A hundred years on from Rosa Luxemburg’s murder Stella Rooney argues that her ‘Reform or Revolution’, one of the first Marxist critiques of reformist currents within the socialist movement, is as relevant today as ever. A version of this article first appeared in the volume 1 of Conter.
Rosa Luxemburg was not yet 30 when Reform or Revolution was published, yet it remains a monumental work for socialists today. Both essays contained in the pamphlet were written as a counter argument to theorist Eduard Bernstein, who argued in his Evolutionary Socialism that the ills of capitalism could be alleviated gradually with the implementation of social reforms. In response, Luxemburg asserts the necessity of social revolution, as the only means for a socialist transformation of society.
With her polemic Luxemburg stood out from the crowd of contemporary socialist intellectuals, many of whom were reluctant to tackle ‘revisionist’ claims by once loyal members of the European social democratic movement. She understood as they did not that the issues being discussed on the right of the movement could permeate deep into its core.
The tensions between Luxemburg and Bernstein’s arguments have travelled down the history of the socialist movement, and spanned the globe. To this day, we see the parameters of this debate mark-out positions within leftwing institutions such as the Labour party and trade unions, but also around pressing issues such as Brexit, the climate crisis and the resurgence of the far-right. We are constantly confronted with a question which must be answered – can capitalism be reformed to the point of total transformation, or must we tear down and rebuild the system?
As Luxemburg asserts in the introduction to the pamphlet, reform and revolution had traditionally been indivisible concepts in socialists strategy. It is sometimes imagined today by figures on the right of the workers’ movement that revolutionary politics was an off-spin of a more noble tradition focused on reform. But in fact the dominant tendencies of the early social democratic movement assumed revolutionary transformation.
As Luxemburg states: “It is in Eduard Bernstein’s theory, presented in his articles…that we find, for the first time, the opposition of the two factors of the labour movement. His theory tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of Social-Democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim.”
It is one of Luxemburg’s most acute observations that, rather than refine the reformist method, Bernstein’s views will break the motor force of reforms won by mass radical action.
Here lies the critical distinction between reforms being a conclusion, rather than a stepping stone to working class power.
Luxemburg outlines this well: “If this effort is separated from the movement itself and social reforms are made an end in themselves, then such activity not only does not lead to the final goal of socialism but moves in a precisely opposite direction.
There must be a wider explanation for the historical development of ‘centrism’ as a major political force, but this is surely part of the story.
Today, mainstream liberal politics – including versions in the Labour party which are nominally social democratic – assault us with a violent nostalgia for the good old days, when there was routine and order. Of many archetypal examples, one that is particularly instructive is Blair McDougall, former chief strategist for the Better Together ‘No’ campaign, who requested to be governed by the ‘grown-ups’ – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – once again. Their supposed selling point is that they are the enforcers of ‘sensible’ (read: overtly capitalist) politics. The legacy of Blairism is the consolidation of Luxembourg’s theory, serving as a monument to the dangers of playing by the rules of a rigged system.
Centrism is the exhaustion of reformist notions. In today’s world, which for so many daily life is alienating, and where transformative social reforms of the kinds that followed the second world war are remembered only by the elderly, it is hard to believe that the current order will produce meaningful reform. While the small concessions made to the working class under New Labour were welcome, such as a minimum wage and tax credits, its legacy remains one of destruction and neoliberalism. We remember the travesty of the Iraq war, but New Labour also utterly failed to regulate the banking sector, facilitating corrupt practices with horrendous consequences for workers globally. With inequality sky-rocketing, and the ruling class concentrating unprecedented wealth, the idea of a strictly reformist socialist movement feels remote.
As the working class moves forwards, the centrist clique longs for a time where the masses were more subdued. As Luxemburg writes of reformism, the same can be said for the political philosophy of centrism: “It is a theory of standing still in the socialist movement, built with the aid of vulgar economy, on a theory of capitalist standstill.”
Some items of the “vulgar economy” of Bernstein and co that Luxemburg is critiquing will seem farcical to modern readers. Trade unions would obviate the need for political change, the amalgamation of firms (monopolisation) and even the growth of finance would stabilise the development of capitalism, reigning-in its crisis tendencies. In every generation, some on the left will always preach the latest reason why a confrontation with capitalism is not necessary.
As the working-class movement, we can’t afford vulgar economism. While we must build our power within institutions, we must not relinquish our criticisms. There is a force within society much stronger than capitalism, even the labour party or any individual trade union – a united working class. A class upon realising its collective power, is the only class that matters. The quest for parliamentary power is one which of course aids our movement, but it is only one part of building working class power. The parliamentary road to socialism is absolutely meaningless as a one track strategy. For even on election of a left wing government, without an organised working class we will have no means to defend ourselves from the attacks of capital.
We must be clear, reforms will not ‘fix’ capitalism because its most essential contradictions cannot be resolved within its own system.
Campaigning through a mass party, or trade union, is the means in which workers can understand class consciousness and build confidence. It is the way in which we understand our power as a class, and how we can deploy this power against capital. To view socialism as a long and slow march, or as a gradual inevitability, makes its realisation impossible.
We must not forget that our reliance on the system of wage labour itself is the ultimate sickness of society. Luxemburg observed: “No law obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. Poverty, the lack of means of production, obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. And no law in the world can give to the proletariat the means of production while it remains in the framework of bourgeois society, for not laws but economic development have torn the means of production from the producers’ possession.”
As demonstrated by the recent collapse of Thomas Cook, it is always workers who pay at the hands of capitalism. The constant threat of falling profit rates doesn’t leave the bosses struggling to put food on the table. Neoliberalism is a form of socialism for the rich, and gangster capitalism for the rest of us. Some of Luxemburg’s observations in this regard are prescient and shrewd: “The industrial capitalist of today is a collective person composed of hundreds and even of thousands of individuals. The category ‘capitalist’ has itself become a social category.” The need for class unity is fundamental, because the rich already have a united front, supported by the state.
Luxemburg’s work is not a call for complacency, but quite the opposite. Reforms in the favour of workers are urgently needed, repeal of anti-trade union legislation for example, is essential for unions to relinquish their former industrial muscle. But we must be clear; the fate of this rotten system lies within our hands collectively. We will need to come up against the rich and powerful to win, and the state may be rigged against us. As demonstrated by history, putting blind faith in mediocre politicians leaves the working classes utterly doomed. Renouncing the prize of socialism is a renunciation of workers. A more communal future is possible, but only if we resist the allure of fools’ gold.
If asked today whether capitalism can be reformed, I imagine Luxemburg would reply: ‘Well, yes. But it will still be capitalism.’ New permutations of the system are entirely possible. What those changes will not produce is an emancipatory and democratic new social order. With the apparent inability of the global capitalist economy to confront the challenging circumstances it has itself created for the coming century, the strategic dilemmas posed in Luxemburg’s classic text will confront us over and over again.