Luxemburg at 150: A Critical Assessment

Who was Rosa Luxemburg? Rosa Luxemburg was born, in March of this year, 150 years ago. She is known as a 'Marxist revolutionary'. However, what is her contribution to socialism? What is she best remembered for? How are we to rate her contribution to the struggle to establish socialism?

Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871 in Zanosc, a town in eastern Poland near the Russian border. In 1871 it was part of the Russian empire as Poland had not existed as an independent State since 1795. Polish nationalism was widespread and clouded the minds of a growing working class.

Rosa Luxemburg, was the daughter of a Polish Jewish family, and was active in Polish radical politics from her teens. She spent most of her adult life in Germany as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), where she was imprisoned several times for opposing the war and campaigning for a general strike.

Luxemburg wrote a great deal on socialism, capitalism, and politics generally. She also taught at the SPD summer school principally teaching Marxian economics. For a full assessment of her writings there is her 14 volumes Complete Works in English, edited by Peter Hudis. However, her four principal works are REFORM AND REVOLUTION (1899), THE NATIONAL QUESTION (1907), CAPITAL AND ACCUMULATION (1913) and THE JUNIUS PAMPHLET (1915).

Reform or Revolution?

When the "revisionist controversy broke out in the late 1890s, Luxemburg penned one of the most read responses to Eduard Bernstein's reformism: 'REFORM OR REVOLUTION?' Bernstein's reformism, set out in his book THE PREREQUISITES FOR SOCIALISM AND THE TASKS OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY (1899), was an attempt, within the German SPD, to provide a theoretical justification for rejecting the 'Marxism' which, it was claimed, underpinned the SPD's socialist programme.

Luxemburg made some salient points against Bernstein, particularly her defence of the class struggle and the importance of the socialist objective. However in her pamphlet she roundly defended the theory of capitalist collapse, which she said it was 'the corner-stone of scientific socialism' (p 8).

She went on to say:

"Socialist theory up to now declared that the point of departure for a transformation to socialism would be a general and catastrophic crisis..." (p8).


'According to scientific socialism, the historic necessity of the socialist revolution manifests itself above all in the growing anarchy of capitalism which drives the system into an impasse' (p 8 to 9)

However, a collapse theory of capitalism was never held by Marx. In fact, in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE he stated "There are no permanent crises". What Marx did say was:

"...capitalist production moves through certain periodical cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence, growing animation, prosperity, overtrade, crisis and stagnation" (WAGES, PRICES AND PROFIT in SELECTED WORKS, vol. 1, p. 440).

Capitalism, for Marx, was to be abolished by the political and democratic action of working class. Workers would not have to wait around for its collapse and then walk over its rubble to a new society. Marx rejected fatalism. Socialism was to be attained politically and democratically by the workers themselves, without leaders and the led. The workers did not have to wait for socialism but had to struggle, democratically and politically, for the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

What she did get right in her criticism of Eduard Bernstein's revisionism, the target of her pamphlet, was that if you get rid of the socialist objective and just keep the reform programme, you ditch socialism and become just another capitalist political party. Which is what exactly the SPD became: it became just another capitalist political party. The SPD's politicians obediently voted for war credits in 1914, while much of its membership supported the war. After the First World War, the SPD became the government of capitalism until the rise to power of Hitler in 1933. Like the reformist Labour Party, the SPD still exists as a shadow opposition to the main capitalist political parties.

The National Question

In her book THE NATIONAL QUESTION (ed. H. B. Davis, 2009), Luxemburg repudiated the right of nations for self-determination. Luxemburg argued that a nation state was not politically homogenous. A country was a place of class exploitation. She argued that at the turn of the Twentieth Century, subject countries like Poland did not need 'liberating' from a larger power like Russia. This meant that for the working class it was class struggle not national struggle.

Luxemburg even criticised Marx. Marx's earlier support for an independent Poland between Russia and Germany was now 'obsolete and mistaken' as Russia became more and more a capitalist country.

A country contained two diametrically opposite classes: a minority capitalism class owning the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the majority. And a working class majority who were forced to sell its labour power for a wage or salary. There was no common class interest; only a class struggle over the intensity and extent of class exploitation. Politically the class struggle was over the ownership of the mean of production and distribution: whether they are used for the purpose of class exploitation and profit making as in capitalism or to directly meet the needs of all society as will be the case in socialism.

Luxemburg argued that in a class society, to speak of 'self-determination' would mean self-determination for the ruling class; the workers would be left in a subordinate class position as before. Look at all the post-colonial countries; like India and Singapore, which saw independence from the UK. They all now have a capitalist class owning the means of production and an exploited working class owning nothing but their ability to work.

This has led to socialists, rightly, not to take sides in Irish nationalism, the Vietnam War of the 1960s, nationalist struggles in South America and Africa and the Far East, and more recently in Palestine. This logically consistent position marks a fundamental distinction between socialists and the capitalist left. We do not give our support to 'democratic movements' because they all contain a potential ruling class.

Socialists are well aware that in some countries workers do not have the vote. The struggle for the vote, for trade unions and the ability to form a principled socialist party, should not be set apart from the struggle for socialism. Workers in these countries should not make pacts, take part in shared political platforms, issue joint manifestoes or join street demonstrations with non-socialist organisations. The socialist objective must not be compromised.

Socialism will not be an aggregate of autonomous nation states but, instead, a World-wide integrated socialist system in which there are no boundaries, no borders, no passports, no barbed wire and no security guards. Socialism will be a world free from national rivalry and war.

The Junius Pamphlet

Luxemburg opposed the First World War on the grounds of class. Within the social democratic parties she was one of the few who rightly saw the First World War as a capitalist war in which the working class had no interest killing or dying for. For her opposition to the war she was imprisoned by the authorities.

Luxemburg was also associated with the phrase 'socialism or barbarism'. Luxemburg first raised the idea that humanity faced a choice between the victory of socialism or a collapse into barbarism in a powerful antiwar pamphlet she wrote in prison in 1915: 'The Crisis in German Social Democracy' - better known as THE JUNIUS PAMPHLET, after the pen name she used to avoid prosecution.

In her pamphlet Luxemburg wrote:

Friedrich Engels once said: 'Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.' ... Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. ...Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.

Whether Engels invented the phrase 'socialism or barbarism' or not, is irrelevant. The phrase aptly described what happened in the trenches, in the destruction of villages and towns and in the death and destruction visited upon the working class between 1914 and 1918. It really was a period of barbarism. Capitalism survived to meet more death and destruction onto the world. Luxemburg never lived to see the destruction of cities by atomic bombs, the concentration camps and the genocide which was to characterise the Twentieth Century.

The Second World War saw 55 million deaths and two capitalist countries briefly knocked out of world trade. In his book HUMANITY: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (1999), the philosopher, Jonathan Glover calculated that throughout the 20th century one person was killed every minute in one of capitalism's wars.

Capital Accumulation

In her book CAPITAL ACCUMULATION, published in 1913, Luxemburg produced an underconsumptionist theory of crisis. She claimed that surplus value can neither be realized by workers nor capitalists, but only by the exploitation of those living in non-capitalist geographical regions of the world.

Luxemburg admitted that the situation as it existed at the time she formulated her theory (1913) "cannot last forever", because, as she said, inevitably the backward countries and backward agricultures themselves develop, so that every country in the world has a larger and larger surplus to get rid of and nowhere to place it. The whole trade and production of the world would come to a halt.

Luxemburg's error was to forget that besides the consumption of the workers, capitalists also invested and bought commodities from other capitalists. They invest in the construction of factories, mining, transport, communication systems, and so on. And they buy these commodities from other sections of the capitalist class.

Luxemburg's theory can be refuted by experience. There has not been a collapse of capitalism. Nothing of this kind happened in the 100 or so years since she published her book. The passage of time has proved her wrong. All the 180 or so countries in the world now have developed industries and agriculture. All are exporting, yet total world production and world exports are immensely greater than they were in 1913. It is simply not true the working class produces more than society consumes.

Finally, in the UK, more and more commodities are sold abroad each year and likewise more and more commodities are imported from abroad. According to the World Bank, between November 2019 and 2020 the UK exported £28.1 billion of goods and services while it imported £48.1 billion of goods and services. Who paid for them and how?

Direct Action and the Spartacist Insurrection

On 1st January, 1919, at a convention of the Spartacus League, Luxemburg was outvoted in trying to convince other members that to oppose the forces of the state with their tiny forces was madness and went against their democratic principles. They voted to try to take power in the streets through an armed uprising. Rosa Luxemburg decided, against her better judgement; to support the decision, and to join the attempt to gain political power through direct action (see THE MURDER OF ROSA LUXEMBURG by K. Gietinger, 2019).

The Berlin police chief, a radical sympathiser who had just been dismissed, supplied weapons to protesters who erected barricades in the streets and seized the offices of an anti-Spartacist socialist newspaper. Calls for a general strike brought thousands of demonstrators into the centre of the city, but the Revolution Committee, which was supposed to be leading the uprising, could not agree what to do next. Some wanted to continue with the armed insurgency, others started discussions with Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrat Party and Germany's new Chancellor. Attempts to get army regiments in Berlin to join the revolt failed.

Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske ordered 3,000 Freikorps soldiers to attack the Spartacists. These former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War 1, which gave them a formidable advantage. The insurrectionists did not stand a chance against disciplined and well trained military units.

Equipped with artillery, machine guns and grenades, the military retook the police headquarters, the war ministry and other buildings the revolutionaries had captured, and shot hundreds of the demonstrators, including many who surrendered. The government summarily disbanded the workers' and soldiers' councils.

The outcome showed that there was not remotely the widespread support for 'communism' on which the rebels had relied and elections on January 19 were a triumph for Ebert and the creation of a 'democratic constitution' for the new Weimar Republic. Between 156 and 196 people, including 17 Freikorps soldiers, died during the fighting.

Luxemburg was arrested, along with Karl Liebknecht, and were both murdered by the Freikorps. Her body was unceremoniously thrown into the Landwhehr canal.

Socialist Assessment

On balance, the negative aspects of Luxemburg's political life far outweigh the positive contribution she made to socialism. Luxemburg contribution to socialism did more harm than good.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain did not make the same theoretical and practical mistakes Luxemburg made in her relatively short life.

Although she opposed the revisionism of Bernstein and others, Luxemburg did not repudiate the reform programme attached to the SDP's objective as the Socialist Party of Great Britain was to do in the publication of its OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES in 1904.

For socialists, there is only one object and that is socialism. Socialists do not get involved with the reforms of capitalism. The reform programme of the SPD, and similar organisations, was not a series of stepping stones to socialism. In fact these "palliatives" became the political programme itself, attracting non-socialists, and became the day-to-day politics of the Party, as the leadership accommodated itself to the political conditions necessary to form a capitalist government.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed reformism from its formation; it saw through the reformism of Second International and wanted nothing to do with it. The SPGB solved the reform or revolution dilemma by starting that a socialist party should not advocate reforms of capitalism. We said:

"That a socialist party should not advocate reforms has always been the policy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This is not to say that reforms can never bring any benefit to the workers. Some can and do, while many are futile or harmful. But a socialist party which advocates reforms would attract the support of people interested more in these reforms than in Socialism" (GRADUALISM AND REVOLUTION, QUESTIONS OF THE DAY, 1976, p.27).

We did not associate our opposition of reform programmes with a belief that capitalism would collapse. The Socialist Party of Great Britain produced, in 1930, the pamphlet 'Capitalism will not collapse', and with it the contention that neither underconsumption theories nor the falling rate of profit would lead to a collapse of capitalism. Capitalism will not collapse but will pass from one economic crisis to the next: from one trade depression to the next: from one high period of unemployment to the next. Capitalism has to be abolished and this can only come about through political agency - through the democratic and political action of a socialist majority.

Although Luxemburg made telling descriptions about the anti-democratic and dictatorial nature of Lenin's Russia, - 'Leninism or Marxism?' and 'The Russian Revolution' (REFORM OR REVOLUTION? and other writings, Dover books 2006), the SGPB went further by stating that Russia under Lenin and the Bolsheviks was not 'socialist'. Like Rosa Luxemburg, we opposed the First World War on grounds of class.

More importantly, socialists rejected the mass strike and direct action as the route to socialism. Luxemburg should have stood her ground and refused to get involved in direct action which was doomed to failure from the start. We saw the necessity for a socialist majority to gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, before attempting to replace capitalism with socialism. In QUESTIONS OF THE DAY (March 1978), we said:

"The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. We hold the same view as Marx to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. We also hold Marx's view that in the industrially advanced capitalist countries the vote will give that control"

For those who do not accept this sound socialist policy, then you only have to read how easily the Spartacus insurrection was suppressed and put down by the forces of the State.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.