By Marcello Musto

In August 1893, when the chair called on her to speak at a session of the Zurich Congress of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg made her way without hesitation through the crowd of delegates and activists packed into the hall. She was one of the few women present, still in the flush of youth, slight of build, and with a hip deformity that had forced her to limp since the age of five. The first impression she gave to those who saw her was of a frail creature indeed. But then, standing on a chair to make herself better heard, she soon captivated the whole audience with the skill of her reasoning and the originality of her positions.

In her view, the central demand of the Polish workers’ movement should not be an independent Polish state, as many had maintained. Poland was still under tripartite rule, divided between the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires; its reunification was proving difficult to achieve, and the workers should set their sights on objectives that would generate practical struggles in the name of particular needs.

In a line of argument that she would develop in the years to come, she attacked those who concentrated on national issues and warned that the rhetoric of patriotism would be used to play down class struggle and to push the social question into the background. There was no need to add “subjection to Polish nationality” to all the forms of oppression suffered by the proletariat, she argued.

Against the Current

The intervention at the Zurich Congress symbolized the whole intellectual biography of a woman who should be considered among the most significant exponents of twentieth-century socialism. Born a hundred fifty years ago, on March 5, 1871, in Zamość in Tsarist-occupied Poland, Rosa Luxemburg lived her whole life on the margins, grappling with multiple adversities and always swimming against the current. Of Jewish origin, suffering from a lifelong physical handicap, she moved to Germany at the age of twenty-seven and managed to obtain citizenship there through a marriage of convenience.

Being resolutely pacifist at the outbreak of the First World War, she was imprisoned several times for her ideas. She was a passionate enemy of imperialism during a new and violent period of colonial expansion. She fought against the death penalty in the midst of barbarism. And – a central dimension – she was a woman who lived in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by men.

She was often the only female presence, both at Zurich University, where she obtained a doctorate in 1897 with a thesis entitled The Industrial Development of Poland, and in the leadership of German Social Democracy. The party appointed her as the first woman to teach at its central cadre school — a task she performed in the years between 1907 and 1914, during which she published The Accumulation of Capitalism (1913) and worked on the uncompleted project Introduction to Political Economy (1925).

These difficulties were supplemented by her independent spirit and her autonomy — a virtue that often leads to trouble in left-wing parties too. Displaying a lively intelligence, she had the capacity to develop new ideas and to defend them, without awe and indeed with a disarming candor, before such figures as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky (who had had the formative privilege of direct contact with Engels).

Her aim was not to repeat Marx’s words over again, but to interpret them historically and, when necessary, to build further on them. To voice her own opinion freely and to express critical positions within the party was for her an inalienable right. The party had to be a space where different views could coexist, so long as those who joined it shared its fundamental principles.

Party, Strike, Revolution

Luxemburg successfully overcame the many obstacles facing her, and in the fierce debate following Eduard Bernstein’s reformist turn she became a well-known figure in the foremost organization of the European workers’ movement. Whereas, in his famous text The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy (1897–99), Bernstein had called on the party to burn its bridges with the past and to turn itself into a merely gradualist force, Luxemburg insisted in Social Reform or Revolution? (1898–99) that during every historical period “work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given it by the impetus of the last revolution.”

Those who sought to achieve in the “chicken coop of bourgeois parliamentarism” the changes that the revolutionary conquest of political power would make possible were not choosing “a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal,” but rather “a different goal.” They had accepted the bourgeois world and its ideology.

The point was not to improve the existing social order, but to build a completely different one. The role of the labor unions — which could wrest from the bosses only more favorable conditions within the capitalist mode of production — and the Russian Revolution of 1905 prompted some thoughts on the possible subjects and actions that might bring about a radical transformation of society.

In the book The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union (1906), which analyzed the main events in vast areas of the Russian Empire, Luxemburg highlighted the key role of the broadest, mostly unorganized, layers of the proletariat. In her eyes, the masses were the true protagonists of history. In Russia the “element of spontaneity” — a concept that led some to accuse her of overestimating the class consciousness of the masses — had been important, and consequently the role of the party should not be to prepare the mass strike but to place itself “at the helm of the movement as a whole.”

For Luxemburg, the mass strike was “the living pulse-beat of the revolution” and, at the same time, “its most powerful driving wheel.” It was the true “mode of movement of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution.” It was not a single isolated action but the summation of a long period of class struggle.

Moreover, it could not be overlooked that “in the storm of the revolutionary period,” the proletariat was transformed in such a way that “even the highest good, life — not to speak of material well-being — ha[d] little value in comparison with the ideals of the struggle.” The workers gained in consciousness and maturity. The mass strikes in Russia had shown how, in such a period, the “ceaseless reciprocal action of the political and economic struggles” was such that the one could pass immediately into the other.

Communism Means Freedom and Democracy

On the question of organizational forms and, more specifically, the role of the party, Luxemburg was involved in another heated dispute during those years, this time with Lenin. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), the Bolshevik leader defended the positions adopted at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, putting forward a conception of the party as a compact nucleus of professional revolutionaries, a vanguard whose task it was to lead the masses.

Luxemburg, by contrast, in Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy (1904), argued that an extremely centralized party set up a very dangerous dynamic of “blind obedience to the central authority.” The party should not stifle but develop the involvement of society, in order to achieve “the correct historical evaluation of forms of struggle.” Marx once wrote that “every step of the real movement is more important than dozens of programs.” And Luxemburg extended this into the claim that “errors made by a truly revolutionary labor movement are historically infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible central committees.”

This clash acquired still greater importance after the Soviet revolution of 1917, to which she offered her unconditional support. Worried by the events unfolding in Russia (beginning with the ways of tackling the land reform), she was the first in the communist camp to observe that “a prolonged state of emergency” would have a “degrading influence on society.”

In the posthumous text The Russian Revolution (1922 [1918]), she emphasized that the historical mission of the proletariat, in conquering political power, was “to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy — not to eliminate democracy altogether.” Communism meant “the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, unlimited democracy,” which did not look to infallible leaders to guide it. A truly different political and social horizon would be reached only through a complex process of this kind, and not if the exercise of freedom was reserved “only for supporters of the government, only for the members of one party.”

Luxemburg was firmly convinced that “socialism, by its nature, cannot be bestowed from above”; it has to expand democracy, not diminish it. She wrote that “the negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the positive, the building up, cannot.” That was “new territory,” and only “experience” would be “capable of correcting and opening new ways.” The Spartacist League, founded in 1914 after a break with the SPD and later to become the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), explicitly stated that it would never take over governmental power “except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany.”

Though making opposite political choices, both Social Democrats and Bolsheviks wrongly conceived of democracy and revolution as two alternative processes. For Rosa Luxemburg, on the contrary, the core of her political theory was an indissoluble unity of the two. Her legacy has been squeezed on both sides: Social Democrats, complicit in her brutal murder at the age of forty-seven at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, fought her over the years, with no holds barred for the revolutionary accents of her thought, while Stalinists steered clear of making her ideas better known because of their critical, free-spirited character.

Against Militarism, War, and Imperialism

The other pivotal point of Luxemburg’s political convictions and activism was her twin opposition to war and agitation against militarism. Here she proved capable of updating the theoretical approach of the Left and winning support for clear-sighted resolutions at congresses of the Second International, which, though disregarded, were a thorn in the side of supporters of the First World War.

In her analysis, the function of armies, the nonstop rearmament and the repeated outbreak of wars were not to be understood only in the classical terms of nineteenth-century political thinking. Rather, they were bound up with forces seeking to repress workers’ struggles and served as useful tools for reactionary interests to divide the working class. They also corresponded to a precise economic objective of the age.

Capitalism needed imperialism and war, even in peacetime, in order to increase production, as well as to capture new markets as soon as they presented themselves in the colonial periphery outside Europe. As she wrote in The Accumulation of Capital, “political violence is nothing but a vehicle for the economic process” — a judgment that she followed up with one of the most controversial theses in the book, that rearmament was indispensable to the productive expansion of capitalism.

This picture was a long way from optimistic reformist scenarios, and to sum it up Luxemburg used a formula that would resonate widely in the twentieth century: “socialism or barbarism.” She explained that the second term could be avoided only through self-aware mass struggle and, since anti-militarism required a high level of political consciousness, she was one of the greatest champions of a general strike against war — a weapon that many others, including Marx, underestimated.

She argued that the theme of national defense should be used against new war scenarios and that the “War on War!” slogan should become “the cornerstone of working-class politics.” As she wrote in The Crisis of Social Democracy (1916), also known as The Junius Pamphlet, the Second International had imploded because it failed “to achieve a common tactic and action by the proletariat in all countries.” From then on, the “main goal” of the proletariat should therefore be “fighting imperialism and preventing wars, in peace as in war.”

Without Losing Her Tenderness

A cosmopolitan citizen of “what is to come,” Rosa Luxemburg said she felt at home “all over the world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” She was passionate about botany and loved animals, and we can see from her letters that she was a woman of great sensitivity, who remained at one with herself despite the bitter experiences that life held for her.

For the cofounder of the Spartacist League, the class struggle was not just a question of wage increases. She did not wish to be a mere epigone and her socialism was never economistic. Immersed in the dramas of her time, she sought to modernize Marxism without calling its foundations into question. Her efforts in this direction are a constant warning to the Left that it should not limit its political activity to bland palliatives and give up trying to change the existing state of things.

The way in which she lived, and her success in wedding theoretical elaboration with social agitation, still stands as a beacon to the new generation of militants who have chosen to take up the many battles she

Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Tactics of Revolution”

By Rosa Luxemburg

When considering how to educate Social Democracy about the electoral activities of the bourgeoisie in this country [Poland], one comes up against the general issue of proletarian tactics for the present season. The course and the result of the revolutionary struggle largely depend on how consciously the working class wages the war, and on how thoroughly it realizes the nature, conditions, and purpose of its tactics.

That is to say, it is important that the front ranks that lead the fight become fully aware of the difference in the tactics of the proletariat between times of peace and times of revolution. Ignorance of this difference may explain why one hears certain statements repeated in some Social-Democratic circles, such as in one part of our sister party in Russia [i.e., divided between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks].

Such statements include the claim that to hamper bourgeois parties as they prepare for and try to realize the elections to the tsar’s Duma is to adopt “non-Social Democratic” tactics — that such tactics are a kind of “terror” that the working masses do not understand. If this were the case, it would constitute the sole reason the working masses still do not sufficiently understand what revolution is and how it places certain obligations on the fighting proletariat.

The tactics of Social Democracy are always revolutionary both in their essence and in their significance. This arises from the final goal, the very program of Social Democracy, which illuminates the path for every step of the fight. The goal is a complete social coup — the complete toppling of the present capitalist system and the establishment of an entirely new order, a socialist one. And this is the path to the working-class seizure of political power — that is, the path to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

With this in mind, the typical popular gathering in Germany, at which workers calmly hear speakers out over a pint of beer to make themselves conscious of the goals and program of Social Democracy, is an act no less revolutionary than the last collective uprising in Moscow. The tactics of Social Democracy, which is to say the forms their daily struggle takes, are always revolutionary in nature in that they consciously aspire to realize the party program, since the program of Social Democracy is itself revolutionary.

Nevertheless, with respect to their form, proletarian ways of fighting must be and are different in times of revolution and in times of peace. Naturally, this difference does not consist in there being “beatings and blood flowing in the streets” during revolution, while times of peace see markedly more “civilized forms” of class struggle, as the bourgeoisie and the police think. The difference lies much deeper.

Both in peacetime and in periods of revolutionary upheaval, the essence of Social Democratic tactics is constituted in the class struggle of the proletariat. But in peacetime, this struggle takes place within the framework of political rule by the bourgeoisie. In each case, a country’s existing laws determine limits and forms for worker struggle. Thus, for example, in Germany, when the working class agitates and puts up a political fight, it must stay within the bounds of the existing laws governing elections, assembly, and the press; in its economic struggle, it must hold to the existing laws governing coalitions such as unions; and so forth.

It must do so even though all the laws, regulations, and restrictions that impose certain restraints and forms on the working class from above and throw up walls around its activity are the work of bourgeois parliaments, the fruits of legislation efforts in which the bourgeoisie has a majority, and the effects of laws enforced, without exception, so as to maintain the political dominance of the bourgeoisie. To return to the example of Germany, Social Democracy is admittedly fighting tirelessly to expand electoral laws, union laws, and so on for the benefit of the proletariat, in addition to making use of already existing political rights, but again, it does not put up this opposition to the political control of the bourgeoisie through means that are not basically in line with laws already in existence.

In this way, “bourgeois legality” — that is, law that keeps watch over bourgeois power — forms a sort of iron cage in which the class struggle of the proletariat must take place. This is why the result of struggle in times of peace mainly consists in accumulating consciousness and organizing the proletariat; struggle in peacetime can only very seldom attain positive results in the order of new gains and political rights. German Social Democracy, for example, managed to gather more than three million adult men to its banner, but none of this force is in a position to move on protective legislation or coalition legislation, since the parliament and government are currently, as ever, in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Under the tsar, before the revolution, the “legal” cage around proletarian struggle was the omnipotent reign of “the tsar’s law” — that is, the lash.A locomotive overturned by strikers at the Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) railway depot during the 1905 revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Times of revolution rend the cage of “legality” open like pent-up steam splitting its kettle, letting class struggle break out into the open, naked and unencumbered. Of course, economically and socially, the bourgeoisie still reigns during the revolution, as before, since the means of production remain in its hands and all public life still revolves around it. Politically and legally, however, the rule of the governmental authority up to that moment — absolutism — is destroyed, and the struggle of the proletariat can manifest its full might.

The revolution may look like a clash between the ruling powers’ brute physical force and the rebelling people. In reality, while the physical power of the revolutionary proletariat is itself only a result and expression of its political consciousness, this consciousness and political power emerge during revolution without having been warped by, tied down to, and overpowered by the “laws” of bourgeois society. The class power of the proletariat clashes with the power of the authorities and the ruling classes, and the interests of the proletariat with the interests of the oppressors. The clash is simple and direct, free of walls and limits of “legality” to block it.

In revolution, in the face-to-face grapple of class interests, is formed what Lassalle called the essence of constitutions — that is, the actual relations of class forces. Based on this, the actual ground the proletariat manages to conquer in today’s revolutionary battlefields will form the basis of the constitution written later, the laws that will later specify the position and conditions of the working class, perhaps for decades. The greater the political force the proletariat manifests and musters now, during the revolutionary upheaval, the greater will be its share of the law, and the more beneficial its position, under the subsequent peaceful reign of the bourgeoisie after the revolution.

That is why now, in times of revolution, the guiding light of our tactics should be for the true proletariat to take complete control, for the proletariat to strive after its intended form of political “dictatorship,” not, indeed, to enact a socialist coup, but to realize the goals of the revolution. The entire revolutionary movement marches toward this guiding light. In the preliminary phase of the revolution, the rallying cry of workers in Russia was for the government to call a constitutional assembly.

Today, no conscious proletarian believes it either possible or desirable for the rotting corpse of absolutism to call a constituent assembly. The revolutionary people must itself achieve the final victory by expelling the remains of the government’s carcass. Only then can it produce a summons to a meeting of representatives of the people, announce a republic throughout the land, including autonomy for Poland, and establish the eight-hour workday.

But this revolutionary “dictatorship” — that is, the victory of the proletariat — cannot be picked from a tree at the desired hour or caught falling from the sky. It can only occur as the end result of the proletariat’s gradual, continual march toward power. The only road to this end is for the will and interests of the conscious proletariat to be realized boldly, step by step — for power to be won for the proletariat in every domain, at all costs.

Let us take two examples that show the difference in tactics between times of peace and times of revolution. In Germany, workers are leading an unceasing and tireless fight for the improvement of working conditions, and in the course of this fight and for its advancement they have created powerful trade organizations which today already number more than a million strong. In their economic struggle, however, they are severely hindered by the existing German law on coalitions, which, for example, denies agricultural workers and rail and postal employees the right to organize themselves.

Besides this, as a matter of fact, the government hinders opposition and trade organization even for industrial workers in government plants, as do the police and the courts in private factories at every opportunity, as do the high and mighty kings of capital in the other large businesses, and finally as do the “cartels” — that is, the great unions of industrial capitalists. All these powers work together to ensure the factory owner preserves his rights as “master of the house” in his factory. German workers arm themselves against such forces only by making diligent use of existing union laws and by campaigning for expansions to their rights at rallies on election day and in parliament.

Nowhere in their fight, however, do they try to break or sidestep these laws. For example, they make no bold, sweeping attempt to create agricultural or state labor unions, which are forbidden by law. Such an action would be both impossible and pointless in the Germany of today. Impossible because, in times of peace, such an action would be unlikely to so artificially trigger the fighting energy and resolve that could spur the proletarian masses to take what belongs to them by storm, disregarding the potential sacrifices and dangers of battle. Pointless because, without the momentum gained through militant action by the entire proletariat — a momentum only created by revolution itself — isolated branches of the proletariat who attempted to break free of the laws of the current bourgeois state would only be able to make gains for a very short time at most and would soon be forcibly suppressed.Władysław Skoczylas, “Street demonstration 1905,” 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)

For workers in Russia and Poland, the tactics required by the revolutionary situation are completely different. Here the power of the proletariat’s trade organizations and its achievements in the fight against capital depend not on formal “laws” but on the actual power and consciousness of the working class. In its current fight to improve working conditions under tsarism, the proletariat does not and should not know any boundaries other than the limits of actual possibility.

Where possible, workers should also aspire, in their struggle over the workplace, to break the capitalist’s all-powerful grip on the factory and attain an agreement in which workers are the “master of the house” — not, admittedly, with respect to economic power, since the ownership of capital and the ability to profit stay in the hands of the capitalist, but at least with respect to legislating the working conditions and internal organization patterns of the factory.

The guiding vision of the current labor struggle must be for labor organizations to gain the highest degree of freedom and influence within the factory that can be achieved by wage-earning victims of capitalist exploitation, and crucial for such attainment is that the proletariat exert sufficiently strong pressure by means of every manifestation of the consciousness and the will of the working masses.

The same principle applies to the political battlefield. In times of peace such as the present — in Germany, for example — existing legal and political relations prevent the conscious proletariat from expressing its will and defending its interests. Even though Social Democracy is the most powerful party in Germany, the allied bourgeois parties together constitute a parliamentary majority, which they use to pass law after law intended to clean out and enslave the working class. The only ways German Social Democracy fights this oppression are peaceful protest and organization and electoral opposition, in the hope of winning over a majority of the entire working populace to the party’s goals; indeed, in the current situation no other plan of action is feasible.

Under the tsar, the current goal of our activities must be not only to raise the consciousness of the broadest possible swath of the proletariat, but also for the proletariat to achieve real influence over social relations — for the proletariat to forcibly achieve the actual ability to rule over society. Whereas, in peacetime, the proletariat must patiently endure the tyranny of the bourgeois parties, limiting itself to the role of publicly criticizing their politics, in times of revolution, it can and certainly should try to thwart the bourgeois reaction when it tries to bring down its iron heel. The proletariat can and should try to block the actions of bourgeois groups hostile to it. One such necessary action, especially here in our country, is to stifle the National Democracy’s actions and electoral attempts in the Duma through the decisive application of force by the conscious working masses.

The fighting proletariat obviously cannot have any illusions about the stability of its rule over society. After the current revolution ends, after society returns to “normal” conditions, the bourgeoisie, reigning over both the factory floor and the country, will surely waste no time in sweeping up and tossing out the majority of the current revolutionary struggle’s achievements. But the proletariat can make a crucial difference now by launching the most forceful attacks on current social relations, such that it revolutionizes as much as possible the conditions in the factories and society as a whole.

The more Social Democracy is able to drive the revolutionary tide toward the political dictatorship of the proletariat, the less the bourgeoisie will be able to reverse its achievements the day after the revolution. The proletariat’s aspiration to have its wishes realized wholesale — for them to be “forced on society,” as National Democracy complains — is the quickest way for the working masses to achieve class consciousness and maturity, which are the most valuable and permanent accomplishments of revolution and a guarantee of further progress for socialism in times of peace.

Our proletariat has already made a great effort to master these tactics, particularly in revolutionary times, in the period from the end of October to the beginning of last November in the Dąbrowa Basin [site of a major sit-down strike by miners], where Social Democracy was for a time the force controlling and regulating social relations in accordance with the interests of the proletariat.

The same main goal should continually guide proletarian action throughout the entire country and the entire state. Revolutionary times are not restricted to moments in which bloody battles against the military are fought in the street; they also include every moment and every seemingly peaceful day in the current revolutionary period. That is why Social Democracy should, with iron determination, hold to its tactics of revolution, always mindful that revolution is not a time to debate the opposition but to block it and strike it down with conscious action by the proletarian masses. It is a time for the proletariat to implement its will by force.