Because Luxemburg did not believe that capitalism could be reformed without revolution, she is rightly infamous as a revolutionary to this day. Eduard Bernstein, her opponent in the SPD, had proposed in his book The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy (1899) a non-revolutionary overcoming of the profit principle by peaceful, reformist means. Luxemburg firmly rejected this departure from the Marxist assumption that revolution was unavoidable if humanity was not to relapse into barbarism. Instead, she argued for reformist day-to-day politics oriented towards the requirements of a revolutionary perspective.
Luxemburg’s book Reform or Revolution? (1899) is still significant for addressing the problems we face today. In it, she avoided the trap into which a strict opposition between reform and revolution inevitably leads. It was precisely this discussion, however, that—even before her murder—was to split the socialist workers’ movement. One current sought to overcome the dominance of profit-oriented interests with reformist methods. Another strove for the same goal with revolutionary methods. This splitting of forces critical of capitalism into two main streams and many small rivulets created a vast “socialist delta”. None of these rivers reached the free sea of socialism—neither that of the communists calling for revolution nor that of the heirs of Eduard Bernstein. This failure of socialist policy opened a space for fascism and, in the 1970s, for neoliberalism, which continues to shape the economy and society of the world to this day.
Luxemburg hoped to introduce a renewed economy through a combination of reform and revolution, although for her revolution was not synonymous with the use of violence:
“In the bourgeois revolutions, bloodshed, terror and political murder were indispensable weapons in the hands of the rising classes.—The proletarian revolution does not need terror to meet its goals. It hates and abhors the murder of human beings. It does not need these means of struggle because it fights not individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naive illusions whose disappointment it must avenge with blood.”
For Luxemburg, revolutionary violence was at best acceptable as counter-violence—when the ruling class broke the principles of law and resorted to violence. Terror, by contrast, was rejected by Luxemburg, and especially individual terror, since it only legitimized more state oppression. Instead, she agreed with the early West European socialist movement, which had seen in a combination of political education, organization, and mass struggle the methods to liberate society from the profit principle:
“It is not the use of physical force, but the revolutionary determination of the masses not to shrink, if necessary, from the extreme consequences of their strike action, and to make all sacrifices, that gives this action such irresistible force that it is often capable of leading the struggle to notable victories in a short time.”
For Luxemburg, revolutions grew out of class struggle. Marx’s expectation—expressed in 1848 and at least half abandoned by Friedrich Engels in 1895—that a revolution would open the door to socialism without further ado was no longer shared by Luxemburg, at the latest after the defeated Russian revolution of 1905/06. She understood that every revolution suffers a setback after the inevitable flagging of the forces driving it. However, the further the revolution is driven to the left, the smaller the setback, up to a—temporary, because not permanently viable—dictatorship of the proletariat. This is the central point in Luxemburg’s understanding of revolution.
From then on, Luxemburg understood revolutions as long-term, repeatedly interrupted processes—as cycles, not individual events. A socialist revolution could not be “accomplished within 24 hours”, but would rather shape a long period of history.
Against the backdrop of today’s protest movements, not least the climate protests, Luxemburg’s reflections on the interaction of reform and revolution assume greater relevance. Worldwide movements like Fridays for Future show that they are able to build up pressure that forces the political system to change.
- Rosa Luxemburg, “Was will der Spartakusbund?”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Berlin, 1974 [December 1918], p. 443.
- Rosa Luxemburg, “Das belgische Experiment”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Berlin, 1973, p. 204.