Rosa Luxemburg and the actuality of revolution

By Paul Le Blanc

November 17, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In these remarks, I want to do three things.  First, I want to suggest an approach to Rosa Luxemburg that makes sense to me, while mentioning other approaches that do not.  Then I want to suggest an answer to a question that has been raised about how Luxemburg was inclined to view and characterize – in the final years of her life – the Social Democracy in Germany and in general.  From there, I will want to consider advice on political strategy that she seems to offer socialist activists of today, to be found in volumes two and five of her collected works which I have helped edit, at the same time suggesting connections of this with a broader revolutionary tradition.  

I want to begin with an appeal that we engage with Luxemburg in the manner she deserves.  This has several aspects. One involves opening our minds and hearts to her – and for many of us this is incredibly easy, given her vibrant sensibilities, her energy, her personal and intellectual animation and depth, and the very way she talks to us in her writings.  Another aspect involves trying to understand what she actually said and meant and did (as opposed to settling for a Rosa simply of our own making). I have heard people describe Rosa Luxemburg essentially as a utopian radical-feminist or as a rigidly “Marxist” anti-feminist.  I have heard people talk about her – and quite positively – as if her thinking was compatible with Emma Goldman’s anarchism or Eduard Bernstein’s social-democratic reformism or Deng Xioping’s bureaucratic state-capitalism. She is also very frequently cast in the role of Lenin’s Most Magnificent Enemy in some cosmic morality play.  

One can get negative too. Simply because Luxemburg is a Marxist, believing in the class struggle and opposing capitalism, she is for some on the Right a precursor of Joseph Stalin and a herald of horrific tyranny.  Among some on the Left, on the other hand, she is criticized as a woolly-minded “spontaneist” who does not understand the need for organization in the revolutionary struggle.  

Luxemburg was qualitatively different from, and more interesting than, any of this, and she deserves better from us. 

Related to this, she deserves from us an effort to make use of what she is actually offering us.  She was brilliant, insightful, with considerable knowledge and practical experience. She said and wrote things that are worth comprehending, actively considering, and testing out as we try to understand and change the world around us. 

Through our engagement with her, we must treat her as a person, not as a Revolutionary Goddess.  Just because she thinks or says or writes something does not necessarily make that “something” true.  It is possible that she could be wrong. Given her humanity, it is inevitable that she would get some things wrong.  It has been argued intelligently that she got certain things terribly, even disastrously wrong – and such arguments deserve serious consideration.  I should add that, from my own experience, even when I conclude she was wrong about something, it is not the case that she is wrong about every aspect of that “something” – her mind and insights are so good that one can learn from her even when she is partly or largely wrong.

She deserves being taken seriously.  We owe that to her and to ourselves as well.

Now I want to quote from one of Luxemburg’s comrades with whom she sometimes crossed swords – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.   Here is something Lenin wrote about her, in 1922, which has been quoted over and over and over again:

“not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works . . . will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. ‘Since August 4, 1914, Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse’ —this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working-class movement.”

The 1914 reference is to the eruption of World War I, and to the betrayal by the leaders of Luxemburg’s party – the Social Democratic Party of Germany (the SPD) – in supporting this imperialist war.  Indeed, there are revolutionary-minded people today who wag a finger at those who join Democratic Socialists of America while repeating this Luxemburg quote: “Social-Democracy is a stinking corpse.” 

Some of us who are involved in editing the Complete Works that Lenin had called for went looking for this formulation and could not find it in any of Luxemburg’s already-translated published writings.  We concluded that this must be Lenin’s formulation – perhaps his own summary of her sharp critique of the German Social Democracy in, for example, the Junius Pamphlet. And as Helen and I began pouring through her writings from the years 1910 to 1919, we were not able to find those exact words: “Since August 4, 1914, Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse.”

Just as we were concluding that Rosa Luxemburg never said what Lenin claimed – we discovered that, in fact, she did say something very much like it. 
In a set of lengthy and fascinating rough notes that Luxemburg wrote in 1918, to appear in volume 5 under the title of "Historical Fragments on History," she essentially characterizes the Social Democracy (particularly the Second International, but including the SPD) as a "corpse" that has been in a process of "decay" since 1912, and especially since 1914.  In these notes, she recalls that projected May Day actions of 1912 had been decisively and cold-bloodedly watered-down in order to prevent an escalation of mass actions that might decisively challenge the status quo. 

The significance of such backtracking, for a perceptive and unyielding militant such as Luxemburg, posed the sharpest question about the revolutionary fiber of Social Democracy.  Looking back on it from 1918, her conclusions were severe. With this, she reflected, “the International was already inherently a corpse, the ostentatious Basel Congress [of the Second International in 1912] was already, unconsciously, a wake.”  Later in these notes is a section entitled: "Decay Process in Social Democracy & the International since August 4, 1914.” 

Not a stinking corpse, then – just a decaying corpse.

One could argue these notes were not published in time for Lenin's comment, but in both formulation and conceptualization, they seem too similar to be coincidental.  It seems likely that in the same period of time that these notes were composed, Luxemburg was saying and perhaps even writing such things beyond these rough notes, and within venues to which Lenin had access.  The further publication in English of Luxemburg’s Complete Works should make it easier to resolve this matter.

The fact remains, however, that the basic outlines of Luxemburg’s political orientation have been clear for roughly a century even to those limited to the English language.  She was always very critical of the increasingly non-revolutionary orientation in the SPD leadership, and starting in 1914 doubly and triply so.  And at the end of her life she helped to form the German Communist Party. But for most of her life – with varying degrees of patience and impatience – she labored to win working-class comrades of the Social Democracy to a revolutionary Marxist orientation.  She warned them of what she called twin evils. One would be cutting themselves off from the mass of workers and their struggles, maintaining their purity as a little revolutionary-minded sect. The other would be adapting to opportunities offered by shrewd capitalist politicians, potentially resulting in what she termed “a movement of bourgeois social reform.” 

In her battle against reformism she by no means opposed the struggle for reforms – changes for the better within the framework of capitalism.  The problem with reformism, she insisted, is that it seeks simply to pile up one reform after another with the intention of gradually, painlessly transitioning to a more just and humane society.  Luxemburg saw winning reforms as essential to building a strong and self-confident working-class movement capable of overturning capitalism and replacing it with socialism.  Describing her approach, she put explained: “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” 

Luxemburg’s analysis of the economic dynamics of the capital accumulation process, to be found in volume 2 of her collected works, indicates that the success of reformist gradualism is impossible.  She described capitalism’s global expansion as “capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations” of the world’s peoples, and “the violent looting of their means of production and their labor power.” She emphasized the destructive impact of all this – what she called “the ravenous greed, the voracious appetite for accumulation, the very essence of which is to take advantage” of human and natural realities “with no thought for tomorrow.”  Imperialism, militarism, and war are essential to the capitalist system that Luxemburg describes and analyzes. We must now add to this environmental degradation. This leads, as she put it time and again, to a choice: “the destruction of all culture or a transition to the socialist mode of production.” 

The fifth volume of her works highlights the pathway she felt could lead to this final, transitional victory of Social Democracy.  It was transitional not simply in the sense of leading from the capitalist to the socialist form of economy, but also in the way working-class consciousness and workers’ struggles should develop, with struggles for reforms that can actually flow into the social revolution.  Mass struggles to protect people’s dignity and quality of life generate what she called “a lovely madness” among the workers, the vision that “a huge effort full of sacrifices” can result in “a socialist ordering of society.” Luxemburg called upon the socialist party and trade unions of Germany to help prepare the intellectual spirit and idealism among masses of workers that (in her words) “all struggles that we conduct, all mass strikes that lie in front of us, are nothing other than a necessary historical stage towards the ultimate liberation from capitalism, on the way to a socialist order.” 

I would like to conclude by suggesting perspectives that Luxemburg shared with other revolutionary Marxists of the early twentieth century.  In combing through her contributions that constitute the fifth volume of her complete works, I was struck by how thoroughly a well known phrase from the 1924 writings of Georg Lukács applies to her – “the actuality of revolution” is at the core of her thought. “The theory of historical materialism therefore presupposes the universal actuality of the proletarian revolution,” Lukács explained. “In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to an understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism.”

In her ongoing defense and continual elaboration of the mass strike concept in this volume, Luxemburg advances the notion of how this must unfold in the actual class struggle of her time.  “Above all else, a political mass strike demands determined leaders who are ready for action,” she insisted in 1913.  Lamenting the SPD leadership’s lack “of such determination and readiness for action,” she argued: “We need to reexamine and forge new methods of struggle for this occasion. The masses are pushing for action, they wish for a fight. Recognize that the fire that has taken hold of the masses amounts to something more than a flash in the pan. Do not allow the working class’s desire to fight to fall asleep, as we would find it difficult to shake the masses back to life.”  Six years later, as the Spartacus League was preparing to help create the German Communist Party, she denounced “the rotten and bankrupt traditions of the old Social Democracy and its parliamentary shadow life,” emphasizing that “the Spartacists paved the way for the new revolutionary tactics: for extra-parliamentary mass action, they tirelessly … called for mass strikes until the first successes strengthened and raised their self-confidence and the workers’ fighting courage.”  One is struck by the fact that her conception involves an essential interplay of organizational leadership with semi-spontaneous mass action. 

This approach reminds one of Antonio Gramsci, who in The Modern Prince considers the revolutionary party “the decisive element in every situation” involving revolution, but warns that there is a danger of “neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ moments” of mass action among the workers and the oppressed.  In fact, he argues, “unity between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’ or ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.”  The essential organic quality necessary for such revolutionary politics, Gramsci insisted, involves (in his words) “a continual adaptation of the organization to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above, a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus which ensures continuity and the regular accumulation of experience.”

If we take these ideas of Luxemburg, Lukács, and Gramsci seriously, we must realize that all of them were making reference to a context that no longer exists in 2019.  A hundred years ago there existed a substantial global labor movement, profoundly influenced by the theory of historical materialism, and with a dynamic and influential left wing infused with the sense of the actuality of revolution.  That was obliterated between the First World War and the twilight of the twentieth century. Something like it remains to be rebuilt.

Yet as we enter the second decade of our own century, a renewed sense of revolution’s “actuality” has been emerging amid deepening crises that afflict our planet.  Insurgent currents of youthful activists are moving away from an anarchism that seemed to lead nowhere, in some cases connecting with the remnants Social Democracy, in some situations connected to one or another remnant of the old Communist movement.  Some of those active in swirl of this are wrestling with how to gather useful insights from revolutionaries of the past.

Rosa Luxemburg told us, as she explained her revolutionary orientation of mass action: “We can only grow through struggle, and it’s in the middle of struggle where we learn how to fight.”  Her words are worth taking to heart as we labor to rebuild our socialist movement and, with a lovely madness, reach for a future of the free and the equal – learning how to fight, through engaging in the actual struggles of today and tomorrow.