Wilhelm Liebknecht

German socialist and political activist

Wilhelm Martin Philipp Christian Ludwig Liebknecht (29 March 1826 – 7 August 1900) was a German socialist and one of the principal founders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). His political career was a pioneering project combining Marxist revolutionary theory with practical, legal political activity. Under his leadership, the SPD grew from a tiny group to become Germany's largest political party. He was the father of Karl Liebknecht and Theodor Liebknecht.

Socialism without democracy is pseudo-socialism, just as democracy without socialism is pseudo-democracy.



No Compromise – No Political Trading (1899)


No Compromise – No Political Trading (August 1899), translated by Algie Martin Simons and Marcus Hitch.

  • When I speak here of our policy, I use the word without regard to anything immaterial and superficial, but in the sense which since the beginning of the party it has had for us in contrast to all other parties, – in the sense of the policy of the class struggle, which has very often changed in form, but in substance has remained the same, – our unique proletarian class policy, which separates us from all other political parties in the world of bourgeois society and excludes us from intercourse with them.
  • For our party and for our party tactics there is but one valid basis: the basis of the class struggle, out of which the Social Democratic party has sprung up, and out of which alone it can draw the necessary strength to bid defiance to every storm and to all its enemies.
  • The importance of a seat in the Prussian legislature was not overlooked by anyone. But it was looked upon as more important that the representatives of the party should depend exclusively upon the strength of the party, and not upon an alliance with parties which might have momentarily a common interest with us, but which in their political make-up are hostile to us and will remain permanently hostile.
  • In reference to the Prussian three-class electoral system the views of many of the comrades had in the course of time undergone a change. It had escaped the memory of some of them, here and there, that the logically and cunningly realized purpose of the three-class electoral system was to exclude with hermetic sealing all democratic thought and sentiment, and that the capitalistic era, which began about the same time with the introduction of the “most wretched of all electoral systems,” had by creating a class conscious proletariat rendered the vote of the socialist masses more insignificant than the vote of the democratic masses had been originally. How badly many of the speakers (both men and women) at the Hamburg convention deceived themselves as to the working of the three-class electoral system is clear from the fact that some of them entertained the delusion that the reform of the Prussian legislative elections could be used as the means of a grand arousing of the masses. In the jubilation over the success which had been achieved under other non-democratic laws regulating legislative elections, especially in Saxony, many had forgotten that the Prussian three-class system made the publicity of the ballot obligatory, and thereby in advance practically disfranchised all who were dependent, either economically, socially or politically, that is, the great majority of the population, and by this means alone rendered it impossible for the masses to take part in the election or get up any general enthusiasm.
  • A practical surrender of our party principles appears to me far more dangerous than all of Bernstein’s theoretical will-o’-the-wisps put together. ... Democratic elements do not thereby become Socialists, though many believe they are socialists. ... This political socialism, which in fact is only philanthropic humanitarian radicalism, ... it has diluted and blurred the principles and weakened the socialist party because it brought into it troops upon which no reliance could be placed in the decisive moment.
  • It would be an unparalleled case of flying the track and going astray if the German Social Democracy, which has had such wonderful success and such a wonderful growth for the very reason that it has marched ahead unterrified on the basis of the class struggle, should suddenly face about and plunge into mistakes, the avoidance of which has been the power and pride of our party, and has put the German Social Democracy at the head of the international social democracy of all countries.
  • The bureaucratic, though capitalistic, spirit of our governments tends towards a state socialism which, in fact, is only state capitalism, but which is dazzling and misleading for those who are easily deceived by external similarities and catch words. The German, or more accurately the Prussian, state socialism whose ideal is a military, landlord and police state, hates democracy above everything else. ... It is to them something inherently political. But all politics is diametrically opposed to what is socialist. So by this trick logic we arrive at the conclusion which has gained footing here and there, even in social democratic circles, that democracy as savoring of politics has nothing in common with socialism, but on the contrary is opposed to it. ... But the truth is that democracy is not a thing that is specifically political, and we must never forget that we are not merely a socialist party, but a social democratic party because we have perceived that socialism and democracy are inseparable.
  • As Prince Bismarck, in the ’60s, wanted to move the “Acheron” of socialism, ... it was of course not love for socialism or knowledge of socialism that led Prince Bismarck to do this. He understood nothing about socialism at that time, and never did understand anything about it down to his death; in fact, he never had any conception of the moving forces of political and social life at all. There probably never lived at any time in any country a “statesman” who was less scientific, who had less knowledge, and who relied so purely on experience and a sort of half-gambler, half-peddler cunning, as Bismarck. Those offers to socialists place in the clearest light the untruthfulness of Prince Bismarck’s claim that he always regarded the social democracy as incompatible with the existence of the state. Bismarck wanted to use socialism for the purpose of breaking up and dissolving the bourgeois liberal opposition, especially the Progressive party. This, in itself, is the most conclusive proof that he had no conception of the real nature of socialism. Of course the fate of the boy magician was repeated. The elemental force which was conjured up grew over the head of the dabbler, and he did not get the best of socialism; socialism got the best of him.
  • The correctness of the so-called materialistic conception of history, which considers the political development as dependent on the economic, cannot be brought more strikingly and convincingly to the mind than by the change which in the course of the Nineteenth century has been wrought in the bourgeoisie. It can be demonstrated with the greatest precision how with the change in the productive relations a change of political view and attitude has taken place in the bourgeoisie. Every step forward in economic development has been a step forward in the development of class antagonisms and a step in the approach of the bourgeoisie towards its old enemies, the landlords and priests, and a step in drawing away from the rising proletariat, which in order to effect its emancipation, must advocate equal rights for all men and the democratic principles formerly supported by the bourgeoisie. The moment the proletariat steps forth as a class separate from the bourgeoisie and having interests opposed to it, from that moment the bourgeoisie ceased to be democratic.
  • The highest triumph of Bismarckian politics carried its downfall and bankruptcy within it.
  • It was not possible by any allurements to take from the workingmen the recognition of the inseparability of socialism from democracy and of democracy from socialism.
  • Pity for poverty, enthusiasm for equality and freedom, recognition of social injustice and a desire to remove it, is not socialism. Condemnation of wealth and respect for poverty, such as we find in Christianity and other religions, is not socialism. The communism of early times, as it was before the existence of private property, and as it has at all times and among all peoples been the elusive dream of some enthusiasts, is not socialism. The forcible equalization advocated by the followers of Baboeuf, the so-called equalitarians, is not socialism. In all these appearances there is lacking the real foundation of capitalist society with its class antagonisms. Modern socialism is the child of capitalist society and its class antagonisms. Without these it could not be. Socialism and ethics are two separate things. This fact must be kept in mind. Whoever conceives of socialism in the sense of a sentimental philanthropic striving after human equality, with no idea of the existence of capitalist society, is no socialist in the sense of the class struggle, without which modern socialism is unthinkable. Whoever has come to a full consciousness of the nature of capitalist society and the foundation of modern socialism, knows also that a socialist movement that leaves the basis of the class struggle may be anything else, but it is not socialism.
  • This foundation of the class struggle, which Marx – and this is his immortal service – has given to the modern labor movement, is the main point of attack in the battle which the bourgeois political economy is waging with socialism. The political economists deny the class struggle and would make of the labor movement only a part of the bourgeois party movements, and the Social Democracy only a division of the bourgeois democracy. The bourgeois political economy and politics direct all their exertions against the class character of the modern labor movement. If it were possible to create a breach in this bulwark, in this citadel of the Social Democracy, then the Social Democracy is conquered, and the proletariat thrown back under the dominion of capitalistic society. However small such a breach may be in the beginning, the enemy has the power to widen it and the certainty of final victory. And the enemy is most dangerous when he comes as a friend to the fortress, when he slinks in under the cover of friendship, and is recognized as a friend and comrade. The enemy who comes to us with open visor we face with a smile; to set our foot upon his neck is mere play for us. The stupidly brutal acts of violence of police politicians, the outrages of anti-socialist laws, the anti-revolution laws, penitentiary bills – these only arouse feelings of pitying contempt; the enemy, however, that reaches out the hand to us for a political alliance; and intrudes himself upon us as a friend and brother, – him and him alone have we to fear. Our fortress can withstand every assault – it can not be stormed nor taken from us by siege – it can only fall when we ourselves open the doors to the enemy and take him into our ranks as a fellow comrade. Growing out of the class struggle, our party rests upon the class struggle as a condition of its existence. Through and with that struggle the party is unconquerable; without it the party is lost, for it will have lost the source of its strength. Whoever fails to understand this or thinks that the class struggle is a dead issue, or that class antagonisms are gradually being effaced, stands upon the basis of bourgeois philosophy.
  • Diversity of opinions on theoretical points is never dangerous to the party. There are for us no bounds to criticism, and however great our respect may be for the founders and pioneers of our party, we recognize no infallibility and no other authority than science, whose sphere is ever widening and continually proves what it previously held as truths to be errors; destroys the old decayed foundations and creates new ones; does not stand still for an instant; but in perpetual advance moves remorselessly over every dogmatic belief.
  • We recognize no infallible Pope, not even a literary one.
  • Our program was a scientific one it must be constantly changed at minor points to meet the continuous advance of science. And I maintain that no man – Marx, in spite of his comprehensive and deep intellect, as little as any other – can bring science to final perfection; and this position is for everyone who understands the nature of science a foregone conclusion. No socialist, therefore, has the right to condemn attacks on the theoretical ideas of the Marxian teachings or to excommunicate any one from the party because of such attacks. But it is wholly different when such attacks imply a complete overturning of our whole conception of society, as, for example, is the case with Bernstein. Then vigorous defense is in order. Far more dangerous than theoretical assaults are practical disavowals of our principles. Theoretical discussions interest only a comparatively small portion of our membership; whereas practical disavowal of principles and tactical offenses against the party program touch every party comrade and arouse the attention of every party comrade; and when they are not quickly checked and corrected they bring confusion into the whole party.
  • The establishment, elaboration and clarifying of our program we leave to science, which in our present society is the business of only a few. But the practical application of our program, and the tactics of the party are the business of all; here all work together.
  • The supreme importance of tactics and the necessity of maintaining its class struggle character, is something the party has been well conscious of from the beginning. ... We find that in all questions of tactics the thought was continually kept in the foreground that the party must be kept clean from all mixture with all other parties, every one of which, no matter how much they differed from each other or how furiously they fought among themselves, stood upon the ground of bourgeois society as a common basis. This separation of the Social Democracy from all other parties, this essential difference, which silly opponents take as a reason or pretext for declaring us political outlaws, is our pride and our strength.
  • This is not an end, but only a means to an end.
  • It is a bourgeois feeling to overvalue the possession of representatives. In representation as in money there is power – power over others. Whoever places the purity and the greatness of our party above all else, for him representatives have value only in so far as they serve to give expression to the power and extent of Social Democracy. What do ten, what do a hundred representatives signify, when our escutcheon has lost its gloss through their acquisition? The value of a representative is small. But the value of the integrity of our party is immeasurable. In it rests our strength. As with the shorn hair, that signified his manhood’s honor, the strength of Samson disappeared, so the strength of our party would cease if we allowed the bourgeois Delilahs to flatter away our most precious jewel and the roots of our triumphal strength – the party purity, the party honor.
  • We may not do as other parties, because we are not like the others. We are – and this cannot be too often repeated – separated from all other parties by an insurmountable barrier, a barrier that any individual can easily surmount; but once on the other side of it, and he is no Social Democrat. We are different from the others; “we are other than the others.” What for the others are necessities and conditions of life are death to us.
  • What is it that has made of us in Germany the pivotal part? ... It is the avalanche-like increase of our supporters that gradually, with the certainty of a natural law, or more correctly of a natural force, grows from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, and from hundreds of thousands to millions, and is daily increasing, bidding defiance to our opponents and driving them into impotent rage. And this avalanche-like increase has come, and is coming, as a consequence of our opposition to and struggle with all other parties.
  • All who are weary and heavy laden; all who suffer under injustice; all who suffer from the outrages of the existing bourgeois society; all who have in them the feeling of the worth of humanity, look to us, turn hopefully to us, as the only party that can bring rescue and deliverance. And if we, the opponents of this unjust world of violence, suddenly reach out the hand of brotherhood to it, conclude alliances with its representatives, invite our comrades to go hand in hand with the enemy whose misdeeds have driven the masses into our camp, what confusion must result in their minds! ... It must be that for the hundreds and thousands, for the millions that have sought salvation under our banner, it was all a colossal mistake for them to come to us. If we are not different from the others, then we are not the right ones – the Savior is yet to come; and the Social Democracy was a false Messiah, no better than the other false ones! Just in this fact lies our strength, that we are not like the others, and that we are not only not like the others, and that we are not simply different from the others, but that we are their deadly enemy, who have sworn to storm and demolish the Bastile of Capitalism, whose defenders all those others are. Therefore we are only strong when we are alone. This is not to say that we are to individualise or to isolate ourselves. We have never lacked for company, and we never shall so long as the fight lasts. On the essentially true but literally false phrase about a “single reactionary mass,” the Social Democracy has never believed since it passed from the realm of theory to that of practice. We know that the individual members and divisions of the “single reactionary mass” are in conflict with each other, and we have always used these conflicts for our purposes. We have used opponents against opponents, but have never allowed them to use us.
  • The social democracy of Germany must fulfill the role of champions of political freedom. The task of uniting the struggle for economic independence with that for political liberty has fallen upon the German laboring class.
  • All parties without exception recognize us as a political power, and exactly in proportion to our power. Even the craziest reactionary that denies us the right of existence courts our favor and by his acts gives the lie to his words. From the fact that our assistance is sought by other parties, some of our comrades draw the strange conclusion that we should reverse the party tactics, and in place of the old policy of the class struggle against all other parties, substitute the commercial polities of log rolling, wire pulling and compromise. Such persons forget the power which makes our alliance sought for, even by our bitterest enemies, would have had absolutely no existence were it not for the old class struggle tactics. If Marx, Engels and Lassalle had accepted from Bernstein and his modest or not modest fellow thinkers the tactics of compromise and dependence upon bourgeois parties, then there never would have been any Social Democracy; we would have been simply the tail of the Progressive party.
  • We Social Democrats dare not be like the other parties, all of whom are equally guilty of the injustices of the present system and equally responsible for them. Every one who suffers under these injustices looks to us for deliverance. Every one of us has had these victims of society after failing to get justice from the courts, from the government, from the Emperor himself, and from all the other parties, come to us as the last and only ones that can help them. They do not know our scientific program; they do not know what capital and capitalism mean; but they have the belief, the feeling, that we are a party that can help when all other parties fail. This belief is for us an inexhaustible source of power. It was a similar faith of despair that spread more and more in the decaying Roman empire and slowly undermined the heathen world until it finally collapsed. We give up this inexhaustible source of power if we ally ourselves with other parties and drive suffering humanity from us by saying to it: “We are not essentially different from the others.” Once the boundary line of the class struggle is wiped away and we have started upon the inclined plane of compromise, there is no stopping. Then we can only go down and down until there is nothing deeper.
  • Membership in the social democracy means a struggle, a political struggle with grievous persecutions, and a private struggle for existence, a struggle that for the majority is far more difficult and heavy than the political struggle. And it is necessary, because the courage for this twofold struggle is created only by the consciousness that the injustice of society by which the great majority of mankind are to-day oppressed, corrupted and crippled, can only be abolished through a revolutionary movement, that is, a movement that shall completely exterminate capitalism with every fiber of its roots.
  • Distrust was counted as a democratic virtue, and over-confidence as a democratic vice.
  • The proletariat stands politically as well as socially in the most abrupt contradiction to the present class state. It must fight it on all fields and upon every question, both of domestic and of foreign policy.
  • We shall never go wrong if we do what is opposed to the interests of our enemy. On the other hand, we shall almost never go right if we do what our enemies applaud. Historical development is a continuous conflict, a conflict of interests, a conflict of races, a conflict of classes. And if friendship does not count even in ordinary business, how much less so in such a conflict. Good-naturedness and sentimentality have no place in politics. They have never won a victory, but have brought unnumbered defeats. Bluecher’s motto, “Always follow the cannon’s roar and throw yourself upon the enemy,” is the best rule also in political warfare.
  • The class instinct of the bourgeoisie is far better developed than that of the proletariat. The governing class naturally knows its interests better than the governed, who have so much less opportunity to become informed and are also sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not, systematically deceived and misled from a recognition of their interests. Do not say that it is the rough form in which socialism is often set forth that frightens and embitters the bourgeoisie. That is absolutely false. It is not the form; it is the content which they detest; and the more harmless the form so much the more dangerous do the contents appear to the gentlemen of the bourgeoisie. The fineness of the form makes no difference to them. That is clear from the manner in which they fight out their quarrels among themselves.
  • At any rate we may be sure that the political instinct of our bourgeois opponents, as soon as their class interests come into play, will lead them to take a position hostile to us. A classical example is furnished by Belgium, where, as already remarked, a compromise was concluded under the most favorable circumstances conceivable, between the socialists and the liberals. Our party was in undisputed possession of the leadership and was therefore in no danger of being cheated out of the fruits of the common victory. The end sought was universal, equal and direct suffrage. But the clerical party knows its boys, knows its Pappenheimers. It knows that the bourgeoisie has no class interest in giving the laborers, who, in modern industrial states, constitute a majority of the population, the universal suffrage and thereby the prospect of winning a majority and getting political supremacy. It made a counter demand for proportional representation with plural voting, that is, giving more votes to the rich, and thereby granting to the radical bourgeoisie a share in the government, if it would assist in defeating universal and direct suffrage. And behold, without a minute’s hesitation the gentlemen of the radical bourgeoisie broke their agreement with the socialists and joined the clericals in their fight against universal suffrage and the social democracy. Whoever is not convinced by this example that the emancipation struggle of the proletariat is a class struggle is one on whom further arguments would be wasted.
  • The class struggle tactics is not only more correct in principle; it is also more practical and successful than compromise tactics.
  • The purity of our principles, the idealism of our struggle, these are factors of strengthening and drawing power that have given to us courage for all our battles, and have given to our doctrines an irresistible attraction for all who feel themselves oppressed and have a sense of honor.
  • We dare not do all that our opponents do. We dare not sacrifice everything for advantages. For what is an advantage to our opponents is deadly poison to us. The nobility say of themselves, noblesse oblige; so we may say, socialisme oblige, socialism imposes its obligations.
  • We come more and more frequently into momentary unions, or momentary relations with other parties. But these momentary relations must never become momentary alliances. We must never bind the party. We must always keep our hand free; exploit the conditions; let our opponents do the dirty work for us; and with the goal of the party firmly in mind, keep in the middle of the road, and go our own way, only going along with opposing parties when our way happens to be the same as theirs. That we are a party of the class struggle, who have nothing in common with any other party, and who have to fight and conquer all other parties, in order to attain our goal, is something which we must never for a moment lose sight of.
  • The internationality of socialism is a fact that is daily becoming more evident and more significant. We socialists are one nation to ourselves, – one and the same international nation in all the lands of the earth. And the capitalists with their agents, instruments and dupes are likewise an international nation, so that we can truthfully say, there are to-day only two great nations in all lands that battle with each other in the great class struggle, which is the new revolution – a class struggle on one side of which stands the proletariat, representing socialism, and on the other the bourgeoisie, representing capitalism. While the bourgeois world of capitalism continues and the bourgeoisie rules, so long are all states necessarily class states, and all governments class governments, serving the purposes and interests of the ruling class, and destined to lead the class struggle for the bourgeoisie against the proletariat – for capitalism against socialism, for our enemies and against us. From the standpoint of the class struggle which is the foundation of militant socialism, that is a truth which has been raised by the logic of thought and of facts beyond the possibility of a doubt. A socialist who goes into a bourgeois government, either goes over to the enemy or else puts himself in the power of the enemy. In any case the socialist who becomes a member of a bourgeois government separates himself from us, the militant socialists. He may claim to be a socialist but he is no longer such. He may be convinced of his own sincerity, but in that case he has not comprehended the nature of the class struggle – does not understand that the class struggle is the basis of socialism.
  • In these days, under the rule of capitalism, a government, even if it is full of philanthropy and animated by the best of intentions, can do nothing of real value to our cause. One must keep free from illusions.
  • If the way to hell is paved with good intentions, the way to defeat is paved with illusions.
  • I am for the unity of the party – for the national and international unity of the party. But it must be a unity of socialism and socialists. The unity with opponents – with people who have other aims and other interests, is no socialist unity. We must strive for unity at any price and with all sacrifices. But while we are uniting and organizing, we must rid ourselves of all foreign and antagonistic elements. What would one say of a general who in the enemy’s country sought to fill the ranks of his army with recruits from the ranks of the enemy? Would that not be the height of foolishness? Very well, to take into our army – which is an army for the class struggle and the class war – opponents, soldiers with aims and interests entirely opposite to our own, – that would be madness, that would be suicide.
  • On the ground of the class struggle we are invincible; if we leave it we are lost, because we are no longer socialists. The strength and power of socialism rests in the fact that we are leading a class struggle; that the laboring class is exploited and oppressed by the capitalist class, and that within capitalist society effectual reforms, which will put an end to class government and class exploitation, are impossible.
  • We cannot traffic in our principles, we can make no compromise, no agreement with the ruling system. We must break with the ruling system and fight it to a finish. It must fall that socialism may arise, and we certainly cannot expect from the ruling class that it will give to itself and its domination the death blow.
  • Undoubtedly there are bourgeois who from a feeling of justice and humanity place themselves upon the side of the laborers and socialists, but these are only the exceptions; the mass of the bourgeoisie has class consciousness, a consciousness of being the ruling and exploiting class. Indeed, the mass of the bourgeoisie, just because they are a ruling class, have a much sharper and stronger class consciousness than the proletariat.
  • Long live international socialism!
  • Fear is proverbially a poor adviser for human action; for a party it is destruction. Fear of the labor movement and socialism has caused the political downfall of the German bourgeoisie; and the days of the Social Democracy are numbered as soon as the cry of fear finds a response in us. We should not challenge, but we should not sound the alarm and be misled by fear into taking steps that do not accord with the principles, the nature and the honor of our party. One does not disarm an enemy through timidity and gentleness; one simply emboldens him. Not that we should seek to run our heads through a wall. We wish to be and must be “practical.”
  • Social Democracy must remain for itself, must seek for and generate its power within itself. Every power outside of ourselves on which we seek to lean is for us only weakness. In the consciousness of our strength, in our faith in the world-conquering mission of socialism lies the secret of our extraordinary, almost miraculous success.
  • Socialism cannot conquer nor redeem the world if it ceases to believe upon itself alone.
  • We will not turn from the old tactics, nor from the old program. Ever advancing with science and economic development, we are what we were and we will remain what we are. Or – the Social Democracy will cease to exist.

Quotes about

  • If Theodore Roosevelt is the great champion of democracy —the arch foe of autocracy , what business had he as the guest of honor of the Prussian Kaiser? And when he met the Kaiser, and did honor to the Kaiser, under the terms imputed to him, wasn't it pretty strong proof that he himself was a Kaiser at heart? Now, after being the guest of Emperor Wilhelm, the Beast of Berlin, he comes back to this country, and wants you to send ten million men over there to kill the Kaiser; to murder his former friend and pal. Rather queer, isn't it? And yet, he is the patriot, and we are the traitors. I challenge you to find a Socialist anywhere on the face of the earth who was ever the guest of the Beast of Berlin, except as an inmate of his prison—the elder Liebknecht and the younger Liebknecht, the heroic son of his immortal sire.
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