In the summer of 1913 the government introduced a military bill… It was supposed to cost a thousand million Reichmarks for both new and current expenditures. However, the SPD confined itself to mere parliamentary protests; its members in the Reichstag even voted for the financial measures necessary to meet the military demands, because this time these were to be covered by property taxes. Even members of the party’s left wing (Radek and Pannekoek) advocated the passing of these measures. But knowing that nationalist and imperialist sentiments had moved many of the Reichstag members to vote in favour of the tax measures, Rosa Luxemburg underlined the principle that, in view of the rapidly approaching danger or war, the party should do nothing which might create even the appearance of expressing confidence in the government and consenting to its armaments policy.
From Rosa Luxemburg by Paul Frölich
After Ledebour, comrade Liebknecht spoke on the theme of the military bill and the finance bill. He said:
From the outset the discussions were characterised by an air of despondency, given that it was clear that the military bill would be backed by a large majority. When the question was raised as to whether it would be possible to unleash extra-parliamentary forces against the military bills, the same despondency manifested itself. The proposal did not find an echo amongst the masses. All the more so, therefore, did the parliamentary fraction have the duty of arousing the masses by way of appropriate relentless tactics. The tactics had to strike sparks.
Even if I recognise that obstruction is not a possibility, I am nonetheless of the opinion that the struggle could have been conducted with more vigour. We should have gone so far as to see what kind of reaction we would have provoked. We had to cut through the passive resistance of the bourgeois parties and force them to respond to our actions.
That the fraction carried out useful work on the occasion of the second reading should not be underestimated. But I think it a mistake that the fraction declared itself to be in agreement with going straight into the second reading, because approving expenditure without having covered the costs of that expenditure contradicts the nature of the procedure for granting approval. I very much fear that the decision taken will cause us difficulties in future.
Members of the fraction were afraid of being excluded, and proceeded from the assumption that indirect taxes could be avoided only as a result of pressure from the 110 fraction members. In my opinion, this point of view is wrong.
A bourgeois majority and government voted for direct taxes, especially the property tax, under the pressure of the mood of the masses which was triggered by the finance reforms of 1909, and which found reflection in the elections of 1912. We could therefore have easily adopted a different tactic and left it to the bourgeois parties to decide whether they would run the risk of burdening people with additional indirect taxes. The four and a quarter million votes we won in 1912 were a trump in our hands, one which our opponents could not avoid confronting.
The fraction was in agreement that if the military bill and the finance bill had been merged into a single umbrella bill, then we would have voted against it. The majority stood by the old principle of “not a man, not a penny for this system”, even though it was described from some quarters as an outdated formula.
But now the question arose of how we should respond to the finance bill once the military bill had been adopted. If the finance bill had been voted upon first, then we would have had to vote against it, given that, in those circumstances, the principle of the lesser evil was not relevant. It was not possible to determine the particular circumstances in advance.
Under no circumstances could we allow our tactics to contribute to helping bring about the evil; and then, when the evil was in existence, we could have voted for it only insofar as this was unconditionally necessary to prevent the yet greater evil. Otherwise, we had to protest against it or refrain from voting. How we voted could never be made dependent upon whether a majority was guaranteed for the bill. Abstention is by no means cowardice, as the glorious example of 1870 demonstrates.
In my opinion, talk of the dissolution of the Reichstag (Parliament) was nothing but empty verbiage. The Zentrum (Centre) Party in particular feels very much at home in the current Reichstag. Moreover, we never have any reason to fear a dissolution of the Reichstag, nor could we ever have such a fear: dissolution would be a serious sign of weakness. If we voted for the finance bill, then it could easily be the case that it was adopted unanimously, and that would have provoked an incomparable shock around the world — social-democracy as part of the unanimous armaments parliament!
Now the discussion reached a climax around the question of whether the use to which money raised by the finance bill could play a role in determining how we voted. I consider the idea that we should vote for taxes which are good in and of themselves, irrespective of the use to which they will be put, to be a completely impossible one. The property tax, even though the inheritance tax has been incorporated into it, is the most wretched direct tax conceivable, although I would not want to see its importance for Prussian finances underestimated.
The tax certainly expropriates a share of the Prussian taxes. As such, it is not a completely worthless contribution to weakening Prussian reaction. But approving of taxes means handing power to a hostile government and strengthening militarism. Taxes are a means to an end, and it is therefore impermissible to ignore the use to which they will be put. What holds true for approving a budget also holds true for approving taxes. The Nürnberg resolution of 1903 is decisive.
In order to achieve clarity we will calmly discuss the question at the party congress. I regard the these of comrade Wurm as an unobjectionable basis for such a discussion, and I am sure that the party congress will adopt the position contained in the theses.
We will not retreat by even an inch from our basic attitude towards militarism. The fraction must be told in no uncertain terms: we remain the mortal enemies of militarism, and not a man, not a penny for this system!
• Vorwärts, no. 222, 28th August, 1913, (from a newspaper report of the general meeting of the SPD branch in Berlin constituency number VI), 26th August 1913. From: Karl Liebknecht’s Collected Speeches and Writings, Volume 6 (January to December 1913)