Why read Reform and Revolution?

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Rosa Luxemburg's short book Reform or Revolution is often overlooked these days, in favour of her more famous, The Mass Strike. Written while in her late twenties, Reform or Revolution demonstrates the keeness of Luxemburg's Marxism and the sharpness of her polemic.

The book is a response to a series of articles and an eventual book by Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was an important figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to which Luxemburg also belonged. Bernstein was arguing for a movement away from the ideas embodied in classical Marxism.

Luxemburg argued "His conception of the march of economic development is incompatible with the Marxist theory of surplus value. Therefore, Bernstein abandons the theory of value and surplus value, and, in this way, the whole economic system of Karl Marx."

In fact, Luxemburg argued that he was breaking with the whole of Marxist thought - though that was the rock upon which the SPD was built. The SPD had been founded as an avowed revolutionary organisation. Its leading members in the late 19th century had been close to Marx and Engels, but several were now demonstrating a break with that tradition. As the quote above suggests, Bernstein had dropped or questioned a series of key Marxist ideas. In particular, he was hinting that the revolutionary transformation of society was no longer required because capitalism had the potential to solve its own contradictions.

Famously, she quoted Bernstein: "The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything." Bernstein saw the socialist movement and the workers' organisations, such as the trade unions, not as weapons to further the struggle for socialism but as tools to tame capitalism.

Luxemburg's anger at Bernstein's betrayal of the movement shines through. Yet her writing is never simply polemical. It is a clear restatement of basic Marxist arguments, in part an attempt to educate and win new workers to the revolutionary movement. Her final dismissal of Bernstein emphasises this:

"Not the shadow of an original thought! Not a single idea that was not refuted, crushed, reduced into dust, by Marxism several decades ago!"

"Bernstein appears as an unconscious predestined instrument, by means of which the rising working class expresses its momentary weakness, but which, upon closer inspection, it throws aside contemptuously and with pride."

This is a wonderful piece of polemic. Luxemburg clearly believed that Bernstein and those who rallied round him should be challenged, but she also clearly believed that the problem of reformism, or opportunism as she called it, was simply one of ideology. Defeated by a reassertion of Marxism, she hoped the reformists would vanish and the SPD would continue along the correct road.

Unfortunately, what wasn't clear to her was the extent to which reformism had a very real material base within the SPD. Having made the transition from illegality to legal organisation, the SPD had built an immense organisation with hundreds of newspapers and workers' clubs, and thousands of full-timers. The organisation, as hinted by the quote from Bernstein above, was becoming an end in itself. Revolutionary activity, that challenged the state and the capitalists put all this in jeopardy. As British Marxist, Duncan Hallas once wrote, "they had much more to lose than their chains."

The rot went deep. Luxemburg herself details a number of examples of the way the party had, in some localities, compromised with the capitalist system. This was, barely two decades after the publication of the book, to come to a head with the complete capitulation of the SPD's leaders to the capitalist state when it backed the First World War. In the aftermath of that betrayal Luxemburg and a few other German revolutionaries were left almost alone to try and rebuild revolutionary organisation in the midst of world war. The lack of an independent, mass revolutionary socialist party was one of the major factors in the failure of the German Revolution that erupted at the end of the war.

Reform or Revolution is not an easy read as it contains many contemporary references, though in the edition I have, Donny Gluckstein provides a useful introduction that puts the work in context and had many useful endnotes.

The question Luxemburg addresses, though, remains important. It is the basic argument about how to challenge capitalism. Today reformist organisations seem bankrupt. In the UK the Labour Party is a shadow of its former self. Yet reformist ideas remain the dominant ones in workers' heads. Re-reading Luxemburg's polemic is a useful tool for all of us as we engage in the debates taking place today in every workplace and college about how best to challenge capitalism. Luxemburg's clear call for revolution speaks to millions today.