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Radical Reviews: Rosa Luxemburg’s “Reform or Revolution” Voices 

Radical Reviews: Rosa Luxemburg’s “Reform or Revolution”

A Letter to the Democratic Socialist


Dear democratic socialist,

There is no doubt your popularity has helped to spread the Left’s project. Skepticism towards capitalism and an openness to socialism has increased since your patron saint, Bernard Sanders, came to our attention.

It is tempting, under the sway of your philosophy, to believe we only need some tweaks to capitalism until we can fully declare the end of history. I cannot dispute that higher tax rates, free university and healthcare signify true progress. Yet, you believe the problems that have been suggested by Marxism, are those you say can be resolved through reforms.

I bite my thumb at the suggestion. I am keeping my anti-capitalist membership card and I will offer the thoughts of Rosa Luxemburg as argument for continuing the fight. Her pamphlet, “Socialist Reform or Revolution,” (some 60 pages long) explains some of my belligerence. I cannot agree with the whole of it, because she was a Marxist, while I am not. However, I will try to reproduce the more coherent and thought-provoking sections.

The state apparatus you propose to use for raising the minimum wage or for affordable housing, Rosa observes, is a “pure class state.” It can act in the interest of the working class but is not inclined to do so. There are limits to its support. In the class state the “interests of the bourgeoisie, as a class” inevitably “clash” with the general interest. In these cases, the state will take the side of the bourgeoisie. It has done so with remarkable arrogance in the climate crisis and in its many acts of militarism.

You would suggest that this is a reversible historical pattern. Slowly, but surely, the people can ensure that their democracy represents their interests. Rosa anticipated this answer. She writes that “as soon as democracy… become[s] an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie.” I will do my best to explain this passage.

The bourgeoisie is a powerful class, and the economic system forces each member to grow their capital or to be overtaken. For their development, they will even undermine democracy if it becomes a threat to industry. There is no room for principle at a meeting of shareholders. Their attacks against democracy will be relentless and with all the cunning intelligence that money can buy – unless the bourgeoisie are eliminated. Your ambition to both preserve democratic order and to uniquely serve the general interest is impossible under capitalism.

The mistake of democratic socialism is to believe the problem is in the “relation between poor and rich” and not in the “relation between capital and labour.” Don’t be mistaken, Rosa understands that poverty should be resolved. It forces people into the worst forms of oppression. But, the “diminution of exploitation” through combating poverty, should not be mistake for “the suppression of the system of wage labour.” Despite a high-wage, work does not become creative or intellectually fulfilling, nor does it mean freedom from an employer. Democratic socialism does not promise the humanization of labour only its conservation.

Unions, you might argue, can solve this problem, if democracy cannot. However, labour is also constrained by capital. They express “resistance” to the “oppression of capitalist economy” but they cannot stop this oppression. The concessions they might receive are prevented by external factors. If there is, for example, a large labour pool, a union cannot demand too much before new labourers are brought in. Theirs is the “labour of Sisyphus,” and they can only slowly push their boulder.

Democratic socialist, Rosa believes she has caught you pretending! You “tak[e] a stand for the establishment of a new society” but really only “take a stand for the surface modification of the old society.” Your lack of theory will cause you to run into the problems of “class domination” that affect the workplace and democracy. They cannot be reversed through “a single legal formula.” They require an end to an economic system that perpetuates these artificial hierarchies.

Sweet Rosa does not suggest we abandon the fight for social reforms, but that they must always, and clearly, be in the name of socialism. I fear if you do not see the sense in this argument, the progress under your Green New Deal will be as reversible and uneven as its namesake.



Comrade Sam

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