Paul Mattick

Review: Rosa Luxemburg by J.P. Nettl


Published: Science & Society, vol. 31, no. 1, 1967. pp. 108-114.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2018.

Rosa Luxemburg, by J. P. Nettl. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. $20.20. Vol. I, pp. xvi, 450; Vol II, pp. viii, 451-984.


While J. P. Nettl had to convince himself “of having good reasons for writing this book,” the work itself more than justifies his own motives for doing so. It is far more than a biography, and reveals, through Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work, a whole historical period which, far from belonging to the irrevocable past, still determines the present and the future. It would be futile to attempt an inventory of these two volumes filled, as they are, with events, people, and ideas of more than half a century, all of which had their impact upon capitalist society in general and the labor movement in particular, The work covers a period which includes the Russian Revolution of 1905, World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the German political revolution of 1918. It deals intimately with the European Marxist movement of the Second International, with its collapse, and with the various prewar and postwar attempts of the radical Left to transform a reformist into a revolutionary movement in accordance with the ideas of the founders of modern socialism.

Although these events and movements have been dealt with in numerous other books, seldom have they been treated in such close connection with the particular ideas and activities of Rosa Luxemburg. And as regards her work in the Polish social-democratic movement, which fills about half the book, as it filled half of Rosa Luxemburg’s life and interests, very little of this has been related previously. This alone gives Nettl’s book a special importance and a definite place in the literature of Marxism.

Rosa Luxemburg’s own importance, however, derives not so much from her organizational activities in the Polish and German labor movement–interesting as these activities are on their own account–as from her theoretical work which, although completely integrated with her political aspirations, was nonetheless of more than temporary value and retains its relevance even now despite the fact that Rosa Luxemburg “was not concerned with general philosophy but with analysis of and influence on contemporary events.” In this context, as Nettl relates, her “ideas found expression in the form of criticisms or polemics against what she considered to be errors;” yet they constitute a consistent set of principles in the struggle for socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg was the first in German Social Democracy (S.P.D.) to recognize the “difference between theoretical and real revolutionary attitudes long before Lenin was aware that such differences could exist in the S.P.D.” Modern revolutionary Marxism starts thus with Luxemburg rather than Lenin, even though, generally, it is Leninism which is credited with the revolutionary revival of Marxism during the course of World War I. Prior to the war, it was Lenin’s emphasis upon questions of organization in the struggle with reformist opportunism which set him apart from the Second International, whereas Rosa Luxemburg was concerned with the enhancement of revolutionary consciousness, of spontaneous direct actions encompassing always greater numbers of workers; in brief, the self-emancipation of the proletariat.

What Lenin tried to actualize was the program of Social Democracy by revolutionary means, particularly, because as far as Russia was concerned, there was no chance to realize it in any other way. Revolution, not social reform, was also Rosa Luxemburg’s position, but her concept of revolution was not restricted to the techniques of taking power, but involved the far weightier question of the content of revolution, of whether or not it was carried through by the workers themselves and secured their actual emancipation. From the start, then, her opposition to Social Democracy was directed against both the reformist policies of the Second International and Lenin’s concept of revolutionary organization and the organization of revolution, both of which relegated the working class to the category of mere supporters and recipients of either the reformist endeavors of socialist parties or the activities of a party of professional revolutionists.

It is for these reasons that Rosa Luxemburg stood apart from both the Second International and its Bolshevik opposition and thus outside the “official” labor movement, even while being part of it. But it is for these same reasons that her ideas may be taken up anew if there should be a revival of revolutionary Marxism. Whereas the organizations of the defunct Second International have given up all pretense of being socialist parties, the institutionalized Marxism of the equally defunct Third International has long since lost its revolutionary connotations.

Although it has been frequently attempted, it is quite impossible to see in Rosa Luxemburg an advocate of democracy in the usually-understood sense, even though she spoke in terms of masses and majority rule instead of in terms of vanguard and party dictatorship. “If anything,” Nettl says, “Rosa Luxemburg was anti-Lenin rather than pro-Menshevik.” Being responsible for her murder and rejecting everything Rosa Luxemburg stood for, Social Democracy could hardly find it possible to utilize her for its own ends. But it also proved impossible for the Communist Party to fit Rosa Luxemburg into its ideological scheme–even though she was one of the founders of German communism. In a final chapter, Nettl deals with recurring attempts on the part of the Communist Party to adopt the martyred Rosa Luxemburg for its own purposes while rejecting all her ideas as false and detrimental to the communist movement. But this inability to leave Rosa Luxemburg alone betrays the ever present hidden fear that any criticism from the proletarian Left is bound to speak with her voice.

The fundamental difference between Lenin and Luxemburg is aptly summed up by Nettl in his observation that while “Lenin enlarged tactics into a philosophy, Rosa Luxemburg reduced philosophy to a tactic.” There is, indeed, no chance for a reconciliation of the two. Whether it is on the question of the relation between masses and leaders, spontaneity and organization, or on those of national self-determination and the requirements of the construction of socialism, Rosa Luxemburg’s views are not only basically opposed to those of Lenin but represent a position which envisions social progress as leading directly “from highly developed capitalism to socialism without the historically retrograde control by a small élite which serves progress in relatively backward societies.” Although she gave enthusiastic support to the Russian Revolution, in her opinion, it could not lead to socialism, but it could serve the world-revolutionary process by helping to initiate social revolutions in the developed Western nations. “It is the fatal logic of the objective situation,” she wrote, “that every socialist party which comes to power in Russia today must follow false tactics, as long as this advance guard of the international proletarian army is left in the lurch by the main body.” The revolution could succeed only if it were an international revolution. To that end, its tactics had to be designed to secure not its particular success but to help carry forward the world revolution.

In a many-faceted book such as Nettl’s, not all the facets will be equally praiseworthy. Some of his interpretations of the attitudes of Rosa Luxemburg, and those of other persons appearing in the book, seem rather dubious and often far-fetched. But none of the objections that could possibly be raised is sufficiently detractive to warrant discussion in a review. It is surprising, however, that Nettl, while speaking at length of the Communist Party and its inability to assimilate Rosa Luxemburg, does not deal with that part of the original Communist Party which did carry her work forward, i.e, the Communist Labor Party (K.A.P.) in Holland and Germany. Attention must also be directed to the inadequacy of Nettl’s treatment of Rosa Luxemburg’s main theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital.

Although Nettl recognizes Rosa Luxemburg’s intention of developing an economic theory of imperialism which was, at the same time, a theory of capitalist collapse, he fails to discern its basic difference from Marx’s theory. The latter was derived from the consistent application of the labor theory of value to the capital formation process, while Rosa Luxemburg derives her own theory from difficulties encountered in the circulation process. For Marx, the problem was how to produce sufficient surplus-value for an accelerated capital expansion despite its inherent tendency to reduce rates of profit. For Rosa Luxemburg not the production but the realization of surplus-value through market sales is of crucial importance. This is why she bases her theory on Marx’s reproduction schemes, i.e., on illustrations provided to depict the circulation process.

It was not claimed that these reproduction schemes presented a picture of concrete capitalist reality. Rosa Luxemburg noticed, however, that they gave rise to disproportionalities insofar as a portion of the total output could not be sold to either the capitalists or the workers. The realization of profit in the circulation process necessitated a third market. This third market was provided by the continuous outward extension of capitalism into precapitalist regions and explained the prevalence of colonialism and imperialism. A thorough capitalist penetration of the world would end the capitalist system because of its inability to realize profits within a market restricted to capital-labor relations. It is this idea, according to Nettl, that Rosa Luxemburg contributed to the body of economic theory, for what was needed “was a function of demand which would furnish, not the need, but the effective means of ‘consuming’ the cause of imbalance, the additional output generated by the compulsive quest for profits.”

Actually, to be sure, accumulation is at once a production and circulation process and has its difficulties in either sphere. Still, there is the question of priority. By assuming, for instance, that the circulation process causes no difficulties whatever, capitalism, in Marx’s theory, would still tend toward its destruction because of the increasing difficulty of producing profits adequate to the growing mass of capital and its expansion requirements. The contradictions of capital production are here traced to their final source, i.e., to production relations as value relations. All other contradictions follow from this basic contradiction, including that of the realization of profit.

This does not speak against an independent treatment of the realization problem. It is possible to show how the contradictions of production work themselves out in the sphere of circulation, and how difficulties in the latter, in turn, affect the production process. But Rosa Luxemburg offered her theory as a criticism and improvement of Marx’s theory of accumulation and it has to be judged as such. This Nettl fails to do. He refers instead to Joan Robinson, whose competence does not extend to Marx, and who saw in Rosa Luxemburg a vague predecessor of J.M. Keynes. But Keynes’s theory is itself only a watered down version of Marx’s accumulation theory, expressed in bourgeois terms and appears, therefore, as a theory of demand.

While Rosa Luxemburg’s laudable attempt to advance beyond Marx must be judged a failure, it nonetheless drew attention to the imperialist nature of capital expansion. And because imperialism can effectively be opposed only by international socialism, in her view, it was no longer possible to utilize nationalism for socialistic ends. Marx had still been able to differentiate between “progressive” and “reactionary” countries, as well as to support national liberation movements, even though he, too, favored the disappearance of small nations unable to develop large-scale economies. According to Lenin, national self-determination could still serve socialist purposes. By supporting national aspirations of oppressed people within the Russian empire, the Bolsheviks hoped to gain the support of these people in their endeavor to seize power. And by supporting national movements that were directed against Western imperialism, they hoped to find allies in their own struggle for survival. Rosa Luxemburg opposed the Bolshevik position as well as the social patriotism of the reformist camp. In her opinion, formal national independence was no escape from imperialist rule, and the struggle for national autonomy was now, through force of circumstances, a mere aspect of the larger imperialist struggles for world control.

According to Nettl, events disproved Rosa Luxemburg’s expectation that class, not national, considerations would determine working-class behavior. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “showed clearly that when the crunch came class antagonisms were swept aside by national solidarity.” They had been swept aside, however, long before the war, which was precisely the reason for Rosa Luxemburg’s insistence upon international class politics. The reformist labor movement was itself the result of a period of capitalist development not conducive to the growth of class consciousness. Such consciousness presupposes situations of social crisis. But the socialists' knowledge of capitalism’s susceptibility to crisis should prevent them from succumbing to the temporary moods of the masses. “Disappointment with the masses,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “is always the most lamentable excuse for a political leader. A real leader doesn’t adjust his tactic in accordance with the attitude of the masses, but in accordance with the development of history.” The nationalism of the masses only made it more imperative to stress internationalism.

Actual historical development substantiated Rosa Luxemburg’s position on the national question and the right to self-determination. All wars have been imperialist wars and all national revolutions part and parcel of imperialist rivalries. With the consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, national self-determination made room for the centralistic control of all the territories under Russian domination. The principle of national self-determination has become a tactical instrument for opposing power blocs, just as it is at present, for instance, in Southeast Asia. Although the various national revolutions seem to indicate a renaissance of nationalism and the dissolution of imperialism, actually they lead only to other forms of dependency, to neo-colonialism, and to new class states instead of to socialism. For Rosa Luxemburg, the proletariat was not there “to change the political geography of capitalist states,” nor to “create new class states,” but to end nationalism as well as capitalism.

Of course, socialist internationalism cannot prevent, nor has it any reason to prevent, movements for national autonomy and liberation from imperialist rule. Its sympathies, even if they do not exist for their emerging nationalism, are with the oppressed people, for their particular plight as twice-oppressed people that must face both native and foreign ruling classes. The task of socialism is to end imperialism and therewith the need for national liberation. As regards the national problem, Nettl finally asks if it is “possible to be a Marxist without achieving not only a substitution of class consciousness for patriotic consciousness, but an immersion in class instead of nation?” He does not answer the question but raises another one, namely, whether or not “the whole substantial return to the national unit as fact and concept is the most retrogade [sic] step of all?” Rosa Luxemburg would have answered the first question with a “no” and the second with a “yes.” But this retrogression, in her view, would only indicate the dissolution of capitalism and the greater urgency for an integrated socialist world.