Reform or Revolution

July 8, 2008

Helen Scott, editor of The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, looks at the crucial book to take up the issue that divided the socialist movement a century ago.

WITH DAILY news of spiraling economic crisis, food riots and ever-widening social inequality the world over, it is hard to fathom that at the turn of the current century, then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was not the only one extolling the wonders of the technology-driven "new economy." Top economists everywhere marveled at capitalism's record productivity and growth, and speculated that major crises were obsolete.

At the turn of the previous century, Eduard Bernstein predicted that a world market stabilized by superior organization, credit and consolidation would stave off the unforeseen financial crises of previous eras. In 1907, the New York stock market plunged into a massive crisis followed by years of recession, market and bank failures across the world.

It is hard not to draw parallels between these two cases of false prediction even though they were made a century apart by ostensibly polar figures: Bernstein a socialist critic of the capitalist system, and Greenspan one of its most powerful representatives. Rosa Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution explains why Bernstein's arguments are congruent with capitalist orthodoxy past and future.

BOURGEOIS ECONOMISTS are constrained both by the compulsion to promote the system that sustains them, and by what Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács called "the antimonies of bourgeois thought": the practice of treating de-contextualized facts in isolation from the social whole.

One central innovation of Marxist thought is its ability to see through the superficial appearances of capitalism, such as the "neutral" state, the "free" market, the "voluntary" buying and selling of labor and so forth, to its underlying class antagonisms and contradictions.

Ostensibly updating Marxism for a new era, Eduard Bernstein in fact had ceased to be a Marxist; as Luxemburg writes, "when he abandoned scientific socialism, he lost the axis of intellectual crystallization around which isolated facts group themselves in the organic whole of a coherent conception of the world."

Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution was the first major work to challenge the "reformism" of Bernstein and others in the socialist movement, and to expose it as a capitulation, not a challenge, to capitalism.

What else to read

The roots of the debate can be traced back to important developments in the history of socialism. The Second International, a successor to the working-class association established by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 1860s, was founded in 1889 and for several decades functioned as a global body of representatives of socialist parties from various member nations.

The organizational ideal of the Second International was of a mass working-class party embracing a range of different political positions (for example, Bernstein and Luxemburg), and having representation in government as well as in unions and other institutions.

In 1890, socialism was legalized in Germany, and in1891, the Erfurt Program, named after the town in which it was drafted, elaborated the goals of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)--"social democracy" at that time was synonymous with "socialism"--which was to become the largest member of the International.

The platform consisted of the "minimum program," the pursuit of social reforms under capitalism, and the "maximum program," the overthrow of capitalism altogether through socialist revolution.

As the party expanded and developed a stake in the establishment, a tendency emerged, referred to as "reformism," "revisionism" or "opportunism," that increasingly prioritized the minimum over the maximum program, and looked to parliament rather than independent working class struggle as the motor force of social change. Luxemburg identified Bernstein's "evolutionary socialism" as the "first attempt to give a theoretic base to the opportunist currents common in the social democracy."

Bernstein had been a member of one of the precursors to the SPD and went into exile in Britain during the reign of the German anti-socialist laws. There, he came under the influence of the Fabians, non-Marxist socialists who believe that capitalism can be gradually transformed into socialism through education and piecemeal reforms. He developed his revisionism during the 1890s expansion of social democracy and trade unions in the context of an economic boom.

Marx and Engels had identified capitalism's inherent contradictions that produce periodic and worsening crises; Bernstein argued that capitalism had found ways to "adjust" and, thus, escape these contradictions. Marxism argued that socialism could only emerge out of necessity from workers' revolutionary struggle against capitalism; Bernstein predicted that socialism would come from recognition of its ethical superiority by all classes, and that working class revolution was neither possible nor desirable.

Luxemburg dismantles Bernstein's argument point by point. She counters that socialists value reforms not only for their immediate benefits, but more importantly, because only through the process of fighting and winning around particular issues can workers develop the experience and confidence needed to take on the system as a whole. In the absence of socialist revolution, those gains will be taken away, and workers forced again and again to fight to defend their livelihoods and rights.

Crucially, she shows that far from offering a different means to the same end--socialism--reformism abandons that end altogether and accommodates to the capitalist system.

And as for Bernstein's rosy scenario of a benevolent capitalist state and government increasingly favoring workers and restraining capitalists, this flies in face of the reality that states and governments are not neutral bodies, but are controlled by and represent the interests of the ruling class.

LUXEMBURG WON the argument, and resolutions against reformism were passed at the SPD's Conferences in 1899, 1901, and 1903, and at the International Congress of 1904.

In practice, however, the SPD became increasingly reformist as it grew over the next decade into a "state within a state": boasting over a million members; 90 daily newspapers; over a hundred representatives in parliament; many cultural, political and labor organizations; and considerable financial resources supporting a permanent army of paid bureaucrats, who tended to conservatism.

Luxemburg's warning that the logical end of reformism is to abandon the working class and champion the ruling class was tragically confirmed by the trajectory of the Second International. When imperialist war broke out in 1914, a majority of the social democratic parties lined up behind their respective national ruling classes, as they sent a generation of workers to slaughter in the battlefields.

When the Russian revolution spread to Germany in 1918, the ruling class turned to the reformist leaders of the SPD to save their system--which they did, working from within the government to dismantle emergent revolutionary organs and mobilizing a counterrevolutionary militia that systematically murdered socialist leaders, including Luxemburg herself, in January 1919.

Also confirmed by history is the Marxist discovery that capitalism is inherently crisis-prone: the 20th century was one of repeated recessions, wars, deepening inequalities and periodic social upheavals. With its extreme poles of wealth and poverty, massive slums, persistent want and hunger amid overproduction and waste, 21st century global capitalism makes a bitter mockery of Bernstein's prediction that mature capitalism would evolve into a humane egalitarian system.

Luxemburg's book continues to speak to contemporary reformist arguments: that it's better to work "inside the system," that capitalism can be ecologically sustainable, that a more caring elected politician can change the world on our behalf, that we should only focus on single issues, that we need to take "the moral high ground."

For anyone who wants to grapple seriously with these questions in the pursuit of fundamental social change, Reform or Revolution remains indispensable reading.

Further Reading

From the archives