Rosa Luxemburg was a unique thinker and fighter. She was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1871. When she was 16 she joined a revolutionary party and within a few years was one of its leaders.
Rosa got involved with politics at school, demonstrating for the right to speak Polish. When she left school she was told she couldn’t have a medal she’d won because of her rebellious attitude towards authorities.
As well as being unique personally, the problems she faced as an activist meant that what she wrote about was different from other revolutionaries of her time.
It was illegal to be a socialist in Russia. There were no unions and no parliamentary democracy.
So whatever problems they had, the Russian Bolshevik Party didn’t have to argue against many in the working class who were in favour of reforming the system gradually. It seemed obvious that it either had to be put up with or overthrown.
But Luxemburg had in 1898 moved to Germany, where anti-socialist laws had been repealed, the SPD socialist party had grown steadily for years, there was a trade union movement and a parliament with left MPs.
There also hadn’t been any wars or economic crises in Europe for 20 years, and it seemed that perhaps capitalism was settling down.
When she arrived in Germany, a row was brewing in the SPD. Eduard Bernstein, one of the party’s leaders, had published a book challenging the idea that a crisis of capitalism could lead to revolution.
He argued that instead activists should focus on reforms that can be won here and now, saying “the final goal is nothing. The movement is everything.”
His theories have been repeated many times since. Whenever a few years go by without a crisis, it is announced that there will be peace and prosperity and that ideas of overthrowing capitalism are obsolete.
Bernstein also thought that growing prosperity meant workers were becoming more middle class, making revolution impossible.
Again, plenty of people since have tried to tell us that, “We are all middle class now.”
But here was a respected socialist saying it, someone who had worked with Frederick Engels and claimed to stand in the tradition of him and Karl Marx.
The party was divided, with influential people on both sides. Luxemburg was one of the fiercest on the revolutionary side, and the youngest.
She wrote the pamphlet Reform or Revolution in 1900 to put the debate to a wider audience, saying that theoretical knowledge shouldn’t be “the privilege of a handful of ‘academics’ in the party”.
She argued that Europe could not stay peaceful for long. Economic crises are not capitalism going wrong, but are an integral part of the system.
However inconvenient crises are for individual capitalists – not to mention workers – the system needs them to solve the problem of growing production but limited markets.
Finding new markets by colonising other countries had delayed the problem, but it wouldn’t work forever.
Also, there was the threat of war as the European powers fought for control of the colonies. Luxemburg predicted that sooner or later there would be a war in Europe.
She wasn’t against campaigning for reforms or standing in elections. While this debate was going on she also did a meeting tour for the SPD in an election campaign.
But she argued that however many reforms are won by unions or parliamentary parties, if the state is still controlled by the ruling class, we are no nearer socialism.
She argued that reforms can only impose limits on exploitation. She wrote, “They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually.”
Luxemburg wrote that to change society we need to take on the whole system, instead of seeing an individual boss or politician as the problem.
But the only way to understand that process is to start by fighting the boss or the politician. Campaigns for reforms are important because as well as winning immediate gains, they teach revolutionary consciousness.
By focusing solely on winning reforms, rather than fighting for more fundamental change, even the best socialists can end up compromising with the system.
Luxemburg’s theory that struggle for reforms can develop into a fight to change society altogether was proved right a few years later, in the 1905 Russian Revolution.