Reform Or Revolution

Luxemburg’s life for Democracy and Socialism

Tomás Várnagy

Rosa Luxemburg (1871, Zamosc, Poland–1919, Berlin, Germany) is one of the most fascinating and imposing revolutionary figures in modern European history and, at the same time, one of the most discussed to date. Her friends and adversaries emphasize the penetrating acuity of her intelligence, her great willpower, her lively and impatient temperament, her strong combative nature, and her great moral rigour.

She was born in Poland in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, the youngest of five children in a cultured and relatively wealthy Jewish family. Intelligent and brilliant in her studies, independent and rebellious in spirit, she was involved in socialist political activity from her early youth. When she was a little girl, as a typical cultured Central European, she spoke three languages: Russian, Polish, and German. She became an activist in the Proletariat Party, founded in 1882 (almost two decades before the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), in which she organised and led striking workers. In 1886, four of its leaders were executed, while others were locked up and exiled.

Luxemburg then moved to Zurich in 1889, the most important centre of Polish and Russian emigration, to avoid arrest by the Polish police. There she studied mathematics, natural sciences, and political economy, and received her doctorate with a thesis on industrial development in Poland. In Switzerland she met Georgi Plekhanov (1857–1918) and Leo Jogiches (1867–1919), the latter becoming her partner of many years. She was also an active element in the political life of the revolutionary exiles of the Russian empire.

In her opposition to the nationalism of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP), in 1894 Luxemburg came to lead, together with Leo Jogiches, the continuation of Proletariat—first as the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP), and then adding Lithuania (SDKPiL). Jogiches was the chief organiser and Luxemburg was the most capable voice and intellect.

The PSP socialists wanted the independence of Poland and even Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) had considered it favourably. However, Rosa Luxemburg questioned the PSP, accusing it of nationalistic tendencies and of diverting workers from the class struggle. She rejected, from the point of view of absolute socialist internationalism, the programme of the reinstatement of an independent Polish state. She took a different stance from the old masters and opposed the slogan “Independence for Poland”, and in the process came to be accused of being an agent of Tsarism.

In 1898 Rosa Luxemburg moved to Germany, standing out in the important debates within European socialism. She was one of the main contributors to the most important Marxist theoretical newspaper of the time, Die Neue Zeit. She even criticised the editor, Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), considered the “Pope of Marxism”.

The movement in Germany was divided into two tendencies: a reformist and a revolutionary one. Germany had enjoyed increasing prosperity since the crisis of 1873, the standard of living of the workers had been improving, and the unions and cooperatives had become stronger. All this caused the bureaucracy of these movements, together with the growing parliamentary representation of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to move away from revolution and to lean towards gradual change and reformism. The main spokesman for this trend was a disciple of Friedrich Engels, Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), who between 1886–89 wrote a series of articles on Problems of Socialism, openly attacking the principles of Marxism.

In the revisionist controversy, Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution, which is considered the best general Marxist response of the Second International to reformism. Her position was that as long as capitalism lasted, its crises and contradictions would not be softened, and to suggest something else, as Bernstein had done, was to break with the fundamental core of Marxism, denying the objective bases of the socialist project. The labour movement had to fight for reforms through trade unions and parliamentary activity, but as this was not enough to abolish the capitalist relations of production, the ultimate goal should be the seizing of power through revolution.

Luxemburg intervened in the dispute between Vladimir I Lenin (1870–1924) and the Mensheviks, a dispute which originated at the Congress of 1903. Luxemburg criticised Lenin for his conception of a highly centralised party vanguard; according to Luxemburg, it was an attempt to put the working class under tutelage. Her arguments—characteristic of all her work—comprised factors such as independent initiative, the workers’ activity and their ability to learn through their own experience and mistakes, and the need for a grassroots democratic organisation.

In Organisational Problems of Social Democracy, Luxemburg, like Trotsky at that time, disagreed with Lenin that the Party should be an organisation of professional revolutionaries; on the contrary, she considered that the revolutionary party should encompass the working class organized as a whole. She did not underestimate the role of the party as providing political leadership, but denied its role as the daily organizer of class struggle and affirmed: “let's speak clearly. Historically, the mistakes made by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the most cunning Central Committee”.

Even Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), in Our Political Tasks (Part II), a 1904 text which was contrary to the Leninist position, prophesies and predicts in a famous paragraph that “Lenin’s methods lead to this: “…the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”. Years later, in June 1932, Trotsky dismissed his earlier argument by stating: “If one were to take the disagreements between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in their entirety, then historical correctness is unconditionally on Lenin’s side”.

On the question of nationalities in Poland, Luxemburg had other reasons for disagreeing with Lenin: although she deplored national oppression, like any other type of oppression, unlike Lenin she neither supported the independence of Poland, nor the law of nations to self-determination. She was arrested and imprisoned in Germany in 1904 for her political activities and for “insulting the Kaiser”.

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Vol 55, No. 1, Jul 3 - 9, 2022