Although uncompromising opposition to the First World War subjected Rosa Luxemburg to the pitiless “social distancing” of imprisonment, she felt compelled, as always, to analyze and to organize against the oppression and violence of the capitalist system. Since her teenage years, she had been dedicated to building a mass movement of the working-class majority that would fight for improvements in there here-and-now (reforms) while at the same time fighting to replace the tyranny and exploitation at the heart of capitalism with the expansive political and economic democracy of socialism (revolution). As she put it in her pamphlet, “Reform or Revolution,” for a successful socialist movement, “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
Socialism or Barbarism
Yet the massive German Social Democratic Party (SPD), for which Luxemburg was one of the most popular and fiery spokespeople, had become dominated by a “moderate” bureaucracy determined to co-exist with Germany’s upper classes, settling for reforms and rejecting revolution. It sought to marginalize Luxemburg and other revolutionary socialists, at the same time embracing the imperialist foreign policy of the country’s rulers.
With the explosion of the First World War in 1914, the reformist bureaucracy supported the war effort, while Luxemburg and her closest comrades opposed the mass slaughter. They organized an opposition, named after the leader of the ancient slave revolt against Imperial Rome: the Spartacus League. Luxemburg explained:
Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism. Only the revolution of the world proletariat can bring order into this chaos, can bring work and bread for all, can end the reciprocal slaughter of the peoples, can restore peace, freedom, true culture to this martyred humanity. … In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. … Socialism or barbarism!
There has been, over past decades, controversy over the phrase “socialism or barbarism,” which Luxemburg had also utilized in her famous “Junius Pamphlet” of 1915, clandestinely written from her prison cell and smuggled out to comrades. There she attributed the phrase to Frederick Engels, without citing a source. Because conscientious searches revealed no such formulation in Engels’s writings, it came to be attributed to Luxemburg herself. Some argued it signified her break with a dogmatically optimistic triumphalism predominating in the Marxism of her time—the belief that a socialist future was inevitable.
In fact—as Ian Angus has recently pointed out—the phrase can be found in the 1891 Erfurt Program of the SPD, written by prominent Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky: “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” The underlying notion goes as far back as The Communist Manifesto, which noted that history has involved class struggles between “oppressor and oppressed, [which] stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
Still, in stressing the “socialism or barbarism” formulation, and making this dependent on what the working class does or fails to do, Luxemburg is (as Michael Löwy has aptly put it) pushing against dogmatic optimism, instead “attributing to conscious will and to action the determining role in the decision of the historical process.” But a question pushes its way to the foreground. What if the working class fails to embrace its historic mission? What if the more likely outcome in Luxemburg’s challenge is barbarism?
In more ways than one, the triumph of barbarism seems to be the reality of the present moment. The coronavirus plague intertwines with economic collapse, and the dual crisis is accompanied by incredibly morbid political symptoms. The top leadership of the country is arrogant, irresponsible, corrupt and murderous—but how did it get there? It is, of course, aided and abetted by bankers, hedge fund managers, tech titans, Fox News, and spewers of hate on talk radio. But who is listening to this toxic message?
“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.
The Final Conflict
We have a responsibility to face the challenge: In what ways is Luxemburg relevant to the present moment, to our specific time in history? It may seem to make no sense to call for “mass strikes” or mass anything in this time of necessary social distancing.
But the reality is more complex, as became evident to those able to attend the recent on-line Labor Notes conference of April 18, which brought together well over a thousand militant working-class activists. There was a rich array of remarkable reports from the front-lines of “essential” employees who are not permitted to work from home – health care workers, sanitation workers, transportation workers, postal workers, warehouse and delivery workers, teachers, and others. Workers throughout the country report lack of health and safety procedures, lack of protective gear, overwork from forced overtime and understaffing, and the lack of paid sick leave and hazard pay. Health care workers are also raising concerns regarding the safety and well-being of their patients in poorly funded facilities. In a variety of locales, they are taking action now – circulating petitions, holding news conferences, leafleting, picketing, demonstrations, and wildcat strikes. And sometimes there are important victories.
One can raise questions about how far such actions can go, given the constraints we face at this moment in time, but this moment will inevitably be followed by the next. The pandemic – although lasting longer than anti-science fools promise, and far longer than we ourselves desire – will finally ease and finally lift. Until it does lift, we must prepare. And when it lifts, we must move.
At this moment in history, and in the next moment, everything is changing and will dramatically change even further. We are up against an incredibly formidable power structure – but the people in command are losing control, they are not confident (how could they be?), they are divided, and some of them are irresponsible and increasingly erratic. As even “mainstream” commentators are pointing out, the health crisis is part of a larger environmental crisis, and it is unfolding in tandem with what promises to be a brutal economic crisis. Many understand that these crises are inherent in the contradictions of the existing capitalist system. There are terrible dangers, but also amazing opportunities.
We must prepare. It is worth, now, in this time of pandemic, advancing the demand that everyone in our country should be guaranteed an income of $2000 per month. It is worth, now, demanding health care for all, as a basic human right. It is worth, now, demanding the implementation of the kind of genuine and radical Green New Deal that combines protecting the environment with protecting the working conditions and living standards of the working-class. The belief in the need for such things is spreading and deepening amid the crisis in which we find ourselves. And when asked how all this can be paid for, more and more activists insist that it should be paid for by very substantial taxation of the billionaires and their corporations, who are responsible for the suffering of millions. This is the consciousness that can and should be spread and deepened precisely at the present moment.
Regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joseph Biden (or some other centrist Democrat) wins the upcoming Presidential election in the United States, the current crises are likely to persist and deepen. That will mean that such demands as these will continue to be relevant – and, in fact, urgent.
The necessities of the capital accumulation process, which Luxemburg so brilliantly explained, will not allow the billionaires and their corporations to comply, assuming that massive reform struggles for such demands are successful. They will seek to thwart us, and to block our struggles. If we win, they will be determined to cheat the working-class majority, and “if necessary” to take their industries (which are really our industries, resources belonging to the working-class majority) out of our country. Now is the time to build consciousness, to plan, to shape campaigns that will overcome such assaults. Those are assaults on the genuine and radical democracy that is essential for our people’s well-being and survival. As Luxemburg explained, the struggle for reforms is the means; the social revolution is the aim. We must establish rule by the people over the economic life of our society.
We must move quickly, when conditions allow, because we do not have all the time in the world. Scientists suggest that the present pandemic is only a foretaste of what is to come. They tell us that the growing and multiple impacts of climate change may engulf our planet in three decades. If that is the case, then the long-awaited “final conflict” prophesied in the revolutionary anthem “The International” may truly be approaching. We must not go down fighting – we must fight to win, because we are running out of time, we cannot count on there being a “next time.” The immediate choice will, once again and soon, be exactly what Luxemburg said: socialism or barbarism.
We must prepare and then move—in each case with seriousness and care. We need to build a mass base with a revolutionary socialist consciousness, with accumulating experience and skills, prepared to engage in mass struggles reaching out to include more and more people, planned struggles that will be enhanced by spontaneous or semi-spontaneous mass actions, as Luxemburg described them—and such revolutionary tactics can lead to a majority.
“Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times,” Luxemburg explained. At the present moment, there is no such party in existence. As any experienced activist should be aware, we are not ready for this. We must get ready.
There should be no misunderstanding here. The immediate outcome of the present crisis is very unlikely to be socialism. There are not yet the organized forces capable of waging an effective struggle to make that so. On the other hand, the immediate outcome of the present crisis—if there is to be any hope for socialism instead of barbarism—must involve the beginning of serious struggles, and of an increasingly organized and determined socialist movement, that will be capable of leading to a socialist transition within the next two decades.