Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Reform or revolution

Running through Rosa Luxemburg’s entire work was the struggle against reformism, which narrowed down the aims of the labour movement to tinkering with capitalism instead of overthrowing it by revolutionary means. The most prominent spokesman of reformism (or revisionism, as it was known then) against whom Rosa first took up arms was Eduard Bernstein. She refuted his views with special incisiveness in her pamphlet Social Reform or Social Revolution, which was made up of two series of articles published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, the first in September 1898 as an answer to Bernstein’s articles in Die Neue Zeit, the second in April 1899 in answer to his book The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy.

Bernstein redefined the fundamental character of the labour movement as a “democratic socialist reform party” and not a party of social revolution. Opposing Marx, he argued that the contradictions in capitalism do not get sharper, but are continually being alleviated; capitalism is steadily being tamed, steadily becoming more adaptable. Cartels, trusts and credit institutions gradually regularise the anarchic nature of the system, so that, instead of recurring slumps as visualised by Marx, there is a tendency towards permanent prosperity. Social contradictions are also weakened, according to Bernstein, by the viability of the middle class and the more democratic distribution of capital ownership through stock companies. The adaptability of the system to the needs of the time is shown also in the improvement of the economic, social and political condition of the working class as a result of the activities of the trade unions and co-operatives.

From this analysis Bernstein concluded that the socialist party must devote itself to bettering gradually the conditions of the working class, and not to the revolutionary conquest of political power.

In opposition to Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg argued that capitalist monopoly organisations (cartels and trusts) and credit institutions tend to deepen the antagonisms in capitalism and not to mitigate them. She describes their function:

In a general way, cartels ... appear ... as a determined phase of capitalist development, which in the last analysis aggravates the anarchy of the capitalist world and expresses and ripens its internal contradictions. Cartels aggravate the antagonism existing between the mode of production and exchange by sharpening the struggle between the producer and consumer ... They aggravate, furthermore, the antagonism existing between the mode of production and the mode of appropriation by opposing, in the most brutal fashion, to the working class the superior force of organised capital, and thus increasing the antagonism between Capital and Labour.

Finally, capitalist combinations aggravate the contradiction existing between the international character of the capitalist world economy and the national character of the State – insofar as they are always accompanied by a general tariff war, which sharpens the differences among the capitalist States. We must add to this the decidedly revolutionary influence exercised by cartels on the concentration of production, technical progress, etc.

In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation”. They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism. [2]

Credit, too, said Rosa Luxemburg, far from circumventing the capitalist crisis, actually deepened it. The two most important functions of credit are to expand production and facilitate exchange, both of which functions aggravate the instability of the system. Capitalist economic crises develop as a result of the contradictions between production’s permanent tendency to expand and the limited consumption capacity of the capitalist market. Credit, by encouraging production on the one hand, encourages the tendency towards overproduction, and, being itself subject to grave instability in adverse circumstances, tends to shake the economy more and deepen the crisis. The role of credit in encouraging speculation is another factor increasing the instability of the capitalist mode of production.

Bernstein’s trump card in support of his argument that the contradictions of capitalism were decreasing was that for two decades, since 1873, capitalism had not suffered a major slump. But, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words:

Hardly had Bernstein rejected, in 1898, Marx’s theory of crises, when a profound general crisis broke out in 1900, while seven years later, a new crisis, beginning in the United States, hit the world market. Facts proved the theory of “adaptation” to be false. They showed at the same time that the people who abandoned Marx’s theory of crisis only because no crisis occurred within a certain space of time merely confused the essence of this theory with one of its secondary exterior aspects – the ten-year cycle. The description of the cycle of modern capitalist industry as a ten-year period was to Marx and Engels, in 1860 and 1870, only a simple statement of facts. It was not based on a natural law but on a series of given historic circumstances that were connected with the rapidly spreading activity of young capitalism. [3]

In fact:

Crises may repeat themselves every five or ten years, or even every eight or 20 years ... The belief that capitalist production could “adapt” itself to exchange presupposes one of two things: either the world market can spread unlimitedly or, on the contrary, the development of the productive forces is so fettered that it cannot pass beyond the bounds of the market. The first hypothesis constitutes a material impossibility. The second is rendered just as impossible by the constant technical progress that daily creates new productive forces in all branches. [4]

As a matter of fact, Rosa Luxemburg argued, what is basic to Marxism is that the contradictions in capitalism – between the rising productive forces and the relations of production – are becoming progressively aggravated. But that these contradictions should express themselves in a catastrophic general crisis “is of secondary importance” only. [5] The form of expression of the fundamental contradiction is not as important as its content. (By the way, Rosa Luxemburg would in all probability not dispute the idea that one form in which the basic contradictions can express themselves is in the permanent war economy with its tremendous wastage of the productive forces.)

Rosa Luxemburg argued that when Bernstein denied the deepening contradictions within capitalism he cut away the basis of the struggle for socialism. Socialism thus became transformed from an economic necessity into a hoped-for ideal, a Utopia. Bernstein complained, “Why represent socialism as the consequence of economic compulsion? ... Why degrade man’s understanding, his feeling for justice, his will?” [6] Rosa Luxemburg commented:

Bernstein’s superlatively just distribution is to be attained thanks to man’s free will, man’s will acting not because of economic necessity, since this will itself is only an instrument, but because of man’s comprehension of justice, because of man’s idea of justice.

We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages for the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to that lamentable Rosinante on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened. [7]

Abstracted from the contradictions of capitalism, the urge towards socialism becomes merely an idealistic chimera.

Eduard Bernstein (and many after him) looked upon the trade unions as a weapon weakening capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg, in contradistinction, argued that, while trade unions can somewhat affect the level of wages, they cannot by themselves overthrow the wages system and the basic objective economic factors determining the wage level:

Trade unions are nothing more than the organised defence of labour power against the attacks of profit. They express the resistance offered by the working class to the oppression of capitalist economy.

... trade unions have the function of influencing the situation in the labour-power market. But this influence is being constantly overcome by the proletarianisation of the middle layers of our society, a process which continually brings new merchandise on the labour market. The second function of the trade unions is to ameliorate the condition of the workers. That is, they attempt to increase the share of the social wealth going to the working class. This share, however, is being reduced with the fatality of a natural process, by the growth of the productivity of labour ...

In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus [8], which is, nevertheless, indispensable. For, as a result of the activity of his trade unions, the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the labour-power market. As a result of trade union activity, the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralysed, or, to be more exact, is attenuated. [9]

A labour of Sisyphus! This expression enraged the German trade union bureaucrats. They could not admit that the trade union struggle, however useful in protecting the workers from the immanent tendency of capitalism to depress their standards progressively, is not a substitute for the liberation of the working class.

While for Bernstein the trade unions (and co-operatives) were the main economic levers for achieving socialism, parliamentary democracy was the political lever for this transition. According to him, parliament was the embodiment of society’s will, in other words, it was an above-class institution.

Rosa Luxemburg, however, argues: “... the present State is not ‘society’ representing the ‘rising working class’. It is itself the representative of capitalist society. It is a class State”. [10] “All in all, parliamentarism is not a directly socialist element impregnating gradually the whole capitalist society. It is, on the contrary, a specific form of the bourgeois class State”. [11]

At the time that the dispute about the parliamentary road to socialism was at its height in Germany, what they believed to be the conquest of political power through parliament was achieved for the first time by French socialists. In June 1899 Alexandre Millerand entered the Radical government of Waldeck-Rousseau, sitting side by side with General Galliffet, butcher in chief of the Paris Commune. This action was acclaimed by the French socialist leader Jaurès and the right-wing reformists as a great tactical turning point: political power was now wielded no more by the bourgeoisie alone, but jointly by the bourgeoisie and the working class, which situation, according to them, was a political expression of the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Rosa followed this first experiment in coalition government between capitalist and socialist parties with close attention, making an extremely thorough investigation of it. She pointed out that this coalition, by binding the working class hand and foot to the government, prevented the workers from showing their real power. And in fact what the opportunists called “arid opposition” was a much more useful and practical policy: “... far from rendering real, immediate, and tangible reforms of a progressive character impossible, an oppositional policy is the only way in which minority parties in general and socialist minority parties in particular can obtain practical successes”. [12] The socialist party should take only those positions which give scope for anti-capitalist struggle:

Of course, in order to be effective, Social Democracy must take all the positions she can in the present State and invade everywhere. However, the prerequisite for this is that these positions make it possible to wage the class struggle from them, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its State. [13]

And she concluded: “In the bourgeois society the role of Social Democracy is that of opposition party. As a ruling party it is allowed to rise only on the ruins of the bourgeois State”. [14]

The final dangers inherent in the coalition experiment were pointed to: “Jaurès, the tireless defender of the republic, is preparing the way for Caesarism. It sounds like a bad joke, but the course of history is strewn with such jokes”. [15]

How prophetic! The fiasco of MacDonald in Britain, the replacement of the Weimar republic by Hitler, the bankruptcy of the Popular Front in the 1930s and the coalition governments in France after the Second World War, leading to de Gaulle, are some of the final fruits of the policy of coalition government.

To the reformists, who believed that parliamentarism and bourgeois legality meant the end of violence as a factor in historical development, Rosa countered:

What is actually the whole function of bourgeois legality? If one “free citizen” is taken by another against his will and confined in close and uncomfortable quarters for a while, everyone realises immediately that an act of violence has been committed. However, as soon as the process takes place in accordance with the book known as the penal code, and the quarters in question are in prison, then the whole affair immediately becomes peaceable and legal. If one man is compelled by another to kill his fellow men, then that is obviously an act of violence. However, as soon as the process is called “military service”, the good citizen is consoled with the idea that everything is perfectly legal and in order. If one citizen is deprived against his will by another of some part of his property or earnings it is obvious that an act of violence has been committed, but immediately the process is called “indirect taxation”, then everything is quite all right.

In other words, what presents itself to us in the cloak of bourgeois legality is nothing but the expression of class violence raised to an obligatory norm by the ruling class. Once the individual act of violence has been raised in this way to an obligatory norm the process is reflected in the mind of the bourgeois lawyer (and no less in the mind of the socialist opportunist) not as it really is, but upside down: the legal process appears as an independent creation of abstract “Justice”, and State compulsion appears as a consequence, as a mere “sanctioning” of the law. In reality the truth is exactly the opposite: bourgeois legality (and parliamentarism as the legislature in process of development) is nothing but the particular social form in which the political violence of the bourgeoisie, developing its given economic basis, expresses itself. [16]

Hence the idea of superseding capitalism by means of the legal forms established by capitalism itself, which, at bottom, are nothing but the expression of bourgeois violence, is absurd. In the final analysis, for the overthrow of capitalism, revolutionary violence is necessary:

The use of violence will always remain the ultima ratio for the working class, the supreme law of the class struggle, always present, sometimes in a latent, sometimes in an active form. And when we try to revolutionise minds by parliamentary and other activity, it is only in order that at need the revolution may move not only the mind but also the hand. [17]

How prophetic now, after the demise of the Weimar Republic to be followed by the Nazis, were the following words of Rosa Luxemburg written in 1902: “If Social Democracy were to accept the opportunist standpoint, renounce the use of violence, and pledge the working class never to diverge from the path of bourgeois legalism, then its whole parliamentary and other activity would sooner or later collapse miserably and leave the field to the untrammelled dominance of reactionary violence”. [18]

But though Rosa Luxemburg knew that the workers were compelled to resort to revolutionary violence against exploitation and oppression, she suffered keenly the pain of every drop of blood shed. She wrote during the middle of the German Revolution:

Rivers of blood streamed during the four years of imperialist murder of nations [the First World War]. Now we must be sure to preserve every drop of this precious liquid with honour and in crystal glasses. Uncurbed revolutionary energy and wide human feeling – this is the real breath of socialism. It is true a whole world has to be overturned, but any tear that could have been avoided is an accusation; a man who hastens to perform an important deed and unthinkingly treads upon a worm on his way is committing a crime. [19]

Among reformists as well as some who claim to be revolutionaries the theory is prevalent that only hunger may cause workers to follow a revolutionary path: the better-off workers of Central and Western Europe, argued the reformists, could therefore learn very little from the hungry and downtrodden Russian workers. Rosa Luxemburg made a big point of correcting this wrong conception, writing in 1906:

... the notion that under the Tsarist regime prior to the revolution the working class standard of living was that of paupers is much exaggerated. On the contrary the layer of workers in large industries and big cities which was most effective and active in the economic and political struggle enjoyed a standard of living hardly lower than the corresponding layer of the German proletariat; indeed, in some trades the same, or here and there, an even higher wage, obtained in Russia than in Germany. Also in regard to working hours the difference between large industrial concerns in the two countries is scarcely significant. Hence the conception that assumes that the Russian working class has the material and cultural conditions of helots is invented out of thin air. This conception contradicts the facts of the revolution itself and the prominent role of the proletariat in it. Revolutions of this political and spiritual maturity are not made by paupers; the industrial worker in the vanguard of the struggle at Petersburg, Warsaw, Moscow, Odessa, is much closer culturally and spiritually to the West European type than is imagined by those who think that the only and indispensable school for the proletariat is bourgeois parliamentarism and “correct” union practice. [20]

Incidentally, empty stomachs, besides encouraging rebellion, lead also to submission.

Basing herself on the class struggle of the working class, whether latent or open, whether aimed at winning concessions from the capitalist class or at its overthrow, Rosa Luxemburg supported the struggle for social reforms as well as social revolution, considering the former above all a school for the latter, whose greater historical import she made clear in analysing the mutual relations of the two:

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for reform does not contain its own force, independent from revolution. During every historic period, work of reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as the impulsion of the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Here is the kernel of the problem.

It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long drawn-out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their content. The secret of historic change through the utilisation of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality, or, to speak more concretely, in the passage of an historic period from one given form of society to another.

That is why 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. Instead of a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our programme becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the system of wage labour, but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself. [21]




2. R. Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (Bombay, 1951), pp.14-15.

3. R. Luxemburg, Reform, p.15.

4. R. Luxemburg, Reform, p.16.

5. R. Luxemburg, Ref.orm, p.7.

6. Vorwärts, 26 March 1899.

7. R. Luxemburg, Reform, p.52.

8. The mythological king of Corinth who in the lower world was condemned to roll to the top of a hill a huge stone, which constantly rolled back again, making his task never ending.

9. R. Luxemburg, Reform, pp.50-5l.

10. R. Luxemburg, Reform, p.22.

11. R. Luxemburg, Reform, pp.29-30.

12. P. Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (London, 1940), p.84.

13. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin, 1955), vol.II, p.61.

14. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol II, p.64.

15. P. Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, p.84.

16. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke (Berlin), vol.III, pp.361-362.

17. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte, vol.III, p.366.

18. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte, vol.III, p.366.

19. Rote Fahne, 18 November 1918.

20. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, pp.211-212.

21. R. Luxemburg, Reform, pp.58-59.


Last updated on 6.6.2003