Rosa Luxemburg: The struggle against opportunism and reformism

Born in 1871 (the year of the Paris Commune), in Zamosc southeast of Warsaw, Rosa Luxemburg became a leading member of the German SDP and fought for the revolutionary struggle for socialism as opposed to the opportunist road of the parliamentary reformist road.

When the SDP agreed to war-credits before 1914 and replaced revolutionary opposition to the war with social patriotic support for the war, she broke with the party (eventually to form the KPD).

One of those social patriots of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Gustav Noske, who became defence minister in the post-war government and who ordered the shooting of tens of thousands of workers in the post-war revolutionary struggles in Germany, also connived in the brutal murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In the 1960s and 70s, Luxemburg symbolised, for young people especially, opposition against class compromise in Germany.

It should be noted that in the 1960s, when West German students in Cologne celebrated Rosa Luxemburg’s memory by naming the local university after her, the government of the German Federal Republic declared her assassination in 1919 to have been in accordance with martial law, although there never was a charge or a trial.

The struggle of Rosa Luxemburg against opportunism and reformism

Luxemburg’s writing ‘Social reform or revolution’ was principally written against Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein undertook a complete revision of Marxism, the theory of scientific socialism, for the purpose of subordinating the movement and the aspirations of the working class to the requirements of bourgeois democracy and the capitalist system.

The historical record of her struggle stands unparalleled for her revolutionary internationalism.

It is very timely to speak of her because of the utter betrayal of German workers and the international working class by the SDP government.

The SDP is the direct political descendent of the SDP under Bernstein and Kautsky, who by 1914 had completely capitulated to the demands of the ruling class, led workers to abandon their independent class struggle and instead support King and country.

We are in a similar historical watershed as the socialists found themselves at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

Today the SDP stands for complete alignment with the ruling order in Germany, the big cartels and banks – some of which are the same as in Luxemburg’s days and during the period of fascism.

The Social Democratic Party was established in 1863 and was based on scientific socialism, i.e., the Marxist theory of class struggle and critique of the capitalist system as well as a commitment to overthrow it. At the beginning of the 20th century, it had implacably opposed the militarism of the capitalist system with its defiant slogan: “Not a man, not a penny to the class enemy and his wars.”

The programme on which all social democratic parties were originally founded was the Marxist programme of the socialist revolution, i.e. the Communist Manifesto.

However, a decade into the 20th century social democratic parties all over Europe agreed to support their governments’ war efforts. This led to the slaughter of workers by workers on a scale never experienced before.

Social Democratic parties all over Europe, which were allied in the Socialist International, tied the working class to the interests of the capitalist class in defending the national interests of one government against that of another.

Rosa Luxemburg, alongside Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin fought a relentless and uncompromising battle against the revisionist and liquidationist tendencies in the party. Sacrificing Marxist theory, Bernstein and Kautsky betrayed the independent movement of the working class and became apologists for the First World War.

Trotsky gave this brief characterisation of the Movement of the Second International both in its ascendency and its descendancy: “The Labour and Socialist International was formed in 1889 as the successor to the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), which dissolved in 1876. It was a loose organization of a wide variety of workers’ associations, including both Marxists and reformists. Its strongest section was the German Social Democratic Party. At its Congresses before 1914, especially at the Basel Congress in 1912, revolutionary sounding resolutions had been carried pledging to oppose imperialist world war by international class action. But in August 1914, the corruption of the entire international leadership by opportunism was revealed, when in the major countries the social democratic leaders joined their respective ruling classes in sending the workers into the imperialist slaughter. Only a small left wing, led by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, maintained a proletarian struggle against the war. A centrist line, led by Kautsky, tried to take a middle line between Marxism and Social-Patriotism. From 1914, when the Second International had become the main prop of the decaying world order, Lenin fought to establish a new International based on Marxist principles”.

Rosa Luxemburg fought a lifelong battle against revisionism and parliamentarism in the International. She supported the 1905 Russian Revolution and actively took part in it in Warsaw. Together with Lenin she fought for a revolutionary anti-war position. When the leaders of the SDP agreed to war credits and supported the German ruling class in its imperialist war, she broke with the SDP and joined in the formation of the Spartacus League (Spartakus Bund), later the Communist Party of Germany.

In the summer of 1913, the SPD deputies to the Reichstag voted for a property tax undisguisedly earmarked for armaments. Luxemburg responded with articles sharply attacking the SPD for its support for military expenditures. She went on to deliver speeches to German workers not to take up arms against workers of other nationalities. For this she stood trial in February 1914 for inciting public disobedience.

At this trial Luxemburg addressed the court in her own defence, in effect putting the Prussian court on trial and transforming it into a forum for Social Democracy. The speech, published as ‘Militarism, War and the Working Class, was a brilliant piece of oratory on war and peace and the right of people to determine their own destiny. Her year of imprisonment did not begin until after the outbreak of WWI.

On the eve of the outbreak of the war, Luxemburg was fighting armaments in Germany, exposing the growing naval rivalry between Germany and England and inciting public disobedience. Her belief in the international solidarity of workers was as firm as her faith in the moral strength and authority of the International.

It was clear that by 1914 the SDP had irreversibly become a reformist party, had given up socialist revolution as its strategic aim and had entered into a process of collaboration with the class enemy.

The rapid setting into motion of the imperialist war machine should have been the warning shot for all socialists to start the urgent independent mobilisation of the working class against war. In reality the socialists in the Reichstag allowed themselves to be drawn into supporting the imperialist preparations for war. The readiness of the SDP deputies to support the war amounted to the most tragic defeat for the working class. Workers had no choice but to fight the class enemy’s war.

Despite her imprisonment and that of many others who had opposed the war, they fought to turn the war into one against the oppressor at home. On May Day of 1916, Luxemburg and Liebknecht organised a mass demonstration in Berlin under the slogan of ‘Down with the War!’ This was followed with the immediate arrest and ‘protective custody’ of all the leaders of the Spartakus Bund until the end of 1918.

In September 1918 the war began to turn against Germany. Strikes broke out and General Ludendorff, the Army Chief of Staff, resigned and fled to the Netherlands. On November 9 a General Strike took place in Berlin.

The military defeat of the German empire led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He handed overall powers to the representatives of the SPD, Ebert and Scheidemann, who proclaimed the Republic on the steps of the Reichstag.

In opposition, just hours later, Liebknecht proclaimed the Socialist Republic. Workers and soldiers’ councils were formed throughout the country. On Jan 6 1919 the building of Vorwaerts (the central organ of the SDP was occupied by the Spartacists and a revolutionary issue of the paper was published.

The occupation continued for a whole week, when SDP minister of defence Noske called in the troops to take control. 30 comrades were massacred in the fighting and a witch-hunt against Luxemburg and Liebknecht ensued. Public incitements to murder them were distributed as leaflets. A headhunt began. On January 15, they were taken prisoner and brutally murdered on the way to prison.

The SDP wanted a continuation of bourgeois democracy and the preservation of capitalism, which they had served before and during the war.  The Weimar Constitution was adopted in 1919 and, led by the SDP, ensured the continuation of the capitalist system.

The struggle for revolutionary socialism versus reformism of the capitalist system was at the core of the 1918 German revolution.

In her book ‘Reform or Revolution’, Luxemburg lays bare the essence of the ideas of reform of the capitalist system. She insisted that the class opposites could not be reconciled through a gradual moving together without there being a qualitative transformation of the opposites at a certain point. Bernstein, the main theoretical proponent of the reformist tendency in the SDP raised the utopian belief that capitalism was able to adapt itself and the working class, instead of aiming for the socialist revolution should instead follow the road of reforms. According to Bernstein the means by which capitalism was going to adapt itself were the following:

  • The crises of the capitalist economy could be avoided through the credit system and the formation of industrialists’ confederations.
  • Large layers of the proletariat would enter the middle class.
  • Trade Unions would ensure the raise in the economic and political conditions of the working class.

Luxemburg always maintained that the struggle for reforms was an integral part of the struggle for the socialist revolution. The improvement of conditions for the working class within the existing system is the only way to work towards the taking of political power and the ending of the system of wage slavery.

In ‘Reform or Revolution’, Luxemburg declares the main pillars of scientific socialism with its perspective of the inevitability of the collapse of the capitalist system and the historical necessity of its overthrow:

  • The growing anarchy of the capitalist economy.
  • The growing socialization of the means of production, creating in embryonic form the future social order.
  • The growing power and class-consciousness of the working class, which forms the active factor in the eventual transformation of the system.

Luxemburg answered Bernstein’s argument on credit:

Where the immanent tendency of capitalist production to expand further and further hits the barriers of private ownership, i.e., the limited dimensions of private capital, credit becomes the means to overcome this barrier, to bring together many private capitals into one (by forming joint stock companies or as we call it public companies). One capitalist has therefore gained access to the capital of many others, what is called industrial credit. Credit as commercial credit accelerates the exchange of commodities, freeing capital to flow back into production. What happens, however, during a crisis? Having whipped production to a frenzy, credit now causes the total depression of the productive forces.

Besides offering to the capitalist a technical means to overcome the limits of his own capital, credit also invites him to ever bolder and reckless use of someone else’s capital – to take risks, to speculate. Given the interconnectedness of the whole system, the collapse of one enterprise now has the capacity to pull with it all the others. Credit therefore, far from being a means to remove or lessen crises, is proven to be an especially powerful factor in the creation of crises.

The creation of fictitious value created by the system of credit and debt, is the most explosive factor of the world economic crisis of capitalism. It is at the same time the most revolutionary factor.

Both the system of credit and that of cartels, Luxemburg argued, deepen the contradiction between the international character of the capitalist world economy and individual capitalist states, creating tariff wars and driving the antagonisms between them to the brink.

Luxemburg knew that the contradictions between monopoly capitalism and the nation states would draw the whole world into the most catastrophic conflict. She also knew that if the working class did not grasp the international dimensions of this conflict, it would be condemned to the counterrevolutionary and reactionary outlook of social patriotism, where the interests of the working class were put identical to the interests of the nation. To defend ‘the Nation’, she warned, meant to defend the interests of the class enemy.

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