Transcribed in English online for the first time here, a marvelous article by Rosa Lxemburg on the January, 1905 workers’ march to petition the Czar led by Father Gapon that ended in Bloody Sunday, and began the Revolution. It was first translated into English for the anniversary of the event in 1921 for ‘Soviet Russia.’
‘The Proletariat on Its Knees’ by Rosa Luxemburg from Soviet Russia (New York). Vol 4 No. 4. January 22, 1921.
[This article appeared in 1905 in one of the February numbers of “Die Neue Zeit”, which was then edited by Karl Kautsky. Its brilliant analysis is perhaps better understood by those who are acquainted with the German conditions to which reference is frequently made, as the author was then living in Germany. Particularly amusing is the analogy suggested between Gapon and Friedrich Naumann, the “Christian” Socialist who was destined to become one of the leading pan-Germans.]
THERE is nothing so well calculated to liberate all our modes of thought from the restrictive fetters of routine as a revolutionary period. Real history, like creative nature, is far more bizarre and fruitful in its caprices than the classifying and systematizing pedant.
When the first news of the entreating pilgrimage of the Petersburg proletariat reached foreign countries, it universally aroused very mixed and no doubt depressed feelings. It was a strange scene of primitive simplicity, not without a strain of tragic splendor, veiled in mystic, strange and disturbing raiment, that presented itself to the realistic eyes of the sober European, who shook his head regretfully over this disastrous blindness of a whole people. We were reminded of Paris, of the barricades, of the entirely western nature of the situation, only by the cannon brought up to Vassili OsIrov, by the literally “dead” earnest with which the strange procession was received by the Czarism. And we were completely convinced that it was not an oriental caravan, but a modem proletarian revolution, when we read of the commotions in all the other cities of Russia, which were assuming the Russian form, that of the general strike, together with a very extensive distribution of socialistic leaflets. In spite of all our respect for these leaflets, we must nevertheless point out how erroneous it would be to assume that it was they that put the revolution in motion. In the Russian Revolution also, which we now witness, the task of the Social- Democracy is simply that of formulating the revolutionary aspect of the proletarian revolution, of affording it clear expression, of freeing it from the envelope of an elementary eruption. The revolutionary kernel is present from the very start, in all the manifestations — both in the general strike, spreading with the speed of lightning, and in the entreaties of the Petersburg proletariat itself.
The illusion that the political troubles in the country are to be assigned to a “misunderstanding” between the monarch and his people, maintained by a systematic intrigue on the part of the “advisers” of the crown as well as the entire court clique, who insert themselves between the people and its misled monarch, does not even need to be regarded as an exotic outgrowth of the peculiar circumstances in Russia, or of its mystic semi-darkness. We in Germany have no need to cast about elsewhere in the world for a parallel example. Is it not an old and yet ever-new device of the political stock in trade of German liberalism to convince itself and others that the German kaiser is “badly informed” by his advisers, and prevented from securing a direct understanding with the people? The fact that in Germany “the people” means all the liberal champions themselves, with their many grievances over Jewish judges not admitted to office, and other like troubles, does not alter anything about this profound interpretation.
But there is a profound difference between the political value of such an illusion in the minds of a declining liberal bourgeoisie and of a rising modern working class. The theory of the “misled monarch” is a completely adequate political expression of the political aspirations now dwelling in the breasts of present-day German liberalism. An ingratiating whine at the foot of the throne, as a means, and an old-maidish carping at the minor blemishes of the best of all worlds, in which we live, as the purpose of the liberal policy, furnish together a perfect harmony, a perfect balance, one that assures to this policy a century of undisturbed existence, with no less prospect of, success, enabling German liberalism to look ever hopefully heavenward, ever attending the celestial dew of the imperial favor, ever patiently removing from its countenance whatever other fluids may descend from above.
On the other hand, between the myth of the “good monarch” and the historical ambitions, the class interests, of the modern proletariat, there lies a great gulf. All those who were dismayed at the first moment by the humbly beseeching attitude of the people of Petersburg, when solemnly, with moist eyes, the image of the Crucified in their hands, they set out to meet the Czar, forgot the principle for the spectacle, the little point that the humble “entreaty” of the masses to the Czar meant nothing else than a request that His Holy Majesty might with his own gracious hands decapitate himself as the Sole Ruler of All the Russias. It was a request that the Autocrat exterminate Autocracy, that the wolf now feed on tender herbs instead of warm blood. It was the most radical political program, clothed in the form of a touching patriarchial idyll, the most modem class impulse of a profoundly earnest and mature proletariat, concealed as a phantastic whim of an old nurse’s fairy tale. And it is precisely this contradiction between the revolutionary kernel of the proletarian interests and the primitive shell of the illusion of the “good monarch “that could not fail to produce the kindling spark of street revolution as soon as it met the test of reality.
But this test was not slow in coming. With the full elemental power of popular masses in times of storm the working classes rush to put their conception to the test, for their attitude toward their beliefs is just as much one of holy faith as that of the liberal bourgeoisie, to its own creed, is one of cowardly cynicism. The Petersburg proletariat acts seriously on its faith in the Czar, and, with the impressive simplicity of great decision it marches to the palace of the Autocrat. But here it becomes at once apparent that the monarchic idea — in Russia as well as elsewhere — simply cannot exist without the protective wall of the “bad advisers”, the court clique, and the bureaucracy, without the screen of half-darkness behind which it conceals itself from its subjects. It is enough to have the Aroused masses hit upon the thought, childish in appearance, but terrible in reality, of looking their country’s ruler in the eye, and realizing the myth of the “social royalty”, or “social empire”, — to reveal the encounter necessarily as a collision between two mortal enemies, a day of reckoning between two worlds, a battle of two eras.
Only the indestructible stupidity of the present-day liberal crowd could sooth itself with the notion that all that was to blame for the revolutionary outcome of the episode of the Neva was the circumstances that the Czar did not come out good-naturedly to the Petersburg “mob” and listen graciously to them, that it was only the ill-advised reception of the proletarian procession with cold lead that prevented the whole scene from being transformed into a genuine liberal farce of reconciliation between the country’s ruler and his dear children, with mingled tears of both, and mutual hurrahs, a touching “play for the people”, after the Iffland pattern, such as German liberalism has executed in innumerable performances, from the memorable Rotteck Mayoralty days of 1833 at Freiburg, to the very latest times.
For such a spectacle was not entirely new in history, and it began quite in accordance with the liberal recipe. On October 5, 1789, when the Paris proletariat, with their women at the head, marched to Versailles to bring back their fat Capet and have a word alone with him at Paris, the matter at first proceeded with due decorum and without a hitch. Louis XVI, with quaking lips, to be sure, gave assurance that he would return “confidently and gladly” to his dear Parisians, and soon thereafter there was a great display on the Champ de Mars of mutual exchanges of oaths of fealty and eternity, which really did seem to be unending, somewhat in the manner of a lovesick Frenchman and a blushing “chicken”, under the mistletoe. And yet the kindly Louis became so involved in the play, with his people, so idyllically inaugurated, that he finally lost his fat head altogether.
The Russian Revolution has begun differently, but might very easily have a similar outcome in this respect. And we must give little Nicholas and his “poor advisers” the credit of admitting that from their standpoint they have evaluated the situation much more correctly than the German-Liberal shysters of restricted despotism, and that they grasped the dangerous revolutionary content of the bumble utterance of the Petersburg proletariat much more rapidly than did even many a Western European Social-Democrat, when they decided to answer the very first step of the proletarian petition with despotism’s very last card.
If the dear cousins and colleagues of Nicholas desire to draw a lesson from the events of the immediate past, it would be first of all that they should threaten “with the severest penalty, including penal servitude”, not those workers who are on strike and engaged in frank and sober conflict, but those who seek to cherish and spread among the people the belief in the “good, misled monarch”. It is from such heretical teachings that the most dangerous notion of the popular masses may late arise to have direct conversation, face to face, with their ruler, and “beg” him for certain things that may be just as hard to grant as the striking off of one’s own head.
And we ourselves may also, among the many other teachings of the Russian Revolution, learn from the Petersburg events the habit of removing from the content of the revolutionary mass movements their often contradictory outer shell, instead of permitting them to be confused one for the other. Should the proletariat in some country or other hit upon the idea of moving spontaneously before the honored legislative assemblies and government buildings, with the solemn decision to demand a transfer of the helm of state from the hands of the ruling classes to those of the toiling masses, or else, as said the Petersburg workers, “rather die themselves”, even if Pastor Naumann himself be their leader, we may with due peace of mind prepare for the strongholds of capitalist wage-slavery those placards that once adorned the square of the already taken Bastille, “Dancing Here.”
Soviet Russia began in the summer of 1919, published by the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia and replaced The Weekly Bulletin of the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia. In lieu of an Embassy the Russian Soviet Government Bureau was the official voice of the Soviets in the US. Soviet Russia was published as the official organ of the RSGB until February 1922 when Soviet Russia became to the official organ of The Friends of Soviet Russia, becoming Soviet Russia Pictorial in 1923. There is no better US-published source for information on the Soviet state at this time, and includes official statements, articles by prominent Bolsheviks, data on the Soviet economy, weekly reports on the wars for survival the Soviets were engaged in, as well as efforts to in the US to lift the blockade and begin trade with the emerging Soviet Union.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/srp/v4-5-soviet-russia%20Jan-Dec%201921.pdf