Rosa Luxemburg and the pathway to socialism

June 5, 2014

Paul Le Blanc is a veteran of the socialist movement and author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine. At the Left Forum in New York City, he spoke during a panel discussion on "Rethinking Rosa Luxemburg: Pathways from Capitalism to Socialism," along with contributor Jen Roesch and Peter Hudis, general editor of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. Here, we print his speech, slightly edited for publication.

THERE CAN be no denying the brilliance and heroism of the great revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. And it is quite easy to refer to and offer substantial quotations from Luxemburg in order to make what seem to be crushingly convincing points within the periodicals and political gatherings of the far left.

But to be satisfied with that, given the present-day realities of the United States, means to be satisfied with the marginalization of her ideas and commitments--which she herself would have deemed intolerable.

It should be intolerable for us as well, given the fact that growing percentages of the population of our country, especially among the rising sectors of the young, according to public opinion polls, are questioning capitalism and tilting in the direction of socialism. The spirit of the Occupy movement, far from being a flash in the pan, seems to be permeating more and more struggles for social and economic justice, equal human rights for all, and against various manifestations of cultural and environmental destructiveness.

Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg

Festering crises and discontent even cause major establishment media outlets to muse about the genuine relevance of Karl Marx's analysis of capitalism – something that would have been unthinkable as the 20th century came to a close. It is possible that socialism might become not an abstract idea, but a material force in the debates and struggles of the near future.

Yet at the present time, for most people, the popular understanding of socialism has more in common with the notions of Luxemburg's adversaries on the left, rather than with her own insights and understanding.

I THINK it's worth starting off with a look at the words of Bill Maher, the iconoclastic comedian and HBO host, and Lawrence O'Donnell, the controversial commentator of MSNBC, both of whom have recently spoken out in favor of what they conceive of as socialism. I think they both offer a piece of the truth, but they also seem to misunderstand the nature of capitalism.

Among other things, this is what Bill Maher has to say:

Americans say they hate socialism but when it comes to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, corporate welfare, bailouts, and farm subsidies, what we really say to socialism is I can't quit you. Americans don't want less spending on health care--by almost two to one, they want more. Only 7 percent of Americans are willing to do away with either Social Security or Medicare, and even 62 percent of Tea Party members say those programs are worth the cost...

Voters say they love the idea of small government, but in practice, it's a no go. When the Ryan budget passed, many usually Republican voters absolutely freaked out over the possible gutting of Medicare...The same result happens anytime privatizing Social Security is mentioned...Americans love their socialism. In fact, when asked about the fate of socialistic entitlement programs they always respond that they would like more.

That's Bill Maher. Maher's comments have something in common with the approach of Lawrence O'Donnell, who tells us:

[T]here is no capitalist economy anywhere in the world, and there is no socialist economy anywhere in the world...We are all mixed economies; that is, mixes of capitalism and socialism, and we all vary that mix in different ways...Our socialist programs [in the United States] include the biggest government spending programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, as well as welfare, and the socialist program I hate the most, agriculture subsidies.

Yes, I'm a socialist, but I hate bad socialism, and there is plenty of bad socialism out there, just like there is plenty of bad capitalism out there, like the capitalism that pollutes our rivers or makes health care too expensive for so many people...That's why we have a mixed economy, an economy in which we are trying to use the best, most efficient forms of capitalism, and the best, most efficient forms of socialism, where necessary.

That's Lawrence O'Donnell.

THE WAY Maher and O'Donnell use the terms capitalism and socialism seems to be similar to the way sophisticated conservative ideologists frame the question. Writing in Forbes magazine in 2012, for example, economist Paul Roderick Gregory, who is a research associate at the Hoover Institution, acknowledges that Obama is hardly a Leninist, but argues that he does fall "within the mainstream of contemporary socialism as Germany's Social Democrats, French Socialists" and others of that stripe.

Michael Kazin, obviously disappointed with Obama's failure to advance an even moderately-left agenda, responded to this kind of thing in the liberal New Republic with an article entitled: "Obama a European Socialist? I Wish!" Which is the sort of thing one could imagine Bill Maher and Lawrence O'Donnell saying as well.

For them, and for many others, socialism means the government, through taxing the wealth of the citizens and trying to meet the needs of society. In contrast, capitalism means privately owned businesses (competing with each other to make profits) providing goods and services that people need. If these are the right definitions, then O'Donnell's call for a mixed economy makes sense. And there are many "progressives" on the moderate left who are inclined to see things this way.

In fact, in some ways, this is also consistent with the orientation of the great-grandfather of social-democratic reformism, Eduard Bernstein, in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

At that time, great gains were being made through trade unions, social legislation and democratizing the German state. According to Bernstein, the Social Democratic movement could and should focus on piling up more and more and more reforms, to gradually bring about, in the capitalist here-and-now, the kinds of improvements that socialism was supposed to bring. Rather than working-class revolution, Bernstein insisted, the German Social Democratic Party "strives after the socialist transformation of society by the means of democratic and economic reform."

So perhaps what we really need is simply a tougher, more effective version of Barak Obama – a left-leaning Democrat who really does embrace and advance the present-day program of "European socialism" or reformist social democracy.

But really, as Rosa Luxemburg demonstrated in her debates with Bernstein, and even more in her 1913 classic The Accumulation of Capital, capitalism is a far more dynamic system than this, and that must inform our understanding of what socialism actually means. For her socialist democracy is not the same thing at all as what is represented by present-day social democracy.

CAPITALISM MEANS the economy is privately owned and controlled by a minority of the population, a sort of economic dictatorship, utilized to maximize profits for the owners. It is a system of generalized commodity production--which means that more and more things (the things people need, the things people want, the various dimensions of people's lives) are transformed into commodities, things that are produced for the purpose of selling them. More and more of reality becomes part of a buying and selling economy, driven forward by the profit motive of the business elite that owns the economy.

The process is one of capital accumulation. For example, the capitalist, invests capital (in the form of money) to buy such commodities as raw materials, tools and machinery, and the labor power of his or her employees (all of which is the new form his capital takes). Mixing these things together results in the production of new commodities (goods to be sold, which is a new incarnation of capital), and the money (or capital) that comes from such sales must be greater than the amount of capital originally invested.

But to stay in business, the capitalist must invest most of this capital in order to create more and more commodities that will bring in more and more capital, which means increased capital (which involves maximizing profits)--which is what is meant by capital accumulation. The economic system of capital must continue to turn more and more things into commodities, must continue to maximize profits, must voraciously keep going round and round and round, embracing and engulfing more and more and more of reality.

As you can guess, this voracious process--unbound by any constraints of morality or social responsibility--can be incredibly destructive in regard to the environment, in regard to human culture, in regard to the individual lives of masses of human beings, all of which are pulled into the vortex of this mighty economic whirlpool.

This is essential to the very nature of the capital accumulation process. And until or unless the capitalist system is replaced by socialism, in 99 cases out of 100, any government in a capitalist society will feel compelled to try to make sure that, one way or another, the capitalist economy functions well. Because it is the only economy we've got, the economy that dominates our society and our planet.

Those liberal-minded politicians who push for the positive, social welfare reforms that Lawrence O'Donnell identifies as "good socialism" (things like Social Security, unemployment insurance and Medicare) can in no way prevent the capitalist system from being inexorably driven forward by the capital accumulation process. Those reforms add up to adjustments, designed to help sustain the capitalist system. All too often they are, in fact, meant to help perpetuate an economic structure and process that is profoundly undemocratic and destructive.

Socialism--the way that those of us who are Marxists understand that term--is inherently revolutionary. It means replacing the economic dictatorship of capitalism with an economic democracy. The resources and the technology on which we are all dependent, and the collective labor that transforms the resources and technology into the collective wealth of society, should be under the control of the majority of the people.

That wealth, instead being amassed to maximize colossal profits for the few, would be utilized to meet the human needs of all people--for their survival and health, for genuine community, for freedom and creativity, for the dignity and individual development of each and every person. Instead of a blind and voracious capital accumulation process, there would be a commitment to respect and sustain the natural environment and the human cultures that are essential for human life on our planet. This is the revolutionary change that the word socialism represents for us.

THE QUESTION is: How do we get from here to there? What is the power that can overturn the incredibly powerful capitalist system?

Those of us who want to see the economic democracy of socialism are inclined to embrace the old Marxist answer: the power of the people, the power of the laboring majority, the power of those whose lives and labor are the basis for any economy, the power of the working class.

This is the heart and soul of the 99 Percent--the working class, in all its diversity of occupations, of race and ethnicity, of gender and sexuality, of age and cultural preferences, of religious and philosophical outlooks. When you get right down to it, all of us in this room, and almost all of the people we know, are part of this entity that has the great potential power to bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.

But the question still remains: How can this potential force for socialist democracy become an actual force that can bring about socialist democracy--because that won't happen automatically?

Those of us who would like to see this happen will first of all need to organize ourselves in order to work together effectively to do two things. One is to share our understanding--the information and ideas we have about the destructiveness of capitalism and promise of a socialist alternative--with more and more other people.

But no less important is the need to help build struggles, also involving more and more people, to push forward for our common needs and interests, against various forms of oppression and destructiveness in the here and now, and for positive changes in the here and now. Which means that, mixed in with socialist educational efforts, we need to build substantial struggles and movements for reforms--changes for the better within our own capitalist society.

To the extent that we can work with others--with more and more people from our diverse working class--to win victories (defending and extending democratic rights, defending and extending human rights, defending and extending economic justice), the more that sections of the working-class majority will gain the experience and confidence needed to move forward to even more profound social change.

THERE ARE three things that occur to me in regard to the approach I think we need to follow in this, and all of them have something to do with the fine old word "solidarity"--coming together in sisterhood and brotherhood for the good of all.

First of all, this is a freedom struggle against exploitation and oppression that is going on everywhere--on every continent, in every country--and we must see our struggles as interlinked and part of an international struggle to replace global capitalism with a global commonwealth in which the free development of each person is the condition for the free development of all people.

Second, our unified power is dependent on our understanding that an injury to any one of us (because of our race or religion or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or whatever) is really an injury to each and every one of us. We must stand up against all forms of tyranny and oppression, against all forms of discrimination and victimization.

Third, our struggles must be rooted in specific, local realities, seeking to create improved conditions where we live and work--but there must also be an interweaving of these local struggles, which can take on power as they become citywide, regional, national and more.

Related to this, related to the onslaughts that so many of us are facing at this point in history, and related to our socialist goals, I believe we should give special attention to defending and expanding common needs and common space, which boils down to a struggle for what could be called the commonwealth or the public good. This might include rallying for public transit systems, public educational systems, public parks, public health care, public libraries, public gardens, public housing, public postal systems and more--with all of the resources and all of the democratic controls required to ensure a quality of life that each and every person deserves.

If we do our job right, over the next 10 years or so, perhaps we will be able to build a massive political force with enough experience, organizational strength and revolutionary understanding that truly can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.

The revolutionaries C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg made important points which summarize some of what I've said here.

Discussing Lenin's ideas, James emphasized "the inevitable collapse of capitalism into barbarism," and that "only the working class could prevent this degradation and reconstruct society"--adding that it is necessary to "organize a party to carry out these aims."

This was also the view of Luxemburg, who stressed that in the here and now, we must organize to build socialist consciousness, but also effective struggles for improvements in people's lives today--in order to build a force capable of bringing about socialism. Or as she put it, for the socialist movement, "the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim."

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