In the first of a series of Revolutionaries Reviewed, Paul LeBlanc looks back at the life and politics of Rosa Luxemburg.
Born in Poland in 1871, Rosa became a rabble rousing activist. Eventually, she ended up in Germany as one of the leading revolutionaries in the German Social Democratic Party, and founder of The Spartacus League. Though she was only 47 years old when she was murdered during the German Revolution, her contribution to Marxist political thought was immense.
Although uncompromising opposition to the First World War subjected Rosa Luxemburg to the pitiless “social distancing” of imprisonment, she felt compelled, as always, to analyse and to organise against the oppression and violence of the capitalist system.
Since her teen-age years, she had been dedicated to building a mass movement of the working-class majority that would fight for improvements in the here-and-now (reforms); while at the same time fighting to replace the tyranny and exploitation at the heart of capitalism with the expansive political and economic democracy of socialism (revolution). As she put it in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution, for a successful socialist movement, “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
Socialism or Barbarism
Yet the massive German Social Democratic Party, for which Luxemburg was one of the most popular and fiery spokespeople, had become dominated by a “moderate” bureaucracy determined to co-exist with Germany’s upper classes, settling for reforms and rejecting revolution. It sought to marginalise Luxemburg and other revolutionary socialists, at the same time embracing the imperialist foreign policy of the country’s rulers.
With the explosion of the First World War in 1914, the reformist bureaucracy supported the war effort, while Luxemburg and her closest comrades opposed the mass slaughter. They organised an opposition, named after the leader of the ancient slave revolt against Imperial Rome: the Spartacus League. Luxemburg explained:
Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism. Only the revolution of the world proletariat can bring order into this chaos, can bring work and bread for all, can end the reciprocal slaughter of the peoples, can restore peace, freedom, true culture to this martyred humanity. … In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity… Socialism or barbarism!
Revolution and Human Psychology
One of Luxemburg’s friends wrote to her that the moderate socialist leaders were far more practical than she was, because Germany’s working-class majority was too weak and cowardly to follow her revolutionary path.
Disagreeing that “one must fit tactics to their weakness,” the imprisoned Luxemburg responded: “There is nothing more mutable than human psychology. The psyche of the masses like the eternal sea always carries all the latent possibilities: the deathly calm and the roaring storm, the lowest cowardice and the wildest heroism.” She added: “The mass is always that which it must be according to the circumstances of the time, and the mass is always at the point of becoming something entirely different than what it appears to be.”
Continuing her maritime analogy, Luxemburg wrote: “A fine captain he would be who would chart his course only from the momentary appearance of the water’s surface and who would not know how to predict a coming storm from the signs in the sky or from the depths.”
She scoffed at those expressing “disappointment over the masses,” insisting that serious political organisers do not adapt their tactics “to the momentary mood of the masses, but rather to the iron laws of development.” Such an organiser must “hold fast to his tactics in spite of all ‘disappointments’ and, for the rest, calmly allow history to bring its work to maturity.”
Dynamics of Capital Accumulation
Luxemburg’s study The Accumulation of Capital analysed these “laws of development.”
She understood capitalism as an expansive system driven by the dynamic of “accumulation.” Capital in the form of money is invested in commodities in the form of raw materials and 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 new commodities thereby produced. This increased value is realised through their sale for more money than was originally invested, which is the increased capital out of which the capitalist extracts his profits, only to be driven to invest more capital for the purpose of achieving ever greater capital accumulation.
Inseparable from this, the quality of life for more and more workers was undermined – with the ongoing degradation of the labor process and ceaseless efforts to enhance profits at the expense of working-class living standards, all punctuated by periodic economic depressions. Gains made by workers in struggles for reforms would later be eroded by the natural functioning of the capitalist economy. This voracious capital accumulation process was also compelled, by its very nature, to expand over the entire face of the Earth.
Although the word commonly used today is “globalisation,” in Luxemburg’s time it was called imperialism. She explained:
The means of production and labor-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labor-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures.”
The destructive impact of all this on the cultures of the world’s peoples was emphasised by Luxemburg as by no other Marxist theorist of her time: “The ravenous greed, the voracious appetite for accumulation, the very essence of which is to take advantage of each new political and economic conjuncture with no thought for tomorrow, precludes any appreciation of the value of the works of economic infrastructure that have been left by previous civilisations.”
Competition among various major capitalist powers to achieve such expansive conquest resulted in a dramatic expansion of militarism, aggressively nationalist ideologies, and intensifying rivalries around who would control and profit from growing sectors of the global economy – which culminated in devastating global war.
Vanguard and Mass Action
When Europe was shaken by the crisis of 1905-1906, Luxemburg participated in mass struggles that threw light on dynamics she felt the socialist workers’ movement would need to come to grips with, which she described in The Mass Strike, Trade Unions, and Political Party.
Luxemburg viewed the socialist workers’ movement as “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat.” At the same time, she felt the movement was hampered by a growing “bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook,” which was particularly strong in the trade unions, with “the specialisation of professional activity as trade-union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period.” This non-revolutionary approach was also affecting the party leadership, focused on appealing for increasing numbers of votes in election campaigns.
Unstable dynamics of capitalism in 1905 generated a “violent and sudden jerk” that aggravated “deep-seated, long-suppressed resentment” among workers and other social layers, resulting in an explosive and spontaneous reaction on a mass scale. Although using the term “mass strikes,” she described them as going far beyond economic issues, sometimes involving whole communities in mass demonstrations and street battles, through which workers sought to “grasp at new political rights and attempt to defend existing ones.”
“From the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting,” which she noted “must surely react upon the deeper-lying layers and ultimately draw all those into a general economic struggle.” Socialist organisations wishing to provide revolutionary leadership must anticipate such upsurges, being prepared to support and interact with them as part of the struggle to transcend capitalism.
Revolutions and Majorities
As the First World War concluded in 1918, Luxemburg and her revolutionary-minded comrades found the bureaucratised structure of their own socialist workers’ movement had become an obstacle attempting to thwart radicalising impulses of the working-class membership. It was limiting the ability of people such as Luxemburg to present a revolutionary socialist perspective, and was instead deflecting upsurges in the class struggle into non-revolutionary channels. She observed:
As bred-in-the-bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German social democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to the revolution: first let’s become a “majority.” The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that is the way the road runs. Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times.
Luxemburg’s vision of the socialist goal intersected with the revolutionary methods that she called for. “The whole mass of the people must take part,” she insisted. “Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of class rule.” Political and economic democracy must merge: “The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion.”
Martyred amidst the revolutionary turbulence sweeping through Europe in 1919, Luxemburg’s killers later became part of the base of Hitler’s Nazi movement. But she endures, as new layers of activists take inspiration from her life and thought.