The Revolutionary Ideas of Rosa Luxemburg

January marked the 100th anniversary of the murder of the outstanding revolutionary socialist leader, Rosa Luxemburg. In this article, Eleanor Crossey-Malone looks at her defence of both the fundamental ideas of Marxism and the necessity of revolutionary change against an increasingly opportunistic and reformist SPD leadership.

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg after her death, the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky wrote of seeing her speak at a congress in Germany: “she mounted the platform of the congress as the personification of the proletarian revolution. By the force of her logic and the power of her sarcasm she silenced her most avowed opponents.”1 Luxemburg stands out for the formidable challenge she posed to reformist ideas, and as a class fighter who maintained a Marxist and revolutionary outlook, as well as an unflinching optimism in the ability of workers to struggle and win, in the face of historic betrayals by the leaders of the international socialist movement at the outbreak of World War One.

Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871 to a family of Jewish descent. From the age of 15, she was active in socialist politics and organising strikes. She produced a doctoral thesis on the industrial development of Poland and was one of very few women in her time to be awarded a doctorate. In Germany, she joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The German SPD was established in 1875 as one of the world’s first Marxist parties with a mass base in society. On her arrival in Berlin she worked as a journalist and taught Marxist economics at a training centre run by the party.

Divisions in the socialist movement

During Luxemburg’s lifetime, much of the socialist movement in Europe, including the Second International – a grouping of socialist parties within different countries then known as the ‘social democracy’ – claimed a connection to the ideas of Marxism. Even those whose politics revised or altogether abandoned Marxist analyses often felt the need to legitimise their ideas by paying lip service to Marxism. But the national parties and the international were forums containing markedly different outlooks and methods. These differences ultimately manifested in the form of two distinct camps within the international organisation, and it was within the Russian and German parties in particular that these differences came into sharp focus.

On one side of this dispute were the revolutionary socialists, most significantly the Bolsheviks in Russia, who intervened in the daily struggles of workers and the oppressed in the knowledge that it would ultimately be necessary to break with the capitalist system, and for the working class to take economic and political power from the capitalist class. Capitalism as an inherently crisis-prone system would repeatedly create the conditions for new revolts of workers, but Lenin in particular theorised that, in order to ensure their victory, it was necessary to be prepared – to organise inside a revolutionary party and maintain the party as a tool for independently fighting in the interests of workers. The Bolsheviks saw workers revolution as a living perspective and sought to consistently raise the consciousness of working-class people to the need for revolutionary socialist change.

Reform or Revolution?

On the other side of the dispute within the Second International were the proponents of an anti-revolutionary outlook that crystallised into the ideology of reformism. Eduard Bernstein, also a member of the German SPD, became the first to give this tendency a theoretical expression. In his book, Evolutionary Socialism (1899), he challenged Marx’s most profound observations about the capitalist system. Bernstein claimed that rather than being an inherently crisis-prone system, capitalism was capable of stabilising itself – it had “means of adaptation” that would allow it to overcome its contradictions, and could therefore circumvent the need for revolutionary and systemic change. He claimed that the working class was not the engine of socialist change, but instead through organising in trade unions and fighting for reforms, it helped the capitalist system to adapt and to avoid crisis.

Reforms to the capitalist system alone, according to Bernstein, would over time lead to socialism. The pursuit of political power by the social democrats became no longer a means to an end, not a platform from which to spur on the independent movement of workers, but an end in itself. It is important to note that Luxemburg did not oppose reforms within capitalism, she fully favoured a struggle by working class to improve their rights and conditions. However, she did not see this struggle as an end in itself and rejected the idea that capitalism as a system could be reformed.

Rosa Luxemburg saw in Bernstein’s book a dramatic break with Marxism that had far-reaching and dangerous implications, which could threaten the entire workers’ movement and subvert the upheavals occurring throughout Europe. She wrote Reform or Revolution, a polemic in which she deconstructed Bernstein’s arguments and exposed their weaknesses. She disproved mistaken ideas about how the credit system would in future allow the system to avoid going into crisis. The 2007-2008 crash, also known as the “credit crunch”, proved Luxemburg correct when she argued that the system of credit, in which businesses are allowed to rack up enormous debts before collapsing, actually makes crises deeper and more destructive when they do occur.

In the midst of the argument Bernstein claimed that, whatever path each group envisaged, they ultimately shared the goal of socialism. But, Luxemburg pointed out, if workers’ struggles lead to reforms which enrich workers at the same time as strengthening the capitalist system, then why should socialism ever become necessary? How could the working class and its organisations be at once the seed of a socialist society and a pillar of support for capitalism? As she aptly pointed out:

“…people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”2

The roots of reformism

Luxemburg noted that these ideas came from an academic stratum in the leadership of the party that guarded its knowledge of Marxist theory and hoped to keep Marxism – the sharpest weapon in the struggle for socialism – out of the hands of the mass of workers within the party, not least due to fear that the reformist leadership would be exposed as inadequate. Bernstein’s theories reflected not the perspective of the working class, but the intrusion of middle-class ideas into the party. Because of the intermediate social position of the middle classes, their loyalties could be divided between support for capitalism on the one hand and hostility to the big bourgeoisie on the other.

Bernstein’s ideas ultimately expressed the doomed hopes of the middle classes that the fatal contradictions of capitalism could simply resolve themselves without any real confrontation between the elites (who privately owned the means production and pocketed the profits from workers’ labour) and the working class (who were robbed of the enormous wealth they produced through the system of wage labour, and who operated but did not own the means of production). These ideas also gained traction, if perhaps less consciously, amongst the SPD’s growing and increasingly bureaucratised apparatus.

Later on Luxemburg was also to come into conflict with those who nominally claimed to support her political position outlined in Reform or Revolution, most notably the SPD’s leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, the so-called “pope of Marxism”. In 1910 she wrote an article on the question of the ‘mass strike’ as a means of struggle to win electoral reform in opposition to Germany’s dominant ruling class, the Junkers – big landowners based in Prussia.3 For Luxemburg such a strike movement was a “a partial manifestation of our general socialist class struggle”.

Kautsky opposed this position, reflecting a conservative desire not to alienate the increasingly bureaucratised and reformist trade union leaders. His strategy to challenge the rule of capitalism was for a gradual “accumulation of forces” on the part of the SPD in a “war of attrition”. Ultimately, this reflected his own lack of confidence in a mass struggle of the working class and the fact that a large section of SPD were shifting away from the necessity of a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. All of these political differences were to sharply come to the fore with the outbreak of the First World War.

Capitalism and war

Marxism explains how the capitalist system inherently generates war between nations, rooted in the tensions between the capitalist classes of different countries. In 1914, along with this revolutionary outlook came a systemic analysis of World War One: the war represented the struggle of the competing capitalist classes, notably Germany, Britain, France, the US, Russia and Japan to gain conquest and exploit the world market for profit. The ruling classes were willing to send millions of working-class people to be slaughtered in the service of this goal. If the labour leaders were to support the war, it would mean the subordination of workers’ organisations to the defence of the national capitalist classes and their system. Luxemburg, like the Bolsheviks, maintained a steadfast opposition to the war and called for socialist revolution internationally to end all wars.

A serious clash of ideas took place between the revolutionary socialists and the reformists. Nationalist propaganda in all of the warring countries spread the idea that the war was necessary to defend the ‘fatherland’ in the interests of people of all classes. There was tremendous pressure on all left-wing forces to capitulate to this idea. But while there was formally an agreement among the parties of the Second International to oppose the war, in reality Kautsky and the reformists within the SPD reasoned that there could be no struggle for socialism until the war was fought to a conclusion, and in effect did not oppose the war effort.

Luxemburg was clear that to lay down class struggle was to lay down the only tool that could have ended, not only World War One – which the 1917 October Revolution eventually did – but all wars thereafter. This was what finally pushed Luxemburg and Liebknecht to break away from the SPD and organise independently within the Spartacus League – named after Spartacus, the famous leader of a slave rebellion in ancient Rome.

Making a revolution

In 1917, mass strikes broke out in Russia bringing down the Tsarist autocracy and developing into the revolutionary overthrow of the reformist provisional government. The Russian Revolution was successful due to the political leadership of the Bolsheviks. Unlike the SPD. they were not a party that simply claimed adherence to Marxism while at the same time accommodating to the system and increasingly embracing reformist ideas and methods. Since their inception they were an organisation preparing for revolution and building a mass base amongst the working class for their ideas. Its leadership and cadres were known and tested fighters that had collectively developed invaluable experience in the struggle against Tsarism and capitalism in Russia in the early 20th century.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Rosa Luxemburg’s life was that she did not build such an organisation in Germany, or indeed in Poland where she was also politically influential. She was unquestionably a courageous fighter and an articulate voice in combating the reformist degeneration of the SPD in the period before the war. However her ideas did not have an organisational expression, in the form of a genuinely Marxist tendency that could have built an important base amongst the advanced sections of the German working class. It was only during the war itself, and later with the founding of the German Communist Party (KPD) in December 1918, that she attempted to ractify this. Notwithstanding the fact that it attracted outstanding revolutionary class fighters, the KPD was too inexperienced and lacked sufficient support amongst the German working-class to play a decisive leadership role.

Of course the above criticism of Luxemburg needs to be put in its historical context. The essential role of a distinct revolutionary socialist party in the struggle for socialism was not demonstrated in practice until the 1917 Russian Revolution. Prior to this it appeared to most Marxists that the German SPD was the model organisation for workers to challenge capitalism.

Lessons for today

Today the contradiction between the need for socialist change and the low level of consciousness and organisation among workers has only become starker. The economic crisis of 2007-2008 plunged global capitalism into a long recession and marked new assaults on the wages and conditions of workers, but at the same time it precipitated a rise in workers taking industrial action to defend jobs, pay and conditions. Increasingly, workers and young people are searching for solutions and drawing connections between immediate problems, such as cuts to public services, inadequate housing, and rising costs of living, and the system itself. This wave of radicalisation has also found political expressions in new left formations around the world and huge support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Britain, Bernie Sanders in the USA, Melenchon in France. The problem of how a workers’ party should be structured, and how best we should organise to fight for socialist change, is one that pervades the experience of the years since the crash.

Hand-in-hand with austerity and attacks on workers has been a drive to chip away at the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, migrants and ethnic groups, with figureheads like Donald Trump falsely directing blame for the erosion of living standards and wages away from the system and towards oppressed groups. An important task of a revolutionary socialist party today is to act as the memory of the class struggle, and to refocus struggle towards its rightful target. The approach of revolutionary socialists is to trace the roots of all attacks on workers, as well as all oppression, to the capitalist system and its representatives, and in doing so to build solidarity and a united movement for the socialist transformation of society.

The lessons that must be learned from the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, and also from the events that defined her life and death, are many. The pressures to capitulate to conservative and nationalistic ideas, and to uncritically take the approach of lesser-evilism, limiting our aspirations to a kinder version of capitalism, are still very real for socialists, and are fresh as a new generation of workers navigates these ideas today. The pressure to lose sight of workers’ ability to break free of the constraints and treacherous leaderships of the past, particularly among its new generations, can lead to the abandonment of Marxism and revolutionary ideas. Luxemburg’s death and the failure of the German Revolution raise the question of how history might have panned out had there been a strong revolutionary leadership with roots throughout the working class, cohering in a vibrant and steeled democratic centralist organisation. The absolute imperative of the such a party and International are made clear by the tragedy of 1918/19.

In her last piece of writing, Rosa Luxemburg issued a warning to the ruling class and to the labour leaders who cooperate with them to undermine the revolutionary activity of the working class. Her immortal words sound with renewed force:

“You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”4


1 Leon Trotsky, 1919, “Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg”, l 2 Rosa Luxemburg, 1900, Reform or Revolution, l 3 Rosa Luxemburg, 1910, “The Next Step”, l 4 Rosa Luxemburg, 1919, “Order Prevails in Berlin”,

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