Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Rosa Luxemburg's life was bound up with revolution from her birth in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, through her involvement in the Russian Revolution of 1905, to her murder during the German Revolution of 1919. In her 49 years Rosa Luxemburg witnessed huge changes to the world system, such as the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Her brilliant grasp of Marxism and her courage to challenge all orthodoxies enabled her to analyse all these developments from the standpoint of revolutionary socialism and in the process to deepen the Marxist tradition.
Her first great contribution was to the fight against reformism. Around 100 years later socialists are familiar with parties based on the working class yet wedded to the capitalist system and its institutions. However, in the 1890s this was a new phenomenon. Rosa was the first to understand the threat that reformism posed and its potential to derail the workers' movement, primarily through her experience of the German Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) which she joined in 1898 when she came to Germany from her native Poland. The SPD was massive, with 1 million members, 90 papers with 1.4 million subscribers, 200,000 affiliates from workers' choirs and 130,000 from workers' cycling clubs. Its leaders were also the friends and collaborators of Marx and Engels and the SPD was formally committed to Marxism through the party's Erfurt Programme of 1891. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first to notice that despite its rhetoric the party was succumbing to reformism in practice. This growing trend burst into the open in the late 1890s when Eduard Bernstein wrote newspaper articles and then a book outlining the theoretical basis for reformism. Bernstein was highly respected in the German labour movement. In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg was a young woman, and an outsider from Poland in the German party. She was, however, undaunted because she recognised the serious threat which Bernstein's arguments posed.
At the heart of Bernstein's argument was his attempt to revise Marx's theory of capitalist crisis. He asserted that the economy had developed out of its history of crisis and recession and that in the 20th century the economy would evolve gradually, through the expansion of credit, the growth of monopolies and globalisation, towards increasing regulation and public control. Therefore, Bernstein argued, the combination of trade union organisation and parliamentary influence would be enough to secure a juster, fairer society. The conclusion of this was that the SPD should drop Marxism, with its emphasis on economic crisis and class struggle, and admit it was a reformist party. 'The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing, the movement is everything,' Bernstein proclaimed.
Luxemburg refuted all Bernstein's arguments. She pointed out how economic crisis remained integral to capitalist production, how the growth of monopolies didn't eradicate competition for profits but in fact cast it onto a larger, national stage. The trade union struggle could only ever regulate exploitation, not get rid of it completely, and parliament was not an instrument for socialism slowly invading capitalist society but was an institution of the capitalist class. Moreover, she pointed out that the capitalist class would abandon parliamentary democracy if it became expedient to do so. Her argument that 'behind the cloak of bourgeois legality is the class violence of the ruling class' was tragically confirmed by the German ruling class which fell in behind Hitler in the 1930s. She reasserted that the need for socialism was rooted in the contradictions of the capitalist economy and in the realisation by workers that such contradictions were only overcome by a revolutionary transformation of society. Therefore, the fight for socialism was based on both objective and subjective elements, in both the inevitability of the capitalist crisis and a transformation in the consciousness of the working class. The struggle for reforms was the means by which the confidence and organisation of the working class could be raised to a point where revolution was possible. However, she also argued that 'those who choose reform in contradistinction to revolution don't choose a calmer, more tranquil path to the same goal, but a different goal altogether', a goal which meant the perpetuation of the horrors of capitalism rather than their eradication. Luxemburg's pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution remains a key explanation of why there can be no parliamentary road to socialism.
Marxists based their organisations on the power of the working class, but Luxemburg was one of first to recognise the shape the class struggle would take in the 20th century because she understood the significance of the 1905 revolution in Russia. It was centred on a massive strike movement which developed into workers' councils, the spontaneous organisations of the working class. Confronted by class struggle on this scale in neighbouring Russia the rhetoric of the SPD leaders was exposed. They argued that the mass strike was a defensive tactic which should be used only as a last resort, and only to keep the path to parliamentary change open.
In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the mass strike was the 'living heartbeat of revolution, and at the same time its most powerful driving force'. Whether the causes of the strike were economic or political, experience of striking could break down divisions between politics and economics. Every political victory could widen horizons and confidence and feed economic struggle and vice versa. Where the SPD and trade union leaders saw the working class as a stage army which could be marched out and sent home as required by their leaders, Rosa believed that the emancipation of the working class could only be the act of the working class, and therefore the growth in socialist consciousness generated by the experience of striking was of crucial importance; 'the most precious thing, because it is the most enduring in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary wave, is the proletariat's spiritual growth'.
In December 1905 Luxemburg smuggled herself into Poland (then part of Russia) to edit the paper of the Polish Socialist Party to which she also belonged. She was arrested, imprisoned and deported back to Germany. When she was released from prison she wrote to her friend, Clara Zetkin, expressing her growing frustration with the leaders of the SPD.
The decade after 1905 saw imperialism move centre stage, as war clouds gathered over Europe. In the face of the drive to war, a division in the anti-war camp emerged as previous political differences took on a new shape. Karl Kautsky argued that imperialism was an aberration, a boil which some capitalists would also want to lance because spending on arms was a waste of money. Therefore, he argued that international treaties, conferences, and appeals to 'reasonable' capitalists could stop the threat of war. Kautsky and Bernstein saw war as an unfortunate break in peaceful capitalist development.
Rosa Luxemburg ridiculed Kautsky's analysis. For her, imperialism, competition between nation states and the drive for new markets, were integral features of capitalism and it was, therefore, impossible to have capitalism without war. Because of this analysis she was not a pacifist. Her resolution at the Stuttgart conference in 1907 argued that if war broke out socialists must use the crisis to intensify their efforts to overthrow their ruling class; revolutionaries must declare war on war.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 exposed the social democratic parties across Europe. Despite their internationalist rhetoric, every social democratic party, with the exception of Lenin's Bolsheviks, collapsed into supporting the war efforts of their own ruling classes. Rosa and a handful of other socialists, including Clara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht, were almost driven to despair by their party's betrayal and the wave of national fervour of the first months of the war. Yet despite her isolation, Rosa was unflinching in her internationalism, and incisive about the role of leaders in her own party: 'Krupps [the arms dealer] and Social Democracy turned out to be the best supporters of imperialism: the former supplied material weapons of war and the latter the spiritual ones with which to lull the masses to sleep and deceive them.'
However, there was a flaw in Rosa Luxemburg's attitude to nationalism. She opposed all expression of nationalism and recognised no difference between the nationalism of oppressed countries, like her native Poland, and the nationalism of imperial countries, such as Britain or Russia. This dismissive attitude towards the national question led to heated debates with Lenin. The Bolsheviks were socialists operating at the heart of an empire. They opposed the nationalism of their own ruling class, and argued for the unity of all workers, but they also recognised that to win unity they had to recognise the right of all nations to self determination, and they understood that nationalist movements in colonial countries could help undermine the major imperialist powers. Yet, despite this weakness, Rosa was one of a mere handful of socialists outside Russia who remained committed to internationalism when put to the test of war. Her Junius Pamphlet remains one of the greatest denunciations of war and the system which profits from mass murder: 'Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth: thus capitalist society stands not in its usual role, playing peace and righteousness.'
Rosa Luxemburg's understanding of reformism, the mass strike and imperialism all flowed from her understanding of Marxism: it was not merely a means to understand history but a means to make history. Marxism was a weapon in the hands of the working class movement and her fourth great contribution to Marxism was to keep alive the real Marxist tradition in Europe when it was under attack not from the enemies of Marxism, but from its supposed friends. Bernstein and Kautsky developed a view of history in which social change occurred independently of human will or human action. In this version of Marxism, capitalism would lead inevitably to socialism. In the words of Karl Kautsky, 'The irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist development.'
In contrast, Luxemburg argued that history created contradictory possibilities, which depended on the consciousness, action and organisation of the working class to resolve. History produced capitalism and its gravedigger, the working class; it developed imperialism and its opposite, the potential for working class unity and internationalism. Objective conditions would not lead automatically to socialism. Luxemburg thus reinstated working class self-activity at the heart of Marxism and argued that the role of socialist organisation was to intervene, to speed up events. She pointed out that 'capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a revision to barbarism... Thus we stand today, as Frederick Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism - that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, against its methods, against war. This is the struggle of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity.'
She explained the need for socialist organisation to be active in the struggle. The idea that Rosa Luxemburg was a spontaneist who did not believe in organisation was a Stalinist myth circulated to discredit her. She joined her first party when she was 16 years old, she was a central figure in the Polish Socialist Party and when she broke from that party over the question of nationalism, she helped to found an alternative socialist party in Poland. She remained a central figure in this party as well as in the SPD.
However, she did not split from the SPD until 1916, despite her bitter criticisms of its leaders, and she did not establish an independent Communist Party until 1919. The reasons for her failure to build a party along the lines of Lenin's Bolsheviks were partially due to the different conditions in Germany and Russia. Lenin built the Bolshevik Party from scratch in Russia where there were no established reformist institutions. When Rosa joined, the SPD was a massive organisation with mass working class support. It was so synonymous with the German working class that Rosa felt to leave the party would be to betray the workers who still supported it. Until 1914 Lenin himself thought the Bolshevik model of organisation would only be effective in Russian conditions of illegality. As Lenin later acknowledged, Rosa Luxemburg saw the rottenness of Kautsky's politics before he did.
However, there were political differences between Lenin and Luxemburg. She argued that revolutionary organisation was 'a process' which could be built in the course of revolution whereas Lenin argued that organisation had to be established first and it had to be capable of matching the centralism of the capitalist state. Luxemburg believed that revolution once set free would brush aside all conservative bureaucracies. A revolutionary party would win leadership through the power of its politics. Lenin believed that the party needed to be centralised in order to take decisive action and to ensure a revolutionary insurrection was launched at the most effective moment.
Rosa Luxemburg celebrated the October Revolution in Russia in glowing terms: 'All the revolutionary honour 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 honour of international socialism.' From her prison cell in Breslau she did raise criticisms of the Bolsheviks. However, she also understood that many aspects of the Soviet regime she did not like were a product of the isolation of the Russian Revolution in economically backward Russia. In addition, she changed her mind about some of her criticisms after her experience of the German Revolution which erupted in 1918. For example, she criticised the Bolsheviks for disbanding the Constituent Assembly in favour of workers' councils. However, during the first months of the German Revolution Luxemburg experienced at first hand how the call to convene institutions of bourgeois democracy were not an addition to, but an alternative to rule by the working class. She realised how the right wing would mobilise their forces under the banner of the National Assembly when she wrote, 'We are now in the midst of a revolution, and the National Assembly is a counter-revolutionary fortress erected against the revolutionary proletariat.'
Tragically she had little time to learn more from the experience of workers making their own revolution. She was murdered in January 1919 by troops unleashed by the right wing of the SPD. Put to the test of revolution, it was Lenin's centralised party which was best able to win the majority of the working class to revolution. Luxemburg's Communist Party, formed in January 1919, was too small and weak to challenge the dominance of reformism in the first wave of revolution. The German Revolution was haunted at every stage by this lack of a rooted revolutionary party.
When she died many testimonials were written to Rosa Luxemburg. Karl Kautsky, who had once been her close friend as well as her political opponent, wrote, 'Rosa Luxemburg and her friends will always occupy an outstanding position in the history of socialism, but they represent an era which has come to an end'. Kautsky's assessment has been refuted by a further 80 years of capitalist crisis, imperialism, war and revolution. The testimonial Rosa wrote herself, the last words she published, has proved to be much more accurate. She wrote that while revolution always ebbs and flows, 'the revolution will return again and again and proclaim, I was, I am and I shall be.'