June 2000

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Rosa Luxemburg always seemed larger than life. An intellec-tual and a social activist, possessed of enormous charisma, she exacted tremendous loyalty from her friends and often a grudging admiration from her enemies. Many of you undoubtedly know about her struggles as a woman and a Jew in the socialist labor movement and her martyr’s death at the hands of the Freikorps during the Spartacus Revolt of 1919. Her letters published following these events, and the castigation of her legacy during the "bolshevization" of the KPD during the 1920s, provide abundant evidence of her courage, her sensitivity, and her humanism. None of this, however, gives her any particular salience for the present. Luxemburg disliked turning personal issues into political ones. She would have remarked that there were many less heralded men and women—just as sensitive and just as brave—who died just as tragically. Luxemburg would have said: "look to my work."

*The following is the text of a lecture given at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin on June 19, 2000.

Especially in our neoliberal culture, however, her form of principled political engagement has become as unfashionable as the values she held dear. Luxemburg was consistent in her attacks upon the unprincipled quest for purely economic reform and unwavering in her contempt for authoritarianism. She was a Marxist with a romantic vision of revolution and an economistic belief in the ultimate "breakdown" of capitalism. She remains the most important representative of a libertarian socialism inspired by internationalism, economic justice, and a radical belief in democracy.

Appropriating her legacy, however, involves more than regurgitating the old slogans and searching for citations from her pamphlets and speeches. Luxemburg was no slave of Marx. She knew things had changed since his time and she worried publicly over the "stagnation of Marxism": the outmoded claims about political events inherited by the party regulars, including the independence of Poland, no less than the unresolved questions about the workings of capitalism. Since her death, even more profound changes have taken place. And what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The same critical method Luxemburg employed against Marx must now be turned against what appears inadequate about her own views. It is indeed a matter of freeing thinking from an outmoded teleology and drawing the political consequences. Perhaps the following will offer some steps in the right direction.

Orthodoxy had little appeal for Rosa Luxemburg. But she too believed that capitalism would create its own gravediggers. And if she liked to quote the famous line from Engels that the future hinged on the choice between "socialism or barbarism," no less than most of her contemporaries, she knew which would ultimately prove victorious. Everything about her politics derived from her understanding of capitalism and its impact upon the agent for its transformation: the proletariat. Indeed, from the very beginning, she intuited that the political power of capital rested on the degree of organizational and ideological disunity among workers.

Luxemburg's concern with internationalism followed from this insight and her dissertation written at the University of Zurich, The Industrial Development of Poland (1898), already provided the outline for her distinctive critique of national self-determina-tion. Polish independence had been a demand of the left for generations and it was echoed by Marx and most of his followers. In her dissertation, however, Luxemburg argued that Polish independence would only slow the progress of capitalist development and thus the growth of the proletariat within the empire as a whole. Unqualified support for this goal would privilege symbolism over the need for a constitutional republic to replace the imperial regime. The arguments of Marx and his followers, she maintained, were actually anti-Marxist and self-defeating.

Luxemburg saw any endorsement of nationalism a breach of proletarian principle. Her work highlighted the way it strengthens capitalism by dividing workers, justifies the wars in which they will fight, and inhibits their ability to deal with what she correctly considered an international economic system. She would develop these themes further in her major economic work: The Accumulation of Capital (1911).

This work, too, was critical of views taken for granted in the labor movement. Marx had claimed that capitalism is based on investment and without it the system will collapse. But he also maintained that production will outstrip demand and, subse-quently, there seemed no reason why capitalists should continue to invest. Something within the very structure of capitalism must, she reasoned, allow for the consumption of its surplus and thereby offer an incentive for ongoing investment. Imperialism was her answer.

New markets and cheap resources, the prospect of modernizing pre-capitalist territories, seemed to provide the safety valve for capitalism. More than that: she viewed their existence as the condition for the survival of capitalism. Should these precap-italist territories ever become capitalist in their own right, which the dynamics of economic production guaranteed, then the international system would suffer an immediate “breakdown.” But that remained for the future. In the meantime, spurred by their own self-interest, Luxemburg believed capitalist states would fanatically compete with one another for a steadily diminishing set of colonies. She saw militarism and nationalism intensifying with the growing imperialist ambitions engendered by capitalism. Luxemburg considered none of this open to reform. She understood war as an intrinsic element of the capitalist system. Thus, the need for revolution.

No less than most social democrats, she longed for a republic. The European labor movement prior to World War I functioned on a continent still dominated by monarchies and the commitment to a republic was the political dividing line between right and left. Conservative programs everywhere called for authoritarian institutions and restraints on "the masses." Social provided the alternative vision. Insisting that the working class would expand with the expansion of capitalism, assuming that its parties embodied the proletarian class interest, it only made sense to call for the creation of political institutions in which the labor movement could organize freely and ultimately rule as the majority.

Luxemburg was never a utopian: the new socialist society was always identified with a certain institutional arrangement for the practice of politics. Her critique of "revisionism" in Reform or Revolution (1899), which made her famous in the labor movement, was far less based upon contempt for reform than on how an unqualified "economism" undermined the revolutionary commit-ment necessary to institute a republic. Luxemburg herself fought for numerous reforms including the forty hour week. She did not reject reform out of hand, but believed it should be employed to whet the appetite of the masses for more radical demands. Luxemburg was no different than Kautsky or Lenin or most other members of the socialist left regarding the connection between reform and revolution. She was unique only in her understanding of what was necessary to bring the revolution about and the purpose it should serve. This indeed was what she sought to articulate in Mass Strike, Party, and Trade Unions (1906).

The Russian Revolution of 1905, what Trotsky called the "dress rehearsal" for 1917, was its inspiration. A series of spontaneous strikes beginning in Baku in 1902 gradually engulfed the Russian Empire. These seemingly spontaneous actions were, of course, indirectly influenced by years of often underground party activity. Luxemburg employed this insight in developing a general standpoint. The party should involve itself less in pursuing its immediate organizational interests than forming the perquisite consciousness required by the proletarian masses for the political struggle. The relation between party and base should retain a certain "creative tension" in order to mitigate the bureaucratic tendencies of the former and the adventurist experiments of the latter.

This is exemplified, according to Luxemburg, in the mass strike and herein lies the core of her notion regarding the "self-administration" of the working class. Deriving from a tradition reaching back to Rousseau, and the Paris Commune, the idea of democracy is seen as demanding the practical exercise of democracy. The republic would serve as the formal framework in which the substantive exercise of democracy would take place and workers would be able to administer their own affairs. Her beautiful letters written amid the factory takeovers in Warsaw during 1905 evidence her enthusiasm for the burgeoning "soviet" or "council" movement and the introduction of democracy into everyday life.

But this new enthusiasm never fully supplanted her original goal. Luxemburg intuited that only a republic could guarantee the maintenance of civil liberties. Genuine democracy is not simply equivalent with the will of the majority, she realized, but with the ability to protect the minority. Her famous line from The Russian Revolution (1918) was not simple an apercu. There is a sense in which her entire political project rested on the belief that "freedom is only and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently."

Luxemburg foresaw how the communist suppression of bourgeois democracy in 1917 would unleash a dynamic of terror ultimately paralyzing the soviets and undermining public life in the nation as a whole. Even in 1919, while the Spartacus Revolt was brewing in Germany, Luxemburg vacillated between her traditional commit-ment to a republic and the new popularity of workers' councils. Only when she was outvoted would she completely identify with the "soviet republic" (Raterepublik) and the policy of her less sober followers intent on emulating the events in Russia.

The Russian Revolution indeed inspired revolutions through-out Europe and the formation of communist parties around the world. Luxemburg was skeptical about the plans for a Communist International. She was fearful about its domination by the fledgling USSR and the identification of socialism with its interests. Authoritarianism was not understood by her as some historical “deviation” demanded by the present, which the dialectic would set right in the future, but as an infringement upon that future. She considered neither the party nor the revolution as an end unto itself. It was the rights of working people with which Rosa Luxemburg was concerned. This ultimately made her a rebel in both major camps of the labor movement. It is also what makes her salient for the present

Rosa Luxemburg lived during what has appropriately been called the "golden age of Marxism." The years between 1889-1914 witnessed a growing labor movement with a thriving public sphere whose political parties were everywhere making an ever greater claim to power. It was a time when each could see the socialist future appearing as present. That time is over. Marxism can no longer be construed as a "science;" the industrial proletariat is on the wane; and the labor movement is obviously no longer what it once was.

"Actually existing socialism" had its chance and little suggests that workers' councils can either deal with a complex economy or guarantee civil liberties. New utopian speculations cannot compensate for the lack of any serious institutional alternative to the liberal republican state. The political goal of the revolution initially sought by Luxemburg has been realized. Presenting socialism as the other, the emancipated society, no longer makes sense. It is necessary to approach the matter in a different way.

Modern capitalism is no longer the system described by Charles Dickens. Its liberal state has been used to improve the economic lives of workers, foster participation, and provide the hope for a redress of grievances. Luxemburg was wrong: the choice is not between socialism or barbarism. Not only has history shown that the two are not mutually exclusive, it has also shown there is much room in between. The issue is no longer capitalism in the abstract, or even the erection of socialism, but the need for a response to neoliberal elites intent upon rolling back the historical gains made by the labor movement in the name of market imperatives.

Or putting it another way: the contemporary problem is not the prevalent commitment to economic and political reform, which concerned Rosa Luxemburg, but the lack of such a commitment. Revolution is simply not the issue in the western democracies and this, in turn, has general implications for the meaning of socialism under modern conditions: it must be redefined as a practice intent upon mitigating the whip of the market through the state and abolishing the exercise of arbitrary power by the state.

Such an entire enterprise is predicated on little more than an ethical commitment. Teleology, if not ideology, has lost its allure. Capitalism can survive and, more importantly, most people believe it will. Luxemburg was mistaken in maintaining that imperialism is the only way of dealing with overproduction. Capitalist governments can ward off disaster by subsidizing industries, manipulating fiscal policies, and introducing welfare legislation. Capital itself can reorganize and, if necessary, intensify exploitation. The success of neoliberalism may indeed show the validity of Luxemburg's claim that the fight for economic reform is a "labor of Sisyphus."

Without an articulated alternative and a meaningful form of revolutionary agency, however, it is still necessary to roll the rock of reform back up the hill. This cannot be left in the hands of social democratic and even many ex-communist parties intoxicated by neoliberalism and the unprincipled compromises associated with the "third way" or what is now being called "progressive governance." Those with more radical beliefs in social justice must now look not merely to workers, but the new social movements. Justice is a river with many tributaries. Women and gays, minorities and environmentalists, have a stake in protecting the gains made by labor in the past as surely as labor has a stake in furthering many of their concerns in the future. The mass demonstrations in Seattle and Washington during 1999 and 2000 provide a case in point: they not only exerted real pressure on the Democratic Party, and momentarily united competing groups in a spirit of internationalism, but raised precisely those calls for international labor standards and environmental protection repressed in the mainstream discourse over globalization.

Nothing so demeans the internationalist spirit cherished by Rosa Luxemburg like the current insistence of some leftists upon the primacy of ethnic aspirations or national sovereignty over the international obligations of states to the planetary community. The choice between furthering relatively democratic ends through imperfect institutions and allowing genocide in Rwanda or Sierra Leone is no choice at all. Luxemburg was never fooled into believing that insistence upon national sovereignty would align her with the masses of the formerly colonized world rather than the corrupt elites who still rule them in the most brutal fashion.

Luxemburg may not have anticipated the rise of national liberation movements and she was surely mistaken in believing that World War I had put an end to purely national conflicts. But there was a way in which she understood nationalism far better than her opponents. Luxemburg realized that nationalism like authoritarianism has its own dynamic and that it cannot simply be manipulated for socialist purposes or forestalled by the prospect of economic gain. Instead of relying upon historical "laws," or the march of the "dialectic," Luxemburg correctly insisted on establishing a plausible relation between means and ends.

Diseases like cholera, dysentery, and AIDS are ravaging continents. Entire species are disappearing, global warming is taking place, pollution is intensifying, garbage is littering the planet. All this while a global society is taking shape in which wealth and resources are becoming ever more inequitably distributed, political power is ever more surely devolving into the hands of transnational corporations, and petty ideologues are ever more confidently whipping up atavistic passions with the most barbaric consequences. The nation state is incapable of dealing with most of these developments and the usual invocations of national sovereignty, or the disclaimer on any form of international intervention under any circumstances, is simply an abdication of responsibility.

No less than Machiavelli and Kant, Luxemburg would have agreed with the dictum: "he who wills the end also wills the means thereto." Either planetary issues of this sort will have the possibility of being dealt with in the international arena through existing international institutions with the powers of sanctioning transgressors or they will assuredly not be dealt with at all. Human rights and new forms of transnational welfare policy constitute the only concrete hope for a livable planet.

The question facing the left is whether to embrace outmoded forms of thinking or provide new meaning for an old vision.

Internationalist, socialist, and democratic principles must be adapted to meet new historical conditions without surrendering their bite. This is no easy undertaking and the possibilities for opportunism are enormous. But, then, Rosa Luxemburg never walked away from a challenge: I don't think she would walk away from this one either.