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Position 1

Is reform of capitalism possible without revolution?

Reform and revolution

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.
Rosa, Episode 1: Paul Mason and Rosa Luxemburg on “Reform or Revolution”

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, “Was will der Spartakusbund?”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Berlin, 1974 [December 1918], p. 443.
  2. Rosa Luxemburg, “Das belgische Experiment”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Berlin, 1973, p. 204.
Position 2

Why is freedom always freedom of dissent?


Immanuel Kant’s postulate that the freedom of the individual is bounded by the freedom of others was the starting point for Luxemburg's understanding of freedom. Freedom held merely as a privilege was not freedom, but only remaining in a golden cage. For Luxemburg, social changes could take place most quickly in complete freedom, especially in revolutions. Changes become irreversible when the losing side capitulates only after it has exhausted all its capacities and perishes in complete freedom.

Luxemburg was ahead of most left-wing politicians in realizing that it is the freedom of dissenters that makes emancipatory politics possible in the first place:

“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of a party—however numerous they may be—is not freedom. Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently. Not because of the fanaticism of ‘justice’, but because all that is invigorating, wholesome, and purifying in political liberty hangs upon this being, and its effect fails when ‘liberty’ becomes a privilege.”[1]

To strive for emancipation by anti-emancipatory means and methods, i.e. the Leninist concept of politics, would have meant abandoning Luxemburg’s political approach. Oppression cannot be abolished by oppression.

Luxemburg distinguished between political and social freedoms. Political freedoms began with the freedom of property, without which a capitalist market economy is not viable. This freedom had been the central goal of the formerly revolutionary bourgeoisie and had offered a first protection against the arbitrary power of the state, secured by the rule of law. This was followed by the integrity of the person, freedom of opinion, speech and the press, the right to vote, including protection for those who lose in elections, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, the secrecy of correspondence, the inviolability of the home, and the privacy of the telephone. These freedoms, which today belong to the non-assailable core of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Articles 1 and 20 GG), were already non-negotiable for Luxemburg.

For her, socialism was nothing other than the supplementation of political freedoms with social freedom from exploitation and all forms of dependence. (The “socialism” practiced by the Bolsheviks represented the opposite. This is why they saw Luxemburg as being so dangerous.)

It was clear to Luxemburg that only by resolving contradictions could the “rest of society” become aware of its own oppression and exploitation and thus free itself from its own domination. Paul Levi, one of her partners, put it this way after her assassination:

“She knew how to conduct the struggle as struggle, the war as war, the civil war as civil war. But she could only imagine the civil war as a free play of forces in which even the bourgeoisie would not be banished to the cellars by the police, because only in an open struggle of the masses could they grow, could they realize the greatness and gravity of their struggle. She did not want the destruction of the bourgeoisie through dismal terrorism, through the monotonous business of execution, any more than the hunter wants to destroy the predators in his forest. The fight with the latter is meant to make the game stronger and larger. For her, the destruction of the bourgeoisie, which she indeed wanted, was the result of the social reorganization that the revolution signifies.”[2]

Luxemburg was deeply convinced that everything artificial, all conditions created “from above”, lead to the dictatorship of a minority and thus to a reign of terror. The history of socialism in the twentieth century confirmed this in a bloody manner.

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, “Zur russischen Revolution”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Berlin, 1974, p. 359.
  2. Paul Levi, Introduction to “Die Russische Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung. Aus dem Nachlass von Rosa Luxemburg’” Ohne einen Tropfen Lakaienblut. Schriften, Reden, Briefe, edited by Jörn Schütrumpf, vol. 1: Spartakus: Abschied ohne Ankunft, Berlin, 2020 [1921/22], p. 1035.
Position 3

The secret of colonialism and imperialism

The accumulation of capital

The constant growth of new markets is written into the DNA of capitalist societies; those which fail to find markets are doomed to collapse. Luxemburg recognized that the global South—at that time still not capitalist—is indispensable for the capitalist mode of production, both as an export market and as a source of raw materials. However, its “integration into the world market” does not work without expropriations, which cause the destruction of traditional communities, often by military force. With this theory, Luxemburg had uncovered not only the secret of colonialism, but also of imperialist wars.
R is for Rosa: Episode 2 - Imperialism and War

In order to analyse capitalist surplus value production, Marx had decided to work with a simplified model. He presupposed a society consisting only of capitalists and wage workers, i.e. a society that never really existed—a fact that Marx himself emphasized again and again. But only under these “laboratory conditions” was it possible for him to uncover important fundamental relationships within this mode of production. He was able to show how surplus value is created and how it is not consumed but fed into production (accumulated) so as to produce even more commodities and make even more profit. Any capitalist who refused to play this game would sooner or later be outcompeted.

In Luxemburg’s view, Marx leaves open the question of the source of the money needed so that the mass of commodities derived from production as it expands can also be valorized, or, in other words, can be bought by the consumer at a price that ensures the realization of surplus value for the seller. Yet this condition must be met if the capital invested in commodities is to be transformed into more capital, and thus if accumulation and growth are to be possible.

This is where Luxemburg stepped in. She assumed that in a society consisting only of capitalists and wage workers, an expansion of sales would be impossible. However, she did not reject Marx for this reason, but took up his insights and started off on the road back from abstraction to reality. Here she came across a third area: non-capitalist sales markets. Her insight:

“Capitalist production, as genuine mass production, is dependent on buyers from peasant and handicraft spheres of production in the old countries as well as on consumers from all other countries, and at the same time, in technical terms, it absolutely cannot get along without the products of those other countries and social strata (no matter whether the products be means of subsistence or means of production).Thus, from the very beginning, an exchange relationship necessarily had to develop between capitalist production and its noncapitalist milieu, and in this relationship capital found it possible to realize its own surplus value in shiny pieces of gold for the purpose of further capitalization as well as to provide itself with all sorts of commodities necessary for the expansion of its own production, and in addition, to obtain ever-new recruits to the proletarianized workforce.” [1]

Luxemburg developed this view in epic detail in her 1913 work The Accumulation of Capital. But her book is only partially successful. For long stretches, the first 200 pages read like a self-assessment. The seven historical chapters at the end of the volume are quite different—they are world literature.

It was only in another work, which became known as the Anti-Critique, that she arrived at her decisive point:

“In lands across the seas its first action is the subjugation and ruination of the traditional communal system, the world-historical act marking capitalism’s birth, and that has been an accompanying feature of the accumulation of capital ever since. By bringing ruin to the primitive subsistence economy and peasant-patriarchal relations in those otherlands, European capitalism opens the door for commodity exchange and commodity production, transforms the local inhabitants into customers for capitalist goods, and at the same time powerfully accelerates its own rate of accumulation by the direct and massive plundering of the natural treasures and stored-up riches of the subjugated populations. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, going hand in hand with the methods described above, there has occurred the export of accumulated capital from Europe to noncapitalist lands in other parts of the world. And there European capital finds, on a new field, on the fragmented ruins of the indigenous forms of production, a new circle of customers for its commodities and, along with that, more extensive possibilities for accumulation. Thus capitalism expands more and more, thanks to its exchange operations with noncapitalist countries and social strata, and in the process it accumulates at their expense. However, at the same time, step by step, it strips them bare and subjects them to oppression, so as to ultimately replace them with itself." [2]

Luxemburg wrote the Anti-Critique in 1915, when she was serving a one-year prison sentence for proven anti-militarism in the “women’s prison” in Berlin's Barnimstrasse. Since no one dared print anything by the outcast Luxemburg at the time, the book was not published until 1921 by the Frankes publishing house in Leipzig, two years after its author’s assassination.

On the consequences of the capitalist mode of production, Luxemburg wrote: “But the more capitalist countries there are that take part in this chase after other regions as sources of accumulation, the fewer remaining noncapitalist regions there are, the fewer areas still open to the worldwide expansion of capital, and thus the more embittered becomes the competitive battle between different groups of capital for these regions as sources of accumulation, and thus the battle campaigns or other expeditions on the world arena become more and more transformed into a chain of economic and political catastrophes: worldwide economic crises, wars, and revolutions.” [3]

Luxemburg understood the subjugation of non-capitalist modes of production to the logic of capital exploitation as a once-only process, but subsequent developments have shown that in reality it involves an ever-deeper penetration of all social relations. Luxemburg's idea that the progressive capitalization of the world would reach an economic limit was thus too simplistic.

Luxemburg’s analyses influenced subsequent Third World discourse and the women’s movement of the 1970s. At the beginning of the 2000s, David Harvey showed how “accumulation through expropriation”—also the subtitle of his most important book, The New Imperialism (2003), in its German edition—now extends to public goods in the form of the privatization of public services, health and education, the cultural sector and other areas. Today, accumulation is also discussed in terms of “domestic colonies”, “land grabbing”, the household as a cost-free site of commodity production, and underpaid care work.

Luxemburg’s idea of the limits of progressive capitalization reappears, as Isabel Loureiro has pointed out, in ecological discourse: “The current model of ‘accumulation by expropriation’ is linked, among other issues, to agricultural problems that are not sustainable: the expansion of monocultures, the use of pesticides, soil degradation, deforestation, the destruction of biodiversity, the waste of water resources, the pollution of water sources, the threat to food security, and the increase in food prices.” Capital, according to Loureiro, cannot accumulate forever. However, this is “not because the entire world will eventually be fully capitalized—so capitalism will find its logical and historical limit, as in Luxemburg—but because of the natural limits of our planet.”[4]

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, “Die Akkumulation des Kapitals oder Was die Epigonen aus der Marxschen Theorie gemacht haben. Eine Antikritik”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 5, Berlin, 1975 [1915/1921], p. 429. English translation: “The Accumulation of Capital, Or, What the Epigones Have Made Out of Marx’s Theory—An Anti-Critique”, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 2, edited by Peter Hudis and Paul Le Blanc, London, 2015.
  2.  Luxemburg, “Die Akkumulation des Kapitals”, p. 429f. English translation: “The Accumulation of Capital—An Anti-Critique”, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 2.
  3. Luxemburg, “Die Akkumulation des Kapitals”, p. 430. English translation: “The Accumulation of Capital—An Anti-Critique”, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 2.
  4. Isabel Loureiro, “Die Aktualität von Rosa Luxemburgs ‘Akkumulation des Kapitals’ in Lateinamerika”, Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, 2013, vol. 2, p. 121.
Position 4

What did an alternative to capitalism look like for Rosa Luxemburg?


The growth machine of capitalism is running with fewer impediments than ever, despite Fridays for Future—and not only in China and India. Capitalism without growth is unthinkable, but so is unlimited growth on a finite planet. Nevertheless, previous alternatives to the destruction of nature and the subordination of human life to the accumulation of capital have been discredited: The socialist states of the twentieth century did not bring freedom, nor were they characterized by careful treatment of nature and the environment. However, today’s manifold crisis of capitalism calls for the search for other alternatives. A new discussion about a socialism in the twenty-first century has begun. It is able to pick up where Luxemburg left off, striving for a lively, contradictory and in every respect democratic socialism. She saw “the most ruthless revolutionary energy and the most generous humanity” as the “true breath of socialism”.
R is for Rosa: Episode 3 - Order reigns in Berlin

Luxemburg thought of socialism as a combination of political and social freedoms. This immediately brought her into conflict with Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Bolsheviks who had seized power in Russia in October 1917 and abolished political freedoms. Luxemburg wrote in September 1918, "We always distinguished the social core from the political form of bourgeois democracy—always revealed the bitter core of social inequality and unfreedom beneath the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the shell, but to incite the working class not to be content with just the shell and instead to seize political power in order to fill it with new social content." [1]

Luxemburg’s greatest fear was that the Bolsheviks’ practice of government would rob the socialist idea of its most important meaning: of becoming an alternative to oppression, exploitation and degradation. Because socialism could not be introduced through a back door, it was impossible to unleash it within the graveyard peace of a dictatorship, even a “left-wing” one. Socialism had to be desired by a majority and therefore needed to reach the largest possible public. Its attractiveness could develop only in public debate. In revolutions, for Luxemburg, it was not the “revolutionary parties” but only the masses who could transform society in the direction of socialism. Democracy formed the basis for this, and there was no alternative. For Luxemburg, socialism could not be decreed, if only because socialism required freedom as a prerequisite. This freedom could never come from above, but had to be desired from below.

At the centre of her political approach, Luxemburg placed the choice that Marx had, in smaller circles, repeatedly posed: between “socialism or barbarism”. If humanity did not find an escape from the dominance of profit, the human species would irredeemably fall into barbarism. After two world wars, the failure of state socialism and the increasingly visible susceptibility of the capitalist mode of production to disruption, Luxemburg’s basic ideas—to create both political and social freedom, to think society and nature together—can be used to develop a basic outline of an alternative society.

“It is the historical task of the proletariat, when it comes to power, to create a socialist democracy in place of bourgeois democracy, not to abolish all democracy. Socialist democracy, however, does not only begin in the promised land, once the substructure of the socialist economy has been created, like a ready-made Christmas present for well-behaved people who in the meantime had faithfully supported a handful of socialist dictators.” [2]

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, “Zur russischen Revolution”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Berlin, 1974 [September/October 1918], p. 363.
  2. Luxemburg, “Zur russischen Revolution”, p. 363.
Position 5

Liberating people through lifelong learning


For Luxemburg, emancipation was the goal of the human species and not just one of its sexes. Following Marx, she demanded the “overthrow of all conditions in which man is a degraded, a subjugated, an abandoned, a despicable being”. At the same time, she hated looking at problems one-sidedly. For Luxemburg, the prerequisite for emancipation was education. She did not see this one-dimensionally either. Learning had a dual character: the acquisition of human culture in the broadest sense, and self-actualization in communal action. For both, positive and (even more so) negative experiences were indispensable.

For Luxemburg, emancipation was not reduced to the emancipation of women:

“Scientific socialism teaches us women that we can attain full human liberation only within a socialist order through the abolition of private property in the means of production. It thereby makes it our duty at every hour to work for this noble ideal, which is the historically determined goal of the workers’ movement. To the proletarians, for their part, scientific socialism declares that they cannot achieve their goal without the conscious, active support of the broadest ranks of women. There are facts upon facts that confirm this. The rapid and powerful growth of women’s professional work forces those who work for wages or salaries to respect and win female companions in their struggle for dignified living conditions.” [1]

For Luxemburg, emancipation was not a one-off act of liberation, let alone a proclamation, but a constant confrontation—with oneself and with all facets of society and nature. This presupposed education and lifelong learning. Only through constant learning and educational experiences could personal and social emancipation and change be brought about.

Luxemburg behaved accordingly when she taught: she encouraged self-empowerment. She did the same when she lectured on political economy.

“By asking questions, by repeatedly asking and probing, she extracted from the class whatever knowledge it had of what needed to be ascertained. By questioning, she let the answer resonate and let us hear for ourselves where and how it sounded hollow. By questioning, she probed arguments and let us see for ourselves whether they were crooked or straight. By questioning, she forced us beyond the realization of our own errors towards the discovery of robust solutions of our own.” [2]

or Luxemburg, however, learning was not limited to education. Beyond this, emancipation required knowledge, derived from experience, of one’s own strengths and equally of one’s weaknesses. Experience could not be gained without purposeful action, even if this was sometimes very painful. Experiences were all the more productive the more collectively they were made and processed. With this view, Luxemburg turned every party executive in the world against her. After all, they always believe they know what is best for their followers:

“The bold acrobat overlooks the fact that the only subject to whom this role of guide has now fallen is the mass ‘I’ of the working class, which stubbornly insists on being allowed to make its own mistakes and to learn historical dialectics for itself. In the end, since we are speaking among ourselves, let us be frank: missteps made by a truly revolutionary working-class movement are immeasurably more fruitful and historically valuable than the infallibility of the very best ‘Central Committee’.” [3]

Luxemburg returned to these relationships again and again: a class can only gain experience through struggle, because only in struggle do isolated individuals become a class and thus a political force. She rejected schematic thinking, the idea that struggles could be waged according to a ready-made theory set down in a book. According to Luxemburg, "In the midst of history, in the midst of development, in the midst of struggle, we learn how to struggle."[4]

When the SPD made large gains in the 1912 Reichstag elections and its leadership suggested more than ever that parliamentarism was the only viable path to socialism, it was Luxemburg who dampened the victorious mood. She warned the four million Social Democratic voters to leave the purely parliamentary battlefield: "You have now shown your power, you must learn to use it." [5] Luxemburg would probably have criticized the actions of today's (left-wing) parties. From her point of view, only learning from mistakes and constant confrontation led to the goal, not a self-referential approach defending one’s own position at all costs. She considered the resulting disenfranchisement of the party base and electorate to be the opposite of emancipation.

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, “Mehr Sozialismus”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 7/2, Berlin 2017, p. 935.
  2. Rosi Wolfstein, 1920, quoted in  Rosa Luxemburg oder: Der Preis der Freiheit, edited by Jörn Schütrumpf, 3rd edn., Berlin, 2018, p. 102.
  3. Rosa Luxemburg, “Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokratie”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 1/2, Berlin, 1970, p. 444.
  4. Rosa Luxemburg, “Der politische Massenstreik und die Gewerkschaften. Rede am 1. Oktober 1910 in Hagen in der außerordentlichen Mitgliederversammlung des Deutschen Metallarbeiter-Verbandes”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 2, Berlin, 1972, p. 465.
  5. Rosa Luxemburg, “Unser Wahlsieg und seine Lehren. Rede am 1. März 1912 in Bremen”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Berlin, 1973, p. 132 f.