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International Socialism, Spring 1964

J.P. Nettl

Socialist Classic

From International Socialism, No.16, Spring 1964, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Accumulation of Capital
Rosa Luxemburg
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 14s.

This is a paperback edition of a now unobtainable reprint of this minor Socialist classic, which the same publishers brought out in 1951 in their series, Rare Masterpieces of Philosophy and Science. At the present price it comes within the reach of both amateur and professional students interested in Socialism. The original book has a curious history. Written almost in one solid sitting by the author in 1912, it bears all the traces of inspiration and speed; it is a single vast continuous lecture. Contemporary reviewers were impressed not so much by the merits of its arguments as by the extraordinary daring of a Socialist ‘improving’ Marx’s economics. After 1918 the book benefitted from a great deal of explicitly Communist criticisms. It was singled out as the most representative text for the extreme ‘objective’ view of capitalist collapse – the theory of spontaneity, or Luxemburgism for short. As such it was attacked by Lenin, Bukharin and others, who found in it an unwitting justification for the hated Kautsky.

In fact it is not one book but three. Firstly, an attempt to solve the innate difficulties of Marxist economics. What began as a completion of the argument about compound reproduction in Capital, Volume III, finished in fact as an attempt to analyse the economic contradictions of capitalist society in a neater but quite different form. This aspect, couched in the sophistication of modern economic concepts and terms is discussed in an excellent, rigorous, yet sympathetic foreword by Joan Robinson, for which alone the book is worth reprinting.

Secondly, it is an exercise in economic history – Rosa Luxemburg’s great strength. In the middle sections of the book the influence of colonialism both on the colonised societies and on the colonisers is discussed with vivid examples and much learning. Though this material has now largely been superseded by more thorough and modern work, it is typical of Rosa Luxemburg’s style and method.

Finally, the book provides a review of ‘Socialist’ economic writings from Sismondi to the Russian legal Marxists – vividly written and highly polemical. The only thing the book does not do is to ‘solve’ imperialism, which, as Rosa Luxemburg well knew, was essentially a domestic and not a colonial problem. Historically the importance of the book is largely due to its false inflation by later Communist writers as a text to be attacked. But like Joan Robinson in her introduction, I believe that its real importance lies in the attempt to solve a very modern problem with the somewhat bronze-age tools available at the time. Rosa Luxemburg’s great merit lies in the unique perception of the problem rather than in its solution.

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