Selections from Rosa Luxemburg (1906-09)

Rosa Luxemburg was not infallible. Her economic theories have been found somewhat wanting.  However, there are many of her ideas on socialism that remain relevant and we can learn from these.

On the Day after the Social Revolution

  ”… there can be nothing more foolish than wanting to predict the shape of socialist society. The more complicated the social interrelationships become, the more impossible it is to prophesy their development even for years or decades, let alone for centuries or millennia. The opponents of the proletarian struggle for emancipation are immediately at hand to exploit this impossibility, in that they say: “You are therefore fighting for the socialist society, which you yourselves say you do not know what it will look like.” This objection alone is nothing but a ridiculous boast that, if one were to take it seriously for a moment, would nip all social progress in the bud. Every oppressed class struggles to break the yoke that pushes them into the dust, completely unconcerned about how they will raise and stretch their limbs when the chains have been stripped from them…

… to reduce the social revolution to its simplest form is to assume that one day, all political power will fall to the proletariat without restriction, in one fell swoop, and that it will be guided in its exercise solely by its class interests, in the most expedient way. The former will not happen, while the latter will hardly occur…to reduce the social revolution to its simplest form is to assume that one day, all political power will fall to the proletariat without restriction, in one fell swoop, and that it will be guided in its exercise solely by its class interests, in the most expedient way. The former will not happen, while the latter will hardly occur…

…a scientific study must be based on known conditions; it cannot take as its basis a model of the conditions as they might develop in the future, for this would lead it into an unfounded, phantasmagorical abyss. And yet it is self-evident that the working class will not come to power under today’s conditions. The revolution itself presupposes long and deep struggles that will already change the political and social structure of today’s society. Following the conquest of political power by the proletariat, there will, therefore, be problems of which we know nothing today, and some of those we are dealing with today will have been resolved by then. Means will also emerge to solve the various problems of which we today have no idea…

What Do We Want? A Commentary on the Program of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania

 …The system of socialism will truly liberate humanity—it will end inequality between people, the exploitation of some people by others, the control of some people by others, the oppression of conquered nations by imperialist nations, the impairment of women by the rule of the male sex, and the persecution of faith, religion, or conviction. It is not necessary to lay out in full detail how the future socialist system will look, and every attempt of this kind is rooted in fantasy. Yet we may already be entirely certain in recognizing in full clarity the main foundation of the future system. We know it will depend on giving ownership of all means of production to society, and further, [require] that each individual producer will not be left to his own means, but instead that society as a whole will manage production along with its elected bodies. This knowledge suffices for us to conclude that the future system will know neither want, nor luxury for the lazy, nor crises, nor uncertainty about tomorrow. When the sale of workers’ labor to private exploiters is abolished, the source of all today’s social inequalities will disappear.

Socialism will thus realize the very social conditions for which humanity has pined for a thousand years…

…Today, a socialist revolution is an ever more luminous goal toward which social progress advances with inexorable strength. Hastening the arrival of this moment is the task solely of the working class—it requires that the working class of all countries develop the keenest possible consciousness of in what way, and by what roads, the task can be accomplished.

The proletarian class is obligated to abolish the capitalist system, or, in other words, to take factories and land back from the capitalist and landowning classes. But this task is not so easy to achieve. Clearly, if the workers of a given factory attempted to “take back” the manufacturer’s property, the workers would simply be arrested by the police. They would be brought before a court, and in the end, they would be thrown into prison for violating someone else’s property. Even if a larger crowd of workers in a given city arranged en masse to take back the possessions of local factory owners, the army would rush to the aid of the endangered capitalists, using bayonets and bullets to explain to workers that the property of capitalists is sacred and inviolable…

… Therefore, workers cannot take back from capitalists the tools with which they labor unless they first take back political authority: the army, the legislature, and the central government. As long as all these means of exerting power over the population and doing it violence remain in the hands of the capitalists, private property and exploitation have good watchmen, and workers cannot dream of abolishing them…There is one other reason that overpowering the government is necessary for a socialist revolution. Today, every owner of private capital manages production in his own factory, and every landowner oversees his estate according to his own whims. A socialist economy must consist in joining all private estates into one and organizing production completely differently, namely for all of society according to one common plan…To realize a socialist revolution, the working class must have in hand the means to compel the stubborn to obedience, to make needed changes in methods of production and distribution, and to reform state institutions from the ground up. In a word, a necessary precursor to the realization of socialism is the unilateral control of the working class throughout the state for some time—what is called the dictatorship of the working class…

…o win political power, the proletariat must build strength through daily, unflagging struggle against capitalist oppression and bourgeois rule. Struggle on the factory floor is essential for raising, even temporarily, the working populace from the depths of destitution to which oppression drives them. Struggle in the political realm serves to defend the interests of the proletariat and gradually win influence over legislation as well as the politics of the state as a whole. Workers who are scattered, acting alone and in loose groups, cannot wage struggles that improve their own livelihoods, nor can they move to take power from the state. To achieve such goals, they must organize themselves into a political And one such party is Social Democracy defends the material and spiritual interests of the working people at every step, gathers them into one fighting army, raises socialist awareness among the masses, and attempts to exert influence on the institutions of state. When Social Democracy has a majority of the working people behind it in all the largest capitalist countries, the final hour of capitalism will have struck…

…Socialism is an international aspiration. It connects workers from France and Poland, Germany and Spain, Russia and England, Italy and America in one great human throng, showing them their common goal: to abolish capitalism. The international nature of the workers’ cause is voiced today in every great strike, in every electoral struggle, and through the mutual brotherly aid shown by workers’ organizations in many lands and regions of the world.

But, in their daily struggle, workers in various states cannot form a single common political party; they must organize themselves separately in each state. The working class in each land must use political struggle to defend its interests there, attempting to gradually adapt the existing establishments of the state to its needs…

…The strongest pillar holding up the despotic government, as well as the reign of capitalists over the working people, is the military, the standing armed forces. The people are usually convinced that a country needs an army to defend itself against enemy attack. In reality, these enormous armies standing always at arms are needed not for defense of the country but for two purposes: to plunder foreign lands and peoples, and to keep the people of their own land in bondage to their sovereign exploiters.

     The wars that today’s states wage against each other are not needed by the working class, only by the capitalists. The working class gains nothing if the state wins new territory by subjugating other lands and peoples to tyrannize them and wring them dry. Only capitalists benefit from winning new markets, since there they can transport and transform into gold the bloody labor they squeeze out of workers at home. The nobility benefit from armies and wars too, because they can occupy the top military positions and live idly in them while receiving fat salaries from the state coffers. Finally, bureaucrats high and low find in war and in newly conquered lands the opportunity to line their pockets with embezzled funds, starving soldiers and tyrannizing conquered peoples as they do so.

     Yet those who profit the most from weapons, armies, and wars are the manufacturers of iron, steel, rifles, and ships, as well as the various suppliers of military clothing and food products. In these ways, hundreds of millions spent every year for upkeep of the military flow from government coffers to the pockets of a handful of capitalists. These few make enormous fortunes, especially in wartime, when the government loses battleships, weapons, and cannons in battle and places orders for yet more instruments of murder.

     Armies and wars bring the working people only loss. The youth of the people waste some of their most beautiful years in the regular army, spending their time not on work that would benefit them and theirs but on mindless drills, enduring cruel harassment and humiliation from brutal drillmasters and petty officers. In war the sons of the people fall by the thousands, laying down their lives or becoming crippled for life, all to make their worst enemies, the capitalists, richer. In this way, nearly the entire cost of maintaining enormous armies and waging wars falls on the backs of the people. The countless millions the government throws away on barracks, artillery, warships, officers, and so forth flow from no other source than the pockets of common folk. Taxes paid by the impoverished masses on every last morsel placed in their mouths and on every thread of clothing worn on their bodies are the source from which all current governments grow their militarism. But the greatest injury inflicted by today’s militarism on the working class is that soldiers are the instruments the government uses to oppress the people of their own land! It is true that the ranks are filled by workers themselves. A soldier is a worker or peasant in uniform. And yet, the years spent in military service in a barracks, at a distance from family and friends, and the brutal discipline of the army are intentionally set up to make of the worker or farmer in uniform a cowed animal, blind and deaf to everything but the orders of his commanders. After several years of drills, the soldier forgets that he is a child of the people, stops thinking at all about his actions, and stands ready at his officers’ orders to murder his own father and mother. And so the classes and governments in power have in the army a deadly weapon against conscious workers and rebellious peasants. The tsarist government responds to every uprising of desperate peasants in Russia, to every large demonstration of workers in Russia and Poland, by spilling blood. On one side, proletarians in plain clothes fight for a better existence and for freedom, and on the other, at the order of officers, proletarians in uniform turn murderous weapons against them as they would against foreign invaders. Today’s armed force serves mainly to hold the working class under the yoke of capitalism, not only in Russia but in every capitalist country…”

Critique in the Workers’ Movement

“…Absolute freedom of critique and discussion lies at the heart of the interests of the workers’ and it must be pursued at all costs if, to use the rallying cry of the International, “the liberation of the workers is to be the creation of the workers””

The Program of “National” Trickery

“…Finally, the nationalists promise to bring about an earthly paradise with the help of trade unions, national employment agency offices, “appropriate laws” for the protection of work, universal insurance, professional education, and higher participation of workers in the life of cultural associations of “every sort.” That is a pocket full of promises. But trade unions in the spirit of National Democracy are not tools for fighting for the liberation of workers, only tools for reconciling workers to exploitation and subjugation…” 

Boycotting the Tsar’s Duma

“…At first glance, one might conclude that if the workers only ignore the elections and turn their backs on this despicable farce, everything needed for such a boycott to succeed will already be achieved.

     Some people are ready to think that what the bourgeois parties do, whether they organize election rallies, what they say about the rallies, and how they campaign—that all this is none of our concern. And many people are even ready to believe that the tactic of boycotting the elections obligates workers to boycott bourgeois election rallies too—that is, obligates them to not attend the rallies, to remain at a distance in silent disdain of their bourgeois puppet shows.

     But such tactics would mean only that the working class does not itself take part in the elections, thereby leaving them unharmed, without interference. That would be a politics of abstention—that is, a politics of standing on the sidelines, a politics of removing oneself from the fight, not a politics for the fight. By its nature, such a position can be neither the politics of the proletariat nor the tactics of revolution. Abstaining from the elections, like every kind of “passive resistance,” is a way of fighting that is indigenous to the bourgeoisie and characteristic of parties that are weak or that talk back and forth, sometimes surrendering to the violence of the government and sometimes calling the revolutionary populace to mass action. An election boycott of this nature, encapsulated in sitting alone at home, may appeal to a party of political nothingness like our country’s so-called Progressive Democracy. For the revolutionary proletariat, the fundamental question is not “Should the workers take part in the elections?” but something quite different: “What action should be taken such that the elections and the formation of the Duma do not take place, or if they do take place formally, such that their significance is completely invalidated in advance?” Because the cause of the revolution and the proletariat demands that the tsar’s Duma does not take effect, workers must not only remove themselves from the elections but simultaneously do everything they can to bring the entire effort of the elections and the Duma to naught. Because, for our goal to be achieved, it would not be enough if the entire enormous proletarian population was to abstain from registering to vote. In fact, National Democracy and the compromisers have only managed, despite having the full support of the police and the Cossacks, to register a laughably small number of primary voters, which has already exposed the elections to general ridicule. Yet this alone is not enough. Social Democracy is a party of class struggle, and every act, every moment of revolution, is for us simultaneously an act and a stage in the fundamental struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Similarly, for us, the tactic of boycotting the Duma and the elections is not only a form of direct battle with the tsarist government but, at the same time and to the same degree, a moment of struggle with the bourgeois political parties.

     Despite full-scale protests by the revolutionary proletariat, and despite the imposition of martial law, our bourgeois parties, National Democracy and the compromisers, organize election rallies and attempt to carry the elections off. Given this, it is now of utmost importance that the working masses appear for battle and steadily wage the political fight against bourgeois supporters of the tsar. Closed rallies that exclude the revolutionary populace are important for National Democracy because they give the elections to the tsar Duma the character of an act of the whole “nation,” the whole “society”! The party also uses these rallies to unfurl a general political program, a program with which we will have to contend at every stage of the revolution and after its end. By excluding the conscious working masses from their rallies, they try to lend their program the appearance of “national” politics.

     Because of this, workers have an absolute duty to show up en masse at all election rallies organized by bourgeois parties, with these considerations in mind:

     (1) The duty of Social Democracy is always to raise awareness of the broadest possible ties between people. It is an error to think in advance that the entire public that National Democracy wants to come to their rallies is “bourgeois” or utterly duped or corrupted politically. On the contrary, one must differentiate the handful of swindlers—themselves members of National Depravity—who serve as “benefactors,” organizing and waxing poetic at the rallies, from the broader public to whom they give orders. This public includes many people from the petty bourgeoisie, artisans, journeymen, and so forth, who are not able as of yet to distinguish the parties and political programs, people whose eyes still need to be opened. They still have not heard clear explanations of the positions, interests, and objectives of working people, and in service of this goal Social Democracy must claim a voice for itself at the rallies.

     (2) In attending and publicizing its stance at election rallies, the conscious proletariat should lift the mask away from the “national” politics of the bourgeois parties, distinguish its own revolutionary politics from theirs, and so bring class protest and class struggle right into the place where the future chicanery of “national” politics is being kept and made ready. It is not enough for workers to profess their program and stance at their factory rallies and in their socialist publications. The proletariat cannot and should not wage class struggle, as the saying goes, on their home turf, outside bourgeois society. Whenever and wherever the bourgeoisie attempts to advance its politics at the proletariat’s expense and in the name of society on behalf of exploiters and revolution parasites, the proletariat must show up. Doing so also clearly possesses a meaning of greater importance. When the working people advance and Social Democracy takes part in the rallies, they force the bourgeois parties to more expressly describe their policies and drop the vague bamboozling platitudes—that is, to step out before the vast working masses and the general populace with their actual positions, as political parties full of exploiters of various shades. When the conscious proletariat engages in direct confrontation and verbal sparring at rallies, this contributes, in short, as it always does, to the steady clarification and exacerbation of party relations, and thereby to the political enhancement of the proletariat itself.

  • Finally, the immediate goal is for the working populace to negate any moral or political purchase the elections had, through their mass participation and protest at the election rallies—to declare loudly and demonstrate in front of the whole world that the vast majority of people will not accept these elections.

     These are the reasons that workers should show up en masse at each and every election rally, announce that they stand for an effective boycott of the Duma and the elections, demand entry and a chance to speak, and use their presence and their voices to clearly lay out their position…”

Under the Workings of Revolution

Revolution does nothing by halves. It brings everything to ultimate consequences. It builds up every contradiction to extremes. Those who take the smallest deviation from the goals of revolution are driven to the camp of the reaction…Revolution is like a magical force that brings hidden things out into the light. Within the conditions of our lives, it sets up an inexorable dilemma:

     Either the camp of Social Democracy, or the camp of the reaction!

In a Revolutionary Hour, What Next? [April 1905]

In people’s revolutions, the brilliant leader is not a “party committee” or a circle that pompously calls itself a “combat organization,” but a vast host ready to spill its blood. In spite of these “socialists,” in spite of their conviction that the working masses must be drilled for armed conflict according to their orders, like a battalion of soldiers, the masses always find on their own—create for themselves—the means of physical struggle that are most appropriate in a given moment of revolution. This is why every modern revolution to date in Western Europe had its own separate methods and battle tactics to counter the regime in power. This is also why a revolution against the tsar, taking place under conditions completely different from the bourgeois revolutions of France and Germany, must generate its methods of struggle in the streets and arm itself as the conflict unfolds. “Calculating” such methods in advance and “preparing” the masses for armed clashes with the government would be like teaching someone to swim by seating them in front of a chalkboard and explaining the principles of swimming through diagrams.

     Are we then to sit with folded hands and simply wait for a new outbreak of revolution on the streets, tossing our concern for the lives of thousands of workers to the wind and consoling ourselves with the thought that “it will work out somehow,” as more than one comrade has said? Far from it! Social Democracy is not at liberty to wait with hands folded for the events to come. Quite the opposite! We have so much work before us that our hands will scarcely manage. Among other tasks, one of our objectives is to arm certain comrades as we are able. We must only make sure that no pocket of the working masses deludes itself about the scale and the meaning of the weapons that party resources may obtain. There can be no talk from socialists about arming the masses as such. A moment’s simple reflection must convince every healthy mind that no socialist party under current conditions would have enough power and resources to arm the hundreds of thousands, no, millions of people that all Russia contains. The clandestine, restricted means by which socialists may today obtain and import weapons forbid the acquisition of massive stores such as would be required to arm all the people. Furthermore, even if we imagine for a moment that such enormous weapons stores are possible, arming the working masses with them remains a pipe dream. The working population is not a regiment of soldiers that can be ordered to show up in order at a certain time at a barracks to receive their weapons. In view of this, the best we may accomplish in reality is to arm our own active agitators and the very small circle of workers who are closest to the party. And these arms are only to be taken as a means of defense for elements and isolated worker groups under attack by tsarist hooligans. To defend ourselves and put up a resistance to the rapacious reach of the regime, we have a responsibility—we must do all in our power. To persuade workers that any and every socialist party is in a position to arm the working masses to the last man, and that that party will arm them with weapons sufficient to attack the military forces and fight with the army in a pitched battle, is to deceive the working

     And such promises are dangerous in the extreme. Today, when at long last the proletarian mass is engaging in political struggle against despotism, all our hope of victory depends on entire classes, hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of workers, to understand that they must lead the struggle forward themselves, to the very end. Absolutism shall collapse only when the innumerable people of Poland and all Russia understand clearly that they must enter into open struggle with the government and that they may win victory only by their own strength, through their own mass struggle. This is why those who drum up false hopes in the working masses, saying they are not to expect that all the means of victory will come from them, but that someone else, some “party committee,” some “war organization” will come along and hand them weapons for the fight against absolutism on a silver platter, render a great injustice to the working…:

Blanquism and Social Democracy

“…the meaning of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” is taken differently from before. Friedrich Engels rightly emphasizes that Blanquists did not conceive of a dictatorship of “the whole revolutionary class, but of a dictatorship of a small number of people who will launch the uprising, and so on.” The current state of affairs is entirely different. No organization of conspirators “launches an uprising,” nor can such an organization ponder its own dictatorship. Even the People’s Will long since gave up this dream, as did its heirs, the ostensible “revolutionary socialists” of If “Bolshevik” comrades speak today of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they have never given it a Blanquist meaning. They have never fallen into the error of the People’s Will, which dreams about “seizing power.” But they claimed that the current revolution may end in the proletariat’s control of the entire state machine. The proletariat, as the most revolutionary actor, may play the role of liquidator of the old order, may “seize power” in order to prevent a counterrevolution, in order to prevent the naturally reactionary bourgeoisie from bogging down the revolution. No revolution has yet ended in any other way than with one class holding power, and every detail suggests that now the proletariat may become the liquidator [of the old order]. Of course, no Social Democrat fools himself that the proletariat will remain in power; if it remained, that would lead to the rule of its class ideas, and it would realize socialism. there is not sufficient strength [for that], since the proletariat constitutes a minority of society, in the strict sense of the word. Indeed, that a minority should realize socialism is out of the question, as the very idea of socialism does not allow minority rule. That is to say, on the day after the proletariat triumphs over the tsar, it will be deprived by the majority of the power it has won. More precisely, after the overthrow of the tsar, power will pass into the hands of the most revolutionary part of society—the proletariat—because this proletariat occupies every post, and it will stand guard until power passes into hands that are legally appointed to hold it—that is, into the hands of a new government, which may only act to appoint a Constituent Assembly and a legislative body chosen by the entire populace. And since the fact remains that in our society the working class is not the majority—the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants are—Social Democrats will not constitute a majority in the Constituent Assembly; only democrats from the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie [will]. We may regret this, but we cannot change it…”

The May Day Celebrations

“At the same time, that other element of the May Day celebration comes to the fore with added force—that is, the internationalism of the workers’ cause. As long as the class struggle in each country has a minimum of democratic elbow room, and as long as the parliamentary working day maintains its positive standing, the workers’ movement will be dominated by the specificity of each state milieu, by national fragmentation. But, as soon as the basic forces of class struggle rise to the surface from the depths of capitalist society, as soon as the struggle verges sharply on the clash of the masses with the ruling powers, the idea of the one and indivisible world proletariat comes to life with increased force. The preparations of the bourgeoisie for May Day in all countries remind the proletariat powerfully again this year that its liberation struggle is one and the same in all countries..”

Lessons from the Three Dumas

“…Revolution, in this conception, would bring the proletariat losses as well as victories. Yet, by no other road can the entire international proletariat march to its final victory. We must propose the socialist revolution not as a sudden leap, finished in twenty-four hours, but as a historical period, perhaps long, of turbulent class struggle, with breaks both brief and extended. It may seem that this perspective, with its multiplicity of objectives, and the proletariat’s insufficient strength in the face of them, could sap the courage of the proletarian vanguard, particularly in the current period of triumphant counterrevolution and complete suppression of the masses. Not only is this impossible, but, in fact, only a strong conviction of the greatness and historical necessity of these objectives can again instill strength, courage, and confidence in the ranks of the proletariat. The entire course of the revolution to date—including the internal logic of the recent counterrevolutionary era—indicates that the rekindling of proletarian revolutionary activity and its eventual victory are historical necessities because they are the only road to realizing the objectives of the revolution. This fact suffices to give the forward ranks of the proletariat ironclad belief that this drive will come, and there will be victory. Building up this consciousness in the masses, explaining to them the historical logic of revolutions past, constitutes the maximum of what Social Democracy can do at the present and the minimum of what it ought to do…

…While relying on the revolutionary movements of other social classes, the class-conscious proletariat can and must strive only to complete its own mission, to lead a vigorous campaign for its own politics, to independently guide the enormous revolutionary army, and to take power into its own hands; for only a politically conscious, naturally revolutionary, and self-reliant class will be able, having won power, to bring about the immediate historical objective of revolution, and then to stay the course to the extreme point to which the situation of class conflict, both internationally and domestically, will bring it.”

May 1st and the Class Struggle

“.…The goal of May Day is a resounding declaration of war, a merciless war against this society, pronounced by millions, echoing all over the globe…May Day is the worldwide celebration of labor, the annual commemoration of the glorious revolutionary struggles of the modern proletariat; it continues this tradition and solemnly proclaims the truth that one day the hour will come when not only isolated detachments of the proletariat from different nations, but the proletariat of all countries, will rise in common struggle to cast off the abhorrent yoke of capitalism…”