Hermann Duncker 1926

Book Review

Rosa Luxemburg: "Against Reformism"[1]

Source: International Press Correspondence, Vol 6, No. 41, May 13, 1926, pp. 667-668.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

To the Masses! The realisation of this slogan requires an exact knowledge of the ideology of the masses. What has hindered the masses up to the present in finding in Communism the only escape from the maelstrom of Capitalistic misery? Have we not perhaps done too much preaching of Communist ultimate demands without first of all endeavouring to understand the mind of the working people? It is necessary to understand the speech and mentality of the person, whom one wishes to convince.

These masses who are still so distant from us, - the Social Democrats and also the so-called "Indifferent" - already have a certain fundamental outlook in politics, conscious or unconscious. It is hardly possible to find a modern worker who has not some sort of intellectual attitude towards the general complex of his proletarian experience. No matter how amazingly humble and modest the proletarian may be in his demands on life, absolute contentment is to be found in no man in these days. Every one has desires, every man is conscious of the existence of want and all cry out: there must be a change! Then the question arises: Is improvement to be expected from the further course of Capitalism itself, by reckoning on higher wages, more favourable working conditions, measures of State protection and social support? In short, can we anticipate ameliorations which depend upon increasing insight on the part of bourgeois legislators, accommodating employers and skilled proletarian negotiators? Or, on the other hand, is real improvement for the proletariat possible only through the revolutionary destruction of bourgeois rule and of the Capitalist system? Every proletarian must face the question: Revolutionary or Reformist?

This vital question arises afresh to confront each succeeding generation of workers. Nothing is more erroneous than the view: A fight against Reformism once took place, namely, at the end of the nineties in Germany against the Bernstein affair, but the question has long been settled theoretically and, therefore, done with. No, this fight must be fought over and over again until the proletarian assumption of power is consummated. Just as he has to pass through years of pubity, so every proletarian has to face this decision. The chief thing is that the lessons learned from past disputes and discussions on the subject of reform or revolution should be preserved and utilised; and it is important that the spiritual weapons employed in this fight are constantly improved and that revolutionary enlightenment spreads to ever widening circles of the proletariat! Here it will be seen how necessary it is to perceive the roots of modern Communism in Germany not merely in the anti-world-war ideology.

The Spartakus League, founded in 1915, passed its embryonic stage of development within the German Socialist Party. The more our Communist attitude on the question of the world war may decrease in immediate importance and the more it is necessary in our progress through the desert phase of Capitalist decline to dwell upon topical questions touching the proletariat, the more important it is for us to make clear to the mind of the average worker the every-day and constantly recurring problems with their distortions and foreshortenings, i.e. to revert to the struggles against Reformism which took place in the earlier history of the Labour movement. It is here in particular that we find the decisive master-stroke of the leader of German Communism, Comrade Rosa Luxemburg.

Throughout the two decades of Rosa's political activity in the German Socialist Party, her fight against Reformism runs like a scarlet thread. Volume III of the "Collected Works of Rosa Luxemburg", "Against Reformism", issued by Paul Frölich, therefore, constitute an invaluable manual for our present-day fight against Reformism. Here are compiled for us all the important campaigns carried on by Rosa Luxemburg against the various Reformist advances between 1898 and 1914 - a special volume, however, is reserved for the discussion of the mass-strike. It is with ever-growing astonishment that the reader sees how political battles similar to those of to-day were at that time fought out by Rosa under the banner of political slogans and against political personalities all long since forgotten.

It would mean immense injury to the Communist movement, if in its inevitable "'domestic" disputes with the sham-leftward praters and those anarchistically inclined liquidators in the Party, the main battle front against Reformism, as the mass-ideology of the non-Communistic proletariat, were neglected or even overlooked. Although it is undeniable that at present the Left deviations are the only unhealthy symptoms displayed by the German Party which give cause for concern, it is also perfectly true that - when we take the whole of the proletariat of Capitalist countries into account - the fight against the "right" errors in the Labour movement as a whole will, until the day of complete victory, remain a task of world historical importance far exceeding all others.

First of all comes the question of the examination and explanation of Reformism (Opportunism, Menshevism, etc.) as a complete political theory. Rosa discusses it in relation to the slogan: "Here the theory of collapse, there illusions of adaptability!" i.e. in relation to the question of the course of development of Capitalist society and in relation to the transition to the Socialist regime. It was with admiration that the standard-bearer of Reformism, Bernstein, recorded the "adaptibility of Capitalism" (disappearance of crises, augmentation of the middle-class, advancement of the proletariat). Rosa cut the ground from under his feet and proved (1898) that Capitalist development is destined, through the contradictions inherent in the Capitalist Order, to end in "general economic collapse" (page 40). It is well known, how much value Rosa set upon the proof of the objective necessity for Socialism. It was in her endeavour to show more clearly such objective inevitability that she started her subsequent (1913) extensive investigation of the accumulation of capital. No matter what attitude one may assume towards this book, the fact remains that even Bucharin, the severest communist critic of this work, are with her in her estimation of the importance of making objectively clear the economic nature of Imperialism and of Capitalistic collapse. Just as in our times, in view of the talk of Capitalist reorganisation, i. e. in the face of all the theoretic attempts to bolster up for a while the Capitalist pretension to adaptibility, an exposition of the theory of Capitalist collapse seems highly desirable from the viewpoint of every thoughtful Communist. In Rosa's "Social Reform or Revolution" we have the clearest and most complete refutation of all opportunist hopes concerning adaptibility. For instance, what Rosa has to say against the views of credit as an instrument of adaptation could be pointed out to-day to all people, who are affected with the craze for reform of banking, credit system etc.

"Credit reproduces all the cardinal contradictions of the Capitalist world, brings them to a head and accelerates the speed at which this regime hastens towards its own destruction - collapse" (page 43).

Naturally, Rosa does not regard the collapse as a product of mechanical, automatic inevitability in Capitalist development. She holds the same view as Marx, viz., that men make their own history, and, therefore, Rosa appeals for the hammer-blow of revolution.

"The conditions of production in Capitalist society constantly approach to those in socialist society; on the other hand, the political and legal relations of the former erect an ever-heightening barrier between the two. This barrier will be broken neither by the development of social reform nor by the progress of Democracy, but on the contrary will only be rendered more firm. The only means to remove the division is the hammer-stroke of revolution, i. e. the seizure of political power by the proletariat." (page 61).

Nothing was more foreign to Rosa than the habit of gazing in revolutionary enchantment towards her objective. It was precisely in her method of linking up the fight in which she was actually engaged with the advance towards her ultimate objective that her greatness lay. In an article against French Ministerialism Rosa expresses herself in 1899 as follows:

"It is as hopeless to try to comprehend the principles of Social-Democracy from brochures and lectures alone as it is to try to learn swimming on dry land. It is only upon the high-sea of political life, only on the extended front of the battle with the present State, in adaptation to the whole multiplicity of living reality that the proletariat can gain its schooling" (page 28).

In a dissertation upon our parliamentary tasks she says:

"To like part in positive legislation and, wherever possible, with practical effect and at the same time to vindicate at every step their fundamental opposition to the Capitalist State, this, in general outline, is the difficult tasks set for our parliamentary representatives" (page 157).

Rosa played havoc with the misleading statement of present tasks issued by the German Socialist Party and in her articles, as compiled and supplemented with little historical insertions by Frölich, we have the complete history of the German party crises from 1898 in 1914; and the ground covered embraces the discussion of the Militia question (Schippel, Heine), the customs policy (Schippel, Calwer), the Bavarian provincial Diet treaty and the franchise question (Vollmar), the Baden budget movement and court intrigues as far down as the Stuttgart mayoral election and, finally, the problem of the second ballot agreement (1912).

So well did Rosa understand how to state in classic language the fundamental Marxian attitude in every daily article, no matter how localised or focused, that these compositions and speeches appear topical to posterity and to readers in 1926.

There is, of course, a certain inadequacy and incompleteness in these disputations, for, finally, Rosa's belief in the political restoration of a revolutionary Social Democracy which would emancipate the peoples was a stupendous miscalculation. That which Rosa in 1910 predicted in order to frustrate the general spread of the Baden parliamentary tactics, namely:

"If these tactics are adopted throughout Germany, the consequence will be that Social Democracy will simply cease to exist as a party and become a mere shuttle-cock to be played with by the bourgeois parties or a ridiculous distortion of a social-monarchist-reformist-governmental party" (page 154).

[...] became dread reality.

It must, however, be admitted that in her polemic with Vollmar on the Stuttgart Party Congress (1907) Rosa allowed herself to be led astray in her too categorical forswearing of "methods of violence" (page 129). Furthermore, the prophecy that Capitalism would find itself driven into a hopeless cul-de-sac (page 40), must be modified with the aid of Lenin's statement at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920:

"Revolutionaries sometimes endeavour to prove that there is no way out of the crisis. That is a mistake; no position is absolutely hopeless" (protocol page 31).

But these are trifles; in matters of importance time has made no erosion. What is most remarkable about this book is, that it is only now that we can appreciate the profound truths contained in all these articles written so long ago. A world war had to destroy millions of people, a Labour party had to betray foully the trust of the proletariat of all countries, misery unknown since the first rise of Capitalism had to descend upon the wretched victims of exploitation before the proletariat could bring itself to throw reformist illusions overboard. To-day a quarter of a century after the most brilliant and keenest theoretical refutation of Reformism - we have reached the point when the truth of these things can be driven home among the great masses of the proletariat, aye, must be driven home, if disaster is to be avoided.

Of all the writings connected with the German Labour movement subsequent to those of Marx, the works of Rosa Luxemburg are far and away the most significant and freshest intellectual products.


[1] Rosa Luxemburg, Collected Works, Vol. III, "Against Reformism". Prefaced and edited by Paul Frölich, Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten, Berlin, 1925.