Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary socialism
One hundred years ago today, one of the most important figures in the history of the socialist movement was murdered by a far-right death squad along with her comrade Karl Liebknecht. Veteran socialist Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, tells her story and explains her contributions., author of numerous books, including
TEN YEARS after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919, playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht wrote in his typically stark, homely verse:
Red Rosa now has vanished too.
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life’s about.
And so now the rich have rubbed her out.
Luxemburg was born in 1871, in a Poland divided under German and Russian domination, and she played a role in the working-class socialist movement of each country.
Yet her influence has been global. She was part of a mass working-class movement seeking a transition from capitalism to socialism. The decades following her death saw increasing crises and finally a half-century decline and collapse of that movement.
But triumphant capitalism has (by its very nature, Luxemburg would tell us) generated a growing discontent and socialist renewal — giving new relevance to what Luxemburg thought and did and tried to do.
The Quality of Her Thought and Life
Luxemburg’s Marxism denied that “economic development rushes headlong, like an autonomous locomotive on the tracks of history, and that politics, ideology, etc. are content to toddle behind like forsaken, passive freight wagons.”
Her passion was unusual among theoreticians of the socialist movement. “Unrelenting revolutionary activity coupled with boundless humanity — that alone is the real life-giving force of socialism,” she wrote amid crashing empires and working-class insurgency following the First World War.
Joining the massive Social Democratic Party of Germany in the 1890s, she explained to a Polish friend: “I do not agree with the view that it is foolish to be an idealist in the German movement.”
Noting that idealistic impulses permeated the movement, she added that “the ultimate principle” in all of her revolutionary activity was “to remain true to myself without regard for the surroundings and the others — thus, I am and will remain an idealist in the German as well as the Polish movement.”
Luxemburg’s blend of critical-minded social science and humanistic idealism was matched by activism, from the time she was a teenager to the moment of her death.
She wrote articles, essays, pamphlets and books. She lectured at a socialist party school educating activist cadres, and at meetings of workers in various cities and towns of Germany and Poland, with eloquent speeches at mass rallies.
Luxemburg also worked with comrades — openly and legally when possible, in the revolutionary underground when necessary — to develop effective organizations, strategies and tactics, in workplaces and in the streets, to challenge the capitalist status quo. For this, she was imprisoned more than once — and finally murdered by a reactionary death squad.
According to one comrade, Max Adler:
An untamed revolutionary force was alive in this frail little woman. It was characteristic of her, however, that her intellect never lost control of her temperament, so that the revolutionary fire with which she always spoke was also mingled with coolheaded reflectiveness, and the effect of this fire was not destructive but warming and illuminating.
Luxemburg’s student and biographer Paul Frölich remembered “large, dark and bright eyes...very expressive, at times searching with a penetrating scrutiny, or thoughtful; at times merry and flashing with excitement. They reflected an ever-alert intellect and an indomitable soul.” Her slight Polish accent “lent character to her voice and added a special zest to her humor...All this made every private moment with her a special gift.”
Private life was also animated by passionate engagement — her deepest friendships within a substantial circle of women, comradeship and, in a few cases, love relationships among a select number of men.
Especially vibrant was a connection with Mimi, her imperious cat. We find in her writings powerful traces of attention to and appreciation for multiple creatures (birds, oxen, insects and more), not to mention plants and multiple manifestations of the natural world. Her environmental sensibilities are particularly relevant to troubling realities of today.
Reform, Mass Action and Revolution
Insights can be gained by considering Luxemburg’s interactions with other prominent theoreticians of the mass socialist workers’ movement when the 25-year-old moved to Germany: Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky.
An opportunistic variant of trade unionism and a vote-getting electoral fixation had become prevalent in the movement’s organizational apparatus. This bureaucratic conservatism was reflected in an approach developed by Bernstein.
The traditional approach, grounded in the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, called for masses of workers to struggle for improvements within capitalist society, learning how to defend their rights and confront capitalism.
“Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social Democracy an indissoluble tie,” Luxemburg explained. “The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
Bernstein revised this, arguing for piling up reforms without a revolution, enabling socialists to collaborate as partners in progress with liberal-minded capitalists for a gradual evolution to socialism.
This was incredibly naïve, Luxemburg insisted. The violence-prone capitalist elite would not willingly give up its power, and the dynamics of the capitalist economy would not allow for such a painless transition. Bernstein’s orientation would transform the German Social Democratic Party from a socialist party into “a party of bourgeois social reform.”
Capitalist dynamics periodically generated crises that jolted semi-spontaneous upsurges, Luxemburg concluded, based on insurgent explosions of 1905 in Russia. She vividly described “the whirlwind and the storm” and “the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting.”
This would not necessarily result in socialist revolution, she felt, but could become “the starting point of a feverish work of organization” that would embrace more of the working class, enabling it to fight for reforms in a manner that would help prepare it for the revolutionary struggle.
She believed “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat” in Germany, Poland, Russia and elsewhere should play an essential role in this process.
Initially, her friend and prominent Marxist co-thinker Karl Kautsky had stood with Luxemburg in rejecting Bernstein’s revisionism. Yet pressures of the social democratic and trade union bureaucracy made him retreat into an increasingly rigid (but also diluted) Marxist “orthodoxy.” By 1910, he worked to marginalize Luxemburg’s revolutionary orientation within the German Social Democratic Party.
Kautsky’s political compromises with more conservative elements in his party were not simply inconsistent with the spirit of Marx or Luxemburg. No less than Bernstein, he was failing to prepare the working class for tumultuous crises and violence inherent in the nature of capitalism. Luxemburg’s take on capitalism can be found in her 1913 classic The Accumulation of Capital.
The Accumulation of Capital
Luxemburg embraced Marx’s stricture to “doubt everything” — including daring to question and disagree with some of what Marx himself had to say.
In her economic analysis, Luxemburg criticized the second volume of Marx’s Capital, which she considered an underdeveloped and incomplete aspect of Marx’s analysis of how surplus value is realized. Focusing on the global dynamics of the capitalist system, she saw imperialism as at the heart of capitalist development.
Capitalism is an expansive system driven by the dynamic of accumulation. Capital in the form of money is invested in capital in the form of raw materials, tools and labor-power, which is transformed — by the squeezing of actual labor out of the labor-power of the workers — into capital in the form of the commodities thereby produced, whose increased value is realized through the sale of the commodities for more money than was originally invested.
The capitalists extract their profits from this increased capital, only to be driven to invest more capital in order to achieve ever-greater capital accumulation.
Capitalism’s global expansion, Luxemburg emphasized, aggressively coexists in a world of different cultures, different types of society and different modes of production — that is, different economic systems. Imperialism exists at the earliest beginnings of capitalism and continues nonstop, with increasing and overwhelming reach and velocity, down to the present.
Distinctive to Luxemburg’s contribution is her anthropological sensitivity to the impact of capitalist expansion on the rich variety of the world’s peoples and cultures: the destruction of the English peasants and artisans; the destruction of the Indians or Native American peoples; the enslavement of African peoples by the European powers; the ruination of small farmers in the Midwestern and Western regions of the United States; the onslaught of French colonialism in Algeria; the onslaught of British colonialism in India; British incursions into China, with special reference to the Opium wars; the onslaught of British colonialism in South Africa (she made lengthy reference to the three-way struggle of Black African peoples, the Dutch Boers and the British).
No less dramatic is Luxemburg’s perception of the economic role of militarism in the globalization of the market economy. “Militarism fulfills a quite definite function in the history of capital, accompanying as it does every historical phase of accumulation,” she commented noting that it was decisive in subordinating portions of the world to exploitation by capitalist enterprise.
It played an explosive role in rivalry between competing imperialist powers. More than this, military spending “is in itself a province of accumulation,” making the modern state a primary “buyer for the mass of products containing the capitalized surplus value,” she wrote — although through taxes, “the workers foot the bill.”
Socialism or Barbarism
The violence and inhumanity visited on those victimized by imperialist oppression in “faraway lands” of Asia and Africa became a murderous backdraft which exploded into Europe with the imperialist slaughter of 1914-1918: the First World War.
Luxemburg concluded that humanity stood at a crossroads — “either forward to socialism or a downward slide into barbarism.” She was horrified that a majority of social democratic leaders, in Germany and most other countries, ended up going along with their various countries’ war efforts. Others who, like Luxemburg, remained true to their revolutionary socialist principles were arrested and imprisoned.
She and her comrades in the newly formed Spartacus League — expelled from the German Social Democratic Party and soon to become the German Communist Party — warned: “The beast of capital that conjured up the hell of the world war is not capable of banishing it again, of restoring real order, of insuring bread and work, peace and civilization, and justice and liberty to tortured humanity.”
There were like-minded comrades around the world — and in Russia, some of these were able to lead a successful revolution in 1917. As Luxemburg wrote in celebration of the revolution:
All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism...Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure.
Yet she was critical of the Bolsheviks’ glorification of authoritarian practices when confronted with a brutal civil war.
“Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created,” she argued. “It does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators.”
Luxemburg insisted that the best way to help the Russian Revolution remain true to its initial democratic and socialist ideals was for other workers’ movements to end their Russian comrades’ terrible isolation by making revolutions in their own countries.
But revolutionary hopes and possibilities in Germany were betrayed by opportunistic, deal-making social democratic leaders, who supported the repression and murder of revolutionaries like Luxemburg.
Capitalist elites ultimately backed the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler, whose grim qualities were matched — thanks to revolutionary Russia’s isolation — by the Stalin dictatorship’s barbaric corruption of the communist movement. An even more devastating Second World War engulfed the planet, followed by decades of instability, violence, cultural and environmental degradation.
Yet amid what some have perceived as a downward slide into barbarism, many have continued to be inspired by the last words Red Rosa wrote: “Tomorrow the revolution...will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be.”