In doing so I cherry-picked some of her most thought provoking and in some instances controversial writings: Reform and Revolution, Theory & Practice, and The Russian Revolution. The insight gained is worth the hours lost to passages read and notes taken. Reform and Revolution takes on the corrupt outlook of Bernstein’s reformism and takes it out with the trash. It was roughly this time of year last year that I took up the task of working my way through Reform and Revolution. Anyone who knows me knows that in spite of my fondest love of grandiose plans I often settle for little or nothing. Consequently, it has been very easy for me to simply give up on reading projects. However, I committed myself to reading Reform and Revolution even though I was in no need of being convinced of the fallacies of reform. I quickly learned otherwise and like the country baker who has watched the city’s finest chef at work I began to rewrite the way I envision my own projects.
I immediately noticed how, as I put last year, ‘aufheben’ her work was: full of life, full of a human element. Negation and transcendence, destruction and creativity were a part of a very real, very lucid understanding of the world for Rosa. Luxemburg remarks the life of the new movement is found in the old no matter how altered it is from the past.
“That is all true, to be sure. It is also true that every new movement, when it first elaborates its theory and policy, begins by finding support in the preceding movement, though it may be in direct contradiction with the latter. It begins by suiting itself to the forms found at hand and by speaking the language spoken hereto. In time the new grain breaks through the old husk.”It speaks in the language hitherto spoken in and only when it has reached maturity does it start to babble in its own tongues. This is true of Marx who in his most breathtaking works still made use of Hegel’s phraseologies and true of Lenin and Luxemburg who made use of the Socialist International until it was such in name only.
“Only when the great mass of workers take the keen and dependable weapons of scientific socialism in their own hands, will all the petty-bourgeois inclinations, all the opportunistic currents, come to naught.” writes Rosa in Reform and Revolution. Here she illuminates the petty bourgeois and elitist attitude: that is necessary for the party academicians and theoreticians to set the course of action. It was the party theoreticians that feared freedom of criticism the most for fear of finding faults in themselves. Written in 1899 the words prophetically foreshadow the events 1914 when the social-patriots locked themselves in the ivory tower of party academics and again when the workers of Kronstadt where told with bayonets and clubs that only the intellectuals knew the best course.
The only way for the fresh life of the communist tendency to prevail is for it to be grasped by the working masses. The fact was not grasped by Lenin and even more exaggerated in Bordiga yet clearly present in the writings of Gorter and later on the Johnson-Forrest Tendency and the operaismo movement. The genealogical traces of the notions outlined by Rosa Luxemburg shows a tendency towards Luxemburg’s viewpoint in the workers movement. That is why, or perhaps a contribution to the reason why, that the anti-colonial and anti-neo-colonial urban and agricultural workers are as immersed in the writings of Luxemburg as they are Fanon and Freire.
Rosa Luxemburg also sees a future where capitalist production has intensified but development has slowed down. In her seemingly dystopian vision of the future, complete nonsense according to Bernstein, the innovators of the capitalist class — the small time and middle-sized businesses — would either grow and expand until they dominated enough of the market as possible or shrink and collapse under the weight of competition. In Rosa Luxemburg’s time this was an emergent property of the periodic cooling off of capitalism in her time — a property I call as others may tend to do as paradigm of production. For Rosa this paradigm was the cartel organization; for our time it is the corporate organization. This vision realized provides the seed of the coming social revolution in our time. Where the cartel paradigm once fulfilled the process of socialization the corporate paradigm proceeds to do so now. No longer are laborers divided, at least in the workplace, as is the case in periods of reheating, by trade, race, or sex. Private property becomes social centers.
This increased socialization of production dictates a rise in the collectivity of thinking in the working masses. Resistance goes beyond the haphazard strikes and the bumbling of trade unions and into a new field of workplace organization and occupation. The factory occupations in Turin of the 1920s were a consequence of the decrease in production after the war period. Again, in the early 2000s the occupation movement across South America emerged in a period of decline and collapse of production. In each cooling period, as the quality of life decreases while the quantity of products increase or otherwise put as individual production shifts to socialized reproduction a new form of or greater potential of working class power emerges.
Socialism is no longer an ideal, even in the historical sense that Marx conceived of it. The material foundation for socialist production was and is present. In a period of socialized capital the capitalist no longer represents a single individual but a board of trustees: “today [capital signifies] …a collective person composed of hundreds and even of thousands of individuals.” Rosa’s words are not only true for her time but relevant to ours as well. Today capital is not merely socialized capital in a national framework but an international framework. The neo-colonizers — the capitalists of the Europe, America, Japan, and to a certain extent, China — reproduce products in neo-colonized countries, distribute back in the neo-colonizing countries, outsource industrial and reproduction to the neo-colonized ones, and rehire unemployed industrial workers in neo-colonizing countries in their centers of distribution. Likewise, when we see pockets of innovative production we also see a new integralism of capital. The schools of the neo-colonized countries produce top-notch intellectuals in droves and the neo-colonizers import them to their research firms in the West so even innovation is socialized and in some cases reproductive innovation in the form of reverse engineering.
In a period of intense power of the capitalist class the reforms gained under their regime are merely ameliorations or Band-Aids on the deep wounds of the international working class. As Malcolm X put it “You can’t stick a knife into a man’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches and call that progress.” The real solution to the problems of the working class is the transcendence of the conditions that create the working class. The working class can only find freedom in its own negation and this negation spells out revolution but a wholly new kind of revolution — a revolutionary project of human emancipation. The bitter tears, the chuckles here and there, especially on the day when you were too busy buying books to notice the protests outside, and the tragicomic victories, losses, and downright oddities of collective action reveal not a defeat but an overall tendency of self-emancipation in the working class and a sense of hope that one day it doesn’t have to be like this.
As much as Reform and Revolution provides a real material basis for a belief in the coming social revolution Theory & Practice lays down the groundwork for it. It was Rosa Luxemburg’s belief that the party of the working class should not be caught up in specific ‘isms’ such as anti-militarism, anti-navalism, anti-colonialism etc. but rather be involved in a broader struggle of anti-capitalism because only a struggle against capitalism could end the onslaught of militarism, racism, etc. But at different times the manifestation of this anti-capitalist struggle may taken on the form of a particular ‘ism’.
Today we might understand this in terms of dimensions within the working class. Just as it is impossible to conceive of an object in our world — and here I reveal my very basic knowledge of physics — without the dimensions of length, width, depth, and time it is impossible to conceive of the working class of America (or any nation for that matter) without a Black dimension, women’s dimension, immigrant dimension, etc. To go above and beyond Rosa Luxemburg’s theory, the realization of the aims and objectives anti-racist, feminist, queer, etc. projects exemplify not an end in themselves but a continuation and expansion of the dimension of freedom within the working class. So in this case Rosa’s immediate and introductory remarks have their faults. The ‘party’ — the conscious element of the working class — must be involved in the particular ‘isms’ of various dimensions of the working class because these particulars are the struggle against capital. However, in her polemic Rosa makes a very clear case for the continuing relevance of class perspective, class content, and class dynamic in the superstructure.
In the case in which Rosa was involved it was in her belief that because the bourgeoisie and the Junkers had been won over to the side of the monarchy it was necessary to break the haughty power of the triple alliance with the agitation for a republic. This kind of republicanism was not a muddled view of the state as an abstract entity above class relations but a clear sided task against the rule of the bourgeoisie. Likewise, as revolutionaries with a profound and deep realisation that universal freedom and human emancipation is dependent upon the struggle against class society, we must also fight for the type of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-patriarchy, etc. projects that conceive of their position as part of a dimension within the working class.
Kautsky in opposition to Luxemburg’s radical outlook took shelter in cloak of false orthodoxy by quoting a letter from Engels out of the historical context. Because of Kautsky’s power in the party’s publishing agencies Rosa Luxemburg was forced to self-censor in order to publish her paper. The bit removed, the bit pertaining to the republican movement, was published elsewhere in a paper more sympathetic to Rosa’s views. Kautsky continued to attack Rosa’s views. The dispute reached its lowest point when Kautsky’s invented an on the spot two-fold theory of overthrow and attrition. Fed up with Kautsky’s opportunism Rosa turned to the experiences of the working class, particularly those experiences of the Russian working class, in order to prove her outlook.
Kautsky’s attitude was that the Russian uprising of 1905 was only successful because of the weakness of the Russian state, the underdeveloped nature of the Russian economy, and the lack of political freedom in Russia. Germany on the other hand was one of the strongest states, enjoyed one of the most developed economies, and had the political freedoms denied to the Russian working class. However, the strengths of the Russian Revolution of 1905 lay in the coincidence of an uprising of an experienced and rebellious peasantry and an ascendant urban working class. In the newborn factories the Russian workers were coordinating strikes, organizing unions, fighting for better rights, and even instituting workplace committees. Class solidarity was enough to start a wildfire of political discontent. The Russian working class, without leaders, had accomplished more in one season than forty years of Social Democracy in Germany.
The key to this passion was that success of strikes. Contrary to Kautsky’s theory the power of the strike lies in its ability to impassion the working class against the deadweight of capital. No matter how little the workers gain in a strike it still sows a seed of revolution. Especially in the case of Russia but also in all cases the strikes foster the growth of workplace organization in the most hard to reach places which under normal conditions would be impossible. As proof of the internationality of this phenomenon it would be the same case in America where the informal strikes of the railroad workers laid the foundation for industrial unionism.
Kautsky’s theory does not reflect a snail’s pace approach to the workers movement; no, it turns back the wheel of time. Theories that do not grow from practice and practical observation are the biggest threat to the workers movement. It was evident in both Russian and Germany that the expansion of the cartel paradigm in production fostered ever growing numbers of strikes. Kautsky’s strategy of attrition signifies a retreat from the successes of the working class. The universal expansion of the cartel paradigm and in our modern case the corporation signifies the universal expansion of an advanced mode of production. Consequently, in these pockets of universalized production found all throughout the world a universal method of workers empowerment develops — in the cartel paradigm this universal weapon is the mass strike.
Kautsky’s belief in a final blow to the capitalist regime by a pleasant strike, perhaps from an afternoon picnic in a public park turned sour or from an uprising against the German troops in the colonies by the dreadful Hottentots, is concocted from his own imagination. The mass strike is a weapon of theory & practice. It, unlike Kautsky’s fantasies, reshapes the consciousness and praxis of the working class. The failures, half-measures, and compromises obtained in the mass strike are nothing in comparison to the accumulation of proletarian self-trust and self-awareness accompanied by a growing will to power.
It is clear in our time that the working class possesses a whole arsenal of weapons against the power of capital. The strike, the lockout, the walkout, the occupation, the riot, the cobblestones flying through air, the shattered glass, the burning cars, the fiery flame of passionate, intimate liberation in a wine bottle. In fact, the mass strike, our earthly father — hallowed be his name — has given his chosen people, the working masses, a new and deeper connection to the struggle. A personal savior: formless and autonomous struggle against the haughty power of capital.
“Any struggle which tries to snatch from capitalism what it does not want to give has that much more importance in that it forces capital to cede a part of its surplus value and reduce its profits. One could think that such a formula would privilege struggles in firms and factories where there is in effect a permanent spontaneous organization which arises directly with its own laws at the heart of the system-the place of exploitation- taking on then its most open and clearest forms. But in an age when the redistribution of revenue plays an important role in the functioning of the system and its survival, in an age of the real domination of capital, struggles express the spontaneous organization of collectivities in places other than factories, shops and offices resulting in the same final consequences for the system.”
Those who postpone the mass strike for electioneering, for a clear window of opportunity have pie in the sky delusions. They withhold the real, the actual social revolution…
…and so came the real, the actual social revolution but in the most bastard of conditions. Rosa Luxemburg makes perhaps one of the most vivacious accounts of the Russian Revolution in The Russian Revolution. Not merely a complement but a precedent for the works of Serge and Trotsky. Kautsky once again sided with the forces of reaction when after the Russian Revolution he denounced radical worker action arguing that the conditions in Russia were not ripe enough for the power and dictatorship of the working class. The views of Kautsky were backed in the political sphere by the Social Democrats of the Menshevik variety. Like Kautsky, when the real and actual revolution was occurring the Mensheviks sided with the liberal bourgeoisie over the radical proletariat.
Luxemburg was able to clearly see the international significance of the Russian Revolution. With the consolidation of individual capital into organisms of capital and the expansion of domestic capital into foreign markets a level of unity was reached within the international capitalist class. The majority of Russian factories, some of the most advanced factories in the world, were in the possession of foreign capitalists. The working class must combat the growing internationality of the bourgeoisie with their own internationality. Luxemburg understood this without which “the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become tangled in a maze of contradiction and blunders”.
Luxemburg also knew full and well that despite the revolutionary significance of the Russian Revolution to the international proletariat that it did not signify a paradigm for international proletarian revolution. Luxemburg was not afraid to openly and sincerely criticize the Russian Revolution because she realized it did not diminish the bravery of the Russian working masses but rather gave a new life to the communist movement. The critical examination of the Russian Revolution was a training ground for the critical examination of the experience of workers of all nationalities.
According to Luxemburg radicalism flows from moderation and the radicalization of moderate aims coincides with the convergence of the working class into a singular organism against the ruling classes; from the rule of a coalition of classes to the rule of a singular radical party. Despite the absolute readiness of the working masses and the insolence of but a handful of political parties Luxemburg continues to conceptualize the organization of conscious workers as a ‘party’. Thus, for Rosa, the brainpower of the revolution is the Bolsheviks while the factory and field toilers represent an emotional essence of bravery and solidarity.
However, Lenin and Trotsky were abroad at the time of the first uprising. All of the major Bolshevik delegates in the Soviets with the exception of Alexandra Kollontai favored a policy of reconciliation. Where was the source of rapid the working class organization? The only possible correct answer, in the absence of other agents, is the working class itself. Therefore it seems foolish to conceptualize the consciousness of the working masses in terms of a party when the most conscious and active element resides within the working class itself whereas the working class parties — the Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and even the Bolsheviks were caught unawares by the revolution. This fact is more clearly demonstrated in the events to follow Luxemburg’s untimely death: Berlin ’53, Hungary ’56, Watts Los Angeles ’65, France and Czechoslovakia ’68, Los Angeles ’92, France ’05, ’06, and ’07.
Unfortunately, Rosa does not learn this fact from the Russian Revolution though she does provide the textual support of such a case. The emancipation of the working class, as predicted and illustrated by Karl Marx, is self-activity; that the working class was capable of building its own institutions and organizations without the leadership of an official party. However, the follies of the Bolsheviks prove in a miserably negative way the enormous impact communists have on the direction and behavior of these working class institutions. Here the nature and role of parties is illuminated using an analogy to painting: the history of man is the scope of the canvas, the world as it is the physical blank space, the toiling masses are the painters, and the ‘parties’ — or different currents of various hegemons and counter-hegemons — are the paints.
The bourgeois revolution inaugurated in March, conducted in the political organs of the old Tsarist state by the Cadets, the party of the organized liberal bourgeoisie, was in material terms fought by the working class and the peasantry. In fighting the Tsarist regimes the working class developed political bodies — the soviets — that not only contented the power of the Tsarist regime but the whole bourgeois order as well. Elsewhere, through their own self-activity the peasants were waging war on the ruin of their lives by the ravages of war.
The four-way alliance of the liberal bourgeoisie, urban workers, poor peasants, and soldiers found itself at a crossroads. The liberal bourgeoisie favored expansion of domestic capital into foreign markets — i.e. continuation of the war. The landlords opposed the redistribution of land. Not only outnumbered in categorical power but materially the working class and peasantry gained an upper hand over the bourgeoisie. Several leading parties of the working class and peasantry — the right wing of the Social Revolutionaries and the Menshevik wing of the Social Democrats — wanted to reconcile the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie and the toiling masses. Defiantly the Bolsheviks and the left wing of the social Democrats sided with the radicalized urban workers and rural peasants.
The revolutionary maximalism of the Bolsheviks was able to breakup the political impasse of the moment and pushed forward the revolutionary demands of the toilers — all power to the soviets. Yet the Bolshevik maximalism was hindered by a certain element within the party: petty-bourgeois delusions and opportunism of the intellectuals.
Whereas the urban proletariat had interest in the socialization of agricultural production the peasantry favored land redistribution. In her polemic Luxemburg correctly perceives the policy of land redistribution as petty-bourgeois. Where the Bolsheviks allowed the peasantry to divide the large estates the approach should have been the socialization of the large estates under the control of councils of agricultural proletarians. Because of their failure the wheel of time was turned back in the countryside. The policy of land redistribution instituted a spread of private property. Even in the midst of the chaos of the land grab the large landowners were able to maintain their dominance in the sphere of peasant community politics. The anarchy of land redistribution coupled with the continuation of the power of the rural bourgeoisie took a swung at the rule of the proletariat and socialism. Whereas land socialization might have fostered bitterness in the Russian peasant in the now was the peasant was now an enemy of the proletarian revolution.
The counter-revolution in the countryside was the domestic accomplice to the foreign counter-revolution. However, unavoidable as it was, the counter-revolution of the foreign agents was intensified indefinitely by the work of the Bolsheviks themselves. It was in Lenin’s clear conscious and political intervention that he and the Bolsheviks rejected the decision of the plebiscite in Russia. However, when a plebiscite on self-determination was posed in the colonial subjects of the Russian Empire the Bolsheviks had wholeheartedly accepted the results. Where in one case the accurately questioned the class content of a provision in another they failed to do so.
The various plebiscites voted in favor of self determination and which promptly led to the exact opposite. It was not the colonized toiling masses that gained favor in the plebiscite but the class of colonial petty merchants, owners of small capital, and the prototypical petty-bourgeoisie. But…
“Neither financiers nor industrial magnates are to be found within this national middle class. The national bourgeoisie of under-developed countries is not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labour; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket. The psychology of the national bourgeoisie is that of the businessman, not that of a captain of industry; and it is only too true that the greed of the settlers and the system of embargoes set up by colonialism has hardly left them any other choice.”The colonized or ‘native’ bourgeoisie lacks the fundamental will to power found in the colonizing bourgeoisie; trained under years of Empire it perfectly content with the mere managing of affairs. Having broken the yoke of domination by the revolutionary government in Russia, the native bourgeoisie made an alliance with German imperialism in order to crush the revolutionary tide in their own countries and launch a war against revolutionary Russia.
Learning from the Bolshevik experience Luxemburg makes a warning to future communists. It is a policy of defeat to fall into the trap of nationalism. Nations are never simply nations but class relations in a context of geography, culture, and law. It is import for communists to pursue a policy of revolutionary integralism: where colonizing and colonized proletariat fight together against the common enemy of the bourgeoisie, where the anti-colonial struggle is not lost to the colonized bourgeoisie. Perhaps this is not the lesson learned by Rosa Luxemburg but it is less learned by modern communists with the horrors and failures of Palestine, Ireland, Iran, and all other movements against subjugation by foreign capital but subsequently faced the terrorization of the ascendant weak-willed native bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie that could only find support in the former colonial powers. As Connolly once put it “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”
Amongst there errors in their handling of their treatment of other classes the Bolsheviks made crucial errors in regards to the class they claimed to represent. The Bolsheviks shut down the Constituent Assembly on the basis that it was a parliament of the bourgeoisie. Rosa Luxemburg argued that the Constituent Assembly should be reopened a revolutionary central organ of the working class. In this case we see the Bolsheviks actual looking ahead of Rosa Luxemburg’s own shortcomings on the question of parliamentary organization and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead of arguing for a workers’ parliament the Bolsheviks decidedly created a wholly new type of central political organization: a central congress of soviets.
This advantage was one shining badge on a bullet riddled jacket and by 1918 The Bolsheviks entered into a spiral towards dictatorship. The rights of freedom speech, the rights of associations, and the rights of assembly were denied to the laboring masses.
“Don't you know that thousands of proletarians are kept in prison because they talked the way I am talking now, and that bourgeois people are not arrested on this score for the simple reason that they are never concerned with these questions? If I am still at large, that is so because of my standing as a Communist. I suffered for my Communist views; moreover, I am known by the workers; were it not for these faits, were I just an ordinary Communist mechanic front the same factory, where would I be now? In the Cheka, or more than this, I would be made to ‘escape’, just as I made Mikhayil Romanov (Tsar’s brother) ‘escape’, as Luxmeburg and Liebknecht were made to ‘escape’. Once more I say: you raise your hand against the bourgeoisie, but it is I who am spitting blood, and it is we, the workers, whose jaws are being cracked.” (Maximoff)
Without the broad rule of the whole class, without the intra-class dialogue, without debate, and without class confidence there can be no class dictatorship but instead only a dictatorship of the personal character — i.e. a bourgeois dictatorship in the style of Cromwell and Napoleon.
“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”The proletarian dictatorship is something wholly different than the bourgeois dictatorship. The life force of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is misinformation, miseducation, and public ignorance but the life force of proletarian dictatorship is education and critical analysis. The measures imposed by the Bolsheviks dismantled these fundamental characters of the proletarian dictatorship. The problem of Lenin and Trotsky’s conception of the proletarian dictatorship is that they view it as a ready made formula produced from the minds of the party intellectuals.
“The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future.”What we do know of the dictatorship of the proletariat is what it must negate — deadweight of capital and private property as the root of exploitation and alienation. The dictatorship of the proletariat must be clear cut in its perception of the past and present but flexible in its construction of the future. This fact, this firmness and frankness is what distinguishes scientific socialism from utopian socialism.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is the self-realization and expansion of the organic capacity of the proletariat. It is a laugh, a joke, a tear, a bullet, etc. It is built ad hoc.
“Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts.” It lives off the spiritual and material development of history.”Lenin and Trotsky, despite their will, have become the Jacobin’s of the Russian Revolution and symbolize the rule of the coming new bureaucratic bourgeoisie. The grand overall lesson of the Russian Revolution is this: what is need is the dictatorship of a whole class. The only way such a dictatorship could constitute itself as a dictatorship of a whole class is to simultaneously be a class democracy. Our goals are not an end to ‘democracy’ — which is in fact a hollow democracy, a democracy in paper but the rule of an abusive, exploitive class in reality — but to create a new democracy of the working class, the exploited, & the dehumanized.
Rosa Luxemburg is the jazz of early twentieth century Marxism. Her profound understanding of the lives of ordinary working people and sense of tragicomic hope in the deep blues about the Russian Revolution reflect a sentimentality not found in half the better-known theoreticians of the time. Her works are written with such lucidity, such a love of revolution that their truths that are both heartfelt and rational transcend the moment.
The kernel of the modern communist outlook, one adapted to the conditions of the twenty-first century are found in the works of Rosa Luxemburg. The critique of reform, the emphasis on self-directed workers action and organization, and the critique of the Russian Revolution bear weight against the normative values of the workers movement. They are weapons in the hands of communists against our own misunderstanding and failure.
Cherish Rosa, Dear Rosa.