"Like a candle burning at both ends": Rosa Luxemburg and the critique of political economy - Riccardo Bellofiore

Paper showing how Luxemburg's economic theory and political perspective are much richer than the economic determinism and spontaneism they are usually associated with.

Luxemburg’s legacy is customarily reduced to two “errors”: crude economic determinism, blind belief in the spontaneity of the masses. The paper reconstructs Luxemburg’s arguments about the tendency to the “final” breakdown of capitalism and her criticism of Lenin, and shows how her economic theory and political perspective are different and much richer than usually recognized. Building not only on the Accumulation of Capital but also on the Introduction to Political Economy, the paper shows that:

  1. Luxemburg saw the internal linkbetween value, abstract labour and money;
  2. she emphasized the connection between dynamic competition, relative surplus value extraction, and the “law” of the falling tendency of the “relative wage”;
  3. her theory of the crisis is not underconsumptionist.

The shortage of effective demand is seen as ultimately due to a fall of autonomous investment caused by inter-sectoral disequilibria springing from the revolution in the methods of production and the consequent relative reduction of workers’ consumption. “Disproportionalities,” as soon as they affect important branches of production, end up in a general glut of commodities. The paper also assesses Luxemburg political views. Her theory of the party was very different than the one held by the Bolsheviks, but it was a view in which the organization was essential for building class consciousness “from below.” Thus, in the end, Luxemburg’s questions seems to be more interesting than her critics’ answers, her defeats more fruitful than her opponents’ victories.

The paper also considers the relationship between the personal and the political in Luxemburg.

We can no longer share Rosa’s blind confidence in the spontaneity of the working class, and its organizations have collapsed. But Rosa’s joy and love of life and of the world were founded not in misleading hopes, but in her spirit and moral strength. This is why even now everyone can follow her example.
Simone Weil (1933, p. 302)

More than eighty years have now passed since, in January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered.1 The image of her that adversaries had – and still have – can be simply and effectively synthetized in expressions such as “bloody Rosa.” But, unfortunately, the images of her that still dominate among those who should hold her memory most dear – Marxists and feminists2 of this century – are, in their unilateral opposition, still less than acceptable caricatures: images so commonplace as to be taken almost for granted.

One may take, for example, an article in the Italian newspaper L’Unit`a written many years ago by Margarethe von Trotta, the director of a good movie on Rosa Luxemburg (Von Trotta, 1989). The German film-maker sees Luxemburg’s legacy in love, in her inability to hate and in her refusal of violence. It would not be possible to imagine anything further from “bloody Rosa.” In the film, Luxemburg appears as a pacifist, a lover of nature, suffering the division between politics and feelings, prematurely beyond feminism in her belief in the greater positivity of feminine relations. All traits truly exemplify moments and aspects of this woman who happened to be a revolutionary. Yet, if one places too much emphasis on these aspects and brackets her whole life’s work within theoretical and practical Marxism, divided between her analysis of accumulation and political action, and if one passes over her lucid awareness of the bitterness of the laws of history and of the need to fight against them, one ends up – despite all good intentions, as von Trotta – by reproducing the divorce of reason from passion. What was useful and provocative in the film Rosa L. becomes in the article a generic appeal to emotion: “love was her guide.” In the last resort, this is far from an innocent distortion of Luxemburg’s heritage because it reproduces the divide between thought (a revolutionary thought, replete with all the “dirt” that adjective invokes) and feeling (an emotion characterized by the radical affection and intransigence that was Luxemburg’s nature). It is exactly the divide that Rosa Luxemburg wanted to fight.

In one of her last articles on Rote Fahne, December 1918, Luxemburg wrote: “A world must be turned upside down, But each tear that flows, when it could have been spared is an accusation” (Waters, 1970, p. 399). Of this person one cannot, must not, lose the tension between the moment of struggle and the moment of compassion. This tension cannot, must not, be lost because what is most intriguing and innovative in Luxemburg, and still alive, is precisely this connection between the “power” of social transformation and the “weakness” she recognized in herself and tried to maintain as a positive element in revolutionary practice.

Things are still worse when it comes to the way in which the Marxist tradition has treated Luxemburg. Here we find ourselves on familiar territory. Her “feminine” characteristics are displaced as something marginal in her Marxist thinking, a clear sign of her peculiar humanity. Her economic analysis and her theory of the party are easily passed over, the former being judged full of contradictions and the latter a kind of wishful thinking, too generous and too idealist. As a revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg is then considered to be less lucid because of this attitude, and because of this attitude destined to defeat and irrelevance. This, too, was after all the dominant representation of Rosa Luxemburg also for the short period between the sixties and seventies when the resumption of anti-capitalist radical struggles posed, once again, the twin issues of crisis and consequently of revolutionary politics which most mattered in her thought. Defined and trapped in her opposition to Lenin, Luxemburg was again repudiated or accepted as a determinist and spontaneist.

A determinist theory of collapse?
It is worth taking up these dusty old texts so as to rediscover what it was that Luxemburg actually said, and what has been said contrary to her. I believe, in fact, that one may find in her writings an original perspective, a different image of a Marxist whose errors and defeats continue to offer a fertile alternative to old and new fancies, to Leninism and feminism.

Let’s begin with the accusation of determinism in her economic analysis.

According to her critics, Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital constructed a theory of collapse repeating the classic errors of “underconsumptionism.” On this reading she reasons as follows.3 In capitalism, production is production for money, for an ever-increasing monetary profit. But where does money come from to realize the ever greater surplus that is produced and reproduced thanks to recurrent technical innovations? It cannot by definition be acquired from the workers whose consumption buys back only a part of the commodity product. So, surplus money must necessarily come from a source external to the capitalist mode of production.

This external source provides the required additional demand that manifests in the exports of “advanced” capitalist areas to “backward” non-capitalist areas.

However, struggle to partition pre-capitalist zones and the necessity to integrate these into the circuit of monetary circulation leads to their inclusion in the capitalist world. Once the possibilities for markets “external” to capitalism are exhausted, capitalism actually exists on a world scale in its “pure” form and collapse will follow.

The traditional reading of the Luxemburgian theory of organization can also be summarised very briefly. An objective tendency to collapse renders the constitution of a party separated from the masses insignificant. Indeed, such a party would quickly degenerate into a dictatorship of organisations over the real movement of the masses.4 Economic crisis generalizes into a “spontaneous” social conflict leading to “a revolutionary” outcome.

Criticism of this position is easy enough. On the terrain of economic analysis it is enough to cite Lenin, Bukharin and Sweezy, who found that Rosa Luxemburg confused the problem of “where demand comes from to realise surplus value” with the problem of “where money comes from to monetize profits.”5 On this understanding of Luxemburg’s theory, the second issue is simply technical and easily solved (it is enough, for example, to imagine an increase in the velocity of the circulation of money, or an increase in the quantity of gold that flows to capitalist areas). As for the first issue, Luxemburg is accused, like all underconsumptionists, of believing that internal demand in the capitalist area is generated by workers’ consumption alone and not also and primarily by capitalists themselves through investments. If this latter happens, the buying of production goods compensates a fall in the consumption of workers. Certainly in this way the economic process becomes, at the limit, a production of means of production by means of production. Capitalism is a system in which production does not have the aim of consumption in sight. Its aim is abstract wealth as such: capitalism is “production for production’s sake.” So, there is not any automatic tendency to collapse that spontaneously induces class consciousness in the masses. Crisis must be political because it is the end-product of the action of a party of external vanguards.

This picture cannot be taken for granted. Rosa Luxemburg believed in the inevitability of collapse,6 but her reasoning departed from this picture on essential points. As I will show, the theoretical problems that she faced remain today the crucial problems of critical political economy, while the easy answers of her critics have proven to be nearer to the orthodox formulations of “bourgeois” economics.

Far from being a spontaneist, Rosa Luxemburg always thought that organizations were necessary but that their legitimacy was to be found in the real movement: politics as a separate activity must be fought against. Instead, the goal must be that of a democratic society grounded in workers’ self-government and escape from the primacy of the economic. In fact, she was everything but a determinist: for Luxemburg, communism was not a necessity but a real possibility, without any final “guarantee.”

In what follows, I will try to provide support for such an interpretation.

Value as abstract labour “represented” in money
In order to really understand Rosa Luxemburg one must rediscover a fundamental (although very rarely read) work, her Introduction to Political Economy. Published posthumously,7 it collects the remaining chapters of a book that took its inspiration from her teaching work in the party school. She began the volume in jail, probably in 1912, subsequently revising it in 1916. It was never published in her life, and Paul Levi edited a version in 1925. To my knowledge, only the first chapter is available in English.8 The book is important for three reasons:

  1. its interpretation of the theory of value;
  2. its theory of the falling tendency of the “relative wage”;
  3. its definition of the precise meaning to be given to a “critique” of political economy.

As to the theory of the value, Luxemburg anticipated a position later expressed with particular force by Isaak I. Rubin (1928). According to Rubin, Marx’s theory of value does not so much represent a theory of equilibrium relative prices “objectively” anchored to some physiological expenditure of human labour in production, rather it is a theory of the peculiar and contradictory form in which the social nature of labour comes into being in an essentially monetary economy like capitalism.

To discover that in the exchange-value of every commodity, in money itself, there is only human labour and that the value of every commodity increases with the amount of labour required for its production, and vice versa, is to recognize only half of the truth. The other half consists in explaining how and why labour takes on the estranged form of exchange-value and the mysterious form of money (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 221; translated from the Italian, my Italics).

In a society of generalized commodity exchange, such as capitalism, “[. . .] exchange is the only means for associating atomistic individuals and their activity in a coherent social economy” (ibid., p. 222; translated from the Italian, my Italics): In other words, exchange is the indirect social nexus of an asocial society founded on separation between producers.

Concrete, individual labour extracted by single capitals in mutual competition is “immediately private labour” commanded by capitalists in the expectation that it will be validated by the market, ex post, as socially undifferentiated labour. In such a society “the economy produces results which are mysterious and unpredictable to the people involved” (ibid., p. 65; translated from the Italian). Society becomes for them “something estranged, alienated, independent, the laws of which we must find in the same manner in which we analyse the phenomena of external nature, the same manner in which we have to attempt to comprehend the laws governing the life of the plant and animal kingdom, the geological formations on the earth’s surface and the movements of the heavenly bodies” (ibid., my Italics). Capitalism gave birth to political economy as an autonomous discipline because the “economic” was isolated from all other moments of the social nexus.

In this novel mode of production, economic life found in itself its own end and justification: “scientific analysis must discover post factum the meaning and the regularity governing social economic life which no conscious plan imposed on it beforehand” (ibid., p. 65).

It is not difficult, today, to discover behind Luxemburg’s words the central role played by the category of abstract labour. Capitalist labour is not immediately social labour in its useful and natural shape, rather it is labour which must become social through abstraction from the concrete determinations of its performance and its eventual validation on the commodity market. That abstract labour is a real abstraction specific to capitalism and not a mental generalization of the researcher – and that the other side of the coin of abstract labour is none other than money itself as the true outcome of the capitalist process – is already clearly anticipated by Rosa Luxemburg in a prior text, in Social Reform and Revolution:

Marx’s abstraction is not an invention but a discovery. It exists not in Marx’s head but in the market economy. It has not an imaginary existence, but a real and social existence: so real that it can be cut and hammered, weighed and minted. The abstract human labour discovered by Marx is, in its developed form, nothing but – money (the English translations, fromWaters, 1970, p. 67 and Howard, 1971, p. 100, have been adapted,9 my Italics).

Already in Luxemburg it is possible to see the tight connection that this problematic has with the theory of alienation and fetishism, and also with the thesis that the primacy of the economic had a historical birth, hence possibly an end. To this I will return. It is enough for now to stress the distance between this approach and perspectives which see the labour theory of value as based on the primacy of production reduced to its technical-material dimension. It is also clearly distant from positions that collapse Marxian theory to some conflictualist view about distribution of the net product between social classes. What is emphasized here is that value is created – or better still, it “comes into being” – at the intersection between production and circulation. Commodities are the outcome of dissociated valorization processes in competition, and the struggle against capitalism is a struggle against the commodity-form, since this latter has created a divide between individual and society. Certainly, this was a minority view in the period of the Second International and even more so in the Third International. Only in the last thirty years has something akin to Luxemburg’s position been systematically taken up in Marxian research.10

The law of falling tendency of the “relative wage”
Let’s go to the second reason why the Introduction to Political Economy is relevant, the falling tendency of the “relative wage.” The generalization of the commodity-form involves a reduction of labour-power to a commodity. The peculiarity of labour-power as a commodity consists in the fact that its use-value, living labour, is not separable from the seller. This has two consequences. First, given the length of the working day and the intensity of labour, capitalists obtain a share of surplus labour within the whole of the labour time pumped out from workers (and therefore a share of surplus value) only to the extent that more advanced techniques of production diminish the exchange-value of labour-power, which is regulated by the real subsistence wage. Though this latter is conflictually determined by class confrontation, for Marx it was a known datum at a given time and in a given place. Second, this extraction of surplus labour depends on the ability to impose an effective expenditure of labour tout court. It depends therefore on class struggle within production. This antagonism has deep roots in the control which workers may sometimes exercise over the expenditure of living labour, the objectification of which makes up the “substance” of value.11

Luxemburg’s discussion of the wage in her Introduction goes back to this dialectic between endogenous technical change in capitalism – that is, the incessant revolution of the mode of production necessary for capital’s valorization – and the possibility that crises may erupt, not only due to “objective” (mechanical) reasons but also due to contradictions within capitalist social relations of production.

Indeed, Rosa Luxemburg puts forward what she defines as a “law” distinctive of the mode of production founded on labour-power as a commodity, the law of a falling tendency of the “relative wage.” To start, Luxemburg lucidly depicts the radical difference that the wage-form introduces with respect to pre-capitalist conditions of labour:

In the wage system there are neither legal nor customary rules, neither coercive nor arbitrary determinations of the workers’ share of their product. Rather, this share is determined by the degree of the productive-power of labour, then by the state of techniques. It is not any arbitrary will of exploiters but technical change that causes the inexorable and relentless pressure on workers’ (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 257; translated from Italian, my Italics).

On the other hand Luxemburg continues to emphasise that:

[F]or capitalism, continuous and ceaseless technical change is a necessity, a vital condition. The competition between individual entrepreneurs compels each one of them to produce, as cheaply as possible. That is, with the highest possible saving of human labour (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 255; translated from Italian, my Italics).

The conclusion is that:

[E]ach advance in the productive-power of labour manifests itself in a contraction of the necessary labour to reproduce the worker. That is to say: capitalist production cannot take a single step without limiting the participation of workers in the social product (ibid., my Italics).

That is, Luxemburg argues that an increase in the productive-power of labour, driven by individual capitals’ competitive hunt for extra-profits, necessarily leads to a decrease in the labour time socially necessary to produce wage-goods. This comes down to an economic corollary and a political thesis.

Against any theory that would impute to Marx the idea of an “increasing absolute impoverishment” of the working class, Luxemburg’s economic corollary is that innovations may allow at one and the same time an increase in the share of surplus value and an increase in workers’ material (so-called) well-being. The latter may be realised either as higher real wages or in reductions in working time, or both. It is possible, that is, to produce more wage goods in less time, in spite of a division of the social working day more advantageous to the capitalist class.

Contrary to the determinist reading of class struggle typically imputed to Luxemburg, she opens up to Marxian theory the possibility to forecast some reformist collusion between capitalists and workers. The possible convergence of interests between the two classes is meaningful, however, only so long as it pertains to the use-value dimension. In the value dimension things are not this way and necessarily so since value inescapably implies an antagonistic partition of the working day. Here at the heart of valorization, resisting the fall in the “relative wage” means opening the way to capitalist crisis, a social and political crisis because it is a crisis in the fundamental social relations of production posing the problem of some political outlet beyond capitalism.

Thus the struggle against a fall in the relativewage also implies a struggle against the commodity character of labour-power, i.e. against capitalist production as a whole. Thus the struggle against a fall in the relative wage is no longer a struggle on the basis of the commodity economy, but a revolutionary, subversive attackon the existence of this economy; it is the socialist movement of the proletariat (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 257; English translation in Rosdolsky, 1968, p. 295, my Italics).

It is now clear why the Introduction presents a way of doing “critical political economy” where the inquiry into economic mechanisms is linked to the hidden social relationships that produce them. This approach was innovative within the Marxism of Luxemburg’s day, and may be so even more today. It is also clear why it is an original perspective on Marxian theory as “critique of political economy.” Political economy was born out of the separation and isolation of the economy as an autonomous dimension. To struggle against the commodity-form of labour-power is, then, nothing but to make transparent the social process and win control over it. This struggle is, in practice, nothing less than a fight against the separation and primacy of the economy over human beings. Luxemburg writes:

If political economy is a science dealing with the particular laws of the capitalist mode of production, then its reason for existence and its function are bound to the life span of the latter and political economy will lose its base as soon as that mode of production will have ceased to exist (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 73 [English transl. in Waters, 1970, p. 244] my Italics).

And again:

The problem faced by scientific investigation becomes defined as the discovery of the lack of consciousness infecting the economic life of society, and here we have reached the roots of political economy (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 63 [English transl. in Waters, 1970, p. 236], my Italics).


“the end of political economy as a science constitutes a world historic task” (Luxemburg, 1925, p. 78 [English transl. in Waters, 1970, p. 248], my Italics).

It is the fruit of a political activity uprooting the – material and social – objective bases of the opacity of the capitalist mode of production, and the scandal of exploitation. Beyond capitalism, economic phenomena and their investigation will not, of course, disappear. No longer maintaining dissociation and autonomy, they will however become subordinated to other forms of human agency and to other scientific discourses.

The theory of crisis
Thus, the Introduction to Political Economy clearly shows that Rosa Luxemburg saw in the theory of value not so much a theory of equilibrium prices – as will be done both by traditional Marxism and neo-Ricardians, whatever their differences – as a theory of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. From value as a particular social nexus Luxemburg derives both the dynamic tendencies of capital – namely, the law of the falling “relative wage” – and the centrality of money. I have already clarified how her reading of the theory of value as a theory of the particular form of socialization in capitalism anticipated Rubin’s views. Her reading of the theory of value as unbalanced accumulation is in a line of continuity with Henryk Grossmann’s Marx, the Classical Economists and the Problem of Dynamics (Grossmann, 1941). And her reading of the theory of value as essentially monetary can now be better appreciated, because of the diffusion of new monetary readings of the labour theory of value.12 From this perspective I will argue that the critiques of determinism and spontaneity directed against Luxemburg do not stand up.

Let us return then to her theory of crisis and her theory of organization. As to the theory of crisis, the arguments in the previous sections have clarified what is already obvious from a careful reading of the Accumulation of Capital – namely, that Luxemburg is not, rigorously speaking, an “underconsumptionist.”13 Her thesis is rather that the incessant activity of innovation, which translates into massive but unplanned investment, determines the reasons for its own interruption.

The point can be put simply enough. An increase in investment is accompanied by an increase in new industries and new branches of production, along with change in old industries and old branches of production. This involves a modification of the conditions of equilibrium between sectors (which in the following may be reduced to two: means of production, wage consumption goods). In an unplanned economy this makes a disproportionality crisis ever more likely, with excess demand in some sectors and excess supply in others. The excess of production over money demand gives way to a fall in prices resulting in losses and even bankruptcies, which in time involve lay-offs and unemployment. Thus, firms’ demand for means of production collapses together with workers’ demand for wage goods.

When this negative multiplier chain affects important sectors of the economy, the downfall in investment and consumption demand transmits excess supply to other industries, a sequence eventually leading to general overproduction (a line of reasoning not far from some hints by Marx in the Grundrisse).

This dispenses with the thesis that Luxemburg’s analysis of crisis pays insufficient attention to investment as a component of effective demand, as traditionally underconsumptionists do. Rather, Luxemburg commits a different kind of error. She is convincing in showing the systematic tendency to crisis in capitalism, due to the impossibility of having an unlimited increase in the share of investment – the root of the crisis being the uncertainty surrounding this latter in a changing environment in the course of unbalanced accumulation. But she reads this tendency as leading, sooner or later, to automatic collapse, once capitalism has become “purified” from all non-capitalist elements. This is an idea foreign to Marx, who wrote that permanent crises do not exist, and who saw them as not only a temporary breakdown of the system but also as purging this latter from its contradictions for a while.

The other charge directed against Luxemburg concerns her question: “where does the money come from to realise surplus value?” Critics argue that the point is wrongly put. Once again this criticism goes more against her opponents. For Luxemburg, capitalist production, as the production of value and surplus value, is nothing other than the production of money and more money. In her constant return to the question of money in the Accumulation of Capital, we have an indication of Luxemburg’s appreciation of the intrinsically monetary nature of the capitalist process, underplayed by much of the Marxism of the time. In fact, her reasoning is always framed in terms of some kind of a model of the monetary circuit, where production must be financed by money capital and must give rise to an increase in value.

On this terrain, to be sure, Rosa Luxemburg moves in an exploratory and tentative way. She does, however, pick out the importance of two points entirely overlooked by her critics. While the latter are prisoners of an image of the economic process that finds no place for money except as an inessential “veil” over real phenomena (hence, an image of the capitalist economy as a great barter economy), Luxemburg constantly asks how money enters the economic system and how higher monetary receipts can actually been recovered from the process, what is the source of this extra money. Her answers are defective, in that, on the one hand, she sees money as the outcome of a process of production quite analogous to all other manufacturing processes (see her model of the “gold producer”), and on the other she argues that the greater quantity of money can only derive from gross exports. But this in no way detracts from the fact that she was among the few authors who took up this particular problematic after Marx, and at least posed the right questions.

Indeed, more recent theoretical developments have shown how much her intuitions were sound. Michal Kalecki (1967), taking Luxemburg rather than Marshall or Wicksell as his point of departure, arrived at results similar to Keynes’. He has shown how positive net of exports push up effective demand and therefore allow for a partial or total monetary realization of the net product – something which is impossible in the pure and most rigorous macro model of the monetary circuit where money is completely endogenous because of bank finance to production. Luxemburg here is inaccurate, since she gives the impression that it is export as such, i.e. total exports, that are an addition to effective demand and an inflow of new money into the monetary circuit for that whole amount, thus neglecting the outflow of demand and money due to imports. Nevertheless, Kalecki points out that she correctly identified the relation between net exports and the monetary circuit. Kalecki was also able to show that an analogous inflow of new money and partial or total monetary realization of the surplus product in a macroeconomic perspective can be obtained from a State budget deficit financed by the banking system.

With all its limits, Luxemburg’s economic analysis amounted to nothing less than a revival of the theory of value reread as a theory of exploitation in a monetary economy characterised by dynamic competition among firms. Her originality was in taking up again Marx’s perspective in a framework which has been further developed by old (Wicksell, Schumpeter, Keynes) and new (Schmitt, Parguez, Graziani) theories of the monetary circuit.14 Exactly what Kautsky or Lenin, Bauer or Bukharin dubbed as her “errors” now appear as what make Luxemburg a forerunner of a macro-monetary theory of exploitation, accumulation and crisis.

Struggle and organisation: the political writings
The preceding reappraisal of Luxemburg’s economic theory reveals that the accusation of “spontaneism” is without foundation, nothing but the other face of the accusation of “determinism,” which is equally devoid of any ground. However, this latter view is at least better than the view according to which her supposed spontaneism would be nothing but the by product of her “feminine” nature leading her to think of conscious control as a threat to spontaneous behaviour. Though it may appear paradoxical, for Luxemburg the tendency to collapse justifies neither a wait-and-see policy, nor an evolutionary attitude of calm confidence in the “course of things” – anything but.

The same conclusion can be reached by taking account of other parts of Luxemburg’s thought. In her later writings, the Polish revolutionary develops an original position (indeed unique within the Marxism of her time), whereby socialism may come about not as the outcome of natural necessity but only as a result of historical necessity. Not as a certain outcome or final moment within history, but as the only way to escape the “barbarism” into which capitalist development drags the working class and humanity generally. Here also, of course, one may impute to Luxemburg, an excessively dark vision of social dynamics.

But it is difficult to deny that a formulation of this sort allows her to avoid the sandbanks of evolutionism that stranded the Second and Third Internationals. More than that we are compelled to ask: is Luxemburg’s pessimism really a limit? To answer, it is enough to recall the years that followed her death: the interlude between the First and Second World Wars; the true, deep material (and psychological) degradation of civilization and of the quality of life in the years of neo-capitalism and the so-called “golden age”; the present devastation of nature, widespread mass unemployment and yawning inequality on a world scale in the era of globalization and post-Fordism. Once again, we must consider whether reason is more on Luxemburg’s side. Perhaps she was more farsighted than her critics.15

The accusation of “spontaneism” is often leveled against Luxemburg by the followers of Lenin’s theory of organization. However, notwithstanding the clear cut difference between the two (especially if one looks at What is to be Done? rather than State and Revolution) and notwithstanding Lenin’s many criticisms of Luxemburg, the fact remains that the accusation in question cannot be found in the writings of the Russian revolutionary. Indeed, Lenin saw quite clearly that Luxemburg (while evidently formulating a theory of organization very different from his own), did not in any way deny the (inevitable) need for an organized vanguard.

The nature of the contrast is well expressed in an old article of Rossana Rossanda, “Class and Party,” which appeared in September 1969 in the monthly magazine il manifesto, and it was translated in English in a shortened version the next year (Rossanda, 1969). For Lenin workers’ struggles cannot go beyond the purely economic conflict, beyond the fight for a more favourable distribution of income. The social struggle can only become a political struggle if the party, the only authentic revolutionary “subject,” is in a position to bring “consciousness” to the proletariat as the “object” of revolutionary activity. Employing the later terminology of Panzieri and Tronti, workers as such are always “labour-power” and never “working class” without the party as an external agent, without the party they are always and completely internal to the capitalist horizon. The party is what infuses class consciousness in workers “from outside.” Rossanda cites some of Lenin’s more explicit passage from What is to be Done?, and the conclusions according to which: “[t]he vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was out of the heads of members of this stratum that modern Socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done” (Lenin, cited by Rossanda, 1969, p. 223). So, “the task of social democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its tasks” (Rossanda, 1969, p. 223). Rossanda is right in saying that in this reasoning the “idealist root is obvious. While it is true that one must guard against a ‘mechanical’ application of Marx’s thought, the question remains how it is possible to think in Marxist terms and yet maintain that consciousness has an origin other than social being – ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness’ – and if the passage from social being to consciousness in the proletariat presents a theoretical difficulty, that problem becomes quite insoluble, if at the risk of falling back into Hegelianism, one deduces consciousness from consciousness” (Rossanda, 1969, p. 224, my Italics).

Luxemburg, continues Rossanda, sought a solution to the problem of organization “in accordance with the Marxian conception of class consciousness and not according to the Leninist thesis of an external vanguard” (ibid., p. 224). For Luxemburg, to be sure, the role of the vanguard is central in transforming objective social contradictions through a revolutionary break. Certainly not because of any “absence of a political dimension of working class struggles as such, but from the objective fragmentation of these struggles, which a unifying strategy could alone overcome” (Rossanda, 1969, p. 224, my Italics).

What must be clearly understood is that the relation between organization and spontaneity for Luxemburg is such that the party finds its legitimacy not in itself but in the working class. Its effectiveness grows and is verified only through mass struggle that erupts periodically and in an unexpected way.

Luxemburg writes in Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy: “the unconscious precedes the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process” (Looker, 1972, p. 102). But, in these struggles, there is always a risk of disintegration and atomization in the absence of constant reunification. The action of the party “arises historically out of the elementary class struggle. It spreads and develops in accordance with the following dialectical contradiction. The proletarian army is recruited and becomes aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself. The activity of the party organization, the growth of the proletarians’ awareness of the objectives of the struggle and the struggle itself, are not different things separated chronologically and mechanically. They are only different aspects of the same process” (Looker, 1972, p. 98). In the final analysis, the liberation of the working class will be the work of the working class itself.

Finally, we must frankly admit to ourselves that errors made by a truly revolutionary labor movement are historically infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible “central committees” (Howard, 1971, p. 306).

And in her last article of January 1919, Order Reigns in Berlin, written a few days before her death:

“But the revolution is the sole form of ‘war’ – and this is also its most vital law – in which the final victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats” (Looker, 1972, p. 304).

It is therefore because of the social (and not merely political) nature of the proletarian revolution that Luxemburg defines mass strikes as the general form of the proletarian class struggle, and the party as the specific movement of the working class. In organization one must constantly combat a separation of politicians from militants, of leaders from workers.

Luxemburg’s discourse on organization is, obviously, inseparable from the class composition she faced, the problems she confronted; in effect, these different concrete situations partially explain the contrast with Lenin. This notwithstanding, I believe that her limitations, viewed from the perspective of today, lie not so much in an overvaluation but rather in an undervaluation of the political nature of workers’ autonomous struggles during the rising tide when the movement is on the offensive, and in the difficulty of elaborating the relationship between party and masses in the phases of defeat. It is true that these limits reveal a contradiction, yet it would be well to remember that it is a contradiction not in theory but in reality: a contradiction that is still in front of us and not behind us.

Once again, Luxemburg’s thought reveals itself not as a solution, but as an arsenal of problems.

Recently, in the same vein, Edoarda Masi has written:

Rosa is on the side of the masses because they are oppressed. For her, the educational function of ´elites must have as its aim mass revolt, mass revolution – that is, their aim is not winning “power” for those same elites. Otherwise, revolution would merely create a mirror of the bourgeois power they should upset. Luxemburg’s is a vision until this day deprived of a political victorious outlet, but the only one where revolution is not destined to devour itself (Masi, 1986, p. 95; translated from the Italian).

And again:

If the mole of history is the truth that, hidden in the present, will reveal itself in the changed conditions of the future, it is in our time that Rosa’s ideas and fate, apparently fruitless, shows their positive legacy. To bet on the masses: when the October revolution, the only victorious one, had followed another path. To opt for peace: when Social Democracy had chosen war; and war had come; followed by another war, still more terrible and universal. To side with the defeated: the worst possible errors from the point of view of “political reason”. Yet the victories of her day, even if authentic, mean nothing to us, when all is changed and dragged along by time [. . .]. Still with us, living and invincible, are the ideas of the defeated because they answer to a fundamental need of human beings in this century, a need which cannot be suppressed. These ideas represent the nobility of the defeated. Independently of ‘if ’ and ‘when’ they can be made real (Masi, 1986, p. 98; translated from the Italian. Italics in the original).

I would not know how to say it better.

The measure of things
In conclusion, I would also like for a moment to indulge the temptation to go from Luxemburg the revolutionary to Luxemburg the woman. In a letter to Sonja Liebknecht from prison on May 2, 1917 she writes:

Inwardly, I feel so much more at home in a plot of garden, like the one here, and still more in the meadows, when the grass is humming with bees, than at one of our party congresses. Surely I can tell you this, since you will not immediately suspect me of betraying socialism. You know that, in spite of it all, I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my titmice than to the ‘comrades’. And not because I find a restful refuge in nature, like so many morally bankrupt politicians. On the contrary, in nature too, with every step, I find so much that is cruel that I suffer very much (Bronner, 1978, p. 203).

And again in a letter of July 3, 1900, to her comrade and lover, Leo Jogiches, we read this passage:

The two of us constantly ‘live’ an inner life. It means we keep changing and growing, and this creates an inner dissociation, an imbalance, a disharmony between some parts of our souls and others. Therefore, the inner self must be constantly reexamined, readjusted, harmonized. One must constantly work on oneself to avoid sinking into spiritual consuming and digesting. But in order not to lose the overall sense of existence that I believe is a life committed to outward, constructive action, creative work, one needs the control of another human being. That human being must be close, understanding and yet separate from the ‘I’ that seeks harmony (Ettinger, 1979, p. 105, italics in original text).

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I see a nexus between the writing of this woman in love and the thinking of the Marxist and the revolutionary. It seems to me that the Rosa of whom Rossana Rossanda recently wrote in her introduction to the reprint in Italian of Frölich’s biography – namely, the Luxemburg who speaks to our need for “personal unity in the tortured fabric of pain and hope, of intelligence and feeling, of the self and the world, reunited” (Rossanda, 1986, p. 16; translated from the Italian) – is the same Luxemburg who wants to overcome the separation of individual and society, and who writes to Luise Kautsky on September 18, 1915:

So, I must always have something that totally devours me, though this is not very good for a person from whom – to her misfortune – people always expect something clever. Also, dearest, you do not want to hear about my “happiness in a corner” and will take me only in jest. But I need above all someone who believes me when I say that only by chance have I been caught up in the turbulence of world history when, in truth, I was born to be the custodian of geese’
(Basso ed.: 236; translated from the Italian, italics in original text).

I recognize in these lines the same woman who, in her scientific writings, speaks about the possibility of a world beyond the primacy of the economic. This woman – who subjects the “I” that seeks harmony to the risk of the relation with the “other,” and to the challenge of change – is, outside any empty rhetoric, the combatant that her work and her struggle have bequeathed us.

From Research in Political Economy Vol. 21, 279-298.


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  • 1. “Like a candle burning at both ends” is the way Luxemburg is defined by Paul Frölich (1939) in chapter 10 of his biography.
  • 2. A good example of this reading is Nye (1994).
  • 3. Cfr. Luxemburg (1913, 1915).
  • 4. As an aside, it is important to stress that – though, of course, there is no strict continuity line from Lenin to “Leninism” to Stalin – Stalinism could arise only because of original errors embedded within the Bolshevik tradition. The present writer cannot but agree with the criticism of “really existing” socialism coming from people like Koestler or Merleau-Ponty, Orwell or Silone. If that is socialism, it cannot be a means for the liberation either of human beings or of the working class and the oppressed. But, as I will show in Sect. 5, there was an alternative libertarian line directly descending from Marx. Rosa Luxemburg was very farsighted in seeing all these problems well in advance in 1917, in her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution – and of course, this goes in fact back to her polemic with Lenin in Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy. Indeed, her phrases have lost nothing of their stringency. To quote only few: “with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins . . . But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictatorship. Socialist democracy . . . is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well entrenched rights and the economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.

    But this dictatorship must be the work of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the masses” (Waters, 1970, pp. 391, 393–394, the Italics are by Luxemburg).

  • 5. Cfr. especially Bukharin (1924) and Sweezy (1942). Sweezy wrote also an Introduction for the Italian translation of Luxemburg (1913, 1915) published by Einaudi in 1960. A more balanced perspective in Robinson (1951). On all this, see also Zarembka (2002).
  • 6. Though the point is contested by some: Zarembka, for example, argues that this statement is excessive, because breakdown only comes at the very last paragraph of the Accumulation of Capital.
  • 7. The book title in the original edition is Einf¨uhrung in die National¨okonomie. I used the Italian translation. There exists also a translation in French. Another economic text by Luxemburg which may be of interest here is chapter 12 of Franz Mehring’s biography of Marx, about his economic theory, which was actually written by Rosa.
  • 8. It is included in Waters (1970). Substantial new extracts are promised in Hudis-
    Anderson (2004), to be published soon (at the time of my writing).
  • 9. Here as elsewhere in this paper I have always checked the English translations with the Italian translations in the collections edited by Luciano Amodio (Scritti scelti, Einaudi, 1975) and Lelio Basso (Scritti politici, Editori Riuniti, 1970).
  • 10. For two general surveys of the contemporary readings of Marx stressing the monetary and macroeconomic nature of Marx’s labour theory of value, see Bellofiore (1989) and Bellofiore (2004a). My perspective originates from the Italian debate, surveyed in Bellofiore (1999, 1997).
  • 11. That Luxemburg’s reading is faithful to Marx, and more accurate than most of the new interpretations fashionable today, is documented with ample textual evidence, in Bellofiore (2004b).
  • 12. I refer here mainly to the contributions made by Foley, Moseley and Reuten. For more bibliographical details, cfr. my papers quoted in Notes 10 and 11.
  • 13. The charge of underconsumptionism levelled against Luxemburg has been dismantled by Meghnad Desai in many writings, on lines which are partly different but complementary to mine. Cfr., for example, Desai (1974, 1979, 1991).
  • 14. For a recent and complete exposition of the contemporary versions of the monetary circuit approach, cfr. the book by Graziani (2003) and its bibliography. The theoretical origins of this heterodox line in Wicksell, Schumpeter and Keynes are traced in Bellofiore (1992). Bellofiore (2004c) re-reads explicitly Marx along this lines.
  • 15. On all this, I agree with Norman Geras (1976) and Lelio Basso (1975). This latter book was originally published in Italian as his long introduction to a collection of Luxemburg’s political writings.


Jun 25 2010 21:22

Can someone please post the bibliography for this article? Some sources cited seem worth checking out.