From The Militant, Vol. V No. 3 (Whole No. 99), 16 January 1932, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
A generation of Communists standing on the shoulders of Lenin needs little originality to detect the theoretical shortcomings of “Luxemburgism”. But history is something more than a factional football. Memorable in dialectic and intensity, the struggle of Rosa Luxemburg against the opportunism of the most powerful party machine in pre-war Social Democracy has indisputably entered the life-stream of the Communist International.
Rosa Luxemburg never ceased to collaborate with the Polish movement from which she sprang, returning to her native Warsaw during the revolution of 1905. But as well as formative influence, her main sphere of activity was the German Social Democracy in whose problems she first intervened on the occasion of the revisionist offensive on Marxism.
Its state unification achieved Germany in common with Western capitalism after 1870 experienced a phase of expansion due to the opening of the world market and colonial exploitation. As a result the bourgeoisie could profitably pursue the strategy of concessions to the upper crust of the working class. The Social Democracy had never been altogether free of an element of petty-bourgeois illusion; at the union of the Eisenach and Lassalle factions in 1875 Marx’s criticism of the Gotha program fell on deaf ears. Later the Erfurt Congress (1891) did adopt a program which though defective especially in its political demands, was generally speaking a recognition of scientific socialism. Once the repressive anti-Socialist law of Bismark collapsed, a Right wing, confounding the interests of the proletariat as a class with, the favored position of the labor aristocracy, began to maneuver for “practical politics”. The pioneer of this tendency was Vollmar, whose pamphlet The Isolated Socialist State (1878) unmistakably anticipated the Stalin theory of socialism-in-one-country. Vollmar combined nationalism with reformism, his agrarian proposals stirring Engels’s deepest indignation. In Vollmar’s wake, the Schippels and the Heines advocated the voting of military budgets, protective tariffs and the like.
The classic exponent of revisionism was Edward Bernstein, whose Socialist Fundamentals (1899) was a complete rupture with Marxism and a confession of the faith of the Fabians. Within the Marxian breast dwelt two souls, he contended, the one evolutionary-reformist, the other revolutionary-utopian. Bernstein undertook to purge Marx of the unscientific entanglements of Hegel and the political romanticism of Blanqui. For dialectical materialism he substitutes the categorical imperative of Kant, the labor theory of value he supplements with the marginal utility of Boehm-Bawerk. The contradictions of capitalism do not lead to economic catastrophe and social revolution. The growing middle class, the democratization of capital and diffusion of ownership by the joint stock corporation are tendered to disprove the prognosis that the concentration of industry is accompanied by the centralization of wealth. The beautiful credit system, the efficient trusts and modern communication facilities eliminate the cyclical crisis. In a word, here is an idyll of an organic capitalism painlessly evolving towards socialism, over an unending road of reforms, under the spell of a social-democratic majority in the Reichstag. The dictatorship of the proletariat is an apocalyptic vision. The movement is everything – the goal is nothing.
Bernstein’s sources are obvious, a reactionary hash of Louis Blanc, Proudhon, Lassalle and the miserable “Katheder-sozialisten”. While Kautsky, the official guardian of orthodoxy still maintained an ambiguous silence, Rosa Luxemburg forcefully insisted that theory and practise could not be divorced without fateful consequences and that revisionism would replace class struggle by class collaboration. If goal without movement is utopian, movement without goal is surrender to bourgeois liberalism. The everyday demands have significance only as they are linked up with the conquest of political power. Reforms are by-products of class struggle; they cannot basically change the character of the relations of production. So far from being the political lever of socialism, parliamentarism is the historical form of the class rule of the bourgeoisie in its struggle with feudalism, and is already decadent. The workers must rely on their own mass action. The whole economic lore of Bernstein is the generalized viewpoint of the individual capitalist. The new developments in capitalism – credit, combination, etc., – do not cure but intensify the basic contradictions of anarchic capitalist production.
In pitiless judgment on revisionism, theory has been reinforced by Time, the greatest revolutionary of all. On the very heels of Bernstein’s smug evangel burst the crisis of 1900, to be followed by another in 1907 and still another in 1914. As we write, the world is staggering under one of the gravest industrial and commercial crises in capitalist history, with the United States, the model country of trusts and efficiency, as deeply involved up to the hilt. During the late” lamented “new economic era”, bourgeois economists, journalists, engineers attempted to revive Bernstein’s illusions in substance, if without their philosophical garnish, on American soil. “The most fundamental stabilization”, wrote Professor Commons, “has been that of credit and prices through the cooperation of the banks organized in the Federal Reserve System.” The American working class would derive its salvation from increased savings, life insurance and employee stock ownership. “The labor banks”, declared the economic wizard Carver, “constitute the only revolutionary movement in the world”. The Baltimore and Ohio Plan of union-management cooperation was tantamount to “industrial democracy”.
There is no doubt that theoretically revisionism was bankrupt from the outset. It completely failed to estimate the real qualitative changes that were taking place in capitalist society with the advent of imperialism. Parliamentary cretinism and the inevitability of gradualness have been dealt shattering blows by the epoch of wars of revolutions. Between economics and politics there is no automatic reflex action. Ideology is only one of the elements of the superstructure. When she wrote “Opportunism has been knocked on the head”, Rosa Luxemburg was unduly sanguine. The huge bureaucracy of the party, trade unions, cooperatives proved decisive. At every important turn, the Centrists reigned but the Right ruled. At successive Congresses, the Right wing receded formally but in fact retained their positions. Marx and Engels had predicted that a split between the middle class and proletarian elements was inevitable but it was in Russia under Lenin, and not at the Dresden Congress that this operation was executed. Waging her battles against such an apparatus, Rosa tended to identify centralization with opportunism, and to depend on the elemental mass movement spontaneously to correct the course of the party. “The only part to be played in the Social Democracy by the so-called leaders is that of the explanation to the masses of their function in history.” Lenin too emphasized that the masses must gain their own political experience, that for victory the vanguard must muster millions but the role of the revolutionary social-democrat was that of a modern Jacobin bound up with the organized proletariat. Rosa relied too much on process, and tended to underrate the importance of organization. It cannot be doubted that the conditions of the development of the Russian Revolution necessarily contributed to give Lenin his unparalleled insight into the problems of Marxism, itself the product of a revolutionary period. It must be accounted a defect, for example, of Rosa Luxemburg’s polemics with the revisionists that she did not, in reply to Bernstein, take up the problem of state-power. Plechanov raised the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat at Brussels and again at the Amsterdam Congress (1904) but the Second International as a whole, and Kautsky its principal theoretician, completely failed to realize the significance of the problem. The reconstruction of the doctrine of Marx, based on the experiences of the Paris Commune, as to the destruction of the bourgeois state machine, was the work of Lenin.
The Russian revolution of 1905, for the first time since the Commune, shocked the West out of its parliamentary routine. The Russian proletariat marshalled every form of mass action, from the economic strike to armed insurrection. The mass political strike became a central subject of discussion. At first Kautsky welcomed the methods of the Russian revolution and took up a seemingly radical position towards the strike as a weapon in the immediate struggle for power. But when it became a question of applying the lessons of the Russian revolution to the struggle over the Prussian franchise he changed his tune. He was now for the old tested tactic of parliamentarism. “The elemental mass movement would produce unpleasant as well as pleasant surprises and development would again assume the catastrophic character of 1789 to 1871”. The correct strategy was “attrition”, to exhaust the bourgeoisie by trench-warfare.
Rosa Luxemburg ‘s point of departure in these debates was the totality of the class struggle. She refused to recognize the legitimacy of any water-tight compartments between the party and the trade unions. She strenuously resisted the demands of the trade union bureaucracy for the “independence” of the trade unions from the party and their “neutrality” in the political struggle. At the Jena Congress of the Social Democracy it was decided to resort to the general strike if the government sabotaged the issue of the franchise. The reply of the Cologne trade union congress was to prohibit the “propagation and discussion of the general strike”. A year later at Mannheim, the Cologne resolution was substantially ratified by the party Congress and the bureaucracy had gained a signal victory.
In the view of Rosa Luxemburg, the centre of gravity of the proletarian struggle lay in mass action, not in parliamentarism. She did not share the reformist conception of Bernstein and Hilferding who approved of the Belgian general strike of 1903 merely because it was an auxiliary action to a parliamentary objective. But once again she could not define the whole problem of the organization of the revolution at the time, and would likely have been regarded as mad or hounded out as anarchist and Blanquist if she had. In the words of Trotsky “a revolutionary general strike that inundates all the banks of bourgeois society became for Rosa Luxemburg a synonym for the proletarian revolution ... A general strike does not yet decide the question of power but only raises it. For the seizure of power it; is necessary to organize the armed uprising on the basis of the general strike.” The danger of revolutionary fatalism, of the “temporizing attitude towards the fundamental tasks of the revolution” was exemplified by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin attitude in the Russian October and the Stalin-Brandler-Thalheimer capitulation to the line of least resistance in the German crisis of 1923. It should be mentioned that Trotsky adds that Rosa left the stage without having said her last word.
It was these discussions of the role of mass action that brought about the definite cleavage between the “Left Radicals” under the leadership of Rosa and the Kautskian Centre at the Madgeburg Congress in 1909. Kautsky openly proclaimed that the main danger in the party was no longer the revisionists, but “the rebellious impatience of the extreme Left”.
(To be concluded)
Last updated: 22.3.2013