Why Luxemburg’s Classic Marxist Essay Still Holds Lessons for the Left
Rosa Luxemburg’s essay, Reform or Revolution is a classic text of Marxist theory. It is essential reading for anybody dedicated to making the goal of socialism a reality. Luxemburg published her pamphlet in 1899 as a polemic against the growing split within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest socialist party in Germany at the time, which Luxemburg was a member of.
The essay specifically takes aim at SPD member, Eduard Bernstein, whose revisionist platform argues that political revolution is no longer necessary. Bernstein claimed that capitalism had “evolved” and “stabilized” itself in such a way that the working class need only institute slight reforms to the system — greater democratic rights, more social welfare programs, and the like. Such liberal reforms, Bernstein argued, would be enough to “naturally” bring about a gradual shift to socialism. Socialist revolution, Bernstein claimed, need no longer be on the table.
Bernstein went so far as to claim, of the necessity for socialist revolution, “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”
While Bernstein presented his theory as an attempt to “update” the views of Marx and Engels, in truth his emphasis on reformism represented a complete departure from Marxism. Luxemburg exposed Bernstein’s revisionist tendency as reflective of the petty-bourgeois academics and “theoreticians” in the SPD’s party apparatus. Such upper-middle-class elements within the party, Luxemburg argued, had jettisoned the prospect of revolution in favor of opportunist collaboration with the bourgeoisie.
“Only when the great mass of workers take the keen and dependable weapons of scientific socialism in their own hands,” she writes in Reform or Revolution, “will all the petty-bourgeois inclinations, all the opportunistic currents, come to naught.”
A False Choice
Luxemburg opens her essay by promptly dispensing with the very question her title proposes: Reform or revolution. This, she argues, is a false choice. Social reforms go hand-in-hand with revolution. Reforms like Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, or unionization drives, help ameliorate capitalism’s worst ravages and offer workers tangible gains in the here and now.
At the same time, fighting for reforms can also galvanize members of the working class and raise their political consciousness. Winning reforms can strengthen workers’ sense of solidarity. It can cause them to realize, “If we can successfully fight the boss for higher wages, what else can we do…?”
Thus, the working class is not forced to choose between reforms or revolution. Rather, it must view reforms as an essential entryway to its final goal — full communism.
“Can the social democracy [socialists] be against reforms?” Luxemburg asks rhetorically. “Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not.”
The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order … offers to the [socialist movement] the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal — the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.
Capitalism: A System Prone to Crisis
One of the key aspects of capitalism is that it is prone to periodic economic crisis. These crises come in the forms of recessions, economic downturns, or full-on depressions which seem to occur every ten years or so. This century alone has already seen three recessions, including the Great Recession of 2008 and the current economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. My graduations from both college (2005) and graduate school (2010) occurred during recessions with miserable job prospects.
These crises are a built-in feature of the “anarchy” within the capitalist system. Capitalism is inherently unstable. Such crises give lie to the pervasive myth that capitalism is “more efficient” than a planned economy under socialism. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, capitalism’s frequent economic crises, “put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on trial, each time more threateningly.”
Paradoxically, these crises — while disorienting and economically devastating for members of the working class — can also be flashpoints for political radicalization.
However, Bernstein and the revisionist socialists believed such crises were no longer a problem. Bernstein cited the “development of the credit system, employers’ organizations, wider means of communication, and informational services,” as all contributing to capitalism’s “evolution,” and greater “stability.” Bernstein, likewise, saw union activism and electoral politics as sufficient means of gradually transitioning society to socialism. No actual workers’ struggle or revolution were necessary.
“From [Bernstein’s] theoretic stand is derived the following general conclusion about the practical work of the social democracy,” Luxemburg writes.
The latter must not direct its daily activity toward the conquest of political power, but toward the betterment of the condition of the working class within the existing order. It must not expect to institute socialism as a result of political and social crisis, but should build socialism by means of the progressive extension of social control and the gradual application of the principle of cooperation…. What Bernstein questions is not the rapidity of the development of capitalist society, but the march of the development itself and, consequently, the very possibility of a change to socialism.
Reforms Can Only Go So Far
Luxemburg proceeds to thoroughly dismantle Bernstein’s shallow, inane understanding of “Marxism.” While Luxemburg concedes that unions and electoralism can be powerful vehicles for ameliorating capitalist exploitation in the short-term, neither strategy can effectively bring about socialism’s ultimate goal: The self-emancipation of the working class.
Union and labor activism have, no doubt, been integral in workers’ struggles for higher wages, reduced work time, expansion of employer benefits, and the establishment of the weekend and overtime pay. But these reforms all exist firmly within the framework of capitalism. Union leaders cannot — and, indeed, often have little interest in — abolishing capitalism, entirely.
Parliamentary elections, Luxemburg argues, are similarly limited in scope. Contrary to Bernstein’s view, the capitalist state is not a neutral body. Rather, as Lenin understood, the state exists to protect and defend the interests of the ruling class. We can see parallels to the revisionists’ argument today in liberals’ near exclusive focus on electoral campaigns and voting as the primary driver of social change. Indeed, we are currently witnessing the limits of this strategy, today. The Democrats control both houses of Congress and the presidency, yet they still cannot pass legislation to adequately address the needs of working-class Americans.
None of this is to suggest that “mere” reforms are not worth fighting for or that the left should necessarily abstain from electoral politics entirely. Quite the reverse, Luxemburg views the struggle for capitalist reforms as a crucial means of preparing the working class for greater, more ambitious revolutionary struggles. But reforms cannot be an end in and of themselves. The ultimate goal for socialists is full communism — not a “kinder, gentler” form of capitalism. Nor will reforms under capitalism inevitably lead to socialism, as Bernstein suggests.
According to the present conception of the party [the SPD], trade-union and parliamentary activity are important for the socialist movement because such activity prepares the proletariat, that is to say, creates the subjective factor of the socialist transformation, for the task of realizing socialism. … [A]s a result of its trade-union and parliamentary struggles, the proletariat becomes convinced of the impossibility of accomplishing a fundamental social change through such activity and arrives at the understanding that the conquest of power [by the working class] is unavoidable. [Emphasis in original.]
“Bernstein’s theory, however,” she adds, “begins by declaring that this conquest is impossible.”
Additionally, reforms are rarely permanent. They can be easily undermined or undone by future presidents. Recall, for example, how swiftly Donald Trump repealed or withdrew from many of Barack Obama’s key achievements like the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Accord. Even constitutional freedoms supposedly etched in stone by the bourgeois, unaccountable Supreme Court — Roe v. Wade, in particular — are not safe from being dramatically watered down or overturned entirely. Only a radical restructuring of society — through a working-class revolution — can ensure that any progressive gains for workers become a permanent part of their lives.
No “Kinder, Gentler” Capitalism
Ultimately, Luxemburg saw the left’s drift toward reformism and “revisionism,” as not only ineffective, but, indeed, quite dangerous. If social reforms are made an “end in themselves,” she warned, “then such activity not only does not lead to the final goal of socialism but moves in a precisely opposite direction.”
“Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages,” she writes. “Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society…
… That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer, and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism: not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the diminution of the exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself. [Emphasis hers.]
Sadly, Luxemburg’s assessment of the pitfalls of revisionism proved all too prescient. While her position did win out among the SPD for a brief time, the increasing growth and bureaucratization of the SPD found it slipping further and further into a reformist orientation.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 proved the final nail in the coffin. The SPD, along with most of the major socialist organizations throughout Germany and Europe, dutifully lined up for the imperialist war — despite anguished opposition from Luxemburg, Lenin, and the anti-imperialist left. The SPD then moved to squash any and all dissent from within its ranks. The SPD leadership ordered Luxemburg and her comrade, Karl Liebknecht assassinated by a right-wing paramilitary, in January of 1919.
Over a century after its publication, Reform or Revolution continues to hold relevancy and political lessons for the left. Luxemburg’s essay remains integral in debates over the efficacy of electoralism; whether it is better to work “inside the system,” rather than agitate outside of it; whether there can ever truly be such a thing as “Green” capitalism; and, of course, in the ongoing debate over the role of the Democratic Party.