Book Review from the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard
Rosa Luxemburg. Selected Political Writings ed. and introduced by Robert Looker. Cape. £1.50.
Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1870 in Russian Poland but later moved to Germany. Very early on she made a name for herself in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as an opponent of Bernstein's Revisionism. Her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution was an attack on the view that capitalism could be gradually transformed into Socialism by social reforms, trade-union pressure, co-ops, etc.
But she never argued that a socialist party should not advocate reforms at all. In fact she agreed with the SPD's tactic on reforms: that the working class should be encouraged to struggle for them or against specific capitalist measures in order to prepare itself for the eventual capture of political power for Socialism (see some of the articles published here in the section "Defending the Tactic"). When, in the decade or so up to 1914, she came to realise how reformism in the SPD was not confined just to Bernstein and the Revisionists but also permeated the thinking of the whole leadership, she blamed its concentrating on getting reforms through Parliament. She did not blame advocating reforms as such and in fact her answer to the danger of reformism was to involve the mass of the workers themselves instead of just a few MP's in the reform struggle by means of the "mass strike". This was a tactic she had picked up from the Russian revolution of 1905 (which she had participated in to a certain extent, most of Poland then being part of Russia).
The final bankruptcy of the SPD was exposed in Luxemburg's eyes by its notorious vote for war credits for the German government on 4 August 1914. Luxemburg began to call for a new Socialist International and eventually helped to form a new party, the Spartacus League. She herself was a determined opponent of the War and went to jail for her anti-war activities. Some of her best writings date from this period, especially the classic socialist statement against the First World War, The Junius Pamphlet (also called The Crisis of Social Democracy). Some of the articles selected here, especially "Rebuilding the International" and "Either Or", could have come from any of the SOCIALIST STANDARD of 1915 and 1916. Indeed the first one could quite literally have done since most of it was reprinted, with a slight reservation, in our issue of September 1915.
In November 1918 the Kaiser and his government were overthrown and political power passed into the hands of pro-war Social Democrats. They pursued the policy of establishing a bourgeois, democratic state in Germany, establishing stable capitalist rule through Parliament. The Spartacus League, including Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, urged the workers to oppose this and to set up rival workers' and soldiers' councils as the first step on the long road to the capture of political power for Socialism. For the Spartacus League (unlike the Bolsheviks) did not believe in a minority seizure of power. As its 1918 pamphlet What Does The Spartakusbund Want? put it:
The Spartacus League will never assume government in any way other than through the clear unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass in all Germany, never in any other way than on the strength of the masses' conscious agreement with the views, aims and methods of the struggle of the Spartacus League.
Or, as Rosa Luxemburg herself put it:
Without the conscious will and action of the majority of the proletariat, there can be no Socialism.
Even so, some of the members of the Spartacus League were over-enthusiastic and—despite warnings from Luxemburg—were provoked in January 1919 into an armed uprising in Berlin. Loyally she went along with them. It cost her her life. On 15 January soldiers responsible to the Social Democratic Minister Noske smashed her head in.
This book selects some of her previously untranslated articles, though it omits any of those where she discusses nationalism and exposes "the right to self-determination" as a fraud. Could this be because the translator is associated with "International Socialism" and would therefore find her views on this embarrassing?