Rosa Luxemburg and the Growth of the Labor Movement

By Gerald Friedman | January 15, 2016

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Colorized photo of Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg colorized photo, by Color by Emijrp - Own work. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Today is the 97th anniversary of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the leading exponents of revolutionary socialism in Germany in the early 20th century. Both were prominent figures in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) up to the First World War and, alienated by the reformist and pro-war politics of the SPD, founders of the Spartacus League (subsequently the German Communist Party) in 1916. Both were killed by right-wing Freikorps death squads—which had support from the Social Democratic government—on January 15, 1919.

The following is an excerpt from UMass-Amherst economics professor and D&S columnist Gerald Friedman’s Reigniting the Labor Movement (Routledge, 2007). Here, Friedman describes Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary politics and her understanding of the role of the mass strike—not as the means for a decisive “one hit” victory for the working class, but as part of what Friedman terms a “long-term process of consciousness-building through participation in class struggle.” —Eds.

Despite their best efforts, even the best organizers and the cleverest slogans have little effect on the growth of the labor movement as a whole. The world is too large for a few organizers to make much of a difference; and in normal times, slogans travel too slowly. But if organizers cannot transform labor relations and bring masses into the labor movement, when circumstances are right, they can steer them into particular institutions, unions and socialist political parties; they can be sparks to the ready tinder, or occasionally gather tinder for the sparks to come. Until those times come, organizers’ struggles and work matter for a few, but the large mass of workers remain uninvolved.

There are times when history turns, when almost by sheer will alone, people rise together to change life through collective action. In these revolutionary times, inspired by the spirit of the times, by visions of a better world, people find new ways to act together to change life. With a newfound faith that others too will join in a collective effort that will matter, they throw caution to the wind, reject established precedents and old rules to join together to redefine their relationship with the state, with society, and with each other. Abandoning the constraints of narrow individualism, in these “moments of madness” people achieve dramatic social changes through collective action (Zolberg 1972). In these brief moments of upheaval, history happens; in these times of revolution, society changes through conscious social action.

Since the beginning of the labor movement, mass strikes have been one of the most common manifestations of public upheaval. General and theoretical rigor was first given to the study of mass strikes by a Polish-born, Jewish economist, Rosa Luxemburg. Born Rozalia Luksenburg, the youngest of five children of a downwardly mobile Jewish middle-class family in Zamosc, Poland in 1870, she started early as a rebel. Every step in her upbringing and education drove home the facts of inequality and inequity. Assimilated Jews, her family was removed from the rest of the Jewish community without being accepted into the Catholic Polish community; Luxemburg grew up as a Pole, speaking German and Yiddish in a country occupied by Russia; she was a woman in a world ruled by men. And she suffered a physical disability, a hip dislocation that gave her a limp and earned her the schoolyard title of “cripple, cccrriipplee” (Ettinger, 1986: 10). Admitted to secondary school under a quota system designed to limit the number of Jewish students, her Warsaw school was conducted in Russian with Polish strictly forbidden. Jewish students were segregated, treated as guilty by definition and subject to punishment for the smallest infractions. It is easy to understand how Luxemburg found school an alienating experience. Still, it was a sanctuary compared to the outside world where the police stood idle while crowds celebrated Christmas, 1881, with a pogrom against Warsaw’s Jews (Ettinger 1986: 14-15).

A biographer suggests that “the nervous restlessness” that set the rhythm of Luxemburg’s adult life “originated with the obstacle course that school presented to her.” Her upbringing also directed that energy, both to find a larger community that would accept her, and a desire to change the world to eliminate such inequity. Even as a teenager, Luxemburg threw herself into the revolutionary movement, joining “Proletariat,” one of the first organizations of Polish Marxists. Ironically, it was this involvement in the Polish revolutionary movement that forced her to leave Poland. Soon after she was graduated from secondary school in Warsaw in 1887, she had to flee to Switzerland to escape arrest for her political activities. But exile did not prevent involvement in Polish revolutionary politics. In 1893, she helped to found the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland; appealing for the unity of Polish and Russian workers, and ignoring the fight for Polish sovereignty, Luxemburg’s group never attracted much support. Looking for a wider field Luxemburg moved to Berlin in 1898, to join the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). There she would remain until her assassination during the German Revolution of 1919, devoting her energies to promoting revolution by transforming the SPD into a revolutionary party.

Luxemburg brought great gifts to her party work. In 1893, a complete unknown, she captivated the meeting of the Socialist International with her plea to admit the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland instead of its nationalist rival, the Polish Socialist Party. Émile Vandervelde recalled that her “adversaries had a hard time keeping up with her” and “she defended her cause with such magnetism in her eyes and in such fiery words that the majority of delegates, captivated and spellbound, voted in favor of accepting her mandate.” (Outmaneuvered by the better-connected Polish Socialists, her mandate was later revoked in a committee vote (Ettinger 1986: 48).) Barely three weeks after arriving in Berlin, Luxemburg campaigned through Polish Silesia for the SPD. Her contagious zeal mesmerized her crowds. News of the Polish Fräulein Doktor spread quickly drawing crowds that overflowed lecture halls. The tour was a triumph beyond all expectations.

Almost bewitched by the adoration of the crowds and the attention her words brought her, Luxemburg hoped to build on her Silesia tour to ascend to a prominent position in the SPD. This was never likely; her religion, her nationality, her language and, most of all, her sex, all insured her outsider status. In any case, Luxemburg was soon disenchanted with the SPD. She began to complain that the party was dominated by self-serving and self-congratulatory coteries committed to maintaining their Party positions rather than pursuing socialism. Luxemburg wanted to “push forward the entire movement . . . to instill new life.” But she feared that she would not be able to do so because she “does not belong to the family.” She “has no backstairs influence . . . [but she] is a potential threat,” Luxemburg wrote a friend, and “has no chance . . . because all deals are struck backstage” (Ettinger 1986: 86).

She soon found an opportunity to make a mark on the SPD but as a theorist rather than an agitator. Luxemburg joined the debate over “revisionism” provoked by the publication of Eduard Bernstein’s work, Evolutionary Socialism. Friend of Frederick Engels, editor of one of the Party’s leading journals, Der Sozialdemocrat, Bernstein had impeccable Marxist credentials that made his attack on Party orthodoxy particularly shocking. Not only did he deny that capitalist societies tended towards spontaneous collapse, but Bernstein denied that the working class would necessarily inaugurate a socialist society. Instead, Bernstein urged socialists and the SPD to renounce revolutionary aspirations to focus on achieving practical social reforms for the workers. In practice, what he proposed was less a change in tactics than a realignment of the Social Democrats’ ultimate goals to match their reformist tactics; he recommended that the party should openly avow what it was already doing. “I have no objection to the practical aspect of the Social-Democratic programme with which I am entirely in agreement,” he wrote, “only the theoretical part leaves something to be desired.” “The movement,” Bernstein added in an oft-quoted and deliberately provocative remark, “means everything for me and that what is usually called ‘the final aim of socialism’ is nothing” (Bernstein 1912: 167).

Bernstein’s work provoked a firestorm of protest and one of his strongest, and first, critics was the young Rosa Luxemburg. Undeterred by those who labeled her a “guest who comes to us and spits in our parlor,” she rejected Bernstein’s arguments tout court. He was wrong, she wrote, about the stability of capitalism, wrong about the revolutionary potential of the working class, and wrong about the appropriate tactics for the SPD. The working class, Luxemburg wrote, could overturn capitalism but only if it retained a commitment to revolution. The great threat from revisionism, Luxemburg feared, was that by sundering the Party’s connection with an ultimate goal of socialism, trade union and parliamentary actions would become purely commercial work, service to a dues-paying membership that could never build “awareness, the consciousness, of the proletariat becomes socialist and it is organized as a class.” It was, she argued, the revolutionary socialist vision that made trade unions and the SPD into fighting organizations, mobilizing adherents to build class consciousness through participation in class struggle: “the Socialist purpose of trade-union and political struggle consists in preparing the proletariat for social upheaval, i.e. emphasis on the subjective factor.” Once the idea of popular revolution is abandoned, then trade unions and parliamentary politics “cease to be a means of preparing the working class for the proletarian conquest of power.” Instead of teaching revolutionary democracy and self-government, these become service organizations bringing benefits to passive members. Without a socialist vision, the unions and the party will abandon the work of raising consciousness and instead protect their own survival and gain reforms by trading social peace; “What the revisionists proposed,” she warned, “was to sign peace with the enemy, open up the fortress to him in return for a limited number of places in society” (Nettl 1966: 1: 247).

In the end, the SPD rejected Bernstein and his revisionist program in theory even while continuing to follow his prescriptions in practice. The Party leadership squared this circle by claiming that campaigning for reforms would build an organization to achieve a revolution in some unspecified future time. Equating institution building with movement building, the SPD became a movement of union bureaucrats and party politicians who devoted their time to providing services to client-members and managing the popular labor movement to avoid endangering the institutions of the growing labor movement. Focused on electoral politics, the SPD’s leaders carefully refrained from inflammatory rhetoric and discouraged aggressive strikes or public demonstrations to cultivate an image as respectable labor statesmen. A model party, leader of the Socialist International, the SPD’s strategy of preparing for a revolution by building, maintaining, and protecting reformist institutions became the received wisdom of the twentieth century labor movement.

After 1900, Luxemburg’s growing disappointment with the SPD’s policy of building an organization to make revolution, led her to extend the campaign against revisionism to a full critique of reformist theory. She began to see the revolution as the culmination of a long-term process of consciousness-building through participation in class struggle rather than a quick putsch. “Such an enormous upheaval like the change of society from a capitalist to a socialist order is inconceivable in one hit through one victorious strike on the part of the proletariat . . . . The socialist upheaval predicates a long and bitter struggle.” During this struggle, “the great Socialist importance of the trade-union and political struggle consists in socializing the knowledge, the consciousness of the proletariat, in organizing it as a class” (Nettl 1966: 1: 225). It is only through struggle, what Marx called “revolutionizing praxis” that workers become aware of both their oppression and their ability to overcome it through cooperative collective action.

The movement building of the SPD claimed to build consciousness by delivering tangible benefits for the workers, higher wages, government and union services, better working conditions. While appreciating the immediate value of these material gains, Luxemburg denied that they brought the working-class closer to social democracy. They could not, she argued, develop the fighting capacity and consciousness of the workers themselves because these gains were given to the workers by the organizations rather than won through direct struggle by the workers and therefore did nothing to increase the workers’ confidence or their capacity for democratic self-government . Reform politics relies on party and union institutions staffed by professional labor movement bureaucrats to negotiate on behalf of workers with employers and state officials. Such institutions, Luxemburg argued, cannot promote revolution which depends on popular upheaval, democratic actions where the masses develop experience in self management, the self confidence to believe they can manage society. It is only through struggle that workers learn to manage society democratically, and only through struggle that they develop their grievances. “Those who do not move,” she warned, “do not notice their chains.” Reformism cannot build a sense of empowerment; on the contrary, reformist labor movement organizations actively undermine any sense of popular autonomy or power because they are managed by bureaucrats who routinely buy social reforms with popular quiescence. Reform, therefore, is not a step towards revolution, it is a substitute. “It is absolutely false and totally unhistorical to represent work for reforms as a drawn-out revolution, and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform,” Luxemburg argued, “do not differ according to their duration but according to their essence” (Luxemburg 2004b: 156).

Instead of establishing respectability and building organization by discouraging popular militancy, Luxemburg urged the SPD to build class consciousness by promoting class conflict and direct action. She would build the revolutionary capacity of the working class by raising workers’ awareness of their own oppression and by training them in class conscious action and class conflict. Strikes were central to her theory, revolutionizing praxis transforming a mass of individual workers into a working class and the place where a democratic mass movement is built by the actions of the people themselves. “[G]enuine popular participatory strikes come when the strikers are emotionally prepared and that can come without warning after some provocation, perhaps small in itself.” The role of the union or the party, she argued, is to engage in “a continuous state of preparation,” to maintain “some type of permanent structure through which a general strike can be organized,” and to support mass strikes when they come. The “fruits of agitation extending over several years of the Social Democracy,” mass strikes, such as those in the Russian Revolution of 1905, are unpredictable. While “any little conflict between labor and capital can grow into a general explosion,

the mass strike cannot be called at will, even when the decision to do so may come from the highest committee of the strongest Social Democratic party. . . . Of course, even during the revolution mass strikes do not exactly fall from heaven. They must be brought about in some way or another by the workers. The resolution and determination of the workers also play a part and indeed the initiative and the wider direction naturally fall to the share of the organized and the most enlightened kernel of the proletariat. But the scope of this initiative and this direction, for the most part, is confined to application to individual acts . . . spontaneity, as we have seen, plays a great part in all Russian mass strikes without exception, be it as a driving force or as a restraining influence. . . . In short, in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a predominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are ‘uneducated,’ but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them (Luxemburg 2004a: 196-98).

Once begun, mass strikes become the training ground for revolutionary militancy, the very “form of the revolutionary struggle.” Like “bleeding wounds,” strikes stir up “all the innumerable sufferings of the modern proletariat” while pointing towards a solution, substituting direct worker control for “the capitalist principle of ‘mastery of the house’.” “Only the working class, through its own activity,” Luxemburg concluded, “can make the word flesh.” But this will not automatically happen. The working class, “only learn to fight in the course of their struggles.” Even where mass strikes do not end in revolution, Luxemburg observes that they leave in their wake a more conscious, more confident, and more organized working class.

The firm organization, which as the indispensable hypothesis for an eventual German mass strike should be fortified like an impregnable citadel—these organizations are in Russia, on the contrary, already born from the mass strike. . . . the Russian revolution shows us . . . from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike . . . like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions (Luxemburg 2004b: 186).

is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Bernstein, E. (1912) Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation (New York: Huebsch); Ettinger, E. (1986) Rosa Luxemburg: A Life (Boston: Beacon Press); Luxemburg, R. (2004a) “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press); Luxemburg, R. (2004b) “Social Reform or Revolution,” in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press); Nettl, J.P. (1966) Rosa Luxemburg, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press); Zolberg, A. (1972) “Moments of Madness,” Politics and Society 2: 183-208.

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