Rosa Luxemburg in retrospect - Paul Mattick

Mattick reconsiders the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, particularly her critique of Bolshevism and her economic theory.

Submitted by libcom on July 27, 2005

It will soon be sixty years since the mercenaries of the German social-democratic leadership murdered Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Although they are mentioned in the same breath, as they both symbolized the radical element within the German political revolution of 1918, Rosa Luxemburg's name carries greater weight because her theoretical work was of greater seminal power. In fact, it can be said that: she was the outstanding personality in the international labor movement after Marx and Engels; and that her work has not lost its political relevance despite the changes the capitalist system and the labor movement have undergone since her death.

Just the same, like everyone else, Rosa Luxemburg was a child of her time and can only be understood in the context of the phase of the social-democratic movement of which she was a part. Whereas Marx's critique of bourgeois society evolved in a period of rapid capitalistic development, Rosa Luxemburg was active in a time of increasing instability for capitalism, wherein the abstractly formulated contradictions of capital production showed themselves in the concrete forms of imperialistic competition and in intensified class struggles. While the actual proletarian critique of political economy, according to Marx, consisted at first in the workers' fight for better working conditions and higher living standards, which would prepare the future struggles for the abolition of capitalism, in Rosa Luxemburg's view this 'final' struggle could no longer be relegated to a distant future but was already present in the extending class struggles. The daily fight for social reforms was inseparably connected with the historical necessity of the proletarian revolution.

Without entering into Rosa Luxemburg's biography,(1) it should be said, that she came from a middle-class background and that she entered the socialist movement at an early age. Like others, she was forced to leave Russian Poland and went to Switzerland to study. Her main interest, as behooved a socialist influenced by Marxism, was political economy. Her early work in this field is now only of historical interest. There was her inaugural-dissertation, The Industrial Development of Poland (1898), which did for Poland, though in a less extensive manner, what Lenin's The Development of Capitalism in Russia, did for Czarist Russia a year later. And there were her popular lectures at the Social-Democratic Party School, posthumously published by Paul Levi (1925) under the title Introduction of National Economy. In the latter work, it should be noted, Rosa Luxemburg declared that the validity of political economy is specific to capitalism, and will cease to exist with the demise of this system. In her dissertation, she came to the conclusion that the development of the Polish economy would proceed in conjunction with that of Russia, would end in complete integration, and therewith would end the nationalist aspirations of the Polish bourgeoisie. But this development would also unify the Russian and Polish proletariat and lead to the eventual destruction of Polish-Russian capitalism. The main contradiction of capitalist production was seen by her as one between the capacity to produce and the limited capacity to consume within the capitalist relations of production. This contradiction leads to recurrent economic crises and the increasing misery of the working class and therewith, in the long run, to social revolution.

It was only with her work on The Accumulation of Capital (1912) that Rosa Luxemburg's economic theories became controversial. Although she claimed that this book grew out of complications arising in the course of her popular lectures on National Economy, namely, her inability to relate the total capitalist reproduction process to the postulated objective limits of capital production, it is clear from the work itself that it was also a reaction to the emasculation of Marxian theory initiated by the "Revisionism' that swept the socialist movement around the turn of the century. Revisionism operated on two levels: the primitive empirical level personified by Eduard Bernstein, (2) who merely compared the actual capitalist development with that deducible from Marxian theory, and the more sophisticated theoretical turnabout of academic marxism, culminating in Tugan-Baranowsky's (3) Marx-interpretation and those of his various disciples.

Only the first volume of Capital was published during Marx's lifetime, and the second and third were prepared by Friedrich Engels from unrevised papers left to his care, although they had been written prior to the publication of the first volume. Whereas the first volume deals with the capitalist process of production, the second concerns itself with the circulation process. The third volume, finally, deals with the capitalist system as a whole in its phenomenal form, as determined by its underlying value relations. Because the reproduction process necessarily controls the production process, Marx thought it useful to display this fact by means of some abstract reproduction diagrams in the second volume of Capital. The diagrams divide total social production into two sections: one producing means of production, the other means of consumption. The transactions between these two departments are imagined to be such as to enable the reproduction of the total social capital to proceed either on the same or on an enlarged scale. But what is a presupposition for the reproduction diagrams, namely, an allocation of the social labor as required for the reproduction process, must in reality first be brought about blindly, through the uncoordinated activities of the many individual capitals in their competitive pursuit of surplus-value.

The reproduction diagrams do not distinguish between values and prices; that is, they treat values as if they were prices. For the purpose they were intended to serve, namely, to draw attention to the need for a certain proportionality between the different spheres of production, the diagrams fulfill their pedagogical function. They do not depict the real world, but are instrumental in aiding in its under- standing. Restricted in this sense, it does not matter whether the interrelations of production and exchange are dressed in value or price terms. because the price form of value, taken up in the third volume of Capital, refers to the actual capitalist production and exchange process, the imaginary equilibrium conditions of Marx's reproduction diagrams do not refer to the real capitalist world. Still, Marx found it quite necessary to view the process of reproduction in its fundamental simplicity, in order to get rid of all obscuring interferences and dispose of the false subterfuges, which assume the semblance of scientific analysis, but which cannot be removed so long as the process of social reproduction is immediately analyzed in its concrete and complicated form.(4)

Actually, according to Marx, the reproduction process under capitalistic conditions pre cludes any kind of equilibrium and implies, instead, "the possibility of crises, since a balance is accidental under the conditions of this production... (5)Tugan-Baranowsky, however, read the reproduction diagrams differently because of their superficial resemblance to bourgeois equilibrium theory, the main tool of bourgeois price theory. He came to the conclusion that as long as the system develops proportionately with respect to its reproduction requirements, it does not have objective limits. Crises are caused by disproportionalities arising between the different spheres of production but can always be overcome through the restoration of that proportionality which assures the accumulation of capital. This was a disturbing idea, as far as Rosa Luxemburg was concerned, and this the more so as she could not deny the equilibrating implications of Marx's reproduction diagrams. If Tugan-Baranowsky interpreted them correctly, then Marx was wrong, because this interpretation denied the inevitable end of capitalism.

The discussion around Marx's abstract reproduction diagrams was particularly vehement in Russia because of earlier differences between the Marxists and the Populists with regard to Russia's future in face of her backwardness and her peculiar socio-economic institutions. Whereas the Populists asserted that for Russia it was already too late to enter into world competition with the established capitalist powers, and that, furthermore, it was quite possible to construct a socialist society on the basis of the not yet dissolved collectivity of peasant production, the Marxists maintained that development on the Western pattern was inescapable and that this development itself would produce the markets it required within Russia and in the world at large. The Marxists emphasized that it is the production of capital, not the satisfaction of consumption, that determines capitalist production. There is, therefore, no reason to assume that a restriction of consumption would retard the accumulation of capital; on the contrary, the less there is consumed, the faster capital would grow.

This "production for the sake of production" made no sense to Rosa Luxemburg -- not because she was unaware of the profit motive of capitalist production, which constantly strives to reduce the workers' share of social production, but because she could not see how the extracted surplus-value could be realized in money form in a market composed only of labor and capital, such as is depicted in the reproduction diagrams. Production has to go through the circulation process. It starts with money, invested in means of production and labor-power, and it ends with a greater amount of money in the hands of the capitalists, to be re-invested in another production cycle. Where would this additional money come from? In Rosa Luxemburg's view, it could not possibly come from the capitalists; for if it did, they would not be recipients of surplus-value but would pay with their own money for its commodity equivalent. Neither could it come from the purchases of the workers, who only receive the value of their labor power, leaving the surplus-value in its commodity form to the capitalists. To make the system workable, there must be a "third market,' apart from the exchange relations of labor and capital, in which the produced surplus-value could be transformed into additional money.

This aspect of the matter Rosa Luxemburg found missing in Marx. She intended to close the gap and therewith substantiate Marx's conviction of capitalism's necessary collapse. Although The Accumulation of Capital approaches the realization problem historically -- starting with classical economy and ending with Tugan-Baranowsky and his many imitators -- so as to show that this problem has always been the Achilles heel of political economy, her own solution of the problem comprises, in essence, no more than a misunderstanding of the relation between money and capital and a misreading of the Marxian text. As she presents matters, however, everything seemingly falls in its proper place: the dialectical nature of the capital-expansion process, as one merging out of the destruction of pre-capitalist economies; the necessary extension of this process to the world at large, as illustrated by the creation of the world market and rampant imperialism in search of markets for the realization of surplus-value; the resulting transformation of the world economy into a system resembling Marx's closed system of the reproduction diagram; and therewith, finally, the inevitable collapse of capitalism for lack of opportunities to realize its surplus-value.

Rosa Luxemburg was carried away by the logic of her own construction to the point of revising Marx more thoroughly than had been done by the Revisionists in their concept of a theoretically possible harmonious capital development, which, for them, turned socialism into a purely ethical problem and into one of social reform by political means. On the other hand, the Marxian reproduction diagrams, if read as a version of Say's Law of the identity of supply and demand, had to be rejected. Like her adversaries, Rosa Luxemburg failed to see that these diagrams have no connection at all with the question of the viability of the capitalist system, but are merely a methodologically determined, intermediary step in the analysis of the laws of motion of the capitalist system as a whole, which derives its dynamic from the production of surplus-value. Although capitalism is indeed afflicted with difficulties in the sphere of circulation and therewith in the realization of surplus-value, it is not here that Marx looked for, or found, the key to the understanding of capitalism's susceptibility to crises and to its inevitable end. Even on the assumption that there exists no problem at all with regard to the realization of surplus-value, capitalism finds its objective limits in those of the production of surplus-value.

According to Marx, capitalism's basic contradiction, from which spring all its other difficulties, is to be found in the value and surplus-value relations of capital production. It is the production of exchange-value in its monetary form, derived from the use-value form of labor-power, which produces, besides its own exchange-value equivalent, a surplus-value for the capitalists. The drive for exchange-value turns into the accumulation of capital, which manifests itself in a growth of capital invented in means of production relatively faster than that invested in labor-power. While this process expands the capitalist system, through the increasing productivity of labor associated with it, it also tends to reduce the rate of profit on capital, as that part of capital invested in labor-power -- which is the only source of surplus-value -- diminishes relative to the total social capital. This long and complicated process cannot be dealt with satisfactorily in this short article, but must at least be mentioned in order to differentiate Marx's theory of accumulation from that Rosa Luxemburg. In Marx's abstract model of capital development, capitalist crises, as well as the inevitable end of the system, find their source in the temporary or, finally, total breakdown in the accumulation process due to a lack of surplus-value or profit.

For Marx, then, the objective limits of capitalism are given by the social production relations as value relations, while for Rosa Luxemburg capitalism cannot exist at all, except through the absorption of its surplus-value by pro-capitalist economies. This implies the absurdity that these backward nations have a surplus in monetary form large enough to accommodate the surplus-value of the capitalistically advanced countries. But as already mentioned, this wrong idea was the unreflected consequence of Rosa Luxemburg's false notion that the whole of the surplus-value, earmarked for accumulation, must yield an equivalent in money form, in order to be realized as capital. Actually, of course, capital takes on the form of money at times and at other times that of commodities of all descriptions - all being expressed in money terms without simultaneously assuming the money form. Only a small and decreasing part of the capitalist wealth has to be in money form; the larger part,, although expressed in terms of money, remains in its commodity form and as such allows for the realization of surplus-value an additional capital.

Rosa Luxemburg's theory was quite generally regarded as an aberration and an unjustified criticism of Marx. Yet her critics were just as far removed from Marx's position as was Rosa Luxemburg herself. Most of theme critics adhered either to a crude underconsumption theory, a theory of disproportionality, or a combination of them. Lenin, for example -- not to speak of the Revisionists -- saw the cause for crises in the disproportionalities due to the anarchic character of capitalist production, and merely added to Tagan-Baranowsky's arguments that of the underconsumption of the workers. But in any case he did not believe that capitalism was bound to collapse because of its immanent contradictions. It was only with the first world war and the revolutionary upheavals in its wake that Rosa Luxemburg's theory found a wider response in the radical section of the socialist movement. Not so much, however, because of her particular analysis of capital accumulation, as because of her insistence upon the objective limits of capitalism. The imperialistic war gave her theory some plausibility and the end of capitalism seemed indeed actually at hand. The collapse of capitalism became the revolutionary ideology of the time and supported the abortive attempts to turn the political upheavals into social revolutions.

Of course, Rosa Luxemburg's theory was no less abstract than that of Marx. Marx's hypothesis of a tendency of the rate of profit to fall could not reveal at what particular point in time it would no longer be possible to compensate for this fall by an increasing exploitation of the relatively diminishing number of workers, which would increase the mass of surplus-value sufficiently to maintain a rate of profit assuring the further expansion of capital. Similarly, Rosa Luxemburg could not say at what time the completion of the capitalization of the world would exclude the realization of its surplus-value. The outward extension of capital was also only a tendency, implying a progressively more devastating imperialist competition for the diminishing territories in which surplus-value could be realized. The fact of imperialism showed the precariousness of the system, which could lead to revolutionary situations long before its objective limits were reached. For all practical purposes, then, both theories assumed the possibility of revolutionary actions, not because of the logical outcome of their abstract models of development, but because these theories pointed unmistakably to the increasing difficulties of the capitalist system, which could in any severe crisis transform the class struggle into a fight for the abolition of capitalism.

Although undoubtedly erroneous, Rosa Luxemburg's theory retained a revolutionary character because, like that of Marx, it led to the conclusion of the historical untenability of capitalism. Although with dubious arguments, she nonetheless restored -- against Revisionism, Reformism, and Opportunism -- the lost Marxian proposition that capitalism is doomed to disappear because of its own unbridgeable contradiction and that this end, though objectively determined, will be brought about by the revolutionary actions of the working class.

The overthrow of capitalism would make all theories of its development redundant. But while the system lasts, the realism of a theory may be judged by its own particular history. Whereas Marx's theory, despite attempts made in this direction, cannot be integrated into the body of bourgeois economic thought, Rosa Luxemburg's theory has found some recognition in bourgeois theory, albeit in a very distorted form. With the rejection by bourgeois economy itself of the conception of the market as an equilibrium mechanism, Rosa Luxemburg's theory found a kind of acceptance as a precursor of Keynesian economics. Her work has been interpreted, by Michael Kalecki (6) and Joan Robinson, (7) for example, as a theory of 'effective demand,' the lack of which presumably explains the recurrent capitalistic difficulties. Rosa Luxemburg imagined that imperialism, militarism, and preparation for war aided in the realization of surplus-value, via the transfer of purchasing power from the population at large to the hands of the state; just as modern Keynesianism attempted to reach full employment by way of deficit-financing and monetary manipulations. However, while it in no doubt possible, for a time, to achieve full employment in this fashion, it is not possible to maintain this state of bliss, as the laws of motion of capital production demand not a different distribution of the surplus-value but its constant increase. The lack of effective demand is only another term for the lack of accumulation, as the demand required for prosperous conditions is brought forth by nothing other than the expansion of capital. At any rate, the actual bankruptcy of Keynesianism makes it unnecessary to kill this theory theoretically. It suffices to say that its absurdity shows itself in the present-day unrelieved growth of both unemployment and inflation.

While Rosa Luxemburg did not fare well with her theory of accumulation, she was more successful in her consistent Internationalism, which was, of course, connected with her concept of accumulation as the global extension of the capitalist mode of production. In her view, imperialist competition was rapidly transforming the world into a capitalist world and thereby developing the unhampered confrontation of labor and capital. Whereas the rise of the bourgeoisie coincided with the formation of the modern nation-state, creating the ideology of nationalism, the maturity and decline of capitalism implied the imperialistic 'internationalism' of the bourgeoisie and therewith also the internationalism of the working classes, if they were to make their class struggles effective. The reformist integration of proletarian aspirations into the capitalist system led to social-imperialism, as the other side of the nationalistic coin. Objectively, there was nothing behind the frantically growing nationalism but the imperialist imperative. To oppose imperialism demanded, then a total rejection of all forms of nationalism, even that of the victims of imperialist aggression. Nationalism and imperialism were inseparable and had to fought with equal fervor.

In view of the at first covert but soon overt social-patriotism of the official labor movement, Rosa Luxemburg's internationalism represented the leftwing of this movement -- but not completely. In a way, it was a generalization of her specific experiences in the Polish socialist movement, which had been split on the question of national self-determination. As we already know from her work on the industrial development in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg expected a full integration of the Russian and Polish capitalism and a consequent unification of their respective socialist organizations, both as a practical and as a principled matter. She could not conceive of nationally oriented socialist movements and even less of a nationally restricted socialism. What was true for Russia and Poland also held for the world at large; national fissions had to be ended in the unity of international socialism.

The Bolshevik section of the Russian Social-Democratic Party did not share Rosa Luxemburg's strict internationalism. For Lenin, the subjugation of nationalities by stronger capitalist countries brought additional cleavages into the basic social frictions, which could, perhaps, be turned against the dominating powers. It is quite beside the point, to consider whether Lenin's advocacy of the self-determination of nations reflected a subjective conviction, or democratic attitude, with regard to special national needs and cultural peculiarities, or was simply a revulsion against all forms of oppression. Lenin was, first of all, a practical politician, even though he could fulfill this role only at a late hour. As a practical politician, he realized that the different nationalities within the Russian empire presented a steady threat to the Czarist regime.

To be sure, Lenin was also an internationalist and saw the socialist revolution in terms of the world revolution. But this revolution had to begin somewhere and he assumed that it would first break the weakest link in the chain of competing imperialist powers. In the Russian context, supporting the self-determination of nations, up to the point of secession, suggested the winning of "allies" in any attempt to overthrow Czarism. This strategy was supported by the hope that, once free, the different nationalities would elect to remain within the new Russian commonwealth, either out of self-interest, or through the urgings of their own socialist organizations.

Until the Russian Revolution, however, this whole discussion around the national question remained purely academic. Even after the revolution, the granting of self-determination to the various nationalities within Russia was not very meaningful, for most of the territories involved were occupied by foreign powers. Still, the Bolshevik regime continued to press for self-determination in order to weaken other imperialist nations, particularly England, in an attempt to foster colonial revolutions against Western capitalism, which threatened to destroy the Bolshevik state.

The Russian Revolution found Rosa Luxemburg in a German prison, where she remained until the overthrow of the German monarchy. But she was able to follow the progress of the Russian Revolution. Though delighted by the Bolshevik seizure of power, she could not accept Lenin's policies towards the peasants and with respect to the national minorities. In both cases she worried needlessly. Although her prediction that the granting of self-determination to the various nationalities within Russia would merely surround the new state with a cordon of reactionary counter-revolutionary countries, turned out to be correct, this was so only for the short run. Rosa Luxemburg failed to see that it was the principle of self-determination which dictated Bolshevik policy with regard to the Russian nationalities, than the force of circumstances over which the Bolsheviks had no control. At the first opportunity they began whittling away at the self-determination of nations, to end by incorporating all the new independent nations in a restored Russian empire, and, in addition, by forging for themselves spheres of interest in extra-Russian territories.

On the strength of her own theory of nationalism and imperialism, Rosa Luxemburg should have realized that Lenin's theory could not be actualized, in a world of competing imperialist powers and would, most probably, not need to be put into practice should capitalist be brought down by an international revolution. The disintegration of the Russian empire was not due to or aided by the principle of self-determination, but was effected through the loss of the war; as it was the winning of another war, which led to the recovery of previously lost territory and to a revival of Russian imperialism. Capitalism is an expansive system and therefore necessarily imperialistic. It is the capitalistic way of overcoming national limitations to capital production and its centralization -- of gaining, or securing, privileged or dominating positions within the world economy. It in thus also a defense against this general trend; but in all cases, it is the inescapable result of capital accumulation.

As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, the contradictory capitalist 'integration' of the world economy cannot alter the domination of weaker by stronger nations through the latter's control of the world market. This situation makes real national independence illusory. what political independence can accomplish, at best, is no more than the subjugation of the workers under native instead of international control. Of course, proletarian internationalism cannot prevent, nor has it reason to prevent, movements for national self-determination within the colonial and imperialistic context. These movements are part of capitalist society just an imperialism is. But to 'utilize' these movements for socialism can only mean to try to deprive them of their nationalist character through a consistent internationalism on the part of the socialist movement. Although oppressed people have the sympathy of the socialists, it does not relate to their emergent nationalism but to their particular plight as twice-oppressed people, suffering from both native and foreign exploitation. The socialist task in the ending of capitalism, which includes the support of anti-imperialist forces; not, however, to create new capitalistic nation-states, but to make their emergence more difficult, or impossible, through proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.

The Bolshevik regime declared itself socialistic and by that token was to end all discrimination of national minorities. Under such conditions, national self-determination was, in Rosa Luxemburg's eyes, not only senseless but an invitation to revive, via the ideology of nationalism, the conditions for a capitalist restoration. In her view, Lenin and Trotsky mistakenly sacrificed the principle of internationalism for momentary tactical advantage. While perhaps unavoidable, it should not be elevated into a socialist virtue. Rosa Luxemburg was right, of course, in not questioning the Bolshevik's subjective sincerity as regards the establishment of socialism in Russia and the furthering of the world revolution. She herself thought it possible, by way of a westward extension of the revolution, to defy the objective unripeness of Russia for a socialist transformation. She blamed the West European socialists, and in particular the Germans, for the difficulties the Bolsheviks encountered, which forced them into concessions, compromises, and opportunist actions. And she assumed that the internationalization of the revolution would do away with Lenin's nationalistic demands and resurrect the principle of internationalism in the revolutionary movement.

As the world revolution did not materialize, the nation-state remained the field of operation for economic development as well as for the class struggle. The "internationalism" of the Third International, under Russian dominance, served strictly Russian state interests, covered up by the idea that the defense of the first socialist state was a prerequisite for international socialism. Like national self-determination, this type of "internationalism" was designed to weaken the adversaries of the new Russian state. After 1920, however, the Bolsheviks no longer expected a resumption of the world-revolutionary process, and settled down for the consolidation of their own regime. Their 'internationalism' expressed now their own nationalism, just as the economic internationalism of the bourgeoisie serves no other end than the enrichment of nationally-organized capital entities.

The result of the second world war and its aftermath ended the colonialism of the European powers and led to the formation of numerous 'independent' nations; while, at the same time, two great power blocs emerged, dominated by the victorious nations Russia and the United States. Within each bloc there was no real national independence but rather the subordination of the nominally self-determined countries to the imperialistic requirements of the leading powers. This subordination was enforced by both economic and political means and by the general necessity to adapt the economies and therewith the political life of the satellite nations to the realities of the capitalist world market.

For the former colonies this implied a new form of subjugation and dependence, which found its expression in the term neo-colonialism; for the reborn, capitalistically more-advanced nations it implied the direct control of their political structure through the proven methods of military occupation and puppet governments. This situation led, of course, to new "liberation movements" not only in the capitalist but also in the so-called socialist camp, providing the proof that there is no such thing as national self-determination, either in the market-controlled or the state-controlled economies.

That nationalism is really a vehicle upholding the ruling class was soon made evident in all liberated nations, as it provided political parvenus with an instrument for their own emergence as new ruling classes, in collaboration with the ruling classes of the dominating countries. Whether these now ruling classes adhere to the 'free world' or to the authoritarian part of the world, in either case the national form, on which their rule in based, precludes any stop towards a socialist society. Wherever possible, their nationalism implies a fervent, even if miniature, imperialism, which sets 'socialist nations' against other nations, including other 'socialist nations.' Thus we have the sorry spectacle of a threatening war between the great 'socialist countries' Russia and China, and, on a smaller scale, the open warfare between 'Marxist' Ethiopia and "Marxist' Somalia for the control of Ogaden.

With some variations, this story can be prolonged almost endlessly, characterizing the present state of world politics, in which small nations act as proxies for the great imperialist powers, or fight on their own behalf, only to fall victim to one or another power bloc. All this substantiates Rosa Luxemburg's contention that all forms of nationalism are detrimental to socialism and that only a consistent internationalism can aid the emancipation of the working class. This unwavering internationalism is one of her greatest contributions to revolutionary theory and practice and sets her far apart from both the social-imperialism of Social Democracy and the Bolshevik opportunist concept of world revolution as advocated by its. great 'statesman' Lenin.

Like Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg looked upon the October Revolution as a proletarian revolution which, however, depended fully upon international events. At the time this view was shared by all revolutionaries whether Marxist or not. After all, as she said, by seizing power the Bolsheviks had "for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct program of practical policies" (8) They had solved the "famous problem of winning a majority of the people, by revolutionary tactics that led to a majority, instead of waiting for the latter to evolve a revolutionary tactic." (9) In her view, Lenin's party had grasped the true interests of the urban masses by demanding all power for the Soviets in order to secure the revolution. Still, the agrarian question was the axis of the revolution and here the Bolsheviks showed themselves as opportunistic in their policies as with regard to the national minorities.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the Bolsheviks had shared with Rosa Luxemburg the Marxist position that the land must be nationalized as a prerequisite for the organization of large-scale agricultural production in conformity with the socialization of industry. In order to gain the support of the peasants, Lenin abandoned the Marxist agricultural program in favor of that of the Social-Revolutionaries -- the heirs of the old Populist movement. Although Rosa Luxemburg recognized this turnabout as an 'excellent tactic,' for her it had nothing to do with the quest for socialism. Property rights must be turned over to the nation, or the state, for only then is it possible to organize agricultural production on a socialistic base. The Bolshevik slogan "immediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants" was not a socialist measure, but one which, by creating a new form of private property, cut off the way to such measures. "The Leninist agrarian reform," she wrote, "has created a now and powerful layer of popular enemies of socialism in the countryside, enemies whose resistance will be much more dangerous and stubborn than that of the noble large landowners." (10)

This proved to be a fact, hampering both the restoration of the Russian economy and the socialization of industry. But, as in the case of national self-determination, here too the situation was determined not by the Bolsheviks' policy but by circumstances beyond their control. The Bolsheviks were prisoners of the peasant movement; they could not hold power except with its passive support, and they could not proceed towards socialism because of the peasants. Moreover, their sly opportunism did not initiate the peasants' seizure of the land, but merely ratified an accomplished fact, independent of their own attitude. While other parties hesitated to legalize the expropriation of land, the Bolsheviks favored it, in order to win the support of the peasants and thus to consolidate the power they had won by a coup d'etat in the urban centers. They hoped to maintain this support by a policy of low taxation, while the peasants required a government which would prevent a return of the landlords by way of counter-revolution.

As far as the peasants were concerned, the revolution involved the extension of property rights and was, in this sense, a bourgeois revolution. It could only lead to a market-economy and the enhanced capitalization of Russia. For the industrial workers, as for Lenin and Luxemburg, it was a proletarian revolution even at this early stage of capitalist development. But as the industrial working class formed only a minuscule part of the population, it seemed clear that sooner or later the bourgeois element within the revolution would gain the upper hand. Bolshevik state-power could only be hold by arbitrating between these contrary interests but success in this endeavor would negate both the socialist and the bourgeois aspirations within the revolution.

This was a situation not foreseen by the Marxist movement and not predictable in terms of Marxian theory, which held that the proletarian revolution presupposes a high capitalistic development in which the working class finds itself in the majority and thus able to determine the course of events. While Lenin was not interested in a bourgeois revolution, except as a preliminary to a socialist revolution, he was a bourgeois in that he was convinced that it was possible to change society by purely political means, that is, by the will of a political party. This idealistic reversal of Marxism, with consciousness determining the material development instead of being produced by it, implied in practice no more than a copying of the Czarist regime itself, in which the autocracy had ruled over the whole of society. In fact, Lenin insisted that if the Czar could govern Russia with the aid of a bureaucracy of a few hundred thousand men, the Bolsheviks should be able to do likewise and better with a Party exceeding this number. In any case, once in power the Bolsheviks had no choice but to try to maintain it in order to defend their sheer existence. In the course of time there emerged a state apparatus which took upon itself the authoritarian control not only of the population but also of economic development, by turning private property into state property without changing the social relations of production -- that is, by maintaining the capital-labor relations that allow for the exploitation of the working class. This new type of capitalism -- properly called state-capitalism -- persists to the present day in the ideological dress of 'socialism."

In 1918, Rosa Luxemburg could not envision this development, as it lay outside of all Marxist assumptions. For her, the Bolsheviks were making various mistakes, which might endanger their socialist goal. And if these mistakes were unavoidable within the context of the isolated Russian Revolution, they should not be generalized into a revolutionary tactic for times to come and for all nations to follow. However helplessly, she opposed the Russian reality with Marxian principles, so as at least to save the Marxian theory. Bat it was all in vain, for it turned out that private-party capitalism is not necessarily followed by a socialist regime, but could be transformed into a state-controlled capitalism, wherein the old bourgeoisie was replaced by a new ruling class, whose power is based on its collective control of the state and the means of production. She knew as little as Lenin how to go about building a socialist society, but while the latter proceeded pragmatically from the experiences of wartime state-controls of capitalist nations and envisioned socialism as the state-monopoly over all economic activity, Rosa Luxemburg persisted in proclaiming that such a state of affairs could not emancipate the working class. She could not imagine that the emerging Bolshevik society represented a historically new social formation, but saw in it no more than a false application of socialist principles. And thus she feared a possible restoration of capitalism by way of the agrarian reforms of Bolshevism.

As it turned out, the agrarian question agitated the Bolshevik state unceasingly, finally leading to the compulsory collectivization of the peasantry as an in-between solution between private-property relations on the land and the nationalization of agriculture. This was no real repudiation of Lenin's peasant policies, which had been based on necessity, not on conviction. Except on paper, Lenin simply did not dare to nationalize the land, and Stalin did not dare more than the forced collectivizations of the peasants, in order to increase their production and exploitation, without depriving them of all private initiative. Even so, this was a frightful undertaking which almost destroyed, the Bolshevik regime. If Rosa Luxemburg was right against Lenin with respect to the peasant question, her arguments were nonetheless beside the point, for it was just a question of time, and of the strength of the state apparatus before the peasants would lose their newly-won relative independence and fall once more under the control of an authoritarian regime.

It should have been evident from Lenin's concept of the party and its role in the revolutionary process that, once in power, this party could only function in a dictatorial way. Quite apart from the specific Russian conditions, the idea of the party as the consciousness of the socialist revolution clearly relegated all decision-making power into the hands of the Bolshevik state apparatus. This general assumption found an even sharper accentuation in the Russian Revolution, divided, as it was, in its bourgeois and proletarian aspirations. If the proletariat was not able, according to Lenin, to develop more than a trade-union consciousness (that is, to fight for its interests within the capitalist system) it would certainly be even more unable to realize socialism, which presupposes an ideological break with all its previous experience. Echoing Karl Kautsky, Lenin was convinced that socialist consciousness had to be brought to the proletariat from the outside, through the knowledge of the educated middle class. The party was the organization of the socialist intelligentsia, representing revolutionary consciousness for the proletariat, even though it might also include a sprinkling of intelligent workers in its ranks. It was necessary that these specialists in revolutionary politics become the masters of the socialist state, if only to prevent the defeat of the working class through its own ignorance. And as the party was to lead the proletariat, so the leadership of the party was to lead its members by way of a semi-militaristic centralization.

It was this arrogant attitude of Lenin, pressed upon HIS party, which made Rosa Luxemburg quite wary about the possible outcome of the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Already in 1904 she had attacked the Bolshevik party concept for both its artificial separation of a revolutionary vanguard from the mass of the workers and for its ultra-centralization in general, as well as in party affairs in particular. "Nothing will more surely enslave a young labor movement to an intellectual elite hungry for power," she wrote, than this bureaucratic strait-jacket, which will immobilize the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated Central Committee. (11) By denying the revolutionary character of Lenin's party concept, Rosa Luxemburg prefigured the actual course of Bolshevik rule down to the present day. To be sure, her indictment of Lenin's organizational ideas was based on their confrontation with the organizational structure of the Social Democratic Party, which, though highly centralized, aspired to a broad mass basis for its evolutionary work. This party did not think in terms of seizing power, but was satisfied with its electoral successes and the spreading of the socialist ideology as a basis for its: growth. In any case, Rosa Luxemburg not believe that any type of party could bring about a socialist revolution. The party could only be an aid to revolution, which remained the privilege and required the activities of the whole working class. She did not see the socialist party as an independent organizer of the proletariat, but as part of it, with no functions or interests differing from those of the working class.

With this conviction, Rosa Luxemburg was only true to herself and to Marxism when she raised her voice against the dictatorial policies of the Bolshevik party. Although this party reached its dominating position via the demagogic demand for the sole rule of the Soviets, it had no intention of delegating any power to the Soviets, except, perhaps, where they were composed of Bolsheviks. It is true that the Bolsheviks in Petrograd and a few other cities held a majority of the Soviets, but this situation might change again and return the party to the minority position it had held during the first months after the February Revolution. The Bolsheviks did not look upon the soviets as organs of an emerging socialist society, but saw in them no more than a vehicle for the formation of a Bolshevik government. Already in 1905, which saw-the first rise of the Soviets, Lenin recognized their revolutionary potential, which, however, gave him only one more reason to strengthen his own party and prepare it for the reins of government. To Lenin, the latent revolutionary power of the Soviet form of organization did not change its spontaneous nature, which implied the danger of the dissipation of this power in fruitless activities. Although a part of social reality, spontaneous movements could, in Lenin's view, at best support but never supplant a goal-directed party. In October 1917, the question for the Bolsheviks was not one of choosing between Soviet- and party-rule, but between the latter and the Constituent Assembly. As there was no chance of winning a majority in the Assembly and thus gaining the it was necessary to dispense with realize the party dictatorship in the proletariat.

Although Rosa Luxemburg held that in one fashion or another the whole mass of people must take part in the construction of socialism, she did not recognize the soviets as typifying the organizational form which would make this possible. Impressed as she was in 1905 by the great mass-strikes taking place in Russia, she paid little attention to their soviet form of organization. In her eyes, the soviets were merely strike committees in the absence of other more permanent labor organizations. Even after the 1917 Revolution she felt that "the practical realization of socialism and an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future." (12) Only the general direction in which to move was known, not the detailed concrete steps that had to be taken to consolidate and develop the new society. Socialism could not be derived from ready-made plans and realized by governmental decree. There must be the widest participation on the part of the workers, that is, a real democracy, and it was precisely this democracy which alone could be designated as the dictatorship of the proletariat. A party-dictatorship was for her no more than "a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense,, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins." (13)

All this is undoubtedly true, on the general level, but the bourgeois character of Bolshevik rule reflected -- ideologically as well as practically -- the objectively non-socialistic nature of this particular revolution, which simply could not proceed from the quasi-feudal conditions of Czarism to a socialist society. It was a sort of 'bourgeois revolution' without the bourgeoisie, as it was a proletarian revolution without a sufficiently large proletariat: a revolution in which the historical functions of the bourgeoisie were taken up by an apparently anti-bourgeois party by means of its assumption of political power. Under these conditions, the revolutionary content of Western marxism was not applicable, not even in a modified form. This may explain the vacuity of Rosa Luxemburg's arguments against the Bolsheviks, her complaints about their disrespect for the Constituent Assembly and their terroristic acts against all opposition whether from the right or the left. Her own suggestions as how to go about with the building of socialism, however correct and praiseworthy, would not fit in with a Constituent Assembly, which is itself a bourgeois institution. Her tolerance towards all points of view and their wishes to express themselves in order to influence the course of events, cannot be realized under civil-war conditions. The construction of socialism cannot be left to a leisurely trial-and-error method by which the future may be discerned in the 'mists' of the present, but is dictated by current necessities that call for definite actions.

Rosa Luxemburg's lack of realism with regard to Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution may be traced to ambiguities of her own. On the one hand she was a social democrat and on the other a revolutionary, at a time when both positions had fallen apart. She looked upon Russia with social-democratic eyes and upon Social Democracy with revolutionary eyes; what she desired was a revolutionary-Social Democracy. Already in her famous debate with Eduard Bernstein, (14) she refused to choose between reform and revolution but endeavored to combine both activities in dialectical fashion in one and the same policy. In her view, it was possible to wage the class struggle in both the parliament and in the streets, not only through the party and the trade-unions but with the unorganized as well. The legal foothold gained within bourgeois democracy was to be secured by the direct actions of the masses in their everyday wage struggles. It was the masses' actions, however, which were most important, as they increased the masses' awareness of their class position and thereby their revolutionary consciousness. The direct struggle of the workers against the capitalists was the real 'school of socialism.' In the spreading of mass-strikes, in which the workers acted as a class, she saw the necessary precondition for the coming revolution, which would topple the bourgeoisie and install governments supported and controlled by the mature class -- conscious proletariat."

Until the outbreak of the first world war, Rosa Luxemburg did not fully comprehend the true nature of Social Democracy. There was a right wing, a center, and a left wing, Liebknecht and Luxemburg representing the latter. There was an ideological struggle between these tendencies, tolerated by the party bureaucracy because it remained purely ideological. The practice of the party was reformist and opportunistic, untouched by the left-wing rhetoric, if not indirectly aided by it. But there was the illusion that the party could be changed and restored to the revolutionary character of its origins. Suggestions to split the party were rejected by Rosa Luxemburg, who feared to lose contact with the bulk of the socialist workers. Her confidence in these workers was not affected by her lack of confidence in their leaders. She was thus more than surprised that the social-chauvinism displayed in 1914 united leaders and led against the party's left. Even so, she was not ready to leave the party until its split in 1917 on the issue of war aims, which led to the formation of the Independent Socialist Party (USPD), in which the Spartacus League, composed of a circle of people around Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Mehring, and Jogiches, formed a small faction. In so far as this faction engaged in independent activities, these were a matter of propaganda against the war and the class-collaborationist policies of the old party. Only near the end of 1918 did Rosa Luxemburg recognize the need for a new revolutionary party and a new International.

The German Revolution of 1918 was not the product of any left-wing organization, though members of all organizations played various parts in it. It was a strictly political upheaval to end the war and to remove the monarchy held responsible for it. It occurred as a consequence of the German military defeat and was not seriously opposed by the bourgeoisie and the military, for it allowed them to place the onus of the defeat upon the socialist movement. This revolution brought Social Democracy into the government, which then proceeded to ally itself with the military, in order to crush any attempt to turn the political into a social revolution. Still under the away of tradition and the old reformist ideology, the majority of the spontaneously-arising workers' and soldiers' councils supported the social-democratic government and declared their readiness to abdicate in favor of a National Assembly within the frame of bourgeois democracy. This revolution, it has been aptly said, "was a Social Democratic revolution, suppressed by the Social Democratic leaders: a process hardly paralleled in the history of the world." (16) There was also a revolutionary minority, to be sure, advocating and fighting for the formation of a social system of workers' councils as a permanent institution; but this was soon systematically subdued by the military forces arrayed against it. To organize this revolutionary minority for sustained actions, the Spartacus League, in collaboration with other revolutionary groups, transformed itself into the Communist Party of Germany. Its program was written by Rosa Luxemburg.

Already at its founding congress, it became clear that the new party was internally split. Even at this late hour Rosa Luxemburg was not able to break totally with social-democratic traditions. Although she declared that the time for a minimum program short of socialism had passed, she still adhered to the politics of the double perspective, that in, to the view that the uncertainty of an early proletarian revolution demanded the consideration of policies defined within the given, social institutions and organizations. In practice this meant participation in the National Assembly and in trade unions. However, the majority of the congress voted in favor of anti-parliamentarism and for a struggle against the trade unions. Although reluctantly, Rosa Luxemburg bowed to this decision and wrote and acted in its spirit. As she was murdered only two weeks later, it is not possible to say whether or not she would have stuck to this position. In any cage, encouraged by Lenin, via his eminary Radek, her disciples soon split the new party and merged its parliamentary section with a part of the Independent Socialists to form a "truly Bolshevik Party;" this time, however, as a mass-organization in the social-democratic sense, competing with the old Social Democratic Party for the allegiance of the workers, in order to forge an instrument for the defense of Bolshevik Russia.

But all this is history. The failed revolutions in Central Europe, and the state-capitalistic development in Russia, overcame the political crisis of capitalism that followed the first world war. Its economic difficulties were not so overcome, and led-to a now world-wide crisis and the second world war. Because the ruling classes -- old and now -- remembered the revolutionary repercussions in the wake of the first world war, they defeated their possible recurrence in advance by the direct means of military occupation. The enormous destruction of capital and its further centralization by way of war, an well as the raising of the productivity of labor, allowed for a great upswing of capital production after the second war. This implied an almost total eclipse of revolutionary aspirations, save those of a strictly nationalist and state-capitalist character.

This effect was strengthened by the development of the 'mixed economy,' nationally as well as internationally, wherein governments influenced economic activities. Like all things of the past, Marxism became an academic discipline -- an indication of its decline as a theory of social change. Social Democracy ceased to see itself as a working class organization, but rather as a people's party, ready to fulfill governmental functions for capitalist society. Communist organizations took over the classic role of Social Democracy -- and also its readiness to form, or to partake in, governments upholding the capitalist system. The labor movement-divided into Bolshevism and Social Democracy, which had been Rosa Luxemburg's concern -- ceased to exist.

Still, capitalism remains susceptible to crises and collapse. In view of present methods of destruction, it may destroy itself in another conflagration. But it may also be overcome by way of class struggles leading to its socialist transformation. The alternative enunciated by Rosa Luxemburg -- socialism or barbarism -- retains its validity. The current state of the labor movement, which lacks any revolutionary inclinations, makes it clear that a socialist future depends more on spontaneous actions of the working class as a whole, than on ideological anticipations of such a future which may find expression in newly-arising revolutionary organizations. In this situation, there is not much to be learned from previous experiences, except the negative lesson that neither Social Democracy nor Bolshevism had any bearing on the problems of the proletarian revolution. By opposing both, however, inconsistently, Rosa Luxemburg opened up another road towards the socialist revolution. Despite some false notions, with respect to theory and some illusions regarding socialist practice, her revolutionary impulse yielded the essential elements required for a socialist revolution: an unwavering internationalism and the principle of the self-determination of the working class within its organizations and within society. By taking seriously the dictum that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be its, own work, she bridged the revolutionary past with the revolutionary future. Her ideas thus remain as alive as the idea of revolution itself, while all her adversaries in the old labor movement have become part and parcel of the decaying capitalist society.

Paul Mattick

From Root and Branch #6, 1978


1. For biographical information, see John P. Nettl, "Rosa Luxemburg", 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

2. Eduard Bernstein, "Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismas und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie", translated as "Evolutionary Socialism" (1899; NY: Schocken, 1961)

3. Mikhail I. Tugan-Baranowsky, "Die Theoretischen Grundlagen des Marxismus" [The Theoretical Foundations of Marxism] (Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot, 1905).

4. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2, "The Process of Circulation of Capital" (1885; Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1926), p. 532.

5. ibid., p. 578.

6. Michael Kalecki, 'The Problem of Effective Demand with Tagan-Baranowsky and Rosa Luxemburg.'

7. Joan Robinson, Introduction to Rosa Luxemburg, "The Accumulation of Capital" (1913; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951).

8. Luxemburg, "The Russian Revolution" (1922), in "The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?" (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 39.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Luxemburg, "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" (1904), Ibid., p. 102.

12. Luxemburg, "The Russian Revolution," Ibid.# p. 69.

13. Ibid., p. 72

14. Luxemburg, "Social Reform or Revolution" (1899; NY: Pathfinder, 1973).

15. Luxemburg, "The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions" (1906; NY: Harper and Row, 1971).

16. Sebastian Haffner, "Failure of a Revolution" (NY: Library Press, 1972), p. 12.


Juan Conatz

10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 11, 2014

Was this Sr. or Jr.? I know Jr. was in Root & Branch, but Sr. also wrote for them?


10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by lurdan on January 15, 2014

Senior. There's a bibliography of his writings here.

I think Paul Mattick Jr normally signed articles as such - that's the case for the book review he wrote in the same issue.


10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by lurdan on January 16, 2014

Oops - just realised the bibliography is already in the library - [link]

Paul Mattick Sr's writings in Root and Branch :

No 3 - 'The American economy: Crisis and policy'.
Online here at [link]
Available here in the library, as part of a compilation of his writings in ms word .doc format from the old kurasje site [link]
(Its in 'Paul Mattick2.doc')

No 3 - 'America's War in Indochina'.
Online here at [link]
Also in the same compilation document from kurasje,

(A subsequent expanded version of this article is in the Root and Branch paperback anthology (Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements) entitled 'The United States and Indochina').

No 7 - 'Authority and democracy in the United States'.
[EDIT: now in the library [link] ]

No 10. - 'Marxism: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow'. A chapter from his book 'Marxism: Last refuge of the bourgeoisie?'.
Online at [link]

There's also an interview with him in Root & Branch No. 5.