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Rosa Luxemburg on
Reform or revolution

July 2, 2004 | Page 8

THOUGH IT was written more than 100 years ago under vastly different conditions, Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet Reform or Revolution is still important reading. ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains why.

WHEN POLISH-BORN socialist Rosa Luxemburg moved to Germany in 1898, it was the center of socialist thought and home to the largest socialist party in the world--the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But within the SPD, a debate was raging.

On the one side were the revolutionaries--Marxists who believed that socialism can only be achieved through the self-emancipation of the working class. On the other side were the reformists, or revisionists, who argued that capitalism had reached a stage in which it was no longer necessary to call for revolution, but that enough reforms could be put into place--more democratic rights, more social welfare programs--that socialism would evolve over time.

The revisionists, led by leading German socialist Eduard Bernstein, were gaining ground. This wasn't a new debate for the socialist movement. Some early socialist figures like Ferdinand Lasalle argued that socialism would be achieved through parliamentary means.

In 1878, Germany's chancellor Otto von Bismarck imposed anti-socialist laws. As a result, thousands were arrested and hundreds exiled, political newspapers were closed, and all political activity except elections was made illegal. During this period, the SPD declared itself to be revolutionary and repudiated the parliamentary road to socialism.

The SPD's platform gave expression to the concerns of the urban working class in Germany, and its share of the vote grew from 312,000 in 1881 to more than 1.4 million in 1890. In 1890, the anti-socialist laws were lifted, and a wave of strikes and trade union militancy followed.

Fearing that the strikes would "scare off" conservative members or that repression might return, SPD leaders renounced the more revolutionary aspects of their program. So at the 1890 Erfurt Congress, the party program enshrined Marxism--and the overthrow of capitalism--as the "official" thinking of the SPD, but argued for practical tasks appropriate for a time when revolution wasn't on the immediate agenda.

The party's campaign of opposition to the government won them a growing number of votes in elections. But a schism was developing within the party about how far to carry out this opposition.

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BETWEEN 1896-98, Bernstein wrote a series of articles on the "Problems of Socialism" and later a book. Luxemburg's response was published in full in the 1908 pamphlet Reform or Revolution.

If anyone suspected her of counterposing the two, Luxemburg sets the record straight in the first paragraph: "Can we oppose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, its final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not.

"The practical daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal--the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal."

Actually, it was Bernstein who counterposed the two, arguing, "The final aim of socialism, whatever it may be, means nothing to me; it is the movement itself which is everything." Seeing around him a period of capitalist prosperity in which workers were winning greater reforms, Bernstein argued that capitalism had created new mechanisms--such as trade unions, and electoral and legal reforms--that would make an evolution of society toward socialism possible.

Luxemburg challenged Bernstein's arguments. She pointed out that Bernstein was little more than a utopian if he believed that socialism could be reformed into existence. Like the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier's "scheme of changing, by means of a system of phalansteries, the water of all the seas into tasty lemonade," Bernstein proposed changing "the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness, by progressively pouring into it bottles of social reformist lemonade," Luxemburg wrote.

Luxemburg's explanation of the role of trade unions, elections and struggles in winning reforms--and sowing the seeds of revolutionary change--remain relevant 100 years later. The importance of unions, she argued, is that they are the body by which workers come together and understand that they are part of a class. Through struggles for reforms, they realize their class power.

Not only do workers realize their ability to win reforms, but they also learn the limitations of reforms--and the need for the actual conquest of power. Luxemburg likened union struggles to the "labor of Sisyphus"--the mythical figure who was condemned to push a stone up a hill over and over again. The same applies to reforms won through the ballot box.

By proposing that trade unions or electoral reforms are enough to achieve a kind of socialism, Bernstein and the revisionists missed the importance of struggle in achieving reforms. They saw unions as the means of suppressing the contradictions in capitalism between the workers and bosses.

Socialists, on the other hand, see unions as one means by which these contradictions can be pushed into the open and organized around. The truth is that struggles for reform, by their very nature, can launch an offensive against the attacks of the profit system, but not the profit system itself.

In the end, Luxemburg concluded, Bernstein wasn't simply arguing for a "more realistic" way to socialism, but had thrown out the prospect of socialism. "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," Luxemburg wrote.

"Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labor system but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself."

Rather than diminish the importance of the struggle for reforms, Luxemburg argued that these struggles are central. "In a word," she wrote, "democracy is indispensable not because it renders superfluous the conquest of political power by the proletariat but because it renders this conquest of power both necessary and possible."

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TODAY, IN struggles that socialists are involved in, we meet people grappling with what kind of change is necessary. There are two potential stumbling blocks for socialists--one is to ignore the opportunities that exist; the other is to recognize them, but never try to take advantage of them.

The first danger discounts the value of reforms completely, abstaining from struggles to win limited changes that benefit working people. By setting themselves apart from issues that people are fighting for, socialists can relegate themselves to the sidelines of movements, remaining pure in their convictions, yet with little influence over anyone.

On the other hand, if socialists throw themselves into fights for reforms without thinking about what the next step in the struggle is--about the next argument that could persuade others from simply viewing the future as a succession of reforms--they run the risk of never convincing anyone of the need to get rid of capitalism. They risk coming to believe, like Bernstein, that the "movement is the only thing."

A key part of this--and a question that Luxemburg didn't arrive at until much later--is the role of a revolutionary socialist organization in convincing others that they should join the fight for a socialist world.

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