Democratic Socialism

Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and of assembly, without a free struggle of opinions, vitality withers away in each public institution—it becomes a pseudo-vitality in which bureaucracy is the only remaining active element. Public life gradually falls into a slumber, a few dozen party leaders with inexhaustible energy and boundless idealism direct and govern; among the latter, a dozen outstanding minds are in reality the ones that lead, and an elite from within the working class is occasionally mustered in order to applaud the speeches of the leaders and to show unanimous approval for the resolutions drafted by them. This is basically a clique economy—a dictatorship to be sure, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat: instead it is the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, i.e. dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of Jacobin rule … This is an all-powerful, objective law that no party can circumvent.

For Rosa Luxemburg, conventional politics in the bourgeois era was the business of professional politicians acting in the interests of only part of society and seeking to gain and secure social, economic, and cultural privileges for themselves. According to Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding, both the reformist, parliamentary-oriented SPD and the revolutionary Bolshevik dictatorship remained within this bourgeois political tradition: both saw themselves less as part of the underprivileged than as their representatives.

For Rosa Luxemburg, on the contrary, socialism was not a service to be rendered to others nor a gift given to the oppressed and exploited by a political party. Socialist politics and socialism were to emerge from the common, voluntary, and conscious movement of all of the underprivileged. This movement was “the first in the history of class societies which reckons, in all its phases and through its entire course, on the organization and the direct, independent action of the masses”, she wrote in 1904. She saw professional politicians and parties merely as part of this movement; they should be responsible for organization and political education.

The growing aggressiveness of German militarism, the wars over the imperialistic redivision of the world, and above all the World War of 1914, gave special weight to the peace question. Rosa Luxemburg considered the socialist society that she was striving for to be deeply peaceful. She saw in it a form of human coexistence in which all causes of war and barbarism were to be eliminated. Last but not least, it was Rosa Luxemburg’s deeply felt longing for peace that made her a passionate advocate of socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg did not intend to overcome exploitative and oppressive elements by the use of physical force:

The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mould the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people…

By “social restructuring” she understood, with Marx, the overturning of all circumstances “in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence”. She sought to achieve this social restructuring through the constant struggle for hegemony, by means of which the balance of power within society was to be permanently shifted. In this way she intended not only to expropriate the expropriators but also to make the soil of society permanently barren for exploitation and oppression. She considered this to be the appropriate path for overcoming capitalism. She rejected any terror against owners of capital, and instead pleaded for a socialism supported by the majority of the underprivileged, from the perspective of which the re-emergence of capitalism would hold no appeal.

Rosa Luxemburg understood the struggle for hegemony as a permanent struggle for the approval and support of qualified majorities. This was one of the reasons why she saw freedom and democracy not as a luxury that socialist politicians could grant or refuse, but as a necessity of socialist politics:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of a party—however numerous they may be—is not freedom. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. Not because of the fanaticism of ‘justice’, but because all the invigorating, healing and purifying aspects of political freedom depend on this essence and fail to have an effect when ‘freedom’ becomes a privilege.