Sophie Cotton looks at Rosa Luxemburg’s famous pamphlet, first published in 1900
Huge numbers of people are dissatisfied with life under capitalism. Real wages continue to fall, a climate crisis looms, casualisation and labour hire are eating away at job security, and people constantly face sexism, racism, and homophobia. This generates resistance. People march against refugee detention, strike against their bosses for better pay, and vote in elections for parties like the ALP or the Greens, who promise to reform aspects of the system.
Most of these people see revolution as unnecessary. It is enough, they say, to fight for reforms within the existing system. This idea—known as “reformism”—was critiqued in a classic pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg. Released in 1900, Reform or Revolution argues that revolution is not only necessary to bring about socialism, but even to win lasting reforms.
Luxemburg was among the first to analyse reformism, in the context of her involvement as a revolutionary inside the world’s largest social democratic party, the German SPD. The party boasted one million members and reached hundreds of thousands more with its many newspapers. It had workers’ chess and bicycle clubs, workers’ choirs and grocery stores. Alongside this, it was theoretically committed to revolution and the overthrow of capitalism.
But in practice it was becoming reformist. It had developed a layer of politicians, union leaders and party officials who had a stake in the system. They feared the SPD would again be declared illegal, as it had been from 1878 to 1890, threatening their careers and livelihoods.
As a result, leaders like Vollmar argued for alliances with bourgeois reformers. Other leaders such as Max Schippel begun to argue in favour of German military expansion and expenditure. This kind of opportunistic acceptance of the status quo is all too familiar to those watching a Labor party vote with the Liberals to torture refugees.
One politician—Eduard Bernstein—created a reformist theory to go with the reformist practice. And although his writings are over a century old, similar ideas can be found in the heads of reformists today. Luxemburg’s critique of Bernstein’s reformism remains important for us today.
Bernstein argued that Marx had been wrong about capitalism. Capitalism was not geared towards ever-deepening crises, but rather had “the capacity of adaptation”. New developments like financial credit and the existence of cartels were alleviating the system’s problems, he claimed. This meant capitalism could be tamed.
Reformist tactics were enough. In the workplace, trade unions could fight for better wages and conditions. In the parliament, politicians could pursue political reforms like better labour laws. For Bernstein, this could deliver “progressively more extensive control over the conditions of production”.
These reforms could gradually move towards “social control” over capitalism, he claimed. They could eventually turn capitalists from the wielders of power to “simple administrators” and turn capitalism into socialism. There was no need for a tumultuous overthrow of capitalism—it could be reformed out of existence.
Many young people today look to figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, inspired by a vision of reforms to control the excesses of capitalism. Many others believe that action through trade unions or in parliament, in cooperatives or lobby groups, will be enough to deliver the change they desire.
Why reformism fails
Luxemburg argued that the struggle for reforms was not enough—not only to bring about socialism but not even enough to win lasting and meaningful change.
Luxemburg argued that action inside parliament was limited. The parliament was not a neutral body exercising full political control of society, but a part of a capitalist state, whose role was to manage capitalism. It “preoccupies itself only with one side—the formal side—of democracy, but does not take into account the other side, its real content.”
Most decisions in society are made by a powerful minority who hold the real economic power and the means of production—the factories, offices and mines. The parliament couldn’t pass an act changing this fact any more than it could pass an act turning the sea into lemonade. Ultimately, workers are not forced to sell their labour to capitalists by any law or government decree, but are economically compelled to do so by the threat of starvation.
Likewise, trade unions struggled inside the system of exploitation. Fights for wages and conditions could regulate that exploitation, but not challenge its base. Unions had no power to end unemployment, create industries where work was needed, or impact the investment decisions of companies. These conditions ultimately determined the bargaining position of labour and the outcomes possible, but sat outside the control of union activity.
On top of this was the fact that, despite Bernstein’s protestations, capitalism remained a system geared towards crisis. The 2008 global financial crisis again showed his claim that finance would prevent crisis laughably wrong. In times of prosperity, Luxemburg argued, workers could take a bigger slice of the healthy company profits. But the onset of slump would erode precisely the conditions and pay won previously. These lessons could not be clearer here in Australia, where wages, conditions, and the right to strike have gradually been ground away.
Luxemburg insisted that socialists keep the eventual goal of the revolutionary seizure of power.
This did not mean Luxemburg was opposed to fighting for reforms. Far from it, the “daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order”, she wrote, is the only way of “engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power”.
The fight for reforms helped develop workers’ class consciousness and confidence in their own capacity to change society.
But without the aim of revolution, Luxemburg argued, reforms were merely a “labour of Sisyphus”: the thankless task of pushing a heavy stone up a hill, only to see it fall to the bottom again.
Revolution and reform are not two different tactics to be chosen in pursuit of the same aim. For Luxemburg, “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.” They choose not the realisation of socialism but accept the framework of capitalism.