News | Party / Movement History - Rosa Luxemburg - Alternatives to Society - Democratic Socialism - Social Theory Rosa Luxemburg and the Question of the “Good Life”

Can we say what socialism will look like before we get there?



Bini Adamczak,

Workers at the Bolshevichka garment factory, Moscow, USSR, 1967. CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo: Yury Artamonov/RIA Novosti

“Revolutions are the locomotives of history.”[1] Ever since Karl Marx released it into the world, this rolling metaphor has been on the move, continually emerging in new formations.

Considering the Bolshevik attempt at revolution, Karl Kautsky — after Engels’s death the most influential theoretician of the Second International — advised against setting a locomotive in motion without first having “acquired the qualities necessary” to drive it. Leon Trotsky replied that no one had “learned to drive a locomotive by sitting in his study”.[2] Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, considering the socialist belief in progress, proposed to completely invert the Marxian image and to conceive of revolutions not as locomotives, but as a seizing of the “emergency brake”.[3]

Bini Adamczak is a social theorist whose recent publications include Yesterday’s Tomorrow (MIT Press, 2021) and Communism for Kids (MIT Press, 2017). This article is based on a presentation at the conference “Ho Chi Minh and Rosa Luxemburg’s Thoughts on Building a Good Society”, hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Hanoi Office in October 2021.

Translated by Marty Hiatt and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Rosa Luxemburg also drew on the image of the locomotive to explain a “natural law” of revolution, which she saw confirmed not only in Russia, but also by the English and French revolutions: “The ‘golden mean’ cannot be maintained in any revolution. The law of its nature demands a quick decision: either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back of its own weight again to the starting point at the bottom; and those who would keep it with their weak powers half way up the hill, it drags down with it irredeemably into the abyss.”[4]

This assessment is from Luxemburg’s text on the Russian Revolution, which she wrote in prison in Wroclaw between September and October 1918. Her assessment had recently been confirmed in Finland, where the Social Democratic Party shrank back from revolution because it only wanted to seize state power peacefully, via elections. It was confirmed again a short time later in the Volga region, where the Mensheviks and right-wing Social Revolutionaries wanted to establish a bourgeois republic in order to postpone the transition to socialism by means of a broad class alliance. Some refuse to board the revolutionary locomotive, others try to slow its pace, but both strengthen the gravitational pull of the old society and end up assuring the victory of counter-revolution and the liquidation of the revolutionaries. Wherever they hesitate to pose the question of power, it is answered by those who are already powerful. Wherever they have scruples, they fall victim to the unscrupulousness of their opponents.

We can also ask whether this locomotive law of revolution was confirmed by the November Revolution in Germany. After the Social Democratic majority had voted for war credits in the summer of 1914, making itself an accomplice of the world war, in winter 1918 it decided against the socialist republic and for the bourgeois-democratic one. The Social Democrats set an alliance with the bourgeoisie, nobles, and generals against the proletarian and emancipatory revolution — with brutal violence, in which the murderous counter-revolution of German fascism already announced itself. The backwards-rolling locomotive of revolution plunged Rosa Luxemburg into the abyss. A decade and a half later, she was followed by those who had stopped the revolution halfway — the Social Democrats. With more leniency and in lesser number than the Communists, many of them, too, nonetheless fell victim to the Nazis.

The opening of her text on the Russian Revolution deals with the Social Democrats: their small-mindedness and faint-heartedness, their lack of imagination and agency. At the beginning of the twentieth century, German Social Democracy committed itself to bourgeois nationalism instead of proletarian internationalism, and considered it more realistic to eliminate Russian Tsarism by an imperialist war, a humanitarian intervention as it were, than by a socialist revolution.

This left-wing melancholy, which in this country is also mixed with a certain German depression, has only deepened in the last hundred years. Not least because of the very history in which Rosa Luxemburg was involved. Failure and defeats have contributed to this: one hundred years ago it was considered unrealistic to revolutionize the world, now it is even considered unrealistic to save it — not fighting for communism, but merely stopping the climate catastrophe, or even just ending a pandemic.

Luxemburg, then, sides with the Russian Revolution, which gave the lie to German Social Democracy and, for the first time in world history, placed the ultimate goals of socialism on the agenda as its immediate programme. But Luxemburg doesn’t simply go in for affirmation, for a mood of revolutionary celebration. Instead, she develops a critique that is sharp precisely because it draws distinctions and does not leave the reader in the dark about what she herself wants. Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution even withstands the classic pragmatic objection to every radical critique: it not only says what is going wrong, it also says what could be done better. Her critique of Bolshevik revolutionary praxis thus revolves around three aspects: land, nation, and democracy.

Her critique of Bolshevik agricultural policy is that the wildcat expropriations with which the peasants appropriated the land of large landowners did not promote socialist property relations, but created a class of rural private property owners. In doing so, they had also strengthened class relations in rural areas because “it was the rich peasants and ... the village bourgeoisie ... that surely became the chief beneficiaries of the agrarian revolution”.[5] In doing so, the Bolsheviks themselves had created their new main enemy, a petty-bourgeois peasantry.

This diagnosis is based on assumptions that Luxemburg shared with Kautsky as well as Lenin and Trotsky, and which were certainly false. The idea of a capitalist class structure in rural Russia, with big peasants on the one hand and penniless farm labourers on the other, only applied to a small part of Europeanized agriculture in Russia. In the vast majority of the country, capitalism had not yet advanced that far, not least because the Russian village community, the Obshchina, prevented the private ownership of land. Under the Obshchina system, land was communally owned and regularly redistributed by the council of elders according to the size of the households, which is why wealth and poverty were distributed not so much statically as cyclically. Someone who appeared in the statistics as rich in land one year might appear as relatively poor a few years later.

Aristocratic land appropriated by the peasants in the 1917 revolution was therefore not converted into private property, but rather transferred to the community, which managed it as communal property and — subdivided — distributed it among its members.[6] Yet Luxemburg’s critique does not end there, because the subdivision of the countryside meant that the patriarchal-familial communism of distribution was accompanied by family-based production. And on this basis — scattered units of land with low productivity — it was difficult to provide the necessary food for the village, not to mention a surplus for the city.

Yet if we ask what opportunities the Russian Revolution offered to both increase the agricultural productivity as well as maintain the proto-communist collectivity of the Obshchina, we must broaden our political perspective beyond the Bolsheviks, who are almost the sole focus of Luxemburg’s analysis. Possible types of agricultural policy that did not treat the peasants — as all too often in the Marxist tradition — as foreign or hostile, as backward or reactionary, can be found among the left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries and also in the anarchist movement Makhnovshchina. While the left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries relied on the self-governance of the peasant soviets, agricultural communes began to form in Ukraine. The first of these communes was destroyed in June 1919 by the Red Army during their campaign against anarchism. Their leading communards were declared outlaws, and shot by the White Army a few days later.[7] In memory of the recently murdered revolutionary and critic of Bolshevism — who had nonetheless shared so many presuppositions with the Bolsheviks on the land question — this commune was named “Rosa Luxemburg Commune”.

Of course, many aspects of this discussion are limited to the historical specifics of the Russian Revolution, which Rosa Luxemburg, imprisoned in Wroclaw, knew only in part. Yet agriculture remains the largest industry in the world, employing a third of the world’s working population, and a significantly larger fraction in East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The land question is therefore not something that has been historically settled. On the contrary, not only the ecological destruction, but also the epidemics of recent decades — brought about by ever-increasing landgrabbing and accelerated by monoculture and factory farming — show that the development towards industrial agriculture is not an unequivocal narrative of progress. But precisely this is Luxemburg’s perspective: the centre of politics should be the urban proletariat, the centre of the economy should be urban industry.

This may well come as a surprise: as a political commentator, Luxemburg is aware that the land question is the decisive question of the Russian Revolution; as a theoretician of primitive accumulation she is well-informed about the existence of communal land ownership; as a politician of spontaneity, it is clear to her that there are other sources of productivity than standardization, rationalization, and centralization; as a botanist who calls trees and bushes old acquaintances, she knows that so-called nature does not have to be something external; and as a lover of songbirds, those songbirds that forestry agriculture drives away, she has a different relationship to the land than that of instrumental rationality.

But Luxemburg herself would not have been surprised, as according to her own admission she was always in perfect contradiction with herself. And so from prison she calls for the state centralization and industrialization of agriculture, while at the same time, as she puts it, there are “passing out of my cell in all directions ... fine threads connecting me with thousands of creatures great and small”, with the starling, the crested lark, the brimstone butterflies, violets and bumblebees, the chestnut buds, the Romanian buffalo, the nightingale, the wryneck, the antbird, the blackbird at evening, the alder buckthorn, forget-me-nots, pansies, currants, cherry trees, the silver poplar, chaffinch, tits, greenfinch, birch catkins, orchids and dandelion, privet shrub and Norway maple, the peacock butterfly, the swallows, colourful cobblestones, bees, wasps, ants, acacias, to the sky, the pink, the silver clouds, ash trees, bundles of seed pods, in the midst of it all a person, hibiscus, catalpa, southern catalpa and bluethroat, redstart, cotoneaster and myrtle, feather grass and elm tree, elder and privet. In her letters she writes that she feels more comfortable in the grass among the bumblebees than among comrades, yet still hoped to die at her post, whether in prison or fighting in the street.[8]

Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolshevik policy on nationalities proceeds analogously to her criticism of Bolshevik land policy: the Bolsheviks fight for a tactical advantage that then transforms into a strategic disadvantage. In order to secure short-term allies, they create long-term opponents in the form of the petty-bourgeois peasantry on one hand and bourgeois nationalist movements on the other. It is crucial that, for Luxemburg, neither social nor national identities constitute pre-existing realities that would have to be represented politically in the democratic process. They are rather social constructions that are usually created in the course of long-term historical processes, yet in a revolution this takes place at high speed. The analogy is on a different level: just as private land ownership did not exist in most of the territory of what would later become the Soviet Union, so nationalism was still barely able to gain a foothold there.

Luxemburg saw this more clearly in the latter case. The Ukrainian nation only existed as a phantom in the minds of a few bourgeois ideologues. The mass of the population not only didn’t care about such classifications, they also usually didn’t have the faintest idea about where to place themselves with respect to them. For Luxemburg, the right of nations to self-determination was thus quite properly nothing more than hollow petty-bourgeois phraseology. After the experience of 1914, she recognized nationalism as the greatest danger to international socialism and to democracy. This also became clear in the Russian Revolution: the Bolsheviks were for the right of nations to self-determination, not for the right of the people to self-determination.

To the democratic critique, Trotsky replied that “as Marxists, we have never been idol-worshipers of formal democracy”. To which Luxemburg rejoined that that may well be the case, but “we” had never been idol-worshipers of socialism or Marxism either. Neither of these concepts is an ideal to which reality would have to conform, nor a fetish that people have to submit themselves to. We must grant ourselves the freedom to decide against democracy and socialism. But what could a legitimate, that is, free and equal decision against democracy look like, if not democratic? And what could a decision in favour of democracy, a realization of democracy look like, if not socialist?

Obviously within a democracy it is absurd for all people to have exactly one vote, while some get 9.35 euro for an hour of work and others, an executive at Daimler for example, 3,809 euro per hour — that is, 407 times more. This is not about access to the means of consumption, but the ability to command other people’s working hours, and thus a question of power. Why not immediately re-weight the votes in elections — 1 vote for some, 407 votes for others? If democratic equality means equality with regard to the ability to freely shape social life, then democracy is simply incompatible with inequality as regards control over other people’s lifetimes. That is precisely Luxemburg’s position.

In December 1918, a month before her death, she penned the formulation that the goal of the revolution was to make the slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, proclaimed by the bourgeoisie in 1789, “become true” for the first time in world history through the “abolition of class rule”. True democracy requires the destruction of capitalism. Incidentally, for this the socialist revolution has no need of terror, because, as noted in the programme of the Spartacus League, it does not fight individuals, but institutions.

This is a general characteristic of left-wing politics and it distinguishes it from right-wing politics: it does not fight the sick, but diseases; not the poor, but poverty; not people, but inhumanity. It is neither necessary nor desirable to behead the powerful, it is enough to strip them of their power. It is neither necessary nor desirable to imprison the owners, it is enough to expropriate them. No democracy without socialism, but also no socialism without democracy. And this socialist democracy “is not something”, as Luxemburg says, “which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism”.[9]

That is why Luxemburg has to drop the image of revolution as a locomotive, even without having known Chiapas or Rojava, which represent historical alternatives to the kind of politics that knows only victory or defeat. Because revolution — despite all the talk of the natural laws of history — has no track bed, no predetermined path to follow, nor does it have a cabin from which it could be steered — least of all by individual locomotive drivers. On the contrary, it requires openness, creativity, but above all the broad participation of the masses.

The democratic character of revolution is thus for Luxemburg a practical necessity as well. Precisely because in Luxemburg’s view there is no ready-made recipe for a socialist revolution, constant experimentation, trial and error, and improvisation are necessary, and this requires the participation of the masses. Ultimately, and this is Luxemburg’s argument, the negative aspect, the dismantling of the capitalist property system, can be dictatorially decreed, while the positive aspect, the building of a socialist society, cannot. For Luxemburg this is an advantage that scientific socialism has over the utopian kind, because scientific socialism does not develop any ideas about the goal to be achieved, at least not before the revolution. Yet with regard to the Russian Revolution one may well wonder whether the Bolsheviks were so keen to give the impression of having a finished plan because, as anti-utopian Marxists, they had none at their disposal. Accordingly, they also couldn’t even try to convince anyone of it.

Luxemburg’s argument for scientific socialism’s aniconism was already wrong in its time; today, after a century of practical experiences of socialism, it is no longer tenable. There are plenty of images; whether they satisfy our desire for the good life is another question. Every single person can put forward proposals for a way out of the history of domination, but the decision whether they are to be adopted must be made jointly and democratically. There is no reason to withhold good ideas for a better world until the revolution comes. The collective conversation about what kind of world we want to create can begin, or rather be continued, at any time.

[1] Karl Marx, “The Class Struggle in France: 1848–50”, translated by Paul Jackson, The Political Writings, edited by David Fernbach, London: Verso Books, 2019 [1850], p. 451.

[2] Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, London: Verso Books, 2007 [1920], p. 98.

[3] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, London: Belknap Press, 2003 [1940], p. 402.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution”, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004 [1918], p. 289.

[5] Luxemburg, “Russian Revolution”, p. 292.

[6] Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class: Political Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society. Russia 1910–1925, Oxford: Clarendon, 1972, p. 160f.

[7] Arshinov, Peter, History of the Makhnovist Movement 1918–1921, London: Freedom Press, 2002 [1923], p. 92f.

[8] Rosa Luxemburg, “Letter to Sonja Liebknecht”, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, p. 391.

[9] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution”, p. 308.