Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rosa Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg's short book Reform or Revolution is often overlooked these days, in favour of her more famous, Mass Strike. Written while in her late twenties, Reform or Revolution demonstrates the keeness of Luxemburg's Marxism and the sharpness of her polemic.

The book is a response to a series of articles and an eventual book by Eduard Bernstein. Berstein was an important figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to which Luxemburg also belonged. Bernstein was arguing for a movement away from the ideas embodied in classical Marxism.

"..hi conception of the march of economic development is incompatible with the Marxist theory of surplus value. Therefore, Bernstein abandons the theory of value and surplus value, and, in this way, the whole economic system of Karl Marx."

In fact, Luxemburg argued that he was breaking with the whole of Marxist thought - thought that was the rock upon which the SPD was built. The SPD had been founded as an avowed revolutionary organisation. It's leading members in the late 19th century had been close to Marx and Engels, but several where now demonstrating a break with that tradition. As the quote above suggests, Bernstein had dropped, or questioned a series of key Marxist ideas. In particular, he was hinting that the revolutionary transformation of society was no longer required because capitalism had the potential to solve its own contradictions.

Famously, she quotes Bernstein "The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” Bernstein saw the socialist movement and the workers' organisations, such as the Trade Unions, not as weapons to further the struggle for socialism, but as tools to tame capitalism.

Luxemburg's anger at Bernstein's betrayal of the movement shines through. Yet her writting is never simply polemical. It is a clear restatement of basic Marxist arguments, in part an attempt to educate and win new workers to the revolutionary movement. Her final dismissal of Bernstein emphasises this:

"Not the shadow of an original though! Not a single idea that was not refuted, crushed, reduced into dust, by Marxism several decades ago!"

"Bernstein appear as an unconscious predestined instrument, by means of which the rising working class expresses its momentary weakness, but which, upon closwer inspection, it throws aside contemptusously and with pride."

This is a wonderful piece of polemic. Luxemburg clearly believed that Bernstein and those who rallied around him should be challenged, but she also clearly believed that the problem of reformism, or opportunism as she called it, was simply one of ideology. Defeated by a re-assertion of Marxism, she hoped the reformists would vanish and the SPD would continue along the correct road.

Unfortunately, what wasn't clear to her, was the extent to which reformism had a very real, material base within the SPD. Having made the transition from illegality to legal organisation, the SPD had built an immense organisation. Hundreds of newspapers and workers' clubs, thousands of full-timers. The organisation, as hinted by the quote from Bernstein above, was becoming an end in itself. Revolutionary activity, that challenged the state and the capitalists put all this in jeopardy. As Duncan Hallas once wrote, "they had much more to lose than their chains".

The rot went deep. Luxemburg herself details a number of examples of the way that the party had, in some localities, compromised with the capitalist system. This was, barely two decades after the publication of the book, to come to a head with the complete capitulation of the SPD's leaders to the system when it backed the First World War. In the aftermath of that, Luxemburg and a few other German revolutionaries were left almost alone to try and rebuild revolution organisation in the midst of World War. The lack of an independent, mass revolutionary socialist party was one of the major factors in the failure of the German Revolution that erupted at the end of the First World War.

Reform or Revolution is not an easy read as it contains many contemporary references. Though a decent introduction in the edition I read, by Donny Gluckstein put the work in context and had many useful endnotes. The question she addresses though, remains important. It is the basic arguement about how to challenge capitalism. Today, reformist organisations seem bankrupt. Here in the UK the Labour Party is a shadow of its former self. Yet reformist ideas remain the dominant ones in workers heads. Re-reading Rosa Luxemburg's polemic is a useful tool for all of us as we engage in the debates taking place today in every workplace and college about how to best challenge capitalism. Luxemburg's clear call for revolution speaks to millions today.

Related Reviews

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - The Mass Strike

1 comment:

john latham said...

Just to say 'Reform or Revolution' addresses one of the questions of every time and every place, albeit being written in a particular moment. No work is perfect, but I think it useful to avoid judging historical figures too harshly (a balance sheet of their pluses and minuses should stress the + if their work is progressive and of enduring relevance in my humble.) Apparently some academics maintain that revolutions often occur when things have just moved slightly off the economic bottom. It was very kind of you to say what you did on Twitter. Take care and be lucky in the widest sense.