The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

100 years on – Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy continues!

Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht
100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in Berlin by right-wing Freikorps troops. When I participated on Sunday, 13 January in a march in memory of both revolutionaries in Berlin, it was clear that their legacy lives on. Thousands of people walked to the Memorial of the Socialists (Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten) to show their respect as well as their commitment to carry on the struggle against capitalist exploitation and for social justice. In this blog post, I will reflect on Luxemburg's key intervention about 'socialist democracy' in the organisation of revolutionary struggle.

The Accumulation of Capital (1913) is perhaps Luxemburg’s most scholarly and best-known work about capitalism and the possibilities of revolution. In order to ensure a constant increase in the accumulation of surplus value, she argued, capital relies on bringing non-capitalist space into the capitalist social relations of production in an outward expansionary dynamic, creating hothouse conditions for capital accumulation in non-capitalist environments (Luxemburg 1913/2003: 332). She thus comprehended the relentless outward dynamic of capitalism as a structuring condition, on which the very existence of the system depended (Bieler et al 2016).

Here, I want to reflect on a less well known aspect of Luxemburg’s work. As an active revolutionary within the international communist movement, she was a close observer of developments in Russia after the successful 1917 October Revolution. Strongly supportive of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks, she became nonetheless increasingly worried about the undermining of democracy in response to dangers to the revolution from within as well as outside of Russia. She viewed the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, the rejection of universal suffrage and limits to the freedom of the press and right to association as threats to the full revolutionary potential. ‘The remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people’ (Luxemburg in Hudis and Anderson 2004: 302).

Luxemburg was aware of the practical challenges of socialism. ‘Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures’ (Luxemburg in Hudis and Anderson 2004: 305). It is here, in charting the unknown territory ahead that an active and involved populace is essential, empowered by means of direct democratic participation. Luxemburg was optimistic about people’s capacities in finding innovative ways forward, provided they were given the means and opportunities to involve themselves in politics.  

Importantly, Luxemburg’s notion of democracy must not be mixed up with liberal forms of representative democracy. ‘We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy (Luxemburg in Hudis and Anderson 2004: 305). When in February 1921 Russian sailors, soldiers, and civilians instigated the so-called ‘Kronstadt Rebellion’ against Lenin’s and Trotsky’s authoritarian rule, this left-criticism was brutally suppressed resulting in thousands of deaths. Perhaps, the socialist potential of the Soviet Union ended as early as 1921.

Luxemburg’s warning against authoritarian rule and suppression of dissent remains as important today as it was in the early 20th century. A move towards socialism, talked about, for example, within the British Labour Party at the moment, can only be successful, if dominant forces are able to cope with criticisms from the left. A move towards socialism can only be successful, if it is based on concrete mass participation in politics. Parliamentary rule and dominance by party bureaucracy will never be enough.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

15 January 2019

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