supporting entry into the government in 1899.11 The collapse of the Waldeck-Rousseau government a short time later proved her right—as did the abandonment of socialism by Millerand and his close ally, Briand.

Jaurés veered to the left until a right wing nationalist assassinated him on the very eve of the First World War.

The argument over participation in governments continued after the First World War. Rosa Luxemburg had in 1899 left open the possibility of socialists entering a government ‘in absolutely exceptional cases’, in order to mobilise the masses against counter-revolution when the working class was too weak to take power itself. But she had insisted this should be seen a temporary state of affairs12 and that socialists should allow their activity to be restricted by ‘solidarity with the activity and aims of the government’.13 And when the issue arose concretely during the German Revolution of November 1918 she was scathing in her criticism of the left wing Independent Social Democratic Party for joining the government. She saw that they would be used to lull workers into a false sense of security while the counter-revolution prepared to restore stability to bourgeois society.


1: This summary of Jaurés’s position is to be found in P Fröelich, Rosa Luxemburg (London, 1940), p81.

2: L Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the
Flowering of French Socialism (Harvard University Press, 1998), p217

3: As above, p233.

4: R Luxemburg, ‘Eine Taktische Frage’, from the Leipziger Volkszeitung, 6 July 1899, in R Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, vol ll (Berlin, 1955). This quote here is a new, as yet unpublished, English translation by Mary Phillips. See the new translation by Liz Chapman, A tactical issue

5: R Luxemburg, ‘The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case’, translated from Cahiers de la Quinzaine, no 11 (1899), at

6: ‘Eine Taktische Frage’, as above.

7: R Luxemburg, ‘The Socialist Crisis in France’, translated in New International, (New York, 1939), pp234-235.

8: As above, p235.

9: For Lafargue’s criticism of Guesde, see L Derfler, as above, p222.

10: R Luxemburg, ‘The Socialist Crisis in France’, as above, p235

11: As above, p310.

12: On this, Luxemburg’s positon was similar to that taken by Lenin in 1905 in Russia—see the account in Mark Thomas’s article elsewhere in this issue.

13: R Luxemburg ‘Eine Taktische Frage’,as above.