“This country was made to work,” right-wing authorities tell us, and in order to get the economy back to normal, the elderly, the infirm, the severely disabled may have to be sacrificed. Those whose labor is deemed essential are also expected to risk illness and death, for the benefit of profiteers and their well-paid mouth-pieces, who live in safe and guarded compounds. Yet it is an undeniable fact that millions of Americans—including all-too-many from the working class—approve, cheer this message of profits above people, with some even mobilizing with signs and flags and guns to demand the implementation of this right-wing message: lift coronavirus restrictions, get the economy moving. Some on the liberal and left end of the political spectrum despair that it is hard to be hopeful anymore.
Our present-day calamity is in multiple ways quite different from the calamity of 1914. Yet there are parallels. One can imagine a similar despair over the absence of revolutionary action by the European working class in the face of the horrific explosion of imperialist slaughter. In fact, many workers rallied with enthusiasm to the impending holocaust. That working-class failure caused many committed socialists to shift away from the revolutionary expectations inherent in Marxism. A despairing few were inclined to commit acts of individual terrorism against symbols of authority, as in the case of the young Austrian socialist Friedrich Adler, who assassinated the Prime Minister of Austria-Hungary. Others more “realistically” adapted to the politics of the status quo—for example, the leader of the Austrian socialists, Victor Adler (who was Friedrich’s father).
Luxemburg, in contrast, was not inclined to give way to either variant of despair. After her initial profound anguish over the triumph of all she hated, she made her way to an intellectual and emotional balance that was consistent with a continued adherence to revolutionary Marxist perspectives. It is worth exploring her thinking further.
Revolution and Human Psychology
One of Luxemburg’s friends admonished her that the moderate socialist leaders were far more practical than she was, because Germany’s working-class majority was too weak and cowardly to follow her revolutionary path.
Disagreeing that “one must fit tactics to their weakness,” the imprisoned Luxemburg responded: “There is nothing more mutable than human psychology. The psyche of the masses like the eternal sea always carries all the latent possibilities: the deathly calm and the roaring storm, the lowest cowardice and the wildest heroism.” She added: “The mass is always that which it must be according to the circumstances of the time, and the mass is always at the point of becoming something entirely different than what it appears to be.”
Continuing her maritime analogy, Luxemburg wrote: “A fine captain he would be who would chart his course only from the momentary appearance of the water’s surface and who would not know how to predict a coming storm from the signs in the sky or from the depths.”
She scoffed at those expressing “disappointment over the masses,” insisting that serious political organizers do not adapt their tactics “to the momentary mood of the masses, but rather to the iron laws of development.” Such an organizer must “hold fast to his tactics in spite of all ‘disappointments’ and, for the rest, calmly allow history to bring its work to maturity.”
Dynamics of Capital Accumulation
Luxemburg’s study The Accumulation of Capital analyzed these “laws of development.”
She understood capitalism as an expansive system driven by the dynamic of “accumulation.” Capital in the form of money is invested in commodities in the form of raw materials and tools and labor-power, which is transformed—by the squeezing of actual labor out of the labor-power of the workers—into capital in the form of new commodities thereby produced, whose increased value is realized through their sale for more money than was originally invested, which is the increased capital out of which the capitalist extracts his profits, only to be driven to invest more capital for the purpose of achieving ever greater capital accumulation.
Inseparable from this, the quality of life for more and more workers was undermined – with the ongoing degradation of the labor process and ceaseless efforts to enhance profits at the expense of working-class living standards, all punctuated by periodic economic depressions. Gains made by workers in reform struggles would later be eroded by the natural functioning of the capitalist economy. This voracious capital accumulation process was also compelled, by its very nature, to expand over the entire face of the Earth.
Although the word commonly used today is “globalization,” in Luxemburg’s time it was called imperialism. She explained: “The means of production and labor-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labor-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures.”
The destructive impact of all this on the cultures of the world’s peoples was emphasized by Luxemburg as by no other Marxist theorist of her time: “The ravenous greed, the voracious appetite for accumulation, the very essence of which is to take advantage of each new political and economic conjuncture with no thought for tomorrow, precludes any appreciation of the value of the works of economic infrastructure that have been left by previous civilizations.”
Competition among various major capitalist powers to achieve such expansive conquest resulted in a dramatic expansion of militarism, aggressively nationalist ideologies, and intensifying rivalries around who would control and profit from increasing sectors of the global economy – which culminated in devastating global war.
Vanguard and Mass Action
When Europe was shaken by the earlier crisis of 1905-1906, Luxemburg participated in mass struggles that threw light on dynamics she felt the socialist workers’ movement would need to come to grips with, which she described in The Mass Strike, Trade Unions, and Political Party.
Luxemburg viewed the socialist workers’ movement as “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat.” At the same time, she felt the movement was hampered by a growing “bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook,” which was particularly strong in the trade unions, with “the specialization of professional activity as trade-union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period.” This non-revolutionary approach was also affecting the party leadership, focused on appealing for increasing numbers of votes in election campaigns.
Unstable dynamics of capitalism in 1905 generated a “violent and sudden jerk” that aggravated “deep-seated, long-suppressed resentment” among workers and other social layers, resulting in an explosive and spontaneous reaction on a mass scale. Although using the term “mass strikes,” she described them as going far beyond economic issues, sometimes involving whole communities in mass demonstrations and street battles, through which workers sought to “grasp at new political rights and attempt to defend existing ones.”
“From the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting,” which she noted “must surely react upon the deeper-lying layers and ultimately draw all those into a general economic struggle.” Socialist organizations wishing to provide revolutionary leadership must anticipate such upsurges, being prepared to support and interact with them as part of the struggle to transcend capitalism.
Revolutions and Majorities
As the First World War concluded in 1918, Luxemburg and her revolutionary-minded comrades found the bureaucratized structure of their own socialist workers’ movement had become an obstacle attempting to thwart radicalizing impulses of the working-class membership, to limit the ability of people such as Luxemburg to present a revolutionary socialist perspective, and to deflect upsurges in the class struggle into non-revolutionary channels. She observed:
As bred-in-the-bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German social democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to the revolution: first let’s become a “majority.” The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that is the way the road runs. Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times.
Luxemburg’s vision of the socialist goal intersected with the revolutionary methods that she called for. “The whole mass of the people must take part,” she insisted. “Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of class rule.” Political and economic democracy must merge: “The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion.”
Luxemburg was martyred amidst the revolutionary turbulence sweeping through Europe in 1919. Her killers later became part of the base of Hitler’s Nazi movement. But she endures, as new layers of activists take inspiration from her life and thought.