NINETY YEARS ago Rosa Luxemburg, one of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, was assassinated. This came in the midst of the mass revolt by the German working class that brought World War One to an end. Her murder was ordered, not by a military dictatorship, but by the party of which she had been a leading member for much of her life—Germany’s Labor party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Rosa Luxemburg was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1871. When she was just 16 she joined a revolutionary party. At a time when it was illegal to be a socialist, where there were no unions and no parliamentary democracy, she became a leader of a revolutionary party.
In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Germany, where anti-socialist laws had been repealed. She joined the SPD, which was regarded internationally as the model of working class party organisation—already a mass party with a million members and over 90 publications.
Such was the stature of the SPD, that one of its prominent leaders, Karl Kautsky, was labelled “The Pope of Marxism”. Theoretically Kautsky was committed to the struggle for socialism, but the practical activity of the SPD reflected their belief that change could come through parliament, not social revolution.
Her understanding of Marxist economics, the contradictions of capitalism and the ultimate failure of reformism, brought her into sharp conflict with the conservative leaders of the SPD. Her insights continue to resonate today, showing a way out of the economic crisis confronting the world.
The SPD and reformism
In the late 1890s, Germany was in a period of relative prosperity, having not experienced a major economic crisis or war for twenty years. The period of social peace seemed to allow the labour movement to grow in size and influence. Election results encouraged this view. In 1890, Social Democracy polled 19.7 per cent; in 1893, 23.2 per cent; in 1898, 27.2 per cent and in 1903, 31.7 per cent.
In this context Eduard Bernstein emerged to give theoretical justification for “social democracy”.
Social democracy is the political practice identified since then with parliamentary and labour parties around the world. Bernstein declared, “The ultimate aim of socialism means nothing to me; it is the movement itself which means everything”.
He even argued that the promise of gradual change through parliament could win support from the ruling class. But the catch was, in order to win that support the party “must find the courage to emancipate itself from the revolutionary phraseology which is in fact out of date, and be willing to appear what it really is: a democratic socialist party of reform.”
Bernstein attacked the very basis of Marxism. In particular he rejected the idea that economic crisis was inherent to capitalism. Crises, he argued, had been, and would continue to be, alleviated by new credit mechanisms, trusts, employer organisations, and cartels. Bernstein believed that capitalism had the ability to maintain itself, adapt and grow, and overcome the contradictions and exploitation of the class-based system.
As such, Bernstein advocated the SPD striving for gradual reforms implemented through parliament, trade union activity and cooperatives.
He thought that capitalism could go on expanding and that Germany’s growing middle class would ensure further re-distribution of wealth.
“The whole practical activity of social democracy is directed towards creating circumstances and conditions which shall render possible and secure a transition [free from convulsive outbursts]… from a capitalist to a socialist society,” he said.
Reform or Revolution
Luxemburg strongly opposed the idea that gradually altering capitalism by way of reforms introduced through parliament could lead to socialism.
Her pamphlet Social Reform or Social Revolution was published in 1900 in response to Bernstein’s book, The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy. The pamphlet emphasised that crises were still inherent to capitalism. She argued that rather than being a peaceful method for achieving socialism, reformism might limit the effects of exploitation but could never eradicate it.
The crucial point of Luxemburg’s argument was that with or without crises (although she very much believed that they would continue), as long as capitalism existed, so would exploitation.
As Marx had shown, exploitation is at the heart of capitalism—the capitalist class derives surplus value or profit from the labour of the working class. Rather than alleviating crises, the development of credit and cartels actually sharpened the tension between the social classes of labour and capital.
Luxemburg showed how credit facilities create over-production, allowing capitalists to borrow to expand, while pushing workers to spend beyond their means and live under a constant debt burden.
Both aspects are obvious in the current global economic crisis, in which banks created dodgy credit derivatives and cheap loans which they sold to each other and which allowed brokers to sell houses to those who could previously not afford them, fuelling the subprime mortgage crisis in the US.
Luxemburg comprehensively demolished the idea that bureaucratic centralised organisations such as the SPD or the trade unions could transform society through reforms.
As she saw, the German Free Trade Unions became great wealthy organisations, more concerned to expand their services to make the workers’ life under capitalism more bearable than to promote workers’ struggle against it.
Luxemburg concluded that reformism reduced the working class to being an agent for getting the SPD into parliament. The emancipation of the working class, she said, would only come from periods of working class struggle culminating in a mass revolution to overthrow the system. As she said, “Only when the great mass of workers take the keen and dependable weapons of scientific socialism in their own hands, will all the petty-bourgeois inclinations, all the opportunistic currents, come to naught.”
The Mass Strike
Luxemburg did not reject the need to fight for reforms, indeed it was the struggle for reforms that can develop into a fight to change society altogether.
It is through the mass strike—not merely about wages and conditions but about seizing economic power—that the majority acting in the interest of the majority can confront the capitalist class and the question of state power. Socialism could not be achieved by capturing the capitalist state through parliament, because the state ultimately represents the capitalist class.
“The practical daily struggle for reforms,” she argued, “…offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal… For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal”.
Luxemburg’s arguments against reformism and her emphasis on the necessity of revolution and the mass strike were dramatically vindicated with the re-emergence of economic crisis in 1900 and 1907. In 1914 a war broke out that Eduard Bernstein, along with most other social democrats, had declared to be unnecessary to capitalism. The world’s imperialist powers fought for markets and to divide colonial territories amongst themselves.
All socialist parties around the world, including the SPD, had previously committed themselves to opposing the war. Now, with the exception of the Russian Bolsheviks, they went along with their own ruling classes.
This was perhaps the final proof of Luxemburg’s analysis of social democracy. Despite the theoretical commitment to international socialism, the SPD capitulated to the capitalist system as the working classes of different countries were pitted against each other.
The capitulation of the socialist parties also sharply raised the question of what kind of party was needed for socialist revolution—a question that Luxemburg would only address a few years later as first the Russian Revolution in 1917 and then revolt in Germany in 1918 ended the slaughter of World War One.
Socialists and War
The failings of the SPD were starkly revealed in the German revolution. The revolution ended the war, but it failed to overthrow the German state and provide support for the Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia. Tragically, the SPD joined forces with the ruling class and the Kaiser’s army to suppress both the revolutionaries and the working-class.
This realisation of the stark failure of her own party came all too late for Luxemburg. Her decision to remain within the structure of the SPD saw her consumed with the intellectual struggles with the reformist party officials. While Luxemburg won the argument against Bernstein—resolutions against reformism were passed at SPD conferences in 1899, 1901 and 1903—the party was in no way an instrument of revolution.
Luxemburg only formed the German Communist Party after her release from prison in 1918. When the German revolution broke out, her ideas about the significance of revolution and the mass strike were little known to rank and file workers.
The SPD and the armed forces murdered thousands. On January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg became one of them, her skull smashed by a rifle butt before her body was thrown into a canal.
Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, and the necessity of revolutionary politics to overthrow it, continues to be of great significance in a world once again wracked by economic crisis.
As Kevin Rudd, in his recent essay in The Monthly tries to resurrect conservative social democracy as an alternative model to run capitalism, Luxemburg’s critique of Berstein’s reformism is more relevant than ever.
As she wrote in Reform and Revolution, “…people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.”