Rosa Lux­em­burg and the party

Chris Cutrone
Platy­pus Re­view
May 21, 2016

In one of her earli­est in­ter­ven­tionsin the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Party of Ger­many (SPD), par­ti­cip­at­ing in the no­tori­ous the­or­et­ic­al “Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute,” in which Eduard Bern­stein in­fam­ously stated that “the move­ment is everything, the goal noth­ing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Lux­em­burg clearly enun­ci­ated her Marx­ism: “It is the fi­nal goal alone which con­sti­tutes the spir­it and the con­tent of our so­cial­ist struggle, which turns it in­to a class struggle.”1

Cri­tique of so­cial­ism

What did it mean to say that so­cial­ist polit­ics was ne­ces­sary to have “class struggle” at all? This goes to the heart of Lux­em­burg’s own Marx­ism, and to her most en­dur­ing con­tri­bu­tion to its his­tory: her Marx­ist ap­proach to the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism — a dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing of class and party, in which Marx­ism it­self was grasped in a crit­ic­al-dia­lect­ic­al way. When Lux­em­burg ac­cused Bern­stein of be­ing “un­dia­lect­ic­al,” this is what she meant: That the work­ing class’ struggle for so­cial­ism was it­self self-con­tra­dict­ory and its polit­ic­al party was the means through which this con­tra­dic­tion was ex­pressed. There was a dia­lectic of means and ends, or of “move­ment” and “goal,” in which the dia­lectic of the­ory and prac­tice took part: Marx­ism de­man­ded its own cri­tique. Lux­em­burg took the con­tro­versy of the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute as an oc­ca­sion for this cri­tique.

In this, Lux­em­burg fol­lowed the young Karl Marx’s own form­at­ive dia­lect­ic­al cri­tiques of so­cial­ism when he was in his twenties, from the Septem­ber 1843 let­ter to Arnold Ruge call­ing for the “ruth­less cri­tique of everything ex­ist­ing,” to the cri­tique of Pierre-Joseph Proud­hon in the 1844 Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic Manuscripts and The Poverty of Philo­sophy (1847), as well as in The Ger­man Ideo­logy and its fam­ous Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx had writ­ten of the so­cial­ist move­ment that:

The in­tern­al dif­fi­culties seem to be al­most great­er than the ex­tern­al obstacles…

[W]e must try to help the dog­mat­ists to cla­ri­fy their pro­pos­i­tions for them­selves. Thus, com­mun­ism, in par­tic­u­lar, is a dog­mat­ic ab­strac­tion; in which con­nec­tion, however, I am not think­ing of some ima­gin­ary and pos­sible com­mun­ism, but ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing com­mun­ism as taught by Ca­bet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This com­mun­ism is it­self only a spe­cial ex­pres­sion of the hu­man­ist­ic prin­ciple, an ex­pres­sion which is still in­fec­ted by its an­ti­thes­is — the private sys­tem. Hence the ab­ol­i­tion of private prop­erty and com­mun­ism are by no means identic­al, and it is not ac­ci­dent­al but in­ev­it­able that com­mun­ism has seen oth­er so­cial­ist doc­trines — such as those of Four­i­er, Proud­hon, etc. — arising to con­front it be­cause it is it­self only a spe­cial, one-sided real­iz­a­tion of the so­cial­ist prin­ciple…

Hence, noth­ing pre­vents us from mak­ing cri­ti­cism of polit­ics, par­ti­cip­a­tion in polit­ics, and there­fore real struggles, the start­ing point of our cri­ti­cism, and from identi­fy­ing our cri­ti­cism with them.… We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are fool­ish; we will give you the true slo­gan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fight­ing for…

The re­form of con­scious­ness con­sists only in mak­ing the world aware of its own con­scious­ness, in awaken­ing it out of its dream about it­self, in ex­plain­ing to it the mean­ing of its own ac­tions.

Such for­mu­la­tions re­curred in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach a couple of years later:

But that the sec­u­lar basis de­taches it­self from it­self and es­tab­lishes it­self as an in­de­pend­ent realm in the clouds can only be ex­plained by the cleav­ages and self-con­tra­dic­tions with­in this sec­u­lar basis. The lat­ter must, there­fore, in it­self be both un­der­stood in its con­tra­dic­tion and re­vo­lu­tion­ized in prac­tice.

For Marx, this meant that so­cial­ism was the ex­pres­sion of the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism and as such was it­self bound up in that con­tra­dic­tion. A prop­er dia­lect­ic­al re­la­tion of so­cial­ism with cap­it­al­ism re­quired a re­cog­ni­tion of the dia­lectic with­in so­cial­ism it­self. Marx fol­lowed Hegel in re­gard­ing con­tra­dic­tion as mani­fest­a­tion of the need for change. The “pro­let­ari­at” — the work­ing class after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion — con­tra­dicted bour­geois so­ci­ety, not from out­side but from with­in. As such, the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism centered on the pro­let­ari­at it­self. This is be­cause for Marx “cap­it­al­ism” is noth­ing in it­self, but only the crisis of bour­geois so­ci­ety in in­dus­tri­al pro­duc­tion and hence its only mean­ing is the ex­pres­sion of the need for so­cial­ism. The very ex­ist­ence of the pro­let­ari­at — a work­ing class ex­pro­pri­ated from its bour­geois prop­erty-rights in labor as a com­mod­ity — de­man­ded so­cial­ism.

Las­sallean party

But had the so­cial-demo­crat­ic work­ers’ party been from its out­set a force for coun­ter­re­volu­tion — for pre­serving cap­it­al­ism — rather than for re­volu­tion­ary trans­form­a­tion and the achieve­ment of so­cial­ism? Its roots in Ferdin­and Las­salle’s for­mu­la­tion of its pur­pose as the “per­man­ent polit­ic­al cam­paign of the work­ing class” evinced a po­ten­tial con­tra­dic­tion between its Las­sallean­ism and Marx­ism. Marx­ists had not in­ven­ted the so­cial-demo­crat­ic work­ers’ party, but rather joined it as an emer­gent phe­nomen­on of the late 19th cen­tury. The so­cial-demo­crat­ic work­ers’ party in Ger­many, what be­came the SPD, had, through its fu­sion of 1875 at Gotha, at­tained Marx­ist or “re­volu­tion­ary” lead­er­ship. But this had eli­cited Marx’s fam­ous Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme, to which Marx’s own fol­low­ers, Wil­helm Lieb­knecht and Au­gust Bebel, could only shrug their shoulders at the dif­fi­culty of pleas­ing the “old men in Lon­don” (that is, Marx and En­gels). The de­vel­op­ment of the SPD to­wards its con­scious dir­ec­tion bey­ond mere Las­sallean­ism was more clearly enun­ci­ated in the SPD’s Er­furt Pro­gramme of 1891. Non­ethe­less the ghost of Las­salle seemed to haunt sub­sequent de­vel­op­ments and was still present, ac­cord­ing to En­gels’ cri­tique of it, in the “Marx­ist” Er­furt Pro­gramme it­self. (In­deed, one of Rosa Lux­em­burg’s earli­est achieve­ments in her par­ti­cip­a­tion in the life of the SPD was to un­earth and dis­cov­er the sig­ni­fic­ance of En­gels’ cri­tique of Bebel, Kaut­sky, and Bern­stein’s Er­furt Pro­gram.)

Lux­em­burg, in her cri­tique of the SPD through re­gard­ing the party as a mani­fest­a­tion of con­tra­dic­tion, fol­lowed Marx and En­gels, whose re­cog­ni­tion was the means to ad­vance it bey­ond it­self. Las­salle had made the mis­take of op­pos­ing the polit­ic­al against and derog­at­ing the eco­nom­ic ac­tion of the work­ers, re­ject­ing labor uni­ons, which he called merely the “vain ef­forts of things to be­have like hu­man be­ings.”2 Las­salle thus on­to­lo­gized the polit­ic­al struggle. For Las­salle, the work­ers tak­ing polit­ic­al power would be tan­tamount to the achieve­ment of so­cial­ism; where­as for Marx this would be merely a trans­ition­al re­volu­tion­ary “dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at” that would lead to so­cial­ism. En­gels called it the trans­ition from the “gov­ern­ing of men” to the “ad­min­is­tra­tion of things” — an em­in­ently dia­lect­ic­al for­mu­la­tion, since hu­mans are both sub­jects and ob­jects of so­ci­ety.

Las­salle’s polit­ic­al on­to­logy of so­cial­ism was com­ple­ment­ary to the one-sided “vul­gar Marx­ist” mis­ap­pre­hen­sions of the Re­vi­sion­ists who pri­or­it­ized and in­deed on­to­lo­gized the eco­nom­ic over the polit­ic­al, re­du­cing the so­cial to the eco­nom­ic, and re­lat­ing the so­cial to the polit­ic­al “mech­an­ic­ally” and “un­dia­lect­ic­ally” — neg­lect­ing the con­tra­dic­tion between them in an “eco­nom­ic de­term­in­ism” that sub­or­din­ated polit­ics. Where Las­salle sub­or­din­ated eco­nom­ics to polit­ics in a “state so­cial­ism,” Marx re­garded this rather as a state cap­it­al­ism. In­deed, des­pite or rather due to this an­ti­nomy, the Las­salleans and the eco­nom­ist­ic re­form­ists ac­tu­ally con­verged in their polit­ic­al per­spect­ives — giv­ing rise later to 20th cen­tury wel­fare-state cap­it­al­ism through the gov­ernance of so­cial-demo­crat­ic parties.

Rather than tak­ing one side over the oth­er, Lux­em­burg, as a Marx­ist, ap­proached this prob­lem as a real con­tra­dic­tion: an an­ti­nomy and dia­lectic of cap­it­al­ism it­self that mani­fes­ted in the work­ers’ own dis­con­tents and struggles with­in it, both eco­nom­ic­ally and polit­ic­ally. For in­stance, Lux­em­burg fol­lowed Marx in re­cog­niz­ing that the Las­sallean goal of the work­ers achiev­ing a “free state” in polit­ic­al re­volu­tion was a self-con­tra­dic­tion: An un­free so­ci­ety gave rise to an un­free state; and it was so­ci­ety that needed to be eman­cip­ated from cap­it­al­ism. But this was a con­tra­dic­tion that could be posed only by the work­ers’ re­volu­tion­ary polit­ic­al ac­tion and seiz­ing of state power — if only to “with­er” it away in the trans­form­a­tion of so­ci­ety bey­ond cap­it­al­ism. In this way the Las­sallean party was not a mis­take but rather a ne­ces­sary stage mani­fest­ing in the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment. So it needed to be prop­erly re­cog­nized — “dia­lect­ic­ally” — in or­der to avoid its one-sided pit­falls in the op­pos­i­tion of Re­vi­sion­ist, re­form­ist eco­nom­ic evol­u­tion­ism versus the Las­sallean polit­ic­al re­volu­tion­ism. Kaut­sky fol­lowed Marx in a crit­ic­al en­dorse­ment of Las­sallean­ism in re­gard­ing the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at as the seiz­ing of state power by the work­ers’ party for so­cial­ism. Hence, Lux­em­burg ex­pressed her sin­cere “grat­it­ude” that the Re­vi­sion­ists had oc­ca­sioned this crit­ic­al self-re­cog­ni­tion, by pos­ing the ques­tion and prob­lem of “move­ment” and “goal.”

An­ti­nomy of re­form­ism

Lux­em­burg made her great en­trance onto the polit­ic­al stage of her time with the pamph­let So­cial Re­form or Re­volu­tion? (1900). In it, Lux­em­burg laid out how the ori­gin­al con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism, between its chaot­ic so­cial re­la­tions and its so­cial­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion had been fur­ther de­veloped, ex­acer­bated, and deepened by the de­vel­op­ment of a new con­tra­dic­tion, namely the growth of the work­ers’ move­ment in polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion and con­scious­ness: Its move­ment for so­cial­ism was a self-con­tra­dict­ory ex­pres­sion of the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism. This con­tras­ted with Bern­stein’s view that the growth and de­vel­op­ment of the work­ers’ move­ment was the over­com­ing of the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism and the gradu­al “evol­u­tion” of so­cial­ism. For Bern­stein, the move­ment for so­cial­ism was the achieve­ment of so­cial­ism, where­as the goal of so­cial­ism was a dis­pens­able fig­ment, a use­ful en­abling fic­tion.

For Lux­em­burg, however, the con­tra­dic­tion of the in­dus­tri­al forces of pro­duc­tion against their bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions in cap­it­al­ism was re­capit­u­lated in the con­tra­dic­tion between the means and ends of the work­ers’ move­ment for so­cial­ism. So­cial­ism was not built up with­in cap­it­al­ism; but only the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al deepened through work­ers’ struggle against ex­ploit­a­tion. How so? Their de­mand for a share of the value of pro­duc­tion was a bour­geois de­mand: the de­mand for the value of their labor as a com­mod­ity. However, what was achieved by in­creases in wages, re­cog­ni­tion of col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing rights, leg­al pro­tec­tions of work­ers in cap­it­al­ist labor con­tracts and the ac­cept­ance of re­spons­ib­il­ity of the state for the con­di­tions of labor, in­clud­ing the ac­cept­ance of the right to polit­ic­al as­so­ci­ation and demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al par­ti­cip­a­tion in the state, was not the over­com­ing of the prob­lem of cap­it­al — that is, the over­com­ing of the great di­ver­gence and so­cial con­tra­dic­tion between the value of cap­it­al and wages in in­dus­tri­al pro­duc­tion — but rather its ex­acer­ba­tion and deep­en­ing through its broad­en­ing onto so­ci­ety as a whole. What the work­ers re­ceived in re­forms of cap­it­al­ism was not the value of their labor-power as a com­mod­ity, which was re­l­at­ively min­im­ized by de­vel­op­ments of in­dus­tri­al tech­nique, but rather a cut of the profits of cap­it­al, wheth­er dir­ectly through col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing with the em­ploy­ers or in­dir­ectly through state dis­tri­bu­tion of so­cial wel­fare be­ne­fits from the tax on cap­it­al. What Bern­stein de­scribed op­tim­ist­ic­ally as the so­cial­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion through such re­forms was ac­tu­ally, ac­cord­ing to Lux­em­burg, the “so­cial­iz­a­tion” of the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion.

The work­ers’ party for so­cial­ism, through its growth and de­vel­op­ment on a mass scale, thus in­creas­ingly took polit­ic­al re­spons­ib­il­ity for cap­it­al­ism. Hence, a new con­tra­dic­tion de­veloped that was fo­cused on the party it­self. Was its pur­pose to man­age cap­it­al­ism, or rather, as Lux­em­burg put it in her 1898 Stut­tgart speech, to “play the role of the banker-law­yer who li­quid­ates a bank­rupt com­pany”? Lux­em­burg posed the polit­ic­al task of the so­cial­ist party in Re­form or Re­volu­tion? suc­cinctly: “It is an il­lu­sion, then, to think that the pro­let­ari­at can cre­ate eco­nom­ic power with­in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. It can only cre­ate polit­ic­al power and then trans­form [auf­heben] cap­it­al­ist prop­erty.” The pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ist party was the means for cre­at­ing that polit­ic­al power. This differed from the de­vel­op­ment of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions in feud­al­ism that led to re­volu­tion:

What does it mean that the earli­er classes, par­tic­u­larly the third es­tate, conquered eco­nom­ic power be­fore polit­ic­al power? Noth­ing more than the his­tor­ic­al fact that all pre­vi­ous class struggles must be de­rived from the eco­nom­ic fact that the rising class has at the same time cre­ated a new form of prop­erty upon which it will base its class dom­in­a­tion.

However, ac­cord­ing to Lux­em­burg, “[t]he as­ser­tion that the pro­let­ari­at, in con­trast to all pre­vi­ous class struggles, pur­sues its battles not in or­der to es­tab­lish class dom­in­a­tion but to ab­ol­ish all class dom­in­a­tion is not a mere phrase.” This is be­cause the pro­let­ari­at does not de­vel­op a new form of “prop­erty” with­in cap­it­al­ism, but rather struggles eco­nom­ic­ally, so­cially and polit­ic­ally, on the basis of “bour­geois prop­erty” — on the basis of the bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions of labor, or of labor as a com­mod­ity. What the work­ing class’ struggle with­in cap­it­al­ism achieves is con­scious­ness of the need to over­come labor as a com­mod­ity, or, to trans­form cap­it­al from bour­geois prop­erty in­to so­cial prop­erty that is no longer me­di­ated by the ex­change of labor. This is what it meant for Marx that the pro­let­ari­at struggles not to “real­ize” but to ab­ol­ish it­self, or, how the pro­let­ari­at goes from be­ing a class “in it­self” to be­com­ing a class “for it­self” (The Poverty of Philo­sophy, 1847) in its struggle for so­cial­ism.

For Lux­em­burg, the achieve­ment of re­forms with­in cap­it­al­ism ac­com­plish noth­ing but the great­er prac­tic­al and the­or­et­ic­al real­iz­a­tion, or “con­scious­ness,” of the need to ab­ol­ish labor as a com­mod­ity, since the lat­ter has been out­stripped by in­dus­tri­al pro­duc­tion. The fur­ther eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and polit­ic­al re­forms only dra­mat­ic­ally in­crease this dis­par­ity and con­tra­dic­tion between the eco­nom­ic value of labor as a com­mod­ity and the so­cial value of cap­it­al that must be ap­pro­pri­ated by so­ci­ety as a whole.

In oth­er words, the work­ers’ move­ment for so­cial­ism and its in­sti­tu­tion as a polit­ic­al party is ne­ces­sary to make the oth­er­wise chaot­ic, un­con­scious, “ob­ject­ive” phe­nomen­on of the eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tion and crisis of wage-labor and cap­it­al in­to a con­scious, “sub­ject­ive” phe­nomen­on of polit­ics. As Lux­em­burg wrote later, in The Crisis of Ger­man So­cial Demo­cracy (the “Ju­ni­us Pamph­let,” 1915):

So­cial­ism is the first pop­u­lar move­ment in world his­tory that has set it­self the goal of bring­ing hu­man con­scious­ness, and thereby free will, in­to play in the so­cial ac­tions of man­kind. For this reas­on, Friedrich En­gels des­ig­nated the fi­nal vic­tory of the so­cial­ist pro­let­ari­at a leap of hu­man­ity from the an­im­al world in­to the realm of free­dom. This “leap” is also an iron law of his­tory bound to the thou­sands of seeds of a pri­or tor­ment-filled and all-too-slow de­vel­op­ment. But this can nev­er be real­ized un­til the de­vel­op­ment of com­plex ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions strikes the in­cen­di­ary spark of con­scious will in the great masses. The vic­tory of so­cial­ism will not des­cend from heav­en. It can only be won by a long chain of vi­ol­ent tests of strength between the old and the new powers. The in­ter­na­tion­al pro­let­ari­at un­der the lead­er­ship of the So­cial Demo­crats will thereby learn to try to take its his­tory in­to its own hands; in­stead of re­main­ing a will-less foot­ball, it will take the tiller of so­cial life and be­come the pi­lot to the goal of its own his­tory.

Why “vi­ol­ent tests of strength”? Was this mere “re­volu­tion­ary” pas­sion, as Bern­stein averred? No: As Marx had ob­served in Das Kapit­al, in the struggle over the “work­ing day,” or over the so­cial and leg­al con­ven­tions for the con­di­tion of labor-time, work­ers and cap­it­al­ists con­fron­ted each oth­er, both with “bour­geois right” on their side. But, “Where right meets right, force will de­cide.” Such con­tests of force did not de­cide the is­sue of right in cap­it­al­ism, but only channeled it in a polit­ic­al dir­ec­tion. Both cap­it­al and wage-labor re­tained their so­cial rights, but the polit­ic­al arena in which their claims were de­cided shif­ted from civil so­ci­ety to the state, pos­ing a crisis — the need for “re­volu­tion.”

1848: State and re­volu­tion

For Lux­em­burg, the mod­ern state was it­self merely the “product of the last re­volu­tion,” namely the polit­ic­al in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­a­tion of the con­di­tion of class struggle up to that point. The “last re­volu­tion” was that of 1848, in which the “so­cial ques­tion” was posed as a crisis of the demo­crat­ic re­pub­lic. As such, the state re­mained both the sub­ject and the ob­ject of re­volu­tion­ary polit­ics. Marx had con­flic­ted with the an­arch­ists in the First In­ter­na­tion­al over the is­sue of the need for “polit­ic­al” as well as “so­cial ac­tion” in the work­ing class’ struggle for so­cial­ism. The Re­vi­sion­ists such as Bern­stein had, to Lux­em­burg’s mind, re­ver­ted to the pre-Marxi­an so­cial­ism of an­arch­ism in abandon­ing the struggle for polit­ic­al power in fa­vor of merely so­cial ac­tion. In this, Lux­em­burg char­ac­ter­ized Bern­stein as hav­ing re­gressed (like the an­arch­ists) to mere “lib­er­al­ism.” What Bern­stein like the an­arch­ists denied was what Marx had dis­covered in the ex­per­i­ence of the re­volu­tions of 1848, namely, the ne­ces­sity of the “dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at,” and hence the ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al sep­ar­a­tion of the work­ers’ “so­cial demo­cracy” from the mere “demo­cracy” of the bour­geois re­volu­tion, in­clud­ing the ne­ces­sary sep­ar­a­tion from the “petit-bour­geois demo­crats” who earned Marx’s most scath­ing scorn.

While lib­er­als denied the need for such “so­cial demo­cracy” and found polit­ic­al demo­cracy to be suf­fi­cient, an­arch­ists sep­ar­ated the so­cial from the polit­ic­al, treat­ing the lat­ter as a fet­ish­ized realm of col­lu­sion in the bour­geois state and hence cap­it­al­ism. An­arch­ists from the first, Proud­hon, had avoided the is­sue of polit­ic­al re­volu­tion and the need to take state power; where­as Marx­ists had re­cog­nized that the crisis of cap­it­al­ism in­ev­it­ably res­ul­ted in polit­ic­al crisis and struggle over the state: If the work­ing class failed to do so, oth­ers would step in their place. For Marx, the need for work­ers’ polit­ic­al re­volu­tion to achieve so­cial­ism was ex­pressed by the phe­nomen­on of Louis Bona­parte’s elec­tion in 1848 and coup d’état in 1851, which ex­pressed the in­ab­il­ity of the “bour­geois­ie to rule” any longer through civil so­ci­ety, while the pro­let­ari­at was as yet polit­ic­ally un­developed and thus “not ready to rule” the state. But for Marx the ne­ces­sity of the “dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at” was that the “work­ers must rule” polit­ic­ally in or­der to over­come cap­it­al­ism eco­nom­ic­ally and so­cially.

Marx char­ac­ter­ized Louis Bona­parte’s polit­ics as both “petit-bour­geois” and “lumpen­pro­let­ari­an,” find­ing sup­port among the broad masses of cap­it­al­ism’s dis­con­ten­ted. But ac­cord­ing to Marx their dis­con­tents could only re­pro­duce cap­it­al­ism since they could only at best join the work­ing class or re­main de­pend­ent on the real­iz­a­tion of the value of its labor as a com­mod­ity. Hence, there was no pos­sible with­draw­al from the crisis of bour­geois polit­ics and the demo­crat­ic state, as by liber­tari­ans and an­arch­ists, but the need to de­vel­op polit­ic­al power to over­come cap­it­al­ism. For the cap­it­al­ist wage-labor sys­tem with its far-reach­ing ef­fects throughout so­ci­ety to be ab­ol­ished re­quired the polit­ic­al ac­tion of the wage laborers. That the “work­ers must rule” meant that they needed to provide polit­ic­al lead­er­ship to the ex­ploited and op­pressed masses. If the or­gan­ized work­ing class did not, oth­ers would provide that lead­er­ship, as Bona­parte had done in 1848 and 1851. The means for this was the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism. As Lux­em­burg put it in her 1898 Stut­tgart speech:

[B]y fi­nal goal we must not mean… this or that im­age of the fu­ture state, but the pre­requis­ite for any fu­ture so­ci­ety, namely the con­quest of polit­ic­al power. This con­cep­tion of our task is closely re­lated to our con­cep­tion of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety; it is the sol­id ground which un­der­lies our view that cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety is caught in in­sol­uble con­tra­dic­tions which will ul­ti­mately ne­ces­sit­ate an ex­plo­sion, a col­lapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-law­yer who li­quid­ates a bank­rupt com­pany.

The so­cial­ist polit­ic­al party was for Lux­em­burg the means for this ne­ces­sary achieve­ment of polit­ic­al power. But the party was not it­self the solu­tion, but rather the ne­ces­sary mani­fest­a­tion and con­cret­iz­a­tion of the prob­lem of polit­ic­al power in cap­it­al­ism and in­deed the prob­lem of “so­ci­ety” it­self.

1905: Party and class

Lux­em­burg took the oc­ca­sion of the 1905 Re­volu­tion in Rus­sia to cri­tique the re­la­tion of labor uni­ons and the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Party of Ger­many (SPD) in her pamph­let on The Mass Strike, the Polit­ic­al Party, and the Trade Uni­ons (1906). This was a con­tinu­ation of Lux­em­burg’s cri­ti­cism of the re­form­ist Re­vi­sion­ist view of the re­la­tion of the eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al struggles of the work­ing class for so­cial­ism, which had found its strongest sup­port among the labor uni­on lead­er­ship. In bring­ing to bear the Rus­si­an ex­per­i­ence in Ger­many, Lux­em­burg re­versed the usu­al as­sumed hier­archy of Ger­man ex­per­i­ence over Rus­si­an “back­ward­ness.” She also re­versed the de­vel­op­ment­al or­der of eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al struggles, the mis­taken as­sump­tion that the eco­nom­ic must pre­cede the polit­ic­al. The “mass” or polit­ic­al strike had been as­so­ci­ated with so­cial- and polit­ic­al-his­tor­ic­al prim­it­ive­ness, with pre-in­dus­tri­al struggles and pre-Marxi­an so­cial­ism, spe­cific­ally an­arch­ism and an­archo-syn­dic­al­ism (es­pe­cially in the Lat­in coun­tries), which had pri­or­it­ized eco­nom­ic and so­cial ac­tion over polit­ic­al ac­tion. Lux­em­burg sought to grasp the changed his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance of the polit­ic­al strike; that it had be­come, rather, a symp­tom of ad­vanced, in­dus­tri­al cap­it­al­ism. In the 1905 Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion, the work­ers had taken polit­ic­al ac­tion be­fore eco­nom­ic ac­tion, and the labor uni­ons had ori­gin­ated out of that polit­ic­al ac­tion, rather than the re­verse.

The west­ern Rus­si­an Em­pire was rap­idly in­dus­tri­al­ized and showed great so­cial un­rest in the 1890s-1900s. It ex­hib­ited the most up-to-date tech­niques and or­gan­iz­a­tion in in­dus­tri­al pro­duc­tion: The new­est and largest factor­ies in the world at this time were loc­ated in Rus­sia. Lux­em­burg was act­ive in the Rus­si­an So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Labor Party (RSDLP) in the Rus­si­an part of Po­land, through her own or­gan­iz­a­tion, the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Party of the King­dom of Po­land and Lithuania (SDK­PiL). The 1905 Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion was pre­cip­it­ated by a polit­ic­al and not “eco­nom­ic” crisis: the shak­ing of the tsar­ist state in its los­ing war with Ja­pan 1904-1905. This was not merely a lib­er­al-demo­crat­ic dis­con­tent with the ar­bit­rary rule of the Rus­si­an ab­so­lut­ism. For Lux­em­burg, the Russo-Ja­pan­ese War was a symp­tom of cap­it­al­ism, and so was the res­ult­ing crisis of tsar­ism in Rus­sia triggered by this war. The polit­ic­al strike was, as she put it, a re­volt of “bour­geois Rus­sia,” that is, of the mod­ern in­dus­tri­al cap­it­al­ists and work­ers, against tsar­ism. What had star­ted out in the united ac­tion of the cap­it­al­ists and work­ers strik­ing eco­nom­ic­ally against the tsar­ist state for lib­er­al-demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al reas­ons, un­fol­ded in­to a class struggle by the work­ers against the cap­it­al­ists. This was due to the ne­ces­sity of re­or­gan­iz­ing so­cial pro­vi­sions dur­ing the strike, in which mass-ac­tion strike com­mit­tees took over the func­tions of the usu­al op­er­a­tions of cap­it­al­ism and in­deed of the tsar­ist state it­self. This had ne­ces­sit­ated the form­a­tion of work­ers’ own col­lect­ive-ac­tion or­gan­iz­a­tions. Lux­em­burg showed how the eco­nom­ic or­gan­iz­a­tion of the work­ers had de­veloped out of the polit­ic­al ac­tion against tsar­ism, and that the basis of this was in the ne­ces­sit­ies of ad­vanced in­dus­tri­al pro­duc­tion. In this way, the work­ers’ ac­tions had de­veloped, bey­ond the lib­er­al-demo­crat­ic or “bour­geois” dis­con­tents and de­mands, in­to the tasks of “pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism.” Polit­ic­al ne­ces­sity had led to eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity (rather than the re­verse, eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity lead­ing to polit­ic­al ne­ces­sity).

For Lux­em­burg, this meant that the usu­al as­sump­tion in Ger­many that the polit­ic­al party, the SPD, was “based” on the labor uni­ons, was a pro­found mis­take. The eco­nom­ic and so­cial-co­oper­at­ive ac­tions of the uni­ons were “based,” for Lux­em­burg, on the polit­ic­al task of so­cial­ism and its polit­ic­al party. This meant pri­or­it­iz­ing the polit­ic­al ac­tion of the so­cial­ist party as the real basis or sub­stance of the eco­nom­ic and oth­er so­cial ac­tion of the work­ing class. It was the polit­ic­al goal of the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at through so­cial­ist re­volu­tion that gave ac­tu­al sub­stance to the work­ers’ eco­nom­ic struggles, which were, for Lux­em­burg, merely the ne­ces­sary pre­par­at­ory “school of re­volu­tion.”

Lux­em­burg wrote her pamph­let while sum­mer­ing at a re­treat with Len­in and oth­er Bolshev­iks in Fin­land. It was in­formed by her daily con­ver­sa­tions with Len­in over many weeks. Len­in had pre­vi­ously writ­ten, in What is to be Done? (1902) (a pamph­let com­mis­sioned and agreed-upon by the Marx­ist fac­tion of the RSDLP as a whole, those who later di­vided in­to Bolshev­iks and Men­shev­iks), that eco­nom­ism and work­er­ism in Rus­sia had found sup­port in Bern­stein­i­an Re­vi­sion­ism in the SPD and the great­er Second In­ter­na­tion­al, try­ing to sub­or­din­ate the polit­ic­al struggle to eco­nom­ic struggle and thus to sep­ar­ate them. In so do­ing, they like the Re­vi­sion­ists had iden­ti­fied cap­it­al­ist de­vel­op­ment with so­cial­ism rather than prop­erly re­cog­niz­ing them as in grow­ing con­tra­dic­tion. Len­in had, like Lux­em­burg, re­garded such work­er­ism and eco­nom­ism as “re­form­ist” in the sense of sep­ar­at­ing the work­ers’ struggles for re­form from the goal of so­cial­ism that needed to in­form such struggles. Lux­em­burg as well as Len­in called this “li­quid­a­tion­ism,” or the dis­solv­ing of the goal in­to the move­ment, li­quid­at­ing the need for the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism. In What is to be Done? Len­in had ar­gued for the form­a­tion of a polit­ic­al party for the work­ers’ struggle for so­cial­ism in Rus­sia. He took as po­lem­ic­al op­pon­ents those who, like the Re­vi­sion­ists in Ger­many, had depri­or­it­ized the ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al party, thus depri­or­it­iz­ing the polit­ics of the struggle for so­cial­ism, lim­it­ing it to eco­nom­ic ac­tion.3 The polit­ic­al party had thus re­deemed it­self in the 1905 Re­volu­tion in Rus­sia, show­ing its ne­ces­sary role for the work­ers’ polit­ic­al, so­cial, and eco­nom­ic ac­tion, con­firm­ing Len­in and Lux­em­burg’s pri­or ar­gu­ments against eco­nom­ism.

Lux­em­burg re­garded the les­sons of the 1905 Re­volu­tion in Rus­sia to be a chal­lenge to and hence a “crisis” — a po­ten­tial crit­ic­al turn­ing point — of the SPD in Ger­many. Con­tinu­ing her pro­sec­u­tion of the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute, Lux­em­burg ar­gued for the con­crete ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship of the party over the uni­ons that had been demon­strated by the 1905 Re­volu­tion in Rus­sia. By con­trast, the ten­sion and in­deed con­tra­dic­tion between the goal of so­cial­ism and the pre­ser­va­tion of the in­sti­tu­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment — spe­cific­ally of the labor uni­ons’ self-in­terest — which might be threatened by the con­ser­vat­ive re­ac­tion of the state against the polit­ic­al ac­tion of the so­cial­ist party, showed a con­flict between move­ment and goal. The Re­vi­sion­ists thought that a mass polit­ic­al strike would merely pro­voke the Right in­to a coup d’état.

De­mand for re­demp­tion

Wal­ter Ben­jamin, in his draft theses “On the Concept of His­tory” (1940), cited Lux­em­burg in par­tic­u­lar when de­scrib­ing his­tory it­self as the “de­mand for re­demp­tion.” Not only did Lux­em­burg raise this de­mand with her fam­ous in­voc­a­tion of Marx and En­gels on the cross­roads in cap­it­al­ism of “so­cial­ism or bar­bar­ism,” but as an his­tor­ic­al fig­ure she her­self calls out for such re­demp­tion.

The con­flict in and about the party on which Lux­em­burg had fo­cused was hor­ribly re­vealed later by the out­break of war in 1914, when a ter­rible choice seemed posed, between the polit­ic­al ne­ces­sity to over­throw the Kais­er­reich state to pre­vent or stop the war, and the need to pre­serve the work­ers’ eco­nom­ic and so­cial or­gan­iz­a­tions in the uni­ons and the party. The war had been the Kais­er­reich’s pree­mpt­ive coup d’état against the SPD. The party ca­pit­u­lated to this in that it fa­cil­it­ated and jus­ti­fied the uni­ons’ as­ser­tion of their self-pre­ser­va­tion at the cost of co­oper­a­tion with the state’s war. This self-pre­ser­va­tion — what Lux­em­burg ex­cor­i­ated as try­ing to “hide like a rab­bit un­der a bush” tem­por­ar­ily dur­ing the war — may have been jus­ti­fied if these same or­gan­iz­a­tions had served later to fa­cil­it­ate the polit­ic­al struggle for so­cial­ism after the Prus­si­an Em­pire had been shaken by its loss in the war. But the SPD’s con­strain­ing of the work­ers’ struggles to pre­serve the state, lim­it­ing the Ger­man Re­volu­tion 1918-1919 to a “demo­crat­ic” one against the threat of “Bolshev­ism,” meant the party’s sup­pres­sion of its own mem­ber­ship. Past de­vel­op­ments had pre­pared this. The Re­vi­sion­ists’ pri­or­it­iz­a­tion of the move­ment and its or­gan­iz­a­tions over the goal of so­cial­ism had been con­firmed for what Lux­em­burg and Len­in had al­ways warned against: the ad­apt­a­tion and li­quid­a­tion of the work­ing class’ struggles not in­to a po­ten­tial spring­board for so­cial­ism, but rather a bul­wark of cap­it­al­ism; the trans­form­a­tion of the party from a re­volu­tion­ary in­to a coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary force. As Lux­em­burg had so elo­quently put it in WWI, the SPD had be­come a “stink­ing corpse” — something which had through the stench of de­com­pos­i­tion re­vealed it­self to have been dead for a long time already — dead for the pur­poses of so­cial­ism. The party had killed it­self through the Dev­il’s bar­gain of sac­ri­fi­cing its true polit­ic­al pur­pose for mere self-pre­ser­va­tion.

In so do­ing, sup­posedly act­ing in the in­terests of the work­ers, the work­ers’ true in­terests — in so­cial­ism — were be­trayed. As Lux­em­burg put it in the Ju­ni­us Pamph­let, the fail­ure of the SPD at the crit­ic­al mo­ment of 1914 had placed the en­tire his­tory of the pre­ced­ing “forty years” of the struggles by the work­ers — since the found­ing of the SPD in 1875 — “in doubt.” Would this his­tory be li­quid­ated without re­demp­tion? This un­der­scored Lux­em­burg’s warn­ing, dec­ades earli­er, against dis­solv­ing the goal in­to the move­ment that would be­tray not only the goal but the move­ment it­self. Re­form­ist re­vi­sion­ism de­voured it­self. The only point of the party was its goal of re­volu­tion; without it, it was “noth­ing” — in­deed worse than noth­ing: It be­came a fes­ter­ing obstacle. The party was for Lux­em­burg not only or primar­ily the “sub­ject” but was also and es­pe­cially the ob­ject of re­volu­tion­ary struggle by the work­ing class to achieve so­cial­ism. This is why the re­volu­tion that the party had fa­cil­it­ated was for Lux­em­burg merely the be­gin­ning and not the end of the struggle to achieve so­cial­ism. The polit­ic­al prob­lem of cap­it­al­ism was mani­fest in how the party poin­ted bey­ond it­self in the re­volu­tion. But without the party, that prob­lem could nev­er even mani­fest let alone point bey­ond it­self.

Dur­ing the Ger­man Re­volu­tion — pro­voked by the col­lapse of the Kais­er­reich at the end of WWI — Lux­em­burg split and foun­ded the new Com­mun­ist Party of Ger­many (KPD), join­ing Len­in in form­ing the “Third” or Com­mun­ist In­ter­na­tion­al, in 1919: to make clear the polit­ic­al tasks that had been mani­fes­ted and ad­vanced but ul­ti­mately ab­dic­ated and failed by the so­cial-demo­crat­ic parties of the Second In­ter­na­tion­al in war and re­volu­tion. Just as Lux­em­burg and Len­in had al­ways main­tained that the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism was ne­ces­sary to ad­vance the con­tra­dic­tion and crisis of cap­it­al­ism as it had de­veloped from Marx’s time to their own, so it be­came ne­ces­sary in crisis to split that party and found a new one. Turn­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al war of cap­it­al­ism in­to a so­cial­ist re­volu­tion meant mani­fest­ing a civil war with­in the work­ers’ move­ment and in­deed with­in Marx­ism it­self. Where­as her former com­rades in the SPD re­coiled from her ap­par­ent re­volu­tion­ary fan­at­icism, and “saved” them­selves and their party by be­tray­ing its goal (but ul­ti­mately faded from his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance), Lux­em­burg, as a loy­al party-mem­ber, sac­ri­ficed her­self for the goal of so­cial­ism, re­deem­ing her Marx­ism and mak­ing it pro­foundly ne­ces­sary, thus task­ing our re­mem­brance and re­cov­ery of it today. |P


1 Se­lec­ted Polit­ic­al Writ­ings of Rosa Lux­em­burg, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Re­view Press, 1971), 38-39.
2 Quoted in Georg Lukács,“The Stand­point of the Pro­let­ari­at,” Part III of “Re­ific­a­tion and the Con­scious­ness of the Pro­let­ari­at” in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Stud­ies in Marx­ist Dia­lectics (1923), trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 195.
3 See also my es­say “Len­in’s Lib­er­al­ism,” Platy­pus Re­view 36 (June 2011).

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